[Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46]
Listen to the audio of this post as preached at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church here.
I can’t say I know the songs of Gladys Knight and Pips, but listen to these words:
I’ve really got to use my imagination
To think of good reasons to keep on, keepin’ on
Got to make the best of a bad situation
Ever since that day, I woke up and found out that you were gone
Sounds like Paul when he writes: I press on. Forgetting the past, I strain toward what lies ahead.
There are plenty of bad situations to name. One colleague said that her husband told her not to look at the news when she got up last Monday morning. He told her to wake up first. Whether mass shootings or hurricanes, whether political gridlock or ever-widening partisan divide, whether incompetency or problems too complex to contemplate, it can be hard to press on, to keep on, keepin’ on.
We are told that if we have brand ourselves the right way, if we achieve success or a good reputation, if we have a stellar resume and money for retirement, then we will be secure.
We wince when we hear Saint Paul almost brag how super-religious he was. He had every reason to be confident, he says. Devout to a tee, even blameless, to quote him. Yet of his own internal struggle, he discovers that he is made righteous in the eyes of God, not because of his reputation or religiosity, but because of faith in Christ. Compared to dying and rising with Christ, everything else is loss, everything is rubbish, which in Greek suggests a four-letter word (starts with S) that doesn’t pass the PG requirement for sermons. And so, Paul presses on.
And then there is the anguished Martin Luther trying to find a merciful God. Overwhelmed by sin and guilt, afraid of judgment and damnation, Luther is stuck, unable to keep on, keepin’ on. At that time, religion was a transaction. Buy an indulgence and get into heaven. And support the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, of course. Thus the famous quote: “as soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Yet Luther found solace in the words of St. Paul. All our religious devotion, all our good works, important as they are, do not make us righteous, do not justify us in the eyes of God, do not save us. Rather, we press on in worship and service, not to affect God, but as a response to God’s unconditional acceptance of us. Sharing in Christ’s dying and rising, to quote Paul, is what propels us. Learning from our losses and then getting up again in the morning. Sometimes that is the only thing that keeps us keepin’ on.
Singer and songwriter Tom Petty died this past week. In 1987 someone tried to burn down Petty’s house in L.A. with him and his family inside. They lost everything, but survived. And one of his most famous songs, is about pressing on:
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me at the gates of hell
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
I got just one life
In a world that keeps pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground.
And then there’s Jesus’ difficult parable today. There is violence and the killing of the heir. You can sense God’s grief, as we hear in Isaiah. The vineyard produced wild grapes. Rather than justice, there was bloodshed. We can wonder how God looks today on the violence, the abuse of one another and the earth. Whether the vineyard is Israel as Matthew seems to suggest, with its anti-Semitism. Or whether the vineyard is the church, the earth, or our little corner of the world, the vineyard is given away to a people who will produce fruit. And where does that leave us? How do keep on, keepin’ on?
We press on, even beyond the difficulty of the vineyard parable because Lutherans read the Bible through the eyes of God’s mercy and compassion.
Or in grace language, it’s not about being good enough, religious enough, holy enough. It’s not about finding God, getting to God, making a deal with God, rather it’s about being found. Receiving the good news day after day: God accepts you as you are and then calls you to more than you can imagine. We call it grace.
Luther agonized over his worthiness. Acceptance may be what causes us anguish.
Last month I saw a new musical called Trevor. It is about a 13-year old boy obsessed by Diana Ross. Trevor is just being himself. But that means jazz hands dance moves, exaggerated mannerisms, and gym class cluelessness. He has a crush on one of the football players. Now adolescence is hard on everyone. But this is 1981: before anti-bullying and gender diversity workshops. The kids in Trevor’s high school have only two ways of categorizing people: normal and weird. And Trevor is weird. And different. And probably a pervert, his classmates suspect.
When Trevor’s diary is seized and read by classmates, he is humiliated and tries to end his life. He loses his zest for life and simply has no desire to keep on, keepin’ on. Until he meets a kindred soul, in a latter scene.
Trevor stirred up a lot in me as I remembered my childhood and youth. Many of the cast members wrote about how they related to Trevor: being different, being bullied, simply trying to fit into the world. As adults many of us are still trying to be who we really are. Not living someone else’s life, but our own. Accepting that we are accepted.
The musical is based on a short film called Trevor that was made in 1994. Watch it now. It was part of the Trevor Project that included a national crisis intervention and suicide prevention lifeline for LGBTQ youth.
Because of God’s unconditional acceptance, we stand our ground. All of us, children of God. All of us, created in God’s image. All of us, welcomed in the waters of mercy. All of us, honored with dignity at the Lord’s table.
Sometimes it takes imagination, and making the best of a bad situation, as Gladys sang. But that’s why we come together. So God may lift us up. To lift one another up. And then to press on to a future in which God promises to be faithful. For here’s the thing: God keeps on, keepin’ on. And that’s our hope.