Sermon – Sunday, October 5, 2014
St. Luke’s Lutheran Church – Felton, PA
Matthew 21:33-46 & Philippians 3:4b-14
“You’ve gone too far! This time you’ve just gone too far!” Have you heard these words before? Was it as a child when your behavior got out of control? Maybe you didn’t listen when your parents told you to stop and something happened. Perhaps you fought with a brother, sister, or friend and a lamp broke, someone got hurt, there was blood, then crying, then…..your parents showed up and you heard the words, “You’ve gone too far!”
Or maybe it was an idea you had that got out of hand like the owner of the vineyard in today’s difficult story. He built a lavish vineyard filled with prize vines that would grow the best grapes in the valley, installed a state of the art wine press that would make the work easier, dug a strong fence to keep out intruders of all kinds, and a watchtower to make sure everyone on the property was safe. The landowner spent a lot of time and money to prepare this, and more importantly, a lot of love. He wanted it to be a place where everyone enjoyed coming to work. It wasn’t just another vineyard. It was the vineyard. It was the place to be.
So why did he go away? Where did he go? That’s the question on my mind as I read this challenging text, a text that I wouldn’t have chosen to preach on, but maybe one that needs to be heard. After all that hard work, the landowner leased it out to other tenants to run it for him. Granted, I’m sure he chose tenants carefully, but how could he leave such a place in the hands of someone else? He must have trusted them a lot. How could he have ever known that these tenants whom he trusted would go too far in their thirst for more. All he wanted was what was rightfully his. How could he know that they would turn on him like this? He must have thought they were out of their minds. Surely it was an accident that they killed the servants. They wouldn’t be so cruel. They wouldn’t do this to their owner’s servants, he must have thought to himself. And so he sent more servants, but when they treated them the same way he knew it was no accident. Something terrible had seized them. And so the landowner decided to send his son because they would respect him and he would get to the bottom of what was going on.
But what was the landowner thinking? If someone kills the people who are working for you why on earth would you send your own child? It’s easy to see that the tenants had gone too far. Their greed for what was not theirs had spiraled out of control. They wanted more than their fair share. They wanted it all, not just their portion. They wanted the whole vineyard. They had gone crazy with greed. They were obsessed, trying to satisfy their craving for more and more wealth. And like an addict, they couldn’t stop anymore. Greed had taken control of them. There’s no rationalizing with someone in that state. Yet this is why it is unfathomable that the owner would send his son! You can hope all you want, but then there is reality. The owner thought the tenants would come to their senses and realize what they did was wrong. They’d realize that they had gone too far. That’s a wonderful hope, but sometimes hope is not enough. And I can’t help but feel that the owner himself had gone too far. Maybe he shouldn’t have left the vineyard in the first place and then none of this would have happened.
Oh how many times have we said that very thing to each other when we are dealing with a painful situation. We blame each other when things go terribly wrong. “If you were here this never would have happened.” Or “If you didn’t do this or didn’t go there, then the person I love would still be alive, we wouldn’t be facing this problem, we wouldn’t be suffering.” It can get down-right ugly when we go there – down the road of blame.
And God is not exempt from this. We hear it in the Psalms, the deeply honest and heart felt laments to God. The pain they express is tangible, as in today’s psalm (80). “Why have you broken down its walls so all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” It’s as if God is reveling in their suffering. The psalmist wants to know why God caused the catastrophe to happen. And other psalms like psalm 10 ask “Why O Lord do you stand far off? And even Jesus echoed the anguish of the psalmist from psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sometimes it seems that God has abandoned us and we cry out, “You’ve gone too far! This time God, You’ve just gone too far!”
The cries of the psalmists are our cries today. I’ve uttered these words myself many times to God. “Why did you take away the person I love? Why did you let someone I love suffer? Why didn’t you do something about this situation? Where are you God?” Sometimes it seems like God has abandoned us like the owner of the vineyard. And we cry out to God that if God were here none of it would have happened. It’s a dark place to be in. And I know that we’ve all been there at one time or another. In fact, sometimes it seems that the bad news keeps raining down on us like acid rain and it burns and it doesn’t let up.
And to add to our personal pain we are surrounded by news reports of evil gone too far out of control in our communities and around the globe. Reports of murder, rape, homelessness, and poverty are increasing. There is fear and even panic as we look for someone to blame…the government, terrorists, foreigners…and soon even innocent people become suspects and enemies. It seems at times that God has abandoned this beautiful vineyard, this world created out of love, and we are left to fend for ourselves. Evil has gone too far, just like the evil acts by the tenants in today’s story.
