As you all might imagine, a number of visitors and drop-in's were desperate for our magic formulae or words this week. I can't get my loved one to listen to the Gospel, how do you all say it around here so that your pope takes notice? I reminded them, as I do you all all the time that there is no magic formula, there are no magic words, that there is no Anglican pope, and that there is only witness and testimony. Far better than any sermon I might give is the testimony of your lives. How you live your lives the 166 hours or so each week that you are not in church is the real sermon in the lives of those around you. I can encourage you to evangelize better, I can exhort you to trust God faithfully, I can even beg you to give of your time, talent, and treasures more sacrificially, but I cannot live your lives for you. How you live your faith in front of your children, how you live your faith in front of your co-workers, how you live your faith in front of strangers in a large part determines your effectiveness in kingdom building. The ones in your life are the ones who see you struggle with the vicissitudes of life. The ones in your life are the ones who see whether you face death with determined hope, whether you face privation with an expectant hope, whether you seek reconciliation with others with whom you are estranged. How we handle those situations, brothers and sisters, tells others whether we are, indeed, a resurrected people. Yes, we may feed the hungry, we may work to free or care for slaves or abused people in our midst, we may collect underwear for those who have none, we may engage in any number of activities that are "Christian," but unless we do so cognizant of what He has done for and promised to us, even our good works are vain. Besides, as I reminded you all last week, it is our service of and ministry to the individuals that causes other people within the Church to notice our work.
I share that reminder, number one, to keep us focused. In some ways, the events last week were like a great win in a college football game. As good as Iowa State's victory over the Hawkeyes may have seemed to them and their fans a couple weeks ago, it is rather meaningless in light of their inability to follow that win up with another and another. Mississippi may be basking in its first defeat of Alabama in my lifetime, but it will be meaningless if they drop one to Vandy or Kentucky or someone like that down the road. Yes, the Archbishop of Canterbury has taken notice of your ministry. Yes, a group of Anglicans and Roman Catholics will hear of the dedicated work of the Intercessors, those in the Ministry of Presence, our Pervert Patrol, of those whose OCD has been baptized even as it was being alphabetized. But we are not done. Our Lord has not returned, and we have not been called home.
Our parable from Matthew this morning comes from Holy Week. We are close to that event where mercy and grace find their fullest expression in the earthly ministry of our Lord. Today, of course, He is teaching in the Temple. He draws upon the image of Isaiah 5 and the vineyard. We may not study the Scriptures as much as we should, but you can bet that a number of the Pharisees and chief priests did. Jesus describes a wonderful vineyard and a decent landlord. The landlord rents his vineyard out to tenants, but he has protected the vineyard with a wall and a watchtower. To help with the production of wine, he has built a press in the very center. There are no bad locations in this setting. There are no ghettos!
As was not uncommon, the owner of the vineyard went away to other lands to conduct his business. Not unexpectedly, he would expect a portion of the wine as payment for leasing the land to his tenants. The landlord sends some slaves at harvest time to collect his rents. Unexpectedly, as far as the listeners to Jesus' tale would be concerned, the renters plot to beat and kill the slaves. Such an act would be stupid in the eyes of those who heard the story. A wealthy landowner versus rebellious tenants never ends well. Now, the tenants have insulted the landowner by beating and killing the slaves that he sent. Unexpectedly, of course, Jesus tells them that the landowner sent more slaves to collect the rents owed. Again, some of the slaves are beaten, and some are killed. Then, the landowner decides to send his son because the tenants will surely respect his son. The tenants are so misguided and so short-sighted that they plot to kill the son so that they might inherit the vineyard. Jesus asks what will now happen. The chief priests and the Pharisees are the “they” that answer Him. The landowner, they announce firmly, will bring those wretches to a miserable end. In so answering Jesus, of course, the Pharisees and chief priests condemn themselves.
