Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 2, 2011 (Proper 22, Year A)

This morning we hear what’s known as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. With a name like that you just know it’s not going to be all touchy feely. And it’s not. The owner of a vineyard rents his land to some tenants. He sends his servants to collect the rent and they’re beaten and killed by the tenants. Then he sends some more servants with the same result. Finally he sends his son. But even the son is beaten and killed. Who’s ready to sing kumbayah? 

On one level this parable is very straightforward. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what Jesus is getting at. In this allegory, the Lord of the vineyard is God. God sends messengers, or prophets, to the people. The people reject the messengers. God sends his son. The people kill even the son. So, a father sends a son and he’s rejected and killed. Sound familiar? That’s the essence of the Christian story; one that foreshadows the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. 

If the audience for this parable was Jesus’ disciples, it would be pretty clear that Jesus was offering a Passion prediction. He does this occasionally – cryptically telling the disciples that the Son of Man will be killed and raised up in three days. At the time they have no idea what Jesus is talking about but post-Easter it all becomes clear. The audience is a crucial piece of this puzzling passage. Jesus is not speaking to a group of friends and followers but to the leaders of the religious establishment – the chief priests and elders of the temple. 

For some context, it was just the day before that Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey and was hailed with cries of “Hosanna” – what we commemorate on Palm Sunday. He then entered the temple and cleansed it by flipping tables over and accusing the authorities of turning his Father’s house into a den of thieves – you know the story. This particular exchange takes place the next day and this whole parable is a response to the Pharisees’ question about where Jesus gets his authority; about where he gets the presumption to teach and preach and heal in God’s name. Like the son in this story, Jesus was sent by his Father and it is through this divine relationship that he receives his authority.

Then Jesus says something that really grates on the ones with human authority, the religious leaders: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” They recognize that through this parable Jesus is actually condemning them. And it’s at this point that they conspire to have Jesus arrested. So this difficult parable plays an integral role in the story of salvation.

But Jesus isn’t just talking about getting rid of something old without offering a vision of the future. He’s not one of those people that complain incessantly without offering a solution – remember he says “I came to fulfill the Law, not to destroy it.”

And so he talks about building something new – “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” There is a continuity here, not a complete break. God is doing a new thing and it will look different and feel different from what you’re used to but it is still of God. God remains the ultimate authority even in the midst of a shifting understanding of faith.

I’ve been thinking this week about how this relates to us here at St. John’s. As you probably know, we are getting ready to launch our new Saturday night service in a couple of weeks. Actually 13 days but who’s counting? It will look different and feel different and sound different and simply be different from what we have done and will continue to do so well on Sunday mornings. We’ll be using more contemporary liturgical texts and music (yes, even the guitar); it will be less formal and aimed at people for whom traditional Sunday morning worship doesn’t work. So while it does offer current parishioners an option if you have a Sunday morning soccer game or need to be at Aunt Edna’s for Sunday brunch in Mattapan, it is really geared toward people we haven’t met yet. Some of you may become regulars at what we’re calling S.W.5. (which stands for Saturday Worship at 5 pm) but most of you won’t. I do suggest you try it out sometime partly to see what it looks like and partly to confirm that, yes, you really do love Sunday morning at St. John’s. 

So while I do look at this service as something new that is being built here, there is also continuity. I like to talk about this new service as being “tradition with a twist.” It is something new that is being built out of our tradition. It is new but it is of St. John’s – the service will be a Eucharist, there will be prayers, there will be space for contemplation. 

Even as we grow and change and seek to build something new, what we love and cherish about this community will remain constant. Of course, things don’t always go according to our wishes. Think about the vineyard in our reading from Isaiah. Great care was put into its location on a fertile hill, it was dutifully cleared of brush and stones, the soil was turned over, only the best vines were planted, and a watchtower was even placed in the middle of it as a security measure. The farmer had taken every possible measure to ensure success. He was dedicated to careful cultivation, he was motivated not to cut any corners, he followed all the rules, and he was assured of a bountiful crop of fine grapes. Except for one problem. While he expected it to yield good grapes it yielded only wild grapes. Grapes that were useless; grapes that had no value.

And so all the human preparation in the world will do nothing apart from God’s blessing. This is true in every aspect of our lives and this has been my approach to our new Saturday service – We’ve put a lot of work into this initiative over the past year and I’m not anticipating that it will yield wild grapes. I’m hoping that it will be fruitful beyond our wildest imagination. But without God’s blessing, it won’t succeed. I invite you to keep this venture in your prayers over the coming weeks and months. Even if this service is not for you, even if you never try it out, pray that it will touch some people in our wider community. Pray that God will indeed bless this new ministry and that our support of it will bring the Good News of Jesus to an ever-widening circle of people. This is not an offering of one person with a vision but an offering of an entire community trying to faithfully live out the gospel of Jesus Christ by sharing it with others. In order to pull this off, it will take commitment and time and effort from many of us as well as additional financial resources. And I could think of no better investment in the future of this parish.

Regardless of how it ultimately turns out, I believe that as a faith community we have to try some new things. That doesn’t mean the old goes away; that doesn’t mean we abandon our core identity but it does mean being open to that cornerstone upon which our faith is built. 

I’ll close with one of my favorite prayers from our tradition; one that speaks to where I believe we are headed in the months and years to come: “Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 540)

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011

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