Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 04 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3-4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

So here’s a story, says Jesus. He doesn’t say, here’s a story about God, or the kingdom, or in fact anything. It’s simply a story. And while reader-response criticism may be fading from fashion, it is still true that stories are, at least in part, made by what we bring to them.

It is not a particularly pleasant story—we are already learning that this is quite a common thing, with the stories Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel, and we need to be much more mindful of how these stories are framed, their context, the way they are introduced, the way Jesus draws interpretations from his audience. This story is told immediately after the debate we heard last week, about the sources of authority, and about John the Baptist, so recently murdered by the state, and about the need for the powerful and comfortable to take a good look at themselves and turn around. So it’s a fairly smooth transition into the story of the vineyard tenants, and their abuse of the successive messengers sent to them.

The vineyard was already a well-established metaphor for the people of Israel—this goes back in particular to Isaiah, but can also be found in other prophets and in the Psalms—and does seem, at least from our perspective, clear that the wicked tenants were meant to represent the existing religious leaders, who had not properly cared for the people. The widespread destruction which comes at the end resembles the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD; and knowing that, for Matthew’s audience, this parable is inevitably would have recalled that cataclysmic upheaval in Jewish culture, as the temple and the city which had been the centre of faith for generations were levelled to the ground, we can see why the story makes that sudden leap to the “stone which the builders rejected”, the cornerstone of a new kind of temple, a temple which is in all places.

But it is also important to note how this final picture of destruction comes about. Jesus describes the behaviour of the tenants, and their assorted murders, and then asks a perfectly open-ended question. What do you suppose, he says to the Temple leaders, that the owner of the vineyard will do? And they, apparently not recognizing themselves in the story, respond that he will of course retaliate with even greater violence. It is not Jesus who makes this suggestion; it is the elders themselves. As one commentator observes, they have internalized the violence of the Roman military occupation, and applied it to the “lord of the vineyard.” They have, consciously or not, chosen the kind of God in whom they want to believe.

What we think about God does not change the reality of God—but it does change us, and it does change our relationship to that reality. If we believe in a God who is essentially an absentee landlord, abandoning us to our own devices but demanding periodic tribute, we may very well come to resent that God, and then we may very well behave like the bad tenants, may look out for our own interests first, respond with increasing violence to what we perceive as invasions of our autonomy—not realizing that these unwelcome invasions are in fact signs of the presence of the God who has never been absent, never ceased to try to be with us.

If we choose to dwell in the world of a God of judgement and vengeance, we become ourselves judgemental and vengeful, inhabitants of that world, controlled by anger and fear. A world where other people are inconveniences at best and threats at worst, where we must fight to defend territory and profit and our own imaginary profit, where creation exists only to be exploited, where gentle deference to the needs and wellbeing of others is seen as weakness. And in this world, when the God of love and mercy comes to us, that God comes as a stranger—as a stumbling block, an obstacle to our desires, or even a source of pain, and the destruction of the certainties in which we have lived.

I do not want to dwell on the illness of Donald Trump, or build too much around it, but when you have lived your life in a world of lies, exclusively focused on the desires of the self, it is a shock to learn that even the greatest power in the world cannot protect you from the hard limits of the body and the physical world. Sometimes, the knowledge of these hard limits can become a source of humility, a realization of our shared frailty. I think it improbable that this will be the outcome in the president’s case, but we may still hope that each of us, when mercy comes in ways we have not desired, can recognize it as such.

We have all, to at least a small degree, treated this vineyard, this complex world as our possession, as a thing to be exploited for personal profit, and defended by some kind of force. We as humans, and especially we as settlers on Turtle Island, are barely learning to hold the world lovingly and lightly, barely learning to see the people around us not as an invasion or an inconvenience, but part of the precious reality given into our care.

We may, in a way, treat our own beings as our possessions, as if we had purchased our own gifts and skills in some kind of market economy and had free ownership of them, to do with as we please. As if we were not dependent, vulnerable creatures, given existence out of God’s love when there was no reason we should be at all, brought into this tender and tangled vineyard where we exist entwined with all those around us, and given the responsibility of using these lives, these bodies and minds and all they can offer, in love and self-offering, for the good of the whole vineyard and for the glory of the creator.

It is something like this which Paul is trying to get at in his letter to the Philippians. It is not Paul at his best, perhaps—there’s a fair amount of self-satisfaction not very well-hidden beneath his self-abasement. And his overblown rhetoric about treating all things as rubbish can too easily turn into an attitude which condemns this world, which rejects all the good and lovely life of the vineyard, forgetting that this is the world which God gave us, the world which God made and saw and pronounced to be—for all the damage, for all the falling short—still good, still very good. But Paul is trying to talk about something important here—about holding all things, including his own accomplishments and skills and even his own beliefs, as if they were not his own, but entrusted to his keeping. To hold them lightly, to know that finally, all things and all of us belong not to ourselves but to God and the world; and that our duty of care is thereby so much greater. For it is not our own profit or happiness that we are seeking, but the good care of the world in God’s name.

There are times, in these days, when the only possible form of care seems to be salvage from the wreckage—a wreckage of illness, racism, appallingly bad political leadership, extreme and always more extreme economic inequality, of twenty thousand Amazon employees sick with COVID-19 while the company’s profits skyrocket, a wreckage of grief and loneliness, despair and threatened hope. And perhaps that is a large part of what we are called to in these days. Salvage can be a way of staying alive, a place to start. But it was also in the wreckage, after the destruction of the Second Temple, that both the early church, and rabbinic Judaism as we know it, began to grow, small and obscure, disdained by the powerful, the stone rejected by the builders.

Here among the stones, we must turn away from the world of the exploitative tenants and the fantasy of the vengeful absentee lord of the vineyard, and press forward, seeking out such small opportunities as we have, into the love of the always present, always rising Christ.