October 4, 2020 - Sermon - Rev. Mark Simone

This service was livestreamed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Sermon Text

Scripture:  Matthew 21:33-46

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:  ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;[a] this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the dominion of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the dominion. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Are There Limits to God’s Favor?

When Hamilton invited me to participate in the theme he has set for the fall, Confounding Discipleship: The Strangeness of God’s Gifts and Expectations, I was instantly intrigued. Confounding Discipleship. Things that are perplexing, confusing, mystifying and bewildering. What a great idea to look at the notions and intentions of the Bible while admitting that some of it just doesn’t make sense to us and may even sound like hogwash.
I ran into this kind of perplexing, counter-intuitive Christianity when I was part of a Jesus People group in Ravenna in my late teens. I can remember two occurrences that were presented to me as being violations of what God expects of us, with some suggestions as to how I might make things right.

The first was when I was traveling in the van of the pastor and his wife, and we came upon the body of a very large and very dead dog. It had, unfortunately, been hit by a car and just left in the street. The street was narrow, and it just seemed to me that it was a dangerous set up for a busy road. We had to stop to let other cars pass by because of the obstruction. Impulsively, I jumped from the van and ran over and tugged the dog’s body over to the side of the road. Not trying to play the hero – but it seems far more humane than leaving it there where some anxious driver might rush around the animal and cause an accident.

I returned to the car to stony silence from the pastor and his wife. In almost monotone, the wife paraphrased from memory the following verse, Leviticus 5:2-3 – “If a person touches any unclean thing, whether a carcass of an unclean beast or the carcass of unclean cattle or a carcass of unclean swarming things, though it is hidden from him and he is unclean, then he will be guilty.”

I knew that I had messed up, but I was not sure what I did wrong. I grew up in the country. This is what people did with dead animals. You didn’t just leave them in the road. I wanted to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, but apparently, I had just stacked up some negative points while not at all understanding what I had done. Perplexed. Confused. Confounded. And 16 years old.

A year or so later, I received a similar injunction, predictably, by the pastor’s wife, when I was asked to call for the collection at our service. I was scared but honored, and I made a brief call for the offerings and said we would now “pass the hat”. PUT ON AND TAKE OFF HAT.

After the service, I was asked to go to a side room and informed that I had just lied to God’s people by saying I was passing the hat and instead, passed an offering collection plate. It was suggested that I apologize and ask for forgiveness of the church family for my lie. Perplexed. Confused. Confounded. Now at age 17.
Those two stories have obvious notes of being in a radically conservative church which allowed for no mistakes and offered little grace when mistakes were made. 

Over the years I have returned to these stories and pondered them. It finally occurred to me that my relationship with God through Christ was not built upon legalism, but on a relationship. While Levitical laws may have been important to the Children of Israel in the exodus for survival, they were not particularly helpful to me now. Nor was a literalism that killed some of the joy of life. At the heart was the question of by what authority is a decision made? Do I follow the authority of the pastor’s wife, or do I live by the Spirit of God in freedom and peace?

In our scripture lesson we are looking at a similar battle over authority. The controversy began with Jesus cleansing the temple and cursing an unfruitful fig tree - both events recorded earlier in Matthew. In response, the chief priests and elders asked Jesus, “By what authority do you do these things?” (“these things” meaning the cleansing of the temple). The ever-clever Jesus countered by asking, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” When his critics refused to answer him, Jesus refused to answer them. But he did offer three parables. Today we look at the Parable of the Tenants, which is an allegory, or story in which each of the elements (people, things, and happenings) has a hidden or symbolic meaning.

We find a landowner, who represents God. The vineyard is the nation of Israel. The tenants are the people of Israel or its religious leaders. The servants/slaves are the prophets. And the son is Jesus. 

Many scholars trace the allegory with the line of thinking and interpretation that God established a covenant with Israel, represented by planting a vineyard. Then God sent the prophets, depicted by the servants/slaves, whom the tenants, the Israelites killed. Therefore, God sent his Son (Jesus) whom the tenants (the Israelites) killed. From here God sets things in order by cleaning house and turning the vineyard over to other tenants (the church) who will “give him the fruit in its season”).

Make no mistake. God had established an everlasting covenant with the Children of Israel and had led them through good times and bad. God has given them the Promised Land as their inheritance and the law and prophets to guide them. 

This parable could tempt us to spiritual pride or anti-Semitism, but neither is appropriate. Jesus is warning the Israelites the vineyard will be taken from those who were not worthy and given it to those who are. However, Israel is still living in covenant with God and the many Jews that I know and love are a testimony of God abundant goodness today. 

The author of Hebrews expresses the same thought, saying, “God, having in the past spoken through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Whereas the Hebrew scriptures record the lengthy and sometimes tumultuous history of God’s love for and dealings with Israel, the message is strongly emphasized in Matthew that at the point in history when Jesus came, Israel was in trouble. The leaders were mostly corrupt, and the people were suffering. Religion had become politicized as the leaders in Jerusalem made nice-nice with their captors, the Romans. 

