Sunday, October 2, 2011

16 Pentecost

October 2, 2011


Matthew 21.33-46

+ This past Thursday, we hosted the Moravians here as part of our four-part celebration of Full Communion between the Moravian Church and the Episcopal Church. It was a fun night. Certainly it was no different than any other such evening we have had here at St. Stephen’s.

But it was certainly an eye-opening evening for me personally, as well. We had some very interesting “conversation” and many interchanges going on as part of the so-called “class” following our meal.

What was most interesting to me, however, was the reaction from the Moravians. Sometimes when one stands up here, one can sense reactions. In this case, I actually saw reactions on people’s faces. And some of those poor Moravians were definitely shocked by the fact that we Episcopalians definitely are not shy in sharing our opinions.

It’s sometimes very interesting to see ourselves through other’s eyes. And, in our case, it’s very helpful in our efforts at evangelism. It’s helpful for us to ask ourselves hard questions about ourselves and to take good hard look at what people see and hear when they visit us for the first time.

As I talked with several of the Moravians after the service and later had drinks with others, I made a comment several times.

I said, “Well, let’s just say that we Episcopalians are certainly very zealous in our opinions on occasion.”

Now to be fair, being zealous, of course, is not a bad thing by any means. It’s good to be challenged occasionally (respectfully, of course). It keeps us on our toes. And it humbles us (as long as it humiliate us).

Well, this morning we definitely have one of those parables that challenges us, that keeps us on our toes. It may even make us a bit angry and that definitely forces us to look more closely at ourselves. Let’s face it, it’s a violent story we hear Jesus tells us today. These bad tenants are so devious they are willing to kill to get what they want. And in the end, their violence is turned back upon them. It’s not a warm, fuzzy story that we can take with us and hold close to our hearts. The Church over the years has certainly struggled with this parable because it can be so challenging.

At face value, the story can probably be pretty easily interpreted in this way: The Vineyard owner of course symbolic of God. The Vineyard owner’s son of Jesus. The Vineyard is symbolic of the Kingdom. And the workers in the vineyard who kill the son are symbolic of the religious leaders who will kill Jesus. From this view, we can see the story as a prediction of Jesus’ murder. But there is another interpretation of this story that isn’t so neat and clean and finely put-together. It is in fact an uncomfortable interpretation of this parable. As we hear it, we do find ourselves shaken a bit. It isn’t a story that we want to emulate. I HOPE none of us want to emulate it.

But again, Jesus DOES twist this story around for us. The ones we no doubt find ourselves relating to are not the Vineyard owner or the Vineyard owner’s son, but, in fact, the vineyard workers. We relate to them not because we have murderous intentions in our heart. Not because we inherently bad. But because we sometimes can be just as resolute. We can sometimes be just that zealous. We sometimes will stop at nothing to get what we want. We are sometimes so full of zeal for something that we might occasionally ride roughshod over others. And when we do so, we find that we are not bringing the Kingdom of God about in our midst.

Zeal can be a good thing. We should be full of zeal for God and God’s Kingdom. We too should stop at nothing to gain the Kingdom of God. But zeal taken too far undoes the good we hoped to bring about.

The most frightening aspect of our Gospel story is the fact that Jesus tells us that the kingdom can be taken away from us. It can be given to others. Our zeal for the kingdom has a lot to do with what we gain and what we lose. Our zeal to make this kingdom a reality in our world is what makes the changes in this world.

At the same time, zeal can be a very slippery slope. It can also make us zealots. It can make us fanatics. And this world is too full of fanatics. This world is too full of people who have taken their religion so seriously that they have actually lost touch with it.

This story we hear Jesus today tell us teaches us a lesson about taking our zeal too far. If we become violent in our zeal, we need to expect violence in return. And certainly this is probably the most difficult part of this parable for most of us. For those of us who consider ourselves peace-loving, nonviolent Christians, we cringe when we hear stories of violence in the scriptures. But violence like the kind we hear in today’s parable, or anywhere else in scriptures should not just be thrown out because we find it uncomfortable. It should not be discarded as useless just because we are made uncomfortable by it.

As I have said, again and again, it is not just about any ONE of us, as individuals. It is about us as a whole.

If we look at the kind of violence we find in the Scriptures and use it metaphorically, it could actually be quite useful for us. If we take some of those stories metaphorically, they actually speak to us on a deeper level. If we take the parable of the vineyard workers and apply it honestly to ourselves, we find it does speak to us in a very hard way.

Our zeal for the kingdom of God should drive us. It should move and motivate us. We should be empowered to bring the Kingdom into our midst. But it should not make us into the bad vineyard workers. It should not make into the chief priests and Pharisees who knew, full well, that they were the bad vineyard workers.

A story like this helps us to keep our zeal centered perfectly on God, and not on all the little nitpicky, peripheral stuff. A story like this prevents us. hopefully, from becoming mindless zealots. What does it allow and commend is passion. What it does tell us is that we should be excited for the Kingdom.

True zeal makes us uncomfortable, yes. It makes us restless, It frustrates us. True zeal also energizes us and makes us want to work until we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom in our midst. This is what Jesus is telling us again and again. He is telling us in these parables that make us uncomfortable that the Kingdom of God isn’t just some sweet, cloud-filled place in the next world. He is telling is, very clearly, that is it not just about any ONE of us. It is not about our own personal agendas.

The Kingdom of God is right here, in our midst. And the foundation of that kingdom, the gateway of that Kingdom, the conduit of that Kingdom is always love. Love of God, love of neighbor, healthy love of self. This is what Jesus preached. That is the path Jesus is leading us on. This is the path we walk as we follow after him. And it is a path on which we should be overjoyed to be walking.

So, let us follow this path of Jesus with true and holy zeal. Let us set out to do the work we have to do as workers in the vineyard with love in our heart and love in our actions. And as we do, we will echo the words we heard in today’s Gospel:

“This is what the Lord’s doing; it is amazing in our eyes.”

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