Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
“Restore us, God Almighty;” is the opening plea of the Psalm we read this morning. It seems that most people are seeking restoration of some sort. Have you seen how big the self-help aisle is in the bookstore? We are a mess and we know it. And this is no new turn of events.
Here in the church we turn to scripture to help us navigate this mess called sin and the Bible tells us that we are offered grace in Jesus Christ. But how well do we accept that on anything other than a purely academic level? How well do we allow it to spread from our heads and infiltrate our hearts?
It’s hard sometimes to accept that we are given grace in Jesus Christ. It’s often easier to hang our identity on the bad things we have done than on the forgiveness and wholeness we receive by the saving work of Jesus Christ. It is hard sometimes to accept that the whole world is given grace in Jesus Christ. It’s not hard to look at the world around us and fall into despair over the state of things. It is hard to accept grace personally, communally, and in regards to the other individuals around us.
There was this girl in middle school who I absolutely hated. To be fair. . . she was mean to me. I had this sweater that I really really loved. Like. . . in retrospect I probably loved that sweater a little too much. As soon as it was washed, I’d wear it again. I probably wore that silly sweater twice a week. But it was a cool sweater and I looked really cool wearing it and as we all know. . . the only thing that matters in middle school is looking cool.
I walked into algebra class one day – how I remember it was algebra class is beyond me. . . I guess it’s burned into my memory – and this girl must have had enough of seeing my favorite sweater. “Do you even OWN any other clothes?” she demanded to know. “How poor ARE YOU?”
I. . .
Was. . .
Clearly, this girl was evil and I wanted nothing to do with her. So I did what any reasonable 7th grade girl would do in that situation. . . I told the entire middle school that she was evil and I wanted nothing to do with her. Pretty soon our feud was a well known piece of our middle school’s culture.
Imagine my great horror and shock the Sunday morning her family walked in the door of our church and sat down just a few pews over and back from where my sister and I always sat. I thought to myself “THIS could NOT get any worse.” But I was wrong. It could get worse. This girl I hated came back with her family the next week and the next week and THEN. . . she joined the youth group and I was forced to talk to her. I was totally baffled that someone like HER would go to CHURCH! Church is clearly for good people, not for people who make fun of the most amazing sweater ever.
As the weeks wore on and I found myself week after week after week having to talk to this girl and interact with her on a regular basis outside of school, I realized something: she wasn’t so bad. By the time we entered high school, we were great friends. We’re still in touch this day, as a matter of fact.
This isn’t usually so dramatic in the adult world as it is in the middle school world – few things are as dramatic in the adult world as they are in middle school - but mine is not an uncommon story. When we’re forced to interact with someone we previously passed judgment on, when we learn their story and who they are – we find out that they are just people too. They are just people in need of the same restoration and redemption that we are in need of.
It’s easy to walk past someone doing something we don’t like or dressing a way we don’t approve of and to immediately pass judgment on them, putting them in the “avoid” category in our mind.
Do you remember the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs and Yosemite Sam are feuding and they are in forts labeled “Us” and “Them?” It’s easy to read the newspaper or watch the TV news and think, “What a terrible person to do this! They deserve something awful in return for this evil deed!”
It is hard to accept grace personally, communally, and sometimes most especially in regards to the other individuals around us. It’s one thing to say “God has forgiven me” or “God has forgiven us,” and another thing entirely to say, “God has forgiven THEM.”
This passage in Matthew offers an interesting perspective on this idea of accepting not only our own grace, but that given to others as well. Like much of what this gospel has to offer, it’s given up in the form of a confusing metaphor – another parable told by Jesus.
All of the lectionary passages this week seem to talk about grapes or vines or vineyards. I’ve had a song stuck in my head all week. Ever since I turned in the sermon title for this week, I can’t stop singing about vines and trying to figure out what all of this is talking about.
“I am the vine and you are the branches, my banner over you is love. I am the vine and you are the branches, my banner over you is love. I am the vine and you are the branches, my banner over you is love. My banner. . . over you. . . is love.”
As a child, I always saw it as a song of comfort. Jesus will take care of us. We’re under his care. But now. . . reading this parable from Matthew. . . that seems shaken up a bit. Just look at what happens in this vineyard! Murder and mayhem. I wouldn’t want to be a branch in that vineyard!
But then. . . what if we aren’t the branches in the metaphor set up in this passage. What if we’re the tenants? What if we have rejected something important from the landowner – who presumably represents God in this story – and we are now in really hot water? The tenants in this story surely deserve death for what they have done! They’ve rejected the very son of the landowner!
Leasing out land to work was a typical occurrence in Matthew’s time. This scenario wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary at all for the original audience. And it wouldn’t have been completely unheard of for tenants to refuse to pay the landowner all that they owe for the use and cultivation of the land. What is odd is their seemingly boneheaded decision to kill the son of the owner and hope that would just make it all go away so they could keep the land forever.
We can look at the son as a representation of Jesus (which I think he is) and say that the tenants are bad people who rejected the grace of God sent to them in the Son. These tenants will get a severe punishment for their evil deeds and will be replaced by someone who will be good and trustworthy.
So when Jesus asks what will happen to the evil tenants, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the Pharisees say, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” We want to cheer, “YES! That’s RIGHT he will!”
And Jesus says, “Haven’t you been paying attention!?”
The tenants refused the grace sent to them by the sending of the Son. But the Pharisees also refused the grace sent to the tenants by the sending of the Son.
“When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.” The story wasn’t just about the tenants. The story was about the Pharisees’ reaction to the tenants.
The fact that you have been given grace should matter to me just as much as it matters that I have been given grace. Your gift of grace from God is just as important as my gift of grace from God, even if you refuse to accept that gift.
Today as we celebrate World Communion Sunday, we celebrate not only the grace given to us in Jesus Christ, but the grace that is offered to people all around the world. All over the globe, there are churches celebrating communion and remembering the breadth and the width of God’s grace.
The church is like a vining plant. Jesus is the vine and there are branches of that vine EVERYWHERE. Saying that he is the vine and we are the branches isn’t just a statement of his protection, but also of his great, unfathomable, world- covering gift of grace and our connection to one another through that grace. Today, we celebrate and participate in the grace given others as well as that which we receive. He is the vine and we are the branches – wherever we are. This isn’t just a nice platitude to say once a year. This is something we are called to take very VERY seriously. In our day to day business. . . in our prayer life. . . in our communal life of worship.
Today, we are praying for our brothers and sisters around the world. We are celebrating Christianity everywhere and the grace give to us by our loving Father God. But every day, we should have our brothers and sisters all over the world in our thoughts and in our prayers. One of the reasons I think short term missions are so important is not that we can change the world in two week increments but because just like my perspective was changed when I got to know my middle school nemesis, our perspective changes when we get to know people in other places. Those other places might be Guatemala or Scotland or Turkey or South Africa or they might be New York or Las Angeles or another neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
In Christ there is no east or west, no north or south. In Christ there is no “us” or “them.” There is only grace.