In this parable we, as Christians, are the new tenants, as the Bible indicates. We must acknowledge that we are susceptible to the same temptations and errors. We face the rise and fall of denominations and congregations. We experience waning of denominations that have long been testaments of God’s presence and love. Culturally, the level of church attendance has dropped. In 1948, 76% of Americans self-identified as being a member in a church, synagogue or mosque. In 1999 that number has dropped slightly over the previous 50 years to 70%. Now we see that during the last 20 years, as of April 2019, the number has dropped to 50%. Nationally, our church membership is aging, and the influx of new membership is low in most of the country. But the Holy Spirit brings about the birth of new churches that, although some of these church groups might seem very different or unattractive to us, they are nevertheless faithful and fruitful. The Holy Spirit always breathes new life into the old bones. We need not worry about the church of Jesus Christ. It is alive and well, and Christ will see that it stays that way.

Next, we find Jesus asking, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner. This was from the Lord. It is marvelous in our eyes?’
“Therefore, I tell you, the Dominion of God will be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation bringing forth its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it will fall, it will scatter him as dust.”

    Jesus is warning the Jewish leaders, as well as we who are Christians, that the foundation of faith that the builders threw out is exactly what God used to bring redemption and forgiveness to all humanity – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus moves on to tell all the listeners that God is looking for people who will bring forth fruit. What kind of fruit? Holy lives—lives lived in accord with God’s will. God won’t judge us based the works we have done for others.  He will count us as fruitful if we have been faithful.

Verse 44 warns us that the cornerstone becomes a stumbling stone for the unfaithful. The structure God is building upon is very different than what was expected by the Jew, as well for many periods of time for we Christians. It has been said, “You can’t break God’s laws; you can only break yourself on them.” A practical illustration of that principle has to do with the law of gravity. God in his grace has created gravity to anchor us to Earth. We can use other physical laws to counter gravity to permit flight, but the person who tries to ignore gravity or who miscalculates its force can find him/herself crushed by its power. So also, the person who fails to live according to God’s may well find him/herself crushed by God’s power.

A few years ago, I began hearing lots about God’s Favor. It was mostly from family members who are more evangelical and conservative. The gist of this theology is that we, as Christians, are living in God’s favor because we are saved by Christ. Christ gave of himself for us so that we might live. And in that new life, we, as believers in Jesus, are God’s favorite people. God loves all humans, but God loves Christians best.

Being God’s favorites has lots of advantages, or so I am told. We have the right to petition God for the things we want and need. Under God’s favor we can achieve the impossible and attain the unachievable. God will hear our prayers first and God’s actions with be in our favor.

From the first time I heard this theological perspective it grated within me. I found it very presumptuous that we have access to God in such a way that we can sort of dictate to God what God should do for us. We should never feel anything less than abundance. We should never experience anything other than perfect health, relationships, finances, jobs, gleaming children and housetrained pets who are flea and tick resistant and never jump up on the couch. Yet, as my wife reminds me, you can’t “good” your way into God’s dominion. The Bible is full of examples of the consequences that come when we ignore God’s directives and the wisdom of God’s nature as revealed in scripture. For God disciplines those whom God loves, and out of that uncomfortable chastisement we find growth.

This is the point of the Parable of the Tenant. The heart of the story is about being fruitful and keeping our promises to the Landlord. And, as Jesus clearly points out, when we are rebellious and unfruitful, God moves on to offering the vineyard to new tenants. In other words, we can potentially fall from God’s hopes and plans for our lives. And while God never abandons us, and we cannot fall from God’s grace and love, God will not favor us with the bounty of the harvest if we are going to destroy God servants who represent God’s will. With that call from God come responsibility.

Abraham experienced God’s covenant when God made a covenant with him saying, “Go from your country to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

Jesus renewed that covenant at the Lord’s Supper when he stated that his body was broken for us and a new covenant was established in his blood – his sacrifice.

In these stories, and in many more, God is reaching out to us to be in a relationship with us. And with relationship comes responsibility. Relationships are not one sided, but best when both or all stake holders have an investment in the connections. 

Looking again at Communion, the covenant is the forgiveness of our sins and the request by Jesus that we eat and drink in remembrance of him. Relationship responsibilities. Something that the leadership in Christ’s day were no longer interested in. Relationship that promised fruitfulness, as with the Evil tenants in Matthew.
And when we ignore the call to fruitfulness and fail to return to God, the agreed upon share, we may find ourselves cut out of the deal.

As we prepare for communion, we are once again showing God our joyful obedience to being in fellowship with God. We come of our own volition and enter into the agreement of covenant once again, eating and drinking with remembrance of Jesus and thankful for the forgiveness of our sins. This leads to continued service and faithfulness, to which Federated Church is no stranger.

We will now prepare to offer and receive the Lord’s Table.