Pentecost 21 Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 Thessalonians 2:1-8 Matthew 22:34-46
Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, in whom we live and move and have our being, give us open hearts and minds. Grant us a vision of you as you are, and of the world as it might be. Touch our hearts; give us words of truth for living our lives. Then set us free to do what you ask of us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I have been a priest for ten years and a deacon for five years before that, and there is one thing I’ve learned in that period of ministry. It is the fact there is no way you can please everyone. Usually it is a mistake to try. You end up like the rather timid pastor who was told by part of his congregation to preach the “old fashioned gospel,” and by the rest to be broad minded. One day he got up to preach and ended up saying, “Unless you repent, in a measure, and are saved, so to speak, you are, I am sorry to say, in danger of hellfire and damnation, to a certain extent.” He had really learned the fine art of straddling the fence.
Jesus was often put into situations where he may have been tempted to straddle the fence. When he was put in such situations, he was able to always turn the tables on those who sought to trap him, or trip him up, as we saw in last week’s Gospel.
A lawyer was questioning a farmer about an accident. The lawyer said to the farmer, “Tell me what happened right after the accident, when you reportedly said, ‘I feel fine!’” The farmer began to speak, “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road.”
At this point the lawyer interrupted saying, “Please answer my question. Didn’t you say you felt fine immediately following the accident?” And turning to the Judge the lawyer asked that the witness be instructed to answer the question.
The judge looked at the farmer and said, “Please answer the question.” The farmer began again, “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road.”
The lawyer interrupted once again, “Your Honor, please instruct the witness to answer my question.” The judge looked at the lawyer and then at the farmer and then back to the lawyer and said, “Let’s just allow the witness to tell his story.”
The farmer began once again. “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road. When we came through the intersection this big truck hit us broadside. I flew out of the truck in one direction and Bessie flew out in the other. I came to just as the highway patrol officer got there. He went over, looked at poor Bessie lying there on the road, and then he come over and told me she was hurt something awful and in pretty bad shape. Then he went back to Bessie, pulled out his gun and shot her dead. He then came back to me and asked me how I felt. I said, “I feel fine.”
In this weeks’ Gospel, a lawyer (they were even around then), asks Jesus in an attempt to trip him up, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” And Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
There were 613 laws listed in the Torah, the Jewish equivalent of the Bible. They were seen as direct revelation from God. How would you like to be the “traffic cop” or the gatekeeper who insisted that everyone follow these laws? The Pharisees, as a professional group, were such gatekeepers. They were determined that God’s will be followed. Many were mere legalists, concerned with the minimum of what was expected of them. But many were quite sincere. Just doing their duty.
Jesus’ response is known as the great commandment. That we love God and love each other. He cares deeply about how we treat each other. The call to love one another finds its grounding in Jesus’ love for us, therefore we should love each other. Jesus said in John 13:34, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” God shows his love for us, and expects that we in response, will love one another.
Do you remember the song from a number of years ago that went like this? “What the world needs now is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing there’s just too little of.” Jesus, in the gospel today, speaks plainly and pointedly when he says to love God and neighbor is what people need the most in life. His words are just as true and relevant for us today as they were in his own day.
For many, the word “love” spills out of their mouths too easily. We see love portrayed as something on the TV or movie screen. Something that we fall into or out of as the mood arises. This happens when our expressions of love arise out of our selfishness. When love is used in this manner, the emphasis is, most of the time, on the self and not on others or on God. However, Jesus turns that around, by focusing on love of others and God. To be a loving person; to love God and our neighbor means that we think of the needs and interests of God and others first. Interestingly enough, most of us discover that when we spend our life fulfilling and serving the needs of our neighbors, of others, then our own needs and interests are also fulfilled. In this way, we love God too.
Jesus tells us to love. Love motivates us to relate to others in special ways. Love motivates us to live in ways that are creative, helpful, nurturing, sustaining and lifting up. Love is not a feeling. Love is action. Love is something we do. How do we do love? If we could see through the eyes of Jesus, we would see with compassion. He cares about our needs, our hurts, and our brokenness. He understands our sinfulness—it should come as no shock or surprise. But instead of judging us, he is ready to forgive, to mend, and to restore us to his side. We are all precious in the sight of God. Jesus wants us to see through his eyes.
