THE CHURCH'S ONE FOUNDATION
A Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46
Have you seen our October newsletter? Look for an article inside entitled "Construction Site." It's music to my ears! Although we haven't suffered earthquake damage like our National Cathedral did, we are getting ready - this week! - to restore, preserve and protect All Saints' historic buildings, starting with the Foundation and Drainage Repair Project. This will include removing the stone steps behind you, down to Church Street, then reseating them, so that they are level. I have seen more than one person take a tumble down those steps. It's time to make it safer and easier for all to come and go from this sacred place.
Yes, as we get ready to replace those steps and that noisy, long-suffering air conditioning system, as we get ready to make the memorial garden totally accessible to everyone at any time of day or night, I hear music! As we get ready to inconvenience, equally, everyone who wants to enter our front doors...as we prepare to tell brides and grooms they can't have a Church Street "photo op"...as we await all those who will ask, every Sunday: "Just how long will this take?" - I hear singing! As I ask each and every one of you to "PLEASE! BE PATIENT!" with what we hope will be a restoration that will end before Christmas - MY prayer is, "Please, God, help all this be done before Midnight Mass!" - the words of a familiar hymn come to mind. It's not "The Church's One Foundation" (is Jesus Christ our Lord)." It's not even the words from a children's song I shared with you a few weeks ago: "The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a..."clustered spire"...the church is the people."
No, what came to me, unbidden, as I prayed over this week's Gospel story - yet another tale Jesus tells to priests, elders and Pharisees in the temple, yet one more prophetic provocation of those pious religious leaders - were these words:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing,
Our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe does seek to work us woe
With craft and power great, and armed with cruel hate,
On earth without an equal.
Unlike God, our mighty fortress, the bulwark called All Saints' Episcopal Church, is, in some ways, failing. Amid the floods and rains of the past century, water has been seeping in through the stones. The half-century-old heating and air-conditioning system is giving up the Ghost. It's time to do something about it. Thank God for all of you who are making it possible to do the right thing for these glorious buildings through our recent "Living Stones" capital campaign. But this is not just about the buildings. This is not just about historic preservation, important as that is. All Saints' Parish has been failing, not just in the building department, but also in the bodies and the bucks departments.
Like most other mainline churches across this beloved country, All Saints' has been experiencing decline in attendance (bodies) and giving (bucks) over the past few years, compared to those good, old glory days. The reasons for church decline are legion. I believe, however, that those reasons have something in common: the crafty, cruel power of hate. Hate, if we are honest, that we can actually understand. Hate that comes from those who will never love "the church" because of what the church has done to them in the name of Christ. Hate that comes from those who have always loved the church but have been unable to tolerate others who love the church in a different way. Hate that comes from those who have a "love-hate" relationship with the church, their hate being strong enough to get in the way of and even destroy their love.
Martin Luther was on to something about the destructive power of hate when he wrote the words to the hymn we know as "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." Some scholars believe Luther may have been responding to the death of a dear friend whom the church had burned at the stake. Whatever his reasons, Martin Luther sat down nearly 500 years ago, prayed over today's Psalm (46), paraphrased it and it became a hymn. The words, now translated into more than fifty languages, were updated thirty years ago. They're in your bulletin, and we'll sing them at the end of this service. By the way, there's a typo in the final stanza: it's "Let goods and kindred go, this morTal life also." Please put a "t" - or you might call it a cross - in that word. This hymn has stood the test of time and is a symbol of Luther's contribution to the Great Reformation of the church - a reformation that continues, even to this day.
Luther called music, especially congregational singing, "a gift from God," a way in which "the Gospel can be preached and (in which) Christ's victory (over the destruction and death in our lives can be) celebrated" (Praying Twice: The Words of Congregational Song, p. 69). He saw Christ as triumphant over the evils of his day, evils that faced the church as "devils...threatening to undo us," grim, earthly powers that seemed to be without equal. One way to think about devils is to consider them angels - not of our better nature, but of our fallen state. God made us, the Psalmist says, a little lower than the angels (8:6), and both angels and human beings can fall from grace.
