Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 8, 2017

17.10.08 “Called to Be a Prophet: Nice Work if You Can Get It” – Matthew 21: 33 – 46

Central United Methodist Church
Called to be a Prophet: Nice Work if You Can Get It
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 21: 33 – 46
October 8th, 2017


“Vineyard, Image by Jenny Downing via Flickr licensed under CC by 2.0”

Here’s another story. Listen closely. There was once a man, a wealthy farmer, who planted a vineyard. He fenced it, dug a winepress, put up a watchtower, then turned it over to the farmhands and went off on a trip. When it was time to harvest the grapes, he sent  his servants back to collect his profits.

“The farmhands grabbed the first servant and beat him up. The next one they murdered. They threw stones at the third but he got away. The owner tried again, sending more servants. They got the same treatment. The owner was at the end of his rope. He decided to send his son. ‘Surely,’ he thought, ‘they will respect my son.’

“But when the farmhands saw the son arrive, they rubbed their hands in greed. ‘This is the heir! Let’s kill him and have it all for ourselves.’ They grabbed him, threw him out,  and killed him.

“Now, when the owner of the vineyard arrives home from his trip, what do you think he will do to the farmhands?”

“He’ll kill them — a rotten bunch, and good riddance,” they answered. “Then he’ll assign the vineyard to farmhands who will hand over the profits when it’s time.”

Jesus said, “Right — and you can read it for yourselves in your Bibles:

The stone the masons threw out is now the cornerstone.

This is God’s work;

we rub our eyes, we can hardly believe it!

“This is the way it is with you. God’s kingdom will be taken back from you and  handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life. Whoever stumbles on this Stone gets shattered; whoever the Stone falls on gets smashed.”

When the religious leaders heard this story, they knew it was aimed at them. They wanted to arrest Jesus and put him in jail, but, intimidated by public opinion, they held  back. Most people held him to be a prophet of God.” – Matthew 21: 33 – 46, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson


Once again, we come to church on a Sunday morning, saddened, prayerful, fearful, even angry over the event of the week: another senseless mass murder, by a gunman with not one but 47 weapons, who used them to take the life of 59 people, injuring over 500.

While it has been a difficult week for everybody, it has not been nearly as difficult for us as for the families of all those killed or injured by the Las Vegas gunman, Stephen Paddock, or for all the law enforcement and first responders and medical personnel, who had one of the worst weeks of their lives, which they will never forget as long as they live. (One of my friends is on Las Vegas Fire & Rescue, though I think he was off duty that day.) With an incident of this magnitude, all of us have been affected.

As if to drive home the ubiquity of the threat, we got an additional shudder later in the week when it was revealed that the gunman had booked rooms at the Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, overlooking Millennium Park, during the Lollapalooza Music Festival, though fortunately he never showed. My daughter Becca and her friends attended Lollapa- looza, as did Malia Obama and others. We would like to think it was the layers of security he would have to have navigated traveling across the country that deterred him. Would that there would have been more layers of security – especially in regard to guns – that would have effectively deterred or prevented him from committing the mass murder that he did in Las Vegas.

For all of us, it raises fearful questions, to the point of making us hypervigilant. What could his motive have been? It’s a terrible thing to say, but if he was going to kill himself, why could he have not done that first, before taking 60 people with him? Who else is out there is ready to become murderous, storing up an arsenal and plotting mass murder? What public venue or mass gathering (such as today’s Chicago Marathon) might it be? As a former FF/paramedic, I already had a degree of hypervigilance, now it is worse. I advise family and friends who are traveling, anywhere, to keep their heads up, to be aware of surroundings.

Too many times, we have gathered as a congregation after such horrific events, feeling this way. Like many, after the shooting and killing of

20 elementary school children at Newtown five years ago, I thought something would finally change. But I was wrong: nothing changed and such incidents continue to happen, in escalating numbers.

In addition, we should not forget that 50 victims a month die through gun violence here in Chicago, but perhaps we have become inured to this or even given up knowing what to do about it. But the factor is the same: people dying through gun violence, with guns being the common factor. In macabre humor, it’s like the old joke about the man getting drunk on Monday on vodka and soda water, on Tuesday on gin and soda water, and on Wednesday, whisky and soda water: “Obviously, it’s the soda water!” Duh!

So – what to think, what to say, what to do? At first glance, our Gospel for today – Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants – seems to  offer us nothing; early in the week when I first looked at it I thought, “Ugh, I don’t want to preach that.” Murder in the Vineyard; sounds like something out of Agatha Christie. But after the events of the week, the more I thought about it, the more I begin to hear the Word of God to in this story.

It – too – is a story about violence, gangs in the vineyard. When the Vineyard owner sent out his servant to collect the produce, the gang of tenants or sharecroppers or farmhands beat him up. He sent another servant, they stoned him. He sent another, they killed him. The Landlord – not thinking clearly – says, “I know; I’ll send my son, they’ll respect him!” As we expect, they beat up the Landlord’s son and kill him, throwing his  body out of the vineyard. (Thankfully, at least, they didn’t have AK-47’s).

