Vicar David Sivecz
Not another one! On Monday I was flying back from Atlanta, Georgia. Because of a weekend wedding, I was a little detached from the real world. Consumed with family and meeting new people I was in my own little bubble. Then that bubble burst when I walked into a restaurant for some dinner during my layover. I was in the Baltimore Airport late at night. A few people were in the hustle and bustle of getting to the planes. As I sat down, there it was on four television stations. Each of them covering the same story. It was another mass shooting. All I could do was shake my head and say a prayer.
Not another one. I often wonder are these mass shootings are getting worse, or are we just more aware of them? Have these types of events always happened? Or, because of twenty-four news coverage are we able to watch the events unfold live? Yet, it doesn’t stop there. Whether it’s mass shootings, terrorist attacks overseas, tensions between North Korea, earthquakes, hurricanes, or other catastrophic events, the same question keeps coming up. That question is, “Why?”
“Why did Stephen Paddock shoot at all those people?” “Why were Hurricane Irma and Harvey so devastating?” “Why are there so many diseases that infect people?” “Why are conflicts on the rise between countries?” “Why?” That’s a question all of us ask and want to know the answer. We ask “why” because we desire to know the motive. We can speculate, we can assume, and we can guess, yet most of the time, if not all of the time, we don’t receive an answer.
But why do we want to know it? Will knowing the motive help us cope with the tragedies? Will it help us understand? Will knowing the motive elevate the feelings of anger, fear, and sadness that lie underneath the surface? Will it, in any way, make us feel better.
Perhaps what we are truly asking underneath the question “why” is “where.” Where is there a place we can find some solace and peace? Where is there a safe place where we can acknowledge our grief? Where is there a place we can put our hope and trust that one day these events will cease to exist?
The one place where we can find hope and trust is in God’s kingdom. This is the place where we can find solace and peace. It’s the place where we know God won’t giving up on us. It’s the place where can find assurance in God’s unending mercy and grace. It’s the place where we can grieve in the loving arms of God’s persistent love.
That’s what we heard in our Gospel lesson for today. What we heard, through this parable, was Jesus telling the crowd about the persistence of God’s love. That might be difficult to see. At first, it might seem like this story isn’t pretty. This parable seems ominous, violent, and even threatening. Yet underneath we find a place where there is hope, assurance, and mercy like no other.
It began with a landowner who planted a vineyard. In those days, it was common that only a few people possessed a significant amount land. The average person didn’t even own an acre. The few who did buy up the land, as we heard in the case of the landowner, would often move to a faraway land. Before they left, they would make improvements and then lease it to a few tenants. These tenants would then watch over it, care for it, and in return for payment, receive part of the harvest. This was common.
Sometimes it would be a long time before the landowner would come to check it. Because there was such an excessive amount of time in between hearing from the landowner, the tenants would often take over the land. This was before the days of text messaging, phone calls, or emails. We often get concerned when someone doesn’t respond to us in a day or two. So, imagine not hearing back for months or even years. So, these tenants might have assumed the landlord died or forgot about them. As a result, they believed the land was now theirs by right of being it’s caretaker. Again, this was common.
The tenants were no longer caretakers of the land, but now they believed they possessed it. They weren’t just tenants anymore but landowners. They were no longer peasants but had money. Their whole identity could’ve been transformed. Their whole mentality possibility changed.
Depending on where we’ve come from, many of us have the mentality that if it doesn’t belong to us, we don’t take care of it. I noticed this during this past weekend. As I said, as I had to travel. This meant buying a plane ticket, renting a car, and getting a hotel room. Especially, when it came to the car and the hotel room my mentality changed. I didn’t have to worry about cleaning my room. I could be messy, didn’t have to make the bed and could throw towels on the floor. My mentality was different. Why would I have to take care of if it wasn’t mine?
Even when it came to the car. Since it wasn’t mine and I had the companies insurance, I didn’t have worry about it. I could’ve spilled something in it or got into an accident. Ironically enough, it just so happened that someone put a massive scratch on the side of the car. Outside of filling out a couple of reports, I was able to leave the car there and slept soundly that night.
However, when it comes to our own possessions we take pride in them. They reflect who we are and how we function. They are the first impression others perceive of us. Although we are taught “not to judge a book by it cover” this is a reality. Whether we like it or not others perceive us based on outward visuals and experiences. So, our identities often become based on our possessions. This is common.
