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Sojourn Sermon – October 8 10/08/2017

Sojourn Sermon – October 8th, 2017 – Matthew 21:33-46 

 

A couple of years ago I was at conference at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, AMBS for a significantly shorter moniker. The conference was Called the Rooted and Grounded Conference exploring Christian discipleship, land management, and environmental ethics. It was really an incredible week.  

 

The workshop I attended that has influenced me the most was on reading the Psalms from an ecological perspective. It was hosted by a man named Brain Moyer-Suderman, he often works with the Mennonite Church on Hymnals and things like that. He came to this project from an interesting direction. His research showed that it is typical in the Jewish tradition to read the certain kinds of Psalms from the perspective of various OT characters in order to sort of visualize their state of mind at different point in their story.  

 

For example, as Jews read the story of Elijah, they may read a Psalm of thanksgiving, like Psalm 139, from the perspective of Elijah after he defeats the prophets of Baal on Mt. Caramel. You remember the story of Elijah, King Ahab married Jezebel and began to worship Baal, and in response, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest: Elijah and the prophets of Baal would pray to their respective Gods and whichever God produced fire from heaven that would engulf a pyre would prove to be the true God. The prophets of Baal pour out their libations and cut themselves in hopes that Baal would send his fire and nothing happen. Elijah on the other hand pours water on his pyre, prays to YHWH, and flames rain down from heaven, engulf the pyre, and laps up the water.  

 

After reading about this great triumph, it’s easy to imagine that words on Elijah’s limps would resemble those we find in Psalm 139: 

 

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever; 

who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever 

 

Later in the story, after Jezebel pursues Elijah, and he flees. As he is on the run, Elijah says to God that he has had enough and wishes to die. And at this in the story, Jews might read a lament Psalm, like Psalm 22,  

 

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death. 

 

It’s easy to see I think, how this way of reading the Psalms, from the perspective of biblical characters can work as a kind of supplement that helps us become emotionally engaged in the story and give a more robust view of the character’s perspective. 

 

This is what Bryan meant when he talked about reading the Psalm from an ecological perspective. What if, he asked, if we read the Psalms as if it gave voice to the nonhuman creation. There’s some biblical president for this. We see mountains and trees and rivers having a voice and participating in the choirs of praise that go up to God. And similarly the creation will at times weep along with her human brothers and sister. Bryan, however, in light of ecological crises of our day, wanted us to read some of these lament Psalms as if they were actually being spoken by the Earth. Psalm 22 

 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. 

 

It really kind of hits home, doesn’t it?  

 

It will come as no surprise to you that the health of our planet is in serious jeopardy. I hope it won’t surprise you that care for our common home, is an important biblical imperative. What might surprise you is that I think texts like the one we just read from Matthew have a lot more to do with environmental ethics and creation care then you might expect. 

 

The setting of this parable is important. Jesus has come into Jerusalem, he’s already made his triumphal entry, he’s disrupted, temple proceedings, and driven out the money changers. It is the next day. 

 

Jesus is in the temple again, surrounded by a who’s who of the Palestinian intelligentsia. At different points in this larger narrative that stretches from Chapter 21:18 to 23:37 a whole host of Jewish philosophical schools are represented and debating with Jesus. The Pharisees are there. The Sadducees are there, as are the Chief Priests and the scribes, and they all have a bone to pick with Jesus.  

 

And these different philosophical schools are coming to Jesus and asking him questions like, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar,” and, “What is the greatest commandment.” The Sadducees come and argue that there is no resurrection. And these are really the theological, political, philosophical questions of the day.  

 

The first question they ask Jesus, however, the question Jesus is responding to in our text today, we find in v. 23, a few verses before our reading picks up, and it’s a little different although it sets the stage for the entire narrative. Once Jesus enters the Temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people come to Jesus and ask, “By what authority are you doing these things?”  

 

They are referring, of course, to the events of the previous day: the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the Temple. This isn’t a question of theology: it’s a question of identity. “Who are you?” From their perspective, Jesus is really just one more fringe apocalyptic preachers and community leaders. Palestine was used to these kinds of people Bar Kochba, Qumran, Eliezer. But none these, with the exception of Bar Kochba, would do anything as rash as the thins Jesus had done the day before. 

 

By what authority are you doing these things? 

