October 5, 2014
- Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
- Donna G. Joy
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14, Psalm 19; Matthew 21:33-46
Our readings this morning offer a glimpse into the very character of God, and how that informs how we may live in relationship with God and how we are called to live. We see God as the
(1) creator of this great and glorious universe;
(2) the one who - through the giving of the law - creates order in the midst of the chaos that remains evident within this gift of creeation; and
(3) the one who sends Jesus so that mercy may be given even when the law is not obeyed.
In these readings we rediscover, or perhaps discover a God whose love knows no bounds.
Our psalm this morning points out that God is revealed through the sheer magnitude of creation; that God is magnificent, capable of enormous creative and life-giving power. A year ago when my grandson was four years old, I was encouraging him to be cautious when he was trying to do something quite physically difficult, and his response to me was, "You underestimate my powers!" Well, that may be so, but I think that part of the human condition is often to underestimate the powers of God. From the great variety of life forms, not to mention their sheet numbers and the ingenious way in which our world supports this life, we realize that God is a great nurturing presence. All of this seems to point to a God who cares deeply for both creature and creation. But this psalm also points out that there is a violent underside to creation, where we have seen and continue to see such things as entire species appearing and then disappearing forever.
The reading this morning from the Exodus story also points out that the Israelite people had experienced this underside to nature in such things as thunder and lightning, and they were afraid. And, indeed, we know from earlier stories within the Exodus experience that the Israelite people had also experienced the underside to human nature - through their hardships in the wilderness they complained about Moses and God; they became so focused on their own wants and needs that they lost sight of God's bigger plan, which was to lead them into the Promised Land; they were self absorbed and petty and often mean spirited.
So, this is part of the context in which the law is revealed to Moses and given to the people. The Israelite people had recognized the underside of God's created order both in nature and in human nature, and the law was given as a way of creating order in the midst of the chaos. In the midst of the chaos of this world in which we live (through the unpredictability of both God's creation and human nature) God's character is one of order, mercy, care and concern; God's character is also one of abundant and generous love made known to us through the gift 0f creation and now through the giving of this law.
The commandments revealed to Moses are firm, clear and concise. Although several begin with the words 'You shall not . . .' their effect is actually quite positive and liberating. God wants us to live in relationship with Him, and live well and faithfully with each other and the world in which we live. Here we are reminded that the primary focus of Israel's relationship with God is to discover God in the midst of the chaos / in the midst of the wilderness, and to respond to God's presence in ways that are obedient: obedient to the laws as outlined in the law revealed to Moses and given to the people.
Just as a bit of an aside, Lissa will be leading us through a much more in depth look at these verses in Exodus this coming Tuesday night from 7:00-9:00, so even if you haven't yet had an opportunity to attend any of these sessions, I encourage you to come to the session this Tuesday evening.
So, God can be recognized in all the glorious beauty of creation, and God has given the law in order to help us live faithfully according to God's ways. But the next reasonable question is, how does God respond when we fail to live according to the laws revealed to Moses and given to the people. Human sin is inevitable. Our baptismal covenant asks what we plan to do 'when' we sin, not 'if' we sin; and the assumption here, of course, is that it is inevitable.
Well, this is where our Gospel enters into the equation, because Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. I said at the onset that each of our readings offers a glimpse into the very character of God... Now, in Jesus, we discover a God who - through Jesus - responds to our failure to live according to the law through both judgment and mercy all rolled into one package.
And this is exactly what we discover in our parable this morning, which points out the depth and breadth of how Jesus has revealed the character of God in an even more profound way. This parable raises the terrifying notion of judgement; God’s judgement on humankind – what is God's response when we fail to live faithfully according to the law. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that in Jesus judgement and mercy are seen as one unified whole.
