Sunday, October 4, 2020

18 Pentecost

The Feast of St. Francis


Matthew 21.33-46


October 4, 2020


+ I’m sure you’ve noticed, but there is a lot of zealous people out there, especially in this election year.


There is very little middle ground in this election year.


There is no end of people giving very impassioned opinions.


Just take a quick perusal of Facebook. Or the News. Or outside your window.


And, for the most part, being zealous for something is not a bad thing by any means.


I would rather have someone zealous for an opinion with which I might not agree than know someone lackluster.


At least the discussion will be interesting.


In fact, today is the feast day of one of the truly great zealots for Christ in the Church, none other than the great St. Francis of Assisi.


Francis was a fascinating man, and truly one of the most favorite saints in the Church.


He is known as an animal lover, which is why we are blessing our pets on this day.


He was known as a lover of peace.


He has the reputation of a kind and gentle person.


But, Francis was a zealot in his heart of hearts.


He was passionate in his love for God, in this following of Jesus, in his care for the poor.


Some—including his own family—thought he was a fanatic.


And maybe he was.


He heard the voice of Jesus tell him:
“Rebuild my Church!”


Which he did.


But that passionate love he had for God and for others is something we still are celebrating in the Church 794 years after his death.


So, this morning, I am going to ask you a very important question:


What are you zealous for?


For what do you have real zeal?


Will anyone be talking about your zeal 794 years from now?


I know. Yes, some of us have real zeal for sports.


And certainly, here at St. Stephen’s, I know there is a lot of zealousness for political opinion and causes.


As do I.


I am very zealous politically, and theologically, and spiritually, and poetically.


You all know that.


If I have an opinion on something, you’ll probably know it in no time at all, even if you might not agree with it.


Trust me, I am full of zeal!!


But zeal is a word we don’t use too often anymore.


And, at least in this part of the country, we are, for the most part, uncomfortable with zeal.


Zeal equals emotion—or should e say over-emotion—for us.


And certainly zeal involves an emotional attachment to something.


Now, as I said, it is not a bad thing by any means to be zealous.


It’s good to be challenged occasionally (respectfully, of course).


It keeps us on our toes.


And it humbles 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 tell 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 are 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 real and positive  change 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.


There are plenty of good examples of fanatics in this world right now, from the far right Evangelicals to those poor people in North Korea who are held hostage to a brain-washed ideology.   


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—and we all should be that kind of a Christian—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 clear  way.


Our zeal for the kingdom of God should drive us.


It should move us 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 it does 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 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 is doing; it is amazing in our eyes.”


Let us pray.


Holy God, give us true zeal for your Kingdom. Instill in us a fire that will burn brightly to lighten our path so that we may do what we must do as we follow your Son, Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.



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