Matthew 21: 23-32
This Sunday we are confronted by one of the most endearing, and most alluring little parables in all of Scripture, maybe in all of literature.
How it fits with the rest of the lesson is not entirely clear, at least to me. Nor is it clear how the lesson in Matthew fits with the other assigned readings for the day, Philippians and our Psalm and so on. Dark sayings from of old, indeed.
But the collision of order and answer, of beckoning and response, has to haunt.
A man has two sons. Already, the plot is thickened, with rivalry, with competition, with family intrigue.
Then the preaching of the gospel occurs. The vintner—I prefer vintner to father here—tells something, it is a statement that beckons, not formally a question nor even an invitation. Simply a command. Go.
He commands. Schweitzer would be pleased.
Go and live, go and work, go and love, go and prune, go and pluck, go and tend your garden. Go. Up and Go!
Every day and every Lord’s Day, the word arises to us, singeing our nostrils. Go. The day accosts us with a challenge to the good, to a choice if Dewey is right between goods.
You know, I have a feeling about a feeling abroad.
I think some of us sometimes have the sinking feeling that things are not going so well, that things are drifting or worse.
We see war wounds that do not heal.
We see environmental gashes that we rue, ice melting, melting melting
We watch another attempt to bring expanding gambling to the commonwealth and wonder, is this the best we can do, the our selves at our best?
We see an economy that leaves out, as James Walters said this week, 14 million people, the equivalent of the total population of New England. Maybe twice that when you get everybody counted.
We see a beloved country and respected government that cant seem to organize a two car funeral.
And on top of it all, the Red Sox are not always winning.
You know, I think there is an ennui abroad, a languishing in doldrums of pervasive malaise.
So when the word comes. Come Sunday: Up! Go! You! Work! Vineyard! Today!
We pull up the covers and sleep in, or call in sick, or drive in late, or just are not really sure we can do anything about all these irremediable driftings.
What difference does it make what I do?
So, says son one, I will not go. Son two doesn’t go, he just evades, the compliant not the defiant one. He says Yes Mrs Cleaver, but he doesn’t go. He never meant to. He just doesn’t like conflict. Well who does?
But the first son has a change of heart.
Now I find this so encouraging, heartening, lovely. Up front, he says, no way, no way Jose. He is defiant, and willing to say it. I don’t think so, Mr. Vintner, Mr Father, Mr Voice, Mr Life, Mr. Daytime. I think I will just turn in my ticket. Thanks but no thanks.
But he has a change of heart.
Will you notice with me that the main thing we want to know is not told to us?
We want to know, what changed the heart? What did the trick? What sealed the deal? What moved the lever?
And the Bible says, ‘Address Not Known’. In other words, it is shrouded in mystery.
So we are a little free to speculate, and I plan to take that freedom in full today. We do not know what brought the change of heart.
But I know what can be a change of heart.
An experience of the beautiful can change the heart. A thank you note. A sunrise. A poem. A violin sonata. A student writing on our memory board, ‘I saw the planes hit from my fourth grade window’—there is a beauty in that memory of innocence lost.
When you come to church on Sunday, you may be saying no. NO I WILL NOT. You may be not willing to have any change, let alone a change of heart. It is in that very condition that John Wesley went in the rain to Aldersgate Street. NO I WILL NOT GO TO THE VINEYARD, not today baby.
You get to church and…
Sun through stained glass. Organ meditation. Word fitly spoken. Bach.
Music can say things that words never can.
Beauty is like that.
Actually, Dean Hill, Bach suggests his own answer for the source of Son Number One’s change of heart. With the spirit of beauty, perhaps it was indeed ‘a spirit’ of Beauty – the angels encamped about Son Number One. Angels – the very picture of beauty!
Today’s cantata celebrates these spirits of Beauty and Light – the Angels. Originally written for the Festival of St. Michael, celebrated on September 29th, our cantata today commemorates the victory of Michael, the arch-angel, over Satan as depicted in Revelation. The first movement brims with joyful celebration complete with trumpets and timpani, in a light dance style. Any jagged depictions of the battle are replaced by the brilliance of the celebration. Here, there are no fugues or demanding complexities – we hear the voice of Bach’s finest expressions of jubilation.
As the cantata proceeds, Bach’s takes the turns we now anticipate – ‘We acknowledge and celebrate the great things the Lord has brought to pass’, and we now mark the ways in which the Lord continues to work on our behalf in our living, in our working, in our sleeping, in our loving, and, yes, in our departing. The central aria of the cantata – ‘Gottes Engel weichen nie’ / God’s Angels never retreat – depicts these airy beings as they watch over our every need, preventing us from danger and temptation. Notice the lightness of the string writing, and the angelic voice of soprano Margot Rood. The second half of the cantata reminds us that in our departing, God’s angels will usher us to Abraham’s bosom, just as he did with Elijah and his fiery chariot. Bach is always teaching us a Bible lesson! Our dependence on the angels becomes clearer in the final duet, ‘Seid wachsam ihr heiligen Wächter’/ ‘Be vigilant, you holy watchman’. The bassoon takes the role of the lonely watchman in his nightly rounds, protecting us from Satan’s snare. The Cantata concludes with the famous chorale, Herzlich lieb, which some Marsh Chapel congregants will recognize as the chorale that concludes the St John Passion. In the Chorale, God’s angels usher us to Heaven when we meet our end – ever present, and ever vigilant.
Who can tell the source of beauty behind Son Number One’s change of heart? Perhaps God’s Angels, or perhaps as Lincoln said, ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Or perhaps it’s all the same – a shared and common beauty, ready and available.
You know, sometimes, we come saying no and leave saying yes.
What changes the heart?
What pierces, transforms, moves the heart?
It says, whispers, reminds:
There are a lot of things wrong. But there are a lot of things right. Somebody wrote this cantata—sheer beauty. Someone practiced and taught it—sheer beauty. Someone sang it and played it—sheer beauty. And here I am. I heard it. I heard it.
Music can say things that words never can.
Maybe number one son huffed no. Then he saw moonlight on Tiberias. Or his wife was singing as the children went to sleep. Or he remembered a part of a Psalm. Or he remembered the loving and lovely self giving of a loved one—maybe th
at of his father. Or a friend came by or came through.
Then he thought…
Well, maybe, well, maybe
Maybe things are bad, but maybe they can get better, and maybe better is the only good there is.
Maybe that is what you will think, leaving today.
Beauty stands beside me
Beauty stands beside me
I hear, I hear, I hear
Maybe I will say yes after all
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel Choir