October 6, 2002
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46 
[Underlined texts are links which  take you to sermons / meditations]


"There Must be Some Mistake"
Psalm 80: 7-15

He just couldn't believe it.

Jim was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, lived the good life, and didn't have the foggiest notion what it was like to have to worry about making his monthly car payment.

The problem begins with the fact that Jim was not pulling his weight -  unlike his three brothers who ran the family business with their father. After years of the brothers holding up Jim's end of the bargain and much warning by the father, judgment day finally rolled around. Jim's father called him into the corporate office and gave him his walking papers.

"How could you do this to me?" Jim protested, "I'm your son and this has been the family business since grandfather and his brothers ran the company!"

"You did it to yourself," the father answered.

Jim's father was one of my parishioners and he told me that firing Jim was one of the most difficult things he had ever done in his life.

***

In the Psalm for today is right on target with the feelings Jim had. The writer rehearses the fact that God had taken the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and placed it in a "Promised Land." There the nation flourished and grew from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. This was God's own special people, a nation under the protection of God. The image of the nation the Psalmist uses is that of a vine that God had taken out of Egypt and set in a new land. 

Yet, Israel was now surrounded by enemies and the threat of invading armies brought incredible anxiety to the nation. How could this happen? Surely there must be some mistake. Jim said to his father, "How could you do this?" and The Psalmist in effect says to the Lord God, "Why have you broken down the walls of this vineyard and allowed people to come along and plunder the fruit?" In other words, "How could you do this to us God?  We're family."

This human tendency to blame God for our misfortunes is no new thing. Moses complained to God while he was bringing God's message and judgments to Pharaoh and the promised day of freedom was no closer than it was the day before the first plague hit Egypt. "O LORD, why have you mistreated this people?" Moses protested, "Why did you ever send me?" [Exodus 5:22] Joshua picked up the cry when Moses was gone and things were not turning out the way he wanted with the battle to occupy the promised land, ""Ah, Lord GOD! Why have you brought this people across the Jordan at all, to hand us over to the Amorites so as to destroy us? [Joshua 7:7] The same cry went up from kings and prophets - and always, the answer was the same for the people of God as it was for Jim, "You did it to yourselves!" As Jim's father had warned him - so the Lord had warned the people of Israel through the prophets.

There is only one case in all of the bible when the cry of feeling abandoned by God was not the fault of the one who cried. Do you remember that famous, "Why have you...?" It was Jesus. Suspended between heaven and hell on a dark Friday, abandoned by his friends and surrounded by hecklers, he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [Matthew 26:46]

If there was ever a person who could have said, "There must be some mistake," in the face of suffering, it was Jesus. His cry comes from the depths of despair of one who is totally immersed in the depths of human sin. It is all the more agonizing coming from one who lived a righteous life totally dedicated to God. The writer of 2 Corinthians tries to understand the depths of this mystery with his words, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." [2 Corinthians 5:21]

But there was no mistake at all. It was the most radical reversal of human destiny in history. Our lectionary texts all point to the fact that God's vineyard (read God's people) have never become what they were meant to be. In some sense all of us share in Jim's condition. In the epistle reading, Paul hammers home the truth that even when we try our very hardest and come up with what we think is exemplary living, it does not rise to the level of God's good standards.

***

Isaiah has an answer for those who insist that there must be some mistake. The vineyard which was supposed to become fruitful with justice and righteousness never fulfilled its purpose. The people who were plucked from slavery and were given the opportunity to become a beacon of light for all nations - an example of what it means to live in a relationship of love with God and neighbor - became instead just one more example of how justice gets corrupted and right living becomes a joke.

"There must be some mistake," the people say - but through the prophet, God says there is no mistake at all. Listen to the words of Isaiah here:

"The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress." [Isaiah 5:7]

In our Gospel reading, Matthew takes a little different turn. The people who are supposed to be the people God are portrayed as keepers of the vineyard - stewards who are to manage the vineyard and make it fruitful for the owner of the vineyard - namely God.

What happens is that the stewards go on a kind of mutiny and decide that they will keep the harvest for themselves. When the owner sends representatives, they are beaten and run off. Thinking that these renegade managers will respect his son, the owner dispatches his son to bring order to the vineyard.

