A Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Steven L. Thomason at
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, AR on October 2, 2011
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, AR on October 2, 2011
The Scripture Texts for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost,
Proper 22, Year A:
Proper 22, Year A:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Then God spoke all these words:
· I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
· You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
· You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
· Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
· Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
· You shall not murder.
· You shall not commit adultery.
· You shall not steal.
· You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
· You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."
Jesus said, "Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, `They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, `This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.' So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 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." Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: `The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'? 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls." When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Some of you may remember a little book by Robert Fulghum that was published about twenty years ago, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. One of our daughter’s godfathers gave me a copy in those early years of parenthood, and I recalled with humor this past week some of the wisdom parlayed in the treatise which Fulghum subtitled “A Guide for Global Leadership.” You may recall some of the instructions—in Kindergarten you learn, among other things, to:
- Share everything.
- Play fair.
- Don't hit people.
- Put things back where you found them.
- Clean up your own mess.
- Don't take things that aren't yours.
- Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
- Wash your hands before you eat.
- Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
- Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
- Take a nap every afternoon.
- When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
Think what a better world it would be if we all - the whole world - had cookies and milk at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.
And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together. [i]
It is sensible teaching, isn’t it?
But I have a corollary philosophy: All I Really Need to Know About God I Learned from my Children and their Sunday School Teachers. Yes, that’s true—the heights of the seminary’s ivory towers may have honed my knowledge, but wisdom—Wisdom—has come, not from pithy tomes or doctrinal dissertations, but from the mouths of babes, from those not yet poisoned by cynicism. Blessed are the pure in heart.
It is no wonder that our classrooms for children here at St. Paul’s are brimming with kids, and it is why we have such an incredible team of teachers—for Sunday School, for Children’s Chapel, and in our Children’s Choir programs.
The teachers know—they learn as much or more from the children as the children do from them, and the children know there is something valuable to be experienced here—a pearl of great price.
I was reminded again of this last week as I pondered these passages, and to be honest, really struggled with the passage from Exodus. These Ten Commandments, which try as I might, I cannot hear without thinking of gray-bearded Charlton Heston throwing the tablets down at the people who are worshipping the golden calf in Cecil B. DeMille’s rendering of it. And God’s voice is a throaty vindictive one spewing forth from the clouds swirling overhead, with lightning striking and thunder clapping all around in some chiseled declaration of demand in Elizabethan English: Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods But Me. Thou Shalt Not Steal…
I don’t know about you, but I was scared when I watched that as a child, and I still cringe at the thought of it.
But as an adult I was exposed to Godly Play and the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, through my children, who taught me a different way. In the Godly Play curriculum, they rename the Ten Commandments as the Ten Best Ways for Living. And it is placed in context with the story so the children can live into the story as well—the people and Moses move as little carved characters on the floor—they move from Egypt, through the water (represented by a piece of blue felt) and into the desert of brown felt on the floor. Moses climbs a mountain, and is given some encouragement by a loving God—it is advice really, that, if followed, will make things go better for the people. Ten Best Ways to Live
1. Don’t serve other gods.
2. Make no idols to worship.
3. Be serious when you say God’s name.
4. Keep the Sabbath holy.
5. Honor your mother and father.
6. Don’t kill.
7. Don’t break your marriage.
8. Don’t steal.
9. Don’t lie.
10. Don’t even want what others have.
Each one is represented with a tile, laid out on the floor in two lines, and then the teacher continues: Love God. Love people. God Loves us.
I know. These are all hard. God did not say these are the “ten easy things to do.” They are the Ten Best Ways to Live. They are hard, perhaps impossible, but we are supposed to try. They mark the best way - like stones can show the right path.
And then the teacher ponders with the children—not answering, but asking—because they are capable of great wisdom at this early age:
I wonder which one of the Ten Best ways you like the best?
I wonder which one is most important?
I wonder which one is especially for you?
I wonder if there are any we can leave out and still have all we need?
I wonder what part of the whole story you like best?
I wonder where you are in the story or what part of the story is about you?
I wonder if there is any part of the story we can leave out and still have all the story we need?[ii]
Now my brief recount here in the pulpit does a grave injustice to the respectful and unhurried setting of an atrium in which Godly Play is offered, but I hope you get the gist of things—there is no angry God here wagging a divine finger at you. There is, rather, a loving God imploring us to be in relationship with God and with one another. All is well when that happens; the wheels fall off the bus when it doesn’t. We know that intuitively, and yet, it is hard, isn’t it?
Yes, there is judgment to be rendered when we don’t, which is what this parable from Matthew’s gospel is about this morning. Oh, it’s been used for evil for centuries by the Church—the tenants in the vineyard are traditionally identified as Jews, and they messed up royally, so they get their just deserves for their deeds and will be put to a miserable death by the landowner, who is, of course, the same angry God who was throwing lightning bolts around Moses’ head centuries earlier.
What pride and prejudice there is in such an interpretation! How un-Christ-like is such an interpretation—as if there is no invitation for us to live into that story! There is no “them” there. We all have, at one time or another, known the consequences of squandering God’s gifts given to us.
This is a parable of judgment, make no mistake, but the call goes out time and again from Jesus’ lips, as it has from the mouth of God through all of history. Bear good fruit, love God and love one another, be in right relationship, and you will find your way. But don’t, and it won’t go well—not because God is punishing you, but because Situation Normal is All Fouled Up.
I’m reminded that the Greek word in the New Testament that is translated as “judgment” is the word krisis, from which we get our word crisis. It intends a fork in the road, that we have a judgment to make, and the fork we choose will largely determine what consequences may follow.
Think what a better world it would be if we all – individually and collectively as the whole world - had cookies and milk at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess. Or if we just simply loved God, and loved one another.
All I ever really needed to know I learned from people who loved me enough to help me see that God loves us, wants us in relationship, and wants us to love each other, too.
Would that it were so!