In the Vineyard with St. Francis

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Yikes! Another tough parable told by Jesus to confront the  religious leaders of his day. This time, the setting for the story is a vineyard. Now those listening would surely have gotten his meaning. They would have known very well the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Let me sing of my beloved; it is a love song about a vineyard.” The vineyard for both Isaiah and Jesus is God’s people. And Jesus tells this story to indict the chief priests and elders for mistreating and the people and abusing God’s messengers and even God’s son. 

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But today, as we celebrate St. Francis, patron saint of animals and ecology, I am envisioning the vineyard as bigger than one group of people – or even of just people. I see the vineyard as all of God’s good creation. I can easily imagine God, resting on the seventh day of creation and crooning, “Let me sing of my beloved; it is a love song about a vineyard.”

Has anyone seen the TV series The Good Place? It’s a comedy about what happens after you dieI’m going to try not to give the whole story away, except for two things. First is the premise that when we die, we go either to the Good Place or the Bad Place. Getting to the Good Place all depends on how many good deeds you’ve done in your lifetime. Every good deed gets you points. If you rack up enough points, when you die, you’ll be greeted by the “Welcome! Everything Is Fine” sign and then by Ted Danson, who will introduce you to the delights of the Good Place. 

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Of course, as Lutherans we’re super big on salvation by grace alone. No amount of good deed-doing is going to get you into heaven. But The Good Place isn’t a religious show. There’s no Supreme Being. The Good Place is never called Heaven; the Bad Place isn’t called Hell. It’s more about ethics: what does it take to be a moral person, to do the right thing in every circumstance? So in the name of comedy, I think it’s OK to suspend our theological criticism.

The second thing I’ll share with you, which is a bit of a spoiler, but it’s going to help me make my point. After a time, some of the characters begin to question the ethics of the point system.  They discover that very few people actually make it into the Good Place. As they tell the Judge, who’s in charge of running the place:

“These days, just buying a tomato at the grocery store means you’re unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, and contributing to global warming. Humans think they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making. Life has become so complicated that it has essentially rendered the point system meaningless, and we simply don’t have the time to do the research and buy another tomato even if we wanted to.”

Sounds hopeless, doesn’t it? Although it has a familiar ring to it. It sounds like the words from an older Order of Confession: “we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” 

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And that’s my point. The reason that most of us find it so difficult to know what to do about climate change or any aspect of our environmental crisis is just this: we can’t free ourselves. Buying an environmentally-correct tomato is virtually impossible. The choices we make – and sometimes forced to make – are complicated. When it comes to environmental issues, most people just throw up their hands. The big issues, like climate change, are too big. What can I do to make a difference? Even our attempts at little things, like trying to cut down on plastic bags, are thwarted by circumstances beyond our control, as when our canvas grocery bags were banned in the first months of the pandemic . As Kermit the Frog knew, it’s not easy being green. No wonder so many don’t even try.

But difficulty is no reason to give up. In the Confession, being in bondage to sin isn’t the end of the story. It’s just Part One: recognition of our situation. Part Two is turning to God for help. 

When it comes to caring for our vineyard we have not done a good job. Although scripture is very clear on the goodness of all creation, unfortunately we have allowed other voices to inform our beliefs, policies, and actions. One branch of Christianity is so focused on the Second Coming of Christ that its adherents feel no responsibility for creation care. This view is embodied perhaps most famously in Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who said, “We don’t have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand.” That kind of thinking lives on today. Whenever we hear predictions of the Rapture (remember the “Left Behind” books?), Armageddon and the Antichrist, you know you won’t hear anything about creation care. 

And there are other forces at play. We are inheritors of the Enlightenment of the 18th century, which is still largely in operation today. There were many good aspects of the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, which sought to illuminate human intellect and culture after the “dark” Middle Ages. Concepts such as reason, liberty and the scientific method were elevated. Enlightenment philosophy was influential in ushering in the French and American revolutions and constitutions (shout out to Alexander Hamilton!).

However, one aspect of Enlightenment philosophy has not been helpful. That is its dualism and hierarchy, which sees a separation between us and our environment and claims that as human beings are in charge of the environment, we have the right to shape, control and use nature for our own purposes. As Francis Bacon wrote, “Let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.” That dualism included the relationship between men and women. Bacon likened nature to a wild and untamed woman who must be tamed by man and become obedient.

That philosophy, which seeped into our theology, might sound antiquated, but it also survives to this day. Conservative Christian Ann Coulter said in her book, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” Appalling, yes. But the seeds were sown in the Enlightenment. Thankfully, many evangelical Christians have been joining the ranks of those who care for creation, but this theology has been hard to weed out.

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Last month Bill McKibben, co-founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, was the speaker led a Zoom webinar at PLTS (you can listen to it here). McKibben isnt a theologian or biblical scholar; he’s an environmentalist and activist. But he was a Sunday school teacher in the Methodist church (which is no small thing!).

Listening to him, at least in the beginning, I felt the despair I always feel when confronted with the vast scope of destruction and further threats to our environment. He called it “an enormous challenge to our Old Testament sense of sacredness of God’s creation, the Genesis charge to safeguard that; and a fundamental challenge to our gospel sense that we are called to love our neighbors.” Care for the vineyard! 

