Today on World Communion Sunday, people across the globe break bread together. Around the world Christians eat the bread of Christ together. This small sign of unity seems, to me, like an even smaller gesture than usual. In the face of a global pandemic, rising white supremacy and nationalism, climate change, increasing poverty, name the crisis you fear and are working to stop… In the face of all this we imagine that eating some bread and drinking some juice or wine somehow unites us. God help us. Help us have faith that this is so.
The past several weeks many people spent many hours trying to find ways we could support Binsar Siahaan, the asylum seeker who Glen talked about as he lit the peace lamp. For years Binsar visited people in prison as part of a ministry team; now he is in prison himself, amongst the millions who are caught in the unjust immigration system in this country. Binsar is now one amongst the millions who are caught in the criminal legal system that would rather put money in the coffers of for-profit private prisons than keep people with their families where they could be safer from the virus. We live in a country that would rather pour money into the bank accounts of those whose accounts already overflow than help poor people find life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As people who take the bible seriously, but not literally, what meaning can we find in the text in the face of such injustice? How does eating a small piece of bread and drinking a swallow of juice bring us closer to people around the world, closer to people in prison, closer to God?
Psalm 19 (which Gabriel and Amanda read,) poetically names the power of the sky to speak – without a voice. The huge expanse of sky, the sun, the moon – accompanied Friday night by what looked like its near neighbor Mars – these all speak without sound, without words, they speak of the true power that we live under. Their cry echoes through all the world, and their message reaches the ends of the earth. Who are we – in the face of this power, this beauty, that gives us life and warmth and seasons?
This law is perfect; it refreshes the soul. We are humbled, when we are mindful, by the way the sky and planets, moon and stars, the earth itself, continue to speak of possibility. Without any words their immensity and beauty might pull us toward hope, toward a vision that is beyond the difficulties of our complicated but small lives. Can we see it?
If the heavens speak without words, the parable from Matthew’s gospel is all words. We heard today the second parable in a series of three that Jesus speaks in his last days in Jerusalem, in front of the religious leaders, right in the temple courts. Though the religious leaders are brilliant scholars, they seem to have forgotten that they live under this big sky of Psalm 19. Jesus seems to think they have grown accustomed to ignoring the truth that this power is one they cannot own.
So Jesus tells them this parable about the landowner who plants and prepares a beautiful, flourishing vineyard, capable of producing much fruit and wine. The owner leaves it to others to work this vineyard and at harvest time the owner sends servants to help divide up the grapes. The owner doesn’t send important people to do this harvest work. They do not arrive in limos or grand processionals with heralding trumpets. The owner sends servants, like poorly, strangely dressed prophets – John the Baptist in his camel skin or Jeremiah in his ratty underwear.
The workers, who have been toiling in the vineyard to make it the best it could possibly be, are not interested in outsiders telling them what to do. They attack and throw stones, even kill these servants.
Why, in the face of such violence, the owner tries again is beyond me, but the owner responds by sending another crew of servants. The second group knows what happened to the first. Like Moses and Elijah, these servants are reluctant to go to people who are not cooperative, who are violent. And sure enough, the second group is treated badly and are also killed. Finally, the owner, so troubled by this behavior, but wanting to assist the workers with the harvest, sends the family heir thinking ‘surely the workers will respect this one.’
Instead, when the vineyard workers see this one they see a whole new possibility. If the heir is killed, the vineyard will all be theirs. So they kill the heir as well – but outside the vineyard so as not to sully what is now going to be theirs.
The religious leaders hear this parable, and the way the writer of Matthew tells it, they understand all too well what Jesus is saying. They understand and they are angry. They realize that Jesus is speaking about them. Although they sought to arrest him, they fear the crowds, who regard Jesus as a prophet. In their anger, the religious leaders are on the verge of playing out the parable. Matthew implies that the leaders are blind to the way their actions play into the story.
Thanks Jesus, (or Matthew) for one more far-fetched parable that frankly is perilously close to being anti-Jewish. Does it have any relevance for us 2000 years later? Certainly it is easy to point fingers at those we label violent and greedy. We might wonder who these servants are today, that are sent to help divide the harvest. Could one of these servants, sent by the owner, be Binsar? Binsar, who has been lied to and handcuffed in front of his wife and sent to a prison 800 miles away from his family. Could Binsar be one of those sent by the owner to get our attention, to help us see the bounty amongst which we live, to help us understand that it is harvest time? That it is time to work for justice, time to speak out?
Though I have never met Binsar, his life and story are impacting my own. His pain and suffering are becoming part of my own heart’s pain. Could Binsar Siahaan be one of those who helps us see that we all live under the power and glory of the sky, that the heavens speak majesty without words? That we all are workers in the vineyard?
Today we break bread and share the cup with people around the world, Binsar’s family at Glenmont United Methodist Church, Christians – some of whom are Mennonite – in Indonesia. We break bread with people we do not know but who also live under the sky that speaks – of Majesty. Together we drink the cup of suffering – even when we are not the ones who suffer. Together we eat the bread in hope that one day the brokenness will be healed.