Proper 22A – Oct. 8, 2017 -Commandments, Community, and Caritas
Readings for the day are found here:
I wonder – and I have started sermons like this before – are you feeling more than a little battered by the terrible news that seems to surround us right now? From the horrific murders in Las Vegas, 58 dead, to a truly devastating and seemingly never-ending hurricane season which has destroyed the property, infrastructure, and lives of people in places that could least afford it. It’s been a very hard week – this past week. Lord, whose world is this anyway?
What can our lessons say to us of this past week? Can something written so long ago actually have bearing on our present experience? I want to suggest to you that the Scripture can and does speak to us in the present moment because it is breathed over by the Holy Spirit, the living Spirit of our Living God, who animates it and speaks through it to our hearts, minds, and spirits here and now.
This past summer, VBS focused on the Ten Commandments and here they are today in our Old Testament reading. Not so much with the little kids, but the bigger kids and I had some substantial conversation around the Sixth Commandment – Thou shalt do no murder. They wondered, was there ever a time it would be OK to take another life? What about soldiers? What about self-defense? What about accidents? (fourth and fifth graders ask great questions!). I couldn’t help but think about those heartfelt conversations right here when I heard about the terrible happenings in Las Vegas. And, what of the murderer himself? So many questions, so much blaming, so much anger. People are struggling to understand what would bring a man to do such a thing. As horrific and heinous were Dylan Roof’s actions, we understood pretty quickly that he was driven by hatred of black people, radical racism, and the desire to start a race war in America.
We don’t know anything at this point about the motivation of the killer in Las Vegas. But, whatever else we might say, we certainly can say he had forgotten the Ten Commandments. Did he ever know them? Surely, the prohibition against murder is one of the deepest commitments of our shared life. His brother said that he really did not seem to have any kind of beliefs. I was struck by the description of him as a loner, a lone wolf, and it’s a description we have heard over and over again of folks who have acted in this horrific way. The picture emerges of someone who is utterly isolated, detached, living a secret life- even if surrounded by others…
Now, there are plenty of isolated, detached, lonely folks who live lives that do not result in mass murders but I cannot help but be struck by the similarity in description. And, it leads me to wonder if being engaged in community is not, in part, an or even the antidote for the kind of radical isolation which produces such profoundly violent and destructive behavior. I am not discounting other factors – the ease of acquiring such murderous weapons, mental illness or the actions of evil itself, but I do want to point to the difference it makes when we are in community (which you know something about), in relationships of accountability, support, and compassion with each other. St. Paul says bear one another’s burdens. When we detach or reject community, we lose not only each other, but part of our own identity as well as some of the supports that safeguard our communal life.
Our God has created us as relational beings—think about the Trinity itself – it is a community of being - and when we are in Christ, we are taken up into the very life of that community. The mystery is that we become more deeply who we are as we grow into the likeness of Christ. So, too, with community.
God gives us the Ten Commandments to function as a kind of protective hedge for our lives. My rabbi friend, Ed Friedman, said “You Christians would say- God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. We Jews would say- God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Torah – the commandments, the Law.” And our psalmist today reminds us that God’s commandments are “…More to be desired … than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb.” (Ps. 19.10)
I kept trying to say to the kids this summer, God doesn’t give us the commandments because he wants to load us up with a bunch of rules, but because they keep us from injuring each other and injuring our relationship with God . Rather, God wants us to learn to say, “I will not... (whatever it is), because it will hurt me and others and injure the bond of community.” The commandments help define the way we live together –and taken with Love God with your whole being and Love your neighbor as yourself – these are life-giving. And, when we share them as values, they help us remember who we are and whose we are.
The tenants in this morning’s Gospel reading had certainly forgotten that – they had forgotten that they were only tenants and not owners—and, remember, the owner was not asking for the entire harvest only for his share. Commandments like – do not steal, do not murder, do not covet come to mind. The tenants rejected the commandments, and they rejected the son.
This story has a strong allegorical feature to it, and we really can’t look at it without noting traditional interpretations: the vineyard is God’s people- an image used over and over in the Old Testament with roots in Isaiah; the tenants are the rulers and religious leaders; the wall – the commandments; the servants or slaves- the prophets, and biggest twist is the addition of the son – rejected and murdered.
If you think about it, this owner was incredibly patient – almost absurdly so, for, in real life, the wicked tenants would have been arrested and put to death immediately the first go round.
Thinking of this in connection with ancient Israel is a good place to start but it doesn’t end there, because it does come to us.
Have we forgotten whose we are, have we forgotten whose world this is? What fruit does God desire from our lives? You are his vineyard, and he waits patiently to see what the harvest will bear.
He calls us to live in community with each other and with himself - holding fast to the covenant. Will we?
He calls us to faithful stewardship of all that is entrusted to our care – that which we normally think of as ours – the people of our lives, our wealth, our homes, any talents or abilities - whatever we have in this life – it’s all gift..
He calls us to live faithfully – to love one another as we have been loved, to love God and love our neighbor – not abstractly but practically – he calls us to live rightly – that is , justly…
So, then, how shall we live in the face of tragedy? We are not impotent and we have some choices.
In the wake of Las Vegas, I observed an argument on social media – one side would say – praying, thoughts and prayers. The other would say, enough with the prayers, it’s time for action. These are not separate – not an either-or. I want to offer a model, a rhythm, to you from the world of Franciscan monasticism. It goes like this.. First, we pray – listening deeply. Then, arising from prayer, we discern an action to undertake. After engaging in action, then we reflect- how did it go? Do adjustments need to be made? Pray, act, reflect and all of it held in love.
You well know that action without prayer or reflection can really miss the mark. And, prayer without action can do the same. And, prayer, action, and reflection not grounded in love does harm.
So, beloved, pray, act, and reflect. Begin by listening to each other (Paul Tillich, theologian, says the first duty of love is to listen). Don’t be afraid to act. Hold onto to each other, and, above all, stay grounded in love. For the sake of Jesus. Amen.
JTCO- St. James-Santee, McClellanville.