We say that we are made in God's image. But our lifelong struggle is about living into God's likeness. Time and time again, we fall down on the job of being more like God, of trying to live more like Jesus. Bishop Sutton reminded a group of us clergy this week that "We are all imperfect Christians. No exceptions." When our shadow side is so dark that the light of Christ struggles to shine through us, it will be our "mortal ills," our deadliest diseases that "prevail." Diseases like...hate. When our hate is cruel and great, our imperfections, our failures and our sins may become the only thing others experience in us.
Which brings us back to the story of what one Bible translation calls "The Greedy Farmhands." This story is an allegory, in which "every word and image stands for something other than what is actually being said" (Feasting on the Word, p. 141). In Jesus' time, the landowner is God, the nation of Israel is the vineyard and the tenant farmers are the religious leaders of the temple to whom Jesus tells his tale. Yes, this allegory is all about them. In case you haven't noticed, these guys aren't just greedy. They are insatiable. They never get enough. They are proof that, left to our own devices, human beings throughout the centuries will not only bite the hand that feeds them, they will even kill the One who loves them, consuming all that they can - money, power, control.
It doesn't start with greed and hate. It starts with...rejection. The landowner has been most generous, letting the tenant farmers take occupancy of the vineyard. But they think that being in charge means they own the place. The farmers fool themselves into thinking that they are aggrieved rulers of their own little universe. And they respond to what feels like a violation of their territory - How dare those slaves take what we have produced? - by violently rejecting the slaves - who represent the former and latter Hebrew prophets - and, in an act of ultimate violence, by killing the landowner's son, who, of course, is Jesus.
"Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" Jesus asks, and he doesn't have to wait for an answer. "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time." The religious leaders want those tenants in the story to suffer, not realizing that, to paraphrase that great teacher Pogo, they have met the enemy, and they are them. "I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you," Jesus replies to the leaders who, like the hateful, greedy farmhands, thought the kingdom was all theirs. Those miserable wretches in the vineyard and the temple have not been saved by amazing grace. They have rejected the one who could have become the cornerstone of their faith.
The religious leaders of Jesus' day were clueless. They did not "get it." They did not know that this was all about them. Well, do the religious leaders and followers of our own day - do we get it? It's Fall, the church's season for Stewardship, and when the church or other non-profits ask us over the next few months to give our fair share for a new year's budget, how do we see ourselves? Maybe we think we are the landowners, and everyone ought to bow down to us. Maybe we think we are the farmers, filled with envy and armed with cruel hate, threatening to undo anyone who has more than we do. It's easy to get angry and even be filled with rage these days at the injustice of our economic system, angry with those who have not yet come to justice for what they have done to create a Great Recession. Just how much is enough for them? For us?
Today, who will get the fruits of the vineyard? "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom." When we turn to Jesus, who is not just a son but a stone, the chief cornerstone of the church's one foundation, when we embrace the stone that the builders rejected, it will not always be fun for us. In fact, Jesus the cornerstone will break open our pride and prejudice and trip us up on our sin and selfishness, our greed and guilt, our excesses and entitlements. Jesus will do this, more often than we like, by breaking us down, so that he can build us back up again. Once we have fallen down, Jesus will start building up our lives - as Christians and as a church of living stones, set on his strong foundation.
Luther's hymn speaks of triumph, the triumph of God's truth. "The body they may kill; God's truth shall triumph still; God's reign endures forever." Sometimes, when the foundation of a building literally begins to crumble, or when levels of conflict shake our pillars like an earthquake, or when economic tsunamis threaten our lives, it feels like we just might die. The truth is that God wants us not to fear or die, but to live. The truth is that cruel hate, leading to unresolved conflict and destroyed relationships, is not what the church is about. The truth is that reconciliation and restoration and re-construction, healing and hope and love is what the church is all about. The truth is that All Saints' is God's church, that Jesus is the church's cornerstone, our one, true foundation, and we are just tenant farmers, trying to be better stewards than the greedy ones or the clueless ones we've been hearing about today.
Dear friends in Christ, in the midst of our reformations and renovations, fear not. Fear not. God has set Jesus at the corner of our faith. And Jesus is telling us, God's living stones, that God's kingdom is here, among us, and that God's reign endures forever.