Indeed, this is a story that conveys the character of God as it has been fulfilled/embodied in Jesus. It is the story of a man who planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants. Three times the landowner tried to collect his share of the produce of the vineyard, and three times his efforts were rejected. The third refusal was particularly serious because the messenger was his son and the tenants killed him. The landowner, we are told, will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
Now, if we were to retell this parable theologically, it would sound something like this. First, God carefully prepared the earth and all its beauty as described in this morning's psalm, (the ultimate vineyard) and entrusted it to human beings. In turn, God maintained relations with humanity, though they consistently refused to live faithfully according to the rules (the laws) set out for them, and often even resorted to violence in their response. But God never gave up on humanity; God continued to send authorized representatives despite extraordinary hostility and opposition. (Prophets . . .) Finally, God sent his son with the expectation that humankind would recognize the rightful authority of God in the presence and person of God’s son. But now humankind acted even more disrespectfully toward God by rejecting and killing the son.
From a human point of view we can expect God to respond in kind: to kill rebellious humanity and make a brand new start. Yet listen to the strange words of Jesus, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” In other words, God has used the rejection of Jesus to become the cornerstone for a whole new humanity. God does not resort to simple, reasonable revenge; God’s ways are not our ways. Indeed, God took the very one rejected by humankind and through the power of the resurrection exalted him in a most amazing way. And here’s the clincher: As God judges the rejection of the son unacceptable, God acts to both vindicate the son and offer a new beginning to all humanity – even those who killed his son – this is the purpose of the resurrection. We are told in this parable that the kingdom will be given to all those who produce the fruits of the kingdom – but what’s not explicitly stated here is that the invitation is open to everyone – even those who killed the son.
Theologian Karl Barth said that we are judged by Christ’s resurrection as much as by his cross. The resurrection is God’s final “verdict” upon our sin. God “judges the world with the aim of saving it.” On Easter evening the Risen Christ returns to his disciples where they huddle behind locked doors, filled with fear. They have every reason to be afraid after the way they denied and deserted Jesus when the soldiers came to take him away. Yet the Risen Christ, rather than condemning them for betraying and deserting him, breathes upon them, giving them the Holy Spirit, commissioning and empowering them to go into the world to continue the work begun by him.
Christ’s death on the cross, in and of itself, is a judgement on all who made it possible for him to be there. (… that is, those who aggressively put him there as well as those who passively did nothing to stop it.) But it is important to focus on Barth’s teaching here, “… we are judged by Christ’s resurrection as much as by his cross.” (Rather than sentencing us to death, this judgement offers new hope and new life.) Christ’s judgement is not about writing people off; it is about drawing people in; giving people new hope and new beginnings - over and over again...
This teaching is further emphasized in the work of Frederick Buechner who says, “Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole. Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy. The justice and mercy of Jesus the judge are ultimately one.”
This judgement translates into good news. Very good news. Christ sees each and every one of us in our sinfulness and our weakness; passes judgement on each of us; but sentences us to a new and better and more joy filled tomorrow. Each and every one of us knows what it is to sin.... We know what it is to worship other things over and above God (consumerism, self indulgence of so many descriptions); most of us, I'm sure, have made wrongful use of God's name (we do this, not only through verbally swearing, but also by how we live). Do we really continue to honour the Sabbath as we are called to do?
In a world in which youthfulness has become one of our biggest idols, where face lifts, tummy tucks, etc. are on the rise, do we really honour our elders as God has called us to do? Ageism in our culture I believe is rampant. On CBC last Valentine's Day I heard that when couples in California celebrate this day, it is considered somewhat outdated to give each other romantic cards or chocolates. Instead they give each other gift cards for cosmetic surgeries. We may not pick up a gun a physically murder another person or people, but through gossip people's characters are assassinated each and every day. Etc. Etc. Etc.
So, as we look deep within ourselves, and recognize this sinfulness within ourselves, we stand before God - our judge. We stand before God who has sent his son, Jesus, to judge us with mercy. Christ sees each and every one of us in our sinfulness and our weakness; passes judgement on each of us; but sentences us to a new and better and more joy filled tomorrow.
And we must never forget that this gift comes with tremendous responsibility. Certainly a responsibility to turn our lives around and live more faithfully as we are called to live, AND, as we receive this astonishing gift of unconditional love and mercy, we are called to become channels through which this brand of love is made known to others. As we have been judged with mercy, so must we share that gift generously with others. Amen.