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Sermon for Sunday 7 April 2019

First Reading                                  Isaiah 43:16-21

16Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: 18“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. 19Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”

Psalm                                                          Psalm 126

1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. 2Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. 3Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” 4The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed. 5Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev. 6Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. 7Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Second Reading                         Philippians 3:4b-14

4b… (T)hough I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — 10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel                                                        Luke 20:9-20

9{Jesus} began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. 10When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. 12And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. 13Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ 15And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” 17But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? 18Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” 19The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.


Let me ask you a question: what does Jesus, His mother, Mary, the composer, Gustav Mahler and Martin Luther have in common.  This sorta sounds like a question from one of Johnny Carson’s “Carnak” bits, doesn’t it?  The simple answer is that all of these people were willing to take a new look at the traditions they had inherited.  Like Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof, they could celebrate the glory of tradition!  But, like him, they also realized that tradition must remain in dialogue with a changing world.  Now as I ask this, I know I’m treading on dangerous ground.

Anytime we question tradition, especially the traditions of the church, we need to be careful; we need to ask, am I asking out of emotion, or am I asking because something is wrong.  Am I questioning the way we’re doing things based on something I’ve read in the Bible, or am I questioning doctrine and dogma because of societal or family pressure to endorse a current way of thinking?  Too often, we allow the pressures of society to interpret the Bible rather than letting the Bible interpret itself.  This is why tradition is so important, it serves as a check, a linchpin, a grounding point as it were, for us as we move forward in our service to God and others.

One of the core values of the NALC is Traditionally Grounded.  The reason we chose this as one of our four core values, is that recently people were willing to ignore, even argue against, tradition in order to forward their own selfish and even sinful agendas.  While we want to ensure we don’t become a slave to our past, we also want to recognize that our past does teach us many wonderful and valuable things.  Our history is important, and we need to pay close attention to the voices of the past.  Far too many people today want to destroy and erase our past, rather than learning the lessons it can teach.  The problem is, when we take this approach, we ensure that we will condemn ourselves to repeating the mistakes of the past, rather than learning from them.

Pinchas Peli is a modern rabbi-turned-teacher who likes to say, “I don’t come to preach – I come just to think along with you.”  In his book, Torah Today, he displays his special gift for blending tradition with new ideas and insights.  He says that people who see no reason to be in touch with their religious traditions, are like people who say “I’ve listened to enough concerts, I’ve read enough books, I quit.”  Then he adds: “There are concerts, books waiting.  Why deprive yourself?”  Peli reminds us that the Jewish Talmud encourages and welcomes differing opinions.  

The Talmud assumes that we will do new thinking on old issues, but that we will always check these new ideas and new issues against a tradition that is more than 3000 years old.  It’s been said that if progressive John XXIII had been Pope at the time of Martin Luther there would still be a unified church under the papacy, and “St. Martin of Germany” would be known today as the founder of the Lutheran Order.  Perhaps, too, if there had been more leaders like Rabbi Peli in Jesus’ day, the Christian interpretation of what the “Messiah” was all about would have been better understood.  With that said, consider the parable in our gospel reading for today. 

However, before we jump into the parable itself, we need to understand the context of why Jesus told this parable.  Starting with verse one of this chapter, Jesus is responding to a challenge by the religious leaders.  While Jesus is teaching, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders challenge Jesus’ authority to teach.  To answer their question, He tells them the parable of the tenants who thought that they could usurp the prerogatives, authority and rights of the owner of their land.

The tenants thought that they could ignore the rules handed down from the past; they thought they were “set” in their position and didn’t have to respect, listen to, or consider any of the past demands or any new messages from the owner.  Clearly, the tenants in the story represent the Jewish leaders who, in the name of their tradition, refused to listen to the prophets of old or new, which included John the Baptist, or to Jesus when they came with new, different or challenging messages.  In the Gospel of Matthew (Ch. 23), this criticism of the “lawyers and Pharisees” is stated in its strongest terms.  

