Rev. Adrianne M. Meier
St. Thomas Lutheran Church
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 21:33-46
A few years ago, I spent a lovely weekend being trained in Godly Play, which, many of you know, is a Montessori-based Sunday School curriculum. At home during dinner one evening shortly after I completed the training, we were wondering aloud in the manner of Godly Play, and I said, “I wonder where you saw God today?” This piqued then four- year-old Hope’s curiosity. “I didn’t,” she said, “Did you?” “I did,” I told her. Now she was really excited, “You did? Where? What did he look like?” Matt, meanwhile is cracking up, sending me a not-so-subtle message that the metaphor might be over my four-year-old’s head. So I went about trying salvage the conversation: “Well, yeah, most of the time I just see what God does.” “OH!” She responded as clarity descended: “I am God! My friends are God! I see God in my friends.” I’m not 100% sure we got it. I do wonder, though, how often, in her life, will she ask, “Where is God?”
Where is God? Where is God during the most contentious presidential debate of our time? Where is God when a person dies in police custody? Where is God in a classroom during COVID? Where is God on the ICU floor? Where is God when we grieve? Where is God when we are absent from the lives of those we care about most? Where is God? God is with the least and the lowest; As Richard Rohr says, “…in the depths and in the deaths of everything.”
Where is God in today’s parable? Where is God when the landowner’s son lays bleeding out on the ground? And the answer is simple: There. God is there – dying, suffering, grieved. That is where God is.
Wednesday was the anniversary of the death of Holocaust survivor, writer, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. In his book, Night, he tells the story of two men and a boy, hung for stealing food. The surviving men were made to watch as they died, the men, quickly, but the buy, too light for the rope to break his neck, slowly asphyxiated. Wiesel writes, “Behind me, I heard…[a] man asking, ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is he? This is where — hanging here from this gallows.”
This feels at once completely helpless and, somehow, the ultimate hope. I struggle to reconcile the landowner who sends his son to the slaughter, except to recall that the son was not likely a child, but a man – even a young man, with the strength and swagger of youth. He was likely fully capable of handling this situation. In this way, the text blows the so-called substitutionary atonement theory out of the water. It isn’t that the landowner demands a satisfaction from the tenants that the son fulfills with his own life. Rather, we are complicit in the act of killing the son. The Son came to do the work of the father; the work was the collecting of payment owed. The demand is that we bear fruit, that we act as if we were created in the image of God, that we endeavor to live not within the systems of this world, but within the bounds of God’s mercy and reconciliation. Gerhard Forde says that we are caught in the act of murdering the Son, an act we commit because we believe his mercy condemns our mercilessness; his justice condemns our injustice. But we are also caught by this act, because, at the end of our most heinous crime against God, the very murder of God’s self, God does not change God’s way, but responds to us absolutely predictably: gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
There is power in this story, because God comes knowing what we have the capacity to do. But God comes anyway. And like, this matters to our lives. Because God knows COVID’ll kill her, but she shows up in the ICU anyway. And God knows he might be arrested at the protest, but he shows up to call for change anyway. And when David Prude died, handcuffed, naked and in the midst of a nervous breakdown, God was there. And when people flee a wildfire engulfing their homes and communities, there, too, is God. And, I’m not sure that we ARE God when we ourselves courageously do what is necessary and what is right, but I believe we will see God when we show up to face the hardship and suffering and grief of life on earth.
Last week, our New Testament text was from Philippians, chapter 2, the great Christ hymn. Just to remind you, it goes like this:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
And it is one of my favorite texts in all scriptures. First, because it is likely the first piece of Christian liturgy. Scholars think the Philippian church created this hymn for their communal worship, and then sent it to Paul for his comments. In the meantime, they’re concerned about what Paul’s imprisonment might mean for the state of Christianity. Paul writes this powerful letter to assure them that God is still at work, even in hardship; even in imprisonment. And to this end, Paul sends back to them their own hymn. And the thing about this hymn, this is the second reason I love it, is that it tells us something important about God. When it says Jesus humbled himself, taking on the form of a slave, it reminds us that Jesus isn’t a kindly master who treats his slaves well, something the great orator Cicero spoke of, but is willing to become the lowest of the low. To the contrary, what the hymn says is that salvation isn’t a top-down experience, but a grassroots, bottom- up movement. Jesus saves us from below, elevating us to salvation. He become dead to save the dead, sick to save the sick, enslaved to liberate the slaves. He lays aside all remnants of power and privilege in order to restore humanity itself.
So what, Beloved, so what does this mean for our lives? Are we not guilty of great crimes? Should we not be convicted of the very murder of God? Of the neglect of neighbor? Or trampling the poor under foot? Of loving the cheap bought off the backs of global impoverished class? Of exploitation? Yes, and so much more. We are sinners, but we are also redeemed by the death and resurrection of Christ. Gerhard Forde says salvation is ultimately worked not because payment is made; but because, forgiven of our greatest sins, we believe that God is, in fact, merciful. And, as such, we have the greatest call and vocation yet: we have the opportunity to be witnesses of and participants in the right- side-upping of this world. We have the call and vocation, by virtue of our baptisms, to show up in depths of sorrow and helplessness. Beloved, we will yet witness the end of exploitation, the renewal of creation, the lifting up of the lowly. We will yet witness the resurrection of dead.
Matthew 21:33-46 NRSV
[Jesus is speaking to the chief priests and the elders in Jerusalem.] “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, built a watchtower, then leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, the landowner sent slaves to the tenants to collect the produce. But the tenants seized the slaves; beat one, killed another, and stoned the third. Again the owner sent other
slaves— more than the first time, and they were treated in the same way. Finally the owner sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The priests and elders said to Jesus, “The owner will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants—ones that will surrender the produce at harvest time.”
Jesus then said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of it. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.