Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017, Proper 22, Lectionary A
ST. ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.,+ Rector Scripture: Matthew 21:33-46
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit, as Jesus said you would, to recall to us whom you have made us to be through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
In order to alleviate the discomfort and boredom of working out, I usually try to watch a movie on television. This particular TV does not have premium channels, so I unfortunately watch a lot of commercials. One in particular caught my attention this past week. The advertisement was for some retirement facility, showing the usual lovely outdoors, playing golf, and socializing. Then, the commercial added this. Memory Care units are also available. Memory Care! What a euphemism that is! A euphemism is the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression or word for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant. Memory Care was this commercial’s way of saying that, yes; we have an Alzheimer’s unit.
Alzheimer’s, obviously, is not joking matter. My dad suffers from it. Aside from its sanitizing quality, the term, memory care, has a certain ring or catchiness to it. The truth be known, we all need memory care from time to time. Where are my car keys? Where did I leave my cell phone? Did I remember to turn the lights off or feed the dog? Memory is so important from the trite everyday tasks of everyday living (Did I take my vitamins?) to the more serious questions, like did I forget my wedding anniversary or to wish a good friend, Happy Birthday?
Indeed, our very characters and personalities are memory dependent. We might say to ourselves, “I don’t feel like myself today, or someone might say to us, “You don’t seem like yourself.” The terrible disease of Alzheimer’s, slowly robs the individual, who is afflicted by it. That individual becomes progressively unlike him or herself, as their personality and character fade away. My father is not the same person he used to be. Memory is exceedingly important for a host of reasons. By it we define ourselves, determine our behaviors, make our choices, and shape our futures.
In today’s gospel from St. Matthew we find Jesus asserting and exerting some serious memory care in the form of a 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.” The landowner referred to is none other than God. The vineyard He planted is His people, the then nation of Israel. They were to produce fruit, and we are not talking about grapes.
As Jesus continued with His parable, we learned that the effort to collect produce from the vineyard, from Israel, was seemingly in vain. One by one Jesus lists those of God’s slaves, the prophets, who were sent to collect the harvest, as they exhorted the people to return to the Lord God. What happened to them? One by one they were either beaten, stoned, or killed. “Remember,” Jesus was saying, “remember what your ancestors did to God’s servants.” Memory care, right! Recalling history, right! Jesus is speaking of the past (memory care) and He is speaking in respect to Himself and His near future—the crucifixion.
In the Old Testament reading this morning we hear the prophet Isaiah speaking of this same vineyard, the nation of Israel, and its failure to produce fruit. “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” What were these wild grapes? Isaiah tells us in verse seven. “For (the Lord) expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
Needless to say, this week in particular with the killing of 58 people in Las Vegas and more than 500 wounded has been one of bloodshed, much bloodshed. As you probably heard, first responders plugged wounds with their bare hands and used their clothing to try to stop each other’s bleeding. Those on the scene reported blood being everywhere.
As to the guy who did all the shooting in Las Vegas, the overriding, disturbing, and frightening question has been—why did he do it? What was his motive? What could have possessed him? (Surely, it was not the devil. Who would believe that?) The desperate speculation as to what was going on with this man is different than before. Was it terrorism? Was it ISIS? Was he mentally ill? What was his religion, some have asked? One observant Facebook individual thought the question of religious motivation said so much about our society and its attitude and assumption toward religion, meaning its influence is bad and makes people do bad and horrible things.
In that respect the NYT had an interesting article. “If only Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, had been a Muslim,” it wrote. ‘If only he had shouted “Allahu akbar” before he opened fire on all those concertgoers in Las Vegas. If only he had been a member of ISIS. If only we had a picture of him posing with a Quran in one hand and his semiautomatic rifle in another. Then we know what we’d be doing. We’d be scheduling immediate hearings in Congress about the worst domestic terrorism event since 9/11. Then there would be immediate calls for a commission of inquiry to see what new laws we need to put in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Then we’d be “weighing all options” against the country of origin.”
By comparison and contrast, the NYT then raised this question: “But what happens when the country of origin is us? What happens when the killer was only a disturbed American armed to the teeth with military-style weapons that he bought legally or acquired easily because of us and our crazy lax gun laws?” With either possibility, the second amendment again comes under scrutiny. Yes, “bump stocks,” which turn a rifle into an automatic weapon should be banned, but is that answer? What about the 58 people, including children, who were shot to death in Chicago in the 28 days between September 2, and 29 of this year (NYT, 10-6-17)?
Certainly, banning automatic weapons would not have prevented those killings. Are they no less tragic? For this reason, some argue this is why we should get rid of guns altogether. Is that the answer? What about this horrible event (you may not have seen it) where guns were not used at all? “Six toddlers and one nursery school teacher are dead after a fired security guard sprayed them with alcohol and set them ablaze in Brazil on Thursday, according to local media reports. The BBC reports that at least 25 people, mostly children aged four and five are currently being treated for burns in local hospitals. The disgruntled guard, identified as 50-year-old Damiao Soares dos Santos, lit himself on fire at the scene and later died from self-inflicted injuries” (BBC (10-6-17).
