Stumbling and Being Lifted Up

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 2, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80: 7-14, Philippians 3:4b-14, and Matthew 21:33-46.

At the age of 47, I find myself sometimes wondering, “At what age can I begin using a walking cane, without looking silly?” It’s not because I want the “look”, perhaps of an English gentleman or country vicar. It’s because I tend to stumble. I stumble on curbs, and sidewalks. I stumble in hallways. I fall up steps, and thankfully not down them. But it seems (to me, anyway) like I stumble easily.

Jesus talks about people stumbling in today’s Gospel. But it’s worse than just stumbling. They fall and become broken, or crushed.

The context for this Gospel, this allegory Jesus tells, is crucial. It takes place in the midst of high drama. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem, sitting on a donkey—the events we commemorate on Palm Sunday. The people on the streets have greeted him with shouts of Hosanna, signaling their perception that Jesus might be more than an itinerant preacher, more than some fringe radical, but actually might be the messiah who will save and usher in a whole new realm. Jesus goes to the temple and he overturns the tables of the moneychangers. He’s making a name for himself.

And so, when Jesus returns to the temple the next day, the temple priests, the religious leaders, see him coming and they stand their ground. And so, here in the temple, in front of the religious authorities, and probably with other people looking and listening in as best they can, Jesus tells the allegory we hear in today’s Gospel.
Jesus knows the passage from Isaiah that was our first lesson this morning. Jesus knows Isaiah as well as the temple leaders. They all known the imagery of a vineyard representing Israel, God’s chosen people. A “beloved vineyard,” which is tended with care and dedication. God has poured himself into the vineyard, and yet the vineyard is not producing. It just lies there.

Jesus builds on this image when he tells his story to the religious leaders. Jesus is reminding them that the temple is a vineyard, the people of Israel are a vineyard, and God has continually sent prophets and messengers to offer help, to point out the broken places and suggest remedies and correction, but over and over again, the prophets have been rejected. And now, God sends Jesus, God’s own son, the prophet of prophets, the gardener of gardeners, the best vinedresser around—and again, the religious authorities are rejecting the teaching of Jesus, and this rejection will build until they put him to death on a cross.

There are several important points to make about this allegory. The first is to be clear that this story is not about the followers of Jesus, who would later be called Christians, replacing the Jews as God’s people. It’s not a “Jewish-Christian” thing. It’s a “leader-people” thing. It’s the Jewish leaders who are full of themselves, corrupt, defensive, and fearful of having to adjust their power and privilege, who reject Jesus. The Jewish people themselves—which include the outsiders, the misfits, the so-called “sinful”—it’s these who embrace Jesus as a good man. They like Jesus, who eats with them, and laughs with them, and enjoys life like they do. They see Jesus as a holy prophet, perhaps the messiah. Many come to see him as the Son of God.

At some level, we might say, “Oh, then this story is about religious leaders who were corrupt and still are, so it’s not about me.” But I think the words of Jesus invite us to ask questions about authority—where do we look for authority? To whom do we give our allegiance? Who do we picture in our head approving or disapproving, when we make decisions, as we live our lives?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of “who we look to for authority” since last Sunday, when Bishop Christopher Senyonjo was with us. We had a number of visitors and I was grateful for that. But one visitor, in particular, turned out to be a young man from a very traditional and conservative part of the Anglican Communion. He came and listened. (And I noticed he had no problem with our fellowship or our food at the reception!) But then he wrote an article for his organization. The article has this false tone of objectivity, but in a very subtle way, suggests that Bishop Senyonjo is not what he appears to be. [The article for the Institute on Religion & Democracy can be found here. ] The subtext to the article is that Seyonjo is a revisionist Christian who is leading fringe followers away from traditional teachings of Christianity.

The temple priests and religious leaders of Jesus’ day would be very pleased with the article.

Do we follow structures and leaders who make us feel safe, support our prejudices, and make us comfortable with the power and privilege we wield? Or do we follow Jesus Christ who seems again and again to challenge our perspective, to open doors we didn’t even realize were closed, and to welcome every person? Some traditionally religious people suggest than one should have one’s entire life cleaned up, morally pure, doctrinally righteous and blameless—and THEN, (and only then)—the one is allowed to approach God. My understanding of Jesus is that HE is the only one who is blameless, and the rest of us have a lot of work to do, every day of our life, as long as we are this side of heaven. Life is stumbling and getting back up again.

Jesus suggests that the religious leaders of his day may very well stumble and fall on God’s truth, God’s revelation in Jesus. And their fall may well be fatal.

But for the one who puts trust in Jesus, who attempts to follow God in community, we do stumble from time to time. And we might even fall. But Christ is there to help us up. He sometimes comes in the form of extra strength we didn’t know we had. Christ sometimes comes in a new way of thinking that lifts us up off the ground. And Christ sometimes comes through other people who give us a hand, who give us an arm to hold on to or a shoulder to lean on, and who sometimes literally pick us up and carry us where we need to go.

In today’s Epistle reading, St. Paul puts it beautifully as he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Paul goes on, “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 10b-14)

Friends, let us press on in following the Christ who invites, who heals, who raises up when we stumble, and who raises us up even to eternal life. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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