Sermon October 4, 2020

“Is Jesus Your Cornerstone?”

Matthew 21:33-46

            There is a made-up story that goes like this: Jesus is walking through the streets of a city.  He sees a young man feasting gluttonously and growing drunk on wine.  “Young man,” Jesus asks, “Why do you live like this?”  “Don’t you remember?” the young man replies.  “I was a leper, and you cleansed me.  Why not live like this?”

            Farther down the street Jesus encounters another who is looking longingly at what belongs to his neighbor and he hears him plotting with a friend to steal his neighbor’s goods that very night, and so Jesus speaks to him, “Tell me friend why do you look upon your neighbors goods and covet them within your heart?”  And the man seeing Jesus replies, “Don’t you remember?  I was blind and you healed me, so why should I not look and want what my neighbor has?”

            Needless to say, when we hear these small tales, we should think that something is really wrong, even sad and perhaps despicable about the behavior being suggested.  Should we use the gifts and even the miracles of God just so we can live immoral and sinful lives. Surely if this were indeed reality, we should think it better for God never to have healed or blessed such at all.

            And yet our parable today takes us to the same place, and it does speak about reality.  Last Sunday we talked about the parable of the Father who told his two sons to go and work in the vineyard.  One said no and then did.  The other said yes and then did not.  The image of the first son suggested to us that we need to live with an attitude of humility, repentance, love and obedience to God in order to be able to do the will of God and share in the work and life God has called us to.  For Jesus listeners, God had spoken plainly through John the Baptist, but they were not obeying God even though that they had all the right words.

            Jesus follows this story with another parable about a vineyard as well. This parable is similar to what can be read in Isaiah 5.  In Isaiah God meticulously plans and plants a vineyard with all the best things –a hedge of protection, a watchtower for safety, a press for being able to produce juice from the grapes and make wine.  Now in Isaiah the problem is that the vineyard produces wild grapes that aren’t any good, and so God concludes that he will level the vineyard and destroy what had been built. Not even the rain will be sent to fall on it anymore.   Jerusalem and Judah are then said to be that vineyard.   The text is a warning of God’s coming judgement.

             In the Gospel story the vineyard is beautiful, productive, and desirable, but the twist in the story is that the problem is with the tenants to whom the vineyard has been given over to.  These tenants are crafted in undeniably villainous  terms.  Three times those in charge of the vineyard commit the dastardliest acts.  Twice they beat and killed the servants of the owner and were unwilling to yield to the master what was his.  Each time they were worse than the last.  The third time when the master of the vineyard sent his very son to them, instead of respecting him, they killed him believing that his death would be to their gain –that they might be able to possess what wasn’t theirs.  So, the parable is set up.

            What should be done to these wicked tenants?  The answer is obvious. No body with any modicum of justice within them could listen to this story and not come up with the right answer.  The story begs for the elimination of the bad guys like in the movies.  The death star needs to go (Star Wars). The bad guy needs to take a fatal plunge (Die Hard) or drink from the wrong cup (Indiana Jones). 

            Justice needs to be served and “those wretches should be put to a miserable death.”  Luke’s gospel puts these words in the mouths of Jesus listeners, and the implications are clear.   God is the creator and master of the vineyard.  Israel is the vineyard.  God has established all things with great care and given the land over for the people’s use.  Yet when God has sent servants and prophets to the people, inevitably most have been treated horribly.  Finally, God sent his only son and Jesus is predicting that he shall similarly be put to death.  Even as the leaders came into agreement about what should become of the wicked tenants, they were coming up against their own sin and failure to hear and truly follow God.  We might like to think that these leaders had the ability to choose differently, but the end of the story concludes by saying that what they really wanted was to have Jesus arrested.  Ultimately, Jesus would be crucified, and the days of Jerusalem would be numbered –within another 40 years the Romans would sack the city and burn the temple.

