God's vineyard.

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:9-20
Philippians 4:6-9
Matthew 21:33-43

A Light to the Nations

"Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away
from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it."

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you?! And given to another?! That special relationship — "You will be My people, and I will be your God" — is to be abridged?! Friendship with God revoked?! Eternal divorce from the only love that really matters?! But we know this ... grave sin means separation from God. And unrepented, unabsolved sin means eternal separation.

Do you remember the day when you met that one, special person who would be the light of your life? Who would change everything? Do you remember how she or he suffused your world with love's holy light? Now, imagine hearing that all this is to be taken away .... and given to another. The words we hear in our Gospel lesson this morning must stop us in our tracks. They are words that will echo forever in the minds of those who hear them.

On the other side, we must imagine the deep hurt and bereavement of the One Who owns the Vineyard. And our minds today are never far from the Prologue of St. John's Gospel, on account of that:

He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.
He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.
We must remember the Heir, Who was sent to the Vineyard only to be murdered ... and murdered by those who should have done Him homage. Everything was given. Everything. Every sacrifice made. The deepest and holiest essences of love proffered .... only to be abused and trampled upon culminating in grievous and heinous violence. Yet, that once-in-a-lifetime love is now to vanish. And, in time, it is to be offered to another.

But who will receive this great gift of love and sensitive relationship? Will it be the near cousins of Israel to the north, the Samaritans, whose Temple on Mt. Gerizim was proclaimed to be the "one true Temple"? In time, is it to be given to the ancient Catholic Church, which we now call Eastern Orthodoxy? And what about that breakaway Communion of the eleventh century, the Roman Catholic Church? And what shall we say about these other Catholic and Apostolic Churches, among whom we number Anglo-Catholics? And the Protestants and their near relations, Evangelical Christians? And the Church of Latter Day Saints? And Seventh Day Adventists? And Christian Scientists? And Unitarians and Quakers and Shakers? Or spiritual paths of the Far East such as Buddhism?

These are big questions, and they deserve equally large answers. The Lord is God and Father of all. The mind cannot comprehend the awesome expansiveness and wholeness and unity signified by the word God. He is One. And all humankind, Whom He has made, He views as being His children. When the bishops of the worldwide Roman Communion met in Rome during the heady 1960s — during a brief era when the world seemed to be living through an Age of Love — these big questions pressed upon the minds of those charged with composing the two most important documents of the Ecumenical Council of the Roman Communion: the Dogmatic Constitution of the Western Catholic Church, Lumen gentium, and the Pastoral Constitution of the Western Catholic Church, Gaudium et spes. These men wanted to present universal documents to the world, proclaiming a brotherhood of man, a unity among all peoples. But they were dogged by an infallible teaching, a decree of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215): "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus": outside the Church (meaning the Catholic Church) there is no salvation. This teaching was understood to be inerrant and final and never to be annulled. At Vatican II, a clarion call for universal brotherhood was in their hearts, but an insuperable obstacle was plainly set before their eyes.

But, then, a deeper insight touched these men, another spirit, reflected years earlier in a quotation of Henri Cardinal de Lubac, a "father of Vatican II": "The Catholic spirit is not either-or, but both-and." And, here, de Lubac was not using the word Catholic to signify Roman Catholic. Indeed, nearly thirty years earlier, he had written a book, Catholicism, whose primary purpose was to be an anthology of the Greek Fathers and served many as an introduction (or, rather, re-introduction) to the ancient Catholic Church, before the Roman Communion broke away in 1054. de Lubac was thinking of the root meaning of Catholic: from the Greek, κατα 'ολον (kata holon), meaning "according to the whole." For as Pope John Paul II would write fifty years later, the Catholic Church can no longer breathe with one lung as he sought to end the schism between the Eastern Church and the Western Church.

Fragmentation, and the human brokenness it signifies within us individually, will never attain to the Kingdom of God. And this brokenness, of course, goes far beyond the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, presently split into many pieces. This brokenness and fragmentation and personal bitterness inhere in all the world's peoples. It describes the entire, human lifeworld. It was here where the Vatican II fathers contemplated the deeper meaning of extra Ecclesiam, "outside the Church." For in the end they realized, no one is born outside the Catholic Church. For at our birth, perfect in innocence and proceeding from God, in His image, into the world, every soul belongs to Him. And in that birthright resides a family resemblance that cannot be denied, and a promise of wholeness and unity that can never be forgotten.

When we hear such passages — as the one read this morning promising the Vineyard to the nations (which is to say, the Gentiles or non-Jews) or the Lord's encounter with the Canaanite woman, who, though outside the sheepfold of Israel, is styled "great in faith" (Mt 15:21ff) or the Roman Centurion whose faith exceeded any in Israel (Mt 8:10) or Jesus' mysterious revelation that "I have other sheep, that are not of this fold" (Jn 10:16) — we are invited to cast our minds back to a sacred night long ago: the birth of God on earth. For it would not be sages of the official Church who paid Him homage nor would it be emissaries from Rome or the royal houses of Judea, Samaria, or the Diaspora. No. Instead, there were strangers from the East, shadowy magicians speaking unknown languages, dressed in exotic finery, and bearing precious gifts. Milton called them "star-led wizards," who then departed as mysteriously as they had come. And the star they followed hovered over all the earth, beckoning every human creature to a stable nigh unto the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

From His birth Jesus was born, as the prophet Simeon would say, to be a light to all the nations and the glory of His people, Israel (Lk 2:32). This is what inspired the Vatican II fathers to entitle the Council's most important document, Lumen gentium, "a light to the nations." He was not born to lead a cult or even a single Communion, but rather to invite all humankind into an indelible and empyreal friendship with Him, a Kingdom, you may be sure, that will have no end.

