Controversy in the Vineyard

October 5, 2014

Matthew 21:33-46, Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

What is happening in that vineyard? People are getting stoned, killed, beaten. Did you hear that? On world communion day, this text is awfully violent.

“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 harvest time came, the landowner wanted his fruit, so he sent one set of slaves to his vineyard to collect the fruit, and his workers are killed or injured, and this land owner is so bold to send another group of slaves, and the same fate befalls them. These farmers are vicious.

Historians and biblical commentators mostly agree that this story holds original content from Jesus. Much of the New Testament is extrapolation or interpretation on the story of message of Jesus, but this parable, well historically it shows up in earlier written accounts, of Mark and Thomas, and we also know from the content of “improbabilities and excess,” excess property, excess slaves, sending more slaves, excess violence, improbable and irresponsible behavior on the part of the landowner, that these elements belong to the tradition of genuine Jesus stories. So let’s listen closely to it. But first, our context:

On world communion day, we remember our sister church in Columbia, and the Connecticut United Church of Christ has a close relationship with a grouping of South Korean churches, both of which we lift up on world communion day. We all have ancestors from around the world, have loved ones still spread out across the globe. Many of us have a heart for the interconnectivity of all humans sharing this precious earth.

On world communion day we commune, or connect, with people beyond our everyday awareness. Our thought for preparation today is the voice of Albert Einstein reminding us of basically the delusion of the individual self, a prison he calls it, of experiencing ourselves as a separate self from anything around us. We are “part of the whole we call the universe, and when we widen our circle of compassion, we are gradually liberated.”

We prayed in unison this morning to a God of all nations, a God of rich diversity. We remember how dependent we are on one another, that our shirt, our shoes, our food, the air we breath is connected to humans and communities that we most likely don’t even know. This is a simplistic summary of the global market- but point being- we, like the landowner, often consume the fruit of another’s harvest.

And along with recalling the our inextricable dependence on global connection, this parable jars us into the violence of our connection, of what happens when we deny it. Our world is frightened by extreme groups, by still increasing wars, by multiple threats that stem could arguably stem from denying our connectedness. And in our country we are polarized along political party lines, that lead us into deeper division, believing that a certain political party can grant us protection or salvation, at the expense of our connection to one another.

So back to the story. We left off when the landowner has sent his second set of slaves, and the farmers or tenants murder them too. In order to get the fruit of his harvest, the landowner thinks; they will respect my son, if I send him to reap the harvest. But when the tenants saw the son they say, “This is the heir, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.” They took him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him too, thinking they could keep the fruit and the vineyard. They denied their fundamental connectedness. They were unable to see beyond the hedges of the vineyard.

You see Jesus isn’t actually talking about a vineyard. Jesus has set this story up, so that through the metaphors, the crowd will eventually and suddenly understand the meaning, but before then, they will inadvertently judge themselves.

Jesus poses to the crowd, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what do you think he will do to those tenants?”

They answer Jesus, “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.”

‘Those wretches,’ are actually the high priests and Pharisees- the religious leaders in power. Let me unpack the characters to help this make more sense.

The land owner is God, who planted a vineyard (people of Israel, specifically Jerusalem, the hedge around the vineyard is God’s law or care, think the 10 commandments we also heard this morning. The a winepress is the altar, the tower is the temple. Then God entrusted the vineyard to the farmers- the leaders of people, especially priests. To collect the fruit, God sends Prophets, like Isaiah, and Elijah, who are the slaves in this story. Jesus brings awareness to how their culture treats prophets. They kill them.

This is the first time that Jesus calls attention to himself the son of God, in Matthew. He predicts his own death, and the authors of Matthew add the detail that Jesus is killed outside of the vineyard, in Golgotha, outside of Jerusalem.

These prophets, including Jesus, have come as messengers from God, and the culture kills them, choosing to stay attached to their own understanding of the realm of God.

