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A Vineyard and the Little Red Hen.

18th after Pentecost, Common Lectionary Year A

Matthew 21:33-46

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Introduction to scripture video
Scripture video
Sermon video

Well that was a doozy!

The only safe place to be in the telling of that story
was at Jesus feet among the crowd
watching a “seer,” a prophet, at work,
calling out the hypocrisy
of the hyper-religious with his
parabolic imagination, intended
to indict the guilty and inspire the oppressed.
And boy does Jesus bring it?!

But as the sparks fly, we get singed, don’t we?
we can feel the tension, the distrust,
the animosity born of a tightly held protectionism
of all that made for the uneasy peace.

Perhaps not so surprisingly though,
I kinda feel for those religious professionals.
They believed with all their heart
they were doing God’s holy work!
Keeping the temple open, lucrative;
saying the right things to Rome
to stop them from shutting it all down;
providing the religious rituals
that kept souls fed in the midst of a grinding
occupied existence.

And in comes Jesus basically saying,
“You brood of vipers, whitewashed sepulchres,
selling the Dream of God for a nickel and
a limp-legged dove or two!”
I’m caught in this tale in a place I’d rather not be.

Because if I kinda feel for those who upkeep
religious practice, then Jesus has just condemned
not just them, but me as a wicked tenant,
killing those the landowner sends to harvest!
And I want to cry “no fair! I would never….”

So I retreat into some sociological study of the text,
remembering that Matthew is writing traumatized drama,
trying to make sense of not only the tragedy of Jesus’
execution, but of Matthew’s own generation’s
near-destruction by both Rome
and by those fellow believers in YHWH
the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
who rejected the notion that Jesus was God’s Messiah.
If I do that, tean I can put the text back on the page,
musing, “Matthew’s only talking about
the sectarian polarizations of a bygone era.”
But if I do that, I leave the ground of the story altogether,
I walk away from something Jesus is trying to teach me.

But as AJL has said and written,
these parables are meant to sting and unsettle
and judge and provoke enough to make change possible.
So, if I try to settle this one down, for me or for you,
I’m doing the text, and Jesus, and you, a disservice.

So turn it again, Jones.. what do you see?
I see these (grapes on the vine).
This vineyard where the time of harvest has come.
The grapes hang on the vine, heavy, ripe, sweet,
tempting to birds and mice and mould,
and decay and ruin,
while bickering and murder and mayhem go on
among those who were charged with the care
of that fruit, that harvest.

Hmmm. I start to get anxious about that harvest… that what God feels
when political and religious and familial,
bickering and posturing and obfuscating
and petty or massive acts of mutual destruction,
because of lust for position and power,
occur in any generation including ours,
among any who have the responsibility to care for others?

When that primary responsibility is forgotten,
overridden, disregarded, what happens to the harvest,
the fruit, the grapes,
the kids,
the sick,
the spiritually starving,
and all whose livelihoods, lives,
rely on the just apportioning of resources,
depend upon wise and good governance?

Is it any wonder that this good God
who created out of love and delight,
a world of blessing and abundance,
will look elsewhere, anywhere, for anyone
who will say yes to God’s question,
“Who will tend to the harvest?”
Who will care for the climate?
who will protect the watersheds and rainforests?
who will seek reconciliation and justice for the descendants
of the oppressed, the survivors of oppression?
Who will care for the sick and elderly and young?
Who will bind wounds physical, spiritual and mental?”

At this point, the children’s story pops into my head,
“Not I said the lazy dog,
Not I said the sleepy cat,
Not I said…”
I think it’s a distraction this childish tale,
But is it?

How many times can the churches,
religious communities of every stripe,
can governments, individuals,
be rightly convicted of neglect
to do the one thing they’re called to do and be?
With all sorts of justifying excuses,
that in the end, count for little,
if the grapes rot,
if creation passes a climactic tipping point,
if too many die of CoVid, or of war, or of spoiled water?

In this parable, and in the classic version of the Little Red Hen,
a moment of judgment and condemnation arrives:
the hen bakes her bread, and eats it herself,
as the other barnyard animals watch hungrily,
shamed by their excuses.
Jesus asks the question of his accusers,
what will be the fate of the wicked tenants when the
owner returns? They will be condemned, shamed,
as the owner moves on without them.

But, did you notice? Jesus doesn’t endorse that answer.
Instead, he talks about building a new structure
on that which was condemned, the rejected stone.
Something he says, quoting the psalmist,
“is scandalous, shocking in our eyes!”

Now most interpretations see this
as a reference to Jesus himself,
who as the one crucified, looks nothing like
the Messiah people wanted or expected,
and who yet becomes the foundation of the church.

But I wonder too, if it’s Jesus the Darshan,
the turner of these ancient texts,
who, again to quote Jewish scholar of the NT
AJL says that Jesus was always telling stories
of judgment to catch us up in our own judgmentalism,
where we look for shame, guilt,
Jesus spins these yarns to to challenge, humble,
and then inspire us to rewrite the endings,
away from judgment and condemnation to possible futures.
shaped by the Dream of God. (304)

In Philemon Sturgis’ beautifully whimsical retelling of the
LRH, after she has baked not just bread but a pizza, *
she invites the duck, the cat and the cat to eat it with her,
and when she asks,
“Who will help me with the dishes?”
We are invited to guess the answer…..

Now, good folk
what would you like the answer to be?

Would you like it
that when we are invited to a feast
God has prepared, without our help,
that we would be so changed by this grace,
that when we’re asked by God,
“Now, who will help me with the harvest,
with the work of kingdom and dream,
and finding and saving, and healing and mending?”

This will be our answer. *

“We will.”

“We will. Amen.”

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