The General Minister of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. John Dorhauer, posted this on Facebook Monday morning–
I am fast losing the capacity to mourn all that we must mourn. Charlottesville becomes Houston becomes Florida becomes Puerto Rico becomes Las Vegas. Every lost life is a name, a history, a hope, a story – an unfulfilled future. Every lost life leaves behind loved ones who mourn and grieve and piece together a future of their own torn asunder by matters we cannot comprehend. I can’t find words to capture this pain, this collective grief and anger. I cannot reach deep enough into my soul to express fully the pain, the anger, the rage, the confusion, the anxiety, the emptiness. When will it end? And what must I do, must I do, must I do to respond with meaning, with purpose, with intent so that whatever hope we talk about on the other side of this is not vapid and vain? I feel utterly powerless. God help us all. Inspire imagination. Inspire hope. Inspire healing. Inspire resistance. Inspire something new and something bold and something grand. This cannot be our ongoing narrative. We have to want something better than this. Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.
It was pretty much exactly what I was feeling, though I couldn’t find the words which John expressed so beautifully. Numb. Powerless. Exhausted. Praying for imagination, for hope, for healing, for inspiration, for “something new and something bold and something grand.”
And then I read this parable–or maybe it’s an allegory–of Jesus about the wicked tenants and the vineyard, and, my colleagues in my clergy support group–none of whom are preaching on this today– my colleagues turned to me after we read this together on Tuesday, and said, “Good luck with this, Mary.” This is why we come together for support!
It’s a parable full of violence–beating, stoning, killing–and it’s a parable with plenty of dark history. When Matthew adds, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them,” it has opened the door to anti-Semitism–see, it’s the Jews who killed Jesus–and we know what horrors that has unleashed. Matthew’s community of Jewish converts and Gentiles saw the Jewish authorities as responsible not only for their ouster from the community, but for rejecting God’s chosen Messiah, thus deserving to be “crushed” by that stone which the builders rejected. It was the Christian community that surely were the “new tenants” who would give to God the produce at harvesttime.
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church 500 years ago, he had no intention of breaking away from the Catholic Church and starting a new church. But when he was excommunicated four years later, the split – or at least the splinter – seemed much more likely. It was Pope Leo X, of the affluent Medici family, who excommuni-cated Luther, and who famously said upon his own election as pope, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” In the process of reconstructing St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope sold indulgences internationally, whereby the larger amount spent on the indulgence, the less time the sinner would have to spend in purgatory.
So it was that Luther in Germany, John Knox in Scotland, John Calvin in Switzerland, and other Protesting sects saw themselves as the new tenants who would more faithfully tend to the vineyard.
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard,” the prophet Isaiah sings. “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” God is clear about the image here–
“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
Surely Jesus knew this passage from Isaiah, for he begins: “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants…” In Jesus’ day, his peasant listeners would also have heard this story as being taken from their daily lives. The wealthy elite confiscated peasant lands, in actual or contrived payment for debts, so that they could only lease their ancestral lands. The tenants who attacked the landowner’s servants and heirs might actually have been fairly sympathetic characters for Jesus’ listeners. In this scene of ratcheting up violence, the response to Jesus’ question, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” is just what we would expect–”He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Violence begets more violence.
But notice that that was the response of the chief priests and elders. Jesus instead quotes Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” In other words, God’s response is to take what had been rejected, even killed, and raise it up to become the cornerstone of a whole new creation. Matthew adds a bit more violent imagery by having Jesus say, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” That verse, by the way, isn’t even found in many ancient manuscripts.
So those are possibilities of meaning in Jesus’ time. What about in ours? “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…” Are we not now the tenants entrusted with the care and feeding of the vineyard of the earth? And just how well are we tending to that gift? In the words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for us?” I am fast losing the capacity to mourn all that we must mourn. Charlottesville becomes Houston becomes Florida becomes Puerto Rico becomes Las Vegas. What are the fruits we have to show for our stewardship?
