A Sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Years ago, I had a conversation about God with an acquaintance who later became a friend. My friend was an alcoholic who had finally gotten sick and tired of being sick and tired, and he had become ready – as people in recovery will say – ‘to give up the high cost of low living’ and started going to AA meetings. And at these meetings, he heard people talking about their ‘Higher Power’ whom they chose to call God. He heard people say, “If you don’t have a Higher Power, you need to get one.” They said if at first, it’s not God, don’t worry, for now it can be your sponsor or it can be the sky you look up at at night or it can just be the group – anything bigger than you are. But get one.

My friend said, “I know I need a Higher Power to stay sober, but I don’t believe in God.” And then he talked about the God he didn’t believe in. He described God as being harsh and far away and judgmental, and ready to punish him for just being human. I said, “Well I don’t believe in that God either.”

He didn’t know it, but his description of God was right in line with the description of the Third Servant in the Parable of the Talents we just heard. Remember, he says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid…” I don’t know where my friend got his idea of what God is like. I don’t know where the Third Servant got his idea of what the Master is like either. All we know is that the Master said, “I’m going away and won’t be back for a while. So, while I’m away, I’m entrusting you and the others with everything that’s mine, all my property. So, here’s a talent for you to use and take care of while I’m away.”

Many sermons have been preached about this talent describing it as an ability you’ve been given, like painting or singing or an ability to read the financial markets well. But that’s not what the word that Jesus used meant. It meant a sum of money. In fact, a lot of money. When Jesus first told this parable, a talent was roughly equal to the amount of money a regular worker would earn in 15 years; a really unimaginably large amount of money. If you used the median income in the U.S. from the 2020 Census and multiplied that by 15 that would be $1,035,315. The point is, he gave his three servants everything he had – all his property – to use and take care of while he was away. And it was a lot. It was all he had.

I don’t know about you, but I might be afraid about that, too. What do you do with something that big? The odds feel pretty high that you could mess it up.

My father-in-law purchased a new computer and a printer for me to take with me to seminary. He said, “You’re going to need these.” This was 1990 and the computer and printer together cost almost $5,000. Could the use I would get out of them, could anything I could possibly accomplish with them, be worth that much?! I thought it was way too much. But he’d said, “I want to do this for you because you’re going to need them.” He had more faith in me than I did. I remember thinking of him when I sat down to start working on one of my first paper and thinking, “OK, not sure it’s worth all this but here we go!”

We’re coming to the end of the Church Year and every year we’re given three Gospel readings to prepare us for Advent and a new beginning that lies just ahead of us – as brand new and unimaginably fresh as a brand-new baby. Last week, Harrison preached beautifully on the first of these three Gospels and next week, we’ll hear Jesus’ great vision of the separating the sheep and the goats at the end of all things. Along with today’s Gospel, all three of these readings ask us to lift up our heads (maybe from the latest alert on our phones) and look down the line a little and to think about the future and what’s out there. How do you think about the future? Where are we headed? Which in the short-term in our lives is pretty unsettling because it feels a little dicey. Where are we headed? Are things going to get worse – more contentious, more angry, more violent? How does this time we’re in end – with a whimper or a bang? Do we just buckle down and get through this, circle the wagons, hope for less, put that ‘still small voice’ speaking in our souls on hold with its words of forgiveness and justice and mercy and peace till things calm down a little? When the world goes temporarily ‘to the dogs’, what do cats do till all the woofing ends? If it ends?

All the commentators on this passage wonder about the same things. But they all agree that that’s why this passage is such a precious word for us. This word sees further and deeper that this present moment. We have been given a gift as great as the one described in this parable, almost beyond being able to count. You, we have been given a life that God sees as eternally precious, born from God’s own loving gift of creation and bound for love at the end. In the meantime, we are now, already, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, our true home. And Jesus says that God’s Kingdom is among you now because he is among us now, here and there, now and again, like yeast growing secretly in the dough, signposts of grace to light the world on its way home to God. It’s worth risking everything for – not burying in the ground because we’re afraid.

