St. George’s Cathedral: Proper 21
Cape Town, South Africa
September 25, 2011
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:28-32
Where have you seen the glory of God passing by? Have you ever been up on the mountain, like Moses, awestruck at the wonder of what God is up to? I keep hearing that climbing up Table Mountain, or taking the cable car up there, is a pretty significant way to encounter the glory of God.
As I was flying here a few days ago, at one point I could see a small circular rainbow below us, tracking the plane’s progress across the desert of South America. I’ve only seen one other rainbow like that, and as I was flying a small plane directly toward a dark and foreboding storm cloud, it brought me both comfort and promise. This planet is filled with the glory of God, if we’re ready to look for the creator’s creativity.
The bishops of TEC met last week in the Diocese of Ecuador Central, in Quito. More than two million people live in that city – almost a seventh of Ecuador’s wonderfully diverse population. The city itself is set in a mountain valley 3 km high, with snow-covered volcanoes in the distance. God’s creativity was very much in evidence.
Yet the glory of God’s creativity was also evident in the work we did together – learning about the realities of migration, climate change, poverty, and the burden of debt in the Latin American context. We reflected on the ways in which God’s creative word is emerging to address those realities in different liberation theologies. I know the same is happening here in this context – and theologies of liberation have certainly been a significant part of the church’s role in the struggle against apartheid.
The parallels between Ecuador and South Africa are striking – both struggling over relationships between descendants of European colonizers and indigenous populations, conflict over land use and resource extraction, and migration from neighboring countries driven by poverty and violence. God’s creativity is abundantly evident in human responses to those massive challenges.
On Friday a group of people from this diocese went on pilgrimage to Robben Island, led from this cathedral. The glory of God was much in evidence, both in the beauty of that environment on a brisk spring day and in the stories about the inmates’ persistent hope over the centuries. We saw evidence of that hope in Robert Subukwe’s joy-filled letters to his wife, in the paper and books made from cement bags so that prisoners could teach and equip others for the work of transformation, and in the gardens emerging from old prison yards. Many of this nation’s leaders were formed in that creative crucible.
An early Christian named Irenaeus famously said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. When God’s creatures are filled with creative energy, God’s glory does indeed become most alive and evident. When you and I are passionately invested as partners in that creativity, we are becoming more of who and what God created us to be. Jesus is speaking of that same kind of passion when he tells of the sons asked to work in the vineyard. Which one is going to answer that passionate call?
The vineyard is all around us – it’s an ancient image of creation, ready to become fruitful and life-giving. Israel is often called God’s vineyard or God’s planting. The only question is whether we’re willing to cooperate, to co-create. Who will go and work in the vineyard? We may say yes, and not get started, like the first son, or we may decline the first invitation and eventually get moving. But for most of us, the challenge seems to have more to do with figuring out just what working in the vineyard means.
The answer has to do with the glory of being fully alive. Another word for that aliveness is passion – what really gets us moving, what gets our blood racing and our spirit soaring and heart singing? It’s not the same thing for everyone, and it usually has a significant element of sacrifice as well as joy – we become holy (which is what sacrifice means) in doing what makes us most fully alive.
Awe at the natural environment stirs most people who live close to the land or learn to appreciate the unconstructed world. That sense of the holiness of creation is part of the spirituality of most indigenous peoples, and it is leading more and more to challenge the abuse of creation, our waste of its gifts, and our wanton destruction of its blessing. It was shocking to see how much garbage there was in the water on the way over to Robben Island. It’s also clear that fresh water is a precious resource in this area. The prisoners’ gardens on that sandy bit of land often dried up for lack of summer water, and so do the township vegetable gardens in the Cape Flats. Our changing planet is going to make it harder and harder for the poorest among us to survive those summer droughts – as well as the expanding range of malarial mosquitoes, and the diminishing quantity of arable land. Who will go work in that garden? Who will challenge those who misuse or waste the vineyard?
Once we start to get our hands dirty, we begin to see that the state of the vineyard or the garden affects all of God’s creation, and that the same vulnerable populations are still suffering just as much as they did in Moses’ day – the widows, orphans, immigrants, the landless. The rich can move, the wealthy can pay higher prices for shrinking amounts of water and food, the powerful can build stronger houses to avoid the cruelest of changing weather patterns.
Yesterday we were out in Khayelitsha for a celebration of HOPE Africa’s work – most of which is about tending the forgotten and the vulnerable – those who are infected with AIDS, the orphans, and the elders who care for them. Hope comes from labor in the vineyard – tending the vine, fertilizing it, pruning it. One of the young girls who danced at the celebration said to me, “we’re poor. That’s why we’re dancing – so people will help us.” God’s ability to lure new life into being happens in the midst of human beings, both as individuals and in community. It may begin without our conscious awareness, but at some point our participation is necessary. That girl is learning to voice a cry for justice, even as she brings hope to her neighbors.
What’s your part of the vineyard? Is it tending the soil, ensuring adequate water, digging out the weeds? Or are you invited to prune the wild growth out of the vineyard? Fertile soil always invites weeds, and if they’re left alone, they eventually steal all the nutrients from the soil. Human communities without caretakers experience the same thing, the weedy behavior we call exploitation or greed or corruption. The human vineyard needs gardeners of justice, so that tender growth is protected, so that fruit is shared and no one outside the gate goes hungry.
The glory of God is all around us, but we’re usually only able to see glimpses of it. We wait for the coming of God’s reign, and that ancient dream of shalom, to see it in its fullness. Yet each time we answer “yes” and go work in the garden, we begin to see that glory in the fertility of the soil, the hope for bountiful harvests to feed the whole community, the partnership of other gardeners, and the discipline we call justice ensuring that no one gets fat while some go hungry. Each part of that work begins to transform the earth into the vineyard, and pasture, and garden that yield’s Isaiah’s mountain picnic: a feast of rich food and well-aged wines, strained clear. And God will pull away the pall of death that is cast over all peoples, like the tablecloth rising from Table Mountain. And the Lord will wipe away tears and grief, and God’s people will live together in peace.
Will you go work in the vineyard? That’s the only place to find glory of God – in willing and passionate and courageous people, fully alive. Will you go?