October 5, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Isaiah 25: 6-9, Matthew 21:33-46

Introduction to the Scripture

Today we remember two stories of Jesus that don’t seem to go together at all. Like if you took each of these stories and set them down next to each other, there would be a horrible and glorious clash.

On the one hand, today we’re celebrating World Communion Sunday. We remember the sacrament does not belong to us at Church of Peace; it does not belong to me. It is what we share with Christians in all times and places. This is the joyful feast of the people of God —even when the mood is more serious than festive, even when it’s just a taste of bread and wine.

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines…” is the promise from the prophet Isaiah (25:6). And in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus gathers with his disciples on the night of his betrayal, he teaches them how to share communion. He says this, “I will never again drink of this fruit until the day I drink it with you in my Father’s kingdom” (26:29). The last supper is in anticipation for the feast they will share in the kingdom. Indeed, communion in this church is how we practice the joyful feast of the kingdom of God. On the one hand, we have this story of Christian unity and hopeful celebration.

On the other hand, we have another story from the Gospel of Matthew, a parable Jesus tells days before that meal with his disciples. I need to warn you, this is one of those stories that keeps getting worse at every turn. It involves graphic violence, and a terrible ending. There’s a particularly chilling moment when Jesus asks the audience, “What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do to the tenants?” And they shout out an answer with confidence and glee, only to get hit with the full force of the story. See it’s not really about those tenants, it’s about them, and they just indicted themselves. So listen for that in the reading.

Take the story of a joyful party in the kingdom of God where all the nations, all the people, are welcome at the table of Jesus Christ. Then set this down next to this parable of greed and violence, and we hear a horrible and glorious clash. And yet, we might find that both stories have something to teach us about the trajectory of violence, where it will take us if we let it. Both of these stories call out into the light the rejection of Jesus our savior, not just as an event long ago, but as something that still happens even today, even by us.

Friends, as we hear both stories, I invite us all to consider the question that provoked the crowds so long ago. Who is Jesus really talking about? What if he’s talking about me?

May God bless our reading and hearing of this word.

Reflection: Kingdom Here for the Sharing

Today we find Jesus teaching in the temple just days before his crucifixion. He tells this story to the crowds, as the middle parable in a set of three.

Now there was a landowner who did everything right. He planted a vineyard, put up a fence, dug a winepress, and even built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went away. We’re just a sentence or two in, already, Jesus’ audience will hear this and remember the love song that comes from Isaiah Five. In this song, “the vineyard of the LORD… is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; [he expected] righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:7).

And as the story goes, when the landowner sends his slaves to collect the harvest, the tenants don’t pay. Instead, they beat, kill, and stone the slaves. So the landowner sends more slaves, and it happens again, like a massacre. Now bravely or foolishly, the landowner does not go and bring the army against these tenants. Instead, he sends in his son. It would be such a better story if the tenants encountered the son, gave up their violence, and rendered the harvest. Instead they seize the son, throw him out of the vineyard, then kill him too.

This is when Jesus turns and asks the audience, “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And the crowd knows. They don’t murmur to each other in deliberation. No, with confidence, and maybe a sick touch of glee, the people say, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death! He’ll lease the vineyard to somebody else.” If I had to guess, I think the next thing that happens is an entire minute of silence as the crowd hears the words that came out of their own mouths.

Then Jesus reminds them. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone… The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:42a-43).

And so the people realize. This is not a story about those wretches and the miserable death they deserve. The landowner’s son is Jesus, and the tenants are his audience. The story is really about them. And maybe, the landowner’s son is Jesus, and the vicious tenants are us. Maybe the story is really about us.

Now of course, we aren’t the ones who killed Jesus, exactly. We can blame the chief priests, or Judas, or the crowds, or the Roman soldiers. Yet the sin of rejection cuts deep and both ways. Like when two people stop speaking to each other and you can’t remember who started it.

It might be that in each of us, there’s a worry that goes, What if I’m the one who’s rejecting Christ? How am I failing to welcome him in my life? And if you’ve ever asked that before, you know the question on the other side. What if Christ is rejecting me? It’s like a cold, clammy chill that creeps in around the edges of our soul, and asks the terrible question. What if it’s me…

Can you even believe Jesus would threaten that the kingdom of God would be taken away from you? Yes. The whole problem is that we can. We know the truth of rejection down deep in our soul. We know the possibility that the kingdom of God is here, but what if it’s not for me. And this is not all.

There is also grace. The thing about God’s grace, it has already found us. It’s already part of who we are. It’s how we come to know ourselves not as the wretches put to a miserable death, but as forgiven by Jesus from the cross, and the empty tomb, and all the time. The persistent worry of rejection gets turned into welcome. The terrible question, What if it’s me… turns into the invitation to get over ourselves and welcome one another. All the tenants invited to the table of Jesus Christ.

A few years into my first call as a pastor, I found myself in the place of deep loneliness. I was struggling with my identity as a pastor, and I was so homesick. I missed the friends who knew me before, who knew who I really was.

Well, we were living near Cleveland, and it happened that there was a conference at the hotel of the UCC national office. Chris and I learned that one of our friends was coming to this conference, so we made plans to meet up for dinner downtown. He was also transitioning into a new call, and I imagined that we would pour out our misery together and get all of our church challenges sorted out.

When we arrived at the hotel, we texted our friend and found a bench by the elevator. Then we began to wait for the conference to come to an end. I tell you, it was a Wednesday evening in downtown Cleveland, and I have never seen a hotel lobby so empty and so quiet. It felt like the whole city was weirdly deserted. Sitting on this bench, I felt shamefully alone. What are we even doing here… Eventually, our friend texted back, “Running late, we’re just wrapping up. Why don’t you come in here?”

We went into the meeting room, and it turns out that we walked right into the middle of a party. Music was playing and there were tables with snacks. People were milling around like kids at lunch on the last day of school –even the president of the UCC was in the mix! And before I could take it all in, some old friends from seminary came up to me and pulled out their phones to show me pictures of their children. I got introduced to new people, and we all got swept up in old friends and new friends sharing welcome. (Just minutes earlier, I had been sitting in the lobby feeling sorry for myself. Now they’re asking me to help find a good place to have dinner.) It’s wonderful to see you, and we have so much to tell you!

The kingdom of God is like this.

In just a few minutes, we will get up and come to the table to share the joyful feast of the people of God. One of the things I love about communion is that it isn’t just a moment of magic. It isn’t even just a personal experience of God’s grace, although that’s part of it. It’s a practice that takes work by a lot of people. Somebody made the wafers and the bread, and somebody bought them. Somebody made the wine, and somebody got it from the store. Somebody found the servers and set the table. And all of us say the words and sing the songs.

The kingdom of God is like this.

At this table, Jesus takes a story of terrible rejection, and he turns it into the work of welcome. Jesus takes violence cruel and brutal, and he turns it into a call for peace. His body broken and shared, the new covenant sealed not in the blood of revenge, but the promise of forgiveness. Now even if you are in the place of deep loneliness, in communion we get up, and find the people and welcome each other. God’s kingdom here for the sharing. Amen.

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