"Reruns, Politics, and Dolly Parton" by Vicar A.J. Houseman
Do you ever go back and watch old shows and think, “wow, this hasn’t aged well.”? Like when I used to watch reruns on Nick at Night with my mom and we would watch some classics such as “All in the Family” which is actually laced with racism, sexism, and gender expectations. As a woman it’s painful to listen to how Archie speaks to Edith.
Or even in my lifetime, the all time American favorite sitcom, “Friends”, that often has episodes that are homophobic and struggles with gender stereotyping.
There are things in these and many shows that are not politically correct or “PC” in 2020. Why? Because they are offensive.
Dolly Parton opened up recently about why she dropped the name “Dixie” from her restaurants “Dolly’s Dixie Stampede” to “Dolly Parton’s Stampede” in 2018. She made this change 2 years ago but her PR staff told her to not make it a “political” change. This year, she opened up in August. She said, "There’s such a thing as innocent ignorance, and so many of us are guilty of that. When they said 'Dixie' was an offensive word, I thought, 'Well, I don’t want to offend anybody.” She continues, "As soon as you realize that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose."
Some people hear about things like this and think, “well, why is this offensive now?” And the answer is that it is not just offense now, it has always been offensive. People are finally given a voice to say it and more people are willing to listen now.
That is the real story of how we learn and grow from generation to generation, we listen and learn from the past. Our own past, the past of our ancestors, and the past given to us through Scripture.
** Now, I know for some of you, talking about some of these issues from the pulpit is a little uncomfortable and I confess, it is for me too. But the honest truth is that the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is extremely political and we cheapen the grace that he proclaimed if we do not wrestle with these uncomfortable parts of Jesus’ story and our own. If we pass over the uncomfortable parts and only talk about warm and fuzzy parts of the Bible, we’ve actually missed most of the point.
Our gospel lesson from this morning is just one of these political stories that Jesus invites us to wrestle with. See we pick up right where we left off from last Sunday. It’s Monday of Holy Week. Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey yesterday, today he is in a political battle with the religious and political leaders, and on Friday they are going to kill him for it. Kill him for being “too” political.
Jesus is a radical. He preaches an egalitarian system that borders on socialism. He is putting his life on the line standing up to these authorities of the empire to share the good news of the radical love of God. Jesus of Nazareth is “too” political. He is forcing the leaders outside of their comfort zone, saying things like “the prostitutes and tax collectors are getting into the kingdom before you.” And, “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom.”
He is challenging the very system that their church and society are built on. He spends his time not with the so called “saints” in the church, but the sinners, the broken, the downtrodden, the people of color, the sexually diverse, and others the church of the day has labeled “wrong” or “unworthy.”
In our gospel lesson this morning, he tells us an allegorical parable. The vineyard is the kingdom, the owner is God, and the tenants that are to steward the kingdom are the chief priests and the Pharisees (aka the Jewish church leaders). Jesus says that the owner, aka God, sends his servants to collect the fruits and the tenants kill them. Then God sends more and they kill them. And then finally, God sends his son, and what do they do? Kill him too.
This parable is a foreshadowing by Jesus of his own death and a political proclamation. See the first set of servants that are sent are the prophets, such as Isaiah, whom they sawed in half, Jeremiah who was stoned to death, and Ezekiel, Micah, Amos, and more agents of God killed for their politics.
The second set of servants sent is about John the Baptist. What happened to him again? Oh yeah, he was beheaded.
And finally, the owner sent his own son that they also killed for this.
Jesus is calling them out with this parable. “How many have to die for you to listen?”
How many? How many of the slurs we heard on TV caused acts of violence before we listened? As Dolly said, “As soon as you realize something is a problem, you should fix it.” We can name the injustices, let’s do something about it. Just like Jesus did.
The semi-continuous Old Testament reading assigned for this Sunday, which we did not read this morning, is Exodus 20, where Moses gives to the people the 10 commandments. The law.
In the Lutheran tradition, we always talk about Law & Gospel together. The Law is the set of rules given by God to the Israelite people when they were wandering around in the desert. The first four are about our relationship with God and the second 6 are about our relationship with one another. Luther says for us to interpret the Law in light of the Gospel.
That is, we are to interpret the law in the wake of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection bringing us new life in Christ. Put another way, because of Jesus’ gift, we are not just to abstain from wrongdoing, but rather, we are to share the gifts of this grace with everyone.
In the language of the law, this means do not just not explicitly lie about your neighbor, but speak of them in the best possible light. Luther says to “cloak them in your own honor.” Do not just abstain from stealing, but give and pay it forward. Or do not just abstain from going around killing people, but value the life around you and enhance the lives of others. Do you part to relieve suffering.
There is so much suffering in the world. And there are little things we can do every day to relieve it. As Dolly says, “I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.” As our political climate continues to heat up and almost everywhere we turn we are afraid of saying something or doing something offensive. I know, it feels like an impossible task sometimes, but we can make a difference. We can ease suffering. We can listen, we can learn, and we can do our best to live in the wake of the gospel.
We can wrestle with 21st century suffering in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can ask ourselves the age old question, “what would Jesus do?” Jesus would stand up to systemic injustice, Jesus would cloak them in his honor, and spread God’s radical political love. This is the Gospel of our Lord. Amen.
Reflection Song: "For Everyone Born"