 

In typical Jesus fashion, he doesn’t answer their question directly. Instead, he asks them in v. 25, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” 

 

The elders and the chief priests don’t know. They’re not sure if they want to say something that would undermine their own status, remember John didn’t speak too kindly about the religious establishment, and admit that John’s baptism was from heaven or if they want to say something that bolsters their own authority, claim that it was of human origin, and anger the people because the people regarded John as a prophet. So they simply respond, “We do not know,” in v. 27.  

 

Since they refuse to answer Jesus’ question, Jesus refuses to answer theirs, and tells them three parables. The first is of two sons, one who tells his father he will not work in his father’s field but eventually goes and another who agrees to go into his father’s field but in the end does not. The third is of a wedding feast, where a king invites his friends to celebrate his son’s weeding. They refuse and the king kills them and celebrates with people of the town. 

 

In between these two parables we find the one we just read, about a vineyard owner and his tenants. This parable is full of important imagery, particularly the vineyard. We know in the prophetic tradition that the image of a vineyard is often used as an image of Israel. One of the most profound instances of this in Isaiah 5, where the prophet paints a picture of Israel as this vineyard that has been cleared of stones, planted it with choice vines, and built a watch tower in it. But when it yielded wild grapes, the vineyard owner tears down its walls and allows it to be overrun with wild vegetation. The prophet then makes explicit that this is an image of Jerusalem and the people of Judah not following God commands and being overrun by foreign powers  

 

The parallels between the parable in Isaiah and in Matthew are striking, as are the differences. In both the vineyard owner is depicted as God, and in both, good fruit can be seen as what is owed to God, or in other words, a kind Godly living, and this is especially true in Matthew where, as R. T. France notes, fruit “has recurred throughout the gospel to describe the life which God requires of [God’s] people.” However, in Isaiah, the vineyard does not produce good fruit and this therefore left to be over taken. In Matthew there is fruit, and the vineyard owner wants what his owed him.  

 

The text explicitly tells us that this parable is about the chief priests and the Pharisees in v. 45. They are the tenants. They are the ones who have been put in charge of God’s vineyard, and when the vineyard owner sent his service, they are the ones who mistreated and killed them. The vineyard owner continued to send slaves to the tenants, and they continued to be killed. Until the vineyard owner finally sent his son, who was also killed. 

 

Here is where this context becomes really important because Jesus’ parable is not about the need to prove his authority. From the perspective of the parable, the Jerusalem elite and the religious establishment know by what authority Jesus is doing this. The tenants in the parable know who is sending the slaves, and they recognize the Son as the heir. The point of the parable is that the religious and political elite in Israel has routinely ignored God’s messengers at best and treated with them threats and violence at worst, as evidenced by John the Baptist. And this has really been the trajectory of prophetic ministry throughout Israel’s history. Elijah is forced to flee from Israel, Jeremiah is imprisoned, and John the Baptist is beheaded. This places Jesus perfectly in line within Israel’s prophetic history. In fact, this entire section is on Jerusalem’s continued failure to acknowledge divine authority in the prophetic tradition. Notice how the larger narrative ends beginning in 23:37. Jesus is leaving the temple and Jerusalem and heading back to the Mount of Olives. As he does, he weeps over Jerusalem, saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city the kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”  

 

This failure of the Jerusalem elite and the religious establishment to recognize the authority of God in God’s messengers has, in the past, resulted in exile and destruction. The same is true according to Jesus. In the verses the follow Jesus’ polemic in the Temple, he predicts its destruction.  

 

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants as it’s come to be known forces us to ask important question about our own ability to recognize and respond to prophetic ministry in our own time. It forces us to realize that failure to acknowledge and recognize God’s prophetic witness in the world comes with real consequences. To wrestle with this question, I want to draw your attention to less often discussed strand of prophetic ministry: the role of the earth and the environment as an important part of prophetic witness. 

 

Beginning with the first narrative in scripture, ecological disaster is associated with human sinfulness. As a result of Adam and Eve’s failure to heed God’s warning, the ground is cursed. It will no longer produce it abundance the way it had, but instead, it will produce by the sweat and toil of human labor. Elijah’s critique of Ahab and Jezebel is accompanied by a great drought. In the wake of Israel’s unfaithfulness, Jeremiah says the land of Israel will be tohu wa bohu, formless and void, the same words used to describe the pre-created state of the world in Genesis 1 before God speaks into the emptiness. This theme that ecological disaster is a form of prophetic warning is so prevalent that OT scholar Ellen Davis writes, “Overall, from a biblical perspective, the sustained fertility and habitability of the earth, or more particularly the land of Israel, is the best index of the health of the covenant relationship” 

 

In other words, the health of the land, the health of the planet, tells about our relationship with God. When we take stock of the condition of the environment around us and find that it is ailing, it tells us more than just that we have unsustainable energy systems, or that our farming practices could be better, or that our waste management systems could be improved. An ailing planet tells us, in much the same way it told the ancient Israelites, we have turned away God and bowed before idols.  

