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A Place for All
Matthew 21:33-43
Susan in SanPedro

"Bring A Friend Sunday" at St. Peter's ... an Episcopal congregation in southern California

THE NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST: Proper 22A October 3, 1999 – “Bring A Friend Sunday” – St. Peter’s, San Pedro The Reverend Susan Russell Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Philippians 3:14-21;

“Hear another parable”, Jesus said. So begins our gospel lesson for this 19th Sunday after Pentecost – this first Sunday in [Where-On-Earth-Did-September-Go] October – this “Bring A Friend Sunday” at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. And tell them another parable he did … a story of vineyards and tenants; of treachery and betrayal; of murder and mayhem. So before we go any further, a few words of reassurance may be in order: for anyone who brought a friend this morning, for any friends who “got brought” … and for everyone else, as well. There really IS Good News for us today … Good News about who we are and who we’re called to be. Good News about what kind of church this is!

But before we can glean what the story has for us today, we need to take a look at the context in which it was originally told. This part of Jesus’ ministry is full of parables … stories about nature or human affairs that Jesus used to convey spiritual meanings. In this particular example, the story of the treacherous tenants is the second in a series of three parables Jesus told to the chief priests and elders in the Temple in Jerusalem just days before his arrest and crucifixion. The “spiritual meaning” he was working to convey was pretty simple: he was calling the priests and elders to account for their stewardship of the “vineyard” God had given to them – their stewardship as the leaders of the chosen people of Israel.

“When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to these tenants?” Jesus asked at the end of his story.

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants,” they replied. (Indicating they STILL didn’t get the point. But they’re about to!)

Jesus replied: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” And there ends our gospel for the day. But listen to the very next verse: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard him, they realized that he was speaking about them and they wanted to arrest him.” And since we know the end of the story, we know that arrest him they did – and like the son in the parable, he was soon to be killed. Killed for the message he preached: the challenge he issued to those in charge: the inheritance he would have shared with all humanity … and they wanted to keep for themselves.

That’s really what we’re talking about here: and if you’ve ever been involved in a family fight over an inheritance you know how ugly it can be. But in this case the fight isn’t over silver or china; stocks, bonds or real estate … it’s over the legacy of God’s love and the promise of abundant life that is offered to all.

It’s about who’s in and who’s out: and who gets to DECIDE who’s in and who’s out. Jesus’ message was loud and clear: THAT’S GOD’ S JOB! And so they killed him. Like the treacherous tenants who had taken over the vineyard and forgotten who owned it in the first place, the leaders of the religious institution had taken over the Covenant that God made with creation and used it for their own power and gain. Not a pretty story, is it?

But an all too human one. The irony is that the very church founded on the teachings of the One murdered because he dared to preach the Good News of God’s inclusive love has sometimes fallen into the same trap: using its power and authority to protect its power and authority -- forgetting that its task is to nurture the vineyard … the garden … the creation … as God’s stewards.

A wise woman once wrote: “As God’s people in the world, we are required to go through life taking back one inch of the planet at a time until the Garden of Eden grows green again.”* That’s the work Jesus was calling the chief priests and elders back to as he taught in the Temple. That’s the work he calls us to today – the work of BEING the church; of gathering in.

There’s a great song … it’s called “Gather Us In” … and it illustrates far better than I could ever do the vision of the vineyard that Jesus offers us … the kingdom we’re called to participate with God in creating.

Here in this place, new light is shining Now is the darkness vanished away See in this space our fears and our dreamings Brought here to you in the light of this day. Gather us in the lost and forsaken Gather us in the blind and the lame Call to us now, and we shall awaken, We shall arise at the sound of our name.

We are the young, our lives are a myst’ry, We are the old who yearn for your face. We have been sung throughout all of hist’ry Called to be light to the whole human race. Gather us in the rich and the haughty Gather us in the proud and the strong; Give us a heart so meek and so lowly, Give us the courage to enter the song.

Young and old, weak and strong: the cradle Episcopalians and the never-been-here befores – gathered in together: in a place that is “open to all”, as our vision statement says. That’s the vision of the Church as the Body of Christ that makes people want to “bring a friend” to St. Peter’s to see what’s going on here – that’s who we are when we live up to God’s call.

We cannot do that if we find our place in the pew or choir stall … or pulpit … and then lock the door behind us. That’s the kind of attitude that generated the bumper stickers that were so prevalent in Oregon a few years ago during the mass exodus of Californians northward: “Welcome to Oregon. Now Go Home.” We’ve gotten ours: now YOU stay out. Like the greedy tenants who hoarded the fruits of the vineyard for themselves, if we hoard the abundant fruits of God’s blessings and love … if we start to think they belong to us rather than to God … then Jesus’ parable echoes down through the ages: “Not your job” he says. Think again. You be the church: leave the job of being God to God.

So how do we go about the work of being that kind of church? Through word and sacraments. Through outreach and education. Through days like “Bring a Friend to Church” Sunday … and all the other days that make up our weeks and months and years lived together as a community of faith. By taking back the planet one inch at a time … one person at a time. And by making sure that no one is excluded from the blessings we have received from being part of this household of God.

And the best illustration I can think of is a favorite story of mine by Robert Fulham. It goes like this:

Giants, Wizards and Dwarfs was the game to play.

Being left in charge of about 80 children 7-10 years old while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the parish hall and explained the game. It’s a large scale version of Rock, Paper and Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision making. But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on or who won.

Organizing a roomful of grade-schoolers into two teams, explaining the rudiments of the game, achieving consensus on group identity – all this was no mean accomplishment, but we did it with a right good will and were ready to go.

The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass. I yelled out, “You have to decide now which are you: a GIANT, a WIZARD or a DWARF!” While the groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pant leg. A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small concerned voice, “Where do the Mermaids stand?”

Where do the Mermaids stand?

A long pause. A very long pause. “Where do the Mermaids stand?” I say. “Yes. You see, I am a Mermaid.” “There are no such things as Mermaids.” “Oh yes there is, I am one!”

She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard or a Dwarf. She knew her category – Mermaid – and was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where a loser would stand. She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things, without giving up dignity or identity. She took it for granted that there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where.

Well, where DO the Mermaids stand? All the Mermaids – all those who are different, who do not fit the norm, and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes? Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation or a kingdom on it.

What was my answer at the moment? Every once in awhile I say the right thing. “The Mermaid stands right here, by the King of the Sea!” So we stood there, hand in hand, while the Wizards and Dwarfs and Giants rolled by in wild disarray.

It is not true, by the way, that Mermaids do not exist. I know at least one personally. I have held her hand.

That’s the Good News for us today at St. Peter’s in San Pedro: this is a church where there is a place for the Mermaids to stand. This is a church where “open to all” means open to ALL: where we come to fed by word and sacrament and then out to be the church in the world.

Here we will take the wine and the water Here we will take the bread of new birth. Here you shall call your sons and your daughters Call us anew to be salt for the earth. Give us to drink the wine of compassion Give us to eat the bread that is you; Nourish us well and teach us to fashion Lives that are holy and hearts that are true.

Not in the dark of buildings confining Not in some heaven light years away But here in this place the new light is shining Now is the kingdom, now is the day. Gather us in and hold us forever Gather us in and make us your own Gather us in all peoples together Fire of love in our flesh and our bone.

Alleluia. Amen.