That’s how the tenants could’ve seen the land. At first, they didn’t take care of it. But, when they realized it belonged to them they could’ve put in extra effort. It became part of them. It was part of their identity. Then one day, they received some unexpected visitors. They were the landowner's servants. They came to collect his return on investment. As we heard, rather than handing over the land, the tenants beat one servant, killed another, and stoned another. For as much as this would shock us, again, this wasn’t uncommon.
Since their possessions were being threatened, their identities were also being threatened. Think about what happens when our possessions are threatened? What happens when others question how we parent, our career paths, or our hobbies? How do we react when others make negative comments about our houses, social circles, or our children? We put up a resistance. We tend to horde what we possess. We are less likely to open up or give it to others. The tenants resisted and hoarded when the landowner tried to collect his produce. Again, this was common.
In order for the landowner to retrieve his land, we might expect that he would send an army. He would use force against force. Yet, that’s what the landowner didn’t do. The landowner sent more servants. Still, the tenants treated them the same way. Again, the tenants continue to resist and horde. Now, at this point we might assume, the landowner had enough and finally would wipe them out. But, he did not.
This was not common. That’s the odd part of this parable. That’s what’s so surprising. As the tenants continued to resist, hoard, and be violent, the landowner continued to reason with them. He didn’t stop working with them. He was so persistent he even sent his son.
After everything the tenants did, what would cause this landowner to do this? Why? What was his motive? We don’t know. But what we do know is that the landowner was persistent. He was persistent in not giving up on the tenants. More importantly, he was persistent in making sure the vineyard produced fruit.
That’s the persistence of God love. God is so persistent in loving the world, especially during these times, that God won’t allow anyone or anything to stand in God's way. Even when we horde God’s gifts for ourselves, when people are killed, when we don’t know where to turn, God is persistent in bringing about God’s kingdom. This is the uncommon place where we don’t look in the midst of these horrific events. We don’t look for the places where God is persistently bringing peace, hope, and assurance. Even when we are threatened by mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters there are places where God is persistent in bringing fruits.
Even when we are searching for it in all the wrong places, when we want to use violence, God right there and doesn’t stop loving us. When we question, doubt, and are in disbelief, God is so adamant to bring about this kingdom that God endured the violence God’s self. We know this because we find this through Christ’s death on the cross.
That’s the most uncommon place where we don’t often look in the midst of these tragedies. We don’t look to the cross of Christ’s suffering as a place where God has brought, is bringing, will bring peace. We don’t realize that in Matthew’s Gospel the whole point of God’s persistent love is to bring a kingdom where all this fear, anger and sadness will cease to exist. The best part is that we don’t have to wait. It’s right here right now. There are places where we can find God persistently working. God has given us to gifts to partake in it.
As we would read earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” God summons us to use the gifts we have to help bring about this kingdom where everyone can find peace. This isn’t just limited to church ministry it can be done in our day to day lives.
Especially, in the midst of Las Vegas shooting, there was no place more evident where we see God’s persistent love than in the uncommon place of a former Western New Yorker’s business. Maybe some of you saw his story. His name is Chris Palmeri, who lives Las Vegas. He’s been the owner of “Naked City Pizza” for the last fourteen years.
On Sunday, less than a mile from Palmeri’s apartment, when at least 59 people were killed and hundreds more wounded, he decided to step in and help. He wanted to do something to help his new home, the victims, their families, and first responders.
He looked around and saw he had some extra dough. Instead of keeping it for himself he took action. He sent a message out through Facebook saying his business would provide free pizza for first responders, families of victims, and people waiting at the hospital.
His plan was to deliver to basically anyone who was suffering, and hungry. As he said, “I realized we had an extra palate of dough, we had sauce, we had cheese, so we figured people had to eat. By the end of the day, we were literally dropping off 20 pizzas. It just kind of caught on. It’s really cool to see what I’ve known for awhile, but for other people to see us come together and take action.”
He had volunteers call in wanting to help from around the country too. At the end of the day, Naked City had served about 600 free pizzas throughout the area. He was a businessman, not a church program, not someone who shouted his faith. Rather Palmeri simply mentioned if people wanted to help, that could go to the “Go-Fund-Me” page, and send help to the Las Vegas Catholic Charities.
Through all the tragedies, through all the natural disasters, through all the fear, God’s love is persistent. Whether it’s through us or through the uncommon places through people we wouldn’t expect, we can find healing in God’s persistent present kingdom. It doesn’t give up, it’s not dismayed, it doesn’t stop. The persistent love of God’s kingdom is where we can find hope and trust. It’s through the persistent love of God’s kingdom where we can find solace and peace. It’s also the place we where can find the assurance in God’s unending mercy and grace from now until the end of the age.