Matthew 21:33-46 / Isaiah 5:1-7
It has NOT been a quiet week in Lake Woe-be-Gone. It has been another heartbreaking week in Lake Woe-is-With-us!
News of yet another senseless massacre of innocent folks sickens us. We are so weary of violent news that reminds us there are too many lost souls with big weapons and no regard for life. Our vineyard is very messed up if it’s not safe to attend a concert, a movie, a nightclub, a prayer meeting in church, go to school, or walk down a street for pedestrians only.
At Wednesday confirmation we closed our devotion time with a lament from Psalm 13: How long O Lord?! How long will you forget us? How long must we have pain in our souls and sorrow in our hearts? We are living in a time of lament along with the psalmist.
Our scriptures from Isaiah 5 and Matthew 21 assure us that God is crying also. The fallen state of our humanity is nothing new and God’s response to violence, greed, murder, and injustice is consistent. God condemns wickedness and never stops pursuing all of humanity with an invitation to love others as we have been loved by God.
The vineyard love-song from Isaiah 5 is a vision of paradise lost again during the 8th century before Christ, nearly 3000 years ago, give or take a couple centuries. The nations of Israel and Judah were God’s chosen people, given a Promised Land known as the Fertile Crescent. The vineyard love-song becomes God’s lament in these verses and the verses that follow. The vineyard has produced noxious/poisonous fruit rather than fine wine. God changes his tune from “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” What starts as a love song changes into God’s lament over his people who amass property at the expense of others, who ignore hunger among neighbors in their midst, who speak falsely calling evil good and good evil, who take bribes and deprive the innocent of their rights. In summary in vs 7, God expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mishpakh); expected righteousness (tsedaqah) but heard a cry (tse’aqah). The Hebrew words that sound almost identical but have entirely opposite meaning capture the betrayal that God feels from the people God has loved and given everything.
Fast forward 800 years and Matthew’s gospel shares another devastating vineyard story. This parable is in the section of Matthew after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, attacked the corrupt leadership of the Temple and continues to confront the chief priests and Pharisees for their lack of faithfulness. We know how that story ends. Jesus will die for speaking truth in the face of injustice. The wicked tenants will kill the son just as this parable foreshadows. A couple weeks ago Matthew’s parable revealed life isn’t always fair. This parable is just downright mean and nasty with violence and judgment.
Here’s a sidebar comment: I get a little nervous about delving into these scriptures that carry condemnation of the wicked, because the scriptures have far too often been used throughout history in judgmental ways. People sometimes take the place of God and use scripture as a hammer to condemn their enemies and condone further violence. These scriptures are meant to bring conviction against injustice, but conviction against hardened hearts needs to not just be about “those people” out there but starting right here . . . what’s my part in this nasty state of affairs and what am I going to do about it?
Lament is a necessary response to darkness and evil, but it can also go in unproductive directions that lead to dead-ends. Judging others without taking one’s own personal steps to remedy a situation is a dead-end. Giving up entirely is another dark temptation. I get it. I understand the helpless feeling of senseless death. A real gut punch.
Last week a gifted young pastor in St. James, MN and dear friend of all who knew her died a few days after a routine gall bladder surgery. The complications of an artery being nicked during surgery may never be completely understood. How could THAT happen?! In any case Pr. Maggie Lux Cumings, died at age 37 and has left behind in this earthly life her husband of 11 years and two children ages 8 and 4 years old. Maggie’s last name at birth, Lux, means light in Latin. And throughout her all-too-short lifetime she lived up to her name as her obituary describes her as “effervescent, wise, witty, comforting and irrepressibly cheerful.” She was the life of the party or worship or even at long, planning meetings for synod assemblies, not as the center of attention, but because she included everyone and just made things happen in delightful ways.
Our vineyard is indeed a mess. We are messed up. And lo and behold, God loves messed up people. God does not stop going into seemingly hopeless situations. Over and over again in our parable, the landowner keeps sending in more resources, even his beloved son whom they killed.
The builders rejected the cornerstone . . . Jesus was crucified. But death did not have the last word and never will. Rock/paper/scissors! Life conquers death. Love overcomes hatred.
So let’s embrace the lament, but let’s not get stuck in judging others or paralyzed by fear. God never gives up on us and all things are possible through God’s love.
Pr. Maggie was a fine writer and fortunately maintained a blog, so her legacy of sermons and reflections carry on. So here are some words from Pr. Maggie’s blog during the past year as she continues to preach to all of us with the last words of this sermon:
“Let’s be gentle with each other. And let’s be fierce against the forces of hatred, intolerance, and fear. Let’s remember love.”
And all God’s people said: Amen!