Jesus lived in a time of cruelty and death that we can scarcely imagine. The more I learn, the more I am convinced of this, and the more I’m convinced that our telling of Jesus’ story has the quality of a fossil encased in amber: it is something beautiful, to be sure, but not alive. It’s amazing to see an ancient creature as it appeared when it was alive, but we will never live long enough to see it fly. Sometimes I wonder what the crucifixion means to people like us, people who have never had to walk to the gates of their city with dozens of men dying on crosses, soldiers standing with sharp spears, and a constant hunger gnawing at your belly. We are so far removed from that society—a society in which slavery was a matter of course. Often people would sell themselves or members of their family to pay a debt, which lends all these parables of debt that we’ve been hearing a chilling and terrifying weight. We, we ordinary people, get to vote. We take that right so much for granted that a huge amount of countrymen don’t even exercise that right—a right afforded, historically, only to the very wealthiest and most powerful people. Even in Jesus’ time, democracy was more a philosopher’s dream than a reality of any kind. More common was the rule of the emperor, and the emperor’s armies.
We don’t live in that society, but we hear little trickles. We hear of the sex trade, hidden from us in this city, but thriving on this soil. Apparently, in this world today, there are more slaves than there ever have been in any year past. We hear stories of children in Calcutta and Thailand sold for the pleasure of others, the women cloistered in massage parlors. We hear, also, of the rumor of ICE raids and the severing of families from one another. We hear the stories of child soldiers, drugged and brainwashed into oblivion. Nobel Peace Prize winners turn and excuse genocide. It is tempting for us to regard our age as superior to what has come before, and I know that I wouldn’t want to live in any other time but this. But we have worked for tens of thousands of years, we human beings, to get this far, and doesn’t it seem that despite all our power, despite all that we know, despite all that we have done to make life better and more equal, fairer, and more decent, that we also seem to be losing our grip? Doesn’t it seem that all the bad old days are coming in new ways?
Every day is an assault on human decency. One day we hear our government speaking about American citizens in Puerto Rico as if they are lazy. They suffer, the people in the Virgin Islands suffer, and suddenly, a lunatic opens fire on a concert and over fifty people are dead. The legislators who have voted to prevent the CDC from investigating mass shootings in order to form rational, fact based recommendations on how to prevent such horror, tweet about their thoughts and prayers. It makes one sick—both that such awful things keep happening, and the knowledge that the glory of media coverage makes it certain it will all get worse, and repulsive response of hypocrites who think their prayers will absolve them from action.
So the past is not so different from now. Our improvements in technology and self-governance amplify who we are. But we are still human beings. We are still mortals. We are still the same kind of people to whom Isaiah preached, when he said, “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” Thoughts and prayers, we can say all day, but pass laws and protections, never. Merely the idea of researching gun violence in our particular nation and culture is off the table. Not just researching—the idea of researching.
So what do we have to offer as hope? Paul today writes to us from jail, an old man now, with lots to think about, a long life filled with horrible things and joyous things. He is surrounded by con artists and preachers looking to get rich off the name of Christ. He will probably face the death penalty sometime in the future, and he knows the churches he planted will be in the hands of weak and furtive human beings. He could be afraid. He could be worried that all he worked to build might come tumbling down. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” Everything, everything is loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. We hear this passage in a highly sanitized and stately version of English, but it is really singing with passion, such passion that word for rubbish here is actually a word that I can’t say in this pulpit. In all of this, Paul leads us to the place that God is leading us—that we, in times that strip away the veneer of nobility from our human race, reach out to grasp what really does make us good—God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.
It would be tempting for us to take this passage as an excuse to hide. We could say that the world is passing away, I’m headed off to Zion—let’s let it all burn. And anyway, we don’t need Paul to tell us the world is a pile of —— We can see it for ourselves. But I think this can’t be what Paul wants. I can’t believe that’s what God wants—otherwise even the parable Jesus told us today makes no sense. Rather, we are the people who receive the vineyard, not for ourselves, but for the fruits we bear in tending it.
In the dark, in the confusion, in our cries to God, God reaches out to us in love. Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained the resurrection of the dead or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Christ has made you his; Christ loves you, and Christ’s love is stronger than death. Christ’s love persists in our lives—strip away the veneer of nobility, the fancy clothes of civilization and evolution, and even we scared animals, ravaging and scourging one another, even we can know something that heightens our lives, a force that is beyond the world but yet everywhere, a love that we cannot understand but understands us completely. I press on, says Paul. I press on in chains, betrayed, afflicted, beaten. I press on because when I was a murderer and a bringer of terror, Christ loved me. I press on because the love I know is greater than anything I can do or have left undone.
St. Augustine wrote to God, “But what do I love, in loving you? It’s not the beauty of the material things, or any attractiveness of this time-bound world, not the pale gleam of the light, this light here which is so friendly to these physical eyes of mine; and not the sweet melodies of every sort, and not the agreeable aromas of flowers and perfumes and spices, and not the manna or honey on the tongue, and not a body welcome in a physical embrace. I don’t love these things in loving my God, but I do love a certain light, and a certain voice, and certain fragrance, and a certain food, and certain embrace in loving my God: this is the light, the voice, the fragrance, the food, the embrace of the person I am within, where something that space does not contain radiates, and something sounds that time doesn’t snatch away, and something has a flavor that gluttony doesn’t diminish, and something clings that the full indulgence of desire doesn’t sunder. This is what I love when loving my God.”
Press on. Press on! Hope does not disappoint us. God’s love will not fail. This past week, I waited around in the garden for people to show up with their pets so I could bless them and their pets. One little girl from Lucy’s preschool came with her dog and her parents. We sat on the bench and got ready to read a children’s story about St. Francis of Assisi. She looked behind by back and said, “Look at that!” We all turned and we saw a monarch butterfly. I had thought I would never see one again, but there it was, resplendent and full. Everyone in the garden was enraptured and we watched it fly.
St. Augustine said, “I told all those beings who stand around outside my body’s gates, its senses, ‘Tell me about my God. You aren’t him, but tell me something about him.’ And they declared with a shout, ‘He made us!’ My question was the act of focusing on them, and their response was their beauty.” Beauty is the only response to this world. And that’s exactly how God’s love responds—in the beauty of redeeming us with love. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack