Using It or Losing It (Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46)
As many of you who listen week by week will know, I struggle with the view that God is an angry, vengeful deity who demands as many good things as we can do in order to win our way to glory, and if we don’t is anxious to punish us either immediately or eternally. It won’t surprise you, perhaps, to know that I have struggled against that view all my adult life. I am happy to tell you, yet again, that the bedrock of my faith in God is that God loves each one on earth and is not angry nor anxious to punish us when we do things that are mistakes or even downright rebellions. I think that God’s love for us (which means active concern that shows up in deeds in spite of what we deserve) is the heart of God’s nature which shows up in Jesus. In that passage from Philippians 2 which we read last week. “He emptied himself and took the form of a servant.” This is our God, the servant king, to quote the title of a song written by Graham Kendricks. Jesus called his disciples to follow him in just such selfless active service, which is to say, love.
Now, by saying that love in action is at the very core of God’s life, I do not mean to suggest that God doesn’t hold people who claim to be followers accountable for living in certain ways. Today’s lessons all concern what qualifies us and disqualifies us from being in mission for God through Jesus. We can start by backing up into last week’s Gospel lesson in which Jesus said to religious leaders that the crooks and hookers were going into the kingdom of God before the deacons and the preachers because the former did not claim to be the chalice cast in gold that gave a good outer appearance and stood pat on that golden exterior. The crooks and hookers knew themselves to be violators of almost everything, but they were doing their best to follow along in the way of righteousness by following John the Baptist. In short, those qualified were not chosen and those unqualified were. They weren’t perfect, but were on their way.
That was last week. That Gospel lesson was the first of three little parables that picture Jesus’ challenge to an external approach to discipleship and show that Jesus’ mission is based on another way. Today’s Gospel is the second parable, and is usually called the parable of “The Stewards in the Vineyard.” In it, those standing on their qualifications are actually replaced as the riverbed through which the grace of God flows into the world. It is not that God punished them by snatching anything away. Rather the outcome of how they live shows that God’s values are not theirs and, so, the natural outcome was that they couldn’t be that conduit of God’s love.
The image of the vineyard is shot through these chapters, beginning in chapter 20. Today’s parable itself is based on a poem in the Old Testament called “The Song of the Vineyard” found in Isaiah 5:1-7, which we read as the Old Testament Lesson. In that poem the vineyard is the land of Israel. There was a land owner who built the best vineyard, planted the best grapes, nurtured and tended them. But the harvest he got is described in a rare Hebrew word that comes from a verb that means “to stink.” These were not the dark, deep red grapes the land owner expected and should have gotten, but ugly, bad- tasting, foul-smelling little grapes that were useless. The singer, next, turned to the audience and said, “What more could I have done for that vineyard”? The implication being that something was seriously wrong with the vineyard itself. The owner decided to abandon it and let it “go wild.” The last little bit of this song makes it clear that the vineyard owner is God, the vineyard is the chosen nation of Judah. God had looked for the good crop of justice and righteousness from the people of the covenant, but instead received only the stinking crop of bloodshed, and God’s ears heard nothing but the shrill cry of the misused poor. If you don’t practice justice and righteousness, no matter how jealously you seem to guard the vineyard, you’re not a fitting pipeline for God’s love.
The people of Jesus’ day would have been familiar with this poem and would have taken pride that they had been chosen as God’s vineyard. The whole point of Jesus parable was that this pride was misplaced, and further, deceptive. What God, like the landowner, was looking for was stewards who would produce good results at harvest time. This story is not so much about external qualifications, but about results. The tenants in this parable have gotten it profoundly wrong. They were busying themselves guarding forms and keeping the vineyard safe for themselves and those who looked like them, so that they forgot that the important part was the result, the fruit, the function, the doing of things. As if the vineyard was theirs in the first place. They had been allowed to be in it to work and bring results, not to treat it as their own. You use it (not own it) or you lose it.
