Invited to Freedom
It’s good to be together in worship this morning.
Today is a special day! 84 years ago on this day the very first worship service of The Riverside Church was celebrated in this beautiful space; later this afternoon we’ll gather again right here, to celebrate our covenant as we mark the beginning of our life together as pastor and congregation; and, today is World Communion Sunday, a special Sunday celebrated every first Sunday of October, where churches all over the world set aside the many things that divide us and celebrate the ways in which the gospel draws us together.
It seems interesting to me, then, on this day that we’re celebrating the gift and promise of Christian community in so many expressions, that our lectionary texts for the week tell the stories of two communities that just can’t seem to get the hang of life together. They are communities in which greed and distrust, pain and fear narrate their shared stories. In both instances, their manner of living in relationship with each other has caused considerable pain and even death.
Today Matthew’s gospel recounts the parable Jesus told of the wicked tenants, where the owner of a vineyard trusted his tenants to care for his vineyard, but when harvest came he couldn’t collect the profits. His representatives were beaten, stoned, killed, until he finally sent his son, whom the tenants killed, too!
It’s a terrible story, and Jesus told it in the context of first century Palestine to address the situation in which he was living. Oppressed by the Roman occupation, infighting and power struggles had permeated the beleaguered Jewish community; corruption was running rampant in the temple; folks were so concerned about rules and power and position that they forgot the great call of God to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. When Jesus began telling his parable of the wicked tenants, you know you could hear a pin drop in that awkward silence.
And, our second text this morning is the Exodus text some of us know as the Ten Commandments. This text follows two instructive stories immediately preceding. After having been delivered from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel began to feel discontent. They didn’t like the situation they were in; they didn’t like each other; and they definitely didn’t like Moses. They were hungry, they complained. There wasn’t enough water! The kids were asking “Are we there yet?” with way too much frequency. The texts say the people began sentences with phrases like, “If only…” and, “The way we used to do it in Egypt…” and, “I don’t have enough…”.
Two communities, broken and pain-filled, thousands of years and completely different historical situations, both characterized by violence, greed, fear, aggression, power, control…I don’t know about you, but I have to say: that’s a bit of a downer for this particular Sunday.
But as I read the passages again and again this week, I began to note something else those two communities had in common. You’ll notice that they both share the radical witness of a God who won’t give up on them, who keeps inviting them into the freedom and possibility of all they can be together. I started to think that perhaps these sad and terrifying stories are not texts of shame, discouragement, and foreboding, as we’ve come to understand them. Maybe these stories are here as invitations to God’s way of life-giving community.
But how? How do we throw off patterns of self-promotion and limited vision, and live into an invitation as bold as this?
There are some among us who have recently begun a new year of school. This week I had occasion to talk with my sister about classroom rules. “Do you remember,” I asked her, “any classroom rules from elementary school?”
Without skipping a beat, she rattled off: “My days in third grade will be much more pleasant if I cooperate with Mrs. Teitmeyer.”
I looked at her, pretty impressed (I have to say).
“I don’t know if you remember,” she said, “but I had a little problem with talking—constantly—in third grade.”
(I hadn’t remembered that, but I can say since my sister is here today that I wasn’t really THAT surprised.)
“Yes,” she said. “One time I had to sit and cover an entire notebook page, front and back, with this rule, over and over again, a sheet that my teacher included when she sent my report card home: My days in third grade will be much more pleasant if I cooperate with Mrs. Teitmeyer. My days in third grade will be much more pleasant if I cooperate with Mrs. Teitmeyer.”
How to live into this elusive, longed-for community God models for us? After the Israelites had made a bit of a mess out of their life together, God—in somewhat dramatic means—offered a list of rules. We’ve come to think of the Ten Commandments as a prescriptive, almost threatening list of moral imperatives.
But these are not shared to scare us into compliance, or to give us tools by which we may fracture our communities even more deeply by judging each other.
Instead, think of them like classroom rules: listen when others are talking; follow directions; keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself…you know, things like that. One commentator says we may have mistaken the tone of this passage: rather than, “You shall or you shall not, or else,” it’s more like: “Come on, friends. This is how we live together. We respect God; we honor one another. In our community we never bear false witness against each other; we don’t kill each other–in spirit or in body. Oh, no! That wouldn’t be worthy of the kind of freedom to which we’ve been invited! Instead, we’ll share generously, building the kind of human community that mirrors God’s gracious love for us!”
These rules are not a prescriptive list of imperatives; they are, instead, an invitation to the kind of community we will build when we walk together into God’s freedom.
As we prepare to celebrate today all God has done and will do in this place, and as we come together to the table of Christ, a table where all are welcome to share in a feast of possibility and promise, know this: human community, in our life together and even in our own individual lives, often fails to reflect God’s hopes and dreams for us.
But God will not let our own failure and pain keep us from all we can be. Instead, the invitation will be issued again and again and again, an invitation to relationship, to freedom.
Today, may we hear God’s invitation to a path of possibility and promise spread ahead of us. And may we respond together, with courage.