            Here is the question: How is that a people can be so blessed by God, so gifted, so enriched, and yet not give God the credit?  Not give God the honor, and instead use what they have control over for selfish or sinful gain? 

            Now we might think that this is all about them and has nothing to do with us.  However, I think it likely that the story is not all that different. Is it not true that God’s grace provides for us as well?  Like the vineyard in the parable.  We have been given a good place to serve God and bear much fruit.  We have life, freedom, a certain degree of material wealth, the gift of God’s Spirit within us, a beautiful sanctuary in which to worship.  Much of what we have has been given to us more than earned.  We are the beneficiaries of a free society and the work and sacrifice of many whom have come before us. A bumper sticker I once saw stated, “Freedom isn’t Free.”  I thought, that is true.  Others down through the ages have paid the price for our freedom. We have a nice church and I know many of you have probably sacrificed to build this sanctuary, but if this church is like most it has been a generational gift as well, and when you and I are gone, the best thing that can happen is that many other and different people should come in and claim it as their own.  What can a church building be other than a place of worship, and a blessing from God to be given away?  We have not come here to keep it or own it.  We are here to give it away.  God’s mercies have been bountiful to us.  Because of this we like the tenants in the parable are gifted and free to act and choose as we desire.  God has done much for us and if we are able at some level to understand this then perhaps, we will also gain an understanding of our role as being caretakers of life.  We are stewards of life and the world around us, and not owners. Free to live and act by God’s grace, but called to be responsible for the benefit of creation, ourselves and others.

            So how are we living?  Do we recognize the part God has played within our lives or do we think it is all about us?  Today we are celebrating Worldwide Communion Sunday.  To celebrate the unity that is ours in Christ, this day is set aside for all Christians around the world to celebrate communion.  Through all the differences, we can declare ourselves as being one in the body of Christ, but this is not our own doing. This is not something that is humanly possible. 

            This is a truth that is yet to be fully revealed. In the Revelation, the worship of God is surrounded by “…saints from every tribe and language and people and nation”.   The scripture declares that it is Jesus who has “…made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” Our unity is of a divine and heavenly origin.

            Jesus is the cornerstone of life. He was and is the stone that the builders rejected.  The cornerstone in a building is the stone according to which everything else is measured, leveled, and set in alignment with.  That is what Jesus is saying his life means to our lives.  There is only one cornerstone and only one way to build. The failure to recognize Christ as the reason for everything else in life is to meet with the same failure as the religious leaders of Jesus day who lost both their city and temple in less than 40 years from the time Jesus spoke to them.

            Consider the Apostle Paul.   Paul forsook everything to preach and proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior.  He cast off the trappings of political and religious power of his day.  He denied the teachings he had learned.  He forsook the approval of those he had been following, and whatever prestige and wealth he might have been able to afford himself to.  Instead of living in the finest of houses, he sometimes found himself shipwrecked and living in a “Survivor Contest” on a permanent basis.  

            Paul had to be either some kind of a crazy man, or else on to something of ultimate significance for our lives.   I think that he was the latter.  Some people miss God in this life, and they wonder why life doesn’t make any sense.  Some people perhaps may choose to insulate themselves through wealth, work, addictions or something else, but ultimately I think there is a sense of emptiness and a loss of true direction in life; a life that is only being partially lived, until a you know who Jesus is and allow him to be alive in you –setting aside the façade of life for the real life that God gives.

            How far have you come in putting Christ at the center of your life?  Like the Apostle Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”  We are in process.  If  you have not yet begun then you can begin today.   As you receive communion ask God to be a part of your life, and God will.   If you have been a Christian for years and years, I think a lifetime may be too short of a time to be everything that we can be.  Keep seeking how God’s grace may grow in you.  God is always at work in those who believe.

            Celebrate all that God has given us, and acknowledge God in all that you do.  Amen.

Published by Rev. Russell

Pastor at the Lake City United Methodist Church in Lake City, Michigan.

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