Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46 for Pentecost +17 A, October 5, 2014
[And Jesus said:] “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. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 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.”
“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 one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
As much as I do not like my newly quiet, empty-nest house, now that my youngest has gone off to college, I do believe it is a good thing. If I asked any of you to tell me what the goal of parenting is, I believe you would say something like the familiar expression: “to give a child roots, and wings.”
The goal of raising children is to give them first, good roots: a sense of who they are, the knowledge that they are loved and valued, and that the world is waiting for their gifts and contribution. And then, having done the roots-part, to give them wings to fly; to set them free to grow into the adults that they will become. First roots, then wings. The wings-part is painful, but important, and good.
What is the Goal of Life?
The goal of proper parenting is easy to know and describe. But other goals are not. What is the goal of life? Would that be a difficult question for you to answer? Why are you here? What is it all about? Especially, given the fact that life is fleeting, temporary, and often a complicated mixture of satisfaction and frustration; joy and pain? What is the goal of it all?
We are living in a strange time now, in so many respects. Knowledge is exploding. We just watched a documentary (Electron Fever) on the scientific work at the Large Hadron Collider. Over 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries collaborated to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and to try to find the Higgs boson, potentially explaining the origin of all matter.
Apparently they did discover the Higgs boson. But there are lots of questions that remain unanswered. What does it mean to push the edges of our understanding back, close to the beginning of the universe? Would a purely scientific explanation ever be enough to answer that most basic and important question: what is the goal of life? What does it mean?
The Meaning Quest: Deep and Universal
The question of meaning is not a trivial question. There are plenty of people who have achieved success and affluence, who have lived in utter despair at not being able to know what life means; what the goal is. Certainly success and even affluence are nice, but are barren as resources for meaning.
The meaning question is not trivial for another reason: it is universal. People all over the world, from the ancient past to the complex present, want to know – or actually, more accurately – need to know what their lives mean.
For myself, it seems so clear that a purely material universe that can be known and described scientifically is not capable of accounting either for meaning (beyond pure randomness and chance) or even of explaining why the need we all have for meaning is so profoundly and universally crucial to our existence. We all need meaning and do not live happy lives without it. There must be something more than energy and time.
Religions around the world can be understood as attempts at providing meaning. But humans are always involved in religions, and so they get complicated. Issues of power and authority come up quickly and often overwhelm the basic quest. “Who is an insider vs. outsider” questions take up lots of time in many religions, as well as issues of guilt and punishment.
All of these side-issues tend to side-track, if not totally subvert, the quest for meaning. Some religions seem to be able to keep closer to the goal, while others seem to have lost sight of it altogether.
The Old, Simple Answer
I want to offer an understating of the goal and meaning of life. It is not new, not original, and not complicated. I believe its truth is evidenced by its simplicity. The goal of life is union. I am a Christian, which makes me a monotheist, so the way we put it is that the goal of life is union with God. God, understood as the source of all, which necessarily means that union with God is also a form of union with everything (though it has not been a big part of our tradition, historically, to speak of it that way – but see John 1:1-5; 17:20-21, Col. 1:15-20; Eph. 1:3-10; Rom. 8:22-23).
Our core story is that humans were created to live and experience life with God – that is, if anything, what the metaphor of Eden is about. But humans experience a life of exile; like Adam and Eve, outside the garden. We are both at home and not at home in the world.
The Universal Lure from Beyond
As universal as the need and quest for meaning is, a sense of longing for a home we have left is also part of who we humans are. Nearly all humans sense another world; another way to be. There is a feeling of being lured and called to a another reality. We long to return from exile and come home to the Garden, or to the promised land.
Jesus and the Quest
The Gospel text we read today has all of this as its background and points us forward. We do not have time to look at it in detail – that is what our adult Sunday School class is all about. So I will outline the main ideas.
The scene is near the last days of Jesus’ life on earth. After a ministry in Galilee to the North, Jesus has journeyed to the capital, Jerusalem. He has made his way into the city in that famous ride on the donkey, an intentional parody of Pilate’s military pomp and parade.
Then Jesus has gone to the very heart of the religion of his people, the temple, and shut it down temporarily. It was a symbolic action – reminiscent of symbolic actions the prophets of Israel were famous for; a way of acting-out the message in dramatic form.
