When I was 25 I decided to leave the church. I was two years into a seminary degree. I had also spent a year volunteering as a legal advocate for survivors of domestic violence. I enjoyed the community at seminary, and was fascinated by the studies. But I was increasingly troubled by what I perceived as the disconnect between my studies – biblical languages, interpretation of the Bible, systematic theology – and the injustices and pain I saw in the world around me.
It was fun to read the book of Jonah in Hebrew – but what good did it do the women I visited in their home just hours after they were assaulted by a husband or boyfriend?
What was the church doing for these women?
I felt like I was in an ivory tower, distant from the needs and pain of the world.
And I was angry by the resistance my seminary and some people in my church
- the ELCA – was giving to full inclusion of LGBT people.
So I left. I came home to Albuquerque and worked in a domestic violence shelter.
I quickly learned that if I was disappointed by people in the church,I was just as disappointed by what I had romanticized as social justice work in the women’s movement.
I learned that people are people, and we bring our flaws and egos into whatever work we do, whatever good we are trying to achieve.
After about six months I learned something else.
My father was diagnosed with cancer, and needed major surgery.
As my mother and I sat in the hospital, waiting, Pastor Melinda came to visit us.
I knew Pastor Melinda well. When I was a senior in high school, I was the youth representative on the Search committee that called Melinda to my home church, St Paul Lutheran here in Alb.
I had visited with her often during my college years and she had supported me,with much honesty and discerning clarity, in my first steps toward ordination.
But it wasn’t just my friend Melinda that came to pray with me that day.
Melinda came as a representative of the church –the community I’d grown up in, and the wider community I was struggling with.
I was not on good speaking terms with the church – but there was Melinda, wearing her clergy collar, praying with us and sitting with us and sharing love and support from our church family.
it’s not that we were not praying before Melinda showed up.
It’s not that we didn’t know God was with us.
But Pastor Melinda’s visit was a sign of the love and support of our community of faith – and it meant a lot.
Melinda brought a healing presence to us in the midst of our fear and hurt.
And I knew.
I don’t remember if it actually came to me that day, or if it grew in me in the days and weeks that followed – but I knew I wanted to be part of that healing community.
I wanted to be that person who carries into the room, not just my love,
but the love of Christ and of a community of care.
It was not a direct or easy road back, from that moment to my ordination 4 years later,
but I made it.
And now, nearly 20 years later, I am blessed to be a part of St Michael and All Angels, because I believe this is a place that knows something about the healing that is offered and found in community.
I have been privileged to speak words of acceptance and healing on behalf of this church.
I have been able to tell people who have been asked to leave other churches – you are welcome here. We see Christ in you.
I have been able to say to people who have been barred from communion in other churches – Come to the table.
This is the feast of Jesus Christ, and all are invited to share communion here.
These words have been healing for many who have come to us – and they have also been healing for those of us privileged to offer hospitality and welcome.
And they have been a healing witness to the larger church – the Episcopal church and all our Christian brothers and sisters – to what the body of Christ can be.
I have also found at St Michael’s a community of prayer.
We have an intercessory prayer list which goes out to over 80 people who covenant to pray for all the members, family and friends of this congregation who request our prayers.
We pray for one another as an act of love,
holding the pain and need of our brothers and sisters in our own hearts before God.
We don’t need to convince God to help us.
We don’t need to tell God something God doesn’t already know or invite God into a place where God is not already lovingly at work.
But we pray to bring ourselves and others into awareness of God’s constant care.
We pray because we believe, deep down, in the healing power of prayer – whatever the outcome of a situation.
We pray to find ourselves already held in the reality of God’s love.
And people tell me all the time that they feel the prayers of this community.
Two people I have visited in the hospital this past week have told me how much it means to them to know the people of St Michael’s are praying for them.
We encourage one another with our prayers.
this morning, we recognize the feast day of St Luke, the evangelist and physician who ministered with Paul in the earliest years after Jesus’s life on earth.
We remember Luke by offering anointing and prayer in this community,
offering ourselves and our needs to God, holding each other in love and prayer.
At our best, the church is a community of healing.
I was reminded of this at our Diocesan Convention,
which was in Las Cruces this past Thursday – Saturday.
Much of diocesan convention is about doing business – making small changes in the canons, passing a budget, hearing reports about archives and communications and lots of numbers.
This is a part of the church that can be off-putting –
the part we sometimes want to run away from.
In fact, I recently spoke with someone who told me candidly that he left the church after serving on the Vestry.
After seeing the business side of the church, it just didn’t seem like church anymore.