It certainly is easy to point fingers at who’s to blame. To mix metaphors, there’s a feeding frenzy of blame going on–it’s the President, it’s Congress, it’s the climate-change deniers, it’s big business, it’s the elite, it’s Obama, it’s the lazy-don’t-want-to-help-themselves, it’s the NRA, it’s the liberals who want to destroy the 2nd Amendment, shall I go on? The thing about a vineyard, though, is that it takes years to even begin to harvest. It takes lots of hands and workers. It takes tending and pruning. “In a free society,” as Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “not all are guilty but all are responsible.” We must call to account those who are guilty of the crimes and betrayals of trust and honor that have contributed to our current state of affairs, but we all are responsible. We all have contributed in some way or another, through our complacency or silence, our refusal to listen or to speak, our demonizing and jumping to conclusions, our “sins of omission or commission,” to use the traditional language of the church. We are all in this together–which is actually why “politics” is appropriate in the midst of our raw grief and shock, if we mean by “politics” how we order our common life. The vineyard is in the state it’s in, in part, because of the way we have chosen to structure our life together–or not.
Too often, and for too long, we have not wanted to live together–with each other, with the other people and nations who inhabit this planet with us, or the other creatures and beings who live in the vineyard with us. We have been concerned only for ourselves and our loved ones. Time and again, Jesus said that there’s no such thing as just “mine.” We are all connected, all are brothers and sisters, our obligation is not only to those who can benefit us, but also, even especially, to those who have no power, to those rejected by others, to those who have been pushed out to the margins. That is the fruit, the produce, that the owner of the vineyard desires.
Neil Howe and William Straus, in their 1992 book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, say that we are living in the midst of a time called the Fourth Turning, also known as a crisis era, a generational turn.
As America moves into a Fourth Turning [they wrote] this will be a time of great national trial and upheaval. Yet seeing this on the horizon is not a prophesy of some horrible tragedy. A Fourth Turning also could be a time of triumph. Just as the risk of war is great in a Fourth Turning, so too is accomplishing things that in other eras would be impossible–particularly in the areas of government, institutions, and infrastructure. It’s important to remember that Fourth Turnings have occurred many times before in American history. Each has been an era when America [ended up feeling] good about itself as a society and a nation, a time when big problems have been solved, when business ultimately emerged prosperous, and when people came together with a new ethic of community and consensus. [cited by Casey Cross, modernmetanoia.org, Proper 22A]
I pray that that will be turn out to be true of our current crisis era as well.
“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Jesus asked. Instead of confirming the response of Power and Empire, which is “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time,” Jesus instead lifts up God’s ability to take what has been rejected and make it into the cornerstone of a whole new creation.
I find this remarkably hopeful. God is still speaking. God is still acting, creating, generating newness and possibility. TED Talks make me hopeful, as I see and hear all sorts of creative, innovative people. Remember that elsewhere in the gospels, the stone which the builders rejected became the cornerstone of the new temple, which was Jesus’ body. This is the God of resurrection power, bringing forth life from death. Violence in return for violence is the way of Empire. New life emerging from death and rubble is the way of the kingdom of God, whose coming we pray for.
These are tough times for all of us, whether or not we are directly affected by violence or simply absorb the violence that permeates our society. It is important to be gentle with ourselves, so that we can be forces for gentleness and peace in a violent and combative world. My friend and teacher Maria Sirois offers these words of wisdom for times of tragedy and grief–
When tragedy strikes here is what we can do:
Feel what we feel so that neither grief nor anger become poison within us and so that others have permission to feel all that they feel.
Bear witness without flinching from darkness.
Tell the truth.
Honor the ordinary heroes among us and those who do the difficult work of holding the story in all its despair and desolation, and those who begin the long hard job of clearing and cleaning, uncovering and naming as much as can be uncovered and named.
Hold onto the bits of light that emerge wherever they do so and from whomever.
Surround those who grieve with care that is authentic and wholehearted.
Love them up, feed them, show up and show up again. Bake if you can, drive if you can, buy milk, buy water, share your memories when they are ready and until then listen. Listen. Listen.
And, however possible, be as a sequoia rooted in your conviction that none of us need go through this alone. [FB post]
And the UCC’s John Dorhauer offers these words of encouragement:
“Moved by grief, let us transform our pain into action. Let us set our hearts and our minds and our hopes on a future of meaningful action that seeks to undo (violence like) this and restore onto us a tomorrow filled with hope and promise.”
My sisters and brothers, may it be so. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark