02 October 2011

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost: "Who Do You Play For?"

            In our reading from the gospel of Matthew today, there’s a question that goes unasked and unanswered.  The fact that we don’t ask it shows that this parable was, is and always will be about us.  The answer, when we finally have the eyes to see it, reshapes everything. 

            Some of you know this movie.  You know that prior to this scene, there was a question that occurred over and over in the movie.  Do you remember it?  Who do you play for?  It was easy for the players on that 1980 US hockey team to slip into old allegiances.  “I play for Minnesota.”  “I play for Boston University.”  “I play for Michigan.”  The whole team needed to rethink everything in order to know who they were and who they were playing for.  Once they saw the truth, everything was different.  Once they understood that they were a team, nothing was ever the same.  Once their coach showed them a new way of thinking, a new way of being, their path toward the future was on a far better course. 
            It’s a set-up, really.  What sounds like an innocent question up front changes everything in hindsight.  There’s a long Biblical tradition of God using just this sort of thing to drive home the point when we can’t see it for ourselves.  2 Samuel 12 is perhaps the best example.  Allow me, if you will:
…the Lord sent [the prophet] Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.
4Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”
5Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 7Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.
One question, another answer and the trap snaps shut.  Instead of using anger and abuse to convict us sinners, God opens the door and allows us, through self-incrimination, to walk through all by ourselves.  That story about David?  It’s not just about kings:  it’s about you.  This parable about the wicked tenants?  It’s not just about Pharisees and crooked church officials:  it’s about you
Who do you play for? 
Who do you bear fruit for?
Snap goes the trap, and now you’re caught in a new reality.
Who do you bear fruit for?  Whose vineyard is it?  Did you come here today in your car thinking that you were going to your church?  Are you going back to your apartment to study for your classes?  Are you getting your degree so you can get out there and do your job?  Don’t feel bad – this happens to us all.  The Pharisees didn’t get it, but neither did the disciples.  In our reading from Philippians today, Paul says that everything he thought was so wonderful about himself meant nothing when compared to belonging to Christ.  Paul’s rich pedigree, which would have been the envy of just about any faithful Jew of his time, was the fruit of the vineyard, but Paul was keeping it for himself.  Paul didn’t know who he was playing for.  Once he did, Paul had to rethink everything.  And so do we.
Now, if you know the story of the Miracle on Ice, you know how it ends.  4-3, USA over the Russians.  Just after that they won the gold medal.  Here’s the thing, though – that re-thought reality lasted only that one Olympiad.  The US hasn’t won another gold medal in men’s hockey since 1980.  We’re human.  Life changes.  We change.  We forget our reality.  We forget who we play for.  We forget whose fruit we are bearing.  Or, to paraphrase a classic rock song by The Who, “Meet the new tenants / same as the old tenants.”  But this parable isn’t just about the tenants – it’s also about the owner of the vineyard.  The crazy landowner who keeps sending messages to the tenants, even when the messengers get laughed down, abused and even killed.  This crazy landowner will go so far as to send his son, his own flesh and blood, knowing that the son will probably be killed as well.  And when the parable ends, and the real story of Jesus begins, the landowner won’t even let that death stop him from re-framing the reality of his tenants.  You want to rethink everything?  Try this on for size: God sent Jesus into the world for the sake of us sinners, and even though we rejected the Son and put him to death, God is still sending messengers, still asking the question: “Who do you play for?”  “Who do you bear fruit for?”  Snap goes the trap, and you’re caught in a new reality again.
The vineyard is the gift – the work is the reward – God calls us to a reframed reality where we remember yet again that we belong to God and everything must be rethought in the light of that truth.  The future of the vineyard belongs to God, the one for whom we’re all playing – may this reframed reality be yours today, and may you be recaptured by it again and again, forever and ever.  Amen.

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