Sunday, October 08, 2017

Fruit of the Realm - A Sermon for Pentecost 18A

Matthew 21:33-46

Once again we find Jesus in the Temple. It’s Holy Week. Good Friday is on the horizon. We listen as Jesus continues to describe the realm of God through parables. Last Sunday we heard Jesus tell the parable of two brothers. One brother told his father he would go work in the vineyard, but never did. The other resisted, but finally went off to work. Which of the brothers did the will of the father, who asked them to tend the vineyard? Jesus then told another parable of the vineyard. In this parable, a landowner planted a vineyard and then rented it out, hoping to reap a profit from the renters’ produce. Unfortunately, when the time came to collect this produce, the renters violently resisted these efforts. Finally, in desperation, the landowners sent his son, hoping they would respect him. Instead of respecting the son, they decided to kill him and try to take his inheritance. How do you think the landowner will respond? Won’t the landowner respond in kind by punishing those who resisted? 

I expect that many of us struggle with the idea of divine judgment. It doesn’t fit our vision of a loving and merciful God. Yet, here we have a parable of divine judgment. God’s realm will be taken from the original renters and given to others who will produce good fruit for the realm. Those who reject the cornerstone of the realm of God, will be crushed on it. 


This parable draws on imagery found in the book of Isaiah. I’d like to read from Isaiah 5, which reveals to us the identity of this vineyard and God’s vision for that vineyard.

5 Let me sing for my loved one
    a love song for his vineyard.
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it,
    cleared away its stones,
    planted it with excellent vines,
    built a tower inside it,
    and dug out a wine vat in it.
He expected it to grow good grapes—
    but it grew rotten grapes.
3 So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard:
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
    that I haven’t done for it?
When I expected it to grow good grapes,
    why did it grow rotten grapes?
5 Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard.
I’m removing its hedge,
    so it will be destroyed.
I’m breaking down its walls,
    so it will be trampled.
6 I’ll turn it into a ruin;
    it won’t be pruned or hoed,
    and thorns and thistles will grow up.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it.
7 The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Is. 5:1-7 CEB)

In the reading from Isaiah, the focus isn’t on the farmers. It’s on the grapes. The owner planted a vineyard and expected it to produce good fruit. It failed in that regard, and so the owner took down the fences and let it fall into disrepair. You get the sense from this song, that the one who planted it, loved it, and wanted it to bear fruit. Unfortunately, it didn’t. We also learn that Israel is the vineyard, which has failed to bear good fruit.   

In the parable, the fruit isn’t necessarily bad, but the wicked renters refuse to share the harvest. It looks as if Jesus is directing these parables of the kingdom at the religious leaders. This a difficult parable because it not only speaks of judgment, but it has often been used in anti-Jewish and antisemitic ways. We must reject those kinds of interpretations, even as we listen for a word from God about our responsibilities for the realm of God. 

What does God expect from us as followers of Jesus? I spent several days up at Rochester College pondering the relationship between salvation and mission. Michael Gorman, who was one of the speakers, spoke of salvation in terms of participating in the life of God.  He suggested that the church is called not only to believe the Gospel, but “become the Gospel of God’s saving justice, peace, and glory,” so that we might “advance the gospel anticipating and participating in God’s new creation.”  This is what God hopes to find when God returns to the vineyard. Unfortunately, according to Isaiah, “God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress” (Is. 5:7 CEB).

God expects justice, but instead finds bloodshed. We hear this word a week following the bloodshed in Las Vegas. While we try to figure out the motive and ways to prevent future mass-shootings, there is a bigger issue at hand. That is, God expects justice, but finds bloodshed instead. While mass shootings catch out attention, gun-related deaths occur every day in our country. In the year 2014, the Centers for Disease Control reported over 21,000 suicides using a firearm. It also reported 11,000 gun-related homicides. That’s 32,000 gun-related deaths. While we need to talk about gun laws in our country, there’s a deeper issue, and that is the violence present in our culture. Why does God look for justice, but finds bloodshed?   

In the parable the landowner responds to the violence with violence. That’s a bit disconcerting. If the landowner represents God, where’s the mercy? Where’s the grace? While I fully affirm the grace and mercy of God, there are times when we heed to hear a word of judgment. That is especially true when God expects to find justice and righteousness, but instead finds hatred, violence, and bloodshed. 

Standing at the center of the parable are the messengers of God, the prophets sent to bring the word of salvation to the world. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to resist and even kill God’s messengers. I think of Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Oscar Romero. Martin Luther King had a dream, but didn’t live to see it fulfilled. While things might be better today than they were in 1963, we’re still a long way from seeing that dream truly bear fruit. We shouldn’t have to ask whether “black lives matter” fifty-four years after Dr. King shared his dream, but it’s clear that not everyone in our culture agrees that “black lives matter.” So the fight for justice continues on.

Oscar Romero was the Archbishop of El Salvador when he was gunned down while saying mass in the nation’s cathedral. He was killed because he spoke out for justice in a land that was marked by violence and oppression. The political leaders told him to stay out of politics. He couldn’t do that because the gospel had implications that put the Gospel at odds with the political system. He responded to his critics by telling them:  

 A civilization of love that did not demand justice of people would not be a true civilization: it would not delineate genuine human relations. It is a caricature of love to try to cover over with alms what is lacking in justice, to patch over with an appearance of benevolence when social justice is missing. True love begins by demanding what is just in the relations of those who love. APRIL 12, 1979. [Romero. The Violence of Love (Kindle Locations 1120-1123). Plough Publishing House. ]
 Oscar Romero kept speaking out for justice, and he ended up being killed while saying mass in the cathedral. 

The owner of the vineyard sent representatives to gather the fruit of the realm. Instead of finding fruit, the messengers were rejected and even killed. Jesus told this parable, like the one before it, in response to those who questioned his authority to speak on behalf of God. He unveiled the motives of the religious and political leaders who refused to seek justice and mercy, but instead engaged in bloodshed. First there was John, and then the son, Jesus. Yes, days later, he will go to the cross. Better that he dies than the people. 

There are so many crises enveloping us, that many feel overwhelmed. We’re not sure how to speak or act. We watch as dozens are murdered in Vegas, while the threat of nuclear war hangs over us. We’re divided over questions of immigration and health care. The people of Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands cry out for help. Will anyone respond, not only with relief, but with justice? 

What is the fruit of the realm that we have to offer when God holds us accountable? Are we sheep or goats? How do we treat those our society considers expendable? Turning again to Oscar Romero, his words might offer us a path forward in an age of bloodshed and unrighteousness. 
A Christian’s authenticity is shown in difficult hours. By Christian, I mean every member of God’s people, whether lay person, religious, priest, bishop, or pope. And by difficult hour, I mean those circumstances in which following the gospel supposes a multitude of ruptures with the tranquility of an order that has been set up against or apart from the gospel. [The Violence of Love (Kindle Locations 419-421).] 
What is the fruit we have to offer to God? How might we be transformed as we participate in the life of God in the midst of these difficult hours? The good news, is that we do not go on this journey alone. The scriptures remind us that if we embrace the realm of God, we will bear fruit. We’ll bear fruit because we are in God. We share in God’s divine presence through Christ.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
October 8, 2017
Pentecost 18A

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