But the problems we face and the evil that continues to escalate are no more God’s fault than it was the owner of the vineyard. It’s sin. Sin is at the heart of these problems. And thought the Creator of the universe planted seeds of love, sin has corrupted it all and sown seeds of greed and hatred and violence. Sin has gone too far and so God sent Jesus so that sin would not destroy us. Jesus was thrust into the heart of violence in order to put an end to it. Yet like the son in the vineyard, sin killed Jesus and it seems as though sin and death have won. Ask anyone going through trial after trial. Where is the hope?
Hope is found in the midst of the darkness, in the midst of the anguish, when faith breaks through. We hear this faith through the words of Paul speaking clearly through the dark walls of his prison cell in Ephesus. Paul doesn’t feel God is too far, but right there with him. Once a persecutor of the faith, now Paul writes to the Philippians how he has been transformed by the saving power of the resurrected Christ. Because of Christ, Paul has abandoned his own righteousness, and clings to the righteousness of Christ. Because of Christ, Paul has abandoned his own desires toward greed, wealth, and power and given himself up for the call of Christ Jesus. Christ has made Paul His own and so Paul writes to the congregation in Philippi not to lose heart because he is away, but to be good stewards and bold proclaimers of the gospel. Paul urges the early congregation to do the work of the kingdom as the owner of the vineyard wanted the tenants to do. The tenants did not want to listen to the voices of truth from the servants, but Paul urges the early Christians in Philip to listen to his voice, a servant of Christ. He urges them to press on toward the goal of knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection and making Christ known to others.
It is both a privilege and responsibility to be stewards of what God has entrusted to us. We are to care for what God has entrusted to us for everything belongs to God. Nothing is ours, not even our own lives, for we belong to God. And we who follow Christ have been entrusted to be bold proclaimers of the gospel and examples of what it means to be like Christ. God is not an absentee landlord. God is not a distant parent. God, through the revelation of Jesus Christ, is here in our midst – Emmanuel – God with us. In the sacraments of water and word, bread and wine, we feel that most tangibly.
Yes, you could say God has gone too far. God has gone too far in loving us. The Pharisees responded that when the landowner returned he would punish the tenants severely. They said he would “put those wretches to a miserable death.” But that is the response from the depths of human sin and understanding. Human sin deals with retaliation and violence, but God deals with sin through extreme love and forgiveness. God went too far – too far from the glories of heaven to descend to earth to become human and to save us from ourselves. Why? All so we would inherit the kingdom. The tenants killed the servants thinking they had to in order to inherit the vineyard, but it was already going to be shared with them by the owner. They could not see what was right before their eyes. They were deluded by their addictions to greed and power and control. They wanted to hold on to what they wanted with all their might and take it by force if necessary. But when you hold on too tight you lose it all, sometimes even your own soul.
Paul urges the early Christians and us today to cling to Christ and the power of His resurrection. Through our baptism, we like Paul have been buried with Christ and have the promise that we will also share in Christ’s resurrection. And because of this promise we “forget what lies behind and strain forward with outstretched arms to what lies ahead.” We do not have to be paralyzed by the past or by fear. We do not forget what has happened but press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. We do not already have this prize, but we are constantly focused on it.
When we feel like the journey is too hard and we have gone too far, we are reminded through faith that we have a God whose love has gone even further. For God too presses on toward the goal of drawing all people back to God through the power of the cross, the goal of raining down grace upon grace to those who don’t even deserve it because that is the God we experience in Christ. A God who goes too far – too far to show us how much we are loved and cherished. The outstretched arms of Christ cannot reach too far for a love that deep has no limits. It has no boundaries. It has no end. None of us are too far gone that God’s love cannot penetrate into our hearts and transform us through the power of the resurrection.
God has not abandoned us, but is with us and ready to transform us through the Word, the Sacraments, and the love we show toward one another. God’s gifts of grace and forgiveness are ready to restore us and give us the strength to press on toward the goal of experiencing Christ and the power of His resurrection. God has gone so far for us – too far to comprehend. And so in gratitude we keep our eyes on that prize and run with outstretched arms of love toward all sharing the gospel of love and mercy and grace, working toward justice for all, and daring like Christ to go too far. Amen!