Three Billboards Being Born Anew
“Three Billboard Being Born Anew”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
My wife and her mother wanted to buy a lake house. I thought this was nuts. We already had an old home keeping me quite busy and now she and her mother were looking to buy a fixer upper on the shore of Lake Ontario. Taking a tour of the dilapidated house with a crumbling sea wall and as many types of floor covering that can be applied being applied, not to mention it was filled with all the misguided furnishings that come to a cottage like a black hole that draws all furniture that should be discarded, taking a tour I said, this is insane, a terrible idea. So, we bought it.
As fate would have it, in the end, it was I who grew to love the shack on the lake. I spent spring and summer and then fall for the better part of six years tearing out walls, floors, building a sea wall. My favorite was building stones walls, but a close second was rewiring the cottage. Had to be done because it was dangerous. After a room was taken down to the studs, I would replace the all too dangerous old wires concealed behind drywall, paneling, and wallpaper.
A friend of mine came and showed me the basic principles of wiring, how to connect to the junction box; how to run boxes and switches, and when that was done and the new dry wall hung, how to attach the lights and appliances. This might not sound appealing, but I must confess, for some reason I loved every minute.
What I loved starts with tearing down the drywall, exposing the old wire. I loved seeing how bad it was because I knew I was going to replace the old with new. It’s slow work, running new wire; as such it allows for contemplation, a pastor’s paradise. Then there is the thrill of lights working. There is something about running a wire up through a ceiling, through a box where a fan will go and then having it work. It is a beautiful moment.
There are two parts to rewiring: tearing out the old and replacing it with the new. It sounds obvious and it is. For me this became a great lesson in faith, a principle for living— stays with me. I apply the lesson of rewiring to my soul all the time. Tear out the old and replace it with the new. Go slow. Be careful as this can get dangerous. Don’t panic if it doesn’t work on the first time. Try again. These are all great lessons I learned from rewiring an old cottage; they work on the heart as well. We too need to be rewired.
One way of reading our lessons today is that the parable is like tearing out the old wires and baptism is like replacing them with new. We all have old, faulty wiring in us. The teachings of Jesus point this out, reveal the faulty wiring. In the same but opposite way, we are all in need of being rewired, or reborn. In fact, to me, the idea being born again, being saved is very much like being rewired. Out with the old; in with the new.
Let’s start with the old wire, the vineyard and violence. Our parable today is like old wire in us. The old wire is anger, violence, hatred, wrath, retribution, vengeance. There are other wires, like there are other rooms in a house, but here the old wire comes down to anger and violence.
The parable of the vineyard is about answering violence with violence. Again and again the tenants are violent until the owner is violent in return. Jesus reveals our trust of violence when he says, “what will the landlord do?” And the people said, “they will put those wretches to a miserable death.”
This parable has been misinterpreted as an allegory for centuries where the landowner is God and tenants are the Jews and the servants are the prophets and the son is the Son of God, Jesus. Please do not fall into this trap. This parable is not a judgment on Judaism or the old covenant. This is a timeless teaching about how violence is our impulse. Every step of this parable is about violence, how it is wired into us, something akin to impulses, instincts. When we get mad it can feel as if there is no choice. Someone threw a switch in us and lit us up.
The parable of the vineyard is all about violence and vengeance, how it seems justified, how we believe it will accomplish good things. Indeed, we may be so filled with the old wires of anger, wrath may be something we trust so much it may seem impossible to remove or worse, it is invisible. That’s the problem with wiring: it is imbedded in a wall, a ceiling, and we don’t see it until we remove what conceals it.
That is what a parable is meant to do: remove the assumptions that conceal our brokenness. A parable is meant to remove what covers our faults, bring light to darkness. When Jesus tells a parable it is as if he is removing the drywall to expose the old wire in us. With the cover removed, we can see with the light: we’re all pretty violent.
Five years ago, the parable of the vineyard was made into a movie. Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri is the parable of the vineyard reborn. In fact, at one point a character even says, “anger begets greater anger.” And just like the parable there is violence all through the movie.