Stephen Schwartz paraphrased these famous “7 woes!” in his musical Godspell like this: “Alas for you, lawyers and Pharisees, Hypocrites that you be … Sure that the kingdom of heaven awaits you … I send you prophets and I send you preachers, Sages in rages and ages of teachers, Nothing can mar your mood.  Hypocrites … who murdered the prophets … Blind guides!  Blind fools!”  

Now I do need to point out, that these kinds of strong condemnations are not necessarily directed ultimately at any one, specific group of people.  This is a condemnation of all hypocrisy, of all arrogant traditions, religious or otherwise, that blindly destroy anything that criticizes or challenges their established notions and authority.  Therefore, this warning needs to be heard by us as well today.  We Christians, too, can fall into this trap of being traditionbound.  When we, as Lutherans, celebrate our heritage as a reformation movement, we should remind ourselves of the danger of holding our traditions too tightly lest we become hypocrites.  As the hymn writer penned, “Jesus … may our eyes be ever turning to behold your cross anew.” (Savonarola)

Reformers like Girolamo Savonarola, admonishes us in his hymn “Jesus, Refuge of the Weary” (LBW 93) to be always willing to take a new look at the Cross, and Martin Luther, who was declared an outlaw for his new vision of the old traditions, stand in a long tradition of seers who took a new look at an ancient faith.  Again, we must always be cautious in dealing with tradition.  One thing we must be very careful with, here and anytime we question our tradition is, what is the foundation of my questions.  Am I questioning tradition from a Biblical perspective, or from a personal or societal norm point of view?  In other words, am I questioning tradition from the lens of the Bible, or the lens of society?  Luther’s intension was to reform, or to return the Catholic church to its Biblical roots.  It wasn’t his original intension to form a new denomination.  That was force on him by a system that valued tradition and the power it gave, over the Bible and what God instructed.

As faithful disciples and members of the body of Christ, we should always, carefully and respectfully, question what we do and why we do it through the Biblical lens.  At the same time, we can’t fall into the trap of being a slave to the past simply because it easiest, it doesn’t challenge our views, or simply because change can be difficult.  God gave us minds to think, to ponder, to question; He gave us the Holy Spirit to guide us in all truth and the church to provide help, support and teaching.  But we must always remember, where people are involved, mistakes can happen.  This is never more true when it comes to changes in our deeply seated values and beliefs.

Because of this, some people never grasp a new thing; they simply don’t know what to do when confronted with a new idea, concept or invention they have never been exposed to before.  This may have been one of Jesus’ main problems with the people of His day.  Like the Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day, the religious leaders didn’t want anything to upset the comfortable status quo; who cares what God or the Bible says.

A number of years ago, as the story goes, oil was discovered on some Oklahoma property that belonged to an old Native American gentleman.  All his life, the man had been poor, but the discovery of oil made him a very wealthy man.  And one of the first things he did was buy himself a big Cadillac touring car — you know, the one with the two spare tires on the back.  However, because he wanted the longest car in the territory, he added four more spare tires. He bought an Abraham Lincoln stove-pipe hat, added tails and a bow tie, and completed his outfit with a big black cigar.

Every day he would drive into the hot, dusty little Oklahoma cow town nearby.  He wanted to see and be seen by everyone.  He was a friendly soul, so when riding through town he could turn left and right, and even turn all the way around to speak to folks.  And it was amazing, but true, that he never once ran into anybody, or over anybody, or onto anyone’s property.  Why?  Because directly in front of that big, beautiful car, there were two horses — pulling it.  Some people never grasp a new thing.

