Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 † Psalm 19 † Philippians 3:4b-14 † Matthew 21:33-46
Am I the only one who thinks that this landowner is a little naïve?
I mean, what did you really think they would do with the son, given what they had done in the past with the landowner’s other representatives? Killed one. Stoned another. Did the same to the next group. Past performance may not be an indicator of future success, but it does provide some meaningful information. Right?
That’s what I was thinking about this week as we watched another act of “pure evil,” as our president put it, another heartbreaking tragedy, unfold in Las Vegas. By now we know the drill so well. There is nothing new under the sun. This is perhaps the most devastating aspect of it for those of us disconnected from the real life toll—it seems beyond our control, so rooted and rutted that we no longer expect anything to change. We feel helpless. It is such a part of the landscape—as established as Mt. Rainier, as rooted as an ancient Cedar.
Everybody has their role to play. There are those who will predictably resist—"now is not the time to debate gun laws,” comes the refrain; “it’s a time to come together.” Sure, with just about any other kind of tragedy, the response is different. This one seems to have its own rules.
The same is true on the other side, though, with those who will predictably call out for a regulatory response. There is good reason, I suspect, why the NRA and others see such a slippery slope when so many of our solutions address such a relatively small part of the problem. Of course, mass shootings are terrifying, jolting, devastating, and they are uniquely American in their numbing regularity. And relatively is, well, a relative term. Whenever we talk about human life, we are talking, of course, about an absolute, about a thing of unnamable and irreplaceable value, at least to someone.
But if we want to talk about the human toll, there are better places to start than the four primary areas—terrorism, mass shootings, police officers killed in the line of duty, and police shootings of civilians—that, for the relatively small part of the problem they are, tend to take all the oxygen of our public discourse. We know this too, of course. According to the news and data sight FiveThirtyEight.com, nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, and 85% of those victims are male. Another third of all gun deaths—about 12,000 of the 33,000 irreplaceable human lives—are homicides, and two-thirds of those are black.[i]
To name these complexities, though, to introduce these relativities, is to acknowledge that solutions are not quite as simple or easy as we might like to imagine. The challenge is not a technical one that can be fixed with a few well-written laws, even though that surely would do something. There’s hard work involved. Deep listening is essential. We have to look inward if we hope to act with effect outwardly, if we want to be anything more than a victim.
Which brings us back to that naïve landowner who continues to escalate his diplomacy toward these awful tenants. Why would he ever imagine that sending the unarmed son would somehow turn the tide toward understanding and self-reflection, and somehow bring about a meaningful solution to the problem? It is almost the definition of crazy!
Or is it?
The thing is, these things take time. We are frustratingly slow to change as a people, as Moses knew well. And there is a cycle to these things. FiveThirtyEight gave some perspective to the evolving views on the NFL protests by looking to history. Back in 1966, the year I was born, Gallup asked Americans about their view of Martin Luther King, Jr. This was well into the Civil Rights movement, several years after King, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, told 250,000 marchers that he had a dream. So here’s a question for you: What percentage of the population would you guess at that point would have had a negative view of the Civil Rights icon?
According to the 1966 Gallup survey, 63% of Americans disapproved not just of what King was doing, but of him specifically as a leader, as a human being. When Gallup asked the same question again in 2011, only 4% of Americans rated King negatively.[ii]
It takes the patience of Job sometimes to keep at it to bring about change. Or perhaps, the patience of Paul, who keeps his eyes on the prize, and is fully aware of the cost, even when he is inclined to lean toward pedigree or prestige or whatever else the current culture tells him is the real thing. Or perhaps it takes the patience, and the commitment of the landowner, who is maybe not as naïve as we might first think. Perhaps this landowner has counted the cost, as troublesome as that seems. And perhaps faith is a better word—that ability to keep going, to keep following that particular way, to stick to the map, to keep the commandments, to give ourselves to the long work of trust that God is in this thing, precisely in the way God always has been—in the slow work of changing hearts. In the slow work that begins with us as we come to realize that it takes everything our whole heart, our whole life, all our strength.
I press on to make it my own, because Christ has made me his own.
It feels like such a fragile thing, this transformation that we long for in our society, and, in those quiet moments of honesty, in ourselves. And we know the two are so deeply connected.
The church leaders could not bear to look inward, when Jesus’ words challenged them, when his life spoke of true religion as that which gives its life for the world. And so we have seen from them in this cycle of encounters, an escalation of resistance and political calculation when all that was needed was a genuine and humble heart.
We are in another time when our institutions are no longer serving those who hunger for God. And once again, Jesus’ challenge comes, now to us. And I see in so many of you that quiet service that shows up time and again. I see in you the goodness and love that colors every action, that smooths over every rough encounter, that embraces every resistant reaction. I see in you the unsettling questions you continue to face with courage and faith.
And I see in you and me the fear that change and uncertainty always brings.
So we press on to make it our own, because Christ has made us his own. We hold fast to what we have attained. But we must also let go of what matters little if we hope to be a part of this new thing that God is doing. And make no mistake, God will do God’s new thing. Do you not perceive it? The stars declare it, the psalmist knows. Through the silence of space, their soundless music sings.
Trust God’s slow work, and give yourself to it fully, completely, lovingly.
[i] For this analysis, and other supporting statistics and links, see FiveThirtyEight.com’s “Gun Deaths In America.” Retrieved October 6, 2017 from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/gun-deaths/?ex_cid=SigDig.
[ii] “The NFL Protests May Be Unpopular Now, But That Doesn’t Mean They’ll End That Way.” Retrieved October 6, 2017 from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-nfl-protests-may-be-unpopular-now-but-that-doesnt-mean-theyll-end-that-way/.
St. Andrew Sermons