Lois Cheney, in her book, God is No Fool, tells about a man who tried to keep life at arm’s distance. Listen to her words; “He saw people love each other. He saw friends love friends. He saw mothers’ love children. He saw husbands love wives. And he saw that all love made strenuous demands on the lovers. He saw love require sacrifice and self-denial. He saw love produce arguments and anguish. He saw it bring disappointment, pain, and even death. And he decided that it cost too much. And he decided not to diminish his life with love.
“He saw people strive for distant and hazy goals. He saw men strive for success. He saw women strive for high, high ideals. He saw young people strive for attainment. And he saw that the striving was frequently mixed with disappointment. And he saw the strong men fail, maimed, and even killed. He saw it force people into pettiness, grasping at those things they both saw and didn’t see. He saw that those who succeeded were sometimes those who had not earned success. And he decided that it cost too much. He decided not to soil his life with striving.
“He saw people serving each other. He saw men give money to the poor and helpless. He saw whole groups work to build up, cleanse, and heal others. And he saw that the more they served, the faster the need grew. He saw large portions of money freely given – sometimes lining already fat pockets. He saw new schools filled with uncaring teachers. He saw ungrateful receivers turn on their serving friends. And he decided that that cost too much. He decided not to soil his life with serving. “And when he died, he walked up to God and presented him with his life. Undiminished, unmarred and unsoiled, his life was clean from the filth of the world, and he presented it proudly to the mighty God saying, ‘This is my life.’
“And God said, ‘What life?’”
In his fifty-six years on the planet, Adolf Hitler did incredible harm and was responsible for millions of terrible deaths. Yet in all of the horror that he unleashed, there are pinpoints of light and nobility. And a German soldier, Private Joseph Schultz, was one of these pinpoints.
He was sent to Yugoslavia shortly after the invasion. Schultz was a loyal, young German soldier on patrol. One day the sergeant called out eight names, his among them. They thought they were going on a routine patrol. As they hitched up their rifles, they came over a hill, still not knowing what their mission was. There were eight Yugoslavians there, standing on the brow of the hill, five men and three women. It was only when they got about fifty feet away from them, when any good marksman could shoot out an eye of a pheasant, that the soldiers realized what their mission was. The eight soldiers were lined up. The sergeant barked out, “Ready!” and they lifted up their rifles. “Aim,” and they got their sights. And suddenly in the silence that prevailed, there was a thud of a rifle butt against the ground. The sergeant, and the seven other soldiers and those eight Yugoslavians stopped and looked. Private Joseph Schultz walked toward the Yugoslavians. The sergeant called after him and ordered him to come back, but he pretended not to hear him.
Instead he walked the fifty feet to the mound of the hill, and he joined hands with the eight Yugoslavians. There was a moment of silence, and then the sergeant yelled, “Fire!” And Private Joseph Schultz died, mingling his blood with that of those innocent men and women. Found on his body was an excerpt from St. Paul: “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”
Let us lay our lives before the Lord our God and be transformed by the power of love. Let us love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and our neighbors as ourselves.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, Loving God, help us to honor the great commandment you have given us. Help us to discover real meaning in our lives through loving you and our neighbors with ALL our heart, ALL our soul, ALL our strength, and ALL our mind. Help us be like Christ in whom we believe and, in whose name, lift this and all of our prayers. Amen.
Let us pray: Our Lord and our God, maker of heaven and earth, tender shepherd of the flock. Our praise is due to you for your work in our lives. Do your work among us today. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
On God’s mountain all people are given a banquet of rich food and fine, aged wine. Mourning and death cease, and every tear is wiped away. Shame is dispelled; hunger is forgotten.
“This is our God, in whom we hoped for salvation.” In this way, Isaiah recalls the lush image of the banquet, that same feast of which the psalmist sang, with food prepared in abundance, cups running over, heads anointed with oil. It is the banquet of God that, despite fleeting appetites or hungers, allows Paul to be satisfied no matter what his need or desire. “In him who is the source of my strength I have strength for everything.”
If it is God’s will that we all be saved in Jesus, then it is for us, clothed in faith, hope, and love, to accept God’s will as our own.
In the context of heaven’s feast, the Gospel of Matthew presents a strange story, one among many instances, actual or symbolic, of dinners and banquets.
In this particular case, some of the invited are uninterested in the banquet prepared for them. Others make light of it and go about their business; still others ridicule and abuse those who bring the offer. So, the king sends his servants out into the streets to invite everyone, good and bad alike, into the banquet. Eventually, however, the king spots a visitor who is not wearing a robe, and the poor guy is cast into darkness.
This has never been a very attractive story for me. It seems somewhat impulsive and ruthless. Why invite people to the banquet if you are going to reject them? Were not all called and welcome?
It is understandable that those who absolutely reject Christ and the bounty of his saving banquet are not included. They do not even want to come to the party. But the rest—all those who do not resist the possibility that God calls them to the eternal feast—are welcomed.
So why are some people who are already in the promised banquet-land excluded for the feeble-sounding reason that they are improperly dressed?
What has helped me understand this odd state of affairs is CS Lewis’s wonderful fantasy, The Great Divorce, which he wrote to suggest that the option between heaven and hell is a radical choice we all have.
In this short, symbolic story, it turns out that a group of people, after a long bus ride, find themselves in a strange location. It is the vestibule of heaven itself, a place they have all generally wanted to go. The problem is that they must now believe that they are actually there. They must accept the fact that God really saves them.
Lewis develops a lively drama for each traveler’s life. All they need to do is “put on” the armor of salvation to receive it; yet many of them cannot bring themselves to believe that they are in banquet-land. They would rather cling to the defenses with which they have covered themselves during their lives.
One self-pitying chap, unwilling to let go of the mantle of his own righteousness, just cannot bring himself to trust that he is actually within the gates of Paradise. He grips his resentments so tightly that he disappears into the small dark hole of his egotism.
Another poor soul wears a small, slimy red lizard on his shoulder, a twitching, chiding garment of shame and disappointment. This lizard is his clothing, his self-image and self-presentation to the world. It is a symbol, Lewis leads us to believe, of some sin of lust, which the pilgrim soul both hugs for identity and carries for self-pity.
An angel approaches, offering to kill the slimy creature, which protests that if he is killed, the soul will surely lose his life and meaning. The ghost-soul, encouraged by the angel, finally lets go of the lizard, but only with trembling fear. He gasps out a final act of trust: “God help me. God help me.”
And with that plea, a mortal struggle ensues, the lizard mightily resisting while a wondrous metamorphosis happens. The lizard is transformed into a glorious creature. “What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white, but with mane and tail of gold. ... The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. ... In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels.” They both soar off, like shooting stars, into the mountains and sunset.
What happened to this wayfarer at the vestibule of the banquet is that he finally clothed himself in Christ rather than in his shame. Having nothing of his own, not even his sins to cling to, he abandoned himself in the “God help me” of radical trust.
If it is God’s will that we all be saved in Jesus, then it is for us, clothed in faith, hope, and love, to accept God’s will as our own. Perhaps this is the meaning of Jesus’ parable, as well as of Lewis’s.
Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians that if we are baptized in Christ, we must be clothed in him. Christ is the only adequate banquet garment. And it is his love, as we can read in the Letter to the Colossians, that must be the clothing to complete and unify all others we wear. Yes, every child of the earth is called to the feast. But if any of us actually get there, it will only be because we are “all decked out” with Christ, in God.
God is hosting a wedding for his Beloved Son and we, all of us and each of us, has been invited. And here is the truly mind-boggling part. We’re not just invited to attend the wedding as a guest. We’re invited to come as the Bride, the one whom the Groom loves and wants to spend eternity with.
