Monday, October 3

Sunday Sermon

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

Could there be any more going on for us today? The lectionary itself is enough to keep us wondering and talking for weeks: the Ten Commandments; a glorious Psalm about how we might perhaps purpose our day; a letter to the Philippians where Paul once again surprises us with humility and an expression of his own imperfections; and a parable from Matthew that is often listed among the “hard sayings” of Jesus. But, no, that is not enough. Today is also the Feast of St Francis. It is World Communion Sunday. It is also, for some traditions, World Mission Sunday.

I am the kind of person that is confused when given too many options. It takes me a long time to sort things out and sift through the noise. On a day like this when there are so many good options, the task of preaching on one subject is that much more difficult.

So, early this week I began a letter to an old college friend of mine. It is an old habit of mine to send him letters about my theological struggles. These letters help me clarify my thoughts and begin the process of unearthing what has actually caught my attention. Sometimes the thing that has caught my attention is simply the thing that bothers me the most.

Something irritating
Something frightening
Something scandalous

To be candid, there is much in this week’s readings that has bothered me. In spite of my education, and my study, I still find myself stumbling over the parables like the one we find in Matthew. I have not yet reconciled myself to them. I have not yet found a place for them in my heart. I still wrestle with them, trying to bend them to my own will. I want them to say anything other than what they are saying.

Perhaps it is just me. Perhaps I am the only one here who struggles with such language…such “hard sayings.”

Daniel Harrington, SJ and Ulrich Luz have something helpful to say that gives greater light to this particular parable.

The parable is about leadership. The immediate context is a conversation between Christ and the current leaders of the Hebrew people. The “nation” of people we should be imagining is not the entirety of the Hebrew people but the specific people who lead them by word and deed, the scribes and Pharisees, the chief priests.

Let’s return to the parable. The analogies are interesting and helpful in understanding what is at work here. I am going to give some parallels for us, but I do so with the same caveat I always do this…a parable is an analogy, a metaphor. To draw too specific a picture with every parable is a mistake. This parable, however, actually lends itself to a rather clear analogy. Even within the scriptures themselves, we are given an interpretation.

- The landowner is God.
- Those tenants who keep watch over the vineyard are the Chief priests of Israel.
- The son, who is called “beloved” in Mark and Luke’s versions of this parable, is Christ.
- The vineyard is Israel…God’s chosen people.

This is not a parable directed to the masses, to Israel, but to those who have been called out by God to lead God’s chosen people. What I thought was the great scandal, a vengeful and wrathful God who must threaten creation into a loving relationship, no longer exists within this parable. What we have before us is the continued outrage of the Christ who has just tipped over the money lenders’ tables in the Temple.

It is the Passover. The people have received Jesus. “Hosanna in the highest!” They have spread cloaks and palms before him. Yet, here stand the chief priests, the leaders of God’s chosen, those who are called by God to lead God’s chosen out of Egypt, through the desert, and into the Promised land of Jerusalem. They would bar the gates. They would keep Christ from the altar. They would rather keep their position of power and control who receives Grace and who does not. They would control how Grace is given and received. They would rather not have the people receive Christ in such a way as the “triumphal entry.” They would rather keep people from God.

Christ’s outrage is expressed even in the response of the priests to the parable (“He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyards to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”). They understand what has gone wrong in the parable. They prescribe a harsh response. In the process, they condemn themselves. This is one layer of the confusing context for this parable.

There is another context to this parable. As I stated, within the story of the gospel, we have the immediate context of Christ preaching outside the Temple to the Pharisees and chief priests. Underlying that context is the context of Matthew’s community. Why would Matthew share this parable with his people?

Underlying most of Matthew’s gospel is the struggle for Christian identity within Judaism. These were people still claiming Jewish identity. They attended synagogues, but they were persecuted.

The Jewish leadership oppressed them. The struggle for identity was constant. Many scholars suggest that Matthew’s use of this parable underscores two of the writer’s chief complaints. The first complaint is the ongoing mistreatment of Christian Jews. The second is the fundamental misunderstanding of whom Jesus is. How does one preach a resurrected messiah as the means of salvation in the midst of a community who is defined as “God’s Chosen”? How does one keep saying “but Jesus is the messiah!” without sounding like a clanging cymbal? This is a difficult and painful task.

