"Broken to pieces"-A Sermon for Proper 22, Matthew 21:33-46
As I was away on sabbatical this summer, one of the great spiritual challenges for me was to be away and stay away while, in so many ways, the world around us felt like it was being set to light. A match had been struck, the kindling set on fire…and soon the forest was raging all around. Or to use another metaphor that might be timelier, as we respond to the tremendous devastation in our own state following Harvey, it feels like we are suffering profoundly at the hands of, what I heard one person call, a cultural climate change that brews in ever warming waters the storms of civil division. We seem a world deeply divided and a nation at war with itself: from Charlottesville to NFL sidelines…from ICE raids to the revocation of DACA…from terrorism both foreign and domestic, as we experienced just again so devastatingly this week in Las Vegas, to threats of violence and warfare tossed nonchalantly back and forth across the Pacific Ocean…to literal climate change that is producing record breaking storms that devastate communities and take human lives…and, more locally, from bathroom bills to ending sanctuary cities…and of course the list could and should go on and on. It really is all overwhelming…so if you feel overwhelmed…I want to affirm you…honor that…say it is utterly reasonable…and you are not alone. If following the news of incomprehensible violence that we awoke to on Monday morning left you feeling just plain numb, preferring to binge on Netflix than watch the news…I want to affirm that initial response…honor that…say it is utterly reasonable…you are not alone. Just speaking for myself, I am right there with you.
But, of course, Jesus will not allow us to remain overwhelmed to the point of stagnation and inaction. Jesus does not want us to numb to the point of self-destructive behavior and ignore the reality on the ground. Instead, Jesus calls us to lean in to it all with love…courageous, deliberate, and loving action that begins in prayer…but most assuredly does not end there. I believe in the power of prayer. I believe that our prayers contribute to the supernatural activity of God, alive and present, in the very midst of human lives, particularly in times of great loss and unspeakable pain. But I also believe that prayer is intended by God to be a spiritual resource within each of us that makes us literal Good Soil…out of which the fruits of God’s loving work are produced in, again, outwardly focused, courageous, deliberate, and loving action. This fruit that we produce looks political…like organizing, protesting, letter writing, voting…against things like all sorts of discrimination and gun violence that destroy the people of God. It looks like intentionally getting to know our neighbors, their hopes and fears, working together to make our communities more peaceful, more just, more equitable, more unified, and, of course, safer for us and our children…moving from our backyards to our front yards, if you will, that we might really see who passes by and actually get to know them. It looks like a church committed to outreach, that is both charity and justice focused, all flowing from a family of faith that is rooted in theologically rich, Jesus-centric study, prayer and worship. It looks like all of this and undoubtedly more. But whatever it looks like, however it is actually enacted, it is nothing more or less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ…being lived out loud and incarnated through Jesus’ body the Church…including even you…even me.
And into this confusing and complex moment of trail and tribulation, into our own sense of being overwhelmed to the point of becoming numb to the violent storms that swirl around us…our lectionary, which provides our weekly bible readings, lays before us today one of Jesus’ most troubling parables, often called the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. And it should utterly disrupt us…wake us up…it is indeed a call to action…to be and do things differently…beginning right here, right now, in this family of faith, in this vineyard, we are forming, nurturing and growing together. The parable is full of violence, murder, betrayal, destruction, and ultimately harsh judgement. It sounds an awful lot like the world we really live in. The parable foreshadows the Cross of Calvary…the place of Jesus’ violent death…which historically speaking, as Jesus literally tells this parable to his first century audience, is only days away. Today’s gospel lesson is taking place in what we call Holy Week…the last week of Jesus’ human life…so we are indeed standing in the shadow of the Cross. Moreover, this parable foreshadows the destruction of Jerusalem, which will take place only about 40 years after Jesus first shares this parable…beginning the Jewish diaspora. For around 70 CE, the Romans will entirely destroy the small nation of Judah and its capital Jerusalem and the temple that lies at its center…the very heart of the Jewish homeland…the very place that the People of Israel believe God’s Spirit dwells among humans…the very heart of God’s vineyard lovingly given into the hands of his chosen and beloved ones…all destroyed with hundreds if not thousands of lives lost. Following war with Rome…not a single stone of the temple will remain standing…ushering in 2000 years of heart ache and dislocation for the Jewish people finding perhaps its darkest chapter, quite recently, in the modern age with the Holocaust. And even today, emboldened neo-Nazis continue to march on the streets of American cities, just like we saw in Charlottesville, and are mounting serious political movements in Germany, winning 13% of the seats in their governing body exactly two weeks ago.
