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Monday, October 13, 2014

Gospel Grapes

 Matthew 21:33-46
          We need Jesus. Isn’t that the entire gospel in a nutshell? I’m not just talking about this gospel passage that we just read. I am talking about the entire gospel, the whole New Testament, and every word that Jesus utters, taken as a whole. All we need is Jesus.
          Faith in Jesus Christ proclaims this truth. You can take all the Christian creeds, the doctrines of the church, the confessional writings, and the prayers by which we profess our faith, and what they boil down to is this – what we need, more than anything else, is Jesus.
           Faith in Jesus leads to trust in his Word, which leads us to care about what this kingdom of God is all about. We need Jesus to light the way. And we have that, through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord. We need Jesus to teach us how to believe and how to live. And we have that, through the scriptures and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
          We need a savior to take away our sin–so that we might be freed from excessive worry over what we have to do to earn our salvation, (something, by the way, that every good little Lutheran boy or girl knows we cannot do anyway), and instead focus on Jesus, on his light and his Word, and all that faith means for the day-to-day living of our lives. All we need is Jesus to weed whack our hearts, to transform our turned-in-toward itself heart and our sour grape lives into good grapes, worthy of kingdom work.
          All we need is Jesus to restore us to new life through the forgiveness of sin - individual sin; corporate sin; sins of commission; sins of omission – and we have that, too. So why is it so hard for us sometimes, to believe? Why doesn’t the whole world get it? How is it that the religious leaders Jesus is addressing in our gospel text today don’t get it either? How is it that even though we do have Jesus, we still suffer brokenness in our relationships, our environment, our society and our lives?
          The answer, my friends, is that we still live in a fallen world, where our own brokenness gets in the way of our understanding, knowing, or feeling the fullness of God’s grace. While we may confess, profess, and believe on the one hand that God’s grace is sufficient for us and that God, through Jesus forgives our sin and leads us to new life, grace like that is still a mystery to us. And, as Anne Lamott says, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
          In the text from Isaiah that Caroline read this morning, despite God’s loving planting and provision of good soil and plentiful rain and sun, the vineyard that is the people of Israel has not produced the expected fruit. Rather, it has brought forth “wild grapes” of injustice and distress; instead of the good, fine grapes of justice and righteousness which were expected, rejection and unfaith, or disbelief reign. So it has been throughout the history of mankind. And so it is, still, today.
          This reading gives us a glimpse of the deep anguish and grief that God experiences at the ruin of this vineyard and its lack of good fruits. Rather than the goodness, prosperity, and justice which God intended and expected at its creation, this vineyard has instead become overgrown with greed and pride, selfishness and violence, all evidence of Israel’s rejection of God’s tender loving care, and later, those whom God has sent to teach, to warn, and to prophesy.
          If we look now at the gospel text from Matthew, and the vineyard portrayed there, once again we see a vineyard which has been well-planted with provisions taken for its care. Left in the hands of tenants, there is an expectation of a bountiful harvest yielding good grapes. But just when the time has come to collect a plentiful harvest of the best fruits, emissaries sent by the owner and creator of the vineyard are violently rejected and destroyed not just once but over, and over again. Finally the Son himself is rejected and scorned and then killed. We read into this parable all kinds of parallels to the story of God and God’s people Israel and if we take it a step further even parallels to our own lives today.  
          Sharron Blezzard points out that while the story within this parable is difficult to hear, God’s solution to the violent, evil tenants is even harder to understand, except as an act of grace itself. As we attempt to unpack this parable we wonder: where do we fit in? Are we the owners, the rightful collectors of the benefits of Jesus’ work of salvation? Or are we the greedy and selfish tenants who refuse to pay their due to the vineyard owner? Are we righteous or rotten—or a little of both? Who are we?  
