Pentecost 17, Proper 22A
Where's the Fire? by Pastor Kinsey
Where’s the fire? Well, last night, it was on the Chicago River! In a celebrative re-enactment of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the ‘Great Chicago Fire Festival’ was inaugurated. Choreographed by Chicago’s own, Redmoon Theatre, fire and fireworks lit up the sky, all under control, of course, for the pleasure of 10’s of thousands of Chicagoens! It was 143 years ago this week, when over 3 square miles, most of Chicago, burned for parts of three days, decimating the young city. Redmoon and the City want to make this into an annual event, hoping to celebrate the grit, greatness, and renewing spirit of Chicago – a celebration of the resilience that overcame the fire’s devastation and made it a thriving metropolis. Redmoon’s creative director, Jim Lasko, fears, that spirit is under attack today.
There is a fire, and an attack going on, in the Parable of the Vineyard Owners Son, too. It’s an emergency that intensifies and heats up, as two sets of servants, and finally the Son, are sent into the vineyard, where they are beaten, stoned or killed. The Son was sent, last of all, to put out the fire and emergency situation, in his Father’s Vineyard, once and for all. Was God’s Son, a First Responder? Was he fearless in the face of the fire he walked into on Good Friday, and when he rode a donkey into Jerusalem?
The Son of the Owner of the Vineyard, was the heir to the property, and the Vineyard Owner had a right to expect that the tenants who were leasing the land would respect the Owner’s own flesh and blood. But instead, their eyes grew wide at the thought of, offing the heir, and taking possession of the vast property itself. They could take the place of the heir and the Owner, and could have it all. That was the tinder-box situation the Owner kept trying to avoid. This fire was set deliberately by the Tenants, seeking to attack and replace the maker and creator of it all, and claim that they, the crafty tenants, owned it instead, or at least, desired to run the show, and take the profits, for themselves, according to their own rules.
Fearless First Responders are always at the ready to go put out the fire. They don’t create the fires, and so they aren’t responsible to put them out, but they volunteer to be First Responders none-the-less, to put their lives on the line, and save others, for the good and safety of all.
As we know, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 didn’t keep the city down for long. Plans were already being made to rebuild before the last smoldering coal was put out. And part of the rebuilding plans, were newly created, building and fire codes. Steel beams became the commercial standard, replacing wooden structures. Exit signs and sprinklers soon came into being. Between 250-300 lives were lost, here in October, in 1871, and 1/3 of the city was homeless – more emergencies than the fire department could possibly handle. So, First Responders have had a stake in government regulations, and being proactive in structural reforms, as well as just waiting for the next fire to start.
And to help get them through, I think it’s worth noting, First Responders, for well over a century, have had fire-house dogs as their companions, offering relief and comfort, in times of great stress. Whether pure breed Dalmatians or mixed breeds, fire-house dogs were essential back in the early days of horse-driven fire trucks. Dogs led the way, running ahead and alongside of the horses to protect them and to calm the horses, who are naturally afraid of fire. The fire-house dogs were also known to protect the fire equipment from would be thieves at the site of fire calls. And back at the fire-house, of course, they were welcome companions, a First Responders’ best friend.
Today, as we remember St Francis of Assisi, on this Sunday closest to his Commemoration day, we welcome all pets in worship for a blessing. Francis, namesake of the new Pope, and, I think we could say, original animal whisperer way back in the 11th Century, famously called all animals his brothers and sisters. And, St Francis was a First Responder to the fires, which were caused by the rampant corruption in the empire of the church and society, of his day. Born into nobility, Francis sold all he had, to live in solidarity with the poor. Francis loved God’s creation and was a devoted servant to it. He abhorred those who tried to steal God’s beloved Vineyard, and taught what his followers would later coalesce into the Franciscan Order, which in a word, is that we are all to be good stewards of God’s creation. God owns it all, God has given us everything, and as caretakers, we have been given responsibility to tend and keep the Vineyard, to return a harvest of healthy grapes, for the good of all God’s creatures.
Where’s the fire!?! The chosen people of God have had many ups and downs, many fires and First Responders, throughout the long relationship with our God. Isaiah, in our First Reading, describes the time when, because of the disobedience of God’s people, when God expected high quality grapes from God’s Vineyard, they produced wild grapes. “The Lord of hosts… expected justice,” said Isaiah, “but saw bloodshed.”
What had gone wrong with the empire that David and Solomon had inaugurated, who brought the people of God to the top of the world, and at the height of their power, when they were called to be a beacon of light for the world, symbolized by the magnificent Temple built on top of Zion, their great capital city – and then fell so far? But empires are good at self-deception, while crumbled from within. The Temple leaders and managers of it all, became corrupt stewards, cheating the poor, and forgetting the covenant God made with them. They produced wild grapes and shed the blood of the innocent. And so Isaiah is describing the fire which was never put out in those days, a fire without visible flames, and so without First Responders willing to volunteer, a corruption from within, we know as sin – this was the story of their Exile to Babylon, one of the lowest of the lows, for the people of God.
In the parable of the Vineyard Owners Son, only a few centuries later, Jesus describes his own story, the story of a seeming tragic ending, how he is rejected and thrown out of the Jerusalem empire, and killed. Jesus, the heir of God’s Vineyard, did come as a Fearless First Responder, to put out the fire of corruption within the leadership of his own people who had cast their lot with its occupiers, the Roman empire. Instead of producing good grapes, the leaders in Jerusalem had become like wild grapes, sour and worthless for winemaking. And so Jesus fearlessly offered his own blood, poured out for many – “shed for you,” he said, holding up the cup of Passover wine.
And though he was rejected and thrown out of the Vineyard – of which he was the rightful heir, and was killed, a truly tragic fire that seemed to rage out of control and smolder for three days – miraculously, God rescued his Son, the heir. The owner of the Vineyard raised up the rejected one, the one who was betrayed and beaten – and the dishonest tenants, the jealous and misguided managers, all tendencies each of us has in our lives, if we are honest, were exposed for what they are, corrupt and unjust, living at the expense of others, and claiming ownership of what is God’s, instead of acknowledging it, as a gift.
But meanwhile, in the death and resurrection of the Son, a new cornerstone had been laid, and the old empire had been conquered, once and for all. We live, because Christ lives. We are able to share the Vineyard and be its good Stewards, because we live in the new building, that is not made with human hands, but is built by Christ Jesus, the rejected Son. We share the cup of salvation which is made from the grapes of God’s Vineyard, and we are renewed, a pleasant planting of the LORD of hosts, as Isaiah prophesied. It gives us grit, grace, and revives us for the rebuilding of the city of God, the empire of justice, for the healing of the nations.
Where’s the fire? The raised Christ is our chance for structural reform, and the reason we want to volunteer as First Responders. Our lives have been transformed and reoriented to receive the gift of the Vineyard, that we may live harmoniously with all of creation and become the good stewards, God calls us to be. We are the Body of Christ, the harvest of good grapes, a pleasant vintage – let us drink of this Cup of salvation, as we are renewed at the Table of the LORD.