We Press On

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October 08, 2017

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I know that I am not alone in feeling shaken. It has been a week of disasters-of both natural and human making. Forgive me for the list, but as I grappled this week to understand why I felt so low, I needed to simply write them down:

  • The incomprehensible scale of the devastation in Puerto Rico, and the hurtful apparent indifference to the human suffering there.

  • Executive action purported to elevate religious freedom of some, threatening the rights of LGBT people; our govt refusing to sign a UN resolution condemning the use of death penalty in countries who apply it to those convicted of the “crime” of being gay.

  • DACA recipients left vulnerable to deportation. New travel bans and immigration enforcement policies that are ripping apart families.

  • In the same week, around issues of reproductive health, we have heard news that the employers are to be relieved of the obligation to offer health care plans that include coverage for birth control for their employees, there is new legislation restricting women’s access to abortion, and our legislators have allowed the CHIP program (health insurance safety net)) to lapse –stripping poor children in our country of basic health care.

  • A most recent attempt to strip the Affordable Care Act, tossing millions of Americans off of their insurance.

  • A new tax plan floated that has been scored as benefitting the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and poor

  • An alarming and vague press teaser from a president hinting at our military might in the context of a high-stakes brinksmanship with another nuclear power.

  • And of course we had over 500 innocent concert –goers injured or killed in Las Vegas. Along with  the sickening knowledge that nothing will change, because there is no political will on the part of our lawmakers… or should I say there is no political will on the part of our Wicked Tenants entrusted with the vineyard?

This has been a tough week. I think particularly for many of us who strive to follow Christ, and who, in this branch of the church universal, have often perceived the broadly humanitarian goals of our federal government as generally aligned with our core Christian ethos (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, welcome the stranger) …that is until now.

In these recent months, as a priest who sits in this cathedral during the week, I regularly encounter those whose lives are being directly negatively impacted by the changes in our common political life, and many more who are not yet directly affected, but still deeply disconcerted by this rapid and relentless lurching away from the pursuit of the common good, and towards a hoarding of the produce of the land, and towards a heartless, murderous contempt of those whom we can easily overpower.

Jesus’ parable of the Wicked tenant was told in the hearing of religious leaders who in Jesus’ judgment, had lost the thread. And let’s be clear—there was no American separation of religion and the state. The religious leaders were thes ones responsible for caring for the vulnerable in their midst.  Jesus saw leaders who had begun as faithful servants of God, and then let their self-interest skew their judgment and their practice.

He let the leadership class—that is the Chief priests and the Pharisees – know that he had their number. And he let them know that the gift of authority, as given by his, and our, heavenly father, is not a static thing to be owned and hijacked, like a piece of land with a wine press on it. Jesus promised that God would re-order their world: Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Jesus speaks here, of course, knowing that he is on his way to his ultimate confrontation with the powers of this world. And as he makes his way there, he is asserting that the powers of this world do not and will not have the last word. The Kingdom of God is just that: God’s. Those who would subvert it, will be stood down, and those who tend and cultivate the fruits of God’s kingdom, will be further entrusted with its care.

The question, I suppose, is –on which side of this parable do we want to find ourselves?  Do we want to be the wicked tenants, dealing out abuse and death because we think we can get away with it? Or do we want to be entrusted with God’s vineyard, producing the fruits of God’s kingdom?

What does it mean to be implicated by the actions of Wicked Tenants run amok?  We are, after all, guilty by association with all that happens in the name of our country.  This question haunts us for the powerlessness we feel. But while we have limited influence in certain halls of worldly power, Jesus’s parable reminds us that we have unfettered access to meaningful work in God’s vineyard. And while the noisy power of this world is always temporal and fading away, God’s inbreaking kingdom is always at hand, quietly and powerfully flourishing.

Cultivating the Kingdom is slow, hard work. It is not terribly glamorous, but it does, by God’s grace, bring fruit in due season. As we cultivate God’s vineyard, producing fruits of justice and mercy, we too are transformed and nourished by its soil: the disciplines of prayer, study, and self-examination; the practice of gathering for worship and being strengthened by the shared and sacred meal; the sharing of the joy found in the loving companionship of one another and the radical welcome on offer by the Divine One who calls us all to the feast.

All this we do while waking up to the latest news on our smart phones, or newspapers, while encountering the suffering of the vulnerable in our midst, while preparing ourselves to engage the powers of this world and, when we feel called, to confront them.

This is a life’s faithful work. And it can feel sometime futile, overwhelming, and exhausting. Here we can turn to Paul, writing to the faithful from his prison cell, near what he knows to be the end of his life as he prepares for his final confrontation with the authorities who would silence him:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Here, in Paul’s thought world, we move from the vineyard to the race course. Let us be inspired this morning by those who are running the Chicago Marathon, quite literally, around us, just blocks away. And I’m not talking about the elite runners who are likely all back in the hotel rooms by now.  I am talking about the middle of the pack, the amateurs, and the strugglers and the stragglers at the end. They are my model for the life of faith. They have put in endless hours of dull and tedious training to strengthen themselves for the race. They are pushing themselves to achieve their personal best. They may falter or stumble, they may run out of fuel or need to stop in the medical tent, but as long as they can, they keep going. They will likely be questioning at some point why any of this seemed like a good idea… but if it is at all possible they will press on toward the goal. They will find reserves of strength they did not know they had, they will be lifted by others running alongside them and the supporters on the sides urging them on.  It may not be pretty, but they will finish the race.

For the sake of ourselves, and for the sake of the world, we in God’s church must show the same tenacity.

Our lives run in one direction: forward. Our faith points us in one direction: outward. Our God draws us in one direction: onward. Let us make Paul’s words our own: Beloved, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [let us all] press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.