Lectionary 27 — October 5, 2014
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
Good morning. I’m delighted to be with you today and bring greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ in the ELCA.
In order to eliminate a distraction this morning I’ll tell you just a little bit about why I’m called “Sister” Becky. I am consecrated in the ELCA and a member of the Deaconess community. My community has it’s roots back in early 1800’s Germany when there was a revival of diaconal ministry in the protestant churches. Our call and focus of our ministry is to what we call Word and Service – in contrast to a pastor’s call to Word and Sacrament. Our consecration and call to ministry is not located in a single congregation; like pastors, we are set apart by the wider church for our work and so we can change calls and move and all that. A somewhat unusual aspect of the deaconess community is that we are a roster and community of only women – so if you’re thinking “They’re sort of like Lutheran nuns” that’s actually pretty close. Some significant differences are that we don’t take vows and we can be married. We are members of two international diaconal organizations called World Wide Diakonia and the other a regional group called DOTAC which stands for Diaconia of the Americas and Carribean. It is a blessing and inspiration to participate in those groups and see all the ways the Holy Spirit is calling and equipping women and men from all denominations of the church around the world to calls of service and servant leadership.
My new call is as Assistant Director of Contextual Education at Trinity Lutheran Seminary over in Bexley. I work in placing students in contextual learning sites and internships as they prepare to be pastors and diaconal ministers in the ELCA. I started my new call in July, I have just recently moved my family to Columbus from Minneapolis – in fact the moving truck arrived just two weeks ago – so the house is still mostly unpacked boxes!
So. That’s a little about me and my story. Let’s turn our attention to Jesus and God’s story and how that might intersect with ours.
I’m not sure if you noticed but we have a bit of a vineyard theme going on this morning. Ok, really it’s hard to miss. We started with Isaiah’s love song for his beloved (God) and the beloved’s vineyard (the people of Israel), the psalmist remembers the good old days when the vineyard was this giant behemoth thing but now wild boars have destroyed it with a the refrain begs God – the landowner – to pay attention and tend to his vineyard again – restore us to the good old days.
So it’s really not surprising when Jesus tells a lot of vineyard parables too. It’s a well-known theme among Jesus’ first century hearers. Everyone knows that the vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God.
Of course, Jesus tends to turn things on their heads as he describes the Kingdom of God. Isaiah’s song has a prophetic turn, calling Israel to account for how they were not living up to being God’s people. Jesus’ parable this week focuses just a little differently.
In this story, Jesus adds the characters of the tenant farmers.
Vineyards don’t grow without being tended by farmers – whether the landowner him/herself or hired hands or tenant farmers – the vines need to be taken care of. The vines need to be pruned, and weeded, and fertilized, and watered. In order to get really good wine the fruit needs to be thinned and you need to watch for disease and protect the fruit from animals and birds that find it as delicious as we do. Once you harvest the grapes it’s not all stomping and fermenting and sitting on the patio sipping the results. You have to protect the vines over their dormant period so that you can start it all over again in a couple of months. It’s all a lot of work. Just like sheep need a shepherd, vineyards need farmers to produce.
In this parable Jesus doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with the vines or the harvest – in fact the harvest is great. In this story, there’s a problem with the tenant farmers. For some reason they’ve decided they don’t want to pay their rent – a portion of the harvest. So when the servant comes to collect they beat him and kill him. The tenants here are interesting folks because when the son comes, they say “Let’s kill him too, and get his inheritance.” This sounds a little odd to us. How could that happen – that a renter inherits the estate after killing the heir. They seem to be a little optimistic at best – and demented at worst. But it turns out that in first century Palestine it was possible for tenants to inherit if the owner never came back.
So there’s an underlining assumption or implication in the tenants’ behavior that says, “God- the landowner – has abandoned this vineyard. God has left – if God was ever here in the first place – and is never coming back.” This perhaps defines sin as not just a turning away from God but an active disregard for God’s faithfulness to promises.
Everyone hearing Jesus knew that the vineyard was Israel and God was the landowner. And everyone also understood that meant the tenant farmers must be the religious leaders. This was not a subtle point Jesus made.
