Sermon for Proper 22
The Rev. Daniel Wade McClain
The McClain family just finished an epic rewatching of the Harry Potter movies. One of the things that I love most about those stories is the message that might does not make right, strength does not ensure virtue, the success of your cause not does guarantee its righteousness. Nor, we might add, does righteousness guarantee success, at least not in the short term, at least, we might say, not in this life.
So too with the parable Jesus tells today. A vineyard owner sends servants and then his own son to collect the produce from his vineyard, but the tenants of that vineyard kills the servants and the son.
Eventually, we’re told the chief priests and Pharisees—the religious, cultural, and political leaders of Jerusalem—realize that Jesus is comparing them to the tenants of the vineyard. The comparison will become all the more apt in just a few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus asks them, what will the vineyard owner do to those tenants? Jesus’ audience answers, well, he’ll kill those wicked tenants, of course.
But Jesus intends a different conclusion, a different interpretation.
In Jesus’ interpretation, it’s the rejected Son who becomes the foundation of the new Kingdom. The cornerstone that the builders rejected, he says, that’s the stone on which the whole building will be built.
In God’s vineyard, success, thriving, our whole way of life is built upon the weakness and the death of the Son.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to get caught in a trap of thinking that we are crucial, that we win the day, that we save ourselves. We slide so quickly into thinking that our business acumen, or our cleverness, or that new workout plan, or simply our inability to fail or get sick – that these things are the basis of our worth.
But what happens when we lose them, when we fail, when we’re wrong, when we get sick?
St. Francis’ story can be helpful in answering that question. Of course, Francis is famous for his friendship with animals. But there’s something else about him that we should remember.
For those of you that don’t know his story, I’d like to tell you a piece of it.
Francis came to believe that no matter how hard or how fun or how successfully he lived his life, it was Christ’s calling that gave his life worth. In his early 20s after trying out a life of partying, and then a life in the military, Francis presented himself to his bishop. He took off all his clothes, gave them to his father, and gave himself to Christ and Christ’s Church.
And after a life of serving the sick, and rebuilding churches—in other words after a living a life like Christ’s—Francis received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, and died shortly after that.
It might be tempting to think that Francis’ life had meaning because of his intentions or his actions, or because he received the stigmata.
Paul recognizes that tension and warns us against it in Philippians 3. It could be just as easy for him to think his life was worthwhile or that he was righteous because he was an excellent follower of the law.
But both Francis and Paul tell us something different. Their lives, and our lives have meaning because Christ loves us. Out of love for us, Christ gave himself for us to be killed and was raised from the dead. And Paul says in response to that love we should give ourselves to Christ.
We shouldn’t do this because we can earn Christ’s love that way. Nor can we earn righteousness. Christ already loves us. And Christ’s righteousness is ours if we’ll accept it.
Instead we should give ourselves to Christ because we should love him in return.
Today, we practice that divine love in a tender and sweet way. We share the blessings we have with our animals and we pray for all of God’s creation. It might seem silly to do this. However, friends, we remember that God’s love is so abundant and so excessive that there’s no limit to it, to how much or with whom it can be shared.
So this morning, let us share that love generously.