October 2, 2011


“Signs of a Real Church”

Matthew 21:33-46


“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The answer is obvious, and the tenants offer it: “He 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”



Last week someone pointed out to me a major error on my part.  Somehow, during the questions of the Confirmands, I forgot to ask them, “Do you proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?”  So, let me ask them that now…


I also ask each of you to consider that question, as I think aloud about this parable.


See, if this question was answered by the tenants in this story affirmatively, and if they followed it, they would not find themselves in a jam when the landowner comes.  After all, they are only asked to serve their Lord.  They are instead self-serving and do everything they can to keep the Lord, the landowner, out of their enterprise.  The gospel tells us that the kingdom will be given to “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”


This story is best understood if we read it carefully, and wonder how it feels to be the tenants.  Last Sunday, I was listening to Garrison Keillor’s program on the radio.  He mentioned the parable from last week, no less challenging than this one, and he said that the “good Lutherans in Lake Woebegone had an opportunity to be confused and depressed by the gospel lesson, and would simply hear it and say, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’”  This ‘Well, Interesting’ is an indication that ‘there you go again, Jesus, giving us a standard that is impossible to live up to.’ These folks, says Keillor, would never object to anything in the gospel, even to a standard they know they cannot keep,  they would  just say, “Well, that’s interesting.”  We know, too, that even parables sometimes point us in a direction we think we cannot go.  Yet, here it is, the gospel tells us that the kingdom will be taken away from tenants who misuse it and given to “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”


This parable does not use the story to set forth the surprising nature and qualities of God’s reign, as do so many others in the Gospels.  There are no signs here, no qualities or activities that a real church might demonstrate.  In other places, Matthew shows us care for those the world disregards and disregard of the world’s standards of strength and honor.  In this Kingdom, Jesus challenges us to do the unthinkable, to turn the other cheek and let others think us weak, to care as much for God’s children who make our clothes and shoes, who mine the ore for our electronics and dispose of the toxic computer monitors we toss out when we’re ready for bigger and better ones, as we do for our own children. Life in this Kingdom challenges us to bless and honor the peacemakers rather than the mighty, to strive for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being above our own comfort.  This text says nothing about the reign of God in Christ, the rule that everyone of us has affirmed when we said “Yes” to the confirmation or baptismal question, “do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” and join the church.  The parable doesn’t talk about any of this, and I wish it did…but it doesn’t. What it does tell us that the kingdom will be given to “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”


At the end, the tenants nice little world is turned upside down.  So what this parable does point out is the futility of debates about, and maintenance programs for, our institutions…as if the church was ours.  If we were to put ourselves in the place of the tenants, and understand the vineyard as the resources we have as members of the Church, it is easy to see that all our handwringing over finances misses the point.   If the tenants were to come to accept that all their resources really belonged to the land owner, their response to the messengers would be different.  The text does not speak about proportional stewardship, or tithing, or anything of the sort.  In this gospel, the landowner wants all of the fruit.  The gospel tells us that the kingdom will be given to “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”


On Wednesday, I was visiting my In-Laws at Phoebe.  Someone over there said to me, “it’s a nice apartment, you can see your steeple from their living room window.”  I said, “if it is a real church, it isn’t my steeple, it’s Christ’s steeple.”


In a church like that we would see the budget as a faith statement.  It would reveal, when we looked down the income ledger, a people who were serious about generosity and gratitude because everything they have belongs to God.  On the expense ledger, it would not only show an emphasis on keeping the place open and well kept, it would show that these people were about the work of the kingdom in a way that recognized that everything was produced to the glory of God.


Some of you get uncomfortable when I do not offer a ‘pick me up’ on Sunday morning…so here it is: If we read this parable carefully, we tenants would see that the terms of God’s relationship to God’s own people are new. Did you notice how there was opportunity after opportunity to receive the message from the Lord and respond with gratitude?  This is not a once and done event.  Here God, over and over, tries to draw the tenants in the vineyard to himself.  The gospel tells us that we have an opportunity, over and over, to be “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”


Fortunately for us the landowner, God, is patient and long-suffering. We are given another chance. We come to Christ’s table today with all of Protestantism, it’s World Communion Sunday, and repent of our sins — sins of commission and sins of omission. The Good News is that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven and given another chance to be faithful tenants who are a blessing to others.