Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ken Burns is one of the great storytellers of our time. He’s done documentaries on the Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, World War 2, and several other topics. There’s a fascinating little video of Ken Burns talking about story that we use as part of our new member class. In fact, everyone who’s joined Bethlehem in the last four years has likely seen it. “The common stories,” Ken Burns says “are about 1+1=2, but the real, genuine stories are about 1 and 1 = 3. And that’s (the kind of story) I’m interested in….”
“I made a film on baseball once,” he says. Interestingly enough, Ken Burns and his colleagues decided to do a documentary on baseball not only because it’s America’s pastime, but because baseball’s time and space largely span America’s time and space. It’s possible to look through the prism of baseball, they say, and see refracted our nation’s common life. Invented in 1839, the memories and myths of baseball reveal the memories and myths of America.
“It seems to me that there was a dilemma for the racist of what to do about Jackie Robinson,” Ken Burns says. Jackie Robinson was the first African American baseball player in the 20th century major leagues, debuting with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson had a remarkable 10-career in major league baseball: he was named Rookie of the Year his first year and Most Valuable Player of his league two years later. He was an All Star six years in a row, and he played in six World Series, helping to win one of them. “If you were a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and you were a racist,” Ken Burns says, “what do you do when (Jackie Robinson) arrives?” He’s such a great player, but his ability and identity don’t fit with your preconceived notion of how things are supposed to be. So…“You can quit baseball…altogether. You can change teams. Or…you can change. I think the narrative that I subscribe” he says, “trusts in the possibility that people could change.”
We’re in the midst of Lent and our sermon series called, “To What End?” We’ve been reading the Gospel of Mark, and we’re wondering together what it might mean to follow Jesus, wondering to what length we might go as we strive to live our lives alongside Jesus. As the Gospel of Mark progresses, we see that Jesus is clearly headed to the cross. Three times he says out loud to his disciples that he will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, he’ll rise again. The disciples don’t get it. They have come to realize that he is Messiah – that he is God’s own anointed, and they think that he is going to set things straight. But they think God has come in power to rescue them from the difficulties of living under an occupying force. And they assume that with Jesus’ power will come honor and authority for them. They are just waiting for it to happen.
And then Jesus tells this parable. He is in Jerusalem now. His journey to the cross is progressing, and he tells this story to the elders, the chief priests and the scribes. They are the political establishment of the Temple – the very people he says will reject him and have him killed.
A parable is a story or a “word picture” that uses familiar images and then tosses in an unexpected element that makes it more than a simple observation. It’s a story that’s meant to be disruptive, to interrupt something you thought you knew to be true. It’s like Jackie Robinson being recruited to Major League baseball and being an exceptionally talented baseball player. It’s a story that doesn’t just teach you something but actually confronts you with a surprising truth and challenges what you believe.
So Jesus tells this one: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. The landowner went to great expense and dug up the ground and planted grape vines. He built a fence to protect the fruit from wild animals or devious people, and he built a watch tower to keep the vineyard safe. He dug a hole for the wine press so the grapes could be made into wine. The story sounds familiar to his audience. They live in wine country, after all; they know how a vineyard operates. And as he begins this vignette, it sounds just like Isaiah 5. They know what this story is about. It’s about being faithful to God, and they think they’ve got this covered. But then Jesus takes an unexpected turn.
The landowner leases the vineyard to tenants and goes far away. When it’s time for the harvest, he sends a servant to collect the rent. The tenants beat him and send him away, so the landlord sends another who is beaten up worse. He sends a third, and that servant is killed. And so it goes with many others; some are beaten, and some are killed. The landlord finally decides to send his son. “They’ll respect my son, won’t they?” But no, the tenants decide to kill the son in order to inherit the vineyard. More chaos ensues. The tenants are out, and the vineyard gets passed on to others.
Jesus’ audience – the chief priests and scribes and elders – see what he’s doing. He’s a telling a story against them. They are the tenants, and Jesus is saying they’re going to be destroyed. They’re furious, and they want to have him arrested. But they can’t yet because of the crowds.
