Sermon October 4, 2020
There is a game called Jenga that can be played by both children and adults. In the game, you stack 48 rectangular building blocks. Each row consists of three building blocks and the next row is stacked with three blocks in a crisscross fashion. The stack ends up being 16 blocks high. After the stack is complete, players take turns gently pushing and pulling one of the building blocks out of the stack with the goal of keeping the entire stack from falling. The game takes a steady hand as well as thought and patience. Finally, someone tries to remove one of the building blocks and the entire stack falls down. One block makes the difference between the stack staying up and the stack falling down.
In today’s gospel Jesus quotes from Psalm 118, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;” I think we all know that the cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All other stones will be set in reference to this stone. A cornerstone marks the geographical location by orienting a building in a specific direction. Cornerstones have been around for millennia, in some shape or form
Our own church has a cornerstone in the left of the church building with the year 2000 etched into the stone. It helped ensure that the altar would be located on the eastern wall of the church, the traditional direction for the church to face. We will learn today that Jesus was talking about himself, that he is the cornerstone of our lives. He is the one that sets the direction for everything which follows. The idea that Jesus is the cornerstone is mentioned many times, even by the apostle Peter when he was challenged by Jewish leaders.
I am sure you have noticed that many biblical stories speak about vineyards. In every case, the vineyard is referring to the gift that God has given to God’s people. The plants in the vineyard refer to the people of Israel and then later to the followers of Jesus. We are expected to become the good fruit of the vineyard.
A good example is a passage from Isaiah chapter 5. “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” God created many things for this vineyard and great things were expected. But the vineyard produced wild grapes that were no good for harvesting. So the owner of the vineyard tore it down. Isaiah explained the story this way, “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
Some of you may remember that last week, Jesus told a story about two sons and a vineyard. Both sons were asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One said he would not but eventually did and the other said he would but did not. The people listening to this story said that the one who said he would not work in the vineyard but later did was more faithful. My conclusion was that Jesus has asked us to both say we are followers and to actually do the work of God’s kingdom on earth.
In today’s gospel, Jesus continued to have a debate with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. He told a story about a vineyard and some wicked tenants. The owner of the vineyard left and leased the vineyard to the tenants. But the tenants take advantage and steal from the owner even when the owner sent slaves to deal with them and finally his own son whom they kill. The Jewish leaders are still not listening to God and following God’s wishes. This is a prediction that Jesus will be killed because they refuse God’s wishes. Next Sunday we will hear one more reading about a wedding feast. Jesus continued his disagreement with the leaders in Jerusalem.
Although the Isaiah passage and these stories from Jesus were written hundreds of years apart, they share a theme. God has given his people so much, a vineyard with many fruits. The Jewish people and later the Christians followers were expected to maintain this vineyard and to help it produce fruit abundantly.
We could simply understand this message to say that the Jewish people were wrong and that the entire Jewish population was responsible. But I would disagree with that conclusion. It was the Jewish leaders who created this hatred of Jesus and they were in part responsible for his death. We are not then to leave this story as just something that happened a long time ago and is just a judgement on Jews. Rather we are to ask ourselves how does it fit for us today?
As Christians, we have been given the fruit of God’s kingdom and we have been asked to produce the fruits that God has called upon us to do. We might first ask what fruits are we supposed to produce. Certainly we are to follow the commandments described in the reading from Exodus. I think we are also asked to live a righteous life, listening to God’s wishes, that we are to display human caring for others and we are to courageously witness to the glory of God.
I ask you to note that God once again shows remarkable patience and forgiveness. God forgave the wicked tenants time and again when God sent slaves to check up on his vineyard. It is a reminder that God did not give up on the Jewish people when they rejected the prophets who came before Jesus. If there is nothing else that we take away from the gospel today, let us focus on forgiveness. Helmut Thielicke, a German theologian once wrote, “if we never take the risk, if we never forgive in the name of the one who first took the initiative and moved towards us, then being a Christian will only be a burden because we let grace go to waste.” Let us then be a forgiving people always seeking to be considerate of the other person.
I think the Jewish leaders of Jesus times were a little arrogant. They forgot that God is responsible for all things. Even in our time, we can start thinking we know everything about faith. That is why a commentator wrote that this gospel story might be better titled beware of wealthy preachers. Money can distract us. I am thinking of Jimmy Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, who were televangelists in the 1970s and 1980s. My guess is that they were faithful but lost their way when they became financially successful. Jimmy Bakker was eventually put in prison for fraud.
More recently, we have the example of Jerry Falwell, Jr, the head of Liberty University, a conservative college founded by his father. Recently, it came to light that he was using college funds to support his own family’s business and it seems he violated some of the strict codes of the college. Jerry Falwell, Jr was replaced by the Board of Directors. Our denomination has also seen misbehavior by clergy people. As I said, we must be careful not to blame the Jewish people for all of the sins against God.
Perhaps we might choose to follow the words of Paul that we find in his letter to the Philippians. Paul wrote that he had been a faithful Jewish person and that he had always lived a righteous life. But none of that really mattered. Paul said that all of this was a waste because he had found a new life in Jesus. Paul was happy to give up all of those things, to regard them as lost, to regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ. Paul found his faith in the power of the resurrection. Paul experienced Jesus as his cornerstone, his guide, his savior.
We may be guided today by the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast is this week. Francis chose to be humble, to give up his wealth and turn everything over to God. I think he found it was easier to be faithful when he didn’t have so many earthly things to think about.
Perhaps we too can be humble about where we have come from and only seek the love of Jesus and his forgiving ways. Let us give the credit to God. Let us be thankful for the beautiful vineyard that we have been given by God and let us always seek to produce the fruits of that vineyard for ourselves and for all those around us. May Jesus always be the cornerstone of our lives. Amen.
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