Paul explains much the same point in a very personal way in our Epistle Lesson from Philippians 3. He is clear that all those cultural and intellectual influences that he had in his life were of little importance unless they contributed to what had become the purpose of his life, “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (v. 10). Now, we need to take care to understand what Paul said here. I can think back on many of my students who had a background in this or that (whether it be in some Christian tradition of their parents, or in a former intellectual pilgrimage, or in a life in business – many different things). As a part of their coming to see this new call to ministry they came to despise those things. One of my tasks, as I saw it, was to get them to quit kicking their backgrounds as to be despised. Paul isn’t doing that here. Had he not enjoyed the benefits of those things that formed and shaped his experience, he could not have become what he was to become in Christ. And I always used to say something like that to these students, you have to have a sense of who you are and where you’ve been before you can become who you’re meant to be or go where you’re going.
So let me be clear, there’s nothing always and everywhere wrong with achieving things in the world. It’s only when we try to hold onto these gifts as our own possessions rather than as gifts from God and others to use as means to the end of “knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection,” that they become either little more than rubbish or even downright roadblocks to the life we could have. We use these things or we lose the greater purpose and we cease to be pipelines for God’s love.
It’s important to allow life to be shaped by the spirit and nature of Jesus and what he taught and did. We need to realize that such a life is not without all the sufferings that human beings get, sometimes more sometimes less. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” We don’t get a pass from suffering anywhere in this life just because we follow Jesus. In fact, we never know what that person we think has it better than we do has to bear.
Another thing: there are not many of us (or maybe none of us) that are very good at this knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection business. It doesn’t just come in an instant like one of those conversion stories we have all heard or read about. I know I keep going back to my experiences with students, but I have seen so many of them that only judged their development into mature followers of Jesus by how badly they were doing at it. “How am I ever going to lead a congregation if I can’t be better than they are”? “I ought to be a greater pillar of faith than I am.” In fact, it’s better to know you’re not than to pretend you are, because everyone has to live with themselves, and into the gap between where you really are and where you pretend you are is this empty space that is likely to get filled with phoniness or, on the other hand, impatience, self-loathing, and shame at the pretence. Pretending we are more than we are is one of the things that often disables us from being conduits of Jesus’ love and grace to others. We have to keep up appearances, we think. And, again, we lose the ability to be a vehicle for the power of Jesus’ resurrection, not because God punishes us and takes it away, but because we simply stand for what Jesus’ doesn’t. It’s a natural outcome. No, Paul says, clearly, “Not that I have already attained this or got to the goal.” Nor has anybody else. That’s what’s great about authentic communion with God and others in Christ. We’re a community of imperfect folk on a journey to another place.
And, having said that, I am led to a few final words about such communities, including ours. I hope the words make sense. As a community our goal is also to try to know Christ and the power of his resurrection together. I go back to our Old Testament Lesson and our Gospel to start. Together we need to remember to whom the vineyard belongs. We are only stewards. In Isaiah’s and Jesus’ days, these were peasants and slaves. We don’t like to think of ourselves that way, but, perhaps, we will accept the word “servants” or “stewards.” In any case, our communities can get so caught up either simply defending the status quo or pointing to what isn’t working right and talking about fixing it, that we forget that the purpose of the exercise isn’t to beautify the institution, produce a well-oiled machine, talk about even wonderful goals and how we ought to think about things, but to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and that to do that we must use what we’ve got, we’ve got to do things, even if we get them wrong. The point is that our purpose is to deliver good fruit, not either just talk about it or become fruit-inspectors for our neighbours. We need to remember that none of us has arrived yet and that this is a key part of our accountability to one another. We learn together and work together, that justice and righteousness, love and grace may flow from God in Jesus through our community to the farthest ends of the earth, not just to those who affirm our creed, but to all, not just to those who look like us, or sound like us, or think like us, or worship like us, or love like us, or come from here, but all the children of the world. So that, thereby, God’s kingdom may come and God’s will be done, on earth as it always is in heaven.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.