But this work we do – the work of convention,
the work of our Vestry,
the work of committees and fundraising and budgets and meetings –
is also about the mission of the church.
Karen Longnecker is a young woman from St Mark’s who serves on the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. She wrote in an article in the most recent diocesan newsletter,
“Governance is messy, necessary, and an act of faith. . . . I am proud to be a member of a church that is democratic, and democracy is messy. Through governance we attempt to align our resources and priorities with the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, the place where God’s reign makes all things new. This movement is often a daring and unpredictable act of faith. “
One of our speakers, Canon Lance Ousley from the Pacific Northwest, reminded us:
“The kingdom of God is marked by healing and whole-making –
bringing hope to those who are hungry, homeless, lost, and who feel unloved.”
The church has its flaws – it is, after all, made up of people.
But I love the church.
I love it for what it is – and I love it for what it can be.
In Las Cruces, I met Susan Hutchins, the director of Borderland Ministries, an outreach of the church which works in poor communities on both sides of the border.
They raise money to provide food for families.
But even more, they provide sewing machines and raw material for women in Palomas,
a community in Mexico, to support their own families.
A few years ago, when the diocesan staff was cleaning out the attic, so to speak,
they found thousands of Camp Stoney t-shirts from decades of summer camps, which they donated to Borderland ministries.
Susan said she gave out shirts to kids and adults, and is still sometimes amused to be visting a community just over the border and see a kid running around in a Camp Stoney
t-shirt. But there were still shirts leftover.
Then someone had an idea – the t-shirts could be made into rag rugs.
The women in Palomas made the rugs, and Borderland ministries sells them.
The full price of the rug – or the baskets and purses the women make with other donated materials – goes directly back to the woman who made it.
There were stories from Episcopal Relief and Development, which is also involved not only in direct aid but in assisting individuals and communities to become self-sustaining.
I heard about a project the national Episcopal Church office in New York is doing to reach out to young families who may have little or no experience of church, but find themselves with questions about God and meaning and community as they begin to raise children.
We celebrated again a successful summer of camp at Stoney, with over 90 campers in attendance, and the preparations we are making together to touch even more youth and adults in the 2015 season.
We, together, are the church.
Each one of us here is a part of a community which offers us healing and grace,
and then invites us to participate in healing and whole-making in a hurting world.
This is not the ideal community we would like it to be,
but it is a community which strives to love one another,
to welcome the stranger,
to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives.
We are a community of people who gather to be healed and fed,
and to carry hope into the world wherever we go.
Thanks be to God
From today’s gospel: Jesus said “The kingdom of God will be given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
I am on the path to ordination as a deacon. Just last month I started my school classes. And one of the first things I learned about was the Hermeneutical Circle. It’s a method of looking at scripture. It involves three steps: looking at the world OF the text, the world BEHIND the text, and the world IN FRONT OF the text.
Since I just learned this new skill and need some practice…quite a bit of practice…I thought it would interesting to look at today’s Gospel using the Hermeneutical Circle.
Looking at the world OF the text involves only examining the words on the page. And this parable is a doosey for that exercise.
The parable: We hear about a landowner who created a fabulous vineyard. He leased it out to tenants and left the country. When he sent representatives to collect the harvest, the tenants killed the owner’s servants. This happened twice. Then the owner sent his son to collect the crop. The tenants killed him as well.
As we look at the world OF the text, there seems to be a lot of problems in this parable. Wouldn’t you think the owner would have done a background check on the tenants and found them to be bad people? Didn’t they draw up a contract of some kind? And after the first time the owner’s representatives were treated so horribly, why did the owner try the same technique two more times to claim his grapes? This owner must be incredibly trusting or incredibly dense!
And the tenants! Where did they come up with the idea they could just take over the vineyard as their own and not pay the owner his due? They are obviously a violent and immoral group – and not too bright either. Why do they assume by killing the owner’s son they will inherit the vineyard? They have no proof the owner is dead or that there are not more heirs in line.
After telling the parable, Jesus asks his listeners what the owner will do when he finally arrives at the site. (It’s interesting to note the question isn’t what SHOULD the owner do but rather what WILL the owner do.)
The listeners are quick to answer the owner will take vengeance and kill the evil tenants. The owner will furthermore find new tenants who are more amiable and will agree to hand over the harvest when it’s time.
Jesus rebukes the listeners for not knowing their scriptures and points out the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and someone more useful will take over.
We THEN learn the people listening to Jesus are the priests and scribes of the Pharisees. They realize Jesus is talking about them. Uh-oh! They suggested the owner should put them to a miserable death! They want to have Jesus taken away but fear the reactions from the crowds.