The message was that things had gone wrong; entirely wrong. The religion of Israel that was supposed to help people find union with God had become something else.
In the hands of humans, the religion had become focused on who is inside, who is outside, on guilt and punishment, and about power and control for the ones in power and in control. That is not a new or unique set of conditions that religions get into. Anyone who reads church history has read the same thing again and again.
Jesus’ authority to send this message and do these symbolic acts has just been challenged by the men who feel threatened by them. They have demanded to know who authorized this non-priest from a low class family from the sticks to challenge them.
Now, this is what follows that challenge. Jesus tells a parable. God’s vineyard, in the hands of unscrupulous tenants, has failed in its mission of fruitfulness. To mix the metaphor from a vineyard to a building construction site, Jesus says that the nation-builders, as they liked to think of themselves, have rejected the very cornerstone of the building. They have lost sight of the goal.
Jesus is bringing the message of the gospel: that God’s love is unconditional; that we can be re-united with God, return from exile and come home to our true selves as sons and daughters of God.
The message is that this offer is not exclusive or performance-based, but universal, and offered on the basis of a merciful God who forgives, redeems, heals and restores the broken, the lost sheep, the prodigal sons and daughters.
So here is the question: how is this going to work out for Jesus? Are they going to get it? Will they turn from their misguided path and see the light?
No they will not. And Jesus did not have to be a prophet to see which direction things were going to go. He knew that his path would involve suffering, and he accepted that future.
Optimist, Pessimist, Realist, or what?
So this brings us to our central idea. Should Jesus be an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist about his life? And the same question applies to us as well.
Some want to make optimism itself the goal. The idea is that thinking happy thoughts and remaining positive, regardless of the circumstances, will lead to peace and contentment. Unfortunately, this simply falls apart when life really does fall apart. Optimism can handle a rainy day, but it has a much harder time getting you through a funeral.
So, is a cold-faced realism, that does not expect much, the answer? If so, maybe avoiding risks and keeping your head down is the best strategy for avoiding as much pain as possible.
Some simply give up in pessimism, believing the worst, and saying “See? I told you so.” “Isn’t it awful…?” is how most sentences start. They circle the wagons of self-protection and end up contributing very little good in the world.
The alternative that Jesus show us to blind optimism, empty realism, or defeatist pessimism is Theism: a willingness to trust in God, the Heavenly Father.
The profound truth that Jesus teaches and models is that complete trust in God the Heavenly Father is possible, even in the face of suffering. That even in the face of danger, even mortal danger, life can be lived in such union with God that Jesus knows he can relax, and be upheld by a mysterious grace.
This feeling of being upheld by grace beyond the explainable world is another nearly universal human experience. We all sense a need for meaning, we all sense an exile from our true home, we all feel an alluring call to find that home, and we all feel upheld by a grace that we find impossible to explain.
The Christian explanation – as far as it goes, given the need for metaphoric language to point to realities that are beyond comprehension – is that the God who made us in his image longs for union with us as much as we do – in fact, infinitely more. God, as Heavenly Father, calls all of his children to come home and find our true identity in “Him”.
Union and Compassion
The natural and inevitable consequence of union with God, the Source of the whole world is compassion.
Compassion for ourselves – knowing that as finite creatures we will never get it right, but that God loves us anyway.
Compassion for other people – especially people in pain and need – and including people who are quite different from ourselves – even to the extent of compassion for those who think of themselves as our enemies.
Compassion for the planet that sustains us, and that future generations are depending on to continue to sustain them – our children and their children.
This is the life that Jesus taught and lived. In the end, even in the context of great suffering, he was able to say, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Union was complete.
The Practices and Table that Sustain Us
This is a complicated world, and we are quite fallible humans. That is why we need to make use of the Christian practices and disciplines to help us on our journey of union with God: specifically prayer, common worship, and silent meditation, the tools we need for life.
Soon we will come to the table that offers us union with God. We will eat and drink the bread and cup, and doing so, ingest the living bread and fruit of the vine. They will become part of us; and we will become what we eat: the body of Christ. In this meal of union, we will see the risen Christ among us. By these signs and symbols, we will start to become aware of our union with each other, and with all of God’s creation.
“Come to me” Jesus said. Come; God is calling us all.