Thankfully he didn’t just give a litany of our sins. He didn’t make any rosy promises about our chances of success, but he did offer examples of people and groups on the front lines, doing the good work. He described how much the movement has grown in 10 years since 350.org was formed. He lifted up Greta Thunberg, but said there are 10,000 Greta Thunberg’s and a million followers. “That’s what the Holy Spirit looks like in our age – a collection of 14-year-olds and 16-year-olds.”

It was the Q&A time that brought out the questions of what individual congregations and denominations can do. One thing we can really be excited about is that PLTS has just instituted a Climate Justice & Faith Concentration into its curriculum. Its mission statement: “to empower leaders to cultivate moral, spiritual, and practical power for the work of climate justice in communities of faith.”

One questioner asked about resources for individuals and congregations just getting  started on learning about this issue. He recommended videos done by Dr. Katherine Hayhoedirector of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She is also an evangelical Christian. I haven’t watched any of these yet, but I’m encouraged to know there’s been movement within that religious world

More advice from McKibben was for congregations to become part of movements, not to try to go it alone. He noted that collaboration with faith communities of all kinds has grown in the past ten years; they have been and can be a potent, powerful force. People  coming together in solidarity is crucial, he said, and churches are specialists at this.

Don’t try to repeat the work of scientists; it’s already out there. We need people who follow Jesus talking in those terms, acting in those terms. He encouraged pastors to be constantly, constantly talking about this.  

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Another great resource is our Lutheran Office of Public Policy, an interdependent advocacy ministry of the ELCA, and the three California synods. Regina Banks is the director. I met her at a synod gathering and I am sure that she’d be glad to speak with us any time about the work she is doing on our behalf. 

Another speaker at PLTS several years ago was George (Tink) Tinker, Professor Emeritus of American Indian Cultures at Iliff School of Theology. He is the son of a Lutheran mother and an Osage father and is an inspiring resource for thinking about creation in a way that’s much more aligned with the wisdom of indigenous people – and working at making that the philosophy that informs our political decisions, governmental polices, as well as our individual practices. 

Way back in the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen coined the word “veriditas” and used it as a guiding theme in her writings, poetry, and music. And it’s an excellent word for us on our evolution from domination of the land to respect for it. Veriditas has been variously translated as freshness, vitality, fruitfulness, creative power of life, growth. But my favorite word for it is “greening” from its joining of two Latin words: green and truth. This “greening” runs through our being, As a metaphor for our spiritual and physical health, it’s what enlivens us and enables us to make wise choices as tenders of the vineyard.  

Yes, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Bill McKibben called this a scary time. I don’t think that’s news to any of us. But he also called it a moment of great privilege. What we do matters. we should do all we can; the rest of the world may meet us half way. So we confess our sin, we ask for God’s help, and go on in the power of God’s Spirit. As St. Francis taught us: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.” And St. Hildegard:

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“O most honored Greening Force,
You who roots in the Sun;
You who lights up, in shining serenity, within a wheel
that earthly excellence fails to comprehend.
You are enfolded
in the weaving of divine mysteries.”

This is the greening spirit that will enable us to care for God’s – and our – beloved vineyard.

Amen 

MATTHEW 21: 33-46 
Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, installed a winepress and erected a tower. Then this owner leased it out to tenant farmers and went on a journey. When vintage time arrived, the owner sent servants to the tenants to divide the shares of the grapes. The tenants responded by seizing the servants. They beat one, killed another and stoned a third. A second time the owner sent even more servants than before, but they treated them the same way. Finally, the owner sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ T

“When the vine growers saw the son, they said to one another, ‘Here’s the one who stands in the way of our having everything. With a single act of murder we could seize the inheritance.’ With that, they grabbed and killed the son outside the vineyard. What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do to those tenants?” They replied, “The owner will bring that wicked crowd to a horrible death and lease the vineyard out to others, who will see to it that there are grapes for the proprietor at vintage time.” 

Jesus said to them, “Did you ever read in the scriptures, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; it was our God’s doing and we find it marvelous to behold?’ That’s why I tell you that the realm of God will be taken from you and given to those who will bear its fruit. Those who fall on this stone will be dashed to pieces, and those on whom it falls will be smashed.” 

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard this parable, they realized that Jesus was speaking about them. Although they sought to arrest him, they feared the crowds, who regarded Jesus as a prophet. 

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smstrouse

I've been the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Burlingame, CA since February, 2020. I am a “proud member of the religious left” and an unapologetic progressive Christian. While I have been criticized by some as no longer being Christian and as a pastor for whom “anything goes,” I firmly reject those characterizations. I am most assuredly a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a seeker of the Cosmic Christ.  My preaching, teaching and worship leadership is based on sound theology and careful study. I would call myself a devotee of process theology with a Lutheran flavor. For two years I also served as the interim executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco (http://interfaith-presidio.org) and served on the board for many years before that.  In 2005 I received my Doctorate in Ministry from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in interfaith relationships. My book is The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters? I enjoy leading workshops and retreats on interfaith matters, as well as teaching seminarians how to think about pastoring in a multi-faith environment. I suppose I’m not everyone’s idea of the perfect Christian. But if you’re interested in exploring the questions of faith in the 21st century, drop me a line.

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