Choose Your Own Adventure

Sunday, October 8, 2017
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, Year A
Matthew 21:33-46
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D

Back in the nineties, grade school kids were reading Choose Your Own Adventure novels. These were slim volumes, written in the second person, that allowed you as the reader to decide at key moments how the story would proceed. (“If you decide to jump down on the woolly mammoth, turn to page 29. If you decide to continue on foot, turn to page 30.”) The books were the kind of thing you could find in a child’s backpack alongside Matchbox cars. (See “THE MOVIE WITH A THOUSAND PLOTLINES; Will interactive films be this century’s defining art form?” By Raffi Khatchadourian. The New Yorker.)

Think of today’s gospel story as something like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Jesus sets a scene, but you get to decide how the story ends.

Here’s the scene. A man plants a vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a winepress in it, and builds a watch-tower. Then he leases the vineyard to tenants and goes to another country. At harvest time he sends his slaves to collect the produce. The tenants beat, stone, and kill those slaves. He sends a second delegation; they beat and kill them as well.

Finally, he sends his son–”They will at least respect my son,” he reasons. But they throw the son out of the vineyard and kill him.

That’s the scene. Now, choose your adventure. “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” How do you want this story to end?

When Jesus poses this choice to the religious leaders in today’s gospel, they choose an ending of violence and retaliation. “[The owner] will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Don’t pussy-foot around with petty dictators. Throw them out! Give them a taste of their own medicine!

This ending they choose reflects the logic of the Roman Empire they have aligned themselves with. Although they themselves are oppressed Jews in a land brutally occupied by the Romans, these religious leaders have nevertheless bought into the logic of Rome. It’s the logic of retaliation echoed today by the current president and his evangelical admirers: “If somebody hits me,” the current president says, “I have to hit them back harder. I have to.”

Jesus chooses a different ending to the story. He quotes one of the psalms.

Have you never read in the scriptures:

“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?

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.

The “fruits of the kingdom”: Things like compassion, forgiveness, a welcome to the outcast, justice for people living under oppression. The shorthand word for the adventure Jesus chooses is “resurrection”. That which was rejected–the path of Jesus–is lifted up. The way of Jesus, of mercy and redemption, has the final say.

Play this out for a second. Imagine what this second ending, the one Jesus chooses, might look like. Say you are one of the tenants on this vast estate. You’re working in the hot sun while a well-dressed boy, the heir of the estate, coolly walks by with his father on his tour of the place. You and the other workers resent this kid. You rebel. The grapes start to grow wild diminishing any chance of an abundant harvest.

A few years later, the son, now a young man, returns to collect the produce. You join in the attack and kill him.

Then comes the reckoning. You and your fellow tenant are dragged before the judge, and you fully expect to be sent up for life. But instead, the owner of the vineyard shows up in court–with the son you killed. Although this young man’s wounds are still very real, he is very much alive. You’re shaking in your boots.

Then, to your amazement, the father gets out his will and announces that he is bequeathing the entire vineyard not only to his son but also to you and all the other tenants. The father and his son welcome all of you back to the vineyard as joint owners. You are no longer workers but fellow heirs–invited to go back to work, cultivating the grapes, producing so much wine for the wedding feast it will never run out. (See reflections by Andrew Marr.)

These two possible endings–that of the religious leaders and that of Jesus–could not be more different. One is a story of shock and awe: It follows the logic of an empire rich and powerful and exacting revenge. The other is a story of resurrection in which the path of Jesus, the way of mercy and the possibility of redemption have the final say.

Which ending do you choose? Which path?

The choice might seem easy when we’re sitting here in church. Not so easy when we get out there, where the voice of Empire, sometimes loud, sometimes subtle, seeks to hold sway over our hearts, our feelings, the choices we make.

Faced with an onslaught of messages from the Empire, choosing the path of Jesus can be difficult. Which is why we need each other. Compassion is not a one-person show. When it comes to following Jesus, no one can go it alone.

Staying faithful to the way of Jesus requires a community in which, as Ram Dass says, we’re just walking each other home. In such a community, we can hold each other accountable to our deepest values, comfort and support each other in the ups and downs along the way.

It’s why we have this community of St. John’s. We need each other.

If in this Stewardship season, we each wrestle with how we’re going to help with the financial needs of this community, it’s precisely so we can provide those material things that help keep us together, keep us faithful:

  • Money to cover the costs of this sacred space in which we wrestle with the Scriptures and what they call us to, this space in which we gather for Eucharist, in which we laugh and cry together as we tell our stories and celebrate the important moments in our spiritual journeys–our baptisms, weddings, funerals.
  • Money to hire a musician, a parish administrator to run the office, a priest.
  • Money that makes possible the many ministries we organize and sustain: ministries to the homeless, the victims of violence, the hungry, our friends in Nicaragua who need clean water, the young people in this neighborhood who need a little extra help with school.

The adventure of Jesus has many practical implications for how we live our lives, including financial implications. Our decision to give money to this community flows out of our deep desire to remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus, walking the path he walks, choosing the adventure he chooses.

None of us can do this adventure alone. For this, we need each other.

Maya Angelou puts it this way:

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

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