Sometimes I think our lives are like parables – signs that the future Kingdom of Heaven is already among us. Like this one. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a group of people who went out to plant 3,000 daffodil bulbs so that in the spring the beauty of God’s work would be there for all to see and a sign that God’s grace still abides. Some wondered if it cost too much to get that many bulbs. Some wondered if there were so many bulbs that maybe they wouldn’t all get into the ground and the unplanted bulbs might dry out and wither and be wasted. But then many people showed up so that there were enough and more than enough to get the job done. Some bulbs were planted expertly at just the right depth. Some less so. Some were planted in good soil. And some in not such good soil. But they were all planted. That happened here at St. Mary’s a week ago. We’ll have to wait to see what God will do with this. But I’m glad we did it. I hope we keep planting seeds of the Kingdom with our lives, acting from love and not fear, giving and receiving forgiveness, trusting that the future belongs to God no matter how much the world seems to have gone to the dogs.

Dear friends, we – God’s Church on earth – have been given a great gift. Like the servants in the parable, we have been given all that God has – the promise that God’s Son, the Lord Christ, has laid down his life for us to bring us all home. Apparently, he has more faith in us than we do. Still, God’s grace abides, and the Kingdom is among you now. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May + 

A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

For several years I worked as the Christian education teacher at an Episcopal day school. I went into work early on Fridays to set up for the all-school eucharist. Having to come so early meant I came in without my kids in tow. So, for 10-15 minutes every Friday morning it was quiet in my car, and I was able to actually listen to the radio. My timing meant that I managed to hear StoryCorps on NPR, a brief segment with just two people talking to one another. This was a huge highlight of my week.

StoryCorps began in 2003 with a sound booth set up in Grand Central Terminal in New York City for people to tell their stories to each other. The mission of StoryCorps is to help us believe in each other by illuminating the humanity and possibility in us all — one story at a time. This sounds to me an awful lot like part of what we do here every Sunday.

Each Friday morning, I listened to two people. One asking questions of the other about a particular event or situation. The daughter interviewing her father who knew he was slipping into dementia. The student asking his teacher just what she had seen in him and how she had managed to help him get into college. The grandmother recounting to her grandchild what life was like in the Jim Crow South.

Every Friday morning this beautiful slice of humanity was laid out for me in the quiet of my car, by people who I would never cross paths with. But their stories of love and loss, regret and redemption, humor and solace forged some kind of connection. Most Fridays by the time I pulled into the parking lot at school I had already tested the limits of my waterproof mascara and my heart had been broken open.

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday — the day we remember the saints and all those who have gone before us. It is the most human of our holy days when we recall those who have left their imprints on us, who have left imprints of God’s love on this world. It is a day that we hold up for each other the wonders of people whose lives have been a blessing, one story at a time. It is also a day that reminds me why I wear waterproof mascara and it most certainly breaks my heart wide open.

“God gets stuff done through flawed human beings,” pastor Nadia Bolz Weber says. The saints we celebrate today, the famous ones who have done good deeds of great note and the ones known to us only in the most tender places in our hearts, are just people, not perfect people, not perfect stories. Just people through whom God gets good stuff done. And if ever there was a time to hold up for each other the work that God can get done through people it is right now. Today.

Lines drawn. Boxes checked. Guns pointed. Bombs dropped. Human beings being summarized into categories and columns and charts. It seems to me that the stories we are hearing about other humans rarely begin with what we share, but rather how very far apart we are from one another.

This story of separation we are immersed in makes it fearfully easy to forget what the lives of the saints teach us. That God gets stuff done through flawed human beings. Not perfect people. Not the people who seem to have it all together. Not the people with the best teeth or the best ad buy. Not the people whose authority rests in powers and principalities. Not the people at the front of the line. Not necessarily the people we agree with.

Although we may be drawn into thinking that power, influence, riches, and perfection are the means to glory, Jesus teaches us something very different today as he begins teaching the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins his teachings not by telling anyone what they are doing wrong, but by proclaiming their blessedness. Blessings in places where we humans might least expect to find them. These blessings for the poor and hungry and persecuted people standing in the crowds as Jesus spoke these words were not just for that day. These blessings are for today. We are not so very different here now than the original hearers of the Sermon on the Mount were. We are flawed humans. They were, too. People through whom God can get good things done.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those at the end of their rope. At the end of their bank account. At the end of the last loaf of bread. God is there with you.

