A sermon for October 8, 2017 on Matthew: 21-33-46
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
- To listen to the sermon, click play:
First of all, my apologies to all of you, and especially to the folks listening to this in podcast land, I will do my best to keep the sniffles to a minimum, but I have a horrible cold.
The lectionary has had us hanging out in the gospel of Matthew for quite some time now and this week I got the sense that I was becoming so fixated on the details of some of these individual stories that I was losing track of the big picture. So yesterday I decided to read the whole gospel straight through.
And this may say a whole lot more about me than the actual gospel but the word I would use to describe my experience of reading the gospel of Matthew yesterday is “intense.” This is no leisurely romp through a life story.
Jesus is born, grows up, heals all sorts of people and then he spends a good portion of the gospel engaging in something like an extended job interview that is being conducted by a panel of people who don’t seem to realize that Jesus already has the job, and that they were never asked to be part of the “who will be the messiah” hiring committee in the first place. It’s test after test after trick question after test.
That faux hiring committee then arranges to have Jesus killed, he dies, and then comes back to life.
And Matthew’s gospel tells this entire story in the space of a typical book chapter rather than say, the more leisurely pace of the entire Harry Potter series.
Today’s gospel reading begins with the words, ‘Listen to another parable…” We’re still right in the middle of this extended job interview that’s not really a job interview and we’re going to see a repetition of a number of the same themes that Jamie has been identifying over the past few weeks – questions of authority and issues of scarcity and abundance.
In today’s parable we have a landowner who plants a vineyard, digs a wine press, builds a fence and a watchtower. He then leases the operation out to some tenants and leaves for another country.
When the grapes are ripe and ready to be harvested, the landowner sends his slaves to the tenants to collect his share of the produce. But what ensues is not some idyllic Thanksgiving scene where a meal is prepared and everyone sits down to give thanks for the harvest and eat waaay too much pie and drink waaaay too much wine.
Instead, the tenants are anything but grateful for the arrival of the landowner’s slaves. They seize them, beat them, and kill several of them. The landlord then sends more of his slaves and finally his own son, and they all receive the same treatment at the hands of the tenants.
So then Jesus asks the chief priests and Pharisees a question, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to these tenants? (40)
And they reply, not only should these tenants be put to death, it should be a miserable death. (41)
Then, in verse 42 Jesus says, “Have you never read in the scriptures, the stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone…?”
Suddenly Jesus switches from parable to prophecy, from agriculture to architecture and from murder and death to new life. The death and resurrection of Jesus lurks in the background of the parable but the foreground is occupied by the drama of privilege taken from one group and given to another. More on this later. (I found this lovely turn of phrase in some old notes. I’m sure they are not original to me, but I’m not sure who deserves the credit.)
Sometimes, I need to step back and take in the bigger picture – read the entire gospel, but sometimes, I find it is equally helpful to zoom in and focus on a specific detail in the story.
And this week I spent a fair amount of time thinking about cornerstones.
I’ve never built a building or laid a cornerstone, but as I understand it, the cornerstone is a stone, placed at the corner of the foundation of a new building and every other stone is then placed in relation to that stone. It’s the reference point for the rest of the structure.
Sometimes on important buildings, a date or inscription will be engraved on the cornerstone and they’ll even have a special gathering when they lay that particular stone.
And in this parable Jesus is telling us that he is the cornerstone. He is this stone that is laid at the corner of a building to make sure that everything else is built properly.
And I have to say that I can’t think of a duller, less inspiring image to use to describe Jesus, the Son of God who was sent to save the world. Jesus is the stone that makes sure things are built nice and square. He’s a stone that we commemorate with a fancy inscription and maybe a photo op followed by tea and cookies. He keeps things neat, and orderly and in their proper place. He spruces up the joint a bit with all that fancy lettering, but ultimately he doesn’t really do all that much.
There has to be more to this Jesus is the cornerstone business than that.
So yesterday I walked around the church and found the cornerstone and rather than a moment of clarity I had a moment of incredulity.
When Jesus describes himself as the cornerstone, he is quoting from the Psalms (Psalm 118:22). He tells us that the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone and that anyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces and that it will crush anyone on whom it falls.
The cornerstone of this church has a fancy inscription on it – you can go for a walk sometime and find it for yourselves – but when I looked at it I thought, how important could this stone really be? I mean I doubt if I was able to pull it out like a jenga block that the entire church would topple over, and it doesn’t seem big or powerful enough to break me to pieces if I tripped over it and, given that it sits at about knee height I also don’t feel like I’m any real danger of having it crush me if it were to fall on me. I mean, it might do some serious damage to my toes but overall I’d come off unscathed.
Now I know that it is usually a huge mistake to try to use modern day practices to understand a biblical image, so I did some research and I came across a different image of a cornerstone that was well, way more inspiring.
When you build a wall around a city, you also need to build openings so people can come in and out. If you’ve ever had a chance to look at one of these arched openings you’ll see that the bricks curve slightly as you get to the top of the arch where they will meet at a single brick – the keystone. Now if you take that one stone out of the structure, the whole thing falls apart and if you happened to be standing underneath is, you would be crushed. That stone is, in fact, key to the integrity of the entire structure.
Jesus isn’t simply a stone you should stick in the corner of your life to make sure everything lines up nicely. An ornamental object you dust from time to time but ultimately don’t spend too much time thinking about, Jesus is the stone that supports everything else in your life. The stone that, if removed, sends everything else toppling to the ground.
