The Bible is the living Word, which means that it has relevance and power in every age and time and place. Right now, this morning our age and time and place seems very much like an untended vineyard of wilde grapes and tangled grapevines to me. It's easy and understandable to get stuck in anger and hopelessness. Angry voices, deadlocked decision-making, frightening rhetoric...will nothing ever change? I can feel myself sliding down the slippery slope of finger-pointing, blaming everyone and everything that is contributing to this complicated, very messed up world. We seem to be stuck in a divisive and dangerous dance.
I feel like we're the wicked tenant farmers in the parables of Isaiah and Matthew's Gospel, who are doing everything but what the vineyard owner has asked of us...blaming, accusing, playing games of power and politics, looking to our own interests not the interests of others, again and again. And in the wake of another horrific mass shooting, the arguments begin again, about guns and Second Amendment rights, and I am coming undone. I'm heartsick, and frustrated, and angry, and overwhelmed. I don't know abou you, but it feels very much like we're messing it all up...and the fruits of the Kingdom feel very far from coming into healthy harvest.
I don't tend to think of the voice of God in this way--sharp and angry. But it's hard not to hear the voice of frustration in these two scripture texts, or to imagine that the voice telling this story has become very strident, saying, "How many times do I have to tell you? How many times do I have to tell you?!" It's too much. I've overwhelmed and feelign liek there's nothing I can do to make a difference.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters have just come through their highest holy days during which they take time away from the world to reflect on the year just past, to confess their transgressions and ask for forgiveness, to do the difficult work of restoring relationships so that their community can be whole--cleasning their individual relationshihps and setting right their relationship with God. That right relationship and healing is what I so yearn for, and what seems so unattainable right now.
In the Talmud, there's a text that says something like this, "Do not be dauanted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."
And that reminds me of another story. "Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, as he was walking along the short after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
"Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy apporaching. As the boy walked, he paused very so often and as he grew closer, the man could see th at he was occiasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?'
"The young boy paused, looked up, and repllied, 'Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can't return to the sea by themselves.' the youth replied. 'When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.'
"The old man replied, 'But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I'm afraid you won't really be able to make much of a difference.'
"The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, 'It make a difference to that one!'" (1)
I was reading recently about the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, French diplomat and historian. In the 1830's he came to the United States from France to try to understand what made our young country work. And he was amazed at what he found here, something he called the "habits of the heart," the everyday values and behavioras and customs that uniquely characterize Americans and set them apart from others. Things like volunteering to help others. Volunteer fire departments, and coming together to build a neighbor's barn, and joining a quilting bee to create someone else's quilt. Things like that would never happen in aristocratic Europe. (2)
Where is that spirit among us?
Because it seems to me that is what the parables are talking about. Calling us back to the "habits of the heart," even if in our own unique American way. What if each one of us simply turned back to the habits of the heart? Things like love and compassion...the things that bring tears to our eyes when we hear all the stories of selflessness and love helping others in Texas or Florida, Puerto Rico or Los Vegas. What if we focused instead on the one or two things it was in our power to do to make tomorrow a little bit better for others? Like the little boy on the beach, we could each make a difference, a little bit at a time. The fruit of the Kingdom would be ready for harvest if each one of us helps make tomorrow a little bit better for everyone else in the world.
(1) adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley
(2) What Happened, by H.R. Clinton, page 432.