The Stranger God:  Las Vegas and a Garden

A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

October 8, 2017

Matthew 21: 33-46

Last Sunday we explored the concept of hospitality, its benefits to the people who practice it, and its image in the sacramental life of the church.  In the story of the Good Samaritan, the wounded Jew was healed by a stranger’s hospitality.  In the story of Abraham and the three angels, the wounded patriarch was healed by the strangers who accepted his hospitality. We recognize from both stories the connection between healing and avoiding the hostility that is easily triggered when we face the unknown.  The ordinary circumstances and conditions of life are often traumatic, and healing enables us to turn our attention away from our own problems and assist others in need.  It makes good sense for us to be guided in our spiritual practice, not so much by the desire to see God, as by the desire to have God want to see us. Simply put, we should aim to please God by what we say and do.

Let’s think about this for a moment. It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg, isn’t it?  How can we please God if we don’t know God?  And how can we know God, if we can’t see God? Perhaps it suffices, for now, to say that God is a stranger to this world, and we know – from two very different stories – how to behave toward strangers.

I hope you will grant the usefulness of this conceit, that indeed God is a stranger to this world.  Who could argue otherwise, in the aftermath of the shooting one person meticulously planned and carried out last week in Las Vegas.  In a spate of seconds, 58 concert goers were killed and another 350 injured from bullet wounds, not to mention the 150 persons injured in the flight to escape the carnage.

It is not enough to view this event – and those that it resembles – as the expression of a single individual’s derangement; nihilism weaves through all of society and the culture of our 21st-century flat world.  The perpetuation of random acts of violence to instill terror foreshadows oblivion; indentured to technology, reduced to materialism, and confined by profit motives, we seem powerless to resist as our thoughts and feelings devolve into rage, suffering, and numbness.  We are being traumatized, and a people who are traumatized largely lose the capacity for trust and love.

In no small way, we who identify with the church and other spiritual traditions are especially called upon to tell the stories passed down to us across the centuries, for with these stories we can hope to counter nihilism. The story we heard today, told first by Isaiah and retold by Jesus, gives us the helpful image of the vineyard.  The stranger God puts his vineyard on a fertile hill; he digs it, clears it of stones, and plants it with choice vines; he builds a watchtower at its center, and hews out a wine vat in it. Then he departs.

The vineyard is a gift, fashioned with love, for the pleasure of the beloved, yet somehow the beloved –the people of God –  becomes disorientated; the vineyard, which God expected to yield grapes, instead yields wild grapes. The people didn’t do the necessary pruning and hoeing; therefore, sweet fruit, pleasing to the tongue, turned sour and bitter from neglect.  When God saw that the vineyard was worthless, he removed the hedge, wall, and watchtower built to protect it, and its vines were trampled by animals, and it was made a wasteland, “neither pruned nor cultivated,” but overgrown, with “briars and thorns.”

Here we are shown an example of the interconnectedness of what we say and do in seemingly unrelated areas of our lives. How was it that God discovered that the vineyard had been neglected?    Isaiah says, “He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” Humanity’s mistreatment of one another is mirrored in its mistreatment of earth’s land and resources.

Jesus makes this point in his retelling of Isaias’s parable.  At harvest time, servants of the Landlord God are sent to the vineyard for his share of wine, but the vineyard’s tenants beat and kill the servants. After this happens a second time, God sends his Son, and he too is killed.  The murder of the servants represents the killing of the Jewish prophets and the murder of the Son certainly represents the death of Jesus. Jesus and the Prophets told truth to power. Humanity’s rejection of the Son of God fulfills the failure of all previous agreements – legal and otherwise – between God and humanity, lover and beloved.  Yet we are not left without hope; the death of Jesus becomes the cornerstone of a new inheritance.

The vineyard is much like the Garden pictured as a paradise in the story of Eden; after the creation, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). This verse is possibly the clearest statement a person could ask for about the meaning of life.  Humankind was made to work and keep the soil of the land – and of its heart -and the ground of divinity.

There are several references in Genesis to “work” and “keep.”  The soil is “worked” i.e. “tilled” to yield crops (Gen 2:6). “Keep” means, first, “to take care of” (Gen 2:6), and second, “to secure” or “guard.”  In contemporary parlance, “sustainability” is a Biblical imperative:  we are put in the Garden – which represents the earth –  to till the soil as well as take care of the soil.

However, the Garden is more than good dirt, for God planted it with trees, “pleasing to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9), and caused a river to irrigate the Garden.  Eden is a name meaning “pleasure,” or “delight,” from which we get our notion of “paradise.”  The Garden of Eden is like “an enclosed park,” in which we were placed to cultivate luxuriant growth, rich abundance, and lushness.  There are even precious metals and stones in the ground, for us to enjoy (Gen 2:11-12).

In this mix of agricultural detail and allegory, God is the landowner, humanity is the tenants, and the fate of the tenants is decided by their failure to please the landlord. What is the root of the problem?  One commentator suggests that it lies in not understanding the difference between management and ownership. Humanity’s rebellion against its lover is a claim to own what has been entrusted to it for safekeeping (Lec Comm). The consequences of rebellion have been eviction from the Garden and destruction of the Vineyard.  The question for today is, where are the people who will forgo claims to ownership and accept responsibility for stewardship?

“The image of “fruit” often is used in the Gospel “to describe the life God requires of his people,” while the lack of fruit symbolizes their failure to deliver” (Beale). The event in Las Vegas is the most recent act of terrorism to have hit home, and our collective responses to terrorism and its destruction of trust and love have been woefully inadequate.  We need to change our ways; we need to say and do things differently, so the God who looks for justice and righteousness, doesn’t see bloodshed and hear cries of distress; and the God who comes expecting grapes is pleased by their sweetness, and its wine.

And all the people said, Amen.


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