One of the things I love about coming to church week in and week out is the practice setting time aside to discern how Holy Scripture is speaking to our everyday life. Whether I have had a stressful week or a week of celebration, whether I am struggling in life or am experiencing a time of joy, or whether I am pained by the world around me or encouraged by the world around me, the Holy Scripture that we hear on Sunday always finds a way of speaking to me – of comforting, encouraging, challenging, and journeying with me.
But I confess to you I have been struggling to hear a good word from God through Holy Scripture this week. You see, six days ago, we awoke to the news of the deadliest mass shooting in our modern history. I cannot seem to shake the awful images and sounds of that night – the rapid sound of gunfire, the screams of terror in the crowd, the panic created in a crowd who had no idea how to escape the unseen shooter, and the sheer volume of deaths, injuries, and psychological trauma. A week later, having no real leads on motive, all I am left with is the reality of violence in our society that seems inescapable – of one more city to add to the growing list of instances of mass violence: Columbine, Blacksburg, Aurora, Newtown, Charleston, Orlando.
With the weight of the sinfulness of our violence upon one another, what I really wanted from Holy Scripture was a balm or a promise from God that love would win. Instead, our gospel lesson today feels more like a mirror of our modern violence. Jesus tells the leaders of the faithful a parable about a landowner who plants a vineyard and entrusts the tending of the vineyard to tenants. When the time comes for the tenants to proudly show the landowner the fruits of their labor, instead the tenants do something awful. They beat, kill, and stone the servants sent by the landowner. And their action is not a one-time occurrence. The landowner sends even more of his servants to the tenants, and they beat, kill, and stone them too. The landowner even sends his own son; but filled with greed, entitlement, and violence, they kill the landowner’s son too. Instead of redemption at the end of the parable, Jesus says, “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.”
Because this is a parable, we know that Jesus is trying to tell the people of Israel something about themselves. Stanley Hauerwas interprets the parable in this way, “The parable of the wicked tenants can serve as an outline of Matthew’s understanding of the life of Israel. God [calls] Israel to be his vineyard fenced by the law, grounded in the land, and protected by worship of God in the temple. God [sends] his prophets to call the people to faithfulness, but the people beat, [stone], and [kill] them. Finally God [sends] his very Son, but even he [is] rejected…Jesus [leaves] no ambiguity about how this parable is to be understood. The chief priests and the Pharisees [realize] that they are the ‘rejected.’ Yet they are not in any fashion to repent.”[i]
The starkness of Jesus’ parable has left me wondering whether we have become like the tenants in this story. Not knowing the motive of the shooter in Las Vegas, we can somewhat distance ourselves from him – perhaps blaming mental illness or labeling him as an outlier in an otherwise healthy society. But what concerns me more is that this is not an isolated event. This is not the first time I have had to talk about a mass shooting from the pulpit. We have not just beaten, killed, and stoned a couple of servants. We keep committing awful violence, and what is worse is I fear we are becoming desensitized, accepting violence as the status quo – a consequence we are willing to live with in order to have the things we want in life.
In the spiral of darkness between our news feed and Holy Scripture, I had to take a deep breath, praying for some glimmer of hope. So I started with where we started in worship today – with our collect. We prayed, “Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior…” The collect today reminded me that no matter how dark things seem, there is always light to be found.
With the encouragement of the collect, I was able to go back to the parable. I realized that perhaps the tenants, or perhaps even ourselves, are not going to be the origin of our hope. Instead, our hope in darkness rests on God. The landowner in the parable is marked by goodness. The landowner plants the vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a wine press, and builds a watchtower. Then the landowner allows tenants to use the land, having given them the tools they need, trusting them to care for the land. Heard another way, we hear all the good news of our creative God. God creates this beautiful land which we are given the privilege to tend – our own breathtaking vineyard. And because tending vineyards is hard work, God gives us the “fence” of the law – a set of guidelines to order our common life. God gives us the tools for work, protection, and worship, knowing we will need those things too. God even sends us prophets, knowing we will likely go astray. Eventually, God sends us God’s Son. This parable is the story of God’s covenantal relationship with us – a relationship marked by love, forgiveness, and grace. And just like the whole of our Christian story, there will be moments of faithfulness, and moments of repentance. There will be moments of honor and moments of shame. In spite of the winding nature of our journey, God is ever present, pouring out love, abundance, mercy, and grace. Even on our darkest days, when we crucify God’s Son, God does not answer violence with violence. As one scholar conveys, “… rather than return violence for violence, in the cross of Jesus God absorbs our violence and responds with life, with resurrection, with Jesus triumphant over death and offering, not retribution, but peace.”[ii]
In the midst of stewardship season, I have been wondering all week how in the world I could talk about stewardship today. But I think stewardship might be the perfect response to the seeming hopelessness of the world and this parable. A Journey to Generosity is just that: a journey. Each one of us has been gifted a vineyard to tend, is surrounded by the gift of God’s word to root us in love, is given the tools needed to tend the vineyard, and is promised that even when we are pretty terrible farmers, Jesus will redeem our darkest days. God has given us all we need, walks with us in the darkness, and makes a way for us toward light.
The invitation for us today is two-fold. The first is to go back to the beginning – whether we go back to the collect we heard today, go back to the covenantal stories of our walk with God, or go back to our own vineyard to look around at the abundance in which we find ourselves. Sometimes in order to appreciate where we are in our Journey to Generosity, we have to look back at the faithfulness of God that is often only evident in the rearview mirror. After we have immersed ourselves in the abundance of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness offered by our God, then we take the next step on our journey. What that next step is will be different for each person in this room. But if we can envision each person in this room as agents of God’s light and love, imagine the collective power we have to drive out darkness, and transform the world into goodness. We do not do this work alone. We are encouraged today by fellow companions on the Journey to Generosity. I cannot wait to hear the stories from your adventures in generosity. God is doing great things through you. And that is reason enough for hope. Amen.
[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 186-187. Verbs in quotation changed to present tense for preaching purposes.
[ii] David Lose, “Pentecost 18A: Words and Deeds,” October 6, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/10/pentecost-18-a-words-and-deeds/ on October 6, 2017.