Instead of respecting the son and making things right -- in the parable, the managers who have hijacked the company throw the son out of the vineyard and kill him.

Now there is a drastic reversal. It is the owner of the vineyard who cries out, "There must be some mistake!"

"What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do when he shows up?" Imagine that our young man Jim shot his father and hijacked the family business from his brothers. This is essentially what the managers in Jesus' parable did. What do you think... when the owner of the vineyard shows up, what will happen?

If we think very carefully about these stories, it becomes clear that Isaiah's vineyard image and the parable's image of the stewards of a vineyard have everything to do with the church. As the people of God -- the Body of Christ -- we are now the vineyard. And it is clear that the church is God's and not our own. It is just as dangerous for people to hijack the church for their own purposes as it was for the ancient Israelites to hijack the vineyard of God.

Jesus might ask us today, "What do you suppose the owner of the Church will do when he shows up?"

It is obvious - there will be hell to pay!

***

Stay with me here for a few moments.  Something fascinating and wonderful is taking place. Something which is at once terrible and wonderful. Something which lifts our understanding of the Body of Christ to amazing heights.

As it turns out, there was hell to pay.

And this is at the heart of Jesus' words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Do you see?  There was hell to pay and in the person of Jesus Christ, the Owner paid the price of the stewards' errors.

Try as he might, Jim could never have made enough changes to make right all the wrong that had been done in the way he treated his family and the family business. (You might call it Jim's family vineyard.)  Likewise, try as we might, we are never able to fully become the people Jesus Christ deserves as partners with him in the Body of Christ.

Paul helps us with this in the epistle reading. He lists all the ways he tried with everything he had - with every ounce of commitment and devotion he could muster - to become a really righteous person. He tried to become someone who could say to God, "I want what's coming to me." But he never arrived at that place and he knew in a spiritual way the meaning of the old quip, "The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get!" His conclusion was that he would by faith reach out for the "rightness" of Christ who entered the depths of human sin and give up on his own attempts to make everything right.  His words are familiar:

"I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection..." [vv.8-10]

***

There will be times in every one of our lives when we feel that life has been unfair, that we have gotten the short end of the stick or that life has generally let us down. "There must be some mistake," we will be tempted to say. Or there might be times when we wonder just, "How God could let something like this happen."

And when those times come, we will want to remember that Jesus Christ himself has been right there in the depths with us - only he really didn't deserve it. It is in the midst of these times in particular that Paul's words can become our own and lift us from the depths of our toughest circumstances.

"I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."

May God give us grace to keep our eyes on the prize!


Connections in the Text

Matthew and Isaiah both speak of vineyards.   There are two different points however.  Matthew speaks of those who were supposed to care for the Vineyard on behalf of the owner and see to it that the owner would reap a harvest.  The sting of the parable addresses the spiritual leadership of Israel and their rejection of the One who comes on behalf of God.  Isaiah uses the Vineyard as a symbol of God's people who do not act like God's people, but are instead unjust and callous toward God.  In both cases, God does not receive the harvest that is due.

The reading from Psalms is a lamentation about the condition of the vine (Israel) that God planted.  There is a cry for salvation, but the condition of the vine is a result of the behavior of the vine.

Paul's comments relate in that his life prior to Christ was an illustration of a vineyard that was fruitless.  He did not think so at the time -- but in retrospect, he was an example of what both Matthew and Isaiah are pointing to. He was "religious", but not "fruitful."

The texts offer an opportunity to raise the question of "spiritual harvest" in our lives today.  Are we bearing fruit?   Is God receiving the rightful harvest from our living? It would be important to point out that the answer to these questions needs to come from "self-examination" and not from "other-examination."  In other words, you can not be a "fruit inspector" for my life -- nor I for yours!

Matthew

It is important to read this parable in its context as one of a series that leads to the final conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities.  The parables are strong and pointed.  Jesus' earlier parables were stories that taught the people.  As the end approaches, the parables are specific and aimed at the hypocrisy of the leaders.

There is a strong message in verse 45. "...they realized that he was speaking about them."  What a great statement to apply to our lives today.  There are so many times when people have said to me, "What a great sermon pastor.  If only my husband (wife, son, uncle, neighbor, etc.) had been here to hear it!"  This would be a good time to address the issue of "selective" hearing.  We've all seen it in children -- the child who can't hear a thing when we talk about household chores, but can hear two blocks away when we whisper to our spouse, "Shall we take them to McDonalds?"   Sometimes it seems as tough my hearing is better when the message is about your shortcomings.  One of the damning sins of the religious leaders of Jesus' day was their "selective" hearing of God's message."

William Barclay points out that this parable lifts up the issue of human freedom.  We are free to render the harvest to God -- to serve God or to refuse.  Yet, it also makes the point that there are consequences for our actions.

Isaiah

There is a complete discussion of this text at:   Alternate Full Text Sermon on Isaiah 5:1-7 - "Love Songs"

Beyond this sermon, there is an additional layer of support for the theme of human freedom juxtaposed with the theme of God's judgment.   Our relationship with God is based on the grace of God -- but the grace of God is not license for a "fruitless" life.  In context, this would translate to:   I do not produce a harvest so that I can become a child of God, but rather, the harvest comes as a natural result of being a child of God.

Philippians

The question that underlies this text is, "What impresses God?"  The answer is, "Certainly not those things that impress people!"  Paul's "resume" would have impressed those who looked to external religious things.  In the final analysis, however, it is "knowing Christ" that counts.

It may be important to point out that Paul's experience is unique.  He goes from persecuting Christ to serving Christ.  He has discovered his life's greatest desire, namely, how to get close to God. As it turns out, it is nothing he can do through his own poor human efforts, but a gift that comes from God.  The "rightness" he wants can not come through his struggles, but comes through the "rightness" that comes from Christ.

Our listeners have not likely had these extreme experiences in their living.  They have never "persecuted" the church or experienced religious "perfection."  Nevertheless, all of us know what it is like to give ourselves to things that don't count and neglect the things that do.   We might introduce the question of what it is that really counts and how we can raise our relationship with God a few notches up the priority ladder of our life.

An Illustration:  What really counts?  Bonnie Combe is a woman who lost her husband in a plane crash in Alaska.  During her journey through grief, a friend asked her, "Did your husband enrich your life?"  "Why, of course," she answered.  The friend came back to her with something that changed her life, "Well then -- what are you going to do with those riches?" That statement became the ground of her recovery.  [Told on ABC Nightline, 7/21/99 during a discussion of the John F. Kennedy Jr. plane crash]

So also, Paul had to decide what was really going to count in his life.  What were his riches?  What are the riches that should change the priorities of our living?


Worship Helps

Call To Worship  (Based on Psalm 80)

Leader:   We come to you O Lord, for restoration.
People:  We get caught up in hurried, hectic lives,
Leader:   And find ourselves stretched too thin.
People:  We give ourselves to things that do not count,
Leader:   And loose sight of things that matter.
People:  Hear us as we callout to you today, O Lord.
Unison:  And restore to us the joy of life and love!  Amen!

Confession of Sin

We come in humility O Lord.  We come trusting that your mercy is sufficient to cover our sin, for our hearts would fail under the burden if Your were not the gracious God You are.  We have spoken badly of others, your children in the Body of Christ.  We have been silent when we should have spoken for You.  We judge others and often place ourselves above judgment.  We pray that You would forgive us our wrong and help us to so embrace Your love that we will become courageous followers of Your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Friends, the word of the Lord assures us that if we confess our sin, God is faithful to forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Open your hearts to receive the grace of God and the forgiveness of your sin.  May you be in peace.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Loving God, we thank You for the countless ways you nourish and sustain us along the way.  You are there even when we are unmindful, you are watching over us when we are oblivious to Your presence.  In these moments of worship we gain a glimpse into the brilliant light of Your Eternal presence.  We gain a foretaste of glory divine.

As we venture even further into the days of this new century and peer over the threshold of a new millennium, we can not imagine moving forward without You. O fill us with Your glory dear God, and send us from this time with You filled with the power of Your Spirit.  Help us to dedicate our lives to Your praise and glory for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Prayer of Dedication

We are blessed, O giver of life, to even consider bringing these gifts to You.  How can we give to the One who has given us life, forgiveness of sin and hope to sustain us through all the days of our lives.  Thank you Lord.   Receive these gifts as the tokens of our hearts.  Amen.