On Being One Among Many
October 8, 2023
Exodus 20: 1-3
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
Matthew 21: 33-46
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Today’s sermon is titled On Being One Among Many. It is so easy to fall into the belief that we are all separate. The cells of our bodies and the cells of other tangible matter, like paper and rocks, are all held together with electromagnetic forces inside and between cells. These magnetic forces hold us together, literally. Without the magnetic forces holding our cells together, we could walk through walls; we could walk through one another. There are many invisible forces that shape us. Some we know a great deal about and others remain a mystery. Gravity, for instance, is predictable but there are invisible forces that lead us to do things that are not at all rational.
I’m remembering a story I read about a thirteen year old girl named Asma Kahn. Asma lived in an orphanage in Mumbai, India. She took care of many of the younger children there. They called her “Sister.” During the monsoon season, it rained so heavily that a dam broke and the orphanage began to flood very quickly. All of the children began to climb as high as they could to escape the rushing waters. Asma realized it would soon be too late to escape. She could see a larger building not far away so without thinking about the fact that she had never learned to swim, she jumped into the water and coaxed another child to jump into her arms. One by one, Asma carried 42 children to safety. What leads someone to jeopardize their own safety to protect others? We could say it is love, people do these things for strangers, too, everyday. I believe we know, deep down, that we are all one.
There are invisible forces that are constantly at play to remind us that separateness is only an illusion. In our scripture readings for today, we find Jesus in the temple teaching and the essence of his message is this: we are one among many; to ignore the welfare of the many for the benefit of one person or one group of people will lead to destruction.
In this passage, Jesus is not preaching to the gathered crowd. He is preaching to the religious elite, the temple priests, the Sadducees, the ones who are more concerned with remaining in the good graces of the occupying Roman army than in protecting the people of the Jewish community. In Jesus’s time, there was a great division within the Jewish community between the Sadducees, who held firm to temple custom in Jerusalem, and the Pharisees, who promoted a decentralized system of synagogues and priests spread out over all the land. Jesus would have identified with the Pharisees, and yet even within the Pharisees there were divisions; there were some loyal to the teachings of Hilel and others loyal to the teachings of Shammai.
Before we get too far down the road of differences, we are served to remember the greatest command handed down through the Hebrew people from the time of Moses. It echoes other similar messages from nearly every religion. When receiving the commandments, Moses first heard the message, “…no other gods before me.” This is the basis of spiritual life. A spiritual life in many traditions calls us to set the Self within the context of the whole and, in doing so, we create room for the divine to work in us and through us. This is why the church community is essential, in my experience. The church community is a place where we can practice considering our community as a whole, not just our own individual preferences. In church, we practice being the one among many. This challenges us and teaches us. In learning how to foster healthy relationships within our church community, we learn how to heal the divides we encounter in our larger community, in our nation, and in our world. Division is nothing new in American culture.
A little over two hundred years ago, culture in America was deeply divided and the divisions were so deep and so pervasive that people feared a civil war. Out of this time, the mid 1800’s, rose a wave of cultural speculation and criticism that echoed the sentiments of warning from the Hebrew prophets, including warnings like we heard today from Jesus of Nazareth. In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson published an essay titled, “The Poet.” In this essay, he called for a creative work representing the soul of America, with all of its “virtues and vices.” The response to Emerson’s call came years later from Walt Whitman, in his collection of poetry titled Leaves of Grass. One poem in particular, “Song of Myself,” is a powerful allegory of the role of the one among the many. Even the title of the collected works, “Leaves of Grass” offers the image of how individual blades of grass grow together, roots entwined, to form a fabric, of sorts. One of the assertions in “Song of Myself” is the presence of the divine within all people.
Stay with me here as we connect what was happening in Jesus’s lifetime with a similar sentiment in a time of crisis in our young country so perhaps we can draw conclusions about what is happening in the present time. In Jesus’s final days of his life on earth, he was aiming to turn the hearts of the priesthood back to the people who were suffering. The priests in Jerusalem were in the position to be the greatest and most effective advocates for the Hebrew people, but they were more concerned about themselves and protecting their own power. Jesus was challenging them with a parable about a landowner who built a productive vineyard and then left it for others to care for but when the landowner sent people to collect a portion of the produce, the tenants became violent. Three times the landowner sends people, lastly his own son, whom the tenants kill. Jesus asks the priests, “What will be the punishment?” The priests declare that the tenants will pay with their own lives and the landowner will give the vineyard over to others that will keep the agreement.
