Sermon: Turn a New Page

Jesus shared with the people: “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.

Matthew 21:33-46

My sermon from the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 8, 2023) on Matthew 21:33-46.

I’m sure many of you have noticed how full our lawns have suddenly become at the start of October. Where once there was a lawn chair, some dandelions, and a smattering of toys our kids forgot to put away, there’s now quite a few gravestones, giant skeletons, and dozens of inflatable Disney characters holding all kinds of jack-o-lanterns. When it comes to the Halloween season, I tend to focus on all the fun: like costumes and parties and eating body weight in fun-sized candy bars. But October is also a month when dozens upon dozens of new movies, tv shows, graphic novels and comic books suddenly show up to frighten us. I, personally, do not like being scared but I am a bit fascinated by the creative process that makes “scaring” work. A little while ago, I was listening to an interview with Emily Carrol, an award winning cartoonist who recently released a horror graphic novel called “A Guest in the House.” That comic book is all about a young woman who, after marrying a rather kind dentist, realizes there’s a mystery surrounding his former wife’s death. The person interviewing Emily could have spent the entire interview focused on the book itself, asking her why she wrote it and what she hoped readers would get from it. But what I heard instead was a different kind of discussion focused on the nuts and bolts of scaring people through comic books. Unlike movies, tv shows, or even the radio, cartoonists can’t use a variety of sounds, moments of silence, quick movements, or an unexpected camera change to surprise the viewer. So many of our October scares are defined by that unexpected thing that makes us jump out of our skin. To do that well, bits of information need to be revealed and shown at the exact right time to increase the tension and startle the audience. But that’s a bit hard to pull off in a medium where a reader can look down at an entire piece of paper and have all the art laid out before them. The primary tool Emily and other cartoonists use to mimic the kind of jump scare that we long for from movies and shows involves the physicality of the comic itself. Turning the page from one part of the story to whatever comes next is the moment when that unexpected jolt can suddenly appear. Turing the page, then, is one way we make October as spooktacular as we want it to be. And I wonder if Jesus, in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew, used a similar kind of page turning technique to show a little of what the kingdom of God is all about. 

Now today’s reading is a continuation of what we heard last week. Jesus had just entered the city of Jerusalem on a donkey and had annoyed everyone by disrupting how the Holy Temple functioned during one of its busiest times of year. The local religious leaders were a bit concerned by Jesus’ behavior since it seemed as if he was purposefully upsetting the delicate balance the community had established the occupying Roman Empire. They wanted Jesus to explain to them why he was doing what he was doing. And so Jesus, being Jesus, used a series of stories to illustrate his point. The first story involved two sons: one who said they wouldn’t work in the vineyard but then changed their mind; and another who said they would work in the vineyard but chose not to. The second story, which I Just read, detailed what happened when a vineyard was leased to tenants who didn’t really want to pay their rent. This parable is, I think, one of the more violent stories that Jesus ever told. And it’s one we seem particularly drawn to since the violence within it would soon echo through the violence done to Jesus on the Cross. It’s also a parable that we, as Christians, have used to justify our own violence and hateful acts towards the Jewish community while claiming that God has made us superior to everyone else. In light of the ongoing violence that occurs around the world everyday, I sort of wish that our lectionary – the 3 year cycle of readings we use on Sunday morning – had given us something a bit more peaceful. Yet when I read Jesus’ words in light of everything else that’s going on right now, I couldn’t help but notice the specific creative choices Jesus made in telling this story. Since he was the one telling the story, he controlled how certain bits of information would be revealed to everyone else. Jesus could heighten the tension by using specific words, different tones, and other storytelling techniques to invite us deeper into the story. He could have, for example, added a few value judgments to the different characters within his story by giving them specific adjectives like “good,” “faithful,” or “wicked.” Jesus, though, chose to do something else. He kept his words very plain, allowing our imaginations to paint a more vivid picture. All Jesus did was tell us what happened, allowing us to sketch a scene of what we assumed was going to happen once the page turned. Since violence and suffering is something we often focus our attention on, we couldn’t help but describe the violent outcome we’d expect to befall those wicked tenants who spilled so much blood within the story. Yet it’s interesting that Jesus, while not denying that part of the story, doesn’t actually turn to that page himself. All he did was ask a question – and we, in an almost unconscious way, revealed how focused we are noticing and using violence to get what we want in the world. We assume that the landowner is like us and so, like us, the violence within the story would grow. Yet I wonder what would happen if we didn’t turn the page so quickly. What if, instead of answering Jesus’ question, we let Jesus turn the page by himself? If we did, I imagine we might notice better how his words throughout the story were centered not on the tenants but on the one character who, over and over again, sent servants to those whose only response was violence. Rather than perpetuating the kind of violence he would soon experience himself, the part of the story Jesus focused on was all about the One who wants our lives to be as fruitful, and joyous, as a vineyard. That doesn’t necessarily mean that God expects our lives to be untroubled or that there will never be consequences for the ways we choose to hate and disregard our neighbors. But it does mean that when God chooses to act, the page God is turning to is focused primarily on mercy, forgiveness, justice, and joy. On one level, none of that feels too scary especially in light of an October full of spooks, ghosts, and ghouls. But if God’s love and God’s mercy ended up being the last thing we’d expect to see as we turned to the next page of our story, then that’s a pretty scary thought indeed. Yet I am grateful that we are not the ones who, no matter how hard we try, define what page God will turn to. Instead God will keep doing what God does – choosing to use words and people, prayers and songs, justice and wisdom, truth and hope, the Spirit and even Jesus himself to show how our focus on violence, pain, and hurt will be the page God turns us from so that our lives and our world will be filled with mercy, peace, and love.