Some people don’t know what to do with new things, or new ideas, or new inventions until someone comes along with enough patience to explain it to them.  While in the Air Force, it was a tradition to mess with the new 3-levels straight out of Technical Training school and assigned to a new base.  As 3-levels we spent nearly a year learning the basics of the military and of the job we would perform during our careers.  Because of this, we learned a new language called acronyms.  As you know, an acronym is a quick way to say something difficult.  For example, one of my jobs in the Air Force was to repair and maintain the LANTERN system.  The acronym LANTERN stands for Low Altitude Navigation and Terrain Following InfraRed for Night system.  As you can see any time you want to refer to the system, it’s much easier to say LANTIRN than Low Altitude Navigation and Terrain Following InfraRed for Night.  Needless to say, we had volumes of these acronyms to learn.  And because of this, young airman could be duped into many things.

Many a time, I’ve heard a new 3-level ordered to go and get a quart of K9P or a gallon of prop-wash.  But this wasn’t limited to acronyms, several other seemingly common-sense things were on the list.  While stationed at Seymour Johnson in Goldsboro the first time, we had a young lady assigned to us on dayshift.  Because she was a bit more gullible than some of the others, so the supervisor sent her to the support section after the keys to the F-4.  I should tell you that no fighter aircraft in the military inventory has keys.

Anyway, she, without further question, heads off in search of the keys.  After more than an hour, I’m told, the dayshift supervisor became worried.  It turns out that everyone in the Maintenance unit support, the staff and ops decided to join in on the fun until Michelle ended up in the Colonel’s office asking for the keys.  Thank goodness Col. Foote had a sense of humor.  With a gleam in his eye and a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, he, with patience and a good deal of self-restraint, explained some things to her – like, K9P when you think about it slowly it’s self-explanatory.  Prop wash isn’t something that comes in containers, it’s what you feel when standing behind a running propeller driven aircraft and there are no keys to the fighters on the ramp.  Needless to say, I’m glad I wasn’t the shift supervisor who got that call from Col. Foote!

It’s sometimes hard for some of us to grasp new things, especially because new things aren’t part of our past experience.  Michelle had no problem with the Technical Orders, the repair equipment, or the orderliness of the Technical training environment; but on flight line, it was a new world, and she was lost for a while, until someone explained things to her, showed her what to do and how to do it, and helped her understand what was expected of her.

By the way, we learned another valuable lesson.  Make sure the new 3-level your picking on doesn’t have a friend in the Civil Engineers before you send them after 50 feet of runway.  We didn’t, and ended up with a tractor trailer load of AN2 matting.  AN2 matting is the stuff CE uses to repair runways damaged during war!  Needless to say, we had a lot of explaining to do that day as well.  The point I’m making is that blindly following church tradition without question can get us into trouble.  It’s good to ask questions, it’s good to challenge why we do what we do and believe what we believe, so long as we always remember the Bible can and does interpret itself and that tradition is a great reference tool.  If we do, when new ideas do come along, it might be God showing us a new way of seeing things.  This is why God sent the prophets, judges and Jesus; to bring people back to His intended relationship with Him.

Like Col. Foote, Jesus went around doing something of the same thing for people, He patiently and gently taught us things about God and His kingdom.  We, as fallible human beings, are limited in our understanding of who God is and how God relates to us.  And some people, in Jesus’ time, as well as today, had some pretty crazy ideas.  They had trouble grasping who God is, so, Jesus went around doing a lot of teaching, preaching, and showing.  He did a lot of healing and said, “Look here, this is what God is all about:  helping the poor, the blind, the lame, the leper.”  Jesus went around playing with children, and said, “Look here, this is what God is all about:  Unless you have the faith and love and trust of these little people, you can’t grasp really well who I am.”

Jesus went around talking to women, drunkards, prostitutes, cheats, tax collectors, and said, “Look here, God loves you and cares about you too.  You are an important person because you, too, are one of my children.”  And Jesus went around telling stories about sons who take up their inheritance and go out and blow it on wine, women and song; ending up slopping the pigs and going home to a father who waited and celebrated his return.  He told stories about lost sheep and a shepherd who risks life and limb to find them and all these stories challenged the status quo.

