This is my third sermon from my year long pastoral internship at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Dubuque, Iowa. This is for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 22.
The texts this week are Isaiah 80:1-7, Philippians 3:4-14, and Matthew 21:33-46. Psalm 80:7-15 was also appointed, which could easily have related to the direction I went here, but we ended up not doing the Psalm in worship this week.
Have you ever shown up for something thinking that you were all prepared, and then you suddenly realized that what you had prepared didn’t matter?
At least once, I’ve diligently done all the reading for a class, shown up for the class thinking I was all ready, then realized I read the wrong thing. Or a couple of weeks ago when the service times changed, I was trying really hard to remember that the Saturday service was at 4:30, not 5:30, and I was on time for it. And then on Sunday morning, I planned to get here a few minutes early, and I pulled in the parking lot at 8:40. I was all prepared, but here at the wrong time.
In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul describes something kind of like this. He goes through a whole list of his religious credentials, all the things that give him authority. He’s done everything right. Circumcised on the eighth day, met all his religious obligations, faultless when it comes to following the law.
And then, after laying out all of his credentials, he says that none of it matters. Our translation has him saying “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish.” The word “rubbish” there isn’t really strong enough. The word there actually means manure or dung. Everything Paul’s worked for is useless, worse than garbage. He’d spent his whole life preparing for one thing, then discovered all his work was ultimately useless, compared to Christ.
In the Gospel reading, we hear Jesus telling another odd story about a vineyard. There’s a landowner who rents out his vineyard, but come harvest time, the renters refuse to pay. In fact, they beat up and even kill the messengers coming to collect the rent. So he sends some more servants to collect, and they get the same reception. So, as a last ditch effort, he sends his son.
Now, these people have just beat up and killed a bunch of messengers. They’re obviously in open rebellion at this point, so sending the son doesn’t seem like a very good idea. What does he think will happen? Well, unsurprisingly, they kill the son too.
At this point Jesus breaks out of his story, and asks the religious leaders who are listening what they think the landowner will do next. The way he began his story is a little strange. He describes a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch tower, then leased it out and left.
What do the details of the fence, the wine press, and the watch tower have to do with the story? They’re never mentioned again. Listening to Jesus’ story today, these details sound randomly thrown in. But his hearers then would have made the connection he was going for. He uses the same language that Isaiah used in our first reading today. He’s connecting to a traditional story that people are familiar with, sort of a shorthand to make a point, like if we talk about George Washington and the cherry tree, or Christopher Columbus, or something like that.
In that Isaiah reading, Isaiah describes God’s frustration with Israel using this metaphor of a landowner and a vineyard. The vineyard represents the chosen people of Israel and Judah, and the landowner represents God. Basically, God’s frustrated because after doing everything possible to create a fruitful vineyard, the vineyard hasn’t done its part. Isaiah says the owner of the vineyard has put the vineyard on a very fertile hill, dug it out, cleared out the stones, and even built a watchtower in it. Everything necessary for the vineyard to grow good grapes. But, despite the best efforts of the owner, the vineyard has yielded wild grapes, not good ones.
So, what is to be done with a vineyard that keeps failing to produce good fruit? Verse 5: Now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured. It will be abandoned and destroyed.
That’ll show it! That’ll teach it to stop growing bad grapes! Historically, this is what happened to Israel – the Assyrian empire came and conquered Israel, taking them away into a long exile.
So when Jesus asks his audience what a landowner should do with a dysfunctional vineyard, or in this case, a vineyard with rebellious tenants, they know the answer. This is the old familiar Isaiah story. The answer is to get rid of the tenants and find new renters.
But Jesus goes somewhere completely different. He quotes an entirely different familiar story, Psalm 119. The passage Jesus quotes is about the stone rejected by the builders becoming the cornerstone of the building. “Cornerstone” could also mean the keystone, the stone in the middle of an arch that holds everything together.
Jesus moves from the familiar story of exile to a passage from a Psalm about rejoicing that God has marvelously come to the rescue.
Since we know the rest of the story, we know what Jesus is talking about. It’s easy for us to see Jesus as the rejected stone who becomes the cornerstone, the key to the story. But the religious leaders he’s talking to don’t get that.
Jesus tells them the kingdom of God is not about them. They assume they’re the good guys here, the owners saving the vineyard, and suddenly they’re not. Suddenly the kingdom of God is not about the good guys in the church who think they have it all together. I don’t know about you, but that’s scary.
It’s scary because it’s easy for me to look at the Pharisees and see how they don’t get it. But how am I different? I like being one of the people on the inside, one of the people who gets it. I like being prepared. I don’t like when I hear Jesus challenging the ones who think they’ve got it. Those of us who see ourselves as dedicated to the church, who show up for worship, who give offering…is this a challenge to us too?
I especially get stuck on that last bit Jesus says, verse 44. “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces.” The chief priests and the Pharisees hear that, and that’s when they get upset and they want to arrest him. I get hung up on that too. Being broken to pieces and crushed doesn’t sound fun! And if the stone’s Jesus, I don’t like it. I don’t want to talk about getting broken and crushed…especially getting broken on Jesus.
Although, looking at it in a slightly different way, for Paul, it’s true. Paul does gets broken on Jesus, the stone. Paul had spent his entire life working on his religion, and suddenly he met Jesus, and he was crushed. Everything he valued, everything he thought he knew, he now recognizes is ultimately worthless.
But it’s worthless for a reason. It’s worthless because God has a better plan. Paul loses everything to gain Christ. He loses himself, and God finds him. In his brokenness, Jesus meets him.
Confirmation quiz for those of us who grew up in the church and thought we had it all together because we were good at memorizing stuff: In the 10 commandments, what’s the first commandment? First commandment is…I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me. It’s the one about not having idols, not worshipping or relying on anything other than God.
For bonus points, do you remember Martin Luther’s explanation of that commandment? “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” In the Large Catechism (major bonus points if you’ve read that one), Luther explains that whatever we put our faith and trust in is our God.
There’s a message in our lessons today about idolatry, about not breaking the first commandment. Because it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of making religion itself into idolatry. When we start relying on our credentials and knowledge for life instead of Christ, that’s idolatry.
So in some ways, our lessons today are a warning to people in the church, to those of us who think we’ve got it all figured out.
But, when we lose all the other stuff we rely on, that’s when God finds us.
When we come to the Lord’s table with hands outstretched as beggars looking for a tangible sign of God’s love, we encounter God.
When we don’t understand it, we hear again the story of what God has done for us, the God who comes down to personally be with us, even when we keep rebelling.
We hear of God’s love, the sacrifice that the Son of God made for us that we can go free and live. God finds us even when we’re not prepared. Amen.