Sermon for 10/4/20 Miscalculations: Truth-telling

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18 Pentecost

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

The ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. Ps 19:9b


“Mirror, Mirror on the wall!  Who’s the fairest of them all?” Nursery rhymes offer us often unadulterated opportunities to truth.  That line, unforgettable because it is often repeated, from the children tale “Snow white” encapsulates perfectly a miscalculation that, among other things, have fueled religious intolerance and bias against many, indeed often against those in the same religious, ethnic, racial group.  Before which mirror do we stand, in order to get a true reflection of our value before God?


For those of us looking for a true reflection of self, may I suggest the mirror of the psalmist: The ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether?  An easy answer as to who is God’s favorite among human kind, today’s gospel would appear, at least on the surface, to provide such an easy answer: We Christians are, of course! Who else could it be, if not we Christians?  On the surface, today’s gospel, an allegory about the wicked tenants would seem to tell us Christians that we have become the new chosen, the new Beloved of God.  For, we have accepted the chief cornerstone which was rejected by those to whom he came.


A bishop, who here shall go unnamed and whom I have encountered in my years of ministry, addresses his listeners in his homilies as “God’s Beloved,” and nor does he shy away from incorporating this honorific in his benediction.  As a person of faith, I acknowledge that he is, of course, correct.  Yet, at the same time, I cringe when I hear those words.  Yes, we are beloved of God and, yes, we are a Resurrection People.  I shudder, for such a turn of phrase conjures up in my mind, and I fear in the thoughts of some of his hearers, a sense of pride and favoritism.  Does that title confer special privilege?


The good bishop, if questioned, would immediately respond, absolutely not.  You see—and I would believe that this here cited, but anonymous bishop would agree with my understanding of our Book of Record that, as God’s Beloved, as People of the Resurrection, we are also a servant-peopleWe are also tenantsWe are also stewards.  And if we forget for one brief moment that one little detail, we have become as the Pharisees, the chief priests and the Scribes who were the object of Jesus’ criticism, a criticism adeptly cloaked in an allegory.


As Christians we have struggled for centuries with this parable, and for good reason.  Even in our own day, we slip—do we not?—into a way of thinking that is not all too different from that of the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the Priests of the Temple of biblical time.  On the surface, it can too easily be interpreted as giving license to an anti-Jewish tirade.  Yet, on closer examination this allegory establishes itself not as anti-Jewish, especially as we recall that it was told by Jesus, who in his earthly lineage could be traced back to David, the most reknown king of the Hebrews.  His credentials were impeccable.  A true blue blood!  But a blue blood who sat not on cushions in palaces.  In this parable, Jesus address an all too human trait, over which no one people, no one ethnic, no one racial group has a monopoly.  As people of faith we do well to take care not to allow this text to become the basis for a foundation for a verbal, or as history has recorded, a physical battle of “us against them.”


As it must most certainly have done for the contemporary opponents of Jesus, the Pharisees, Scribes, and Priests of the Temple—forget not, that they were ready to lynch Jesus on the spot, but fear of the people restrained them—what this parable did then, and should do for us, is ignite in us, again and again, regularly if not daily, a reflection regarding our religious motivations, intentions, and behavior.  His opponents had calculated that by hijacking the Bible, which for them were the Books of Moses (Pentateuch) and the Prophets, by ignoring or interpreting those sacred scriptures to fit their purposes, they believed that they would gain and retain control.


Miscalculation One: The actions of the tenant farmers in killing first the early messengers and then eventually the heir apparent, were a miscalculation of mammoth proportions.  Miscalculation Two: The tenant farmers may have assumed that the arrival of the son and heir signaled the incapacity or the near death of the owner.  Miscalculation Three: And if that be the case and since the land had been let to prior tenants, perhaps no one would recall to whom the land belonged, and they could declare: occupancy is 9/10ths of the law.  Miscalculation Four: However, the owner of the vineyard proves to be very much alive, and in this allegory signifies none other than its creator, its architect—the one who lays out the fields—and its vintner, the one who intuits when the grapes are at their peak and ready for the harvest.  In religious terms the owner of the vineyard, then, is none other than God who is very much alive, has invested heavily in the vineyard, and is active in its day-to-day operations, even if not always seen or sensed.  Attempts to control God and to thwart the message of the Son are ultimately doomed to failure.  This fourth miscalculation proved to be the greatest of the tenants’ miscalculation.


Like every good teacher, every good preacher, Jesus has really one story to tell; but also like a good teacher, he uses different examples and a varied vocabulary to tell that story, as the situation or audience might require.  Just as this parable was a warning against smugness and exclusivity in his time, that warning remains for us a timeless one, one for all generations, for it reminds us of our origin.  “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” we sing, as that Doxology reminds us poetically where we stand.  We are not the vintner, but tenant farmers, stewards.


We would like very much to push this fact out of our minds, especially in political seasons, and I have found this to be especially so during these last several weeks, when our elected officials have wrestled, or not, with the horrific effects the Covid-19 pandemic and the challenging social protests against injustice, wrestled with coming to the aid, or not, of those most directly affected financially.  No political sermon, this.


However, as people of faith, we must look into our mirror: The ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.  We cannot leave God, or perhaps more accurately articulated, God’s plan for the creation, out of our deliberations. Who dares argue that we are not all affected by the actions of others who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away?  Who dares argue that individuals who contribute (via payment of taxes) to the common good, should not share in the fair distribution of their taxes, should not receive relief from their calamity?


If we American dare put on our currency “In God we trust,” or insert into our secular pledge of allegiance “one nation under God,” dare we exclude the fundamentals established in our Book of Record, on which those phrases rest?  As I listen to our elected official and the pundits in our media, I cry out to colleagues and friends and to all who will listen, are there none among the tenant farmers who dare, casting aside the fear of being accused of erasing the philosophy of separation of Church and State, so as to raise the fundamental truth: that all we have and all we are is from God?  We, the tenant farmers of 2020, have no or little difficulty of ignoring that held separation, when it fits our own aims.  Do we not miscalculate?


Who among us has created one ton of coal, one barrel of oil, one cubic foot of natural gas?  Who among us produced the soil, the water, the seed needed so desperately to grow those things necessary for our physical AND emotional wellbeing?  The air which our lungs filter and our hearts pump through our arteries?  Who?


You see, the danger of the tenants, then and now, was and is that they forgot whose and who they are.  And the allegory, although to some a negative judgment,brings good news.  We need to be reminded that it all belongs to God in the first place.  Imagine for a moment putting God’s name not only on our currency, but on all that you have: groceries, furniture, car titles, deed to your house, your trophies, your awards.  We won’t, of course.  Yet, ultimately, we are just tenants.  And to be reminded is not necessarily bad news.


Actually, it is good news, for in it we are reminded that we are not alone.  God has provided and will provide.  We have a loving Creator who works to care for us and sustain us from day to day, even when and if we would deny our Creator allegience.  We won’t get everything we want, but God is at work to make sure that we receive what we need.  And as God’s beloved, as people of the Resurrection, we are called upon to tend that vineyard.  We are harvesters really.  And that is the important point of Jesus’ parable.  We are ourselves the fruit of the labor of others.  And we labor to produce on our watch the fruits of God’s kingdom, that other may enjoy the vineyard.


For me, you see, this allegory, does not in and of itself, bring negative or threatening news.  On the contrary, Jesus advocated then, and now, a positive outcome. Simplification and sharing can be good for our bodies and our spirits.  As people of faith, we are obligated to the owner of the vineyard to tend it, as if it were our own.  We can listen in 2020 to Jesus’ parable and ask ourselves what fruit do we are bear, when we share what God has given us.  There are many people in need in God’s vineyard.  We have the means and gifts to help.  What kind of tenants shall we be?   When we stand before our mirror and recite “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,’ let us not forget the mirror before which we stand: The ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.  A more perfect mirror shall we not find anywhere.  We dare not miscalculate.   Let us find solace and strength in the Collect for today:


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: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen