Sermon 10.08.17 * Matthew 21: 33-46 * MLC Pentecost 18
“It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin, to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts, as guest, as brother, the Word.” Denise Levertov
I’m reading this honest poem in a new way after this past week. Phrases such as…the worst our kind can do…the taint in our own selves…sound truer and closer to home than ever.
A violent, heartbreaking week for our country, specifically for concert goers in Las Vegas and their families. A week like so many weeks that we have heard of and mourned and with confusion and division moved on from. And the gospel story before us today is also, very violent. This is the year of the gospel of Matthew and if I’m really honest, I would say this is the gospel I struggle with the most — there is a curtness and rough edge to Matthew’s writing and in some places, like today, reckless violence that just feels all too familiar right now.
From mid-summer all the way to Advent we are moving through a very long sermon, or teaching, or rant maybe of Jesus. We’ve heard about humility and the cost of sin. Jesus has taught on the dire need for forgiveness and railed against the many ways we dishonor one another. We’ve heard parables on riches on earth versus riches in heaven, then all these stories set in the vineyard, mixed with the foretelling of the cross and a move into Jerusalem. And then, then, we have this week’s violent, confusing parable.
As people who walk this earth and attempt to walk by faith, we carry the threats both of our violently bound existence on our shoulders, in our hearts and feel this urgency to do better, to do more, to heal ourselves and each other faster. How can we hear of the special education teacher, the single mother, a police officer, fathers, finances, all gunned down and how can we hear of the hundreds who will carry the scars of threat and violence for the rest of their lives — how can we not be holding the weight of violence and fear already? We are fearful that this ugliness, the worst of us is tainting the most beautiful rights and colors of our nation.
I certainly have been feeling that weight and carrying some of those fears this week. So, when I turned to this portion of Matthew’s gospel and read this violent parable, it felt like Divine salt in my mortal wounds. In another context I think there is a somewhat easy and aggressive sermon that would preach. “Be a church that bears fruit…or else!” Or a message about tending to the kingdom of God work and not hoarding the harvest, or a message about not allowing violence, intolerance, and greed mark our church community and individual lives. Focusing only on the violence, only the reckless decisions of the steward of this vineyard is the more obvious take away from Jesus’ words. And yet today, I think our sorrowful boats are full to overflowing and we need not take on more tumultuous water.
Every day that we draw breath we have an eternal strength and hope within us and around us. We, God’s daughters and sons, have hope that is strong and love that is present even in the middle of our threatening, violent week and evening the middle of our threatening, violent gospel reading. Don’t miss this! Do not stop at the easy take away of fear and violence. Dwell longer with God’s Word to see the persistent, long-reaching, eternal, creative hand of God at work.
Jesus’ parable begins by telling us many details about how the landowner has planted his vineyard. Very carefully the landowner put a fence around the fields, dug a well, included a watch tower so that this precious land would be safe and yield a great harvest of fruit. Now, I’m not a farmer but did have the pleasure of living among orchards and wineries in Oregon for one year and I know that if you want a quick, certain harvest you plant something hearty and dependable like wheat and potatoes. Planting a vineyard takes time, years of careful tending, protection around a fragile crop and that is what this landowner did! And then the landowner entrusted this treasured land to people who are flawed, shortsighted, greedy. Even when the crop was held hostage and the servants were killed and the son was murdered, even then, the landowner did not light up the field with fire or even punish the evil, violent stewards of the land. The landowner redirected, determined to give this field with all its potential and beauty to those who would care for it diligently and release the crop in due time. It would be easy to gloss over the powerful hand of the planter, the caregiver in this story — because there are killings and cruelty that grabs our attention first. We must train our eyes and our souls to find the presence of God in this parable and in our world.
And in these weeks when our grief and confusion run rampant it feels impossible to know what or who will lead us into what seems to be a future doomed to further destruction and division. That is when we, God’s workers in the field must turn again and again towards what we know is true and certain. We turn again to God, looking past the violence and fear (not in a dismissive way) in order to find our God who is still lovingly planting vineyards — not a quick, easy crop, but planting vines that will slowly and beautifully bear fruit worthy of the kingdom! Our Creator has not stopped believing in our potential and remains committed to staying with us for the long haul until we bear the fruit of the kingdom. We turn again and are reminded that God’s Spirit will move in and around us and move us all towards being those fruit bearers and crop sharers in the world. Even while our hands are bloodied, our motives selfish, our vision for the future narrow and inwardly focused, even then does God love us enough to invite us to be stewards of God’s kingdom.
Jesus said, I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me and you will bear much fruit. That is our way forward. Our shared future is found in Jesus, who turned the violence of this parable into a sign of God’s commitment to love us despite the ugliness in us. And of course, today we gather to worship and proclaim Christ, who turned the violence of the cross into a sign of God’s eternal mercy. May we be the people of God who not only can hear these miraculous, ground-shaking promises without the violence or fear drowning them out…may we want to hear these words to abide in Christ alone so that we can bear the fruit of the Kingdom for all the world to feast together.
Come quickly, Lord and have mercy on us all. Amen.