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Mel Caron’s Sermon for October 4, 2020

I’m familiar with vineyards – wine was my drink of choice during my drinking years, but with my sobriety it seems I have forgotten what they are called.  A couple of weeks ago Don and I passed a Vineyard on our way to Hammonton.  I commented “Look, there’s a wine farm!” 

But I can tell you that I also know a little bit about God’s vineyard and our work within it!

In order to comprehend the readings today, we need to understand the Prophet Isaiah and the role of the prophets in the Old Testament. 

The book of Isaiah covers a span of over 300 years, which suggests that there was more than one author.  The book is divided into three parts. 

Our reading today comes from the first part.  Isaiah was a Prophet in the Southern Kingdom known as Judah. 

The role of a prophet during this time was to express judgement on the moral behavior of the Israelites.  In prophetic writings like Isaiah you see threats of punishments as well as the promises of deliverance. 

Their writings were hyperbolic and poetic and they addressed a universal morality as well as Israel’s.  They always called the people to return to God and God’s laws. 

Chapters 1-5 of Isaiah expresses this very call to return to God.  “Beloved” in the reading refers to the people of Israel – God’s people.  The “vineyard” is God’s Kingdom.

Isaiah is speaking for God asking where the “yield” of this vineyard exists.  What have God’s people done to bring about this yield and how have they behaved in and toward the vineyard?

Psalm 80 tells us that God provided the land, planted the vines and protected them.

Matthew gives us another story of a vineyard in a parable presented by Jesus.  Jesus tells of how the owner of the vineyard wants to reap the “produce” of his vineyard so he sends his servants to collect it from the tenants who have been charged to care for the vineyard. 

The tenants are greedy and unjust so they harm or kill the servants sent by the owner.  The owner eventually sends his son who they killed.

Hebraic law stated that if a man died without an heir the tenants would inherit the property.  The tenants acted out of their own greed.

Now, some would state that this is really about Jesus’ coming and death.  It is, but I would suggest it is larger than this.  We lose the teaching in these two scriptures if we immediately go to the Crucifixion.

The vineyard here represents God’s kingdom and the produce is about what we have done to bring that kingdom into fruition. In order to do so we have to go deep and explore what we have done and what we have failed to do.  That “we” is the church (the larger church) and each of us personally.

In one of his daily reflections this week, Fr. Richard Rohr remarked that when Jesus began his ministry it was to the marginalized.  The Early Church’s ministry continued to be to the marginalized.  It wasn’t until Constantine declared Christianity as the religion of the state that it began to serve the dominant culture of its time.

Looking over this vineyard – God’s kingdom that we’re called to serve, we should ask ourselves?  Whom do we serve?  What are the fruits – the produce of our labors?  Would our efforts make Jesus proud?

The Episcopal Church itself has acted in ways that would not always be considered good produce.  Actions that weren’t always moral.

Awhile back I shared a story with you about Bishop Curry’s father and how he came to the Episcopal Church after witnessing the church’s willingness to be inclusive with the Chalice during communion.  What I learned this summer is that there’s more to the story. 

After that experience, Mr. Curry, who was in seminary to become a minister, went to meet with the then Bishop of North Carolina.  He presented himself to the Bishop and after doing so, the Bishop responded: “Well, I’m sorry, but I already have one “boy” and I don’t need another.”

Mr. Curry could have walked away after that racist comment and rejection.  But he didn’t.  He held strong onto his calling and was encouraged by a friend.  He moved to another state where they took him under their wing and he was ordained an Episcopal priest.

Churches around the country are currently making reparation for church policies and practices before, during and after the Civil War.  Statues of founding fathers whose witness stands against the Gospel message are being removed.  Even universities such as the University of the South are apologizing and making changes for their own role in racial injustice.

I heard a woman named Melanie – a different Melanie – speak at a Webinar for the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches toward ending racism.  Melanie works for the Anglican Church of Canada on an Indian Reservation.  She shared that it was through the indigenous people that God moved the church to rethink its past so the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed. 

She shared that the Church of Canada had to admit that they had played a role in the attempt to commit genocide of the indigenous people in the area. 

As they did the hard work of uncovering the church’s role, they discovered some lies that they had to confront. 

The most important lie that she mentioned; which I think we can learn from, is that “If we “awoke” people were there this never would have happened.”  Can we honestly say that we would have been less responsive to our culture and stand for the Gospel by being counter-cultural?

Pitman has a history of racism.  What role did Good Shepherd play in this history?  Did it stand openly against the racism or was it complicit by its failure to act? 

Can we, as Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, look at our own past and determine if our church played any role in taking away the dignity of any person? 

Are we willing as a parish to do the hard work of determining our role?

We have to ask ourselves too – what role do I play in this Kingdom work.  Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is within us. The Kingdom is here and now – not when I die.    God calls us to work for the human rights of all persons.  We vow this every time we renew our Baptism Promises. 

Can we each find the courage to look closely at our own lives – our actions and our hearts? 

Are there people whose dignity we fail to respect?  Are we in some way tribal, taking sides and seeing people as “other” and not one of us?

This Vineyard is God’s created order.  How do we care for the vineyard?  Do we abuse it?  Are we doing everything we can to care for it to ensure it will be there for the future?

How would my life change if I examined my use of natural resources, my shopping patterns and my waste patterns?  Do I view the other living creatures in this vineyard with love and respect?

Are we willing to study with an open mind and heart to learn the effects of our choices on the environment and then make changes to repair it? 