We scratch our heads about this parable. It’s crazy logic, don’t you think? Those lawless tenants thought they could get away with refusing to pay, and then they turned to violence and murder. How could they possibly have thought they could inherit the land by killing the heir? The funny thing is, that part might not have sounded so strange to 1st Century ears. Land was typically owned by the wealthy, the 1%, we might say, and they were often far away. There was also legal provision for what to do when a landowner died without an heir. The land passed to the first claimant who worked the land. And yet, the anarchy that arose was chaotic.
And what of the naive landlord who thought that sending his son alone and unaccompanied would fare any better after multiple messengers were beaten or killed? Does he never learn? The situation goes from bad to worse. The son is killed, too. Natural consequences follow, and the tenants are destroyed.
We live in interesting times, and the sad truth is, we recognize the reality of this human behavior – of fear and greed. We understand the desire for more and the anxiety that there won’t be enough. We know it on a personal level, and we see it played out in dramatic ways in society. This week, there were mass shootings in Michigan, Kansas and Washington State. Tensions in Syria and Israel/Palestine intensify. Unfathomable numbers of people live in oppressive situations or flee terrifying circumstances. Even if our lives are sheltered, we are bombarded by campaign talk that is filled with vitriol that shocks us with its propositions.
Jesus came proclaiming that the reign of God had come near, that an alternative to the chaos was close at hand. He showed us the reign of God when he healed people and forgave sins and brought wholeness to their lives. He showed us the reign of God when he fed people and calmed their fears and cast out everything that separated them from God. He showed us the reign of God when he walked toward the cross and died a humiliating death, when he himself became a servant.
“Let the same mind be in you,” Philippians says, “that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:5-11)
Today’s parable seems to end in tragedy and destruction, but that’s not the final word. “Have you not read this scripture?” Jesus said. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” The one who was rejected is the key to holding it all together. Jesus is God’s answer to the chaos in our world and in our lives.
The quote is from Psalm 118. There are some 70 women in our congregation have been reading the Bible together since September. They’re going to finish by Easter. When they got to the NT a few weeks ago, they read the Psalms alongside the Gospel. The Gospels, you see, are interwoven with the Psalms. When Jesus died and rose again, his followers went back to the Psalms to try to make sense of what had happened, to see how they might have misinterpreted God’s desire for us before. By the time the Gospels were written down, the images from the Psalms were part of the telling.
Defying all rational thought or human reason, God sent his Son to entice us back into relationship. Even after all the prophets were ignored, God sent Jesus. When they killed him, it was in weakness that God was revealed. The one who was rejected became the cornerstone. God comes not in power and might, but in the hopelessness and humiliation of the cross. That’s where God’s power and presence is found.
Our God is like a crazy landlord who is persistent enough to try to reconcile with rebellious tenants who have willingly harmed the relationship.
Our God is like a parent who is so desperate to draw a wayward child back into loving embrace.
Our God is one who believes that people can change, who believes that 1 + 1 = 3, that there’s something bigger than the sum of the parts. And that God invites us to be in relationship, to be part of God’s reconciling work in the world.
This is a story about a God who loves us so much that God would do anything to win us back.
It’s a story about a God who wants all of us in the vineyard.
It’s a story about a God who is tenacious with grace.
I wonder who the prophets are today. What word do they have for us now? On Tuesday, Minnesotans will go to their caucuses and participate in nominating Presidential candidates for the election in November. There’s a lot at stake. We have the opportunity to participate in the process. Ask God to guide you. You see, God cares about that sphere and every other sphere of your life.
God knows the details of your life, and God cares about you. God knows the hurts and pains that you experience, the fears that fill your heart, and the thoughts that occupy your thoughts on those nights when you can’t sleep. God wants to draw you close and wants to walk with you. May you have the courage to follow Jesus and to be agents of God’s persistent grace. Amen.