God’s story and our stories are not over yet, Pentecost 21, Proper 22 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19; or Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80: 7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Today’s gospel is like any clear, simple narrative account in many regards. First of all, it is a story, not exactly a factual account: the characters are anonymous, and the setting is spare. It’s another in a long series of stories told by Jesus, a series that we’ve been hearing for a few Sundays, and will continue to hear for a few weeks yet.
Jesus tells us a story, about an anonymous landowner. We hear it and we figure it’s just another ordinary, unremarkable, simple story: no complications, no allusions, no hard life lessons to be learned. Jesus’ story appears to be just another story.

And what we may miss on first hearing is how like Jesus’ own personal situation the story is. In this parable, we can imagine the landowner as a metaphor for God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity.

The Creator did a lot more than plant a vineyard, put a fence around it, dig a wine press in it, and build a watchtower; but those images show us some basic truths. God created this earth, and the land on it; God separated the water from the land; God leased the land to people; and God developed the property, with and through the work of those human hands.

Simple, right? God owns the universe, and we are mere tenants in it, or stewards of it.

And then we look at the history of the Israelites: God sent his holy prophets to his people, and great leaders, and monarchs, people like King David, Moses, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. And yet the people didn’t listen to what the leaders said. They rebelled, and sinned, and transgressed the law – again and again and again.

So God sent his only son, saying, “They will respect my son.” Up till now, we can imagine this story – and Jesus’ place in it – with no difficulty whatsoever. The landowner’s son, of course, represents Jesus, God’s son. And the son, like Jesus, comes to the story after a series of unsuccessful attempts to deliver a message.

Yet when Jesus tells this story, he knows – and reveals – something else about himself. Jesus predicts something more profound than his return home. Jesus predicts his death, his murder at the hands of our fellow humans.

Just imagine what it was like to hear Jesus tell this story.

Just imagine how it feels to see him drive out all who were selling and buying in the temple, to hear him say, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Just imagine what it would be like to take part in the great procession from the Mount of Olives, with Jesus riding on a donkey, and the crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Just imagine what it was like to sit and listen to him tell stories – prophetic stories, about himself and about us – the very next morning. That’s the setting for this passage from Matthew’s gospel, by the way.

Today’s gospel is not about Jesus teaching on a mountainside early in his ministry, or visiting a village to cure the sick. Today’s gospel is about Jesus stopping to teach on his way to the cross. Jesus, who knows that he has come from God and is returning to God, Jesus tells us his story. Jesus tells us the story in simple, uncomplicated, ordinary terms. He does this, I suspect, not because he thinks we are dullards. Rather, because he wants to be sure we don’t miss the simplicity of the message.

God has not given up on the ancient Israelites, just as God has not given up on us. No matter how unloving and uncaring, no matter how many mistakes we make, no matter how often we turn away from his messengers, God still loves us, and continues to reach out again and again and again.

And when we reject a stone, when we turn away from Jesus, when we kill the landowner’s son or commit some lesser sin, well, then God just turns around and takes that very rejection and makes it into the cornerstone of the strongest foundation ever, for a structure built of love. God hasn’t given up on us: not then, not now, not ever.

For God loves us, and desperately wants us to produce fruit for the kingdom. God craves a new Jerusalem, where all people live together in harmony, where peace and prosperity abound, where truth and justice reign. But God loves us nonetheless even though we have not yet achieved this state.

God loves us so much that God just keeps on telling us that – in stories, in sermons, in our everyday experiences. God loves us so much that he created us, and made this world for us to live in as his beloved friends. God loves us so much that he gave his only son to suffer death upon a cross. And God loves us so much that he made sure that this rejection, this defeat, was not the end of the story. God loves us so much that the end of the story is yet to come, and it is more glorious and wonderful than we can imagine or understand.

God’s story and our stories are not over yet. There is still time for change, still time for new plot lines, still time to introduce new characters.

The story of salvation is not like a fairy tale; they always end with everyone living “happily ever after.” But our lives are pretty rarely like that. Sometimes, then, knowing that the story is not yet over can be very good news indeed.

Consider, for example, the current financial situation here in this country. Major investment banks have failed, a huge international insurer needs to be bailed out, and our two government-backed mortgage agencies have collapsed. And this may be only the tip of the iceberg.

This particular chapter in our story is a scary one. Retirement savings are at risk, tax revenues are in question (and therefore, significant tax hikes are a possibility), and the health of the US economy is threatened.

Churches are not exempt from all this. We rely on the voluntary contributions of our members, and we know that members are as generous as they are able to be. When your investments are going well, when your savings are safe and secure, when your salary is increasing, then you are able to be generous to your church. In difficult times, charitable giving declines. That is understandable, as we need to take care of our own family first. Yet it creates a challenge that every congregation in this country will have to face in some way.

There may be tough times ahead. We may not suffer the likes of the Great Depression, but it is clear that things are already worse than they were just a few months ago.

And that is why we give thanks that the story is not over, not yet. There is time for the Federal Reserve Bank and the US Congress to come to the rescue. There is time for the market economy to adjust to a new set of circumstances. And there is time for God’s Word to be heard anew.

When God’s Word is carefully considered, there are fewer financial crises, less economic inequity, and there is greater stability for everyone.

In 2007, the average C.E.O. of a Standard & Poor’s 500 company received $14.2 million in total compensation. Five hundred people made a total of more than $7 billion.

At the same time 1.1 billion people in this world had consumption levels less than $1 per day – what the World Bank describes as “extreme poverty.” And a total of 2.7 billion live on less than $2 a day. That’s about 40 per cent of the world’s population.

Surely this is not a sign of God’s inestimable love for all people.

This is why the United Nations’ set of Millennium Development Goals is so crucial for us as people of faith. Goal number one is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, and the first target within that is to halve by the year 2015 the number of people whose income is less than $1 a day.

This is not only a goal of the U.N. It is the mission of the Church. In his earthly ministry, our Savior demonstrated solidarity with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and those on the margins of society. He was anointed to bring good news to the poor. And now that ministry has fallen to us.

We are the Body of Christ here on earth, and it must be our care and delight to help lift up the most lowly, to exalt the humble and meek, to fill the hungry with good things. Justice, mercy, and love for all people: that is what God intends. And we can help.

When the landowner returns, let us be found working not for our own selfish greed, but for the good of all people. The Millennium Development Goals are incredibly ambitious, and we probably will not achieve them fully in just seven short years. But every small step we take means one fewer person in extreme poverty, one more productive citizen of the world, one more righteous soul striving for the kingdom of God.

By more faithful participation in God’s mission for humanity, we can and will make this world a better place for every one of God’s beloved children.

Written by the Rev. J. Barrington Bates
The Rev. J. Barrington Bates is rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.

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