19A Pentecost: A spark of light

Sermon Texts for 19A Pentecost
“Once the World Was Perfect” by Joy Harjo and Matthew 21:33-46
(You can find both online)

This is a strange sermon
that does not end up where it started.

First, here is a Gospel story smell test:
Would Jesus — a first-century Galilean peasant,
a defiant and subversive preacher,
later executed by the Romans for insurrection,
create a parable in which
an absentee landowner
is the metaphor for
a just and compassionate God,
while tenant farmers serve as a metaphor
for evil bad guys?

No, this has our buddy Matthew
written all over it — pun intended.
Besides, it is more an allegory than parable,
and that is another clue for us
that whatever nub of a Jesus-teaching is here,
it is wrapped in Matthew’s editing
from a great distance
in years, historic events, and evolved theology.

So let’s just skip to the punch line
of Matthew’s parable, where he writes:
”Now when the owner of the vineyard comes,
what will he do to those tenants?’
They said to him,
‘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.’”

We see that Matthew’s God
does not require mere punishment for failure,
but rather, execution.
Not only execution, but a “miserable death.”
Why so much vengeance?

Matthew’s virulence
was more about Caesar
than God.

Early Christian writers
took the vineyard metaphor
found in Isaiah (and also Psalm 80)
and fashioned it into a weapon
against their Jewish contemporaries.

Now remember,
we are not talking about Jesus
and Jesus’ day,
and John the Baptist
and the struggle with temple clergy.
This Gospel was written
at least half a century later —
think about the differences between
1970 and now.

By the time Matthew
edits Jesus’ original parable
into this allegory,
both John the Baptist and Jesus
are dead and buried.

There had been a war in Judah and Galilee
in which the temple was destroyed
and a Roman scorched-earth campaign
killed most Jews and Jewish Christians
or sent the survivors fleeing
to other parts of the empire.

Matthew’s nasty God and
evil tenants
represents the fledgling Jesus movement
fighting for the last seat in the lifeboat.

Here is what I mean.
Those early Jesus-followers
were competing for a unique legal status
awarded to Jews under Roman law.
You see, Julius Caesar,
the first Roman Emperor,
had granted Jewish communities
very special privileges.

Only Jews
among all the other conquered peoples,
had the legal right to assemble,
to keep property,
and both govern and tax themselves.
They were even allowed
to enforce their own rules
in order to keep Torah.
Especially coveted,
they were also given exemption
from military service
AND emperor worship.

Think about this:
Jews were the only non-Roman religion
to have those kind of rights and privileges.
All non-Roman religions
other than Judaism,
were even forbidden
from the city of Rome itself.

Even after the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70
Jews continued to be protected
under this special status granted by
the long dead Julius Caesar.
But obviously, their perch
had become more
precarious.

Jews made it known to the Romans
that the followers of Jesus
were not Jews
and had no Jewish inheritance,
even if the earliest Jesus-followers
had all been Jewish.

Christians of course, saw themselves
as the inheritors of God’s covenant with Israel.
Talk about a partisan divide!

The fledgling churches, many founded by Paul,
became more and more gentile
and so they had to argue
for legal status in the Roman Empire.

They were the inheritors of God’s covenant
with Israel, they insisted.

They were not a new religion, they said,
but a new Israel.

That parable we just heard
is a very early Christian legal argument against Judaism
and in favor of Christians gaining
the rights and privileges
afforded Jews under Roman law.
It was desperately important
that they achieve such legal status,
because like Jews,
Christians could not worship the emperor
nor could they serve in the military.

So this legal argument
between Christians and Jews
in the court of Roman opinion,
was not some abstract theological claim.
The question of whose covenant it was –
Jews or Jesus-following Gentiles –
was a struggle for survival
that came down to life-or-death.

Basically, the case the early Christians were making
with this parable
and other such gospel rhetoric,
was that God rejected the Jews
because they didn’t recognize Jesus.
Therefore, God was giving the covenant to Christians.

