Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pentecost 16A: God's will, God's fruit

Lectionary: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80: 7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Lectionary: Isaiah 5:1-7 Psalm 80: 7-14 Philippians 3:4b-14 Matthew 21:33-46

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve…

These words from our Collect are very comforting… especially in the face of difficult times. We live in a world where some people wonder if they’ll ever feel safe or secure again. Terrorists are still terrorizing all around the world. Worldwide stock markets remain nervous and erratic. There is a new discussion about whether college is worth the cost, which is exorbitant anymore (believe me, I know this – and I think it IS worth it) and our elderly wonder if their retirement savings will last as long as they do.

When faced with problems as big as this we need to know that God is big enough, loving enough, and involved enough to help us. Praying to God for that comfort is a right and good thing to do. We pray asking for mercy, for help. Some people even pray for money, or victory for their political candidate or sporting team.

Praying for specific things like that is fine. Ask and you shall receive, as the saying goes. But the true benefit of prayer is that it re-sets our minds and our hearts by bringing us into the presence of God and aligning us to God’s will – not God to our will.

It is in prayer that we remember that God, who created the whole universe and all that is in it, is the strength that covers our weakness, and is always ready to pour upon us an abundance of mercy and forgiveness. But in difficult times, people are often very aware of their unworthiness and they get fearful. ‘If we follow all of the rules,’ they say, ‘if we’re really good and do everything just right, God will look upon us favorably and spare us from this trial. It’s a tempting, but fruitless endeavor.

We don’t buy God’s love and mercy with our good behavior or pious living. God’s love is already ours – as promised over and over again in Holy Scripture and proven beyond all doubt in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior.

If our behavior is right and good it’s because we are living into the truth about whom we are – God’s beloved, redeemed children. Right behavior is not the way to faithfulness; it’s the fruit of it. As Mother Theresa of Calcutta has said, “If you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.”

But we are a faithless people. We judge ourselves and others despite all of the commands not to, and while we may have convinced ourselves that our judgments carry the weight of God’s will, it is actually our will, not God’s, being done.

God provided everything that was needed to bring about shalom: a fullness of harmony between God, God’s people, and creation. As we read in Isaiah: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:4)

But the reality confronting Jesus in today’s Gospel, was anything but harmonious, and the parable of the wicked tenants is a scathing judgment by Jesus against the religious leadership and their followers – the Jewish people. In this parable, the absent landowner is God. The vineyard is a common metaphor for the nation of Israel. The slaves represent the prophets (whom the Jews tended to kill) and the tenants are the people of Israel and their religious leaders, who kill even the landowner’s son – the Messiah.

What should this landlord do with these tenants? Jesus asks. ‘They should suffer a miserable death,’ the leadership replies, ‘and the land should be leased to someone else – someone who will give the owner the fruits of the harvest.’ Jesus has led the religious leadership to declare judgment on themselves – and when they realized it, they were steaming mad!

There are three things I want to hold up about this parable today. First, in the continuing revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus has, by this parable, identified himself as the son of the landowner (God’s son) and predicted his death at the hands of his own people.

Secondly, Jesus identifies himself as the cornerstone. By quoting from Psalm 118, which the religious leadership knew very well, Jesus points to the amazing things God is about to do through him, namely: open the gates of righteousness, overcome death, and bring salvation to the whole world.

Finally, like the parable of the two sons (which we read last week), this parable is inclusive. Jesus doesn’t condemn the tenants to exclusion from the kingdom of God, but he does take from them their work tending the vineyard and gives it to another people (the word here is ‘nation’ – and would have meant ‘Gentiles’ to Jesus’ listeners).

This new people (the Gentiles) will produce fruit for the owner to harvest. Notice that, once again, no one is booted out of the kingdom, but the unclean, sinful ‘others’ are not only brought in, they are given the responsibility of the care of the kingdom.

Now before we get all confident about our status as this new people, we might take a look at how well we – those to whom this work has been given – are doing? How much fruit are we producing for God’s harvest? How many souls, who are hated by culture, have we loved and welcomed into this house, into the family of God?

Well, if you’ve ever been here on a Wednesday during the Shepherd’s Table and Food Pantry ministries, the fruits of Redeemer’s care for the kingdom are pretty evident. And last night I attended an organizational meeting of Neighbors for Equality, a grass roots organization originating from Boiling Springs whose larger purpose is to support and protect the rights of Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender people among us.

Kingdom fruits. Shalom.

Here’s the challenge churches and church communities face: we love our church. We love our church family. We love and our church’s habits. But when we work to create or maintain a church that fits our design, our plan, then we are just like the chief priests and the Pharisees in Jesus’ time and we can expect the same results.

God is the owner of this vineyard, not us. We are simply called to be fruitful servants, and if we want to know how to be fruitful servants, we have a great example in Paul in his letter to the Philippians. In three simple phrases, Paul shows us how to get there: First, he says, we come to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” (Phil 4:14) Then, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [we] press on toward the goal…” (Phil 3:13-14) trusting that “Jesus Christ has made [us] his own…” (Phil 4:12)

We come to know Christ by praying, individually and in community asking for what we need, but more importantly, aligning our wills to God’s will. And leaving the past behind us, we move forward by allowing God to make the changes that God needs made in us, individually and as a community, so that we can press on toward the goal of shalom – or as we often say it, the reconciliation of the world to God in Christ.

We belong to God who is the strength that covers our weakness. And God is always ready to give us more than we desire or deserve. In return, we have to use the gifts God has given us - being as generous to those who have been judged unworthy as God is to us pouring upon them an abundance of mercy and forgiveness.

We must live the truth of who we are: God’s beloved, redeemed children. Amen.

No comments: