Sunday Sermon :: October 5, 2014

GOSPEL Matthew 21:33–46

Jesus tells a parable to the religious leaders who are plotting his death, revealing that their plans will, ironically, bring about the fulfillment of scripture.

33Listen 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. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They 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.”
42Jesus 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’?
43Therefore 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. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

 

Grace to you and peace, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I have always had a fascination with abandoned places. All kinds of places fill me with curious ponderings, whether it’s a house, a theme park, business center, or a town. Whenever I pass one while driving or see one in a picture, my mind immediately begins to wonder what happened that would make it become what is seen today. Surely, there were people who staked their lives to build this structure. Someone poured their hopes and dreams into this place. In a house that sits in ruins in a field, surrounded by cattle, children once played, holiday dinners were once prepared, and families once were assembled together to learn, pray, and celebrate. Businesses which carried the hopes and dreams of entrepreneurs have lost their luster in the hot sun, the cold snow, and the pounding rains, sitting on a street corner, empty and largely forgotten. There are even abandoned Olympic arenas and sights that have been left behind. Once, the world’s greatest athletes represented their countries proudly, but now the weeds and graffiti are all that signify the sights. Maybe the business failed, or the house become unsafe and unfixable, or any other of many possible reasons made it best to just abandon the place. It was no longer able to do what it was made to do, so people have left them to the ravages of nature.

If you are a homeowner, or you have ever had a lawn or garden to take care of, you know that it requires maintenance. Shingles need to be patched and weeds need to be pulled. When the maintenance is not done, or not done correctly, it just leads to more problems. Even the most beautiful buildings and hearty yards need to be taken care of. Eventually, if it’s not cared for, weeds will creep into a garden and overrun in.

We can see that in our reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 5:1-7) today, too. God has planted a vineyard and sings a love song about it. Isaiah describes God lovingly planting the grapes, removing the stones, and making a vat to hold all the wine that the grapes will be used to make. But, tenants, or the people who were supposed to care for the vineyard, have not taken care of it. They have left it alone and have not done the maintenance. Instead of thick, juicy, sweet grapes, it has produced wild, bitter, wrinkled grapes. So, God abandons the vineyard, even though it was intended to create joy for the whole world. And this is scary stuff, especially for the original Jewish audience. Isaiah is essentially saying to the Israelites that he is pulling out. He’s saying he will no longer protect them from the incoming Babylonian raids that will eventually take them captive and bring them into exile. God, the one thing that separated the Jewish people from the rest of the world, is leaving them. They have no more identity, they have no more hope, and they have nothing to show for what they had done. They were supposed to care for the vineyard, the Word and love of God, but instead ignored their responsibilities. So God left them for a time, but does that mean that God cares for the vineyard less? I don’t know, but I can say this: God sure seems to have planted new vineyards. I believe that God didn’t abandon the vineyard, but instead planted it elsewhere.

Jesus tells a remarkably similar story to the chief priests, elders, and Pharisees just about a week before he is crucified. These people have not done their job and God is going to find someone who will. He has sent his servants, and they have beaten them and sent them away empty handed. So, God, the landowner, is sending his son, the Son Jesus Christ, and the tenants will kill him. Now, before you begin to feel the pangs of guilt or dread, pay attention to who Jesus is speaking to and what Jesus is speaking about. Jesus is speaking to the people in charge of keeping the safe and good. And what is the vineyard? Any ideas? It’s the Word of God, the love of God, and the people of God. If anything, this reading shouldn’t fill you with fear, but with gratitude. God is protecting us, and is going to great lengths to take care of us. We need tending when the weeds of shame, guilt, and condemnation begin to plant themselves and twine themselves around us. We need the sun and rain of God’s love and compassion to feed us and help us grow. And, when we are fed and growing and the weeds are cleared, we suddenly can bear fruit.

Now, let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves this question: doesn’t that sound more like protection than judgment? Doesn’t that sound more like love and care than anger and wrath? The vineyard of God’s love and God’s Word and God’s grace is good and it’s worth protecting. The vineyard of God’s Church is meant to feed the world and help all people to know Christ! And so, God is going to take care of it. The Church (capital “C” Church) is God’s plan. It’s the way that God is making God’s love known, so God is going to protect it.

