Normally we think of Lent as a somewhat somber time, a time of penitence in preparation for (our remembrance of) the Crucifixion on Good Friday, followed by the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Day. However, today's readings remind us that there is more to our preparation than feeling penitent, however important penitence may be. What is important in today's teachings is dedication -- real dedication to God, carried out in our actions. In the passage from Isaiah, we are first reminded of what great things God has done in the past. But then we are told that however important these things were, we must focus on what God is doing today, in the present. He is doing new things, and he will continue to take care of his people. This is as true today as it was in Isaiah's time. Next, in the reading from Philippians, St. Paul tells us that there is nothing in this world as important as the fact that we belong to Christ Jesus: this is the ultimate prize, compared to which everything else is valueless. Finally, in the selection for St. Luke's Gospel, we are given a picture of what happens to people who try to use portions of God's world for their own purposes, rather than God's purposes, and who do not receive God's Son as they should. Jesus tells about tenants who rented a vineyard, but then refused to pay their rent, a portion of the grapes that they produced from the vineyard. The tenants gave beatings to three successive representatives that the owner sent, and sent them away without any payment. When the son of the owner came, they killed that son, in hopes that they might then take over the vineyard. What did Jesus say will happen then? "[The owner] will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others." Now in many biblical passages, when Jesus tells a parable, his followers don't understand what he means. We all sometimes have this problem -- I perhaps have a tendency to sympathize with the wrong character, and thus initially to be mystified by the outcome. For instance, it would be easy to sympathize with the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, without seeing that the older son is being quite presumptuous about what is after all, still his father's property. To the father, people are much more important than property, and property is to be used in the service of people, and in the celebration of people's reconciliation. In the parable of the lost sheep, you might initially tempted to sympathize with the ninety-nine whom the shepherd leaves to look for the lost one, without seeing that I might be the lost one, and that I could never feel safe with a shepherd who would not search for an individual who has strayed. But in this story, Jesus's followers see the point right away. Even the scribes and chief priests understand. Jesus was teaching that God will hold us accountable for two things: for whether we give God the proper proportion of what we produce using God's resources, and for how we receive God's Son. If we do not give back to God the proper portion of the benefits of what God has entrusted to us, and if we do not receive God's Son appropriately, we will be destroyed and replaced. The followers are horrified. They reject the message, saying "God forbid!" But Jesus is absolutely firm. He doesn't let anyone off the hook. Instead, He reminds the followers of what happens to those who do not properly receive God's Son: "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner." "Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one, it will crush him." Even the scribes and the chief priests got it. They wanted to lay hands on Jesus, but were afraid to, because of the people. It is easy to see why the scribes and chief priests didn't like this teaching, but why was it so upsetting to Jesus's followers that they said, "God forbid!" First, it meant that Jesus was challenging the established religious authorities of the scribes and chief priests -- people that the followers had been taught all their lives to respect. Jesus was being a revolutionary! The idea that God will destroy and replace established leaders who work their own will instead of God's can still be unsettling today. Second, the followers probably couldn't be one hundred percent comfortable that they themselves were giving God what is properly due. The Law that they knew was a very high standard. Jesus's summary commandments are quotations from the Old Testament. Who can say that they are faultlessly loving the Lord their God with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their mind, and with all their strength? And who is absolutely and unfailingly loving their neighbors as they love themselves? How then are we today to respond to what Jesus was teaching? What is the rent that we are to pay for the use of God's resources, and how are we to receive God's Son? For the rest, the answer is clear. The minimum standard of giving for Episcopalians is the tithe. A tithe is ten percent of one's income. In recent history, this standard has been reaffirmed by the elected leaders of the Episcopal Church in its General Conventions of 1982, 1988, 1994 and 1997. "Minimum standard" means that we should be giving somewhere between ten percent and one hundred percent of our income for doing God's work. How we are to receive God's Son is also clear. He says that we can recognize him in the eyes of the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, and the needy. Do we? Do we then receive him? Do we love these neighbors as we love ourselves? If we do not respond in faith, we will miss the prize that St. Paul so highly values -- Christ Jesus. If we miss this prize, we will surely be destroyed. Amen.
Lent 5 Selected Sermon
March 29, 1998