Wednesday, 1 October 2014

When God allows people to get things wrong: a sermon (Matthew 21: 33 - 46)

Listening to any financial commentators in the media, we hear that one particularly risky investment strategy is real estate. There are just too many volatile factors, or so they say. One of these factors is the risk of the “horror tenant”.
My mother used to work as the manager of an apartment building. I got to know all about horror tenants. There was one man who had the habit, when inebriated, of falling asleep in the foyer, without a stitch of clothing. Once when my mother rang the police to complain about this man sleeping drunkenly and unclad in the foyer, the policeman at the station advised her to assume (at least for the constabulary’s benefit) that the naked man was neither sleeping nor drunk but, in fact, dead. The police were more interested in dead bodies than sleeping drunks, however incompletely attired. 
In our gospel lesson, Jesus told a story about horror tenants that made any story of a naked sleeping drunk seem tame in comparison. (It should be noted that Jesus told this story to a hostile audience, a group of various members of the temple establishment who had come to argue with Jesus.)

Anyway, to the story.  A landowner planted a vineyard and made all the appropriate improvements. Then, before travelling to another country, he leased it to some tenants as a going concern. These tenants were the horror tenants of all time. 
At the time of harvest, the landlord sent his rent collectors around to the tenants.
  • Some rent collectors were beaten.
  • Others were killed.
  • The landlord even sent his son, but the tenants killed the son.  
Jesus asked his listeners, the chief priests and their associates, what they thought the landlord should do. They replied that the time had come for the landlord to take tough action. Jesus agreed, but moved from the story to a criticism of the temple establishment.
Now in previous centuries, this passage was interpreted in a way that not only criticised the temple establishment in Jesus’ day, but condemned all Jews - both in that day and in all the time since then. 
The Christian Church has come a long way in its attitudes toward Jews in recent decades. The churches have learned to appreciate the Jewish faith, not merely as the historical background to Christianity, but as a continuing community of faith existing alongside Christianity through the centuries to our own day.
But what do we make of such scripture passages as today’s gospel: passages that have often been used by Christians to imply that the Jewish faith is in the past tense? 
  • Do we continue to read the passages with their traditional interpretations?  
  • Do we ignore these passages?  
  • Or do we look for more meaning ... more light ... more truth ... within them?
In many ways, this passage can also be seen in terms of what happens, as in the title of this sermon, “when God allows people to get things wrong”.
Let’s assume that the landlord is, as was usually understood, an image of God.  

The horror tenants can represent humanity as a whole.
God has given us the gift of freedom. God has entrusted humanity with a good world, a world that was intended to more than fully meet the needs of all life. God gave us the task of caring for the world as God’s stewards.
But humanity has abused this freedom. We have refused to pay the rent. We have let the vineyard go to rack and ruin, both through our neglect and through our deliberate violence.
Nevertheless, God has given us the gift of trust. Generation after generation, both before the time of Jesus and in the centuries since, there are those who have sought, in God’s name, to call humanity to take our stewardship of God’s good world seriously. God has shown trust in us by continually seeking to appeal to our better nature. And, at the hinge of human history, this is why God became human in Jesus. God has given us the gift of trust.  
But humanity has abused this trust. History has shown that, like Jesus, those who actively advocate peace and compassion in human life have often become the victims of the worst violence.
But God still shows trust in us. Even when we abuse God’s trust, God continually seeks to appeal to our better nature. While doing so, God continues to “allow people to get things wrong”.
As we celebrate Holy Communion, we realise that those who shared Jesus’ final meal included some people who got things wrong ... who got important things wrong.
  • There was Thomas. He was overcome by despair at first and couldn’t accept the good news of Jesus’ new life. Thomas was at the table.
  • There was Peter. He lost his courage when it came to the crunch. He denied - three times - ever having met Jesus. Peter was at the table.
  • Matthew the collaborator ... Simon the terrorist ... James and John, the “Sons of Thunder” jockeying for position. They all were at the table.
  • There was Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Even Judas was at the table.
All got things wrong ... important things. All were there at the table with Jesus. Jesus welcomes us to his table, even when we get things wrong ... important things.  
“When God allows people to get things wrong”:  
  • God still gives us the gift of freedom.
  • God still gives us the gift of trust.
  • In Jesus, God still gives us the gift of Godself.

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