The priests likely do not realize until later that, in telling this parable, Jesus is showing how God has provided the priests with a sacred duty to care for the Hebrew people and to heed the words of the prophets.* Jesus tricks the priests into passing judgment on their own misplaced priorities in placing advancement and security for themselves over the needs of those whom they have been called to serve. Jesus makes a pronouncement that is painful to hear; he says, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” I can not help but to imagine how different the future may have turned out if the chief priest had been able to change their minds and join with the Pharisees in strengthening and growing Jewish enclaves in the countryside, empowering the people to create an even more cohesive culture that was not so vulnerable to the agenda of the Roman Empire. This was a pivotal time and Jesus was trying to convince those who were most influential to lead the people back to the heart of their tradition, living in alignment with God at the forefront. Jesus was not aiming to create a new religion, he was seeking revolution within his own.
There are times, though, when something altogether different is called for, when paradigms must be radically shifted. I am thinking of early American history and our founders as they were building on the model democracy as an alternative to monarchy. In the election of 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was running against the southern favorite, Steven Douglas, there were many fears that America’s experiment with democracy may be torn apart. The south was in a dither about Lincoln and his ideas and there was a great movement to not concede the election were Lincoln to win. Leaves of Grass had been published on July 4th, 1855, just five years before the election. Here is what journalist Mark Edmundson wrote concerning Whitman’s work as a metaphor for American democracy in a time when political divisions over slavery threatened to pull us asunder. “Hate is not compatible with true democracy. We may wrangle and fight and squabble and disagree. Up to a certain point, Whitman approved of conflict, but affection and friendliness must always define the connections between us. When that affection dissolves, the first order of business is to restore it.”
The message here is that self-governance depends on mutual affection, on respect for one another, and a focus on the needs of the many over the needs of one person or one group of people. This perfectly aligns with today’s message from Jesus to the Sadducees as he urged those with the religious and political power to consider first the welfare of the people. We see a similar dynamic in the contentious election of 1860. The economic system in the south depended on slavery and the indentured labor of white southerners and those who benefited the most from that system were loath to change it, so much so that they would rather rend the fabric of peace that the young democracy had secured. War would come, but not yet. Lincoln won by a landslide and in the end, Douglas conceded the election.
Friends, we are living in contentious and uncertain times. We are individuals just like leaves of grass, but together we form a fabric that can completely transform a cultural landscape. We would be served to remember the message Jesus delivered to those in power in his times: Serve the people, not just yourselves. And if you are concerned about the future of our democracy, remember the message Walt Whitman offered the American people: hate is not compatible with true democracy; mutual affection and concern for one another is essential for self-governance.
In closing, I remind us that we are capable of more than we know. There exists within us the ability to put our own lives at stake when circumstances demand it. Men and women soldiers of war have countless stories about this, police officers and emergency responders, too, and even children, like 13-year-old Asma who saved those 42 children from the floodwaters. We are one among many, many leaves of grass. May the divinity within ourselves recognize the divinity within others, no matter how different we may seem. May the forces that threaten to pull us apart be put asunder by the forces that hold us together. So be it. Amen.
*The imagery of the vineyard and the wine vat and the watchtower would have been familiar to the temple priests from the words in the book of Isaiah, chapter 5.
Pastoral Prayer: God of heaven and earth and all things within and without, I pray your blessings over humanity, this morning. There are many among us that are suffering, many grieving, many struggling to keep the light within burning bright enough to keep the darkness at bay. Help us, Lord, to tend to the parts of ourselves that need healing and help us in our awareness of others and how they are faring. Remind us of the power of a smile, a kind word, a genuine question of interest, a note in the mail, a phone call, or a prayer. Guide us with your love, I pray, in Jesus’s name, Amen.
Benediction: I leave you with these words from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 3: “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and forgive one another, as the Lord has forgiven you.”