Jesus said to the crowd, “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’

The rejected prophets, the truth tellers, Jesus himself included, will become the cornerstone. If you think of a building, the cornerstone: the stone that connects two walls, that binds things together that wouldn’t otherwise have connection. This is what the community of Jesus followers did with the Jews and the Greeks- communities that had never been previously connected, came together in their differences and united under the compelling salvation of Jesus, that became a bedrock of inclusivity and diversity. This is what we want to do on world communion Sunday. To bind ourselves to a vision of connectivity.

We as human beings are still an evolving species. We are not yet at our highest capacity, we have not yet realized our potential, of genuine peace, of stepping fully into our God centered selves, for we get caught in what Einstein calls the “optical delusion of being separate from the rest.”

Jesus assures us though, that this vision, however many times rejected, will become the cornerstone. This is a vision to expand the love of God beyond its bounds. The love of God is always seeking to destroy boundaries and human made limitations.

John Calvin commented on this parable with the added warning, that we should expect people, and especially religious leaders, to try and hinder the reign of Christ. I pay special head to this warning, as a newly appointed religious leader.

We seek to follow the vision of love that knows no bounds, that calls us each to use our lives as tools of love and transformation. We try our best to get this right, but in truth we are so deliciously human, that we often get this wrong. We find a way to exclude somebody with churchy insider language without realizing it, or with the timing of a scheduled meeting. We say we are open to all people, but the subtext of that is that we aren’t open to all behaviors- so we stretch our maturity to hold contradiction.

We as the church people, as the religious people, are the ones most susceptible to limiting the reign of Christ. And this message of connectiveness, of not letting our party lines, our belief systems, our cultural backgrounds, divide us, is not optional anymore. It is urgent that we embrace one another in a inclusive vision of love. It is urgent that we don’t try to control what the vision looks like, but allow our lives to guide us, for the love of God.

I leave you with this claim from Joseph Chilton Pearce’s book, The Biology of Transcendence, “We actually contain built in ability for transcendence, to rise above and go beyond, restriction, incapacity, or limitation and, as a result of this ability, possess a vital adaptive spirit that we have not yet fully accessed. While this ability can lead to transcendence, paradoxically our failure to develop it can lead also to violence.”

Prophets have come to remind us of our ability to transcend, to go beyond. He continues, “One definition of a prophet is a person who threatens culture’s power structure by holding a mirror to its folly and showing where such folly leads. Jesus observed that culture kills such a prophet, and having killed the prophet to be rid of the threat, that culture builds a “monument over the prophets grave.” [These monuments are the constructed mythologies through which prophets, once they are safely dead, can be converted from cultural critics into cultural supports and made objects of saintly hero worship to serve culture. Jesus obviously intuited that this travesty would be the outcome of his own gesture, but of course couldn’t deter him from playing the hand destiny had dealt him.”]

So as we approach this table today, let us try to dissolve the monument that we have built over the grave of Jesus. Let us try to dissolve our own ideas about how the welcome table looks, and internalize the message of Jesus, the love that knows no bounds, that stretches us beyond our wildest imagination.

Let us seek to see beyond the hedges of our own vineyard. In our effort to get to the light, let us make a home in the darkness, learn to live amidst contradiction and controversy and disappointment, without shutting down and giving up.

We are all, always in process, and not one of us escapes the dark night of the soul in order to get to the light. We are an evolving species. There is no growth without conflict, there is no break-through without first a break-down. We have to gestate in the fluids to have birth/be reborn. The conditions in the darkness are ripe for molding and shaping a new way of being.

So let us make friends with the darkness, and open ourselves collectively to the unknown, with trust and love, so we are able to change and evolve into our collective spirit and not repeat harmful patterns. Let us allow this parable to speak to us from the mouth of Jesus himself, preserved through the ages, as a message of hope, that this love will become the cornerstone. With an added message of warning, that we, especially we, will inadvertently limit the love of God. So let us stretch ourselves and each other to not contain the love of God in our own vision, but to let the love of God burst forth, and guide us into new pathways that we have yet to even imagine. Our collective lives depend on it. Amen.

 

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