Seeking God’s Intervention – October 8, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 8, 2017

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

A man had worked all of his life, saved all his money, and was a real miser. He told his wife, “When I die, I want you to take all my money and put it in my casket so that I can take it with me in the afterlife.” He made her promise on the Bible that she would do exactly that.

 He died a few years later and she felt compelled to honor his wishes. When the service in the funeral home was concluded, his wife approached the casket, took a box out of her purse, and placed it next to her husband. Then the casket was closed and taken to the cemetery.

Her best friend pulled her aside as they were leaving the funeral home. “Girl,” she said “you told me what you promised that miser husband of yours, but you weren’t actually fool enough to put all that money in there, were you?” His wife replied, “Listen, I swore on the Bible. I can’t go back on my word. I promised him I would put all his money in the casket and I did. I gathered it all up, put into my account, and wrote him a check. If he can cash it, he can spend it.”

I suspect the deceased was a person of privilege and advantage. We see where that got him. I’ve done a lot of funerals but I’ve never seen a Brink’s armored car following the hearse. In the end, we finally own nothing.

The story Jesus offers us today describes a common practice in first century Palestine where an absentee landowner planted a vineyard and leased it out to tenants who cared for it in return for a share in the final crop. Building on the imagery we heard in the reading from Isaiah, the vineyard in the parable Jesus told represents Israel and the landowner stands for God. 

The slaves sent to bring the owner produce from the vineyard are the Hebrew prophets who endured insult, beating, capture, and even death in order to bring God’s message to the people. The final messenger is God’s Son. The wicked tenants are not Israel as a nation, but the leaders who have ruled Israel. What is condemned in this parable is the misuse of privilege or advantage.

After its pleasant opening, this parable Jesus told goes downhill fast. It is a violent story which, sadly, we hear even as we have been stunned and shaken by violence in our country. Tragedy and heartbreak and human wreckage will always be the end result when people believe that they are the entitled and privileged landowner rather than a blessed and loved tenant.

This Gospel story has been used to convey a number of messages to God’s people. It is a favorite around themes and teaching about good stewardship. It has been offered as a lesson in the depth of God’s patience with us; it speaks to the rejection of Jesus as Messiah by the religious leaders of Israel. And we could preach several sermons on how it speaks to our abuse of Mother Earth and the consequences of that.

My dilemma this week was coming to grips with the hard question of how to preach this parable in the wake of the horrible tragedy and utterly insane demonstration of gun violence and resulting human carnage that we saw in Las Vegas—a veritable bloodbath that is as of now the worst in American history.

What does the preacher say after something as horrendous that? What does the preacher say after the killing of a Travon Martin or the slaughter of people gathered in a church in Charleston or the massacres in Orlando or Newtown? That’s just a mini list of the lethal events we’ve learned about over the past several years. Maybe the only sure thing we can count on is that there is more violence to come, more bodies to count, more tears to be shed.

I’ve kind of grown tired of hearing the pious platitudes from many corners offering their “thoughts and prayers” after every unspeakable act of violence occurs. Quite frankly—and maybe this is my cynicism—I wonder how many prayers are really being offered and what some people are praying for—especially those who have the authority to do something not just talk.

Before he died, respected pastor and renowned preacher William Sloan Coffin said, “The problem with parish clergy today is that so many are gumption-deficient.” These are not times for the clergy to shrink from telling it like it must be told. Theologian and anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is often attributed for saying, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. No to act is to act.”  Whether or not he said this, just look at the things we put up with now as if they are common every day occurrences. Are we really shocked any more by a Las Vegas? Or are we just numb from all of it?

As a nation, we have been singularly blessed with great prosperity, a rich, fertile vineyard; but we are also a nation where greed, advantage, and privilege in some of the landowners have inflicted great hardship, suffering, and even death on others. We’ve come to worship laws of entitlement that allow a person of privilege like Stephan Paddock to amass weapons and execute 59 innocent folk and seriously wound 500 more. Have we chosen these man made laws over God’s commandment of love for one another?

In Germany, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, was speaking at a conference about his experiences during the Second World War and, especially, about the terrors of the Gestapo prison where he spent several years.  He was talking about how terribly real God had become to him in that terrible place.

A young man stood up and said, “We appreciate all that you went through.  But why should this concern us now?  We have so many other problems, the rebuilding of Germany, the search for a vocation, solving our social problems.”  The Bishop quietly replied, “I understand your concerns.  But you should give some time to the question of God now, because the day will come when God will be very important.”

My prayer these last few weeks has included my asking that in some way, shape or form God might intervene and restore some sanity, wholeness, and compassion to this incredible vineyard that God has given us to cultivate, that God might move in as the divine landowner and redeem creation. That may take some bold and courageous work on the part of its tenants. Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. I believe the day has come when God will be very important, even terribly real in what are some terrible times. I hope in our common humanity we will all recognize that before there is yet another Las Vegas…or worse. 

God of peace, sending your Word Vulnerable to a violent world: Take from us the closed fist of death; reveal to us the open arms of love that we might stumble and fall into your hands, Through Jesus Christ, our victim and our savior. Amen.

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