His name was Fleming and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to make a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death. The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy the farmer had saved. “I want to repay you,” said the nobleman. “You saved my son’s life.”
“No, I cannot accept payment for what I did,” the Scottish farmer replied waving off the offer. At the moment, the farmer’s own son came to the door of the family hovel. “Is that your son?” the nobleman asked. “Yes,” the farmer replied proudly. “I’ll make you a deal. Let me provide him with the level of education my own son will enjoy. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll no doubt grow to be a man we both will be proud of.” And that he did.
Farmer Fleming’s son attended the very best schools and in time, graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. Years afterward, the same nobleman’s son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia. What saved his life this time? Penicillin. The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son’s name? Sir Winston Churchill.
Our stewardship theme this year is “Every One Counts.” By the same token, every story counts—in its own right certainly but more importantly because it connects to what has come before. And, in the present, it prepares the stage for what will come next.
For the past few weeks, the lectionary cycle has featured parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like – with stories about plants and farming, featuring scenes that describe changes that happen over time. We talk so much about “when the kingdom comes” that we sometimes forget it is so much more than a moment in time, but an ongoing process that began with God’s incarnation in Jesus.
Today’s gospel is a sharp departure from what the kingdom of heaven is like to the conditions under which the kingdom might be lost. An inhospitable reception awaited each of the master’s servants who arrived at the vineyard to collect the produce—one was beaten, another thrown out and killed. Finally the master sent his own son who fared no better.
Indeed, the prophets who brought God’s word to God’s people were ostracized and ignored. A prescient Jesus foreshadows his own rejection and death in this thinly veiled warning to the community leaders who continue to cut off the people they lead from the God to whom they belong. Unable to connect what is happening now—their present reality—to the narratives of their ancestors and the promise of God for their futures if their present remains unchanged, the very heirs of the coming kingdom will be barred from entering it because their leaders failed to deliver the prophets’ messages to the people they were charged to serve.
The parable is a chilling warning to religious leaders and the communities they serve and a fitting centerpiece for the covenant that I enter today with this community. For in one sense, something begins for us today as my husband and I join this community but in a much more important sense, we simply take our place in the continuing story of God’s work here. We do ministry together, picking up today’s story where yesterday’s story left off, listening to hear where God has been at work in the past in order to better see God at work in the present and assist each other in preparing the way of the Lord for what will come tomorrow.
Every story counts. And this gospel passage assures us that welcoming each person’s story of God at work keeps the kingdom coming. Our common life together is not guaranteed to last a certain time—for we know not the hour of our death. We aren’t guaranteed prosperity—for it rains on the just and the unjust, or an easy go of it—for we must each carry our own cross daily. About the only thing we are guaranteed is mystery in creation and miracles abounding in the most common events. But we will miss all of this if we don’t leave space in each day to reflect and breathe.
I think that’s what this parable is telling us at the end: The very stone that the builders—who should have known better—threw away was, in fact, the chief cornerstone of everything. On Thursday, a handful of us gathered to inter the ashes of Jackie Ingley. A 90 year old woman joined us. She had been Jackie’s friend for 48 years. Jackie and her husband moved here from Atlanta because of that friendship. We pressed her for stories about Jackie. “Oh,” she said, “there is nothing much to say. She was ‘ordinary’.” But, then she proceeded to share extraordinary stories of kindness. Afterward, Margaret Whalen shared flower guild stories, including Jackie’s handwritten thank you notes to flower guild persons in the aftermath of major feast days, and how much Jackie taught her and others about church flowers. Jeremy recalled Jackie’s work on the brass guild and in so many other activities. Whether we share stories around a grave or beside a crib, over coffee and sewing or during breaks at a Habitat build, we are feeding each other with the stuff of the prophets—encouraging, reminding, and treasuring the mercies of God poured out in our lives.
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
October 5, 2014