As with all of Jesus’ parables, it is only a story. But after this story, Jesus turned to his hearers, the priests and religious authorities gathered around him in the temple, and said: “Now, when the owner of the vineyard arrives home from his trip, what do you think he will do to the farmhands?”

And they answered: “He’ll kill them — the dirty rotten scoundrels, and good riddance,” they answered. “Then he’ll assign the vineyard to farmhands who will hand over the profits when it’s time.”

Then – getting in their face – looking them in the eye – pointing a  finger at them, Jesus says:

“This is the way it is with you. God’s kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life.”

Did they get the point?

“When the religious leaders heard this story, they knew it was aimed at them. They wanted to arrest Jesus and put him in jail, but, intimidated by public opinion, they held back. Most people held him to be a prophet of God.”

We can imagine how that went over, the time when the clock on Jesus’ life began ticking if it wasn’t from the day he was born. I remember once sitting in a meeting with a Catholic priest, as well as most of the local park district. There was an issue about the overuse of a soccer field, and – in  plain language – the priest accused them of racism. Judging by how red the Director got, I thought for a second he was going to explode, but to his  credit he restrained himself, and dealt with the accusation civilly. I can imagine the reaction of the religious authorities, when Jesus said what he  did to them.

Think about it: did Jesus get killed because he healed sick people? Because he fed the hungry? Because he was a super nice guy, polite and considerate  of  everybody?  No,  he  got  killed  because  he  criticized  the

authorities, threatening their prestige, their power, and especially their income. (Always follow the money!) Crucifixion was a death reserved specifically for rebels against Rome, that was the charge for which they condemned him to death, as a warning to any other prospective rebels.

And while Jesus may have been a rebel, what he really was, was a prophet, As the text says, “all the people considered him a prophet.” In the Hebrew tradition, a prophet was not one who so much FORETOLD the future, as one who FORTHTOLD the truth in the present, to whomever it concerned, whether priests or kings, according to the Word of God given them.

While this story may reflect tensions between Jews and Christians later in the 1st century, when it was written; while it sowed the seeds for Christian accusation and persecution of Jews once Christians became the dominant majority, there is no doubt that in his time, through his words and stories and actions, Jesus was a mighty prophet, in the tradition of Moses and Elijah and Isaiah and Jeremiah. And that’s what got him killed, just as it does prophets before or after, right up to our own time.

Like some of you, I recently watched Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. Although I did not go to Vietnam, the Vietnam years were the backdrop of my youth. One of the most painful episodes was to watch spanned the year 1968, (I was a junior in High School) when – within the space of three months – both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy were killed by assassin’s bullets, gun violence. For those of us who remember, historically and personally, that was a difficult time. But even so, I’m not sure it was worse than now, when our leaders are safe – protected  as they are by layers of security – but the rest of us – school children and churchgoers and nightclub and concert goers – are fair game, unprotected from murders with an arsenal of assault rifles.

Anybody willing to be a prophet today? Anybody willing to follow Jesus and speak up about what’s wrong – and what should be right – about God’s Vineyard, whether we view that as Church or Society? You don’t have to be  a preacher to do this; it is part of our baptismal statement, when we become Christian: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?“ And we say – with a gulp – “I do.”

Some people say the Church – and especially pastors – should stay out of politics, especially in the pulpit. If you are talking about  PARTISAN politics, I agree. I fully support the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 provision in the U.S. tax code, that prohibits all non-profit organizations, including religious  organizations  such  as  churches,  from  endorsing  or  opposing

political candidates. Many conservative churches and Christians are pushing President Trump to repeal that; I do not agree; I think it would be a poison pill for the Church and I personally would not attend a church that does that.

Politics, on the other hand, is a non-partisan necessity that we must all engage in, if we care about the society we live in. The word “politics” – as also “policy” and “political” and “politician” – come from the Greek word “polis,” which means “city.” Politics is about how we govern where we live, whether city, state, or country. It is about constitutions and laws and government, how we create and participate in a just and  free society. Politics is old and honorable, and has been thought about since Confucius and such ancient Greeks such as Socrates and Aristotle. Politics – the state of society – deserves the full attention of citizens and leaders, pagans and Christians, pastors and people.

If we do not participate – if we do not fulfill our Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power – then we will not only NOT reap the benefits but suffer the consequences, as we are right now in our violence-drenched society, where everyone has the right to own as many guns of that they want, but apparently no one has the right to healthcare. If we as churches and Christians take the easy path and only concern  ourselves with trivial things – if we only sit in our pews and sing praise songs

– we run the risk of not only accommodating evil, but becoming accessory to it. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

It was the Chicago novelist Saul Bellow who once said: “Being a prophet is nice work if you can get it. But to be a prophet, sooner or later, you have to talk about God.” I believe the reverse is also true: “If you’re going to talk about God, sooner or later, you are going to have to be a prophet.”

So welcome – my brothers and sisters – to the venerable and always endangered band of God’s prophets. Stand up! Speak out! This is the Word of God for the People of God. Amen.


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