Sermon for Sunday – October 4

How do we move in faith and let go of fear?

Scripture readings for the sermon

Part of the genius of the Gospel is that it teaches in parables – so the teachings are as relevant now as two thousand years ago. But the price of that relevance is that the meaning is not necessarily plain or obvious… Take for example the parable in this morning’s Gospel. It is a familiar story but what it might mean…

We have a vineyard with its winepress and watch tower, an absentee landowner, a group of difficult tenants, a set of abused servants, and some obligatory priests and Pharisees. It’s not a big leap to see the vineyard as a symbol of our world. The absentee landowner seems pretty clearly to symbolize God. The priests and Pharisees are the religious leaders of the time. And then we have difficult tenants and the abused servants – two groups in which I think I might locate myself. But which one?

A vineyard somewhere

Matthew is a bit unclear in some of the details, but there is an interesting detail that may sit in the story. Matthew tells us that at harvest time, the landowner sends servants to collect his fruit. This story is told in variations in other Gospels and in those other versions it is clear that the landlord is trying to collect a portion of the fruit – the portion due the landowner. But Matthew doesn’t put any qualifiers on it. The landlord sends servants to collect the produce. There is some reason to believe that Matthew really means all the produce… if we see the landowner as the personification of God then we should conclude that everything truly belongs to God.

But if we are those folks who have worked the vineyard, we would certainly expect our portion. The absentee landlord showing up and demanding everything would be, to say the least, provocative. When these rowdy tenants abuse the landowner’s servants it might be a bit justified. They are not being greedy. They are demanding what is normal. Still, their treatment of the landowner’s agents is appalling.

A place to trample out the vintage…

And I’m still left with a question of where I locate myself in this story – tenant or servant?

Scholars (a group in which I do not locate myself…) observe that the servants, coming as they do in two groups, represent the two categories of Prophets in Hebrew Scripture, the “former” and the “latter”. If we accept this, then at least I’m now left with only the rowdy tenants as my group…

Perhaps the parable is reminding us that God has tried to reach the chosen people with two waves of prophets and has been rejected. So, God goes further, sending Jesus as a sort of a last-ditch attempt to reach the chosen people. And the parable reminds us that the outcome is the same: rejection in a horrible and scandalous way.

Interestingly, Matthew seems to put the burden for this rejection on the tenants rather than on the authorities. And this is the same tenant group in which I have landed…

If we were to read this parable in the way it would have been understood in Matthew’s time, then it is a story of Israel’s repeated disobedience and of God’s long-suffering patience running out. The first chosen people are replaced by a new chosen people – the followers of Jesus. The rowdy tenants are replaced with new and improved tenants. This is the group in which I want to locate myself… But is that a faithful reading?

Well… let’s look a little more at those rowdy, nasty tenants.

Ancient agriculture workers

It seems, from the little we know, that they did a pretty good job of running the vineyard. It has been planted and tended and, in fairly short order, seems to be bearing good fruit. I’m going by what is not said… there is nothing bad said about the vineyard.

Were Jesus’ disciples all that much of an improvement over the previous tenants? Maybe. But the Gospels are full of stories of the disciples being thick headed deniers.

The power of parables, as I said at the start, is that they stay relevant even as the world around is transformed. We can speculate about what this story may have meant in Matthew’s time, or what Jesus may have had in mind when he told the story. But we don’t live then…

What is this parable saying to us now?

One thing that jumps out at me is Matthew’s subtle implication that the landlord claims all the fruit. I find this disturbing – it seems so unfair. But that is based on the understanding that I have to watch out for myself, even at the expense of others. That is not God’s way. And this is God’s world.

In the old testament paradigm, a tenth of the produce was to be offered to God. But in the Gospel paradigm, everything belongs to God. That doesn’t mean God is about to pull up in a great big truck and take it all away… it means we have to be prepared to share the produce with all of God’s creatures. That is what God does. I don’t know that I perfectly understand it, but I do know that we live in a world that throws away tons of food while people starve… We can do better. In this parable I think Jesus calls us to seek that better way.

The bad tenants are fighting to preserve what they perceive as rightfully, exclusively theirs. If we could get past believing in our right to exclusive use of God’s earth, we might be able to build a world that more closely resembles God’s Kingdom.

I think we also have to ask ourselves if we do any better than those nasty tenants at listening to God’s prophets. God’s chosen Israel ignored the former and latter prophets. How much do we really attend to Jesus? Lots of lip service gets paid. But the Gospels tell us that by our fruits we will be known as followers of Jesus, not by our words… only by our love we can be known as Christians.

Desmond Tutu asked some years ago if being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict us. I think for most of us there actually is quite a bit of evidence. The opportunity which God gives us with each new day is to pile up even more evidence. It is a joyful thing.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

If I truly put myself in the place of those wicked tenants, I can explore the question of why they acted as they did. What would lead me to their behavior? My first answer is greed – they want the produce all to themselves. But if I push a little harder the word fear comes to mind. They fear that the landlord will take all the produce and they will be left with nothing. Fear is a terrible and ugly motivator. And the Gospel tells us that love drives out fear. Jesus is always calling us to love.

As we begin the tentative process of building the post-Covid world it might be possible to look at each step we take and ask if the step is motivated by love or by fear. If my greatest desire is to see the world go back to just the way it was so that I get my old, familiar life back, in some way that is a fearful response. I fear that I may not be as comfortable, or as safe, or privileged, or whatever in a new and different world. The truth is, I should hope and pray that I will not go back to that comfortable, safe, and privileged world. I hope and pray that we will move forward into a world of justice.

How do we as individuals, as brothers of St Benedict’s Priory, as members of Volmoed, as residents of the region… how do we move in faith and let go of fear?

The truth is that we will be beloved children of God in whatever emerges. Perhaps I’ll live with less privilege. Perhaps my life will be shortened. But God’s love will never be diminished. And my ability to share God’s love will always be infinite.

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