So, how is God protecting it? It certainly seems that Christians come under a lot of fire, at times. In the Middle East, churches are being bombed. In China, Christianity is still under a lot of persecution. Even here in the United States, public prayer and gatherings come under a lot of scrutiny. It’s a lot to stand up to, isn’t it? How can we possibly be fruitful with all this stuff, plus the extra things stacked on our plate? The answer to that question is that we can’t. We don’t have the ability to do it ourselves. We can’t make ourselves fruitful. That’s why God’s protection and tending is so important. God makes us fruitful and makes us grow.

And here it’s worth noting that, just like the Church is a vineyard, so is each and every person here. We all need help, we all need pruning, and we all need care. God knows that and, just like the Church, God is protecting us. But we’re still broken people. We don’t always appreciate the pruning and the weeding because sometimes what gets pulled and cut are things that we actually kind of like. The kind of growth is not easy, it’s not fun, and it hurts sometimes, but it’s what we need sometimes. How many of you garden? (It’s okay to raise your hands, I promise!) Have you ever pruned your plants in the spring? Have you ever seen a fruit tree after it’s been pruned in the spring? It looks like a massacre, doesn’t it? Leaves and branches are all over the ground. From the outside, it’s a wreck, but this pruning is necessary for a healthy plant. The nutrients and the energy goes to fewer branches, but that means that the fruit in the fall is healthier, tastier, and better able to survive the blazing heat, the potential sicknesses, and the torment of insects through the summer. When we are being pruned, it’s a tough process to go through, but it’s necessary because through this process, God makes us fruitful.

So we and the Church as a whole are being pruned to be fruitful. So what? Why go through this process? Because just like we are being protected by God as the vineyard, we are also taking care of a vineyard of our own, aren’t we? If you have a family, you have a vineyard. If you have friends, you have a vineyard. If you have business associates, co-workers, patients, projects, or even real fields, you have a vineyard. We are to care for each other and play a part of God’s protection. When we see injustice and pain in the world, we shouldn’t just sit back and wait for God to work. Why? Because God’s already working, in us, and our response to God’s work in us is faith that inspires us to do God’s work in the world. That’s a huge idea that changes a lot, isn’t it? God’s already doing work and us doing anything in the name of God is a response to God’s work. I’ve mentioned fruitfulness quite a bit in this message, but what is that fruit. Galatians 5:22-23 states that some the fruits are love, peace, gentleness, joy, faithfulness, and kindness.

What does that look like in the world in our everyday lives? What does it look like to help others tend their vineyards? It looks like standing up for others who have no voice. It looks like taking on the abuses of this world for the sake of those who can’t. It looks like a kind word when the world hurls insults. It looks like seeking peace when fighting is the first instinct. It looks like joy (which, for the record, is not happiness) in the face of adversity, because we know that God can do incredible things through the tough times in our lives. It looks like people, being in the same mind as Christ, gathering to do incredible things, getting our hands dirty in the dirty for the cause of Christ. In short, it looks like the Kingdom of God.

But can we build this kingdom by ourselves? Absolutely not. Our kingdoms do not last. Our kingdoms eventually end up overgrown and over run. They end up looking like those buildings I mentioned earlier, in shambles, in pieces, remnants of our own ambitions. So are we hopeless and abandoned by God for not bearing fruit? Not even a little bit! God is not leaving us. God is not abandoning us, God is not abandoning you. Knowing that we can never bring about that fruit in ourselves, God sent to the vineyard The Vine, Jesus Christ. And so we are now protected, being tended, by a Savior who was willing to give up everything on a cross to make the Kingdom of God a reality here on Earth. The Kingdom of God is not like our kingdoms. It is eternal and it is advancing. It is marching forward by the grace of God into the lives of people around the world.

In my short life so far, I can look back a long line of abandoned houses, businesses, and ventures. I can see where my failures are evident and my ambitions, even though they may have looked good, were selfish and vain. I can see that my kingdom ends. But I have yet to see, and I am confident that I will never see, the place where the Kingdom of God fails to be. Because God is with us, in the vineyard, planting and reaping, protecting and providing. And wherever we go, there is a vineyard, being planted, being protected, and bearing fruit.

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