Sermon for 10-8-2017
Gospel – Matthew 21:33-46
The Rev. Maggie Leidheiser-Stoddard
Jesus is coming – Look busy!
Remember that old bumper sticker? Jesus is coming – Look busy! You don’t see it much anymore… although I did see one recently that said “Jesus is coming – pull out the sofa bed.” Not quite the same meaning as the original. “Jesus is coming – Look busy!” has fallen out of favor over the years. Just like the more recent “WWJD?” or “What Would Jesus Do?”, it’s a catchy slogan that used to be popular among American Christians but has slowly faded away.
Jesus is coming – Look busy!
That’s what came to my mind as I reflected on this week’s Gospel reading. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants – and boy, are they wicked. The landowner invests his time and energy and resources into this beautiful vineyard, and leases it to the tenants. The vineyard doesn’t belong to the tenants, but they are permitted to dwell in it, and to reap its bounty, as long as they agree to provide the landowner his due at harvest time. But these tenants are selfish and greedy, and when the harvest rolls around and the landowner sends his servants to collect his share of the produce, the tenants brutalize them, beating one, stoning one, killing another.
The landowner tries again, sending more servants to collect his due, and the tenants greet them with violence. And finally, the landowner (still hoping that his tenants will do the right thing) sends his own son as his emissary.
These wicked, wicked tenants; they see the landowner’s son and realize, aha! “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” (vs. 38) So the tenants kill the son. They want the inheritance, they want to control the vineyard and its produce, they want it all! The wicked tenants want to be masters of the vineyard. They resent the landowner’s claim on their time and their labors and their lives. They want to be in charge of their own destinies, darn it! They don’t owe that landowner anything! They want freedom from his demands!
“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (vs. 40)
That’s the question Jesus asks as he finishes his parable. When the owner of the vineyard comes… the tenants weren’t thinking about that, were they? These wicked tenants seem to think that they’ll never have to answer for their deeds. They think they can get away with their wickedness. But Jesus says it’s not so.
“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.” (vs. 43)
God is the landowner. God created this beautiful vineyard we call planet earth, and God saw that it was good.
The servants who are sent before the son as messengers to the tenants? The prophets — Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others. Each one has a different story, but just like the servants in the parable, they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Scripture tells us that God’s chosen people did not like being reminded of their duty to their Creator.
The landowner’s son? Jesus, the Messiah, Son of the Living God and Savior of the World. His father’s last great hope, the “Hail Mary pass” in God’s effort to call the tenants away from their wickedness and return them to wholeness and holiness.
God is the landowner, the prophets are servants, and Jesus is the son… so where does that leave us?
I spent a good portion of last Monday walking around in a daze, and I’m willing to bet many of you did as well. Listening to the news, reading the latest updates from Las Vegas, watching that death toll climb higher and higher… knowing that, at the same time, more than half of the 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico still had no access to clean water, 11 days after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. That death toll would be climbing, too. So much violence, so much suffering, so much pain.
I got a text message from a childhood friend – a church friend, we went through years of Sunday School and Youth Group together. We don’t talk much anymore; we’re both so busy with work and motherhood and life. The message said: “Do you think Jesus is about to come back?”
Do I think Jesus is about to come back?
I’ll say now what I said to my friend on Monday – I don’t know. I don’t know if Jesus is about to come back. I believe the words of the Nicene Creed, that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” But when, and how, and what it will look like? I have no idea.
Jesus is coming – Look busy!
What if Jesus is coming? Whenever he comes, however he comes, sooner or later you and I will have to answer for our time on earth. Our God is not a vengeful, punishing master, waiting for the right time to cast us into the burning depths of hell. Our God is a loving and generous Creator who calls us again and again to renounce our selfishness and greed and work to produce kingdom fruits, fruits like justice and mercy and peace. When our time comes, and God asks for the fruits of our labors, what will we have to show for ourselves?
We are really good at looking busy. Our days and our nights are full; we rush from one thing to the next; we keep moving and moving along in the rat race, the mind- and heart- and soul-numbing daily grind… We’re so busy with all the things we have to do that we don’t have time for the things we should do – like loving our neighbors, working for justice, and honoring God – those are the fruits of the kingdom.
What if the things that keep us so busy mean nothing to God? What if the fruits we’re so busy producing are earthly fruits, not kingdom fruits?
There’s an apocryphal tale in the world of Christian ethics that I first heard during my seminary years in California. It goes like this: An eminent professor of ethics announced to his students that, for their upcoming final exam, they should study the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels, nothing else. “If you know and understand Christ’s teachings,” he said, “you’ll have no problem acing the exam.” So the dutiful seminarians went home and read and reread the Gospels, some of them going so far as to memorize the words of Jesus. On exam day they were confident and excited to display their knowledge. At 11:00 am, when the exam was scheduled to begin, the eminent professor entered the classroom, surveyed his eager students, and sat down at his desk. After a few minutes of nervous silence, one of the students finally asked, “Sir, aren’t you going to give us the exam?” The professor answered, “The exam is already over, and I’m sorry to say, you have all failed.” The students were shocked – some angry, some dismayed, some confused, and a few even wondering if the eminent professor was having some kind of episode. The professor explained that an hour earlier, a friend of his had positioned himself just outside the building’s entrance. This friend’s appearance was disheveled; his face was dirty, he had no shoes, his hair was tangled and unwashed, and he was holding one arm in another, as if he were injured. The professor’s friend had been sitting, just like that, on the steps in front of the building, while the students were arriving for their Christian ethics exam. Not one of them had stopped to help this man, or even offered a kind word. They had gone right past him.
After hearing the professor’s explanation, one student was particularly aggrieved. She protested, “I saw the man, and I wanted to help him but I didn’t know how and besides, I had to get here on time for the exam!”
The professor replied, “It’s true that some of you ignored my friend because you’re selfish and uncaring, and others ignored him because you were distracted, or in a hurry, or maybe even afraid. But whatever your reasons, you all saw human need before you, and you chose to do nothing. The end result is the same – suffering continues, and Christ has been forgotten.”
We are called, not just to look busy, but to keep busy, producing the fruits of the kingdom. This vineyard we call earth is not our own, and our time as tenants here is short. May we all busy ourselves with the kingdom work of doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God, so that when the harvest time comes, we’ll have holy fruits to offer.
Jesus is coming. Let’s get to work! Amen.