It starts with a mother trying to embarrass a sheriff so he would solve the mystery of her daughter’s murder. She puts up three billboards seeking to hurt him suggesting he is not doing his job, he is uncaring. Well, this is like a spark that sets the whole town ablaze because everyone loved the sheriff. One after another every character in the movie gets caught up in violence. Like the parable, this is meant to show how justified we feel, how instinctive is the act of vengeance, how right we can feel to hate.
This is a hard movie to watch. So, I was reluctant to watch it again this week. But I am glad I did. Because the first time I watched it, it was like tearing down the drywall. Lot of work to see something bad. Just like the wiring at the cottage, the movie leaves little doubt about how bad this is and what must be done. The impulse of violence, our old wires, must be removed from us.
Watching it a second time, a whole other image appeared, something I missed on my first viewing. What emerged on the second glance was like a mirror of opposition: with every act of violence there were incredible acts of kindness, beauty. Somehow, I missed this the first time. The angry mother burns down the police station, but a rogue cop risks his life to save the file detailing her daughter’s death; a sheriff dying of cancer takes his own life, but before he does, he writes words of redemption that save people from their darkness. Someone who is badly beaten shows mercy to his oppressor and refuses to hate.
I missed these moments of beauty the first time being so distracted by the vengeance and the anger and shame. It is easy to do. Like watching the news or reading the paper, it is easy to get caught up in the images of violence and never see the beauty that so often surrounds us, rests beside us.
The other surprise this week was how our first reading serves as the same kind of foil, the same kind of oppositional balance. The lesson of the baptism is like the moment when the new wire goes in. You need to tear down the walls to the studs; you need to tear out the old wire; and, then you need run the new wires. The new must replace the old. It sounds so simple, which is probably why we so often miss it, or fail to see it. It is not enough to expose the violence or even remove the violence, you must also replace destruction with re-creation, with beauty. The parable needs the words of baptism for this to be redemptive.
By sheer luck, or providence depending on your predilection, today is baptismal Sunday. The moment in the liturgical calendar when we plan on remembering we are the beloved of God, a child of God, in whom God is well pleased. We are supposed to remember this all the time, or whenever we see someone baptized or joins the church, we are supposed linger in the baptismal words, this is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Just in case we miss it, Baptism Sunday is like a fail switch, an emergency button, just in case we missed of all that, we will be sure— at the very least once a year—to hear these words, “You are my beloved”— the beauty of life born anew.
And these are beautiful words, to be called a beloved child, to be treated as a delight, what a beautiful act; the words are healing. Not all the time, but from time to time, I will hold a baby for baptism and when I place my hand on their forehead, sometimes they gasp as if they were feeling the very love of God. Once, I can remember a child who drew her head into my hand at the moment of baptism as if to feel as much of the blessing as possible.
There is a strange truth about beauty and the enchanting words of baptism: somehow we often forget them; we lose sight of them. What is more we become convinced that we are not worthy of love, or we are a person no one need take delight in. The voice we hear is not what Jesus heard. The voice we hear inside is caustic and judgmental and cruel even.
Sometimes I believe it is as if we are so busy tearing out the old wire, discovering our faults and our failures, we forget the whole point of following Jesus and being his disciple. It is easy to hear the caustic voices, the litany of shame we so often bring on ourselves and others. We are filled with old wires, this is true. Yes. There is lot we must remove, a lot of darkness in us that must be revealed and torn out. No doubt. We become so busy in tearing out the old, we forget to replace it with the new.
The old wires are easy to see, like the violence is so easy to see in Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri. It is so obvious that we are faulty and need to be rewired. What is not always apparent is that seeing the wrong, seeing the violence is just half the job, half of the work. The billboards meant to shame must be reborn, replaced with words filled with beauty. The old wires must come out, true; but the new wires must replace them.
We are violent creatures. And often times, strangely, the one to whom we do the most violence is ourselves. Consider the words of baptism and pause for a moment. You are my child, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Can you hear those words in your own heart today, the new impulse, the new instinct of kindness and delight, the beauty of being reborn? Can you hear them in your heart? Remember today: those words are not only for others; they also are spoken to you. Remember. Amen.
Speaker: Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
January 8, 2023
Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Senior Pastor & Head of Staff
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