In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week, Evelyn came to me - almost apologetically - in her capacity as the head of the Altar Guild to ask me a question about Advent. I know: it must sound really surprising to think that we’re already thinking about Advent - Evelyn thought so, too! We’re still having lots of days when we can get away with shorts and short sleeves and open windows and sitting outside. Fall officially started a couple of weeks ago, but even so, we’re early enough into it that summer’s memory isn’t quite as distant as it will become. And Advent means the coming of Christmas. There’s no way we’re ready for Christmas! But, in the life of the church year, we are already starting to turn our eyes toward Advent.
There was a movement in the church not too long ago - a movement that’s probably still going on among some liturgical scholars - to redraw the annual liturgical calendar, making Advent longer. I believe the proposal was to extend it from four weeks to eight.
One of the reasons for this was out of a recognition that culturally, Advent has become consumed by Christmas. Of course we, in the church, are steadfast in our observance of Christmas beginning on the 25th of December. But might we all be served by a liturgical observance that places a greater focus on the sense of hope and expectancy that we have as a part of our Christian heritage?
Another reason - just in case you were sitting there wondering why your priest has been talking so much about the run-up to Christmas here at the start of October - is because a faithful reading of the texts leads us to begin to recognize that Advent really does start earlier than we’ve been observing it. The liturgical year doesn’t have the kinds of fixed boundaries that we’ve tried to impose upon it: Year A stops here. Year B begins not one moment before! But instead, the years and the seasons tend to blend between one another. We don’t just suddenly turn our heads in another direction when Advent starts - the calendar of the church and the cycle of our readings has been slowly pointing us in that direction for a long time. There aren’t sharp lines. There’s almost always some aspect of the church’s teachings that are pointing us toward the miracle and the gift of incarnation. And there’s almost always some aspect of the church’s teachings that are pointing us toward the miracle and the gift of the resurrection. Though some Sundays seem to have one focus or another, it’s never entirely one or the other.
So, the lessons that we’re hearing here at the end of the liturgical year, start to take shape as a kind of advent to Advent.
It starts from a place within us that we all intuitively know: life leads to death. It’s a painful part of the story of our humanity, but one that we all have to face. In the story of Jesus, we know from the moment he is born: he will die. But the Christian promise is that there will also be something more. That “life leads to death” won’t be all that we’ll know. Death will also lead to life. We know that from the moment Jesus dies. It’s never the end of the story.
And we incorporate that into all of our own lives. When we celebrate baptisms or the life cycles and stages of our children, part of the gift that they represent for us is an antidote to our own mortality. They keep the world going even after we’re gone. And when we’re gone, and when the ones we love go before us, we trust that we’ll all live on in the promise of the resurrection, and in the resurrection incarnated in our relationships and our communities.
The same thing is happening in the church year. As I told you last week, the section of Matthew that we’re reading right now is, in the chronology of Jesus’ life, a part of the Holy Week story. These teachings and parables are being taught and told in Jerusalem, on the cusp of his death.
Jesus’ life, will ultimately lead to his death. And that death will lead to life. And life to death, and death to life, and on, and on, through the ages.
We have to hear things over and over again before we can really learn them - before we can truly integrate them into our lives and into our beings. We have to experience the cycle again and again. We need each Advent to point to the Resurrection, and we need each death to point to some new Advent - some new season of hope and expectation that we’ve been previously unable to fully see.
And that’s a bit of what we’re hearing in this sort of obtuse parable - the Parable of the Absent Landlord. It’s a rather unfortunate name, because it seems almost undeniable that in this allegory, the absent landlord is meant to represent God. It’s uncomfortable to imagine God as absent. At least it is, for me.
But this difficult tale tells us that God sent workers again and again to do the work of the kingdom. We’ve certainly heard about all of that - the many ways that God has tried to deliver us from evil - or another way of thinking about it: from the shortcomings of our humanity. Just this morning we heard one of those ways that God has tried to intercede: in the giving of the Law - the Ten Commandments. But there have been countless others. There are books upon books throughout the Bible that tell the story of God reaching out to people, only to have us turn away. That was the function of all of the prophets. That was the work of all of the kings. Each time, God was reaching out to the people, and each time the people found some way to try to push God away.
It can be tempting to hear the Parable of the Absent Landlord as a kind of foreshadowing to the death that Jesus would face on Good Friday, but perhaps it’s not foreshadowing at all. Perhaps it’s not even a clever prediction. Perhaps the cycle of the tenants rejecting the messengers of the landlord is a reminder to us - not just the us of then; the us of the Holy Week narrative, but even us, here today.
Our history as the people of God has shown us that when we’re not paying attention, we all too often find ourselves trying to push God away. Of course God isn’t going anywhere, but even so, it can bring harm to ourselves and to those around us when we try to push God away.
In our Wednesday morning worship group, we’ve been spending some time praying through the calendar of saints together. One of the things we talked about together this week was, how is it that we hold on to the discipline that the stories of the saints are trying to impart to us? We have these examples of holy living, but how do we keep them in our minds and guiding our actions? There are so many forces in the world trying to drive us away from clearly experiencing and embracing the presence of God. There are external forces such as the idols that our culture constantly pushes on us like greed, and consumerism, and self-centeredness. But there are also internal forces like anger, resentment, judgement, and prejudice. All of these are things that can cause us to feel separated from God. They’re things that can make the landlord seem absent. They’re things that can keep us from accomplishing the ministry for which we’ve been called.
Like those tenants so prone to evil, we, too, must be called again and again back to God. We, too, need the law, and the prophets, and the kings, and even God’s own child to remind us where we should be and what we should be doing. Like the endless cycle of life, death, and resurrection; and life, death, and resurrection; and life, death, and resurrection… We also need the cycle of repenting and returning to the Lord.
The cycle of the church year - with it’s not so clear and always repeating and intermingling beginnings, middles, and ends - reflects the very cycles of faith, and falling from faith, and returning to faith that make up so much of our lives.
The landlord of the parable was never truly absent. Even if the tenants couldn’t see him, they were always on his mind. He grieved their failings, and he kept trying again and again to bring out the fruits of the vineyard that he knew were there.
I hope that we’re never as evil as the tenants we’ve heard about this morning. But even so, the little evils that keep us feeling separate from God will come. When they do - when you feel most alone - try to remember that while you may not know God is there, God knows you are there. God is still trying to be known. God is still trying to bring forth the best fruits of your life and labor that you have to offer. And while you’re trying to remember, use the tools and the traditions of our faith that have been given to you. Connect with the cycles of the church. Pray through the cycles of life, death, and resurrection.
The thing about cycles is, they always come around. Soon they’ll come around for you, too. Soon, what feels like death will be shown to be really life. Just don’t give up. Amen.