Now let’s look at the world BEHIND the text. This involves looking at what has happened before the passage one is reading. What did the people of that time already know.
We should note that this parable is told during the last week of Jesus’ life. He has been out preaching and teaching for 3 years. He has healed the sick, given sight to the blind, and raised the dead to life again. His triumphant entry into Jerusalem happened just the day before and he had run the businessmen out of the temple. Today, he has returned to the temple and is talking with the Pharisees who wonder what authority he has to do what he’s doing and say what he’s saying.
This parable shouldn’t be new to the people listening. Today’s lectionary makes it easy for us to know that this parable is taken directly from Isaiah. In today’s Old Testament, the prophet laments what will happen to a beautiful vineyard. Although the owner expected a bountiful harvest of delicious grapes, the owner received only heartache for his trouble. The Pharisees were learned, religious men. The reference to Isaiah could not have been lost on them.
And the Pharisees are well aware of who Jesus is, what he has done over the past three years, and who he says he is. All their questions are simply ways to try and trip him up so he will implicate himself in something for which he can be arrested. They want Jesus gone. And now the world IN FRONT OF the text. After 2100 years of history since this parable was told, what more do we know?
Today’s parable is actually an allegory. A parable is a story told to teach a lesson. Each character or thing in an allegory represents an actual person or object. The landowner is God. The vineyard he creates is the earth – or the church. The wicked tenants are those who take for their own use or gain the good works God has intended for them to do. The harvest is the fruition of those good works. The servants or slaves sent to collect the harvest are the prophets and martyrs who spoke the word of God. And the Son is Jesus.
In this particular case, the Pharisees are the wicked tenants. And they think they know what is best and have claimed religion for their own. They are not obeying the owner of the vineyard.
I want to stay in this world IN FRONT OF the text…..because we live in the world IN FRONT OF the text. Let’s imagine the vineyard in the parable is the earth – our home – our church. God is our landlord. We are here toiling away. Working hard to make sure there is a bountiful harvest. God sends his servants to collect that harvest.
What do we do?
First of all, exactly what are we growing and what are we harvesting?
The parable says the kingdom of God will be given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. It is clear I am not a Biblical scholar. I’ve only had three days of classes so far. But as a life-long student of the world and of God’s love and Jesus’ teaching – I suggest we look at the fruits of the kingdom as doing what we, as Christians, are instructed to do.
Let us tend the soil of humanity, let us nurture the crop that is made up of our neighbors.
Let us lovingly tend the vineyard with care and concern for every single plant in it.
Let us pray for nourishing rain and just the right amount of fertilizer to help us with this endeavor.
And let us allow each plant – each person – of our earthly vineyard to grow in its own time and space.
As we pour all of this energy into tending this vineyard, we have to remember it does not belong to us. God is the owner and we are the tenants. It is NOT all about us. We must not tend the crop and help it grow bountiful fruit with the expectation we are going to receive a pay off or adulation or money at the end. Tending God’s vineyard is the reward we are so lucky to receive. And we must remember there are other tenants as eager as we are to produce this harvest. We must all work together in this one big field. There is no place for egos. It is NOT all about me.
We must also remember it can be difficult work. We will get dirt under our fingernails. We will be sore from all the manual labor involved.
Second, who are these servants God is sending to collect the harvest? How will we know them when they arrive? And how will we treat them?
This week my husband and I went out to dinner. As we walked toward the restaurant a man approached us. He said he was trying to raise money to get a room for the night for his mother and himself. He offered to wash the windows on my truck. I gave him some money and wished him luck. Was that one of God’s servants coming to collect the harvest? How did I treat him?
Are the undocumented children from Central America arriving at our borders God’s servants looking to collect the crop? How are we treating them?
Is that politician with the exact opposite opinion as you God’s servant looking for the harvest? How do you treat him?
Is the person you’ve never met sitting in the pew behind you this morning God’s servant who has come for the harvest? How will we treat him or her?
I’ll tell you what. Instead of spending our time trying to answer questions about what is going to happen, let’s spend our time tending to the vineyard. As we tend the fields, we will also be tending ourselves – making ourselves ready for the owners’ representatives who come and collect the harvest. To do that we must keep in mind the world of today’s parable, the world behind today’s parable, and the world in front of today’s parable.
Let us tend the soil for others and for our own lives.
Nurture the crops as well as ourselves.
Lovingly care for each plant and ourselves.
Pray for nourishment for the plants and ourselves.
Allow each plant to grow in its own space and time and give ourselves enough space and time to achieve the goal as well.
It’s time to roll of up our sleeves and get to work.