Blessed are those in deep grief. Those who feel that all is lost because what is most dear is gone. God will hold them.

Blessed are the meek, the ones who know that their worth lies in their belovedness to God and nothing more. They inherit the earth because they know their place in it.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, those who want to see God’s mercy and love poured out into this world. They will find themselves full as they empty their lives out for others in the name of God.

Blessed are the merciful because in extending mercy and forgiveness they find themselves forgiven and connected and whole.

Blessed are the pure in heart, who know it is not perfection that God seeks, but only that God is the dearest treasure. And to treasure God like that brings clarity.

Blessed are the peacemakers, the crazy ones who insist that there is a different way to live, a way that respects the dignity of every human being. They know their place in the family of God.

Blessed are the ones persecuted because of their courageous love for God. God holds them fast even as they are harmed while proclaiming LOVE.

Blessed are you when you stay true to God, refusing to let your worth or anyone else’s be defined by anything other than the LOVE OF GOD. That might make people uncomfortable. Let them be. Because in heaven there is a great cloud of witnesses who have done exactly that, singing your praises. Jesus is revealing the character of God. He is showing us how surprising and accessible God’s blessings are.

The saints are people, some rich, some poor, some with power, many without it. People who led mostly straight and narrow lives and people who had some major detours. But each of the saints in different ways has been able to live a life that reflects and responds to these blessings for others and for themselves.

This day is as holy a day as was the day Jesus taught the Beatitudes. This ground under our feet, it is no less holy than the ground that was under those listening to the Sermon on the Mount. No less holy than the ground that the saints before us have stood upon. The water that will be poured over the heads of those baptized today, as holy as the Jordan River. God has not withdrawn from us. God has not stopped blessing the poor and the meek and the humble. God has not given up on us. God is in our very midst. The saints are not only people who lived in ages past, long ago heroes whose likes will never be seen again. There are saints here today, showing up and getting good stuff done for God.

What are the stories of the saints that you want Weston, Hattie, Harper, Molly, and Fritz to know? How might God ask us to show up for these children, for all our children? So that, like the saints before us, our lives of faith may be a blessing to them?

StoryCorps is the single largest collection of human voices ever gathered. Amazing. It is the largest collection of human voices recorded. But I believe today as we come at this font and to this table, a far larger collection of human voices gathers, voices more numerous than the stars, all of the saints, all of the company of heaven, with us now in this place at this time. Each one witnessing to us, witnessing with us that God’s blessings abound. Voices reminding us that we too are a part of this story. On this most human of holy days may we know the blessings of God and find the strength and courage and love to show up to be the saints we are called to be. Amen.

Amelia McDaniel

A Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

When I was a kid, we went to church every Sunday at Church of the Redeemer Episcopal Church. Back then, it was a newly planted church located on Chippenham Road. Three and sometimes four Sundays a month the liturgy was Morning Prayer. But the first Sunday of the month was always ‘Communion Sunday.’ To me, that mostly only meant that church was going to be long, sometimes lasting over an hour. For that reason, I didn’t like ‘Communion Sunday.’ But I do have other memories of ‘Communion Sunday’ that have stayed alive – so alive that they are something more than just memories. They are signs that grace must’ve happened, somehow. That, God, the real thing, had drawn near and changed us, that what is within you is not just a memory, but God’s abiding presence.

Well, when I was growing up, kids didn’t go up to the altar for Communion. We couldn’t do that until we’d been confirmed by the bishop at age 11 or 12. So, as kids, we just sat in our pews until the adults had all communed. And here’s what I remember so clearly about that. It was the smell of the wine the people had received on their breath. First it was faint, coming from the first rows of pews in front of me. But it gradually grew stronger as the people going up for communion came closer to our pew and then it was our pew and then the pew behind us, until you were surrounded by this scent. I didn’t really know what was going on up there at the communion rail. I really didn’t. But I did know that after you went up there, there was this scent, as if you had been – I don’t know – perfumed by God, that while you were up there at the rail, maybe you had come so close to God that his scent was on you. That’s what I thought was happening. You had come close to God – not a metaphor or a symbol or a memory or anything else – but the real thing, God. Sort of like when your uncle who wears way too much cologne hugs you and you smell like him for the rest of the day. Well, I thought that something like that was happening when people went up for Communion. They had come into contact with God and carried that contact, carried something of God away with them. They had come face to face with the real thing, and it had changed them.