 

At the heart of sin, I believe and my wife and I go back and forth on this, is idol worship. For Adam and Eve, they were tempted to eat the forbidden fruit because they were promised that they would become like God. They made themselves into idols. Ahab and Jezebel turned to Baal, who by the way is a fertility god. Sure, the idols of our own day go by different names than names like Marduk or Baal, but as David Foster Wallace notes, in the trenches of everyday life, there is really no such thing as an atheist. We all worship something: money, power, status, prestige, our beauty our strength, our country or military, the list could go on and on.  

 

While the cults of these god look different than those of the ancient near east, the land never the less testifies against us. Can you hear it? 

 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. 

 

As we look to rising sea levels, melting ice caps, soil erosion, desertification, mass extinction, extreme weather, drought, and the whole litany of environmental issues associated with late industrial capitalism, it is hard not to see the religious and political leaders who deny that these environmental issues are symptoms of larger, more worrisome, climatic shifts as once again failing to recognize or acknowledge God’s messenger. The earth is trying to tell us something.  

 

As we know from history and Jesus parable such failure comes with real consequences. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, I believe that when the Bible describes God’s judgement, it most likely the case that this judgement is something that we are doing to ourselves. To describe climatic disasters as divine volition, I think, denies that at the center of God’s being is a steadfast love for God’s creation. We should find these words about miserable deaths and being broken to pieces at the end of our text today troubling. But they seem to me to be the logical end to a world governed by the idols of wealth, status, and power.  

 

 

God does not, however, issue commands arbitrarily. To confess God as creator as well as redeemer and sustainer, is to confess that God’s intention is for world governed by reciprocity and mutuality, between people and between the entire created order. Our God is a God who cares deeply about the human and non-human creation. A God who sees to it that the land is included is Sabbath rest, see Leviticus 25. And creation recognizes its God Psalm 104 tells us that the wild animals look to God for their food. In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us that God care for the birds who neither reap nor sow and clothes the fields more brilliantly than Solomon.  

 

But we have consistently viewed the world from an anthropocentric perspective. Some would argue that Christianity, as the most anthropocentric religion in the world, is particularly to blame for this. I’m not sure I would totally accept that claim, but it is a perspective on Christianity that is widely held. But God’s salvific work is not limited to humanity. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, Chapter 8, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”  

 

Unfortunately, we know how the story ends. Just like the tenants in the parable, the leaders of the people of Israel continue to ignore and kill God’s messengers and prophets until they finally kill God’s very self. It will ultimately prove to be their undoing. Political and religious leaders often do this with often calamitous out comes.  

 

We are not, however, called to lose hope. As the second verse of the Hymn “Rain Down” says, “We who revere and find hope in our God live in the kindness of joy in God’s wings. God will protect us and keep us from death. God will not leave us to starve.” 

 

This is important to remember because prophetic warning and critique is always accompanied by prophetic hope. This has been true of the prophetic tradition since its beginning. It was true of Jesus. He warned that he, like the prophet who came before him, would be rejected. His critique of a system that disenfranchised the poor, marginalized outcast, and turned a cold shoulder to the stranger was that this kind of system would ultimate result in putting to death the very God that created those who perpetuated it. He warned that such a system would be its own undoing. The critique and warning of Jesus in his death on the cross, however, was accompanied by the hope of his resurrection because God still has the last word. 

 

Today as we see the prophetic warning in a changing climate and extreme weather that tells us a system driven by greed and a search for power cannot be sustained, this warning is also accompanied by a hope. That God is ultimately in control, yes, but also, and more importantly, that there will always be a community of God’s people who will decry the violence of such system, work on behalf and alongside of those who have no voice, including the larger ecological system, so that when rubber meets the road, and we are called to mountain tops of our own, where God and the idols of our day will be seen for wat they really are: one dead and made of human hands and the other the living creator, we too, as Elijah did, will sing God’s praise saying,  

 

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever; 

who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever 

 

Amen.