Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Call to Serve: Authority and a Few Other Things

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father; from Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior; and from the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter. Amen.

These are unusual times we are living in, aren’t they? Such dramatic change in just a week. The cancellation of major festivals, major sporting events, school classes, even worship. A declaration of a world-wide pandemic. Travel restrictions. The shutting down of offices and other buildings. The upheaval in the stock market and the oil market. It might almost feel for us as though we are in the midst of a cosmic change. 

Similarly, the direction of my sermon has changed dramatically from where I first started. Because everything is just changing. Quickly. So, today, I’m going to touch on six different topics that may seem completely unrelated. It is my hope (and my prayer!) that, by the end, I will have been able to weave them together. So, here they are: Authority. Vineyards. Economic systems. David Brooks. Pandemics. And Luther (and a little bit of Bonhoeffer!). 

Topic number one. Authority. The question of authority is at the heart of our text today. It isn’t part of our Gospel reading, but, if you back up to the very end of chapter 11, to the part that just precedes today’s reading, the questions that Jesus is asked by the chief priests, the legal experts, and the elders - in other words, the religious leaders. The two questions they ask of Jesus are: “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? And who gave it to you?”

You see, since the very beginning of Mark, Jesus has been throwing his authority around all over the place. Healing people who are sick. Restoring sight to the blind. Releasing demons from people. (Demons, who, by the way, know and recognize Jesus’ authority.) The authority of Jesus has been oozing out all over the place. So, when he is asked this question by the religious leaders about his authority, his response is to tell them a parable. About a vineyard. 

Jesus spoke to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the winepress, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. When it was time, he sent a servant to collect from the tenants his share of the fruit of the vineyard. But they grabbed the servant, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Again the landowner sent another servant to them, but they struck him on the head and treated him disgracefully. He sent another one; that one they killed. The landlord sent many other servants, but the tenants beat some and killed others. Now the landowner had one son whom he loved dearly. He sent him last, thinking, They will respect my son. But those tenant farmers said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ They grabbed him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

“So what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read this scripture, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes?”

They wanted to arrest Jesus because they knew that he had told the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd, so they left him and went away. --Mark 12:1-12. 

Topic number two. Vineyards. The image of a vineyard is common in scripture. I counted it up yesterday and the word is used 118 times through both testaments. In the Hebrew scripture, there are 95 references alone to the imagery of vineyards. Last fall, we heard a love song about a vineyard in Isaiah 5. Well, really, it was a break up song about a vineyard and its owner, where Israel was portrayed metaphorically as the well-tended, but unproductive vineyard of Yahweh. 

Would it surprise you to learn that the description of the vineyard in today’s reading is the same description as the one in Isaiah, which was a vineyard with a pit for a winepress and a watchtower?Planted by a man who characterizes the vineyard as his beloved Israel. This beloved community that he has cared for and guided and served. And that has responded, in turn, with injustice and bloodshed.

In Mark’s gospel parable, there’s still a landowner. And a vineyard. But there’s a little twist, added characters to the story. Tenant farmers. And slaves. And a son.

Now, we with our 21st century understanding, might be a little offended by this parable and, particularly, of the imbalance of power between the wealthy landowner and the tenant farmers, who are really sharecroppers. But, if we remember that parables use common elements that are understood by the audience to teach them something they don’t understand, we have to look at this parable with first century eyes.

Because this practice was common under Roman rule. It even has a term connected to it - latifundia. These were great landed estates specializing in crops for export, such as grain, olive oil, or wine. They were the closest example in ancient times to our industrialized agriculture. And their economics depended entirely upon slavery.

Topic number three. Economic systems. If this economic system of Rome sounds familiar, it should. Because, it’s a practice that has been carried down through centuries. Such as by European monarchies who often gave large grants of land to reward services by people to them or their empire - exactly how parts of the US were settled. It’s a model we learned well as we created a similar economy built on slavery. On people. Human beings imported as chattel to prop up and sustain unjust economic systems. That pit poor people against other poor people. That benefit the wealthy. Economic systems that still persist today. 

Whatever we understand about this vineyard, it is clear that something is amiss. That there is a power struggle happening here. Between the owner and the tenants. First, the tenants try to flip the power. Then, the owner takes back the power and gets in new tenants.

Now, I have to stop for just a moment and make a corrective here. For way too long this parable has been used as a parable to talk about the end of Israel as God’s beloved and Christians as the “new tenants” in the story. That the Jews had their shot and now it's time for Christians. This is simply wrong. And hurtful. Because there’s an interesting word in verse 9. The word translated “destroy.” In Greek, it’s a term that is used to describe the destruction of evil as a result of an apocalyptic upheaval. Its use here suggests that the destruction carried out by the landowner is not about a people, but a cosmic battle between good and evil. And that Jesus, the cornerstone, is in the midst of this battle. A battle that will result in the destruction of evil and of evil systems that continue to exploit people and creation. 

And, if you still don’t think that this parable is about economic systems, then look at the very next part of the story. When the religious leaders realize that Jesus is talking about them, they get angry and they want to arrest and destroy him, but they can’t because of the crowd. So, they send others to entrap him. By talking about nothing other than money. And taxes. Boom.

They sent some of the Pharisees and supporters of Herod to trap him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you’re genuine and you don’t worry about what people think. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?”

Since Jesus recognized their deceit, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a coin. Show it to me.” And they brought one. He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” His reply left them overcome with wonder. --Mark 12:13-17. 

The religious leaders send two groups - Pharisees and Herodians - who approach Jesus with flattery and false praise, and then hit him up with a question to which there is no good answer. And Jesus knows it. So, he answers with a non-answer. But, first, he asks them for a coin. And they give him a Roman coin, with a picture of Caesar on it. By giving him this coin, they implicate themselves - that they have bought into an economy that they decry. Because, as Jesus points out, if you participate in an economy, then you have a responsibility. To pay taxes.

But, do you notice that Jesus doesn’t have a coin with the image of Caesar in his pocket? Is this a message that, perhaps, he is rejecting the entire economy of the empire, particularly one that exploits the poor? 

Which brings me to topics number four and five. David Brooks and Pandemics. On Thursday, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote in the NY Times about what pandemics do. How they drive people apart. Because in these moments, fear can drive people. It can drive us away from each other as the possibility of death drives away concern for no one but ourselves and our loved ones. Witness the hoarding and panic buying over these past few days. Witness the privilege that allows us to be able to afford to hoard, when we know that pandemic always hits the poorest and most vulnerable in our community the hardest. All out of fear.

But, it’s not only fear that drives people in times of pandemic. So does shame. Because in the midst of pandemic, hard, life-and-death choices have to be made. They’re being made today. By doctors in Italy, for example, who because of a limited number of ventilators, are having to decide who gets one and who doesn’t.

But, these hard choices are not all that drives shame. As Brooks was researching the 1918 flu pandemic for his column, he was surprised by how few books or plays had been written about it. He wrote that roughly 675,000 American lost their lives in that one year, compared with 53,000 dead in the four-year period of World War 1. Yet, little was written about it. It seemed to leave almost no mark in culture. Why? Because, when it was over, people would not talk about it because they were ashamed at how they had responded. With one exception. Healthcare workers. Who responded then, as they do today, with heroism and compassion.

Which brings me to my final topic. Number six. Luther. (And that little bit of Bonhoeffer!) In 1527, ten years after the Reformation, the bubonic plague, which had been winding its way through Europe, struck Wittenberg, Germany. The political leader of this area, Elector John, fearing for the safety of Luther and the other professors at Wittenberg University, ordered them to leave town. Luther, along with another professor, refused. Instead he stayed to minister to those who were sick and frightened. Seventeen days later, there were 18 deaths, including the wife of the mayor, who died in Luther’s arms. Eventually, the plague receded. Yet soon after, clergy from a neighboring town now affected by it, wrote him a letter to ask his advice. Whether they should stay to serve the community or whether they should leave to preserve their own lives.

Here’s what he had to say. “This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running….If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him….”

In addition, he also said was that, in the process of serving our neighbor, we were to use our brains. To follow careful safety precautions. To use care to prohibit spread. All of the things that we are doing today.

Now, just a little bit of Bonhoeffer. After being arrested, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for some time as he awaited his fate. It was in this time that he truly began to reflect what it meant to be human. And to be true community. To be a beloved community. He wrote: "To be Christian does not mean to live in a specified religious way...but, it means to be human, not a particular human type. Christ creates true humanity in us. It is not religious acts that a Christian does, but participation in the suffering of Christ in worldly life.” 

Dear friends, we are in unusual times. Are they part of some apocalyptic cosmic change to overturn unjust economic systems in our world? I don’t know. But, what I do know is that we have been created to be in beloved community with one another and with the world, especially where there is suffering, because this is where we will find Christ. We have been called to serve those here in our congregation and in the world who are most vulnerable and at risk. To take care to stop the spread of this disease. And, mostly, to love and support one another in this time of fear and anxiety. 

We do this, not because it will gain us salvation, but because salvation has already been gained for us. By God’s authority in Christ, who is our chief cornerstone and our true vine. Who frees us and, then, nourishes us so that we might go out into the world and with the Holy Spirit beside us bear fruit in the beloved vineyard of God. 

May God guide and keep us in this time. Amen.

Preached during virtual worship on Sunday, March 15, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Lent 3
Reading: Mark 12:1-17

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