Matthew is drawing distinctions between his community and that of other Jews. It appears that, for Matthew, the line must be hard and fast. This is how Christian identity within Judaism is founded. The process of the growing distinctions will continue for centuries (Dying for God, Daniel Boyarin). Matthew is just getting the ball rolling.

Sometimes scriptural interpretation is actually about context. Simply lifting this parable out of its proper place in the Gospel and the history of Christianity may actually be a misuse of it. That practice, my friends, can lead us into trouble quickly.

For example, this week I was at a concert. A friend of mine, Roger, was playing with his band, Moxie Motive (Go see them. They are fun.). So, Trish and I went. There we saw several people who were there for the exact same reason, to support our friend Roger. Some of these were new acquaintances to us. Some of them were people we had encountered before.

One person in particular is memorable. She is an anthropologist. I seldom meet anthropologists. So, when we happen upon one another I am always excited to ask her questions about her work and whom she is studying.

This time would be different, however, for she had questions for me. It seems that since the last time we met she had been trying to puzzle out how a pastor, a Baptist one at that, could be in a band. She had come to a One of the Girls concert. She wanted to know how I could go into a bar given my tradition. She laughed to find me at yet another Chicago bar for a rock concert.

Context is often the most important factor in understanding what is done or said. And when something seems out of context, I often stumble.

We spoke for a while about church and our faith journeys. She shared some of her own (…baptized as an infant, lost interest as a teen, does not attend anywhere…) but was more interested in mine. Again, it was the puzzle of identity and context. Who belongs where?

At the end, she asked me if it would be okay for her to visit our congregation some day. She thought it sounded interesting. “But,” she warned me, “I am not a very religious person. I hope you don’t mind.”

Mind? I do not know if it is exactly the same experiences that motivate her and I. I do not know much of her past. I do know, however, that I have heard many times similar comments by my “less religious” friends about why they do not attend. They cannot go to church because of some purity line, some spiritual threshold that begins at the doors to a building. I do know how long I let the same logic keep me from God. I thought that I must first be worthy and then come to God.

Nothing could be further from the truth of the Gospel. Nothing could be further from the truth of this parable. What I was stumbling on when I was writing that letter to my friend was that old voice that questions my worthiness to be here. Of course I am not worthy to be here…But should Christ but say the words, I shall be healed.

Those of our brothers and sisters who would use parables like this one to keep the so-called impure away from the church threatening divine punishment for not being about to “get it” are the same people that Jesus is preaching against in the parable itself.

They are no more or less guilty than those of us who pander to popularity unable to articulate a clear message about anything at all.

If we are keeping people from hearing the word of God in any way, we are those Jesus indicts in this parable. We are, in effect denying God’s grace to others and attempting to control the community of the faithful, claiming it for ourselves. We are guilty of pulling the Gospel out of its rightful context.

The context of the church is broad. The church is not the place for the people who have it all worked out, who know all there is to know about God and lead only upright and moral lives. No. It is a more complicated and varied context and community. Yes, people like our St. Francis are in the church. But there are those of us less saintly, less true, less pure, less certain, who are trying to allow the Spirit to change us slowly, by hook or by crook.

Paul shares that experience with us in the Philippians reading. He tries. He struggles. He has repented and strives to change. And even Paul, our knocked off his horse conversion guru, will admit it. He has not attained perfection.

No…but he presses on.
He believes in the promises of Christ…and he presses on.
He had all the tools necessary to claim the vineyard for himself. But he tosses them aside and…presses on.

If not for the light of the Lord, Paul would be lost. The humility of Paul is our salvation. Pressing on is our salvation! Pressing onward is the context in which the Church finds itself.

Brothers and sisters, context is everything. We must recall our true context…that though we may have thought had everything, it is all but loss now. Now what we have is Christ. For those who are still struggling, know that we all struggle. Know that I stand before you today constantly wrestling with God, striving to let go of all else but Christ.

We all aim to press on.
We have doubts…but we press on.
We suffer trials…but we press on.
We were born into affluence in a country that does not understand what it means to truly want…and we strive to let it all go and we press on.

Brother and sisters, The Church is the people who press on.
Do not stand in one another’s way. Encourage one another. Do not be a stumbling block, but be instead the cornerstone for one another.