— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 18th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
“World Communion Sunday”
Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 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!
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Let me tell you what this sermon is not about… this sermon is not about the failure of a people long ago who failed to be who God called them to be. This sermon is about us, now, in the church and in our nation. We in the 21st century should have learned by now that the world and our nation are made up of good people of every faith – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Unitarians, Buddhists, non-believers – and of every race and every nation. It is unacceptable and racist to group whole people into a category of being unrighteous and of less value than some other group. White Supremacy, for example, and the Proud Boys, for example, are groups that we as followers of Jesus Christ, who came to show God’s generous love for all people, cannot endorse or sanction in our preaching, teaching, personal lives or our political process.
We as Christians have no business looking back on these Scriptures and declaring that the prophet and the gospel writer are condemning Jews or the nation of Israel in the 21st century. Both writers, Isaiah and Matthew, were Jewish and they were offering words of challenge and condemnation to their own people. We have no right to do the same. We can criticize the policies of our nation and any other, but to group people by religion or ethnicity and declare they all have some negative quality is racist or bigoted. What we ought to be ready to hear from these challenging words is a call to us to live up to the many blessings that have come our way. Truly, we in the Church and in the United States, have been given a fertile field. We have been handed by history, the sacrifices of many who have gone before us, and I would say the providence of God a church, a land, and a constitution that give us an abundant heritage by which we can grow and live into a more perfect union, a beloved community. The question for us is are we failing to make good use of our many gifts. As people who seek to follow Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ are we bearing the good fruits befitting our inheritance?
In other words, it is a big mistake to take these passages and apply them to some other group three and two thousand years ago. This call to justice from Isaiah is about us right here in the Church and in the United States. This call to doing the things that make for peace is directed at us. We can be people who nurture the generosity of our inheritance; or, we can be sowers of discord, divisions, lies, selfishness, and violence against any who are different in skin color, ethnicity, of a different income or education level or against any who might call for unity, truth, self-giving, and peace. We can be people who are willing to blow-up anything that doesn’t serve our selfish ends or we can be people who recognize that the well-being of the world and our communities and institutions are more important than personal victories and accumulation of wealth.
I think these stories from Isaiah and Matthew are directed at us and we should hear them as a call to live in ways that embody the justice and love of the One who Creates, Redeems, Sustains all that is and all that ever will be.
Alright, with all of that said, take yourselves back to middle school English class. Do you remember the definition of an allegory? … Well, I looked it up. An allegory is “a figurative expression by something said other than what the words usually mean.” Allegory is also understood to be “an extended metaphor or a sustained imaginative story in which characters represent virtues or vices.” An example would be that Pilgrim’s Progress is apparently about a man named Christian who leaves his home on a journey to Heavenly City; however, it is clear that Christian stands for any Christian man or woman and that the incidents of Christian’s journey represent the temptations and trials that beset any Christian person throughout the earth. So, allegory has its meaning in events and actions outside itself to which it refers.
(See Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, p.25; The Dictionary of Bible and Religion, William H. Gentza, General Editory, pps. 36,37; Preaching the New Common Lectionary, Year A by Craddock, Hayes, Holladay, Tucker, p. 220)
The story we just read from Matthew is an allegory. In other words, we are not really talking about a vineyard with delinquent and violent tenants; rather, we are talking about God and the people of God. Matthew takes special care with the allegorical details to make sure we all know about whom he is talking. The “vineyard” in the story is Israel. The story from Isaiah we read earlier was well known. The vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God. The tenants are the leaders of a rebellious Israel. The two groups of “slaves” who are sent to the tenants to collect the fruits of the vineyard are the former prophets (Joshua through Kings) and the latter prophets (Isaiah through Malachi). The son, of course, is Jesus, and, as Matthew tells the story, the son is taken out of the vineyard and killed – in this Matthew follows the pattern of his understanding of the passion of Jesus.
This story is an allegorical story about the failures of the Jewish people, especially the leaders, to heed the calls of God upon their lives for righteousness, compassion and justice. Remember in the words of the prophet Isaiah in his allegory of the people of Israel as a vineyard – (God) expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! Matthew builds on the failures of the leaders to heed the calls of the prophets to indicate that the leaders have done even worse by failing to recognize the Son of God, the Messiah.
To the end of bringing the story home, and remembering the point I’ve tried to make that the real value of the teachings of these stories is to apply them to ourselves in the church in the United States in the 21st century, I’ve written my own allegory. The story needs a wee bit of introduction; namely, two brief word studies.
*Kirk – a Scottish word for church; so, when you hear “Kirk” think “Church.”
*Ruah, Pneuma, Spiritus – the Hebrew, Greek, Latin words for Spirit in the Bible which literally mean ‘wind’ or ‘breath’; so, when you hear “Wind” think the Spirit of God.
There once was a musician, Kirk, whose songs seemed to be channeled straight from God. Kirk’s music touched the hearts of any who heard him play and sing. Somehow the lyrics and the way they harmonized with the notes of his guitar inspired people to greater love and more generous hearts. Kirk played all over the world. He played to larger groups every now and again, but mostly to small groups, but the impact of his music was profound and the whole world became a better place for those who heard the grace of his music. Kirk’s music inspired people to reach out to others, even strangers, with a helping hand. His songs brought out the best in human beings.
As Kirk became more and more popular, oddly, he became more fearful and timid. The diminishment of his music began with the critics who told Kirk that he lacked sophistication. The critics came and told Kirk that his music was too simple. They told Kirk that he was discarding too much of the traditional music. The critics reminded Kirk that he was unschooled in the fine arts; they told him he needed more notes, more complicated beats, more homage to the musicians who came before him.
Kirk at first protested and said that he loved all the beautiful music that others played before him, but this music was his authentic voice and his unique gift to share. Kirk, at least initially, said he could not be anyone other than who he was.
Kirk, however, became sensitive to the voices of the critics. He became a little more tame and his music had more flourish as he began to pile on layers of traditions. He did not like to be thought of as a simpleton; he longed to find approval from the lettered ones in music departments in the finest schools. Kirk’s music became more acceptable to the critics who could see more clearly the historical sources of his musical progressions, but fewer people found Kirk’s music speaking to their hearts. More people filed into the concert halls to hear Kirk play, but fewer were moved toward generosity and harmony with others by the offerings Kirk gave.
Others, still, came to Kirk in his early years to discourage him from making the music he made because the music was disruptive. These were politicians and lawyers of the towns where he played and they heard Kirk’s music as a threat to the decency and order. It was true that in most places in those years when Kirk played to small groups in villages in the countryside the people became less accepting of the way things had always been. Kirk’s music inspired people to hope for more and to work against that which was degrading and without beauty in the world. Kirk’s music had a beautifully revolutionary quality to it, and the town leaders began to find ways to domesticate Kirk. His music had to be played before a council of elders for them to determine if he would be allowed to perform. When Kirk would refuse to change his music he was banned and notices went out to other communities that he was a threat to the civic order. Children were warned against listening.
After a while Kirk became more and more timid, and his music less and less powerful. He was, however, more at ease with the powers that were in place in the world. He could go freely and be welcomed into any city or town because he was no longer a threat to overturn any of the established practices and patterns. He got the best seats in the restaurants, the best clothes from the tailor, the best rooms in the inns. Soon Kirk’s music, while still good, was only pleasant and cheerful and no one felt inspired to do anything beyond close their eyes and lose themselves in their own little world of tranquility. Rich people especially would pay good money to Kirk to provide just such escapes.
Then one day Kirk was walking the streets of a town where he had performed in a large concert hall. He heard a young guitar player sitting on a park bench playing her guitar and singing. A small group had gathered around this young woman. Kirk, too, was drawn to her voice and the sounds of her playing. He felt his heart begin to beat to a rhythm he had forgotten. Kirk felt something tug at his spirit. It was a familiar tug, but one he had not felt in quite some time. It was a gentle luring he heard in the music; a luring in the direction of harmony with those gathered near the park bench. It was as if each person was part of a family. It was as if each person glowed. The music was lighting people up. Kirk started to feel his whole body give in to a bond of love with the world near him. It was magical, and he had a deep remembrance of it.
When the music stopped, Kirk found himself near to the young woman. He asked her to tell him her name. She said, “My name is Wind.” And with an openness that was disarming and inviting, she asked who he was. Kirk replied, “My name is Kirk and I play music too.” Wind said that she knew of him. “My father,” she said, “always talked of the magic of your voice and the loveliness of your guitar playing.” Wind continued – “My father said that you brought people together in a special way.” “I have sought to be as you were,” Wind said to Kirk, “and I have wanted to play with you but I never could find you. You were no longer out in the villages playing where I play.” Wind, in her gentle and kind way, went on to ask – “May we play together now?”
Kirk said, “I do not have my guitar.” Wind replied, “Why don’t you go get it and bring it back here and we will play and sing together.” And Wind added with a surge of excitement – “The world will never be the same; Kirk and Wind are together!”
So Kirk got up and began walking to his hotel room in the city to find his guitar. But on the way he kept hearing Wind’s words – “The world will never be the same; Kirk and Wind are together!” Over and over again he heard her words, and his heart started to fill with fear. Kirk had grown soft and comfortable with the world just as it was. He had made friends in high places. He was wealthy and the universities sought him to lecture on the history of music. Kirk was a man with a secure place in the world just as it was; he was a man with prestige and stature. And he kept hearing Wind’s lilting and exuberant voice – “The world will never be the same; Kirk and Wind are together!”
Kirk went to the chief of police and report a gathering, a march, a parade taking place without a permit. “The leader is a young woman,” said Kirk to the captain, “and her name is Wind; she needs to be locked up.”