Now that’s a pretty important stone.
But the scripture that Jesus is quoting pushes that image even further by stating that the cornerstone, despite its importance, won’t be the very best stone the builders can possibly find, it will be a stone taken from the reject pile.
Which is the kind of stone we usually like to ignore, not engrave with dates and fancy words or build our entire lives around. What is Jesus up to?
The chief priests and Pharisees would like Jesus to stay in the reject pile. They realize with this parable Jesus is saying that they are the bad tenants and they are none too happy about it. Jesus will need to be dealt with, but not today when he is surrounded by so many of his supporters.
So they didn’t like the parable, but how does it sit with us today? What’s your reaction?
One possible response is to heave a sigh of relief that there is nothing in this parable that challenges you or your way of life. The Pharisees are clearly the bad guys in the story, and well, we’re not the Pharisees right? We’re the good tenants who will be given the vineyard after the Pharisees are thrown out and killed. Right?
I think we are often too quick to put ourselves in the role of the hero in parables like this and it can cause all sorts of problems. If we are already the good guys, where is the challenge or opportunity for growth? If we are already the good guys, how easy is it for us to slip into the same self-righteous judgment as the chief priests and Pharisees?
I don’t think this story was included in Mathew’s gospel so that we could feel smug and receive a pat on the back, I think it’s included to give us a kick in the pants.
Because even if it is a correct interpretation to say that this parable shows that the followers of Jesus Christ would become the new tenants in God’s vineyard, how quickly did those new tenants start acting just like the chief priests and Pharisees?
So let’s take some time tonight to reflect on the things we may have in common with the bad tenants.
First, the tenants are acting as if they are the owners of the vineyard. As if they are the only people who have the rights to be on that land and enjoy the harvest it produces. They are acting like owners, not renters.
Too often we have treated this world like something we own, something we can do with as we please, and where has that gotten us? Climate change, strip mining, pollution and a host of other environment challenges that stem from a mindset that we can do whatever we want with this earth.
How do you in your daily life interact with the natural world? Do you view it as a commodity that you can use however you choose? Do you see it as a gift to be cared for, protected, and nurtured?
Second, the tenants seem to be locked into a scarcity mentality. There is nothing in the parable to suggest that after the landowner took his share of the profits that there wouldn’t also be more than enough for the tenants to live comfortably. But rather than accepting that there is more than enough to go around, they are holding onto everything for themselves.
I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the shooting in Las Vegas earlier this week. I can’t even begin to reconcile the fact that an event of that nature has become almost routine. I have no idea why that man chose to do what he did.
But I do know, that a lot of the rhetoric I have heard surrounding this and other tragedies like it comes from a scarcity mentality. People who, for far too long, have been taking up too much room at the table are afraid that they are going to lose their place. They’re afraid, and they are making decisions –dangerous and violent decisions -out of that fear.
They don’t realize that making room at the table will require them to make some adjustments, but it doesn’t have to mean there won’t be a seat for them.
Realizing you have privilege and learning to let go of some of that privilege can be incredibly difficult and does require some sacrifice but it isn’t something we need to fear.
Because the truth is that in God’s economy there is always more room at the table, room enough for everyone. And the meal is more pleasant when everyone has a seat.
Where are the places in your own life that you lean more into the lie of scarcity than into the truth of God’s abundance? What are you afraid to let go of for fear that there won’t be enough? Money? Food? Love? What would happen if you began to let go of some of that scarcity mentality and lean into God’s abundance? What would you discover is you scooted over and room for someone else at the table?
Lastly, the tenants are not willing to make room for other people in the vineyard.
When Europeans first came to North America they came both with a belief that they could be the owners of any land they found, and with a scarcity mentality that said there wasn’t enough resources for everyone. Just like those wicked tenants, they wanted to keep everything for themselves and they were willing to kill anyone who challenged that way of life.
We are still dealing with the wounds created by that mentality and in many ways we are still living in a system that upholds that mentality.
It can feel like such a small thing, but every time I attend a gathering and I hear a territorial acknowledgement, I am reminded that there is a different and better way for me to think about my relationship to this land and to the various people who call it home. It’s a small, but powerful reminder that there is a different, better way to live.
Where are the places in your life where you may be taking up too much room? Where could you make space for other people in the vineyard?
Over the past year we’ve had a number of different voices speaking from this music stand and the only reason that could happen is because Jamie chose to make room. If he had said, “I am the preacher and you’re going to have to pry this music stand out of my cold, dead hands,” then we never would have heard from those other voices and you wouldn’t be hearing from me tonight.
He made room.
Thanks Jamie. I am so grateful that you did make room not just for me, but for other voices as well. And now I need to be aware that I have the choice to hang onto my piece of this music stand until my knuckles turn white. I can lean into they myth of scarcity, believing that I have taken up the last possible inch of available space or I can lean into abundance and look for ways to make room for others as well.
Where else can we make room? How can we be more attentive to the barriers that are keeping people from full participation in the life of our city and of the life of this church community and help to make some more room? Because the truth is there is always more room at the table.
We are tenants on this earth, and it is a good place to call home. Harvest and thanksgiving give us such tangible examples of God’s love and abundance. May we truly celebrate these good things, and may we continue to find ways to make room for others at the table.