Because people had trouble grasping who God is and how God deals with people, they had to be shown and told in many ways over and over again.  Because God is so great and our understandings so limited by our experiences and past, our ideas about God are always in need of reexamination through the lens of God’s word and His Son Jesus, for we will never be able to fully comprehend the greatness of God.  But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?  To hear again the story of how God loves us; to try to grasp some more of God’s greatness; to struggle to understand how God deals with you and me, with our lives, and how then, we are to relate to those around us.  And so, Jesus told stories, parables, played with children, prayed with mourners, talked to adulterers, healed the sick to show, to demonstrate, to explain, to live out a way of life He called the kingdom of God.  And by so doing, we grasp something about who God is for us.  A good example is here in the parable of the tenants in the vineyard.  

In the account of the story, three servants were sent by the absentee owner of a particular vineyard to collect the rent from the tenants he left in charge.  It’s a simple story, somewhat gruesome in its detail, but it tells us something about God.  These three servants were beaten and thrown out.  So, the landowner decided to send his son and the son gets killed.  On the surface, the story doesn’t make sense.  

Why would anyone in his right mind, after having sent three servants in a row, all of whom get beaten up, why would any loving father send his son after seeing what happened before?  The landowner must be nuts!  We can’t grasp the point very well because it’s sheer foolishness.  And yet … even though it doesn’t make sense, the son goes and gets predictably killed.

Even though it doesn’t make much sense, the God of creation who sent prophets to Israel and watched them be stoned for trying to show and tell people a better way; even though it doesn’t make sense, this same God sent His Son — and He got predictably killed.  Why would God do such a foolish thing?  Because God loves us, His people, His creation, so much, that God willingly sent His Son to die, because that was the only way to atone for our many sins.  That’s what Jesus is saying in this parable and it doesn’t make sense, and it’s hard to grasp, but God loves us — to the point of risking His Son; God loves us to the point of a cross.

Even though it doesn’t make sense, God loves us that much.  In the middle of our impatience with our children, God still loves us.  In the middle of our making fun of classmates, or ridiculing a friend behind their back, or gossiping about a neighbor, God still loves us.  In the center of our sin, even as we fail through our acts of hatred, pride, jealousy and arrogance, God still loves us.  How in the world does any of that make sense?

And so, Jesus told us a story — a very foolish, illogical story — about God’s love and God’s action in sending His Son, Jesus the Christ.  Why would God make such a sacrifice?  It’s so difficult to comprehend; my rational, small mind can’t totally understand how and why God operates the way He does.  But it has something to do with God’s profound love for creation and, specifically, for you and me.  How else can you explain that God accepts us even while we are sinners?  How else can you explain that God forgives me over and over and over again for the same thing that I know I shouldn’t do, but just can’t help myself?

God surely must love us because He puts us in this vineyard of His, and gives us the freedom to work at it, and even gives us the freedom to harm His messengers and each other by acts of hatred and violence.  And yet, God sent His Son in love — for you and me.  What a perfectly illogical, irrational, profound thing to do!

So, what is our response?  Take that parable apart any way you want to, but we are the tenants in the vineyard.  And what are we to do? — to tend the place, to bear fruit, to care for each other, and to thank the owner with the fruits of our labor.  Even though we aren’t as faithful as we should be; even though we, too, kill God’s messengers with our lack of love and respect for one another; even though we often want no part of the work of this vineyard — God still loves us and God still takes the risk with us today.  He still sent His Son.  God still calls us to be accountable for the work of His vineyard.  And He continues to come to us to give us His love, so that we might learn how to risk loving one another.

The religious leaders in our gospel text were so focused on their tradition, that they tripped over Jesus, not realizing that He was the cornerstone that their tradition was built upon.  And because of this, they couldn’t see what God was doing.  God sometimes calls us to question or sends us people, so we rethink our traditions so that we better understand God and the world He created.  We just have to make sure that we’re neither so tied to tradition that we fail to see when something has gone wrong, or, that we’re blindly following the “new” ideas that the world is forwarding without seeing the new traditions through the lens of the Bible.


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