Deacon Skip’s sermon for Sunday, October 8.
This morning’s gospel lesson is known as the parable of the wicked tenants. The allegory seems pretty clear to us. The vineyard was a traditional metaphor for Jerusalem and today we can see it as all of creation itself. God gave us creation and even fixed it up for us. It is protected by a fence and watchtower and we have even been provided with the means to take advantage of the Earth’s bounty – the winepress.
The slaves in this story are the prophets, both ancient and modern, who come among us to remind us that we are beneficiaries of this bounty and to encourage us to return a portion of that bounty to God’s service. Sounds like the perfect story for stewardship season, doesn’t it? Well, you can breathe a sigh of relief because I am not going there this morning.
The wicked tenants mistreat and even murder the slaves sent to collect the rent, planning to keep it all for themselves. They even go so far as to murder the son in their zeal to gain the illusion of control. However, we see that in the end the murder of the son is vindicated by the resurrection – in this case represented by the rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone of our faith.
This story should have been especially obvious to the chief priests and Pharisees hearing the story because it was so similar to the story that they all knew from Isaiah, the one we heard this morning. In fact, the setup for the story is almost a direct quote from Isaiah 5:2, “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it…”
So what is it that leads people to respond to God’s messengers in this way? Nowadays little seems to have changed. We still mistreat and murder modern prophets like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King
There is even more similarity between the parable in Matthew and the story in Isaiah. Isaiah touchingly talks about God’s love for His people, saying, “What more could I do for my people than I have done?” In spite of God’s tender love, the vineyard produces only wild grapes. Isaiah makes it clear what God wanted from his people: justice. Instead, God only received the wild grapes of violence. Injustice and violence are the result when we follow our own path rather than God’s.
Why are injustice and violence such characteristic responses, even today? Are we any different from the rotten grapes of Isaiah’s vineyard or the wicked tenants in Matthew’s parable? We would like to think so. But why as a country do we tolerate closing our borders to people from countries that we mistrust, countries filled with persons seeking to escape the injustice and violence of their homelands? Is it that we are paranoid that a handful of people seeking to do us harm will be included with the many that only wish to make a new life? Or is it really that we want to have full control of the vineyard ourselves, not sharing a small portion of God’s bounty with our master as he has called us to do?
And why do we tolerate government policies that seek to withhold health care from those less fortunate or tax policies that primarily benefit the wealthy and further exacerbate the disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor? Is it that we truly believe that the poor are poor solely because of their own bad choices and not because of their ethnicity or environment? Again, are withholding even a small portion of the fruits of the vineyard from the master who has blessed us with its bounty in the first place? Why does God’s call to justice disturb and threaten us so?
Because of the similarity of the parable to the story in Isaiah, the religious authorities in Matthew’s gospel should have easily seen that this was a parable against them but they did not. Jesus lead them into a trap by asking them to pass judgment on the wicked tenants and when they did so and finally realized that they had passed judgment on themselves, they became angry.
But we are not like the religious authorities; we never pass judgment on others. When confronted by someone who cuts us off on the roadways, we would never mentally apply some epithet to them about their background or heritage. When we see politicians in Washington espousing some policy with which we disagree, we would never see them as being less than well-meaning. Or when we encounter someone whose religious beliefs differ from ours, we would never consider them to be stupid or ill-informed. Even when we see neo-Nazis on TV waving their flags we would never mentally condemn them to eternal hellfire. Most importantly, we would never pass judgment on others we see as being judgmental themselves.
By leading the religious authorities into their own trap, Jesus not only wanted them to see their own sin but to teach them a lesson about passing judgment on others. The lesson is that when we judge others we are really judging ourselves. Or, as Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s gospel, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
The most common way we judge people is by stereotyping them. When we encounter homeless persons in the street, we see them as uneducated, unmotivated and probably users of drugs and alcohol. Likewise, a gardener we meet is assumed to lack formal education and, if Hispanic, probably undocumented. When I took the time to get to know the guy I call to clean out our sewer, I learned that he has a PhD in physics from Stanford. As most of you know, I dropped out of the Silicon Valley rat race for a couple of years and became “Mr. Fixit,” a general-purpose handyman. It was amazing to see how I was stereotyped. Most people never dreamed that I had degrees from both Cal and Stanford, and had started and run several businesses. I was often treated as someone of a lower class, certainly not a person to include in their social circle.
Often our judgmental nature has its origins in our background or in the isolation of the communities in which we live. Growing up, I had an uncle who was gay. In fact, his given name was Gay. He was a nice person and I enjoyed his company but my parents taught me to believe that his sexual orientation was an illness. I wondered if it was catching. My parents told me that my uncle had been in a car accident as a boy and that was why he was gay. You can imagine how confused I was when I came to San Francisco and got to know numerous gay people. At first I was tempted to ask them to tell me of the accident they had been in as children that was the source of their sexual orientation. Of course, as I got to know them, I found out how wrong was my stereotype of gays.
To me, that is the key to breaking the vicious cycle of stereotyping that leads to judgmentalism. If we take the time to meet and get to know people that are different from us, we will usually find that they are more complex than we have thought. We will begin to see that they are valued children of God just as we are and we can begin to love them as God intended.
This past week, we saw a prime example of judgmentalism. When the horrible mass shooting in Las Vegas occurred, we were all ready to assume that the perpetrator was either a terrorist or a sociopath. Although we still don’t know a lot about him, we know that he was not a member of any terrorist organization and had no history of mental illness. His greatest crime before last week’s rampage was a simple traffic ticket. Also, he was relatively wealthy, owning quite a bit of real estate. Certainly not the stereotype of a mass murderer. I am not saying that I want to get to know this guy but the incident once again makes me aware of how easy it is to judge a person and how wrong we can be when we do so. And whenever we judge another person, we do so at our own peril. As Penni Sibun reminded me this week, there is an old adage that says whenever we point a finger at someone, we have three fingers pointing back at ourselves.
Whenever we celebrate a baptism at St. Peter’s, we are all required to renew our Baptismal vows. To me, the most important vow of them all calls us to “…seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” What does it mean to seek and serve Christ in a person? It means first and foremost that there is a spark of the Christ in everyone we encounter, no matter how seemingly evil or contemptible, and we need to keep reminding ourselves of that fact and thereby withhold our judgment of that person. It says that the man who committed the horrible crime in Las Vegas is still a child of God. We can certainly condemn the act he committed but it is not our job to judge him as a person. Only God has that authority.
So my recommendation is that each time you begin to judge another, either directly or by applying a stereotype, try to remind yourself of your Baptismal covenant and accept the fact that there is always a spark of Christ within that person.