A few years ago, I watched a child take a sip from the chalice one Sunday morning. When the wine landed on her tongue, you could see her tastebuds sending a hurricane of messages to her brain. It must’ve been the first time she had sipped wine from the cup. Her face contorted into this wild kind of expression including the little girl trying to get her tongue as far away from her mouth as possible. She turned to her mother and said, “It’s real wine!” Her mom, of course, gave her daughter a mortified shoosh and then buried her face in her hands muttering, “O God, O God, O God, O God!” Her daughter tugged at the sleeve of her mom’s dress saying, “Mom! It’s real!!”

That child, experiencing the real thing, was both so excited and also sort of so terrified all at the same time. Because what would the real thing do to her?! Would she become instantly giddy or sick to her stomach? Had she trespassed into the mysterious and powerful realm of the big people too soon? Was it going to change her in some way she couldn’t imagine? For sure, I could identify with the mom as she gathered up her daughter and tried to make it back to her pew as far under the radar as possible. The mom skulking, the daughter skipping and smacking her lips loudly and going ahhhh! But honestly, I also found myself wishing we could all experience the same sort of breathtaking exaltation and clarifying terror of knowing we are in the presence of the real thing. And that when we walk away, the scent of God is on us, a holiness clinging to us that we would carry with us everywhere we went.

I read a piece by a religious and social critic a few years ago that has stayed with me. It’s a little cranky but I’ll share it anyway. He wrote, “The Church drives me crazy! We approach the altar at church like it’s a TV tray … That altar is the altar of the Living God. We should approach as if we were walking up to a nuclear reactor with its awesome power open and exposed and dangerous, threatened to be changed by the sheer power of God’s ferocious [holy love, irradiating us so that we go away from there changed]” by the real thing.

The Pharisee and the Herodian whom we hear from today in the Gospel reading may have been as narrow-minded in their focus and small in their imagination as any of us who are just trying to get kids fed and bills paid and just somehow survive from day to day. But we do them a disservice if we assume that they didn’t get Jesus. They may not have been clear on all the details, but they knew that he was the real thing. He was just as dangerous to them and to the world as they wanted it as a nuclear reactor core, and they knew it.

When they sipped in his words, it was not a bland beverage they tasted. It was the real thing. What else but the real thing could threaten them enough to put the Pharisees and the Herodians arm-in-arm against Jesus. Let’s just say they weren’t exactly natural allies. The Pharisees thought of the Herodians as sell-outs and compromisers, appeasers who didn’t really believe in anything beyond holding onto power by cutting dirty deals with the hated Roman occupiers. The Herodians thought that the Pharisees were self-righteous, moralistic conservatives who didn’t understand that in the real world sometimes you just have to shave corners to keep everything from coming unglued.

And lately, Jesus has been exposing the littleness of their lives. He has been drawing back the heavy curtains and letting the light of God’s holy love bring into the light both the good of who they wish they could be and the bad of who they all too often end up being. And they react the way any of us would – they want to stop him. Which is where this question of paying taxes to the emperor comes from. It’s supposed to be a trap, a ‘gotcha’ question. And whether this got him in trouble with the Roman rulers or the common folk made no real difference to them. He just had to be stopped.

But the question they cook up for him falls flat. For starters, Jesus shows that they are the ones carrying around Caesar’s money, not him. They are the ones who had the emperor’s image in their pockets, not him. His words, ‘render to God what is God’s’ left them to examine their own hearts, which is not what they came to Jesus for. They had come face to face with the real thing and they didn’t want any part of it.

“Render to God what is God’s,” Jesus says.

Since at least the second century, interpreters of this passage have said that the coin of the realm in question to be rendered is not the denarius or the dollar. Do you know what it is? It is you. You bear God’s image. You bear God’s image on you like the scent of wine, God’s holy love clinging to you; so we have everything we need to God what is God’s.

We come to this altar with all of our lives – the good of them that we hope for and all the rest of it. Side by side with friends and strangers and children who might know more about what is happening than we think and even an exasperated mother with her face in her hands, side by side, our lives, the real thing, the coin of God’s realm.

