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That I Might Gain Christ

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46 Bigfork Community United Methodist Church October 4, 2020, – 18th Sunday after Pentecost

We live in a week when there is contention about public health measures, the Supreme Court, health insurance, a pandemic and probably, a few things I am forgetting to mention.

Paul makes it simpler for us though. “How do I gain Christ?” he asks us to ask ourselves. “What do I do now…and what do I forsake now…to achieve that upward call?”

We stand at a remote vantage point from the day he asked that question. We know many things he did not…and many things have happened since that day that he could not have dreamt about.

But in another way, we stand at the same vantage point Paul did. One day, people will look back hundreds, then thousands, of years and ask, “How did they know?” or “How could they not have known?”

One of those “How did they know?” moments happened long before Paul, in the wilderness, as Moses was leading God’s people forward from bondage to freedom.

There was complete freedom there and then…and a need for law and order. It reminds me of the stories of the old west, vigilantes, and the need to plant more churches, schoolhouses and hardware stores.

They were proof that civilization had made it that far… geographically and temporally. A family that came to such a place would know they could stop there and become part of a safe… relatively safe…nurturing community.

The convention for cathedrals is to have their front door face the west, where all the storms (and chaos) came from. There were images of chaos as you entered, but as you proceeded to the other end of the sanctuary, you found images of perfection…and one image in particular…of the Madonna and child.

From chaos to perfection…the work of God in the world. In the meantime, until the Promised One comes, we have the scriptures to keep us together…to keep us one.

John Wesley pondered this problem many times and he settled the question with what we call the Wesley Quadrilateral. To sort your thinking out, look first to Scripture. What does the Good Book tell us about that?

If that leaves you uncertain, look to the traditions of your faith. How have we always done it?

If that doesn’t lead to clarity, what does your reason tell you about the truth? What makes sense?

And if even these three leave you wondering, sort through your experiences to seek understanding. Was there a time when I was in a similar situation? What happened then and how did that work out?

Scripture. Tradition. Reason. Experience. A way to sort through the mysteries of life.

And we encounter one of the most famous scriptures in the Bible today: The Ten Commandments. This is certainly scripture that Jesus would have known. They are a tradition that would have been second nature to a faithful Jewish man in his day.

So he had the scripture and he was part of a traditional community. So what happened when he applied his reason to it?

The Ten Commandments fall into two broad categories. Have no other gods, worship no idols, do not take the Lord’s name in vain and keep the Sabbath holy can be summed up as Love the Lord your God with all your mind, heart, soul and strength.

The rest…honor father and mother, do not kill, do not steal, do not covet…come down to Love your neighbor as yourself.

It makes it sound so simple…until we try to apply it to our situation.

So this morning, Jesus talks to us… and the temple priests…about a passage from Isaiah…about an important scripture. The priests are talking to him about how important it is for him to adhere to the traditions that have been in place for 500 years…so he goes back to scripture that is even older to find guidance that applied to that time and that place.

In Isaiah 5, the prophet tells about the vineyard of God, which is very much like the vineyard Jesus describes today. Isaiah’s beloved, God, has a vineyard on a fertile hill; He builds a watchtower and hews out a wine vat, expecting to grow good grapes.

But only wild grapes grow. Good grapes are the fruit of the spirit. Wild grapes are worldly…less than worthy of God.

So we can see Jesus drawing the priests into scripture in response to their demand that he follow tradition. He goes on, then with experience…the kind of experience that he is having with them.

The priests are the wild grapes…not fruit of the spirit, but fruit of the world…imperfect and usurping the nourishment that is meant for the living who produce good fruit.

Jesus tells the story in a new way, though. The owner, God, sends servants to collect the rent that is due from those who have had possession of the vineyard.

The tenants…the priests…refuse to pay and abuse the servants…those who come in the name of the owner …God…just as they have always mistreated the prophets.

The owner sends other servants… prophets…and the tenants…priests …treat them the same way.

Now Jesus moves from scripture to experience…the experience he is having with the priests now. He is proclaiming the old Word in the midst of life today.

In our capital campaign and on our bulletins each week we declare that we are into the Word and into the world. That is exactly what Jesus is doing here.

He is pointing out that what is happening now has happened before…and maybe he is suggesting that it will happen again. The Word is in the world…and, we might add, the world has not overcome it…just as the darkness, in John, does not overcome the light.

So the owner sends his own son to collect the rents. Read here that God has sent his son, Jesus, into the world that the world might be saved …that God’s relationship with the those in possession of the vineyard might be repaired…and sustained… through him.

Now we see that Jesus is preparing the disciples, who are listening to all of this, for the day he will be arrested and whipped and put to death.

For, indeed, he tells them that the owner’s son…God’s son…will be beaten and killed by dishonest tenants of the vineyard.

In Isaiah, the owner takes this action: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.”

The consequence of being unfaithful to God is the loss of all that God has entrusted to us. As we go through life, we are to humble ourselves to the One who has given us all things…or we will be inviting consequences.

This message was clear to the priests and the Pharisees that day and it made them very angry…so angry they wanted to arrest Jesus.

But the people were witnesses to all that was going on and it was their witness that kept things from going wrong…for the moment. The Pharisees and priests could not do what they wanted to do while the people were watching.

We are confronted by this story every day of our lives. God has prepared the vineyard for us. It will grow good grapes or wild grapes. The tenants will pay the rent or they won’t.

The choice in Isaiah’s day belonged to the owner, depending on the sweetness of the grapes. The choice in Jesus’ day belonged to the tenants, depending on their willingness…or wickedness…to acknowledge the owner and the owner’s son. They knew what was right and proper. Would they choose that way?

Today, the choice is ours. I am grateful that I serve a church full of tenants who honor the owner of the vineyard…and the owner’s son. We work in the garden and we know we do it for the neighbors we love as ourselves and a loving God who has given us this work.

It is so simple…but we can make it so complicated. We want to do the right thing, but we are tempted again and again to do the easy thing.

Paul keeps his eye on the prize, though, and urges us to do the same thing. We are not called to be Pharisees or priests. We are called to work in the vineyard of the Lord and we are expected to produce the fruit of the spirit.

Our calling is to be in ministry, in our church and in our community and in our world. It’s not that we have reached this goal or have already been made perfect.

But we are called to pursue the goal, to humble ourselves so that we might do the work before us…not being content with what we might have done already.

We move on to the upward call in Jesus Christ.

We might find our way in any number of possibilities, but we need to be true to the one who saw the love of God and the love of neighbor as the sum total of the Ten Commandments.

We need to understand how difficult the road was for him. Doing good drew pushback as much then as it does now…maybe more.

But the goal has not changed. By accepting the call we have received, by keeping our eye on the prize of the upward call, we can leave all the temptations and distractions of the world behind… that we, too, might gain Christ.

O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through me …through us…this day? Amen.