Rev. Danielle K Bartz October 8, 2023
Matthew 21:33-46 “Peace, not Euphoria”
I am a big fan of Disney World. For me, it is escapism at its best. And because my best friend lives in Orlando and works for Disney, a trip to Disney World for me doesn’t have all the hassle, and quite frankly the expense, most people must contend with. And because my friend knows the parks so well, I just follow her around taking it all in and not worrying about how to get where I am going. This was a serious problem once, years ago, when we were in Magic Kingdom one evening. I wanted to ride one of the roller coasters again, which my friend doesn’t do. So, she was going to stay at this excellent spot to watch the upcoming fireworks, while I went off to ride the ride, and then I would come back. I got deep into the park, away from her, before I realized that I had no knowledge of how to get around. I had never paid attention before, I didn’t need to, and I didn’t have a map. I got lost and started to have anxiety that I was going to have to go up to one of the park employees, tell them I am lost, and be taken to the lost children center until my friend could come and claim me. Luckily that didn’t happen. But I tell you that embarrassing story because for me it highlights how detached from every day cares I feel when I go to Disney. I am not in charge of anything – I am just there to spend time in a magical place, expertly designed to make you feel like you are in a whole other realm.
Every time I go, I hate to leave and reenter the real world. I try to capture that feeling, usually by buying souvenirs I regret when repacking to go home. While I normally pride myself on being someone who deeply cares about the world, I admit that when it is time to leave Disney, I am very tempted to forget about the cares of the world and just live in a place separated from everything that needs my attention and care.
I am not the only one this happens to. If you have never been to Disney, it is hard to describe how…magical…it is. This is done, of course, by building infrastructure and using a knowledge of human emotional reactions to create feelings of euphoria – that, for most anyway, can even compete with the crowds. Disney knows they do this well and is always looking for ways to sell it. And something they have attempted a few times to capitalize on people’s desire to live forever in the Disney World mindset is by creating planned communities. They have tried, on a few different occasions, to build neighborhoods that people can live in year-round that capture that Disney feeling. Walt Disney, in fact, was the first to try this. He dreamed up and built a neighborhood that was meant to be a utopia. He was sure that the genius that he had which created the parks could be mirrored in a neighborhood where families could raise their children – a neighborhood that was happy, peaceful, and magical. Unfortunately, that community was plagued by infrastructure problems and didn’t last.
But the Disney corporation kept trying – confident that there were people out there so determined to hold on to that feeling they experienced in the parks forever. Disney built another planned community in the late 80s – early 90s. But, quite quickly, it became clear that the neighborhood was a place where racial diversity wasn’t welcome. The people who first moved in became possessive and did things, big and small, that made it clear they wanted a homogeneous neighborhood, a place where economic and racial diversity was seen as bad. Disney, knowing that was no good for their image, sold the community in 1992. And rumor has it, my friend tells me, that Disney is going to try again. They are going to create another planned community – in an attempt to sell heaven on earth.
And to be honest, I am quite certain they will fail again. Because, they are trying to sell a perpetual vacation – a whole life that feels like a vacation. And while there are people who can afford to choose to live like that, they are very few. And, more importantly, humanity hasn’t yet evolved past the point where we feel the need to possess and protect our version of utopia. And we will protect it by whatever means are available to us – often times by making sure only the people who match up with our version of heaven on earth are allowed in. Now, of course, Disney can try to do this all they want. They are a corporation whose purpose is to make money – and they are very good at it. I may not think it will work, but I have no argument with their attempts. But what I do have concerns with is when other institutions, in particular religious institutions, attempt to do the same thing. Because I would say, without fail, when any human institution, no matter their motivation, tries to create their version of heaven on earth, the need to possess, protect, and bar the gates from those deemed unworthy is not just a stumbling block – the opposite of the intent is created. It is not heaven on earth, but rather hell on earth.
This was one of Jesus’ primary conflicts with the established religious and political systems of his day. The Roman Empire considered itself to be the pinnacle of human achievement. Remember, the Emperor was considered divine. This was their justification for everything they did, including occupying lands and people. While a few elite Romans undoubtedly felt that they were living in a heaven on earth, the vast majority of those subjected to Roman Imperial rule were living in a year-round hell.
Jesus had the same argument with the religious institutions around him as well. In today’s scripture lesson, Jesus is speaking directly to the Pharisees and Chief Priests in Jerusalem. These were the people tasked with maintaining the Jewish institutional religion. Jesus, through the use of an uncomfortable parable, compares them to tenant farmers in a vineyard who become so possessive, even though it does not belong to them, that they kill anyone who attempts to enter and take away what they have decided belongs to them and only them. The vineyard was a known metaphor for God’s Kingdom. So well-known that the people listening to this parable in Jesus’ time would have instantly made the connection. Jesus is telling the religious leaders that they are so in the wrong with the way they have hoarded their concept of heaven on earth, that they are no better than the murderous tenants who go so far to keep what is not theirs that they even kill the vineyard owner’s son. A time is coming, Jesus says, when the vineyard will no longer be theirs to control and possess.
Now, I need to pause for just a moment here to acknowledge that the Church universal has a shameful history of corrupting this parable to justify supersessionist practices. By that I mean that the Church has used this parable as a weapon by saying that what Jesus is teaching here is that the Kingdom of God no longer belongs to the Jews, rather it now belongs to Christians. Jesus would be, no doubt, appalled by this. Because what Jesus is saying here is that the Kingdom of God cannot be possessed by anyone. The vineyard, God’s Kingdom, is not a place that can be owned and managed by humanity – because we will inevitably mess it up. God’s Kingdom, the great promise of God, is God’s and God’s alone. We are welcomed into it, but we cannot possess it.
I often say, and I will continue to teach, that our responsibility as Christians is to make real the Kingdom of God for all people. But that does not mean we are the planners of God’s Kingdom – we are not the Master Builder, we are the workers – seeking to follow the plans that have been and are being created by the Divine Creator who is solely able to see the possibilities of what the intricate web of creation can do when it when it finally stops pushing and pulling against itself.
Following these plans as workers in the vineyard means that we are often called on to welcome in ways that make us uncomfortable. It means we have to let go of our ideas of who is in and who is out. It means we have to embrace the idea of abundance and therefore share abundantly, even though we are often much more comfortable in the realm of scarcity. It means we cannot bar the gates to who has access to God’s blessings and God’s grace.
We will not be able to accomplish this in our lifetimes. The people around Jesus were struggling with it and so are we. But, if we can remain open to the push of God, listen to God’s still-speaking voice that whispers to us when we can be quiet enough to hear, and seek to see the reflection of God’s face in all we encounter – then we are on the right path. We are following the plans for a community of humanity that is being created not to capture a fleeting feeling of euphoria, but rather one that provides a divine peace that is so complete it will fill the space between the atoms of our existence. This is the promise of God. A promise that will be fulfilled. A promise we are called on to help build. Amen.
Creating God, you loved this world into existence. You gathered the stuff of the earth into your hands, and with grace and care you formed us. Your creation was steeped in your great hope that we will find our way back to that Eden. For this hope-filled creation which we are a part of, we give you great thanks. And it is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
Loving God, we know that we too often are stuck in our own ideas of what your Kingdom looks like. And while we always strive to follow your plans, we must acknowledge that we struggle to understand them. But, we lean on the promise of your grace, and continue to seek your wisdom and guidance as we move through this life.
One of the ways that we can open ourselves to your guidance is through silent prayer, when we can quiet all other voices and listen for yours. We do that now, opening our hearts and spirits to you…
Good and Great God, you and you alone know the tremendous possibilities that exist in your creation. You sent Jesus to us to help us explore those possibilities and we are so grateful for that. So, we pray all of this and so much more in his name. And we pray in the way he taught…Our Father…