But it’s not enough just to show up and say “Here I am.” like the man in the parable. We have to be properly dressed. We have to put on Christ. We have to be clothed in, to be wrapped in, the mind and heart of Jesus. We have to look like Christ and sound like Christ and act like Christ and speak like Christ and think like Christ and forgive like Christ.
Let us pray: Merciful King, you invite us to your banquet, to the celebration of your Son’s never-ending love. The table you spread before us is overflowing with generosity. Lead us to share our lives, our time and our possessions so your good news of salvation may spread to the ends of the earth. This we ask through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pentecost 18 Isaiah 5:1-7 Philippians 3:4b-14 Matthew 21:33-46
Let us pray: Gracious God, help us to commit to you not simply a part but all of life, asking that you will take who and what we are, and everything we do, and dedicate it to your service, in the name of Christ. Amen.
A number of years ago, there was an ad campaign in St. Louis that made quite a stir. A number of billboard signs went up. They said, "What in God’s name are you doing here?" Just that. "What in God’s name are you doing here?"
"What in God’s name are you doing here?" Now that might be a question we could ask this morning as we heard the Gospel. "What in God’s name am I doing here?" Another vineyard story! For the third week in a row our Gospel uses the illustration of a vineyard. In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah chapter 5 we hear about a vineyard, as a way of talking about God’s great sadness and pain at being rejected by the ancient people of Israel.
"I planted a vineyard," God says. "I tended and nurtured it. But it did not produce fruit. Instead of sweet grapes and the wine that I had expected, the grapes were wild and their taste was sour." "What more could I have done?" God cries. "How could I have blessed you more fully?" It’s a song of sadness and pain, a cry of longing from our God. It’s God’s word saying to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah, ""What in God’s name are you doing here?"
Jesus echoes the same words in his parable of the wicked tenants. He announces God’s judgment. "When the owner of the vineyard returns what will he do? – He will put those wretched to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” Rejection! That’s what this morning’s Gospel is about – the pain of rejection. It’s a feeling that we can all identify with. There is no pain more familiar to more people than the pain of rejection. Who doesn’t remember standing on the playground at recess time or after school when teams were being made up and being chosen last? Who doesn’t remember being left standing on the sidelines while everyone else got their chance to play in the game? Is there anyone here today who wasn’t selected Homecoming King or Queen or who was passed over for promotion? Guys – how about the time you were rebuffed by that special girl? Or gals – what about the time your boyfriend dumped you? The pain of rejection. It pierces our heart with its dagger point and sends a chill into our very soul. And it is this pain of rejection that the Gospel speaks of today.
But it’s not our pain primarily this speaks of – it is God’s pain, God’s deep abiding sadness and hurt that results from lives that are lived apart from God, from our failure as God’s people to live the kind of life we were created to live, by our sinfulness and rejection of God’s truth and holiness. To us as to the ancient Israelites, God asks this morning, "What in God’s name are you doing here?"
Jesus knew that pain of rejection. Misunderstood by his family, rejected by his own townsfolk and even finally crucified by the very people he had come to redeem, Jesus knew what the prophet Isaiah was saying. He knew God’s pain and sadness. He evidenced that as spoke of his own death on the cross.
"What in God’s name are you doing here?" On the surface the parable is not hard to understand. Even the chief priests and Pharisees understood it. (As we see in the last verses of the Gospel reading it enraged them.) It speaks a word of judgment against Israel, and against the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Even those with only a little knowledge of the Old Testament can understand that.
The messengers sent to the vineyard quickly bring to mind the prophets of old, those messengers whom God sent to the ancient people of Israel. Prophets calling the people to repentance and faith. Prophets, largely ignored. Prophets, persecuted and killed for their message. In that sense it is a parable of rejection – the people’s rejection of the Word of God, our refusal to hear God speak to us. Because the question not only confronts the religious leaders of Jesus day, it calls to us today as well: "What in God’s name are we doing here?"
