Sermon: “The Stoned and the Stunned” for Oct. 2, 2011, 27th Ordinary, Pentecost + 16 A, World Communion Sunday

The Stoned and the Stunned

World Communion Sunday

Psalm 80:7-19

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 7  Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.

9 You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.

10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;

11 it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.

12 Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?

13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.

14 Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine,

15 the stock that your right hand planted.

16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.

17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Matt 21:33-46  

 33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a

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wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When 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; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 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.

The Stoned and the Stunned

What in the world is God doing, and what is my part in it?  Those questions are about as fundamental as a person can ask.  A person does not know either what God is doing in the world, or how he/she fits into God’s purposes, is lost.

Our quest is to know as much as we can about God’s purpose and to understand the part we play; and this parable of the “the vineyard and the wicked tenants” is about both of those.   So, let us delve into this parable.

The parable begins like this:

33“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and

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built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.”

The picture this parable paints is not pretty, but it is realistic.  An absentee landlord hires subsistence-level tenant-farmers to work the vineyard on his estate in exchange for a percentage of the produce.  Of course they resent these conditions.  Parables are meant to shock us, and this one should.

Palestine, and this parable, has a lot of stones in it.  If you want to plant a vineyard, job no.1 would be to clear a field of stones.   That’s OK, however, because, you need a lot of stones.  You will have to build a stone fence, like the stone fences in the New England, to keep out foraging animals; that is what the landowner did.

Dangerous Stones 

Those same stones could also be lethal weapons.  If you wanted to kill someone, stoning would be a convenient way to do it.  That happens in this parable too.

34When the harvest time had come, [the landowner] 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.

It appears that none of the tenants protested; there was a consensus in this crime.  Everyone seemed to be OK with it.

This parable is like a mini-history of Israel.  The Hebrew bible tells us that God gave his people Torah, his guidance, his commands, through Moses, but that they continually disobeyed.  So, he sent them, it says, “my servants the prophets.”  Some prophets they ignored, some they imprisoned, some they killed.  This parable tells their story.  The servants sent by the landowner were rejected; brutally so.

So finally, the landowner sends his very own son.  What happens?

39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”

God’s Vine

Jesus told this parable about a vineyard; Israel was known, in the bible, as “God’s vineyard.”  God had rescued his little vine from the land of Egypt, from soil of slavery that had no nutrients, where it could not flourish. God  transplanted his vine in the free soil of the Promised Land.

The whole idea was to make it fruitful.  God didn’t want just vine-branches and grape leaves, he wanted lush, succulent grapes; his plans were for making fine wine from a fruitful vine.

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So, what should the landowner do now?  Jesus puts this question to his audience of Chief Priests and Pharisees, leaders (should we think of them as chief tenants and vineyard management?). Before they realize what they are saying, the guilty leaders say that the landowner, whom they imagine to be just as blood-thirsty as they:

41 “will put those wretches to a miserable death….”

But the vineyard already has enough blood soaking into its soil and staining its stones.  God’s purpose is severe, but not violent.

Now, to understand the next part of the story, we must change the picture in our minds from a bloody vineyard to a construction site.  My English teacher in high school told us not to mix metaphors, but she was not Jesus’ teacher.  He now changes the main image from a vineyard to a building – I guess the stones are common to both.

From Vineyard to Construction Site

Jesus makes this change from vineyard to building because he is about to make a word play: in his language the word for stone and the word for son are the same except for only one letter.  In the vineyard parable, the landowner’s son was rejected.  Now, in the building story, the best stone is going to be rejected.  The son and the stone are rejected by the leaders – who first were the tenants, and now, are the builders.

 “42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?”

Of course Jesus knows that the leaders of Israel had rejected him: he is telling them that he is the son who was killed by the tenants, he is the stone being rejected by the builders – and this is going to have major consequences.  Jesus says:

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

The Purpose of Fruitfulness

Producing fruit for God is now and has always has been God’s purpose for his people, his vineyard, and we are now the

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tenants.  We who have embraced the son who came and died on behalf of the world now understand the amazing truth that the son is indeed the stone that those “builders” rejected.  This stone/son is the cornerstone of our faith and the very foundation of our lives.

What is God doing in the world?  Throughout the entire world God is establishing his Kingdom.  On this World Communion Sunday we recognize that God’s kingdom is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia, in China and Latin America.

As we break bread together in celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we will be proclaiming that the Body of Christ is a mystical unity, all over the world.  We are one in the Spirit with Lebanese Christians, Egyptian Christians, Palestinian and Pakistani Christians.

I will never forget the experience I had in Israel, in a large stone church in Bethlehem, which is now in Palestinian territory behind the huge new wall, singing familiar hymns with those Arab Christians, my English joining in with their Arabic, praising Jesus, the rejected Son, the precious cornerstone of our faith.

What is God doing in the world?  As scripture tells us, he is at work “breaking down the dividing walls of hostility” between people that we built in the days of our ignorance and immaturity (Eph. 2).

Our Role: fruitfulness 

And what is our role in what God is doing in the world?  Simply producing fruit, as he always wanted out of his vineyard.  What kind of fruit?  The fruit of obedience, faithfulness to his instruction in Torah; the fruit that his servants, the prophets spoke of, the fruit of justice and righteousness, the fruit of peace and compassion, the fruit of mercy and of recognizing everyone who suffers as “my neighbor.”

Living in Central Europe, I have known farmers who have vineyards and who make wine.  Growing corn or wheat, they tell me, is nearly automatic.  After planting the seed, you spend most of your time just waiting.  There is noting automatic about a vineyard.   There is constant pruning and tending to do if you want quality, wine-producing grapes.  It is labor intensive and time consuming.

Producing fruit for God is the same.  There is nothing automatic about it.  It takes daily disciple of prayer, scripture

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reading and reflection.

There are many adult Christians whose spiritual lives are stunted and immature, who, even after many years produce only fruitless branches.  Years alone, if they are years of neglect, are not helpful.  Only those who tend the vineyard of their lives end up with the mature fruit of the Spirit:

“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23)

It is not too late, but it is not automatic.  This parable calls us to discipleship as a matter of urgent importance.

Against the Current

Of course it is not easy.  Living in a country and a culture is like boating on a river.  There is a current constantly pushing in a direction.  Just because the current is pushing, does not make the direction right or just or good.  Just because the majority of boats seem content to drift with the current does not make the direction right or just or good.

It takes intensive, intentional labor to produce the fruit of justice in a consumerist, selfish age like ours.  It takes diligence and patience to work for peace against all odds, and to seek reconciliation in the face of discrimination or even violence.  It takes planning and thought to practice eco-justice for the sake of a healthy planet for our grandkids. Nothing about it is automatic.

Responsible for what we are OK with

Like the wicked tenants in the vineyard, we are responsible for what we are OK with.  We are called not to be like the wicked tenants who are OK with the selfish violence that wins the general consensus.  We are not OK with people seeping on the streets of our country.

We are not OK with poverty and hunger, neither are we OK with it here nor in Somalia.  We are not OK with the new forms of slavery that exist today in so many parts of the developing world.

On this World Communion Sunday, we assert our unity with all the people of the world that are made, equally in the

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image of God, “red and yellow, black and white,” all of whom are “precious in his sight,” all of whom are our global neighbors.

Our Calling

This is our calling; we are the tenants of the vineyard now.  This is our watch.  God expects fruitfulness.

We will commit ourselves to join Christians all around the world in  living personally and strategically disciplined lives, in anticipation of that great and final banquet at which we will sit together and celebrate the new wine of the kingdom.

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