We come together to render to God what is God’s. Our hearts. With adoration and hope and fear and sometimes something closer to ‘Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God!’, that we may be changed; and carry that, something that God has given us, like we have been perfumed by God’s holy love, wherever we go. Amen.

David May

A Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

When I graduated from high school, my parents cooked a special meal for a family celebration. After dinner, they presented me with two gifts. The first was a set of luggage. The card that went with the luggage read, “Bon voyage! Have a wonderful adventure!” And the second gift was a signet ring with our family crest engraved on it. The card that went with the ring read: “And don’t forget who you are and where you come from!”

They were really wonderful gifts, just right for someone just stepping out into the world. But I was so ready to get out there on my own, living my own life, that at the time, I didn’t really appreciate what they had done for me with those gifts. That would come later.

Over the next several years, in ways that seemed pretty dramatic at the time (but which I now recognize fall squarely in the spectrum of plain old stupid human stuff), I did my best to lose track of who I was and where I’d come from. Probably a certain amount of that is just part of growing up. But even if it is, lost is still lost.

The amount of time Jesus took to tell us about things getting lost makes me wonder if ‘getting lost’ isn’t something he knows is going to happen to all of us and probably with some regularity: we have erred and strayed like lost sheep we admit in the traditional confession. It’s certainly a major theme in the Bible: us getting lost – one way or another, and God finding us – one way or another.

The backstory to the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments is God’s people forgetting who they were and where they come from. And not through bad choices or any particular moral failing.  Mostly because this world is glorious, yes, but also one we can get lost in.

You know the backstory, I bet. It’s a story we learn in Sunday school. On the way to God keeping his promises to the Children of Israel to bless all the nations of the world through them, Jacob and his great, large sprawling family ran into hard times. There was a famine in the land, so they all packed up and headed down to Egypt where there was plenty of food. They landed on their feet and grew and prospered. In fact, they grew so much – in numbers and in wealth – that the leader of Egypt, with the title of Pharoah, who insisted that the world revolve around him, got nervous about them. He got so nervous that he eventually rounded up all the sons and daughters of Jacob, confiscated their property, took away their identity papers, and made them slaves of the empire. They became a commodity to keep the machinery of Pharoah’s economy and cult worship of him humming along smoothly. And this went on for 400 years. Four hundred years of captivity for God’s holy people, Pharaoh after Pharaoh after Pharaoh.

As time went by, year after year, generation after generation, they forgot about being God’s people with a holy calling to be the ones through whom God would bless the whole world. Eventually, as far back as anyone could remember, they had been the personal property of Pharoah, with no idea that that would ever or could ever change. Their mothers and fathers were slaves, their children were slaves, and their children’s children would be slaves, too.

God’s children got lost and forgot who there were. They forgot they belonged to God, not Pharaoh.

You don’t actually have to be enslaved by some kind of Pharoah to suffer the same sort of fate. I remember an uncle of mine saying to me once with a kind of quiet desperation, “As far as I can tell, all I am to anybody is a checkbook. That’s the way people see me… my wife, my kids, my friends. That’s all I am.” And then he said, “I’m a person too. I am,” as if he were trying to convince himself. We were nowhere near the Nile River, but Pharoah’s shadow was heavy on my uncle that day. Or, I remember a conversation with an older woman years ago who said, “Who am I? Not that anyone seems to care, but I’m the one who washes the clothes and cooks the meal and makes the bed and keeps the house clean and runs everyone else’s errands. Who am I? Is that a question I’m even allowed to answer? I’m not sure I’m allowed to be a person.”

There are lots of ways we get lost and forget who we are and there’s always a Pharoah out there ready to capitalize on that.

I ran across an old newspaper clipping the other day that I’d saved in a folder. It’s the story of a man, a convicted murderer, in prison for the rest of his life. The story describes a pilot program in the prison where stray dogs who have come to the end of their stay in a local pound are paired with inmates. The idea is that the prisoners become their trainers for a period of a few months. Their job is to try to socialize the castaway dogs and help them find good homes.

It’s a story of the redemption that comes through remembering who you are. The inmates are people who in many ways have lost the right to be persons. I suspect that they have to forget that they are people in order to survive. They belong to Pharoah.

But apparently these castaway dogs can change that. One inmate who was picked to receive a dog said, “I was worried because I thought guys would think I was soft, and I was afraid for the dog’s safety.” But when he got to his cellblock the men gathered around. They seemed afraid to get too close, to show that they cared about something. The inmate put the puppy on the ground, and she started to run and jump like puppies do. The other men instinctively laughed and reached out to touch her. When the man who was considered the coldest and most hateful one of the block dropped to the floor and rolled around, laughing, with the pup, everyone knew it was going to be OK.

The same worried inmate said, “I didn’t think I had any humanity left in me. But when I received one of the first dogs in the program, that brindle boxer pup named Brin, I fell in love as soon as they laid her in my arms.”

This man will always be a prisoner and because of his own deeds. But he was given a way to remember that he was more than a prisoner.

God knows how easily his children can forget who they are and where they come from and get lost. So, after breaking Pharaoh’s strangle hold and drawing them through the waters of the Red Sea, God gathers them at the foot of Mount Sinai, and there God gives them their identity papers. He inscribes with his own hand words to show us how to be human the way he created us to be, to be his children.

Then God spoke all these words [saying], I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.

God didn’t deliver the children of Israel from bondage just to turn the tables on Pharaoh. God’s covenant with them, bound in the Ten Commandments, is for them to be something different – not just another rich and powerful kingdom. There are too many Pharaohs as it is. They and we are to be something different, God’s own peculiar treasure out of all the world through which the lost are found.

There is a technical liturgical word used to describe Christian worship. The word is anamnesis. It the opposite of amnesia. Anamnesis means remembering what you’ve forgotten about who you are.

We do not belong to Pharaoh or any of the other little gods of power or wealth or social standing or the latest fad on Tik Tok, all the Pharaoh’s who want to take God’s place in our hearts.  Sunday by Sunday we come to remember what we may have forgotten: we are children of God made in God’s image, bound to him by a sacred promise sealed by the blood of Jesus, to heal the world.  So, in this week before us, bon voyage! Have a wonderful adventure.  And don’t forget who you are or where you come from. Amen.

A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Growing up, my mother regularly read Greek myths and Aesop’s Fables to me. All of my goldfish were thus named after Greek gods and goddesses. And I can tell you that as a child who loved to please by following the rules, I adored Aesop’s Fables. They were succinct little stories with a very definite moral end. Full of rules. And full of characters to point a finger at who WERE NOT following the rules. I loved being able to tsk tsk about those fools. I was a barrel of fun as a kid!

One of Aesop’s fables, The Fox and Woodsman goes something like this…

There was a fox being chased by hounds and hunters for a long time. Exhausted, the fox came up to man cutting wood and begged him to give him a place to hide. The man agreed and took the fox to his own hut where the fox crept in and made himself scarce in the corner.

Soon the hunters and their dogs appeared.  They asked the man if he had seen the fox.

“Oh, no,” said the man.  Except while he was saying no he was pointing right at his hut.

Thankfully for the fox, the hunters were oblivious, and I guess they had really bad hounds because they ran off still looking for the fox.

After they left the fox was slinking out of the hut to get out of there fast. But the man saw him and fussed at him. “This is how you treat someone who has helped you? Without so much as a thank-you?”

The fox replied, “Some host you are. Thank goodness your mouth was more honest than your fingers, otherwise I’d have never had the chance to offer you the thank-you that I am NOT going to give you now.”

Saying one thing and doing another.

That is where we find the two brothers in the parable from the Gospels today.

I think it is worth noting that our gospel last week and our gospel next week include parables set in the vineyard.  Jesus often uses the vineyard as a way to talk about what the Kingdom is like. Last week we heard the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. The one where those who have worked a full day and those who have worked just an hour get paid exactly the same.  The laborers who have been there all day pitch a fit, which, if we are all being honest, most of us would, too. And the landowner replies, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus has told us already that the vineyard is open to all, and our rules do not apply there. God’s love does. We will find this again today.

Today’s vineyard story is worth placing in its own context in the Gospel of Matthew.

