October 4, 2020

18th Sunday after Pentecost – Feast of St. Francis, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen

I am the youngest of six, and in most of my childhood memories I am happily surrounded by lots of siblings, cousins, or neighbors. But there are a few sweet moments I can remember when all of my brothers and sisters were at school, and I had my mom all to myself. We would read stories on the couch, or I would help her in the kitchen. I have very distinct memories of the afternoons we had together after I attended morning kindergarten, but before the big kids got home from school.

That was the year we got a brand new puppy. For a week or two when Scout was very little, he still got a few small meals throughout the day. Since I was the only kid home at noon, there were no arguments about whose turn it was to give him lunch, or who got to do it yesterday. I got to crumble up his little puppy chow for him every single day.

My mother was never actually a big fan of dogs, but I have tender memories of her watching to make sure I didn’t overfeed the little one, and that he had what he needed those first few weeks. Somehow Mom knew that teaching me to care for the tiniest and most vulnerable part of God’s creation was an important lesson in my little 5 year old development.

Today we honor St. Francis of Assisi. Francis lived 800 years ago, so many of the stories of his life may be as muddled as the memories of my life at age 5. From all reports, he lived decadently and recklessly as a young man. His father had a lucrative business dealing cloth and garments, and while Francis liked to dress well, he wasn’t interested in taking over the family trade. Rather he had romantic ideas of becoming a valiant knight, and he tramped off to war.

War, as you may imagine, was less glamorous and carefree as he had expected it to be. Inexperienced, and dressed much better than his peers, Francis was captured and held for ransom by his captors. But he suffered in prison, and in his isolation and pain, Francis began to have visions. He felt as if Jesus was calling him into a new understanding of himself.

After returning home, Francis became more devout and dedicated himself to a life of service. He renounced his family’s wealth, and began caring for those who were sick, those who were hungry, and those who were most vulnerable.

The deeper he experienced his faith, the wider his understanding of God’s salvation reached. He began to recognize his place within creation. Rather than feeling superior and above others, as he had in his younger life, Francis started to acknowledge his place within the community, in fact, within the earth itself.

Soon, it wasn’t just enough for him to care for those who were poor or those who were sick, Francis started extending his ministry to everything God had made, to people on the margins, and then beyond them, to the animals, even to the trees and the ground itself. Legend says he preached to the birds. In his prayers and hymns (in fact, the next hymn we will sing is attributed to him[i]), he refers to the moon and the stars, the earth and the sky as members of his family.

St. Francis once said, “If you have people who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have people who will deal likewise with others[ii].” Francis came to appreciate what God proclaimed to Job[iii]. The animals, even the earth itself, tell us from where we’ve come and to whom we belong. “In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.”

I wonder how he would have read a parable like the one we hear in Matthew’s gospel today[iv]. For centuries, Christian theologians have interpreted the parables, as if each one has one specific allegorical meaning. This one supposedly tells of someone (probably God, we might assume) planting a vineyard (which is a community of faith, we suppose) and leasing it to tenants (the leaders of the faith tradition) who are vicious, and greedy. Even the faith leaders in Matthew’s text assume Jesus is talking about them.

But in the context in which Jesus’ parables were first heard, the stories almost always had multiple meanings. As part of a Jewish culture, parables would have been interpreted by each community multiple ways.

What if we read the parable of the vineyard as if it were actually about a vineyard[v]? What if we read it as a critique not just about a faith community in 1st century Palestine, but about all of us who live in God’s vineyard, about all who inhabit God’s creation?

What if the tenants who hoard the harvest of this vineyard depict any of us who look at the land beneath our feet, or the goods in our hands, or the wealth in our bank accounts and call it “ours”? Can any part of creation legitimately be owned by another part? I suspect Francis would have said no. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” sings the psalmist[vi]. We are part of the earth, in the end, no part of it actually belongs to us.

The tenants in the parable look at the produce on the vines and start thinking of it as their own. They make plans, even using violence to hold on to what they want to claim as their own, even though it never really belonged to them in the first place.

How many of the political, social, or interpersonal issues of our times are finally struggles over what we want to claim as “ours” and our fear of losing it? We object to anything that infringes on our time, on our sense of wellbeing, on our perceived safety or comfort, on our presumed wealth. We convince ourselves that we have an individual claim or right to things, to others, no matter how it injures the rest of creation.

Jesus looks at us differently. Remember, this is the same Jesus who says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness[vii].” “Consider the lilies of the field[viii].” “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well[ix].” “Love your neighbor as yourself[x].” Maybe Jesus is telling us, “your neighbor is yourself. We are all part of one created world.”

Jesus invites us into life in community, life in a vineyard in which everyone’s needs are met, where no one is outcast, where each of us cares about the needs of the other, because we recognize we are part of them. We only matter if the most vulnerable, smallest, if the least of us matters. Our life is safe only if all lives are safe. Our life is safe only if the whole planet is safe.

Whether Jesus is describing physical fruit, spiritual fruit, or something else, he doesn’t lose focus that the True Landowner, the Good, Ultimate Creator of the Vineyard, comes to make sure no one lays claim to it sweetness at the expense of others.

I admit that this parable is not one of my favorites. It’s confusing and harsh, and seems to offer no words of compassion. It usually has been interpreted as describing God’s fierce anger over our abuse of the treasures entrusted to us. But take a closer look to see from where the violence comes. Jesus doesn’t say that the Vineyard Owner will come to kill and destroy. No, the violence comes from the tenants in the story, who attack the messengers. The final punishment is supposed by the leaders who fear the story is about them.

But the Vineyard Owner described by Jesus remains trusting and hopeful in the story. The Owner never stops coming to gather the harvest, and offering it to those who need it. The Owner never stops urging a better choice from those who were called to care for the land.

And even when the heir of the harvest is killed, and the stone is rejected Jesus holds on to the hope that it will be made into the cornerstone of renewed goodness, that restoration will outlast our brutality and degeneration, that resurrection will follow death.

Francis preached to the birds and taught the animals, because he sensed that their place in creation was no less valuable than his own. He taught us to care for the most vulnerable and the least among us, because he recognized that when we know how to care for the animals, we will begin to trust that God cares for us as well.

Scout, that sweet puppy I fed in kindergarten, was our family’s first dog, and we loved him. By the time we needed to say goodbye to our fourth dog, even my mother, (who you remember was never really a dog person), mourned. I remember her telling me, “That’s the last dog we’ll have.  I don’t have it in me to have to say goodbye to another one.” She had taught me to care for God’s creatures, and in spite of herself, had found that they were caring for her, too.

Today, we join St Francis and all creation in singing praise to God. Today we give thanks to our good Vineyard planter, who knows each vine, who loves even each rebellious tenant, who cheers each harvest and mourns each death, and who, ever trusting the goodness of the earth, comes to bury the spent vines and abused branches, and looks for them to nourish the ground for a rebirth in the spring.

Thanks be to God.  Amen

[i] “All Creatures, Worship God Most High!” Francis of Assisi 1182-1226. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #835.

[ii] Attributed to Francis of Assisi, 1182-1226,  https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/149151.Francis_of_Assisi

[iii] Job 12:7-10

[iv] Matthew 21:33-41

[v] “Caring for Planet Earth and Space as Part of God’s Creation,” Chapter 12, Ronald E. Vallet, Stepping Stones of the Steward:  A Faith Journey through Jesus Parables, Second Edition, William  B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1994.

[vi] Psalm 24:1

[vii] Matthew 5:6

[viii] Matthew 6:8

[ix] Matthew 6:33

[x] Matthew 19:19 and 22:39