Sunday, October 2, 2011

Living in a Way that does not Make Sense

Today we hear the last of Jesus’ “vineyard parables.” The vineyard was a common Old Testament metaphor used to describe the people of Israel, so it is not surprising that Jesus drew on this imagery. If you recall, two weeks ago we heard the parable of the workers called to the vineyard at various hours of the day who all get paid the same amount, regardless of the time they spent laboring. Last Sunday we heard the parable of the father who directs each of his two sons to work in the family vineyard. One refuses, but later changes his mind. The other agrees, but then does nothing. And today we hear the parable of the tenants’ revolt against the absentee landowner.

All three parables share some common themes that are worth noting:

• First, each proclaims there is a God. It may seem like an obvious point, but it is foundational and should not be overlooked.

• Equally as obvious, but still important, is the shared notion that the Owner – God – owns the vineyard.

• The next common premise is that Owner holds a rightful claim on the people associated with the vineyard. We see allusions of this claim in the relationship of an employer who hires workers, a father who has sons, and a landowner who rents out his property.

• Another common theme is that something is always going wrong in the vineyard: workers complain, sons misbehave, tenants revolt. These are good stories in that they always have a dramatic tension – a point of conflict – which renders them true to our experience of life. Far from being a tranquil, pastoral setting, the vineyard of life is a challenging place where things often unfold in ways that are troubling; and in the vineyard stories that trouble is of our own making.

• And finally, just as fairy tales always seem to end with “and they lived happily ever after,” each of these stories shares a common ending. It is surprising, even startling - jarring to some, hopeful to others, and it always seems to turn the world upside down on itself.

So the vineyard parables share these common story elements, but each is also distinctive. Today’s parable is the only one where the landowner places others in charge while he leaves the region. As the story unfolds the tenants decide to assert their authority by rising up and rebelling against the claim the landowner has over them. In short, they want to act as if there is no landowner, as if they are the ones in charge.

This week marked the birthday of Martin Heidegger, the German-born philosopher who died in 1976. He has been described as a nearly unreadable author, a racist and a bigot who never fully disavowed his support of Nazism, and one of the most important thinkers of the 21st century. Now how is that for a résumé!

Heidegger wrote a great deal about nihilism; the philosophical belief that our modern life lacks a shared meaning and direction. Those who write about nihilism point to society’s desire not to be under any authority beyond the individual, to have nothing and no one able to make a claim on us, and no commitments required of us. It is precisely what the tenants in Jesus’ parable were after.

A professor named Hubert Dreyfus sums up our times by pointing out that “the things that once evoked commitment – gods, heroes…, the acts of great statesmen, the words of great thinkers – have lost their authority.” He is saying that, like the tenants who shed the rightful claim of the landowner, our society has dispensed with any such notion of an objective norm or value or moral good that exists beyond ourselves.

In our Old Testament reading we heard the story of the Ten Commandments. Given by God as objective realities beyond human existence and human approval – to be received as something as unalterable as, say, the law of gravity – we now take them (if we take them at all) as being a helpful resource; an ingredient we tenants may want to mix into the stew of meaning we cook up for ourselves – if we even feel like taking the time to think through what a personal sense of meaning might look like.

To Heidegger’s way of thinking, life in an ownerless vineyard has some serious consequences. We become isolated in our existence, alienated from one another, and suffocated in a life devoid of meaning. Dreyfus puts it this way:

“When there are no shared examples of greatness that focus public concerns and elicit social commitment, people become spectators of fads and public lives, just for the excitement. When there are no religious practices that call forth sacrifice, terror, and awe, people consume everything from drugs to meditation practices to give themselves some kind of peak experience. The peak experience takes the place of what was once a relation to something outside the self that defined the real and was therefore holy.”

To the degree that I understand Heidegger I am intrigued by his thinking regarding how technology fosters nihilism. In a nutshell, he says that we have reduced creation to efficiency and adaptability, with little or no thought to its intended, greater purpose. He says that we have see the environment as being “a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.” Most of us also see nature as something spiritual, particularly when, for example, we are moved by a beautiful sunset. But for us, both endeavors – industry and inspiration - share the common understanding that creation exists solely for our benefit and use.

Think of where we are today in relation to those basic premises of the vineyard parables.

• First, there is a God who exists independently of us. Today, haven’t we shifted this to say God exists for us; that it is God’s job to meet our needs?

• The second premise: God owns the vineyard. Today, we see creation as God’s gift to us that we can use any way we see fit. Its resources are ours. Its beauty is for us. The only analogy I can think comparable is what it would be like for a person to tour the White House and then decide to move in and take over the place as if was his. Isn’t that is what we have done to the vineyard?

• Next premise: God has a rightful claim on us. Today I think we have reversed this; believing we are the ones who have a claim on God. God is there to fix our problems, cure our ills, and bless our wars. Did anyone come this morning looking forward to hearing what God demands of you?

• Another common theme: something is always going wrong in the vineyard. Not only have we tenants risen up and rejected the Owner, but the end result is not at all what we wanted. Being free to do what has left us feeling lost, lonely, and confused. Nihilism – to use that fancy word –suffocates to the human spirit.

And then there is the parable’s ending, the startling surprise. Let me suggest that you are to be the surprise. Cardinal Celestin Suhard, who served as Archbishop of Paris in the 1940’s, famously said, “to be a witness [is to be] a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” And while the world wants to live like there is no God, just as the tenants wanted to live as if there was no owner, we are the opposite - people who, in the absence of the vineyard Owner live in such a way that makes sense only because there is a vineyard Owner. We live in such a way that our lives are a mystery in a nihilistic world. We adhere to a meaning and direction from beyond us. We accept Jesus as our Lord and seek to live out his word and example; forgiving when forgiveness is a challenge, giving generously even when we have very little to offer, extending hospitality to all – especially to those people on the margins of society, picking up our cross and daily dying to self.

In a world that has either dispensed itself of God – or perhaps just tamed God to suit its own purposes – our lives should not make sense at all. But our witness does make sense because there is a God who owns the vineyard and has a rightful claim on each one of us.