Saturday, October 1, 2011

This is who we are (October 2 2011)

Homily:  Yr A P27, October 2 2011, St. Albans
Readings:  Ex 20:1-4,7-9,12-20; Ps 19; Phil 3:4b-14; Mt 21:33-46

“This is who we are”

I love Psalm 19, the psalm that we read together today.

“The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork;
One day tells its tale to another and one night imparts knowledge to another.”

I get that.  I’ve experienced the glory of God in creation.  I’ve looked up at the stars on a clear, dark night, and felt awe and wonder.  I’ve had those “wow” moments when I watched the sunset, or the wind blowing through the trees, and I’ve said to myself that there must be a God.

“Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard,
their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world.”

I get the first half of Psalm 19.

But I don’t get the second half.  The first half is an ode to creation, to the glory of God expressed and revealed through creation.

The second half is an ode to the law.

“The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul.”
“It rejoices the heart, it gives light to the eyes.”
“It is more to be desired than gold, much more than fine gold,
sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb.”

What’s that all about?

Think about it.  Our governments pass laws all the time.  When was the last time that you heard a poem or a love song being sung about a piece of legislation passed by the Canadian government?

Where does this psalmist’s love affair with the law come from?

In our first reading today from Exodus we heard what are usually called the Ten Commandments, or the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. We usually think of these words as a moral code, as a set of laws given to the people of Israel by God to govern their behaviour.   That’s why we tend to call them Commandments”, though the Hebrew text actually calls them the “Ten Words” of God.  And certainly these words can and do serve as the basis for moral and legal codes.  Not only did they serve as the basis for the legal code of ancient Israel, but they still inform our justice system in Canada today.

But these words are not simply a legal code.

This fall I took my son Jonathan to Queen’s for the start of his university education, and in the process, I took a bit of a stroll down memory lane, remembering when I first went to Queen’s some 30 years ago.  And one memory in particular struck me.  I remember one evening as 17 year old, walking along the shores of Lake Ontario, having just left family and friends behind in Ottawa, in the process of making new friends, and starting on a new path in life.  And I distinctly remember thinking “I can be anybody I want to be”.  I was no longer defined by my past, I no longer had to live up to the expectations of my parents or my high school or my home town.  Nobody even knew my back story anymore, except what I wanted to tell them.  It was a moment of tremendous freedom.

The people of Israel were at that sort of a crossroads in today’s reading.  They had been for generations slaves in Egypts.  That was who they had been, that had been their identity, that’s what had defined them.  But that past was gone.  They had been brought out of slavery in Egypt.  They had crossed the Red Sea.  The waters had closed behind them and there was no going back.  They were no longer slaves, they were free, but who were they to be?  If we’re no longer captive to our past, what is to be our future?

And God speaks.  Just as God spoke in the beginning to create the heavens and the earth, in today’s text, God speaks in the wilderness of Sinai to create a people.  He offers the people of Israel a covenant, a deal, an agreement between God and Israel which would establish a new relationship between God and the people.  And in its simplest terms, the new relationship on offer boils down to this:  “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

But what does it mean to be God’s people?  In order for the people to understand, something more had to be expressed.  And so what God spoke were the “Ten Words” that we heard this morning. 

Then God spoke all these words:  “I am the Lord your God, the one who brought you out of slavery in Egypt.”  And this is who you are, this what it means for you to be my people.  You are a people who shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself idols.  You shall not make wrongful use of my name, you shall remember the sabbath and keep it holy.  You shall honour your parents, and you shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness against your neighbour nor covet anything that is your neighbour’s.

These words of God certainly can be used and have been used to generate moral and legal codes, nothing wrong with that.  But their primary function is not ethical.  The primary function of the ten commandments is to answer the question of identity.  The question is who are we as a people, as a community?  And the answer?  We are God’s people, and this is how we express that in our lives.  We are a community of commitment to God and compassion to our neighbour.  That is who we are, that is who we are called to be, that is what we intend to be, that is what it means to be the people of God.

This is God’s proposal:  I will be your God and you will be my people.  The Ten Commandments are all about that relationship, and our response to the gift of that relationship.  Yes, we respond, you will be our God, and we will live into that by having no other gods, by not making idols, by not using your name wrongfully and by remembering the sabbath.  Yes, we respond, we will be your people, and we will live into that by honouring our parents, and by not murdering, committing adultery, stealing, lying or coveting.  And in so doing, we will be what you called us to be, a community that is a blessing to all peoples and a light to the world.

The covenant with God and the Torah which gave it expression established Israel as the people of God and gave them the gift of identity and purpose in their communal life.  It completed that transformation from being slaves in Egypt to being a new community living in freedom as the people of God, living in relationship with God.  And that’s why it was such a delight, that’s why the psalmist is able to sing in today’s psalm that the law of the Lord is more to be desired than fine gold, and sweeter far than honey.  It is a love song.

But it’s easy to forget who we are.  Sometimes we lose sight of our identity as the people of God, sometimes we forget that our purpose is to love God and to love our neighbour.  And when that happens, sometimes all we have left is the legal code.  I think that’s at least part of what Paul’s getting at in today’s reading from Philippians.

And how about today’s gospel, Jesus parable of the landowner who planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants?  It seems to me that the fundamental problem with the tenants in the parable that we heard today is that they’ve forgotten who they are.

The image of the vineyard and the one who planted it is used throughout the Old Testament as an image of the relationship between God and his people.  Hear for example this song from the book of Isaiah:

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.  My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines.”

Isaiah’s image of the vineyard is set as a love song.  It is the image of a people in love with their God.

But in Jesus parable they’ve forgotten that this is a love song.  The relationship between tenant and landowner has been reduced to an economic arrangement, and a power struggle and competing interests.  The fundamental problem, underlying the greed and the beatings and the murder, is that the tenants have forgotten who they are.  They are the ones who are loved by the landowner and are to love the landowner in return.

You’ll notice that the landowner in Jesus parable hasn’t forgotten.  That landowner is so steadfast in his love for the tenants that he seems to have lost his senses.  Sending a second contingent of slaves after the first had been beaten doesn’t seem all that sensible to me.  And then sending his son after that seems to be nothing more than craziness on the landowner’s part.

But is that how far God is willing to go to remind us of who we are, to recall us to who we are.  Even when we seem to have lost our sense of identity, even when we’ve lost track of the meaning and purpose of our lives, even when we rebel and cause harm, God is willing to come to us and remind us of who we are and what we are for.

You are my precious vineyard.  You are my beloved, my chosen people, the ones that I have called to live lives of compassion, to be a blessing to others and to be a light to the world.

I will be your God, and you will be my people.


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