Sadly, what can we say about the human heart? How about this dramatization found in the 2007 movie Western, “3:10 to Yuma” where Russell Crowe plays the villain, a murderous outlaw gang leader named Ben Wade. The film’s hero, Dan Evans, played by Christian Bale, is escorting the handcuffed Wade to the Yuma train station, where he intends to put him on a train that will take him to trial.
As evil as he is, Ben is also a charmer. A weak soul, who ventures too close to his field of influence, is easily sucked in and may be seduced into following him. Such is Dan Evans’ teenaged son, William. In this exchange, Ben taunts William with the fact that his gang will very likely show up at the last minute and try to free him:
“Ben: They’re gonna kill you and your father, William. They’re gonna laugh while they do it. I think you know that.
William: Call ’em off.
Ben: Why should I?
William: Because you’re not all bad.
Ben: Yes, I am.
William: You saved us from those Indians.
Ben: I saved myself.
William: You got us through the tunnels. You helped us get away.
Ben: If I had a gun in them tunnels, I would have used it on you.
William: I don’t believe you.
Ben: Kid, I wouldn’t last five minutes leading an outfit like that if I wasn’t as rotten as hell.”
Consider Jesus’ words found in Luke 11:39, which, I would suggest, apply to more than the Pharisees to whom He was then speaking. “Inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness”.
It is the sad plight, the utopian delusion of democratic societies that they believe that some sort of legislation, some sort of technology can save the world and make people live in perfect harmony. Ban the guns, or how about this approach? Have you seen the movie, “The Minority Report”, starring Tom Cruise? Here technology and psychics have been joined together to predict when a person will kill someone—foresee it. The police are then alerted and rush to arrest the prospective perpetrator before the killing can occur.
Yes, it sounds farfetched, but what about this? The day arrives (secretly, perhaps, already has) when the pharmaceutical companies develop a drug that will stop aggression and killing. It would be like the flu shot. Take it once a year and we would not be inclined to kill anyone for the next year. Some would thrill at the possibility of making this inoculation a law. Every citizen would be required to receive the shot, perhaps around tax time when the propensity toward violence would be at its highest.
Is it not time for us to acknowledge that in societies where personal preference and choice are god, violence is not only to be expected, but increased. Hand in hand, they come from the same place—that conundrum known as the human heart. Open the door to the indulgence of one appetite and soon a host of others will follow. Consider the movie industry. Fifteen or twenty years ago they tried to titillate us to watch, as they nakedly portrayed sex before our eyes. Today, they pitch violence in all it blood and gore.
Could St. Paul’s words from Romans 1:21, 24, 25 have been prophetic and apply to us now? For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. [. . .] Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Where then does that leave us? Are we to forfeit our free society for the sake of a safe, non-violent society?
Jesus’ exercise in memory care, serious memory care, provides the answer as well as the consequence. The nation of Israel’s past mistreatment of the prophets was a statement in blood of their departure from the law of God. It was also a statement of their departure from God Himself. They had departed so far from both that when God sent His Son Jesus; they killed Him, thinking that with Him out of the way they could darn well do as they pleased. Sound familiar? Has not our nation departed from the law of God as well as from God Himself, never mind His Son, Jesus?
What was the consequence of that double departure for the nation of Israel? Jesus put it this way in the mouths of the listeners of His time: “He (the owner of the vineyard, who is God) 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.” That is exactly what happened to the Jewish people around 70 AD. The temple was destroyed by Rome, and the Kingdom of God was given to a people who produced the fruits of the kingdom—the Christian community. Can we, though, rest on those laurels? By no means!
The call to repent and return to the Lord and following Him is not a once in a lifetime occasion or experience. Truthfully, it is a daily matter of memory care. This applies to the Christian community itself, but it also applies to those who are not Christians. No external technological devices or circumstances, as imposed by law, can ultimately stop the violence or killing in our society. By hyperbole, Jesus highlights this when He says, “And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, 44 where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. 45 “And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell” (Mark 9:43-45). Jesus knows and we know that loss of limb, law or technology will not keep us from doing wrong. Rather, He is telling us how serious doing wrong is.
So, the next time some horrendous act of killing horror occurs (a terrorist attack on New York City was narrowly averted just yesterday), we should not be surprised. The human heart, whether that of a terrorist, a psychopath, a religious extremist, or the mentally disturbed, is the same heart that beats in all of us. And, the only way that heart can be fixed is to repent and turn to Jesus.
That is the memory care Jesus would have us live by, “bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10), as St. Paul reminds us. It is by so doing that our Christian character is made and defined. To do otherwise, is to forget who God in Jesus has made us to be.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.