Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. The Rev. Lee Ramsey preached this sermon October 8, 2017, at Elm Grove United Methodist Church in Burlison, Tennessee, one week after a gunman opened fire on concertgoers in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Well, do you like this parable? Probably about as much as I do. About as much as most of us like the one we read two weeks ago about the laborers in the vineyard, right? With parables like this in the Bible, who needs the mayhem we see in today’s movies and TV?
What’s particularly hard about the parable is that there is so much death and violence, so much killing and being killed, until even the son is killed, provoking the owner (God) to return and enact justice upon the leaders for their violence and for their failure to be good stewards of the vineyard. It’s not an easy parable to take. It’s hard as stone, really -- Jesus, who comes right into the parable, is the stone that will cause some to stumble and fall, and he will be the cornerstone for those who wish to build their lives upon him.
Given what happened last Sunday night, you cannot help but hear the parable in light of the terrible massacre that Stephen Paddock unleashed in Las Vegas. It was an unprovoked and, so far, unexplainable act of domestic terrorism by someone who was seemingly rational, in his own right mind -- a normal citizen whose neighbors, brother and girlfriend never suspected of being capable of such violence.
It disturbs us, as it should. His violent and premeditated murder of 58 people and wounding of 500-plus more unleashed grief and loss across this land -- just as did a much smaller but nonetheless lethal act of violence two weeks ago at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee.
What are we to do with all this violence around us? How are we as human beings and Christians to respond? We cannot and should not ignore it. The rupture is too real. But neither do we wish to wallow in misery and grief and fear. How do we live as Christians in such a world, a nation, a state, a community?
Here is where we return to the parable -- to this biblical allegory from Matthew 21. At the center of this parable are many acts of violence, culminating in the violence against Jesus, the Son of God. There is something, the parable says, quite dark within the human heart and within society that can cause any one of us, any old Stephen Paddock, to take human life into our own hands and to treat it as worthless, of no count.
We are entrusted with the riches of the kingdom, the fruits of the vineyard, as Isaiah says to the Hebrews in Isaiah 5, but instead we produce bitter fruit.
“God expected justice, but saw bloodshed,” Isaiah 5 says. “You built big, beautiful houses, in which there is room for no one but you.”
So violence reigns, the violence that we do to each other by trying to take from each other and fence each other out, and the violence that we do to ourselves when living out of the false gospel of greed and power.
Does it really need to be pointed out that Las Vegas is built upon the basest instincts of human nature -- greed and lust for power -- both of which feast upon the bitter fruit of violence and idolatry?
So God sends along messengers, prophets, other leaders to warn the people, “This way lies death,” and to show us how to be better stewards of the life that God has given us, of the vineyard that God has planted. And we kill the prophets and we stone those who are sent to us -- from Martin Luther King Jr. to John F. Kennedy, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Abraham Lincoln, from Peter and Paul to Jesus.
Every one of them says to us, all of us, the whole human family, that the violence of idolatry, greed, lust for power and domination and winning at all costs leads to more violence.
“Turn,” the prophets say.
“Come back,” Jesus says. “Repent and believe in the good news.”
“Enough is enough,” the parable says.
Stephen Paddock, yes, was acting on his own, apparently with no one else to blame. But Stephen Paddock was and is surrounded by a culture that continues to condone unspeakable violence rooted in the hardness and hatred and greed of the human heart. The place, Las Vegas, where this killing was done, is one big monument to our idolatry as a culture. All of us, myself included, worship at the feet of its idols -- money, power, entertainment, comfort and greed. When in the world is enough enough?
No, God did not and does not mean for us to live this way -- in fear and suspicion and hatred toward one another, in random and senseless acts of violence. God puts God’s stamp upon us, God’s image, and we as Christians know that there is a better way, that there are better angels in our nature. As Paul says in Philippians 2:5, “Have this mind among yourselves that was in Christ Jesus,” who took on human form and became one of us, and lived not out of the sin of greed and selfish ambition of our lower natures but out of the higher nature of servantlike love.
This better nature comes out again and again in the unselfish acts of compassion, courage and the response of the people who help others after these terrible eruptions of violence or in the aftermath of a hurricane. We know such goodness is within us, but why does it seem to take a disaster to call it forth?
We can’t save the world. That’s God’s business. But we can live more fully each day into the kingdom way that God shows and gives to us in Jesus Christ. I see lots of that kingdom way of living here at Elm Grove -- caring for those left behind, welcoming all to the table, no matter their race or sexuality or nationality or economic circumstance, saying no to greed, no to unlimited desire for power, no to violence.
Have this mind among yourselves that was in Christ Jesus, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself and became a loving servant.
This is what it means to be created in God’s image.
It’s all summed up so beautifully in Tim McGraw’s song “Humble and Kind”:
Hold the door, say please, say thank you;
Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie;
I know you got mountains to climb,
But always stay humble and kind.
When the dreams you’re dreamin’ come to you,
When the work you put in is realized,
Let yourself feel the pride,
But always stay humble and kind.
Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you;
When you get where you’re going, don’t forget, turn back around
And help the next one in line;
Always stay humble and kind.
You never know when one act of kindness, one show of concern and compassion for someone whom others ridicule or ostracize or bully will make all the difference. When you stand up for what is right and for what matters when everyone else is dazed and indifferent, or when you help a child learn to read or give a few extra dollars to someone down on his luck, or when you defend someone else’s humanity, you never know when that will be the act of love that will change a life or turn a community toward the goodness of God.
As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The question we need to keep answering is this: How do we, the leaders and the laborers of this, our vineyard, this, our world, these, our churches -- us -- how do we keep on saying to God, “Thanks for the use of the land; thanks for the vineyard. Here, God, is your portion; here, neighbor in need, is something more for you, because we already have enough”?
Remember this: Thank God we are not in charge. Thank God that the owner of the vineyard, the Creator of this heaven and earth, sees the mess we can get ourselves into and says:
“Well, if you aren’t going to turn around yourselves, if you aren’t going to mend your ways, to pray for and live out of my love and justice, I’ll send along the One who can. You can kill him, (as we did), but you cannot keep him in the grave. You can wear your violence out upon his head and upon the cross, but the stone that you reject will become the cornerstone of my kingdom. He will destroy your violence with love. He will turn your terror into compassionate forgiveness.”
So see him, brothers and sisters in Christ. Today, as violence swirls all around us in this world, see the face of love. See the resurrected Son whom God sends to show us that, as Frederick Buechner put it, “The one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully.”
See, touch, taste his loving body and blood, through bread and wine, poured out for those who bear good fruit for God’s kingdom. For those who call him Savior, Lord, loving Redeemer, compassionate Friend.
As the story says, “Come to him, the One the builders rejected who has become the chief cornerstone.”
“Come to Jesus, the chief cornerstone.”