Sermon :: October 8, 2017

Matthew 21:33-46

[Jesus said to the people:] 33“Listen 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 ano

ther. 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.

—–

 

There is a statue of a Buddhist deity in Osaka, Japan called Fudo Myoo. It is nestled in one of the few places in the city that weren’t affected or destroyed during the violence of World War II. People regularly come to pray, splash water on the statue from the small pool that surrounds it, and leave an offering to

 

the statue of food or money. While this may seem like a quaint, almost folksy tradition, there’s something odd about this statue. It’s completely covered in moss. I mean completely. All the water that is splashed on it has kept it wet enough to have layer upon layer of moss growing on it, so that it is impossible to discern what it looks like anymore. You can see the faint shape of a head, body, and something that it holds in its hand. Years of tradition have made it impossible to tell the nuances and details of the statue.

Photo credit: Casey Hawkins

Before we begin to laugh at the quirkiness and absurdity of practice, we need to recognize that we’ve done the same thing to some really beautiful and detailed parts of the Bible. Through our tradition and our change in culture over the last, well, thousands of years, some of the symbols and meanings of the Bible have been obscured. So, what I want to do today, is pull back some of those layers of moss and take a peek at what lies underneath knowing, of course, that I am not the expert or authority, but that I’ve been learning how to ask interesting questions.

In our gospel reading, Jesus is actually quoting our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 5.1-7. So, to understand what it meant in Jesus’ day, we should start with Isaiah. In the first part of Isaiah, the prophet is speaking on behalf of God to the rulers of the Kingdom of Judah. He sings this love song that ends up being more of a lawsuit summons. The vineyard that God has planted, toiled over, built, and loved has not produced the fruit it should have. This calls on God’s covenant, God’s contract, with Israel, and Israel has not kept its part of the bargain. God is calling them to repent or the protection he has promised will not be enough to keep people from trampling what God loves. The vineyard is an interesting symbol to use, for a few reasons. It is the setting for a few different romantic love stories in the Bible and it takes a long time to establish. A planted vineyard will take years to start bearing fruit and it takes a lot of work to make sure they are growing well.

So when Jesus begins his parable with a vineyard, I am certain that the religious elite would have immediately known the implications. Isaiah’s song of the vineyard leads to an exile that drastically alters the state of Israel from that time onward. They later attributed their exile with not bearing the fruit that God expects. But Jesus’ layer on this tradition is not that God is simply tearing down the walls, but is sending people to the tenants to warn and collect. It eventually leads to this really odd encounter. On his third encounter, instead of hiring mercenaries or sending a bunch of thugs to forcibly take back the vineyard, the landowner sends his son. Unarmed. Unaccompanied. Vulnerable.

What an upside-down, people-over-power way of doing things. And let’s not forget that Jesus is telling this parable in the last week of his life. It seems like he knows what’s coming. And that’s where our layers come in. Because we continue to interpret Jesus’ words like Jesus interpreted Isaiah’s words. Because there are times when we look at the world around us and see that the fruit we are bearing doesn’t always line up with what God desires. Because we recognize that, in our world, it’s much more likely that we’ll read the news and see a shooter killing 58 people and wounding over 500 others. Because we find, in Jesus, the unarmed and vulnerable son.

When the violence in our world seems so common, so recycled, so imminent, we see that the risky move of non-violence and vulnerability on the part of Jesus may just be the only thing strong enough to break the cycle. Jesus died on a cross a violent death to put to death the violence we inflict on each other. When Jesus was buried and rose again, he shows us the way to abundant, everlasting life never lies in our own power, in our own efforts to control violence with violence, but in the work and love of God. When the dominant voices of the world tell us that peace is found in suppression and hatred, we hear Jesus’ voice whispering “Father, forgive them.”

That forgiveness is granted to you. It is given to you and to humanity, in the face of violence and hatred. It is granted to you, even when we cannot produce the perfect fruit of love and grace. It is granted to you because the sacrificial love of Jesus is enough, even when we don’t feel enough, even when we can’t be enough. God has not abandoned the vineyard that God planted. God has not given up.

That’s hard to remember that sometimes. When it feels like the violence in the world seems too great, God comes in peace. When it feels like you are powerless, God comes in power. When it feels like the shouting and the scapegoating and the arguing is too much, God comes in silence. We follow a God who came to earth in the form of a man and this man made himself the ally of the vulnerable, the marginalized, the unclean, and the unworthy. He comes to us new every day, unarmed and unassuming, in so many ways. We feel his presence in the water of baptism, the bread and wine of communion, the support of community, and the peace of solitude.

In the face of violence, this is how God comes. Even when the layers of tradition have obscured him from view, Jesus Christ comes. Even when we don’t understand why or how, the Holy Spirit is blowing through this world. Even in places of death and despair, the Creator is making all things new. Amen.

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