Sunday, October 8, 2017

Pentecost 18-A, 2017: Sign-posts of faith

Lectionary: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an mp4 audio file.

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

We began our worship time together saying this: “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 so very comforting… especially now. We live in a world where we are terrorized here at home and abroad the world. In the US alone, we’ve had 275 mass shootings so far in 2017 in places like airports, nursing homes, supermarkets, and concerts. (Source: That’s almost one every day.

The latest shooting in Las Vegas left 58 dead and 527 injured… and the shooter was an American; one of our own. Each of those 58 people who were killed had family and friends who are deeply mourning the loss of their loved ones. That is what sin does – it disrupts relationships.

Theologian Karl Barth talks about sin as a state of separation from God and from one another. It is a state we can choose or let go at any time according to our free will. “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 18:18)

In that state of separation, we objectify God, our neighbor, even creation, enabling us to erect walls between them and us; walls of judgement, discrimination, and disrespect. From behind those walls, sin happens readily, easily, and justifications for those sins abound.

In that state of separation, behind those walls of sin, we do harm, the kind discussed in our reading from Exodus: telling a lie about someone, pulling the trigger of an automatic weapon aimed at people, cheating with someone else’s spouse, scamming vulnerable populations like the elderly out of their money, worshipping at the altar of money, beauty, youth, or power, using God’s name for anything other than praise or worship.

When God gave the law to Moses to give to the people of Israel, it wasn’t meant as a checklist for behavior, but rather as a sign-post that sin has created a wall, relationships are being disrupted, and some effort will be required of God’s people toward reconciliation.

When I heard the news of the shooting in Las Vegas, I was deflated by sadness and frustration, then I got angry. I wanted to be mad at someone, to blame them for this. Yes, there is a shooter (or shooters) to hold accountable, but he is one of us, a member of our culture, our story, our humanity.

So, what do I do with my feelings then? How do I respond as a follower of Christ…as a child of God?

For me, the answer is always to go to prayer. 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 through it. Praying to God for comfort and guidance is a right and good thing to do, even knowing that God already knows our need and is answering our prayer even as we pray it.

The true benefit of prayer, the reason it is always the answer, is that prayer re-sets our minds and our hearts by bringing us into the presence and peace of God and aligning us to God’s will. It is in prayer that we experience God who created the universe and all that is in it. It is in prayer that we feel the strength of God that covers our weakness. It is in prayer that we realize we are all one, all children of the same family.

When life happens, especially when the sign-posts of sin are so apparent, we can sometimes respond with fear or confusion. Then we might bargain with God. See if any of this sounds familiar: ‘If we behave and follow all the rules, if we’re really good children and do everything just right, will you look upon us favorably and spare us from this trial, Lord?’ 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 and mercy are already ours – as promised over and over again in Holy Scripture and proven beyond all doubt in Jesus Christ, our Savior, who redeemed us by the forgiveness of our sins.

Right behavior is not the way to faithfulness; it is the fruit of it – a sign-post of faith. As Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, “If you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants; a story which leaves no doubt about the sinfulness of the religious leadership and Jesus’ own people, but it also shows them the way through. So, 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, as you know, 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 terrible 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, boy were they 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. 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, this parable is inclusive. Jesus doesn’t condemn the wicked tenants to exclusion from the kingdom of God, but he does take from them their privilege of tending the vineyard and gives it to another people - the Greek word here is ‘nation’ – and would have meant ‘Gentiles’ to Jesus’ listeners. It’s important to remember that the people of Israel had stereotyped all Gentiles to be sinful, unclean, and unworthy of redemption.

But in this parable, Jesus claims that this new people, these Gentiles, will produce fruit for the harvest – and this is how he shows the way through. Notice that no one is booted out of the kingdom, and in God’s plan of salvation, those stereotyped as sinful and unworthy are not only welcomed into the kingdom, but they’re honored, given responsibility for 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 are doing. How much fruit are we producing for God’s harvest? How many souls, who are hated by culture, have we welcomed into our house, into the family of God? What are the sign-posts of our faith?

This is the challenge churches face today. We love our church. We love our church family. We love the way we do things… 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, and if we want to know how to be fruitful servants, we can look to St. Paul who says, “I want to know Christ…” (Phil 3:10) and “forgetting what lies behind” or as we might say it today, we’ve always done it this way…’ so forgetting that “and straining forward to what lies ahead, [we] press on toward the goal…” (3:13-14) trusting that “Jesus Christ has made [us] his own…” (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 God needs made in us, individually and as a community, so that we, radiating God’s love, can press on with our work: making sign-post after sign-post of faith a visible reality in our corner of God’s kingdom.

So, let’s close by intentionally aligning our wills to God’s will, and honoring St. Francis whose feast day was a few days ago, praying together the prayer attributed to him found on page 833, in the Book of Common Prayer:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

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