The vineyard is producing a good harvest, but the tenants have come to believe that the owner is never coming back and that all of the harvest somehow belongs to them.
It would be easy to use this story to vilify the Jews and temple leadership. And in fact, the Christian church has used this story to do just that. But I don’t think it takes a great deal of imagination or effort to see ourselves and the church in the role of vineyard and tenants.
Jesus’ isn’t calling in this story for the restoration of the vineyard’s domination over the earth; Jesus is telling this story to highlight what GOD and GOD’s kingdom is like. Jesus’ point is that God will do anything to stay in relationship with us– even with murderous and slightly demented, self-absorbed us.
He is teaching about our sin in thinking that the fruits of the harvest are for our benefit alone. The fruit of the harvest is for the benefit of the whole world.
But it’s clear in Jesus’ story that the tenants aren’t going to figure that out on their own. And the most surprising, upside-down, crazy thing is this landowner who keeps sending servants; who is so unceasing in his attempts to reconcile with these tenants that he sends his son. He doesn’t seem to inclined to bring an army, or rain down fire and brimstone – despite the Pharisees answer that that is just what he should do. No, this landowner gives everything to try to get these tenants to live up to the covenant they have with each other – even sending the heir.
And we know how this part of the story goes, right? God sends his only begotten Son, he is beaten and killed – and God raises him; death doesn’t win. Sin doesn’t win. And through that death and resurrection God gives us the kingdom anyway.
We don’t have to rely on our reputation and performance anymore – which is ultimately a pretty good thing because even the “good” ones – the effective tenant farmers, the zealous religious leaders – we don’t always get it right.
Paul is talking about this when he says that all of his accomplishments, all of his success in following the rules and being a “good” Pharisee, a “good” religious person, a “good” husband, father, son, brother, community member; it all means nothing anymore. In fact it means less than nothing! Our translation says “rubbish” but the greek word Paul uses is closer to “dung.” Substitute whatever anglo-saxon word you might use for excrement.
Paul is writing to people in an honor/shame culture where who you know and what you do is closely watched and measured and accounted for and determines whether you have worth or are worth-less. And Paul says all those points he racked up, some by accident of birth and some by his strong will and determinism, all of it is nothing compared to his identity in Christ.
Some say that 21st century America is no longer a honor/shame/caste culture, but I’m not so sure.
We obsessively focus on whether we’re working hard enough, accomplishing enough; as a culture we make sweeping generalizations about people’s worth based on their job status, their accumulation of wealth, who they know or where they live.
Maybe you know this already. Maybe you are hounded by the idea that your boss doesn’t think you work hard enough; maybe you don’t have a boss because you’re unemployed – and you’re feeling the judgment of the neighbors and the family. Maybe it’s grades you’re chasing; or a position on the team. We do it in the church too. The constant focus on how big our church is or whether the church is dying – as if we were solely responsible holding it together and making it “succeed!”
The Kingdom of God does not work like the reign of the marketplace. What you do, who you are, is not for the sake of yourself, but for the sake of something beyond yourself. Who you are is not so much a totaling of what you do or what you have, but whose you are.
Can we, like Paul, let go of our credentials and recognize that pasts don’t define us? This is part of God’s promise to us – that we are no longer defined by our heritage or our transgressions but now we are defined by our adoption as a child of God. Only God can tell you who you are – and God calls you beloved child. Beloved child can you use your gifts and talents not in service to yourselves but in service to God and others? Can you recognize God’s beloved in the Other? Even when that other person doesn’t agree with you, or their past doesn’t measure up? This is not as easy as it sounds.
And God knows this. As a beloved child, our heavenly parent calls us to this table of forgiveness – where Christ is both host and feast – and we can have a foretaste of the banquet; fruits of the kingdom both for this world and the next. Come. Taste and see the goodness of God.
Let us pray.
Dearest Lord Jesus, you have endured the doubts and foolish questions of every generation. Forgive us for trying to be judge over you, for trying to steal the harvest for ourselves and grant us the confident faith to acknowledge you as Lord.