A Word of Comfort: Natural Disasters and the Spiritual Life

Year A, Proper 22

Matthew 21:33-46

Preached at All Saints Episcopal Church,

North Adams, MA

October 4, 2020

There’s a saying that the task of preaching is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and hopefully wIth the same sermon. Another of the tasks of preaching is to interpret ancient scripture in light of our current spiritual needs.

I don’t want to afflict anyone today. We are all afflicted, October marking beginning the eight month of a this pandemic. Scientists have studied how natural disasters, like pandemics and tsunamis and earthquakes, fires and hurricanes, affect social structures. First, they disrupt the normal functioning of a society.

In addition to changing our physical lives–where we can go, what we can do, with whom we can be–disasters affect us psychologically. We lose our routine, our control, our normal social support. We often lose financial security. When the familiar patterns and activities that bring us joy disappear, we begin to lose our identity.

And, concurrent with this pandemic, our society is also wrestling with racial inequality, our forests are burning, we are dangerously politically polarized, and now our president is sick, 

We are all afflicted. We are restless. Some of us are depressed and most of us carry a low-grade fear. Even grocery shopping is frightening.

So today, I feel God is calling me to preach comfort. But friends, the lectionary is uncooperative, the Old Testament reading giving us the 10 Commandments. That seems a bit heavy-handed, although I believe they, like the 12 Steps, give us comfort in that they are a guide to putting our lives right with God and with our neighbors.

Today’s New Testament reading gives us the parable of the tenants, a passage I find inscrutable. a vineyard, a watchtower, tenants and slaves and murder. In my mind, vineyards are for fancy people in California and Italy. A watchtower makes me think of Escape from Alcatraz

If this parable is very familiar to you, please have patience with me as I tease out its meaning. First, let’s explore the context in which Jesus relates this parable. He arrives in Jerusalem, and goes to the temple, where he dramatically turns over tables and throws out the money changers.

Jesus announces with authority, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’ but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame are crowding into the temple seeking out Jesus and being healed by him. The children cry out to him, “Hosanna, Son of David!” 

To give our context some context, imagine some stranger, an itinerant preacher showed up here at All Saints, preaching an unfamiliar message, disrupting our fundraisers. 

And what if the sick and the poor and the mentally ill began streaming in the doors for healing. And our children and grandchildren flocked to him like the Pied Piper. I mean, what if he interrupted my sermon?

Maybe some of us would accept this stranger, just like we’d like to think we’d welcome Jesus, but Jesus’ behavior was shocking, and the religious leaders were alarmed.

The chief priests and scribes challenge Jesus. They ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In essence, who’s your bishop? Who sent you here?

Jesus is disruptive. Disruption is frightening. The religious leaders challenge Jesus’ claims and question his behavior. Jesus answers with the parable of the wicked tenants. 

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it . . . .” Matthew 21:33.

Now, in the interest of comfort, I’d like to spend some time with this idea. We, God’s people, are depicted as a vineyard, lush acres of fruiting vines. God created humanity on the sixth day, the final miracle of the natural world, creating us as part of nature like water in water.

With the right sun and the right irrigation, the right tending by parents, teachers, mentors, religious leaders, spiritual directors, prayer and love of neighbor, we bear good fruit.

We are so congruously a part of nature, that when we spend time in nature we experience healing. The Japanese have named the practice Shinrin Yoku, which means forest bathing. The act of being in nature and allowing it to enter through your eyes, ears, mouth, nose and skin is healing. 

The psalm of comfort so many turn to depicts God leading us through the natural world. Psalm 23 begins, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. . .”

Please take your emotional wounds, your loneliness, your isolation outside to a park or to the Appalachian trail or to a tree outside your window.

In today’s parable, the landowner charges the tenants with stewardship of this vineyard. Translation: God charges religious leaders to care for us.    A side note: I had to look up what a watchtower was because I couldn’t get prison movies out of my mind. 

The watchtower was a squat stone building, two stories high, dry stone without mortar, about two stories high. The bottom was naturally cool so the goods of the farm, the harvest, would be stored there. And the farmers and their family could live on the 2nd floor to watch over the crops. It’s a place of care and supervision.

God charges religious leaders to care for us. But they fail. They murder the prophets God sends to collect the harvest. God sends his son, and they murder him. Fact: Religious leaders sometimes fail. 

If you come from another tradition, you may be bearing pain from that tradition or hurt from a priest or a person in authority. Let me digress here to say, You are good enough. You are beloved, and by God’s grace you have been redeemed. With God you lack nothing.

Sadly, most of those who are hurt worst by church aren’t in church. If you know someone with that hurt, please love them. Even if they sound bitter or curse God or mock your faith. Love them.

Today’s parable tells us the painful lesson that leaders will fail us, that the body of Christ can expect betrayal. Prophets will be rejected. Tradition will sometimes drown out truth. Still we seek Jesus. Still we gather as we can. Still we pray. Still we love one another.

Friends, I know we are weary. This year, 2020, with over 1 million dead worldwide, with over 200,000 empty seats at tables here at home, anger at injustice in the streets, forests burning, is a testament to our fallen world. We are weathering disruption, we are reeling in disequilibrium. 

Have hope. Be of good courage. God is good. Think of the apostles, who after the arrest, torture and crucifixion of Jesus had lost their identities as followers of Jesus and hid, disoriented by events they did not understand.

In their deepest grief, they were just three days away from a resplendent, blinding hope beyond their wildest dreams, a resurrection hope that would change the course of human history. 

Have hope. Seek rest in the healing balm of nature. Remember that the Spirit helps us in our weakness.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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