Sunday, October 02, 2005

Pentecost 20 - Year A

We pick up where we left off last week. You may remember last Sunday that Jesus was teaching in the temple when he gets hassled by the Man and he’s tired of it.

Some religious leaders want to know who gave him permission to teach, where he got his degree, who gave him his license. They want to know how much damage he’s done.

Jesus goes on the offensive. He yells at them. He calls them names. He says that thieves, traitors, and prostitutes were going ahead of these well-educated, powerfully connected, and politically savvy men of God. That’s quite the insult. So much for gentle Jesus meek and mild.

Then Jesus tells this story about the wicked tenants in the vineyard. Really, he’s invoking the prophet Isaiah. Everyone back then would have known the song of the vineyard which is today’s first reading. He’s turning it around on them. It’s like Jesus wanted to stick the knife as far into these learned scholars and powerful religious leaders as he could.

The landowner: God. The rotten tenants: The religious leaders and scholars who didn’t get what Jesus was all about. The vineyard: God’s people - Israel. The son: Jesus.

People were probably wondering how many ways can Jesus call these people “corrupt”? They are so crooked, Jesus says, that these wicked tenants, these scholars and leaders, will be destroyed when the landowner returns.

But it’s not as if God hadn’t tried to get to them. The landowner sent his slaves to collect the fruit from the wines. Jesus was talking about the prophets, the ones who spoke for God. And they paid for it with their lives because God’s message usually makes demands that we don’t necessarily want to live with.

So, when you crack the code of this story we might wonder if there is any good news in it at all. “Don’t get to comfortable,” Jesus tells them. “You think that with all your connections, all your fancy degrees, all your money, that you are most important in the kingdom of God. But you ain’t. I’m going to take the kingdom of God away from you and give to someone who knows what it’s all about. ”

“But you won’t listen. It says right there in the bible, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’”

Of course they couldn’t see it. Who could see rejection as strength? Who could see suffering as a victory? Who could see death as a triumph?

We find that weakness in the world’s eyes is strength in God’s kingdom.

Paul certainly knew what that was all about. His life oozed that message.

If anyone could brag about how great he was in God’s kingdom, it was Paul. He gives us his resume at the beginning of today’s second reading: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he says, “I have more: circumcised on the 8th day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”

Paul came to know what many people –even faithful people - never learn: God isn’t interested in our strength. God is interested in our weaknesses. I know how crazy that sounds. I don’t know why God loves us most in our weaknesses, except that maybe, that’s when our defenses are down, that’s when all the masks are dropped, and down with them fall the false strength and the phony swagger; and our true selves shine. And we sing with our real voices.

It’s not that we go looking for suffering. But sooner or later suffering comes to us.

Paul, today, says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in death, if somehow I may attain resurrection from the dead.”

Paul knew what these religious leaders, learned scholars, and probably most of Jesus’ listeners didn’t: that God hides inside weakness and suffering. Paul tried route of heroic spirituality, he went down the road of hard work, and he vaulted up the ladder of success. He had the life that every boy back then dreamed of.

But when he encountered Jesus, he saw that God wanted him to bear different fruit, to run a different race. And all of a sudden, everything he worked for, everything he achieved, he said was like “losing.”

St. Bernard of Clairvaux once said that “The church dwells…in the wounds of Christ.” I think that’s a powerful image, don’t you? We “dwell in Christ’s wounds.” We live, as Christians, smeared in blood and pain, sharing Christ’s agony and death for the life of the world.

Last weekend when Pastor Phil Hink was here to talk about our Guiding Principles and Purpose Statement, the group I was in, talked about what our values are as a congregation and what strengths we would like to build on. Someone in our group said that Good Shepherd is a “safe place. And that’s the gift we can offer to the community.” I really like that. I think he meant that we can be our selves here, we don’t have to put on airs, that all are welcome, that everyone has a place in God’s kingdom.

Everywhere else we turn, expectations quash our spirits and demands crush our souls. If there is any place on God’s green earth that we can let it all hang out, to show each other who we really are, where we can be honest about our weaknesses and our suffering, our pain and our pressures, with no judgment attached, it’s the church.

This past Friday, Betty Lambert and I went to a workshop for Caregivers put on by the Good Samaritan Society. And one of the most spirited discussions we had that day was when the presenter said that she often has trouble with pastors not wanting to give Holy Communion to dementia suffers because they don’t “understand” what is going on when they receive the bread and wine.

Personally, I’ve given Holy Communion to dementia sufferers and never thought twice about it. But as this story swirled around in my head, I got angry. Angry with these doctrinal purists who put dogma ahead of people, who forget that Jesus came to save sinners, to heal the world, to gather people to God. Jesus didn’t come to put up barriers but to knock them down. How strong do we have to be before we can receive God’s love? How much do we need to understand before we can be forgiven? How whole do we have to be before God can give us healing?

My friend Kevin Little of Eastminster United Church in Toronto, in his sermon for today said,

“We eat this bread, drink this wine, [we] use words like “the body of Christ broken for [you].” I think the word “broken” is key. This is broken food for broken people. When we admit our weakness and we open ourselves to the other, something mysterious rushes in. In our Communion prayer, in the giving and receiving of the Eucharist, in the taste of the bread and [wine] [we imagine] where our broken places are, where we might go to meet Jesus, and the wonderful race God has prepared for us.”

Isn’t that what we really are? Broken people gathered around the table to share broken bread and crushed grapes?

We are not a perfect family. We are a broken family. But that’s where Jesus does his best work. We are together not because we choose to, but because God has chosen us to be together, to walk with each other, holding on to each other when the weight of life bears down on us, falling together when the weight becomes unbearable, and at the end of the day, we rise together. We press on, because Christ Jesus has made us his own.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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