Time and time again, God brings His word of life and hope into our lives. God speaks His desire that we would lead fruitful lives of faith and goodness. And time and time again, God is rejected. We live for ourselves alone. We feel resentful that the church should tell us how to live. We assume that our wealth and possessions are our own. And when the church requests our time or asks for our offerings, we begrudgingly give only what we think we can do without. Like the wicked tenants of the story, we live our lives apart from the Lordship of God.
"What in God’s name are you doing here?" The words from the billboard echo God’s truth for us today. Today we are asked, "What in God’s name are you doing here?" They call us to take a second look at our lives. The wicked tenants of the vineyard claimed the vineyard as their own and refused to give the Owner any of what they had produced. They claimed that everything they had was the result of their own hard work and so the owner had no right to any of it. And so they rejected God, refusing to acknowledge God’s lordship over their lives.
Sound familiar? It should because all too often that’s the way we live our lives. The parable reminds us all we have is not our own, but the gracious gifts of a loving God for us. Our wealth, our homes, our happiness – the good fortune, the good health, the good luck we have – all we accomplish and all we produce in life is not only our doing. It is the blessing of a gracious God, who asks in return, "What in my name are you doing here?" How are you sharing my blessing with others? What are you doing to give praise and worship for the Lord God Almighty? What in God’s name are you doing here?"
Tony Campolo tells a story of a great oil refining plant. The refinery was huge. It employed all the modern techniques of chemical engineering. It was an impressive structure, well maintained. The interior was bright and shiny. The workers were proud to be part of the company. They made sure everything was perfectly clean and in perfect working order. Nothing was spared in caring for the plant.
One day some visitors asked to tour the refinery. At first they were refused. They would get in the way. They might even track the clean floors. But the visitors insisted. They had heard such great things about the plant and wanted to witness it for themselves. And so the plant managers relented and reluctantly gave permission for the outsiders to enter.
The visitors walked through the vast chambers where they saw the processing of the crude oil, the gleaming pipes that carried the refined product from place to place throughout the plant, and the impressive organizational system that had been set up to keep the plant clean. Needless to say, they were greatly impressed. Near the end of the tour, one of the visitors asked, "Where is the shipping department?" "Shipping department?" the guide asked. "Why yes," the visitor responded. "The place where you ship out what you’ve produced here." "We don’t have any shipping department," the guide replied. "We use up all the energy we produce here just to keep the place going. We need it all ourselves."
Could this be the message that God wants us to hear today when we ask, "What in God’s name are you doing here?" Where is the fruit of God’s blessing in your life? Where is the goodness that God wishes you to produce? Where is the blessing that God’s mercy brings forth in your life? "What in God’s name are you doing here?"
This is not our world. It is God’s. This is not our vineyard. It is God’s. And unless we exist for others, unless we produce something of goodness beyond ourselves, unless we build our lives upon that "stone which the builders rejected which is now the head of the corner" we will be no better off than those wicked tenants, who were cast from the vineyard because they refused to share their blessings with God.
Jesus says it well for us today when he said, "The stone, which the builders rejected, has become the head of the corner." God is building a new temple today. It is not a house a brick and stone. It is not made of mortar and steel or cement and limestone. It is a house of faith. And it is built in the hearts and lives of God’s faithful people, built a day at a time as we confess our sins and in worship and faith draw near to God and allow God to work through us. "The stone which was rejected has become the head of the corner" and is the rock of our salvation.
As we allow Christ to live within us, as we seek to do God’s work of love and mercy in our homes and the world around us as we respond to the urgings of the Holy Spirit and in faith produce a harvest of goodness for ourselves and those around us, as we seek to be faithful followers of Christ, we’ll be able to answer the question on that billboard. This, we’ll be able to say, "This is what in God’s name we are doing here!"
Let us pray: Lord, like a faithful farmer, you have planted and nourished this vineyard for us, not sparing anything for our good. Help us to always remember we are the tenants and you are the owner. Empower us to be your true disciples so we may bear much rich fruit for Jesus’ sake. Amen.