Radically Optimistic Obedience to God

St. John’s Christopher Street, NYC
October 4, 2020, 18th Sunday after Pentecost
Feast of St. Francis

Matthew 21:33-46

The Holy Gospel According to Matthew. Glory to You, O Lord.

“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;[a]
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.

The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, O Christ.

Grace and peace to you beloveds, from God the Creator, Christ the Liberator, and the Holy Spirit, who is breath. Amen.

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What a Gospel text for this week. A week that included a presidential debate that wasn’t really a debate. A refusal to condemn white supremacy. Released tax documents. The still-increasing death toll and infection rate of COVID-19. More stories of violence against protestors. Against Black trans women. Against immigrants and refugees.

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling especially sensitive to the violence in this week’s text. It is hard to reconcile this parable with the Kingdom of God. The violence seems all-too-human.

And perhaps that’s the point. This parable continues the series of parables we have been reading, that come after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but before his arrest and execution at the hands of the state. It continues to respond to the question of the religious elites, “by what authority are you doing these things?”

“These things” that Jesus is doing includes clearing the moneylenders from the Temple. Healing without charge. Feeding multitudes. Offering grace and forgiveness from God. Questioning the systems of power that have been set up. Building relationships.

“These things” that Jesus is doing challenges the authority of the religious elite, and they know he represents a threat to the world as-is. They are pushing for his arrest, even against the cries of the people that say Jesus is a prophet, sent by God.

They are asking Jesus, “by what authority”, and Jesus responds with a parable that has themes of authority and stewardship. Unlike some of the previous parables, this does not begin with “the Kingdom of Heaven is like…” It is simply a parable for the present moment.

The images are a continuation of what has already been set up. The landowner is God. The vineyard, which has been well prepared and maintained, is the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is the Son. And, as the religious elites name at the end of this passage, they are the current tenants of the vineyard.

Tenants who were chosen by God to steward the vineyard. In the tenant farming system, there was an agreement between the workers and the landowner, where the tenants could live and farm in exchange for some of what was produced. There was relationship. But in this parable, instead of fulfilling and being accountable to the relationship, the tenants broke their word, and responded with violence against those God sent to them. The tenants based their actions on greed, selfishness, and a desire to hold onto power. They are resisting accountability, and reacting with violence against God – and those violent actions have consequences.

When asked, in this parable, what they think the landowner will do after all of this, the response from the religious elites is more violence. But Jesus says simply that “the Kingdom of God will be taken away”. The agreement has been broken, and there is loss in that – but it’s not necessarily a clear, violent, human retribution like Jesus’ listeners assume.

I wonder what tone Jesus is telling this parable in. Mournfully? Angrily? In frustration? All of these? The tenants were given multiple opportunities to turn back towards God and towards relationship. God sent multiple waves of people to collect the fruits of the Kingdom, to encourage accountability, to ask the tenants to realize that the gift of the land is not theirs, but God’s, and to let go of their power-over it. Since they refused multiple times, and violence was enacted multiple times against those God sent, Jesus says that God will bring on different tenants. Perhaps those who have been rejected and marginalized before, like the rejected cornerstone.

The Gospel of Matthew has been used by Christians in horribly anti-Semitic ways. And so I want us to be careful when talking about this parable – Jesus is saying that the Kingdom will be taken from those who are not acting as stewards, who are acting from greed, selfishness, and a desire for power-over. Jesus is Jewish, and living in his own context. In this parable, the tenants were the specific religious elite and the Pharisees he was speaking with, and the systems of power they upheld – not the entire Jewish community. This parable references a prophecy from Isaiah, connecting it to the prophetic tradition, where God’s justice reigns.

Living in our context, the tenants might still be the religious elite, but might also be politicians, or anyone who holds themselves in a position of authority over others and acts from greed, selfishness, and a desire to hold onto power. A distinct example for me is in regards to climate change, and our relationship to Creation. We have been gifted an abundant planet that is able to sustain life, and have been charged to steward that land. Instead, corporations, military power, and Empire have responded violently to Creation, and have not acted as stewards, but as owners, even as God is Creator. We have not always lived up to our side of the relationship, and there are consequences for that, some of which are already being experienced, not by those who caused the crisis, but those most vulnerable to it.

Thinking even more personally, I know there are times in friendships, partnerships, work, where I’ve acted from greed and selfishness, not always recognizing those who were sent by God to restore relationships, and keep accountability.

The question for me, then, is what’s the alternative?  What is the alternative to greed, desire to hold onto power-over, or reacting with violence when called to accountability?

And here’s where I want to shift slightly, and turn to St. Francis of Assisi. Today is the feast of St. Francis, a saint most often connected to animals, and care of Creation. Three of the vows Franciscans make are to poverty, chastity, and obedience. This is in response to missives revealed to St. Francis and Lord Bernard from scripture after a time of prayer. An excerpt from “The Little Flowers of St. Francis”, a more contemporary translation of authoritative Franciscan texts:

           At the first opening [of the missal] there appeared the words that Christ said in the gospel to the young man who asked Him about the way of perfection: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow Me.”

              At the second opening there appeared those words which Christ said to the Apostles, when He sent them out to preach: “Take nothing for your journey, neither staff, nor wallet, nor bread, nor money,” wishing thereby to teach them that they should place all their hope for support in God and concentrate entirely on preaching the Holy Gospel.

              At the third opening of the missal there appeared those words which Christ said: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let [them] deny [themselves], and take up [their] cross, and follow Me.”

Some of the ways these values are lived out include care for Creation, care for neighbor, and obedience to God above all else, trusting in the grace and mercy of God.

Obedience can be both dangerous and radically optimistic. Obedience to a failed system, to oppression, to tyrants, to harm, is dangerous. But obedience to God, to abundance, to community, to resurrection, is radically optimistic, because it releases our desire for control, allows us to pay attention to how God is moving in our lives, and lets us imagine different possibilities for how we are living. Whether obedience is dangerous or radically optimistic is directly tied to who, or what, we are obedient to.

And it’s that radically optimistic obedience to God that we can propose as an alternative to how the tenants were moving through the world. Obedience to a God who is loving, and merciful, and abundant – so abundant that we can give God the first fruits of the harvest and still have plenty to share, who prepared the vineyard for us. Who chooses us to be stewards, not owners, of Creation, and chooses to be in relationship with us. Who pours out grace on us, freeing us to love our neighbors and co-create the Kingdom of Heaven with God. Who created us with a range of identities, and with the opportunity to learn, grow, and change. Who created us for community. Who sends messengers and prophets to us, giving us moments that we can turn again and again towards God.

Beloveds of God, as we continue to navigate an ever tumultuous-world, thinking both big-picture but also in our day-to-day lives, with the grief and joy they contain, I pray that you can find rest in God. That you notice where you live, in a given moment, in this Gospel story – as a tenant? As a steward? As someone acting from a desire for power, or a desire for God? And that you explore the possibility of a radically optimistic obedience to God, which looks different for each of us, following in the footsteps of St. Francis, who trusted in a God who is abundant, and present in all of Creation. Amen.

Vicar Reed Fowler,
Intern

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