+ A sermon given for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)/Ordinary 27A at Fullness of God Lutheran Church, Holden Village, WA on October 8, 2017 +
Text: Isaiah 5:1-7 (JPS translation), Matthew 21:33-46 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Like many of you, I woke up this past Monday morning to news of violence.
After reading that at least 59 people had been killed and more than 500 wounded at a concert in Las Vegas, I felt a familiar shock.
Last week’s incident has been labeled the largest mass shooting in the United States in recent history and I was experiencing flashbacks to the shock and disbelief I experienced the last time I awoke to such horrific news.
It was just in June of last year when 49 people were murdered and another 58 were wounded in a gay nightclub in Orlando.
A familiar story.
A familiar pain.
A familiar shock.
Almost daily we hear of shootings that happen in our cities and throughout our country.
Just last night, there was yet another white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia with literal Nazis supporting racism even after the violence there in August.
It’s weeks like these that I ask myself yet again how this can keep happening.
And after this week’s reminder of the violent culture that we live in, that we absorb every day, it was frankly difficult for me to read this week’s gospel text – a text full of violence.
Today’s gospel comes from the very end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
This is just days before he will be crucified on a Roman cross.
He is in the Temple in Jerusalem and has already made his presence known by overturning all the tables of the money changers and the salesmen who were gouging the common worshipers. Now he is in the middle of a tirade against the chief priests and the Pharisees where he goes on to call them hypocrites and a brood of vipers.
It may seem that Jesus is just a little angry at this point in Matthew’s gospel, and probably rightly so.
After three long years, he has experienced firsthand the suffering of his people.
He’s seen poverty and violence, sickness and despair, and when he comes to the holy city of Jerusalem and to the temple, Jesus sees how the religious authorities, who have been charged with caring for God’s people, instead have been colluding with King Herod and their Roman overlords while profiting off the oppression of the people.
Jesus knows what is possible and what should be done in a just society and he sees the opposite happening.
To illustrate his point, Jesus tells a parable building off of one told by the Prophet Isaiah centuries before.
In Isaiah’s version, he sings of a landowner who through backbreaking work built a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug out stones and built a tower, he planted the best grapevines and built a winepress – clearly he was expecting some high quality fruit to make some choice wines.
And yet, when the harvest time came, the fruit these vines bore was sour – unfit for any use.
Isaiah uses this story to tell the people of Israel that after all God has done for them, they are still not living up to their potential.
What more could God have done?
When God named Israel the chosen people, rescued them from slavery, sent them prophets and leaders, God expected a harvest of transformed lives that produced social justice and righteousness – but instead they have nothing to show for all the work God but bloodshed and despair.
As he frequently does, Isaiah cites poverty, forgotten widows and orphans, and rampant greed as visible signs that the people are not following through in their end of the bargain with God.
The prophet is telling them that God had hoped to see their gifts used to make the world a better place, but instead they had squandered them.
Jesus picks up on this same illustration as he challenges the religious authorities in Matthew’s gospel.
He uses almost an identical setup – a landowner who worked hard to make a good and fruitful vineyard.
In Jesus’ parable, though, the landowner leases out the vineyard to tenants who would manage the day-to-day operations.
And yet when the harvest comes, the landlord sends messengers to collect the fruits produced and the tenants reject messenger after messenger, beating some and killing others.
It’s almost laughable how ridiculous this landowner is – time after time he keeps sending more and more messengers who keep getting beaten or killed.
Rather than sending soldiers to force their hand, the landowner sends his own son and heir – who is then also beaten and killed.
But like Isaiah’s story, this parable tells of the countless prophets and messengers sent by God to the people who then rejected them.
Jesus is telling the chief priests and Pharisees the same message that Isaiah sang those centuries before – that they had been given such a wealth of gifts that continue to be squandered.
That the appropriate response to these gifts from God was to do justice in the world, to heal the sick and care for the poor, to protect the widow and liberate the oppressed.
And yet, as Jesus had just seen in his years of ministry, this clearly was not happening.
And when he finishes with his thinly-veiled story, Jesus asks the chief priests and the Pharisees what should be done to these tenants who acted with such disregard.
And what do they do but fall into the same old trap of violence – they say that the landowner should “put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Now, for nearly two millennia, Christian theologians have made the case that this proves that the Kingdom of God has been taken away from the Jewish people.
These verses have been used as justification for anti-Semitism and the notion that Christianity had triumphed over the “old” religion of Judaism.
They have been used as a theological validation for even more violence – hateful persecutions, expulsions, and even mass-murder of Jewish people from the Middle Ages through to this day.
Not only does this interpretation distort and twist Jesus’ original intentions and assume we have a God who would go back on God’s word, I also think it is a rather shortsighted explanation as well.
If we are to believe that we Christians are now automatically the tenants who will give the landowner the good harvest, the proof should be in the fruits that we produce.
But it doesn’t take more than a quick glance at what we have produced to show that we too are falling short.
The fruits God expects of caring for the downtrodden, the sick, and the planet have turned into sour grapes of slashing social programs, restricting access to healthcare, and creating devastating climate change.
The expectation of building up God’s kingdom of peace and love has turned into greater reliance on weapons of war and violence.
“For the Lord expected justice, but sees injustice,” the Prophet tells us, “equity, but sees inequity.”
And for centuries, we too have had saints and reformers calling us to do better and return to God’s intentions for us and yet here we still are.
And maybe we too feel that we deserve to be punished by a vengeful God for squandering all that we have been given.
But that’s not really how our God works.
Remember that Jesus is telling essentially the same story that Isaiah told centuries before him.
And during that time, God acted like the ridiculous landowner and continued to send prophet after prophet and eventually even the Son of God to try to convince the people to change their ways.
And when this parable is enacted in Jesus’ own life, when the Son of the landowner is put to a miserable death, God does not come down with vengeance to destroy those who nailed Jesus to the cross, but instead the instrument of death is transformed into a tree of life.
Even as he is dying on that cross, Jesus is forgiving those who are murdering him.
And after his resurrection, Christ continues to preach a message of love and compassion for all people and all nations.
And in the 2000 years since, we continue to have messengers from God calling for justice where there is injustice, equity where there is inequity.
Even today, even now, we see Christ come yet again to us in this community gathered to worship, in the words of forgiveness of our sins, in the simple meal we will soon celebrate.
Christ continues to come to us, giving us his example to show us what we yet could be.
And to me, that’s the good news of these texts – that God loves us so ridiculously much that God is still trying to get through to us, no matter how many times we have rejected that message.
This text is not one of violence or vengeance, but profound mercy and grace.
It tells us that God still wants to be in relationship with us despite our refusals.
That no matter our failings, God is still coming to us and helping us dream of a better world.
That even though we recognize that we are not living up to God’s hopes and expectations for us, we can keep trying again and again and God will keep coming and encouraging us to do better.
Our God does not allow violence to have the last word, but responds with love.
Our God does not give up at the sight of injustice and inequity, but invites us to join with God in producing the good fruits of the Kingdom.
And the ridiculous love of our God continues to come to us as we work together in God’s vineyard.
God isn’t just talking to the ancient Israelites or the chief priests, God is talking to us.
And God is inviting us join into the transformative ministry we share with Christ Jesus – to work for the good fruits of the Kingdom that has been prepared for us.
To read the Eucharistic Prayer I wrote to preside at this liturgy, see this post.