"Broken to Pieces"-Sermon for Proper 22, Matthew 21:33-46
The following sermon was originally preached on Matthew 21:33-46 in the fall of 2017. It was updated and shortened for this past Sunday, Oct 4, 2020, as the scheduled preacher had to be away on short notice.
Certainly, it must feel like it on the West Coast…but if I am honest about my own feelings…at least metaphorically speaking…it feels like the world around us is being set to light. A match has been struck, the kindling set on fire…and the forest now rages all around. It feels like we are suffering profoundly at the hands of, what I heard one person call, a cultural climate change set aflame in an ever warming world of civil division. We seem a world deeply divided and a nation at war with itself in more ways than one. It really is all overwhelming…so if you feel overwhelmed…I want to affirm you…honor that…say it is reasonable…and you are not alone. If following the news of the day leaves you feeling just plain numb, preferring to binge on Netflix than keep up with it all…I am right there with you.
And though some stepping away…some numbing is needed to not go mad…Jesus will not allow us to remain in that place, at least, to the point of stagnation and inaction. I for one believe 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 painful division. 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 outwardly focused, courageous, deliberate, and loving action. This fruit that we produce looks political…like organizing, protesting, completing the census, and voting…and helping others to do so as well. 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 less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ…being lived out loud and incarnated through Jesus’ body the Church.
And into this confusing and complex moment of trial and tribulation, into our own sense of being overwhelmed to the point of becoming numb to the violent fire-storms that swirl around us…our lectionary 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. Thus, 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. And, it foreshadows the destruction of Jerusalem, which will take place only about 40 years after Jesus first shares this parable…beginning the Jewish diaspora. That is 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 and are mounting serious political movements in other nations, as well, like Germany. And, as I already sort of suggested, I think this parable also foreshadows even this very moment in the history of the Christian Church…some two plus thousand years after Jesus actually uttered it. For we, as a church, are living together through this time of great disruption…together trying to find our footing and voice within it. And it seems to me a reasonable 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 alight 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 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.
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…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 fire-storm passes. Grace happens. Thus, we should not fall apart 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 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, diversifying, and strengthening our own vineyard’s foundation? What sort of courageous, deliberate, love-filled fruit producing work shall we begin…together?