October 8, 2017, Playing Our Song – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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One of the greatest old classic movies is Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. I’m sure most of you have seen it. It’s set in Morocco during the Second World War. Humphrey Bogart plays Rick Blaine, who owns a nightclub in Casablanca, and Ingrid Bergman plays Ilsa, who was an old flame of Rick’s once upon a time. But now Ilsa is married, and she’s come to Rick to ask him to help her husband, who is being hunted by the Germans.All this brings them to kind of a crossroads moment, where Rick and Ilsa have to decide whether to go on with the business of their lives or renew this love that they once shared. One of the best-known scenes of the film is when Rick tells the piano player, Sam, to play the song that was “their song” back when they were lovers: it’s “As Time Goes By” and it stirs up all those old feelings – which is exactly what Rick has in mind when he tells Sam to play, because obviously, he’s never stopped loving Ilsa, even after all those years.
The parable we read today is the story of a man who plants a vineyard and rents it out to some farmers for a share of the harvest. But the farmers in the story decide they don’t want to give the landowner a share of the harvest; they want to keep it all. So every time he sends someone to collect the rent, the tenants beat them or kill them and finally they end up killing the landowner’s son so there won’t even be any heir to inherit the produce of the vineyard. It is very easy to read this parable as a story about judgment, because the actions of the tenants are so despicable. When Jesus asked the people who were listening to him, “What do you think the landowner is going to do to those tenants when he comes?” they gave the harshest of answers – absolute condemnation: “He’ll put those wretches to a miserable death.” they said, “And then he’ll go find some tenants who will give him a share of his own harvest.”
The Chief Priests and the Pharisees who heard the parable knew that Jesus was talking about them, and they would have thrown him in prison right then and there, if they weren’t so afraid of the crowds of people that thought Jesus was a prophet and hung on his every word. When they heard the parable they hated and feared Jesus, because, like the crowds, they heard only judgment and condemnation. But because they closed their minds and their hearts to him; because they wouldn’t listen, they missed the most important point of all, and that was that Jesus was playing “their song.” As men who knew the Scriptures, if they had really listened they would have heard – not threats and condemnation – but the echoes of the centuries-old love song from Isaiah, God speaking tenderly to his people, “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it and he looked for it to yield grapes – but it yielded wild grapes.”
We read these interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees and Scribes and Chief Priests, over and over again in the gospels, and it is easy to just see the hostility between them. We see the jealousy and hatred of many of the Jewish leaders towards Jesus. And often we can see that Jesus is frustrated with them, or even angry, like the day he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. But we miss the most important point if we don’t see that behind and underneath it all is always God’s yearning, his passionate love – God calling his beloved back to him.
Through the prophet Hosea, God speaks about Israel as if he were the husband and Israel was his bride who had been unfaithful. He says, “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband.’ And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.”
Another time, God speaks about Israel as a father with his rebellious child, very much like the Prodigal Son of Jesus’ parable. “When Israel was a child, I loved him,” God says, “The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love…. I bent down to them and fed them.”
Jesus speaks with that same tenderness when he weeps over Jerusalem, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”
It is natural for human beings to view God as high and mighty, requiring the obedience and respect of his servants. Most other religions worship that kind of a god; it’s the kind of god people make up when they create their own gods. But if we hear the love songs of the Bible, God has revealed himself to us, not just as our Lord and Master, but also as a loving Father, a faithful Husband, a friend. It is an almost incomprehensible thing, that we worship a God who has willingly opened himself up to suffer the pain of rejection and sorrow and loss, purely because he chose to love us. When we are like rebellious children, running off to follow our own desires and priorities; when we are like faithless brides, giving our love to every worthless thing that catches our eye; when we are like barren vineyards that fail to bear fruit – even then, if we listen, we hear the love song of our God who is always there, calling us tenderly back home.
When we come together to worship our God on Sunday mornings there are a lot of different parts of our worship: we sing and pray, we make our confession, we have some teaching, we give our offerings; and those are all important. But the very heart of what we do each week is the sign that Jesus himself left for us to remember him by – the meal of bread and wine we share to remind us of his greatest act of love for us, his friends. Every week we speak the very words of Jesus himself: “Take, eat, this is my body. Drink of this, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” When we share the bread and wine today, listen: we’re playing our song, the love song of Jesus Christ, who put flesh and bones on the passionate love of the Father, who loved you more than his own life, and who never stops loving you.