          While we confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord, too often our actions actually proclaim unbelief in Him…like the religious leaders Jesus addresses in this story, we reject Jesus’ authority…and when we do, we fall into the “self-centered theology of the ‘I am.’ “I am righteous”; “I am entitled; I am capable”; “I am the favored and worthy one”; “I am deserving of power and riches”, “I am in control”.
          Other times our “I am” theology falls more along the lines of “I am unlovable”; “I am not worthy of God’s notice let alone God’s redemption”, “I am full of failure and shame”; “I am poor, weak, burdened”, “I am a victim”, “I am powerless.” Either way, to both those who reject Jesus by thinking “I am in control” and those who have never before felt accepted and think “I am unlovable”, Jesus is the cornerstone, bringing news of God’s ultimate judgment of grace and mercy.
          Jesus is the cornerstone, the one God sent, who comes in humble human birth, in vulnerable flesh and blood, the rejected one. Jesus is the one through whom God does amazing and marvelous things. Jesus has brought about the ultimate, most unexpected reversal.
          All those previously rejected by the world, receive grace through Jesus. All those who are marginalized, are invited to the feast. All those who are born into nothingness, the misfits, the seekers, the scorned and hated, are folded into God’s enormous life-giving grace. All those who are in need of forgiveness for their haughty self-centeredness and pride are granted a new beginning. And everyone whose heart is transformed through this grace of God is blessed and called in turn to produce the finest of fruits for the kingdom. Jesus came among us poor, tiny, and vulnerable – and yet, Jesus became for us this rock, this cornerstone, the foundation for our faith and the foundation of our lives.
          The religious leaders and all who have rejected Jesus, will find all their hopes and dreams, all their doctrines and laws, all their faulty understanding and misguided teaching to be like wild grapes of wrath that suck juices of life from the ground and turn sour in the mouth. Without the cornerstone their building will not last, it will crumble and fall. Their pride will turn in on itself. They will ultimately wither and die.
          Grapes of wrath are produced when we forget that all we need is Jesus.  As Blezzard points out, “It is the fallen humankind that takes the fruit of God’s good creation and extracts a wrathful harvest of injustice and oppression.” And yet, even as we turn from Jesus, even as we reject Jesus, he returns to us with love and forgiveness. This is the grace of God, the love of God coming into our world and into our lives. To our joy we discover the open arms of Jesus on the cross, bringing life into this world even where there is death; bringing hope where there is despair; and bringing resurrection to all creation.
          There is a quote I’ve seen, which succinctly states a great truth. “God’s grace runs deeper than my mess.” (Do I hear an ‘Amen’?) God has showered me, you, all of us, with gifts and blessings and a creation to care for. God invites us to turn from our shortsightedness, abuse and pollution of the earth; God calls us to turn away from the abuse of the gift of our bodies; God yearns to heal the brokenness in relationships; Jesus helps us reach out and repent of our role in the marginalization of the least, the lost, the last, the little and the lifeless who are pushed further to the margins because they threaten our sense of well-being and comfort; the God who grieves when we turn to conflict and war as pride, greed, and thirst for gain take hold in the center of our hearts, calls for peace. You see, my friends, we need Jesus, the cornerstone of the kingdom of God. Henri Nouwen reminds us, “Our life is full of brokenness-broken relationships, broken promises, broken expectations. How can we live with that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful except by turning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives?”
          Jesus invites us, through the images of this text to look upon a new vision of grapes of grace when Jesus, as the cornerstone of our life and faith turns upside down and inside out all the worldly expectations of power with his paradoxical messiahship where the last shall be first, and the first, last.

          Friends, truly, all we need is Jesus, because that which God produces is always life-giving, grace-filled, and hopeful. As we gather at the foot of the cross toward which Jesus is pointing, and where he is heading, may we know the grapes of hope and grapes of grace which God provides. As we gather around the table today, may we partake in wine that is poured out, as the fruit of the Lord’s vineyard, Christ’s blood shed for the forgiveness of all. May we in turn produce grapes of love and grace, forgiveness and renewal in the name of Jesus Christ. 

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