Proper 22, Hungar’s Cure, Rev. Janet Wheelock
October 4th, 1st Sunday at Eastern Shore Virginia
Good Morning! I am so delighted to be beginning here today with you all. “You all” means the fewer than ten ministers here in this sanctuary making the service available through Zoom and Facebook. ”You all” also means those gathered in living rooms and dens, gardens and who knows where else? Joining us in your pajamas or your kayaking clothes, tuning in to the Holy Spirit online like old time gospel radio. The main thing is we are gathered as best we can be under these strange, isolating circumstances.
I’ve been here a week Friday. Let me say about that: Thank you for all you all have done and are doing to welcome me. Thank you for the flowers! So many cut and arranged flowers to adorn the nooks and crannies of the rectory. And a banner: “Welcome to the Shore, Rev. Janet!” The list is endless of the ways you are helping me settle into my new home, new geography, new cure. Thank you.
Not only am I new to you and you to me. We have a whole new world to contend with. There are changes in every institution, in schools, churches, the local coffee shop, how we shop, banks, real estate. All that change sparks curiosity and its less welcome companion, anxiety. Next Sunday both churches are planning to regather in the sanctuaries. With open windows and doors, following diocesan and state guidelines, using our common sense and compassion we’ll make the safest worship possible. And you can still join by Zoom!
The gospel of Matthew appointed for today is addressed to a community like ours, one facing change, curiosity and anxiety as well. There has been a rupture with the synagogue. The prevailing religious authorities are no longer their religious leaders and have become figures of great distrust. What later came to be called the Parousia, the advent of the new age, the Second Coming of Jesus, had been disappointing to say the least. You can hear Matthew’s congregation saying: “Who is in charge, now that Jesus is gone? He told us he was returning. If he just meant he’s returning symbolically, well, we can all just climb down off of that watchtower and make fish mosaics. Since he’s not coming back, who can we entrust with our spiritual life, our community relations, understanding the scriptures?“
Into this context of change, curiosity and anxiety we hear Jesus’ bitter parable of the tenants who betray the trust of those they’re working for. Out of cruelty and greed, they reckon they can just kill the emissaries and heir of the owner of the vineyard they are tending. They’ll just keep the land and its proceeds for themselves. This parable depicts a kind of economic anarchy and spiritual disintegration, the betrayal of contracts, promises, everything we hope to trust. As we begin a new relationship between priest and parishes this morning this is a cautioning parable, thought by some to be a critique of clergy who are seeking not the kingdom of God but prestige, power, money - as you can imagine is my motivation…
The calendar of saints offers up a beautiful contrast to this parable: It’s the feast of St. Francis. Ordinarily we would be having an animal blessing alongside Eucharist. Francis, throughout time has embodied the cleric, the spiritual leader for the poor, for creation and all creatures. Francis is a great one to look to when we become overly anxious about our churches and clergy. He always seemed to steer attention and energy back to the relationship – our commitment to each other.
We are living in a time of constantly surprising circumstances – Now the president and his wife have tested positive for Covid. The epidemic continues to turn everything inside out and upside down. The harsh and irritable ways people and the media are expressing their politics and the unrest in our country incite fear and suspicion beyond the ordinary. We become fearful not only of those who are different from us, but also of anyone who might breathe on us. These are not unprecedented times. Human society has gone through all of this in different eras and geographies before, but that’s another sermon.
What is also not new is God’s commitment, God’s relationship with us: the promise of tender mercy and our call to praise and worship. Not to praise the heartaches, illness, losses, fears in our midst, but to celebrate life and breath one another and most importantly, God with us.
We have that of God (as the Quakers put it) in us. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians: “I want to know Christ”. And I say to that: I want to know Christ in me and I want to seek and know Christ in you.
Our whole work, our overriding purpose, our calling, is to seek Christ. “Hesed” is the beautiful Hebrew word for God’s relationship with us: Loving kindness, faithfulness., covenant, promise. God has planted this in us, every one. This is the Parousia.
In these strange and new times let our search be for that of God in each other. Jesus’ parable depicts the gravest form of betrayal and breach. Let us then focus on narrowing distances between sacred and secular in us. We can try out new practices emerging for communion, for instance. While we prepare to open the churches for worship as early as next week, some folks will not want to or be able to join in person yet. One recent offering is that of family or friend who goes to church receiving extra blessed communion bread after and delivering it home. The idea is then to create a special space at home – an area set a bit apart, say a table with a cloth, a cross, a special coral or piece of driftwood you found by the bay, a picture or artwork that invokes the holy. This is where you might place the blessed wafers until you can share them with the family, reading from a special section in the prayerbook when you do. We are all priests, in the priesthood of all believers.
Each time we gather virtually or in person to hear the story of our faith, to study the ancient texts, to hear since we can’t sing, the beautiful songs, we are tending the vineyard, the “hesed” loving-kindness God has entrusted to us. We are fertilizing the soil that needs so much care to bear fruit in these difficult times.
So what are we to do?
As you know from Chatham’s Vineyards right here, a vineyard is a long-term commitment. The vines have to be meticulously cared for likewise the soil beneath them. The business has to be attended to, promotion has to be inviting and kept fresh and bold. We have TO KEEP OUR END OF THE relationship with God’s hesed. To cultivate that of God in ourselves, to dig for it, claim it, tend it, then see and celebrate it in others. PAUSE