Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
Oct. 7, 2017; Proper 22A: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Violence. If you look at this morning’s parable, you see violence. The tenants in the vineyard wanted control, so they beat, killed, and stoned the master’s servants and then killed his son. As was shown so dramatically in Ken Burn’s film on Vietnam, there are times when the veneer of civilization seems thin indeed. This week we learned that even sixty-four year old accountants can do the most horrendous things. It’s not just him. Though we claim to build our society on the Ten Commandments, we don’t do such a good job at following them. How many of us have gotten caught up in following other gods, or worshiping idols of money, success, or even the flag? How many of us have taken the Lord’s name in vain, worked on the Sabbath, or done things that dishonor our parents? And those are just the first five! Even if we skip over murder, adultery and stealing, we still have contend with lying and being jealous of and desiring other people’s stuff. The Ken Burns film holds up a mirror which shows that though we may not have ourselves committed evil, it has been done in our name and on our behalf. Portland’s renaming of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day is a reminder that this has been going on for a long long time. As we heard in the parable, the tenants in the vineyard killed the messengers one after the other. Then, in the end, they killed the son.
Though his listeners were unaware, this was more than a parable. Jesus was telling an ongoing story that was happening in front of them and would soon reach its dramatic conclusion. After centuries of sending prophets that were rejected, God had sent his son. Rather than turning around, the people nailed him to a cross. The thing is – the important thing is – that the story did not end there. Three days later, Jesus came back. He rose from the dead with a message of forgiveness, of light shining in the darkness, of a God who is greater than anything we can throw at him, of love that in the end will win.
You can begin to understand why the people of Israel were frightened when they heard the 10 commandments for the first time. Moses was clear, however, that they weren’t about judgment. He told the people “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” Think here of testing not from perspective of the examiner at the DMV but of the Driver’s Ed instructor. The guy at the DMV is looking for people to fail so he can keep bad drivers off the road. The teacher is using tests to look for spots that need a little more attention so his students will become good drivers with lifelong habits of safety and success. Moses is holding up the Ten Commandments to help them see areas they need to work on… and to remind them of their need for God. The same is true in our gospel reading. Notice that while Jesus’s listeners suggest harsh judgement for the tenants, Jesus himself remains silent, following up not with threats of punishment but by talking about his resurrection, saying that the stone the builders rejected would be the chief cornerstone, that he would be the way of life. People commonly quote John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” In their fear and judgment of others, they often forget John 3:17 “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.”
This week, the shootings in Los Vegas were described as “an act of pure evil.” I didn’t like those words because they seemed to place the responsibility all on one person, ignoring the responsibility of a culture that has taken away funding for mental health, glorified ignorance, confused of bullying and belligerence with truth telling, accepted racism and bigotry, given up on civility, and refused to put reasonable controls on guns. If Los Vegas was an act of pure evil, so were the actions of all of us who stand at the foot of the cross and say, “crucify him” again and again. We not only need to lament, we also need to repent — turn our lives around. If Las Vegas was an act of pure evil, then Jesus’ resurrection was an act of pure love. Love – the sacrificial, giving and forgiving love of Jesus — is the answer. As we heard in our reading from Philippians, this is the most important thing, the thing against which all else means nothing at all. In his letter to the Romans (13:8-10), Paul writes “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” How might things had been different if a few years back a neighbor had reached out to the shooter and helped him deal with his anger and frustration in a healing way? What could have changed if he had felt loved by others? What could have happened if that love had helped him feel love for others? How could things have been different if he had known he was loved and forgiven by God… and was filled with the hope of God’s kingdom where all indeed would be well?
The first episode of the Ken Burns series showed one of those amazing moments in history when if we had seen Vietnam through the lens of a colony fighting for independence rather than the domino effect of communism, the whole war could have been avoided and millions of lives could have been saved. The act of that man in Los Vegas seems to suggest that violence is an almost inevitable part of the human condition. The act of the first responders and so many who helped showed that it doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus proved that it won’t, that in the end, love can and will win. We can lament. We can also repent, and turn our lives and our world around.
Our task is to share that message and show what it looks like today.