In real life, the owner of the vineyard is unmistakably the Lord God. The slaves that He has sent to Israel, the tenants in His vineyard, are the prophets. The leaders of Israel have not treated the bulk of the prophets well. Most have been harassed. Many have been humiliated and mocked. Some have had their lives threatened. Nearly all have found themselves preaching to the leaders of a people that did not want to hear the Word of God. So it is with the Pharisees and chief priests this day of Holy Week. The parable is being lived out in their lives before their very eyes. John the Baptizer has come calling for a baptism of repentance. The prostitutes and tax collectors have heard the message, but those in power have resisted. Now the Son has come. His miracles confirm His identity, were they willing to pay attention. Like us and the others hearing the parable of Jesus, they recognize that the owner of the vineyard will bring those wretches to a miserable end. With their own words, they condemn themselves and acknowledge, however begrudgingly, the end that they face for their own culpability in rejecting God's Son. Like the renters in the story, we are told, they plot how they might have Jesus killed. We know they will succeed in a few days' time. Yet it is a path that Jesus will walk, fully conscious of the cost, that you and I might be restored to God as first born sons and first born daughters.
It is a wonderful story, of course. We know that the tomb that has His body on Friday and Saturday will be empty by Sunday. God the Father will demonstrate the truth of all that Jesus taught, as well as His power over life and death. But for those of us or those among us struggling with trying to reach loved ones with the message of the Gospel, those of us who are desperate to share His love with others in our lives, there is another important lesson in today's readings. Have you ever considered the patience of the landowner? If you had sent servants to collect your rents, and your servants were mistreated or killed, what would be your response? I daresay few of us would “try again.” I doubt many of us would take the chance of sending more servants expecting a different result. Fewer still, I think, would send an unarmed son, expecting the recalcitrant and murderous tenants to “respect” him because of his position to inherit. That would be foolish in our eyes. No, I am pretty sure we would respond with violence. Maybe we would simply call the cops and have the tenants expelled. None of us, though, would take the risk that the landowner takes.
As important as our consideration of the mercy and grace of God is an understanding of His patience. It is true that many take His patience for granted. Jesus counsels us that His return will be like a thief in the night. Many in our lives put off making a decision today, not realizing that such an act is a rejection of our Lord. The more “not today's” or “later's” that we hear, the more frustrated and disappointed we can become. It is important to remember, however, the patience of God. When time is up, either at death or at His return, time us up. But up to and until those times, we serve a Lord who exhibits incredible patience. As we were reminded in last week's readings, we serve a Lord who offers the same reward to those who worked all day and to those who barely spent any time working for Him. And, as difficult as it seems sometimes, you and I are called to mirror that patience. While we were yet not choosing Him, He was waiting on us. When He could have treated us like we would treat those who would beat and stone our servants, He chose again and again to call us to Him, to withhold the punishment we earned, to show us mercy.
And make no mistake, laboring under and mirroring His patience can be trying. We live in a country that tells us it is expected that we can have it our way in only a matter of minutes. The idea of perseverance and struggle is almost an anathema to us. The last I saw, the average American family carries north of $20,000 is consumer credit because they want what they want now. It's that lack of patience, I think, that sometimes causes us to feel frustrated in our Kingdom-building efforts. We understand and accept the Gospel, we share it, and we expect people to gravitate to it immediately. We want that despite the testimony of Scripture and the reminder we find in Jesus' story this morning. Over and over God calls Israel back to Him. Over and over Israel rejects His prophets and, by extension, Him. Even when He sent His Son, they refused to listen. But for far too often, so did many of us. Still He keeps calling all back to Him. Lovingly. Patiently.
Brothers and sisters, I know that some of you share the pain and frustration of a loved one's rejection of God. Many of you have shared stories about loved ones who have, despite your best winsome efforts and even the best efforts of others in your families, are waiting, wandering, choosing things other than God to follow. You are right to worry. You are right to feel a sense of urgency. Time might well come to an end at any moment. But until that time there is always hope. Always. Until our Lord calls them home or returns, there is always the possibility that they, like us, will repent. There is always hope that they will choose life eternal over death. Like Israel, like us, even like some of those Pharisees and chief priests from today's story after the Resurrection, they can still choose to follow Him. Prayer, faithful witness, and patience—modelling the behavior He first showed us—trusting that, in the end, His grace and mercy will draw them into His saving embrace.