Sunday, October 05, 2014

Chief Priests, Pharisees and Professional "Perfect People"


What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached this Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, NY where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on the appointed gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 21: 33-46. I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,

So wow, upon first read this is a pretty tough gospel message, one that does not seem to have much good news at all… I’ll provide some context and also do just a bit of recap for those of you who, like I sometimes do, have a hard time staying focused on whatever’s being read up front in church. While I haven't been preaching a whole lot on ‘em over the past few weeks, this Sunday’s gospel passage is yet another one of Jesus’ “vineyard” parables, where the vineyard typically is meant to symbolize the kingdom of God. In this one, which follows right after our gospel message from last week in the Bible, Jesus is speaking to the chief priests, Pharisees, the professional “perfect people” in other words, who throughout history have often been found leading various religious institutions. A landowner sets up a vineyard, essentially builds a fort around it, and then perhaps goes on holiday. He sends over his slaves though at harvest time to collect his portion from the tenants left in charge of the vineyard, and then the tenants promptly decide to kill the slaves. This same thing happens a second time… even more slaves are thrown into the mix, who the tenants once again kill. Finally, in what seems like an oddly cruel decision, the landowner decides to send his son over, who is promptly killed as well.

Jesus then of course traps the chief priests, the Pharisees, the professional “perfect people,” by asking them what the owner will do with those no good tenants. “The tenant will puts those wretches to a miserable death,” the professional “perfect people” reply back, only later to figure out Jesus was talking about them. Jesus, seemingly confirms this, by in fact directly quotes Psalm 118, which is a song of victory: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” He then goes on, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Now jeesh, this parable seems like quite the bummer! If we place God as landowner in the parable, first we have to deal with God being okay with having slaves, and then we have to be okay with God sending his slaves AND his Son to a certain death, and then worst of all we have to deal with the idea that we’ll be crushed by God if we mess up like those no good tenants. There’s another difficulty with the text as well, particularly since we’re reading it the day after Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Texts, and these like it, have throughout much of Christian history been used to the support the foolhardy notion that God rejected the Jewish people with the coming of Christ.

So let me be pretty blunt here… by no means at all is Jesus saying to the chief priests and Pharisees that God has rejected the Jewish people or Judaism. Absolutely, positively, not at all. Jesus was learned Jew… he shows that much by quoting the Psalms in today’s gospel passage. Just a few verses before this passage, Jesus is welcomed with opens arms into Jerusalem, in the scene we experience every Palm Sunday. Let me be pretty blunt here… Jesus was and is completely cool with Jewish people. One thing Jesus is saying to the chief priests and Pharisees however is that God was in fact pretty darn upset with the religious elite of Judaism at the time, the professional “perfect people” who while pretending to act all zealous and holy, were simply leading all their followers astray. Now, anyone who’s spent much time at church over the last fifty odd years knows this phenomenon of professional “perfect people” at the head of religious institutions isn’t something relegated to first century Judaism… many Christians, and especially Christian clergy, haven’t done a particularly good job heeding Jesus’ warning as of late.

Whether its the more old fashioned fire and brimstone preaching or the more popular nowadays picture of the perfectly happy Christian family wearing inoffensive polos standing alongside the handsome young pastor in a really nice necktie, either way, for whatever reason, us Christians, and perhaps especially us clergy folks all too often like to portray ourselves and our families as perfect or at very least quite pious to the folks in our congregations, and of course, to the general public as well. And now after decades of church decline, partially as a result of having these “perfect people” as visible leaders in our congregations, we’re in a pretty dire situation. So many of the folks my age, a majority of my non-seminary friends probably, seeing church as a place full of judgement and backward thinking rather than a place full of the good news. And it’s not just young people who feel this way about church of course… all sorts of folks have been made to feel less than worthy of God’s love in many Christian congregations… folks who have gone through a divorce, folks who don’t fit inside heterosexual norms and folks who can’t afford a nice set of dress clothes are just a few of the groups who often are made to feel they don’t measure up to the “perfect people” in Christian congregations.

Now, upon first hearing it, today’s gospel message seems like one that solely condemns… you will be cast off by God, you will be crushed if you act like those no-good vineyard tenants! Now on one level, it does condemn. It especially condemns us folks who try acting like we’re perfect, who try acting like they have everything together, and especially us clergy folks, the professional “perfect people” found all too often as leaders of religious institutions, myself included. On one level, today’s passage from Matthew does condemn, but on such a more important level, my sisters and brothers, it holds a message of incredible promise. Remember, when Jesus is doing all that condemning, he’s quoting Psalm 118, which is a song of victory… “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” And just listen to what comes after the verse he cites in Psalm 118… 
“this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light! Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever!”
Wow, now why do you think Jesus would quote a psalm like that if He wasn’t preaching good news?

On one level, God does expect a lot out of us. Jesus does shortly following the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 famously say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect,” after all. We should do the best we can do as Christians, out of love for all the amazing blessings God gives us everyday. The funny thing though, and the thing the chief priests and Pharisees and far too many Christians, myself included, can’t always seem to remember, is that doing the best you can do for other folks and for your community usually means not being “perfect” at all! Indeed, in our human imperfection, in our human sinfulness, at least in terms of day to day stuff, it often hard to agree on what “perfect” would mean anyway. And in being “real,” in making ourselves vulnerable to one another, to be okay with bearing witness to our scars and flaws, that in turn creates space for our friends and family and neighbors to be themselves as well. And here’s the best part, and the most important part, that those professional “perfect people” couldn’t seem to get… in trying to be perfect, we make things all about ourselves, which in turn simply distracts us from the new and exciting things God is doing again and again and again in our lives and in the lives of our communities.

In today’s gospel message, my sisters and brothers, Jesus is saying geesh, get over yourself, get outside of your own head for a bit, but he’s not saying that in the end as a message of judgement! Not at all! Christ is instead calling us again and again and again to look at all the amazing ways God is constantly breaking into our lives, doing new things, making new possibilities no matter who we are, how we feel or what we’ve done. God is constantly breaking into our lives, making new and surprising things happen… the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone! So, my sisters and brothers, as we move into this month of hoping and thanksgiving together, know that everyday is a day the Lord has made, where in Christ new dreams are possible and new hopes will be stirred up in our hearts. Everyday is a day the Lord has made, everyday is a day where stones that have seemingly been rejected have become the cornerstones of new and exciting things in Christ. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation ministering with the local community in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his profession time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.


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