The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Ezek 18:1-4, 25-32; Ps 25; Phil 2:1-13; Matt 21: 23-32
One of the more perplexing — and sometimes frustrating — things about Jesus is that he taught in parables. Time and again, we open the Bible, seeking guidance or moral clarity for some situation in our lives, and instead of rules, we find ourselves reading stories: stories which have no clear moral, stories which evoke differing responses from different readers, stories which change even for us when we re-enter them and look anew. The parables of Jesus have no definitive meaning; instead, they invite us to engage with God in the making of meaning. They do not spare us the work of interpreting our own lives or the will of God. In other words, they invite us to grow up, to develop a moral framework rooted in the soil of our own lives, to take responsibility for our own interactions with one another and with the world.
Even the parables which seem to be the clearest resist easy interpretation. Today’s is a case in point: it seems to be a simple story about what it means to obey God’s will, or, rather, that it’s possible at any time in our lives to choose to stray, and to choose to return. But when I spent time with it this week, it unraveled in my hands like a moth-eaten sweater; every time I pulled on a thread, it just came away.
Part of it was hearing this parable about children (that’s what sons are) so close on the heels of Orange Shirt Day, when we are reminded that every child matters. In my mind, I kept hearing a slightly different parable: There was a nation which had many children. Some were raised by their families, honoring their own traditions; others were sent away to be raised by strangers, separated from their heritage. One group flourished; the other children struggled or became sickened in soul, or perished on the way. That parable would lead us to question, not the obedience of the children, but the conduct of the father or the nation: What are our obligations to the most vulnerable in our midst, and how have we honored them? Where is God when children are being harmed? And what can make people whole when their childhood, family, and culture have been stolen from them?
And yet, even as that story unfurled in my mind, I found myself questioning its blithe assumptions about how we were treating the first group of children. Yes, it was a far better thing to be raised in one’s home, and the intergenerational trauma perpetuated by the Residential Schools has produced a wrenching gap in income, mental health, and substance abuse between the descendants of settlers and the descendants of those they displaced. But if we are honest, at this point, neither group of children has been given a planet that’s intact or a way of life which is sustainable or a clear path forward. That’s why a large group of young adults here in Montreal mounted large demonstration for Climate Rage this week. For both groups, Ezekiel’s proverb holds true: “the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are being set on edge” — even though that is not the way of the Lord.
And so I found myself wondering about a different set of questions: questions about how we respond to a situation which is deeply broken. Why did the second son choose to walk away from the Father, and how did the first choose to return?
That question — When do we walk away? — gets to the heart of what it means to be faithful to God, to ourselves, to one another. Certainly, the times we are living through test our belief in the goodness of God and of humankind. How do we maintain hope, and keep ourselves away from despair? How can we say that God is good, when the world includes such suffering? How can we believe that God loves humankind, when we do terrible things to one another? What does it mean to claim we are made in the image of God, when we behave the ways we often do? How can the church be an instrument of God when it has too often been complicit in the oppression of the very people Christ came to save?
Theologians remind us that, in Christian teaching, human beings are not marionettes. God does not cause our actions, any more than God causes fires and floods to ravage our towns and our homes. Instead, God created the natural world with certain laws of physics and biology, and those laws continue to unfold. And God gave us freedom, allowing us to choose between paths which will promote the flourishing of all and paths which lead in a different direction. I believe that to be true, and yet, there are times when I hit a wall and rage against situations which seem unsupportable. I complain to God, which is an act of faith, but I know there are many who wipe the dust off their feet and walk away.
Fidelity does not always mean staying. We see that every day in people who walk away from churches which harm children or degrade women or deny full participation to one group of people or another. They are not walking away because they did not understand the teachings of Jesus, but because they did. They are holding onto the words of Jesus and making them the still-point of their world. Often, those people come to our doors, and we are the richer for their presence.
That work of discernment is at the heart of our life as a cathedral, trying to deepen our commitment to Jesus while walking away from the past abuses of the Church. Turning away from racism, sexism, homo- or transphobia and embrace an inclusive gospel, not to be trendy or “woke,” but because that is the Gospel. And even now, we are all being called to walk away from the economic ordering of this world, and to seek a way life which is in harmony with its flourishing.
When we walk away from what can only do harm, we become that other son, the one who began by refusing the father’s will, but who, somehow, found a way back. Every person of faith must inhabit that story. Every single one of us. That’s what grace means: that we will mess up, in ways small or terrible, and that we will still be welcomed back onto the path of love. But how do we find the way?
For the children of the residential schools, the process of healing often involves ceremony — re-enacting the ritual life of their own heritage as a way of rejoining their lives to the greater stream of life of their people. Ceremony opens the stuff of our daily lives to the life of the spirit world, allowing what is inexhaustible to renew what has been broken or spent.
We, too, have ceremony, and we enact it each Sunday. When we break the bread and share the cup, we are doing more than remembering an event in the past. We are re-entering the mighty stream of God’s grace. We are re-enacting the central truth that God is not indifferent to suffering and death and the harm we inflict on one another. God is the opposite of indifferent: God emptied himself, entered our lives, subjected his very being to the worst we can do, in order to ensure that there will be a world that damage does not define. We take that radical hope into our own bodies each week, into our very flesh, praying that we may live as if it were true, until it becomes true indeed.
Ceremonies, of course, don’t need to be formal rituals of the church. In times like these, it is particularly important to celebrate what gives us joy. Celebration is an act of resistance against the darkness. Last Sunday, a group of us went apple-picking, which is a way to delight in the bounty of the earth. Today, we celebrate our pets, the companion animals who so often bring out the best in our humanity. Celebrate often! Picnic in the park; bake extravagant cakes for any reason or none; dance silly dances; read long bedtime stories to your children. Train your gaze on what gives life, and feast your heart on gratitude.
Around 587 B.C.E., when the city of Jerusalem was surrounded by the forces of Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah, who knew that Jerusalem would be captured, nevertheless took money and bought a piece of land. He took the deed and sealed it in a jar so that it would last a long time, saying, “Houses and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (Jer 32:15) Jeremiah knew that he might never see that land, might never walk on it. But by his purchase, he invested himself in a future in which the children of Israel would once again be free.
So we, in the Eucharist, commit ourselves to God’s future. We stake our claim in a world in which no one is exploited; no one is made to suffer; in which the earth and its inhabitants are in balance; in which mistakes are not final and everyone is welcome and love has the final word. I doubt that any of us will see it fully realized in this life. But we will see it, in this life or the next. Until then, in all that we do, let us walk towards home.