During my seminary years I received many shocks of illumination including those from my teacher Lamin Sanneh and his colleague Andrew Walls. Through Sanneh, I saw a profound truth: that through the process of Bible translation, the Gospel message was irretrievably refracted through the cultures in which it was proclaimed. For language itself is the unavoidable repository of deeply embedded cultural artifacts. In a sense the Gospel message is encoded in the cultural genes of every person who hears it and then interwoven with cultural strands of other peoples as translation touches translation until the result is written in and through the peoples themselves. I share with you, as a translator myself, that no translator ever fails to consult other translations. As good Catholic theology prescribes, God has inspired His Sacred Scriptures through His most holy earthly instruments, His peoples.

Sanneh's colleague Andrew Walls noticed something equally profound: that the Holy Spirit slowly sweeps His light over the globe, like the sun. That a particular part of the planet's surface blooms under its warmth and lifegiving rays. But then its day ends, and that holy light sweeps over the next region of the globe with a particularly intense fire and brightness. Tongues of fire at Pentecost rained down on God's people in Jerusalem. And the Jerusalem Church would be the center of the Christian world for thirty-seven years until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. After that, the Holy Spirit shone brightest in Asia Minor and Mediterranean Africa. We read of the great Patriarchates of Alexandria, of Antioch, and of Constantinople. Today, these are Muslim cities within Muslim countries. Next, the Holy Spirit defined life and culture in Europe, and here the sun seemed to stop in the sky. Will Durant called this long summer "The Age of Faith," and indeed every aspect of the cultures of Europe were rooted in the soil of God. Yet, today, Europe can scarcely be deemed a Christian geography. Next, the United States for two hundred years was truly "one nation under God." Indeed, we are the generation of Americans who saw that world firsthand and who now see it almost entirely vanished.

Today, the Holy Spirit burns brightly in the noosphere, where my principal "church" resides, roughly seven thousand people each week. Remarkable! Who could build a building that large? ... not to mention affording the public address system! In 1922 the Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ predicted that the whole world would be united in what he called a web of information and knowledge. That Worldwide Web (www.) now reaches nearly every corner of the globe. And in that fact, we can say that we are also the generation to witness the fulfillment of the Great Commission: the divine command to preach the Gospel to every corner of the earth (Mt 28:16ff). As I speak, very few people have not heard this story: that God has entered the human lifeworld to dwell with His human creatures and to teach them the ways of Heaven, which is the law of love; that He has given His angels charge over us and dearly wishes each of us to dwell with Him forever, in the Vineyard today and in His marvelous world of light forever.

As we shared in a reflection five week's ago, the Ute-Aztecan language remarkably has communicated much of the Judean-Christian story for, perhaps, thousands of years among the Anasaze, the ancient peoples of North America. The spiritual way of Buddhism is so wonderfully compatible with the Gospel message that the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, OCSO, said that in many ways he saw himself as being Buddhist. For Buddhism is not a "God religion," but rather a spiritual path enjoining its followers to empty themselves of worldly desire that they might ascend to a Heavenly life. Or as St. Basil the Great said of our Gospel reading this morning,

To be spiritually weeded, ... to have renounced the worldly ambitions that burdened our hearts.
Anyone who has renounced the love of material things and attachment to possessions, or who has
come to regard as despicable and deserving of contempt the poor, wretched glory of this world,
is like a weeded vine. Freed from the profitless burden of earthly aspirations, that person can
breathe again.
Anyone, St. Basil says, may do this. And we add that this is an essential truth of Buddhism. In that spirit we recall St. Paul's words this morning: "Whatever is poor, whatever is lovely, what is gracious, whatever is excellent, think on these things." Which is to say, all people are invited to see goodness and by that invitation to enter into God's life.

It is difficult for us to think of God without thinking first of our religion. But religion does not equate to God, for religion is not an end in itself. And I grieve to think of the many people who "do religion" but never enter into religious life, which is to receive and to give the pure love of God. Religion is a spiritual way, which helps one to attain to Heaven. The Church's mysteries or sacraments are supernatural ministrations that sustain us and propel us in that all-important journey. They are not the journey; they look beyond themselves; they are the supernatural assistance we receive to embark on the journey, to be sustained on the journey, and to reach the object of the journey, which is the Kingdom of Heaven. Our fellowship with the saints are a fellowship with those who have already traveled this path, who can encourage us and help us with their prayers. God has set a priceless value upon each of us .... each of us, Whom He loves all out of measure, as the Sacred Scriptures plainly depict from their beginning, which is in Him, to their conclusion, which ends in Him. No one, therefore, can be outside of that all-encompassing love. Whatever may have happened in the past, whatever has been abridged, might melt and be reformed in the surpassing heat of that pure love. No one is beneath His attention. And there is no one, ever born on into this world, whom He does not encourage to shine as the apple of His eye.

Indeed, as we read in Isaiah this morning, the Vineyard is trampled down. Trampled! And from those trampled grapes, He distills a wine, an essence placed into a cup that should be offered at every communion rail to all people. As we learn again today that He sent His Son to be an emissary to all, that we might know what love is really about. For it is life, "the true light that lighteth every man (and woman) that cometh into the world."

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.