The covenant between God and Israel,
the one that went back to Abram and Sarah
and Moses and Joshua,
was now an exclusive franchise
that only the followers of Jesus owned.
That was their argument.

But it was a poor argument
unsubstantiated by the facts, and
rejected by most of the emperors until Constantine.
And so it was often tough going for Christians
in those first three-hundred years,
creating much bitterness and enmity
between Jews and Christians.

Then Christianity became the religion of the empire
and used it’s new status and power
to wreak vengeance on Jews for centuries.

The Church sullied Jesus
as the Lord of Genocide
over and over and over again,
and the parable we read today from Matthew
was and continues to be,
misused for that purpose.

That is the history lesson.
Now Joy Harjo gives us the whisper
of a changing spiritual practice
to point us forward.

”Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.”

An excerpt from: “Once the World Was Perfect” by Joy Harjo

Well, I do not know who the Wind Clan was or is,
but I know that we know how to do
what they did
to bring a spark of light
to the darkness that is all around —
a spark of light
to help us find the ladder
to climb back up
to the next world.
Or as Jesus said, “Thy will be done,
on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Today is a perfect day
to note why we add a contemporary reading —
most often a poem —
to the ancient texts we have from Scripture.

They need to play off of each other
to remind us that the Bible
is not a perfect filter
that can be picked up and applied
to life as we live it
without inspection, analysis, and
thoughtful critique.

While much of Christianity today
still holds that the Bible is perfect
and completely factual
in it’s every word,
the Episcopal Church does not believe that.
We hold that Scripture
has to be mediated to reveal the holy.
Scripture must have with it
both tradition — the history
of the many commentaries and interpretations —
along with our contemporary experience
for it to unveil the sacred
within it.
In short, Scripture
must be unpacked
rattled,
shaken,
and held to the light of the moment
in order to reveal what is inside it.
Otherwise, we get genocide
and hatred
and vengeance
and violence
and bigotry
and just plain ignorance.

Here is what we know today
that we didn’t know in Matthew’s day,
or Isaiah’s for that matter:
The Cosmos is still expanding
from that first big bang —
that moment of ignition
when the Creator of all that is,
lit a spark of kindness that made light.
That was nearly 14 billion years ago — a number
only God could truly contemplate.
And our little solar system
came along just a measly
4 and half billion years ago.
And people — our people —
the current version we call homo sapiens,
have only been around 160,000 years or so.

But we also know how this story ends.
The sun gets hotter and hotter
and eventually swallows the earth whole.
We all be gone.

It is not at all a perfect world
from the human perspective.
There was no Garden of Eden
from which we came
and to which we will be returned.
Those are myths
told to explain other things —
like where evil came from
if God is so loving.

But if we look at those images
from the James Webb space telescope
it isn’t difficult to imagine
it is a perfect universe
and we are somehow part of that perfection —
even with all of our imperfections.

We can look at the Alps and Adirondacks,
Big Sur and Seneca Lake,
blueberries, day lilies, and Queen Anne’s Lace
and see for ourselves
the magnificence
and perfection of the creation
if we are not looking at it with human eyes
that only worry about our own fates.

And if we wish
to create a better human world
and to practice a better spiritual wisdom
or even nurture a more perfect spiritual community,
then that is what we must do.
We must see
beyond our own self-interests,
and hold compassion for ones who stumble,
and share a blanket
or whatever they need.
That is how a spark of kindness
makes a light
so we can climb up through an opening
in the darkness together.

You see, we have just traveled
from Matthew’s day in 85 CE
back to the big bang 14 billion years ago,
to Trinity Place on Castle Street
in 2023.

We be the Wind Clan
sharing a blanket with one who stumbles —
whether someone here that we know
or out there we do not know.

We be the ones sparking a light from kindness
and making an opening in the darkness
so that we can climb out together
into the kingdom on earth
as it is in heaven.

That is our spiritual practice, sparking light
one act of kindness as a time.

That about sums it up.