And, further, I think this parable foreshadows even this very moment in the history of the Christian Church. It foreshadows our own experience today, which feels utterly unsettled and unmoored by the violence that swirls around us…our own lived experience in the vineyard that is formed and created lovingly and intentionally in the cauldron of Jesus death and resurrection and given into the hands of Jesus’ followers, just beginning with the disciples and extending through history over many generations, including billions of people all over the earth…extending even to us in this very family of faith we call St. Julian’s. Thus, God’s own vineyard has now been entrusted to us, indeed a sacred and ancient trust, to grow and produce good fruit…the fruit of love, that provides sustenance and meaning and a safe home, for all of God’s people…the rainbow-colored people of God flourishing…whatever they look like, whomever they love…all together…a whole human family united under the banner of the Prince of Peace. This is the hope and promise for the vineyard…God’s own vineyard…not constructed with plants, seeds, wires, and wood…but created from Jesus following, love spreading, human lives…the people of God, like us, alive and active in the world today. Yet, despite all this goodness and healthy growth intended in God’s vineyard…lovingly sown in Jesus own blood and the Easter that follows, this parable, mirroring our own experience, seems to foreshadow something darker, like that vineyard is crumbling… is under the threat of being destroyed…like Jesus’ human life on the cross and the Jewish temple and even the 59 lives lost in Las Vegas. Indeed, we are in a time of a great unsettling. A time of great disruption. Perhaps the greatest time of violence and social upheaval in the past 50 years. And it seems to me an open question whether or not the Church, God’s vineyard, will survive…or, like in the parable, be utterly destroyed and given into the hands of others.
Or…or, perhaps there is another ending before us that is still being written…one in which the Church stands up in the midst of the violent storms that brew around us and even thrives by being truly counter-cultural…by responding to hate with love…to violence with peace…a living vision of a different sort of future enacted by prayer inspired, courageous, deliberate, love-filled fruit producing work…that provides for the world around us hope and healing…the possibility of living as the reconciled people of God…calling people together into a mutual flourishing that embraces diversity as a strength…as the very foundation of unity…for unity is found by celebrating and embracing what is unique and different about each of us…as a divine expression of the enormity of God. God’s beauty and complexity is way more varied then all the biological and geological diversity we see in this world. God encompasses it all…so rather than allowing our differences to tear us apart…perhaps we can see each person and all that is made as gift…to see and name God as being entirely present in blackness and poverty and art and faithfulness to a life of love and in brokenness and in creativity…even in ourselves…whatever we look like, whomever we love. Like a winemaker or vineyard owner who values the rich variety of flavors produced in a single grape. What makes the grape interesting, the foundation of a great vintage, is the complexity of its taste, not its uniformity. Thus, God’s own vineyard, given into our hands…its very salvation…and its ability to survive and even thrive…to stand up and provide a peaceful, holy, unified future for the world around us is entirely rooted in our willingness to make the vineyard as big and generous and diverse and open and welcoming as possible. To simply recreate it in our own image, time and time again, is certain destruction.
You see, the sin of the wicked tenants in Jesus’ parable begins way before their violence actually begins…before they maim and murder God’s servants and even God’s own child. The wicked tenants sin, and the seeds of their own destruction, are sown the very moment they decided to keep all the fruit for themselves, for their own tribe and people…alone…people who look, live, love and believe just like them. Thus, their hearts turned in on themselves begin to turn rancid leading first to a desire to hoard, to not grow, to not share, to not embrace God’s larger purpose for the vineyard, which is to produce fruit to feed the souls of the whole world…and then they turn to violence. To by any means necessary, let no one else in and nothing they have grown out. And at this point judgment and even destruction is indeed inevitable…this becomes the very fruit they themselves produce.
But even here there is very good news, believe it or not, for in God’s kingdom…in dying there is gain. Jesus’ parable indeed foreshadows his own violent death only days later…but it also foreshadows the empty tomb that follows. Even God’s wrath, his righteous and fully justifiable anger, and the judgement that follows…the judgement of human depravity that seems to have no bottom…is the first step in the recreation of the vineyard…Eden’s own restoration. For love is stronger than death. The vineyard is rebuilt from the recycled and reconstituted pieces left behind once the storm passes. Grace happens. Thus, we should not be afraid if from time to time our vineyard is set on fire, if a storm leaves it all in pieces, for God will pick his people back up and we are given the grace to begin again. And the reformed, regathered people of God can get back to our courageous, deliberate, and love filled fruit producing work. So perhaps even as the cultural climate change heats up and the new formed storms rock and even partially destroy God’s vineyard in which we have been placed, hope remains undiminished…just as surely as the sun rises with each new day. The question is then what do our relief and rebuilding efforts look like? What are our plans for expanding and strengthening our own vineyard’s foundation? What sort of courageous, deliberate, love-filled fruit producing work shall we begin…together?
The answers to these questions are of exceeding importance. For if our fruit producing work is for us alone, the seeds of destruction have already been sown. But…but, if our work is to build a community of people with Jesus as the cornerstone…that is Jesus’ way of love that is entirely generous, outwardly focused, embraces diversity and difference…as an expression of God’s own enormity. If we take seriously God’s call to a mutual flourishing that leaves no one outside the boundaries of the vineyard. If we welcome the new fruit producing, kingdom building ideas and assets that come with people from different backgrounds and experiences who join us on our journey. If we allow ourselves to be utterly transformed by meeting the deep Spirit of God in the other, most especially those who look, live, love and see the world differently than we do…well…the new work of love that God is doing in our world…beginning with Jesus and continuing with us as his body alive and active in the world today…will…will prevail against the violence and hate that batters against us. The storms that make their way toward and even over God’s own vineyard entrusted into our hands, though often exceedingly painful, will never be our just end…instead…just an opportunity to rebuild, strengthen, and reclaim our own courageous, deliberate, love-filled fruit producing work. Perhaps, I can even dare to say, that St. Julian’s can be, perhaps a small but not inconsequential part, in extending God’s vineyard to the very ends of the earth…one people, even more varied than the colors of the rainbow, all gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace. Amen.