October 8, 2017 Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Cathedral Church of St. Paul Philippians 3:4b-14
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Matthew 21: 33-46
Columbus Day weekend seems to be a prequel for some of the holidays looming on our horizon, like our Thanksgiving holiday in November. These holidays raise some questions for me, like how did we all get here in the first place? And whose land is this anyway?
Our bishops recently came back from Alaska where they had gathered for their meeting of the House of Bishops. They had the opportunity to see not only the people of the diocese of Alaska, but also the land upon which they live. Only two of the thirty parishes in this diocese are reachable by roads, the rest of them by small planes only. The indigenous people of Alaska still live off of the land, hunting for moose and fishing for salmon; while businesses and the state live off the land economically, mining and selling many of their natural resources.
Which brings me back to this Columbus Day weekend here in Boston. Our indigenous people are the Native Americans who also lived off this land. Immigration began with people arriving from other parts of our world. Immigrants came from Africa, under the horrific conditions of forced slavery. In the Hebrew translation of “Thou shalt not steal” some interpret the word “steal” to mean “Thou shalt not steal people, rather than things.” (Laurie Brock, www.d365.org)
Immigrants also came from Ireland, as famine and politics forced starving families to seek new vineyards, and to find work, in order to survive. Indeed, today here in Boston, the largest immigrant population is from the Irish community.
Our Anglican immigrants came from England, when the Puritans sought religious freedom from English leaders, just as Jesus was seeking freedom from the Jewish leaders of his time. And, as we know from our history books, Italian born Christopher Columbus came from Spain, seeking an opportunity to get to India and Asia to exploit the riches of those lands -pearls, gold, silver, silks, and spices.
Russell Freedom in his book, Who was first? Discovering the Americas, wrote “As we dig deeper and deeper into the past, we find that the Americas have always been lands of immigrants, lands that have been "discovered" time and again by different peoples coming from different parts of the world over the course of countless generations—going far back to the prehistoric past, when a band of Stone Age hunters first set foot in what truly was an unexplored New World.”
Our land is growing increasingly inhabited, indeed overpopulated in many places. Our land is being depleted of its natural resources as we use and abuse them to fuel our modern needs and human greeds. Casually and carelessly at times, we waste our resources and pollute this fragile earth our island home. As more and more people seek to live in urban environments, we are confronted daily with the challenges of our human diversity. Some of us seek escape by going to those less populated and more natural areas of our lands, just as our bishops did recently, and as the Manna pilgrims are doing today.
As we have heard over these past few weeks in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus continues to speak to the people around him by using parables. And today’s parable raises those questions once again for me. Whose land is this anyway? And where did we come from? Preachers today are quick to point out that the vineyard belongs to God and that we are the tenants of this vineyard. These tenants have produced grapes and then pressed them into wine for the absentee landowner. But not only have they disrespected him, and refused to pay him his due, they have also killed his slaves and his own son who came to collect.
Our land is both privately owned and publicly shared. And often times these boundaries get blurred. Take for instance our Cathedral Church steps and porch, our sanctuary, and these 138 Tremont Street buildings. They are privately owned by the Cathedral Church of St. Paul. And yet often times people assume that they are public spaces, and available to anyone and everyone for their use or abuse. Such misunderstandings can complicate our relationships especially when we claim to be a House of Prayer for all God’s people. It raises that question: Who owns this vineyard anyway? And how did we get here?
Willy MacMullen, headmaster of the Taft School in Connecticut, wrote his commencement remarks to the graduating seniors from a library near the New Haven Green. In an article called “Living on the Commons” he wrote, “Colonists arrived in New Haven in 1638 to try to somehow wrest a life out of thick woods and thin soil. That they survived is something of a miracle, but what is more astonishing is this: one of the first things they did was to plan the town Green. Barely able to eke out survival and with arable land scarce, the first thing they did was to commit to a space where they could gather - to trade, worship, discuss, remediate, resolve, and educate. Think about what that said about their conviction that a community of desperate and diverse voices could only endure if there was a commons.”
We live on the Boston Commons where our public and private lives do meet. We live in a world where desperate and diverse voices are raised with competing urgencies. We live in a world where we live at risk for violence to erupt on our steps, or on our commons, or as it did in Las Vegas last week. We live as tenants on a fragile earth where our natural resources are endangered because of human needs and greeds. And here we worship God as laborers in this private building, also part of God’s vineyard, on these Boston commons.
Headmaster McMullen reminds us that “We all see a shrunken world, with economic interconnectedness, strains on basic resources, need for environmental cooperation, concerns about security and tribalism. We will need people who can collaborate across difference, who can together think critically and creatively, who can be part of diverse teams, who can debate and empathize with equal parts passion and compassion, who see both shared responsibility and opportunity.”
While living on the commons of Palestine, Jesus spoke to the religious leaders of Israel. You have been given this vineyard by God, he said. You are the tenants of God’s land, which is rich in resources, and you are entrusted with producing wine from the grapes. I have given you a fence to protect this crop from wild boars. I have built a tower for you to watch for thieves, and to serve as a place of lodging for the laborers.
According to William Barclay, “the actions of the owner of the vineyard were all quite normal. Palestine was very familiar with absentee landlords, who let out their estates and were interested only in collecting rental at the right time. (And) the actions of the cultivators was not uncommon either. The country was seething with economic unrest; the working people were discontented and rebellious; and the action of the cultivators (wanting to kill) the son was not by any means impossible.”
Whose land is this anyway? And how did we get here in the first place? Evolutionists will tell you one story; and theologians will tell you another. And I will say that the stories are not incompatible. God created our land, before time. And God created all living beings who began to inhabit that land. We have been given work to do, to be tenants, and laborers, co-creators with God. We have been given the authority and power to till the soil, to produce good fruit, and to protect the vineyard. Co-laborers with God and each other, we have all migrated from foreign lands, some of us living on these commons of our public squares. We have created civil and spiritual laws to protect ourselves and our things.
As Headmaster MacMullen wrote, “As the world has never been more complex and dynamic, the irony is that it has also never looked more like a colonial commons, never more in need of disparate citizens who can gather and converse to meet the pressing planetary challenges. Common spaces are about the bringing together of citizens, around religion, trade, civics, and education.”
I believe that our Cathedral Church, located on these Boston Commons, is uniquely positioned to have those conversations, if we can maintain our civility, our respect, and our desire for the common good. I believe that our landowner is not absent, however, but very much present through the Spirit. This land is our land. This land is God’s land. And while we have come from many and various places, we all came from God. So let’s press on, and be good stewards of this vineyard, while living on these Boston commons together. Amen.