Our passage today is part of the Holy Week narrative in Matthew. The beginning of Chapter 21 opens with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by Jesus going to the Temple to set things straight and flip some tables to make room for the blind and crippled to come in and be healed.

The next day as Jesus was heading back into Jerusalem where today’s exchange takes place, he stopped to pluck a fig from a fig tree. What he found was a fig tree that looked great, green and leafy. But it had NO fruit. A seemingly healthy tree bearing no good fruit. And he curses it, and it shrivels up immediately. The disciples are standing there open mouthed looking at Jesus.

He says to them you think this is something? Just wait. If you get on board with what I am trying to do here, you’ll be able to do far bigger things than just make a fig tree dry up. You’ll be able to make mountains jump into lakes. Big things can change when you act in God’s love.

Today’s gospel picks up just after that. I do wonder if he ever got breakfast because, as David would say, he sounds a little “chippy” in this passage.

Jesus comes into the Temple and the high priests and elders immediately ask him for his credentials. Jesus slaps back. First, how about you answer a question I’ve got for you. By what authority did John baptize – God’s or his own? Well, they are stuck. If they say that John’s authority came from God, then they are exposed as liars. Or maybe worse. People who’ve gotten things all wrong about God. And if they say John’s authority was self-made, then the crowd gathered around who think of John as God’s prophet will swallow them up.

So, they play the “Uh, we don’t know” card.

And, as Jesus so often does, he tells a parable. The parable of the two sons sent to work in a vineyard. The first son called said no, but later on changed his mind and showed up to work. The second son called said “yes sir.  of course, I will go work in the vineyard today” but instead just flat out didn’t show. Saying one thing and doing another.

When Jesus asks them which of the sons did the right thing, they reply the first.

Jesus then tells them that the tax collectors and prostitutes, which simply means everyone that the religious leaders had deemed unworthy in whatever way, everyone they said hadn’t worked long enough in the vineyard to get a full day’s pay, those folks are going to be in front of them in line on the way into the Kingdom. John came and you refused to change, refused to believe the repentance he was pointing to and instead you pointed at him as if he were the problem. You pointed at them, the tax collectors and prostitutes, as if they were the problem. But they are the very ones who heard the good news turned around toward God and changed their minds and headed to work in the vineyard.  Even after you saw this with your very own eyes, you did not believe him.

It’s important to remember that Jesus says that the tax collectors and prostitutes will be ahead of the religious leaders he’s talking to on the way into the Kingdom. Not that they WILL NOT get into the Kingdom. They just won’t be first in line.

If I am honest with myself, I might as well cast myself, Amelia McDaniel, into the role of one of the high priests and elders or the son who said he’d show up and didn’t or into the role of the wood cutter, too. Saying one thing, doing another. Looking one way but being another. Like the fig tree with no fruit. Maybe you are in the casting line-up with me and feel you have the chops to be one of these characters, too. I don’t think I am unique here.

It’s not that I wake up with the aim of being the fig tree bearing no fruit each day. I start off with the intention of marching into the vineyard. Sometimes I can make it all the way past lunch before I turn into that tree. But, mercifully, Jesus, still offers me a place in line and the opportunity to try again.

Unlike fables that have a tight little punch, parables offer possibilities. Fables end with a moral statement. But parables are an invitation to think more broadly. Who is my neighbor? Is just one small coin worth searching for? What would I give up everything to be able to have? Parables push us to think of what is possible in the Kingdom of God because it is just so hard to fathom.

Theologian Douglas Hare says that even though today’s parable is directed at the religious leaders Jesus was addressing, “Matthew probably intended a wider application as well. Christians too can become blind to what God is doing in the world around them… We say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting the grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path!” (Hare, p. 248)

As an expert stone arranger myself, I would like to get out into the vineyard, full of possibilities.

Is it possible to change one’s heart and mind and go to work in the vineyard?

Is it possible to summon the courage to meet Jesus in those whom we least expect to find him?

Is it possible to instead turn the finger pointed at someone else as the problem and touch one’s own heart and learn to bear good fruit?

Where are the places in our own hearts, in our own homes, and in our community that we could move from pushing rocks around the path to gathering up the good fruit to share?

And it may be possible that today this parable may find you ready to head to the vineyard to begin to work.

–Amelia McDaniel