Sunday, October 8, 2017

Just love?

A Sermon preached on 8th October 2017, Pentecost XVIII at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 5: 1-7, Philippians 3: 4b-14, Matthew 21: 33-46

Last weekend I and some other members of St. Augustine’s attended the Autumn meeting of the Council of Anglican Episcopal Churches in Germany. This is a unique organization, bringing together Church of England and Episcopal parishes to work together, learn from each other, and support each other´s shared ministry. While we share a common Anglican identity, there are however significant differences in how we worship and also in our theological outlooks, especially between the Episcopal parishes and a couple of the more Evangelical congregations of the CofE. These make our unity in mission a little difficult at times. 

The representatives of one parish questioned whether we were all preaching the same Gospel. All we preach, they claim, is love. But following Christ, they said, is more than that. It also requires self-denial, right behavior, and conformity of life. God’s love comes with requirements, they said. God will judge wrong behavior. They are both right and wrong. Of course, God has expectations. I just don’t think that these requirements and right behavior are all about human sexuality or that God rejects mutual, committed and sacrificial love between two people of the same gender, on the contrary this is as much as reflection of God’s love as is “traditional” marriage. That is where we differ. 

Our readings today, especially the Old Testament and Gospel, are about the balance between God’s love and God’s expectations, God’s grace, and God’s judgment. The parables in Isaiah and Matthew not only share the image of a vineyard, but also the concept of a God who judges. 

The prophet Isaiah says he will sing a love-song, and the beginning of the parable is a poetic description of all that God had given the people of Israel out of love. A fertile and fruitful land of their own, a watchtower to guard and guide them. All simply with the expectation that God’s love for them would be reflected in their love for one another, in a just and righteousness society. But God is disappointed: “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry” or outcry. That could also be a comment on the most recent mass shooting in the USA. Speaking as an outsider – I cannot and will not understand why the “right” to own a deadly weapon is given a higher value than the right to life.

God has expectations, not just for individuals but for the societies they form. If the house of Israel and the people of Judah do not change, Isaiah warns, the vineyard that stands for Israel will be abandoned and left without protection and care, until it becomes an overgrown waste. Not long after this prophecy, Israel was overrun by the Babylonians. Jerusalem’s walls were torn down, and both the city, and the great temple at its center, the watchtower of the parable, became overgrown ruins. 

Jesus begins his version of the parable in Matthew’s Gospel with a direct quote from the original version in Isaiah, but he then goes on to focus more on the wicked tenants. Their crime is put themselves over the landowner, over God. They want to keep the fruits of the vineyard to themselves. In Jesus’ version of the parable there is also violence and bloodshed – but directed at the messengers, that is the prophets including John the Baptist and finally the owner’s son and heir, clearly standing for Jesus, who is killed. The tenants, the leaders of Israel, are ungrateful, selfish, and faithless. Not long after this prophecy, and after a failed revolt, Jerusalem was laid waste by Romans, the temple was destroyed, and the city was rebuilt as a Roman colony with new inhabitants. 

So, God judges and punishes, destroys and kills? No. That would be us judging God by human standards. The disasters that overcame Israel and Judah were not God’s punishments, but the consequences of societies built on injustice and which put nationalism and personal power and advancement above God and God’s values. In Matthew’s Gospel it is not Jesus who says that the landowner “will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time,” but the chief priests and the elders. Jesus just says that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” That is a milder conclusion and more on the lines of the last will be first, and the first will be last …. that is the loss of a privileged position. I know he goes on to say, “the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”  But while this sounds violent and destructive, it is another OT reference, in this case to the Book of Daniel and in that story what is broken is a statue, not people, and the statue stands for kingdoms. 

Neither Isaiah nor Jesus are issuing threats, just warnings of the consequences of wrong choices and standards. The disasters are self-inflicted. By their actions and inactions, the tenants cast themselves out of the vineyard. Their exile results from selfishly acting as if the vineyard is all theirs and no one else’s, let alone God’s. This is not what God wants. God desires to reach and reconcile humanity. God is loving and gracious and all-giving. Isaiah’s story is a love song, but about unrequited love. Jesus’ parable is clearly also an allusion to his own death, a humiliating death on a cross, out of love and for forgiveness. 

That is of course the big difference between the parable of the wicked tenants and what is described just a few chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel. In the parable the son is seized, thrown out of the vineyard, and killed. He does not come back, only the owner with death and destruction. What we believe is that while the Son of God was seized, taken out of Jerusalem to a “green hill far away, without a city wall,” and killed, he returned. In dying he took on all sin and when he returned he brought not death and destruction, but new life and renewal. Then and now God can only offer this, it is up to us to accept the gift of forgiveness and the gift of love.

Our friends from the other Anglican churches who claim that all we preach is love are right. But the love we preach is not easy or about self-fulfillment. It cost Jesus his life and it still continues to cost lives. The love we preach implies demands. Properly understood, the love we preach will lead to self-denial, right behavior, and conformity of life. God’s way of grace and love is wooing us to respond to our good fortune of living in God’s vineyard by reflecting that love in our actions toward others. God’s love was poured out to us in such measure on the cross that if we allow it to, it can overflow from us, and through us onto all creation. The love we preach obliges us to love others and share with them the Good News of God in Christ. 

In the parables, the tenants ignored their calling and neglected God’s gift. At best they did nothing with it, except keep it for themselves, at worst they turned it on its head: love became hate. Through Jesus we have been given the vineyard, the kingdom of God – as a free gift. It is up to us in return, out of gratitude and faithfulness, to produce the fruits of the kingdom – justice, righteousness, love – in our lives and in the world.

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