On October 15 the Thursday Study Group will begin a new series called Pro Future Faith with Michael Dowd.  This series is based on scientific findings as well as Christian teachings. 

Its focus is on what we can expect to happen in coming years for our vineyard, the earth.  You can check him out on YouTube, but you’re welcome to join us on Thursday mornings at 9:30 on Zoom. 

Vineyards require a lot of care.  There’s a lot of work for us to do in this vineyard.  Perhaps more now than ever before in our lifetimes.

You see, my brothers and sisters, the Gospel is challenging us to rethink who we are and what we’re called to be and do.  How will you work in God’s vineyard?                                                Amen.

Mother Susan’s last sermon

Sermon 9 27 20

Aaack! My last sermon! But I can’t think of this like my last sermon.  Because then I’ll set myself up for disaster and it will be reeeally baad! No! I have to treat this like every other sermon, so at least I have some chance of success. 

Today, I will preach from our readings and then end with some important final words (at least I think they’re important) for all of you.

But first I have to say this, packing to move is depressing. There’s no getting past it – it’s depressing. And this time we’re really reducing our load, believe it or not. (Our kids don’t believe it.) So – lots of decisions were made – lots of memories – lots of angst – and hopefully a lot less stuff. Not fun, but necessary.

Our collect for today notes that God declares his power by showing mercy and pity. What if we did that? There are those who think that mercy and pity belong to “losers.” Is God a loser? No! Mercy and pity show power.  What will we be, what will we have turned into when we reject mercy? How much of our humanity do we lose when we lose the ability to feel pity? God teaches us that there is power in mercy and pity.

We don’t often have readings  from the prophet Ezekiel.  He is another prophet who wrote from the Babylonian exile. What is interesting about today’s reading from him is that he establishes pretty quickly that children are not to be punished for their parents’ sins. For centuries the Jews and others believed that they could continue to be punished for their ancestors’ sins — into perpetuity!  Ezekiel establishes that we are to be punished for our own sins, not for the sins of our ancestors. Because, as Ezekiel says, our own sins will be enough to answer for. It’s like cleaning out the basement – which can give you a new heart and a new spirit.  [You wanna feel fresh and clean? Get a dumpster and fill it up!]

Paul probably wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was in prison, around 62 CE.  Considering that he was in prison, it’s actually lovable and charming to read his words of encouragement.  They remind us to be encouraging. And indeed Paul finds, even in prison, encouragement from Christ. He begs the people of this little congregation to look first to Christ for love and consolation, for sharing in the Spirit, for compassion and sympathy. He is asking them to keep Christ as their focus and to love as Christ loves. He advises them to behave with humility. That way they can never be found to be wallowing in self interest, but can then focus on each other and each other’s needs.

What if everybody did that? What if our humility and our obedience to God always came first? Sounds really hard, doesn’t it? But what if we could actually do that – even just once in a while? What a difference it could make! In our lives – in the world! What great advice for a congregation! These are good ways for a congregation to live.

And at the end Paul challenges these folks with a surprise. He doesn’t tell them to just do as he says.  He challenges them to work out their own salvation, for themselves, with fear and trembling. This means truly believing that God is with us and at work in us, that we can be God’s presence in the world, that we can trust ourselves and God can trust us to work for God. Fear and trembling? Sure! But that only reminds us how real God is.

One of my favorite quotes is from the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, most of whose writing I don’t understand (he’s pretty dense), but this I love: “When I behold my possibilities, I experience that dread which is the dizziness of freedom, and my choice is made in fear and trembling.” We are all faced with choices.  And we all face the dizziness of freedom every day.  God gives us the gifts of choice with guidance – IF we are paying attention! We can work out our own salvation, letting God work in us. 

Our gospel presents an interesting problem. The chief priests and the elders of the temple came to Jesus as he was teaching and asked him “by what authority” he was teaching.  What were they looking for? A diploma? A certificate? I’ve got a certificate for my ordination, signed by my Bishop, that hung on my wall in my office. Does that give me “authority”? I doubt it. I think of the Wizard of Oz who handed out certificates and awards to the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion,  and the Tin Man before he and Dorothy left, and those meaningless, silly gifts only told them what whey were already gifted with!  

But Jesus put a question to these chief priests and elders – did John the Baptist’s baptisms come from God or did John just take it upon himself to be a baptizer? And here’s the telling thing about their inability to answer his question. All of these so-called authorities didn’t use their own discerning intelligence. They didn’t consider their own relationships with God. They didn’t consider their faith. They didn’t ask themselves what they really believed in! They just thought about what they were afraid of! Ultimately, when they said they didn’t know where John the Baptist’s baptisms came from, that was the truth – they really didn’t know. They couldn’t comprehend. They were too afraid to know. They had cast knowledge and understanding aside — out of fear.

We need to look within ourselves and ask ourselves if we are doing and living the will of God. We can talk a good game, like the son who said he would work in the field but didn’t, or we can be honest with God and say, “Sometimes I’m going to mess up, but I’m going to try.  And I will work in your vineyard, God for the good of your world.” What Paul’s little congregations were discovering is that THEY WERE THE CHURCH. They birthed us all.

And that’s my message to all of you. Never forget – YOU Are The Church! No bishop, no diocese, no priest – YOU!

Priests come and go. Bishops come and go. And it’s all very impressive, but it really all comes down to you. The church is most alive and well on the parish level. That is where you are most deeply connected to God and to each other. Whenever you begin to have doubts, just stop everything and pray to God for guidance and then turn to each other and repeat out loud – loudly – WE ARE THE CHURCH!