Monday, September 29, 2014

Unbounded Boxes, Bunnies and Golden Books

Finn River Farm and Cidery on the Olympic Peninsula 
We called him Herr McGregor.  Herr McGregor was always telling us to stop climbing on his fence. He would shoo us away with a frustrated exasperation.  We were American children of service men and women, living off-base in Southern Germany.  He was our neighbor across the fence, an older man with an expansive garden that went all the way around his house.  

In our young and witty brains this man who was always in his garden and always shooing us away, well, we named him Herr McGregor.  The German title attached to the dedicated gardener of Peter Rabbit.  We told stories about how he thought we were like Peter, an interloper who would steal his carrots.  We thought he thought we were little rabbits who needed to be chased away.  We told stories about how he had put snapping turtles in the garden to attack us if we made it in.  

You see there was a short wall below the fence and we would shimmy along, holding on to his fence till we could turn around and jump over to the clothesline pole and slide down, firefighter style.  So over and over again when he would tell us to get down,  we would jump down from the wall and yell 'Ya' and 'es tut mir leid'.  We would move along, but we would return when he left his garden.  

Todays parable is short and simple and in some ways unremarkable.  It is a story where there may not be a whole lot to turn you on your head.   It is children’s Golden Book material.  Peter Rabbit and the PokeyPuppy say one thing and do the opposite.  They go to the forbidden garden and do not come home on time.  Meanwhile, the siblings who do what they were told get dessert for supper. We know this story because we live this story.  It is our experience with our children, it was our experience as children.  Saying one thing and doing another. 

As simple as the parable might seem it has two 'power markers': the Temple and the Vineyard.  A vineyard in biblical imagery is a sign of blessing and prosperity.  In the prophets and in the Psalms a vineyard that is healthy is a mark of peace and concord.  And the natural processes of fermentation were associated with divine blessing.  I cannot claim I ever thought much about wine and vineyards before moving to Walla Walla.  One of the things I have learned is that vineyards require year round precision, care and love.  Everything matters in the vineyard from the balance of rain and sun to the daily temperatures and the chemistry skills of the cellar staff.  It is intensive work,  an art where doing the work you said you would do is crucial to a successful harvest.  

The Gospels are community documents.  They make choices on what they say and what they don't say based on what the authors believe the community needs to hear.  We don't tell our children all our stories.  We tell them the ones that we hope will inspire and motivate them toward a healthy adulthood.  This parable of two sons whose words and actions do not match: it could be a simple allegory.  The one son represents all those God serving people with disreputable employment.  Political operatives, corporate executives and 'Hollywood'.  They may seem like they are thumbing their nose at Gods invitation, but in reality they are humble and faithful servants of his way.  In a simple allegory the other son becomes every self righteous soap box loudspeaker who does absolutely nothing to repair the world.  The judgment is obvious. Isn't it?  

The foundation of the readings today is that trusting in God, trusting in Jesus' lordship
matters more than anything else.  Trusting in God’s desire for reconciliation is so unbounded that it always spills out beyond our little boxes of what is holy and what is necessary.  Jesus’ otherness is upsetting to any little boxes and his otherness is the source of dangerous game that is being played in the Temple this morning.  Like John the Baptist his authority comes from beyond the fences.  They are wild yeast in a controlled cellar. Jesus' power to transform decay into harvest is beyond their control.  What might have troubled an early community that this parable, this interlude was repeated and written down?  What life giving lessons do the children of God continue to find in this unique parable in a vineyard?

What if both sons are both right and wrong?  Just like most of us, they are sons and daughters of passion and commitments and a dearth of things left undone.  Saying are the Christ, the vineyard is yours, and then finding other things to do.  Or saying uh, well, hmm, I don't know...but charging forth and doing what he asks anyways.  I have done both in the span of five minutes.  However, both the son who does nothing and the one who says nothing affirmative, they both live in the bounty of God's grace and in his judgement.  They are both accountable for not saying or not doing the work we are given to do.  Jesus' authority is what is in question here.  The authority of the church is the topic here. Not our authority of power but our authority as faithful witnesses of the risen Lord.  We tell a story about people who embody resurrection, hope and new life.  Do we have to be perfect stewards of the vineyard to tell that story...or are we beloved, forgiven, and always welcome home?

What we think and say and do in response to Jesus is entirely bound to whatever it is that we think we as church are doing and what we as church are hoping for.  Archbishop Rowan Williams once stated that the parables judge effectively because they are about relationships.  We don't have the parable of the rock and the tree.  The mystery of reflection and metaphor work together to draw us in and in this parable to bring us up short.  We live in the divine vineyard, in his metaphorical and true to life garden.  We have all been the first son and the second son, and many us have been the parent or gardener.  We who have bound our path to Christ, we are first and foremost bound to the forgiveness of his path.  We are imperfect people who get up and try again.  

Our setting is a consistent cycle of reversal and renewal, of compost and fresh sprouts, of surprising, devastating changes and of outrageous surprises.  I am not a gardener, but many of my favorite people are.  There are moments of self confidence that make it look easy and simple. Yet as many of you might know more than I, it is anything but.   Among the muck and the complexity of our little boxes God is bringing forth unexpected life.  The life of God is outside my expectations, my rules and my categories.  If I am honest I will admit that I think one son is lazy and the other is commendable.  However, in the light of the whole story Jesus life, death and resurrection I wonder if those are my boxes, and not God's.  

The work of formation is much like a garden.  It is about digging in the dirt and a commitment to resurrection.  It is about eternal things like forgiveness and freedom and the abundance of God's creation.  It is also about the immediate time, about playing and serving and growing right now.  Most of our harvests are immediate.  We eat what you grow.  You fill the garden with diverse offerings for the nutrition and fiber and joy they will provide.  We hope they will nourish deep roots and a future of abundant faith.  However, we cannot guarantee that.  We practice healing and learning in union with Christ because people of all ages need food now.  And if we put all our energy into old little boxes or judge our product by an unknowable future, then we will stand in judgement ourselves. 

One day I was walking home and Frau McGregor invited me into their home.  I had a 'free range' lifestyle in our neighborhood and had already visited most of our neighbors.  I was fearful and curious at the same time.   Hansel and Gretel must have entered my mind.  Despite the stories we told, I went in. Herr and Frau and I sat in their kitchen with good treats and conversation.  We broke bread.  I remember leaving transformed, knowing they were kind and sweet and desiring to share their treasures.  They didn't think we were naughty little rabbits.  I still didn't understand why he wanted us to get down from that wall.  That took ages.  So let us not jump to conclusions about saying and doing because my beloved, God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Jane Alice Gober
Pullman, Washington

September 28, 2014
RCL A Proper 21