16th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 27
October 2, 2011
Matthew 21:33-46, Isaiah 5: 1-7
If you came to church this morning looking for comfort, I don’t have much good news. As we get closer to the end of the church year, Jesus is getting closer and closer to the end of his life. He has less and less patience with the religious authorities of his day, the people he was so sure would recognize him as the promised Messiah and welcome him with open arms. The more he preaches about the reign of God and what it looks like, the more obvious it is that those ‘church leaders’ have missed the boat. Their focus has been narrowed down to their own concerns with the church, they are proud of their ability to make religion hard and exclusive, and they have forgotten completely the message of God’s people as being the light of the world and instrumental in God’s plan to bring peace and justice to all people.
Jesus tells a story to the crowd which includes the religious leaders who have been giving him grief. His story is a cleverly constructed riff on a story that most of the people would know well, this morning’s First Reading. Isaiah tells a sad tale of a beautiful vineyard gone sour. This image of the Hebrew nation as a vineyard is quite common in the time of Isaiah, and they all that Isaiah is greatest of the prophets calling God’s people to account for failing to live with justice, generosity, and as witness to God’s steadfast love. Isaiah predicts that they will be savaged by powerful nation and carried away from the land that makes them God’s people. Isaiah was right. They were carried off by the Assyrians and spent 70 years in exile, raising their children in a culture in which “The Lord of Hosts” was unheard of and Tiamat and Ishtar were the gods everyone worshipped. Their hearts were broken and they longed to return to the land of their ancestors.
In Jesus’ story we have another vineyard, also carefully constructed. In the story the owner leases to tenants who forget their place, and come to consider the vineyard their own. They even plot to kill the son of the vineyard owner, thinking that then the vineyard might come to be theirs. The religious leaders really get into the story, giving an answer which convicts them as being the wicked tenants. They have been busy indulging in their own ritual and regulations. They have gotten lost in making their relationship with God about their own purity rather than about taking care of the widow, the orphan, those who are the least in society. When Jesus claimed that God’s kingdom is about releasing prisoners, feeding the hungry, making the blind see and the lame walk, they got angry.
Where do you see yourself in this story? Where do you see your church? Are you one of the outsiders that Jesus says is going into God’s kingdom instead of the religious leaders? Do you see yourself as one of the beneficiaries of God’s radical welcome for outcasts and sinners? Or do you see yourself in this story as one of the faithful who are being lambasted for not caring for God’s property? One of the insiders who has begun to feel that the vineyard is yours.
This story makes me really uncomfortable. I am afraid that even when my life is difficult, I am the beneficiary of so much that has been put in place for me. Comfortably middle-class, I always lived in safe neighborhood, in a suitable house. I had a good education in public and private schools, and was even able to get a Master’s Degree with the benefit of a student loan with interest paid for by the government while I was in school. My parents worked hard, and I worked hard, but so much opportunity was available to me because I was the right color, and had the tools and the confidence to function well in the world. Being part of the church was part of my privileged world. When we moved around the country, church was our community, and the comfort of finding things the same no matter where we went was an important part of my growing up and raising my kids. I am the ultimate insider, really good at doing church, and completely at home in it. It totally works for me. But Jesus’ story makes me wonder. Have I gotten so comfortable here that I have forgotten what church is for and whose church it is?
It isn’t my church; it is God’s church. It is God’s ministry that brings us together and our invitation to gather here is a call to change the world into the kind of world God envisions. That would be a world in which everyone has enough to feed their children, no one would die of preventable diseases, people could learn and grow and thrive because barriers that keep resources from those who need them would disappear. Dom Helder Camara, the Archbishop of Northeast Brazil said: “When I raised money for the poor, I was hailed as a hero; when I asked why they continued to be so poor, they called me a communist.” We aren’t here because we are so special, we are called to be here because God loves us and wants us to love the world God made. We are blessed, we are forgiven, we are privileged for a purpose. Our lives are transformed by God’s love so that we can spread it to all who live in fear and want. God’s radical welcome has reached out to us even though we are far from perfect, far from brilliant, far from rich, because God is not going to save the world without us. May the Holy Spirit that gathers us here today, fill our hearts with such humility and gratitude that we can only fall on our knees and say, “Yes, use me.”