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Sunday, March 4, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

A Rousing Word

Lenten Sermon Series: Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 86:1–13
Mark 12:1–12

May you be blessed with a wise and compassionate guide
who can accompany you through the fear and grief
until your heart has wept its way to your true self.

John O’Donohue
“For Someone Awakening to the Trauma of His or Her Past”
To Bless the Space between Us

They were more than bullies. They were downright mean. And their prize was the vineyard. They knew it wasn’t theirs. They certainly realized that murder was not in the plan. But things got out of control, and they found themselves convicted. It all was a great nightmare—the story, the people in it. And the hearers of the story, the parable, the words cast out onto the onlookers, and those who had ears to hear were shaken.

Some would say Jesus was baiting the temple leaders with the parable. A shift is underway in the journey to Jerusalem. The past days of earthly ministry—of healing and preaching and teaching—now take a turn toward the serious. Jesus knows what is coming, we believe, and he almost predicates this story, item for item, metaphor for metaphor on the things that will take place. The eschaton is about to unfold, and this tragic, shocking, and very upsetting story becomes the lens through which the lovers of Jesus can look.

If this were a story told by pagan philosophers in Athens, say, the point would be that crime doesn’t pay. It starts out innocently enough. A man plants a vineyard, sets a hedge around it, digs the pit for the winepress, and then builds a tower, a watchtower, to secure it. He hires tenants and then becomes an absentee landlord. After a time, the servant of the owner comes to get some of the fruits, and the tenants become cruel. Were the story told from the pagan Athenian perspective, less serious criminals become progressively guiltier until they bring destruction down on their heads. Their punishment is as serious as the crime. The point: crime doesn’t pay.

But this is a Jewish story, and the hearers were not just any audience. They were the religious leaders, who had been questioning Jesus’ authority and were certainly very, very upset by the momentum of his influence among the people. It was the scribes, chief priests, and elders, who were the wealthy laypeople, with much influence—likely landowners. Heard through Jewish ears, the reference was to the prophet Isaiah’s story of a fruitless vineyard. Here, the metaphors are appropriated with a different point. The religious leaders would immediately hear that the vineyard was Israel; the owner, God; the tenants were the religious leaders; the servants of the vineyard owner were the prophets, who were rejected by those to whom they came; and the beloved son, well, those who have ears, hear and those who have eyes—he is standing in front of them.

But even more to the point of the story is abuse of authority and also incapacity to comprehend a God whose grace is so abundant that he sends the beloved, precious son to the vineyard to set things right. The greed of the tenants is so out of control that they reject the grace of God’s gift, and by doing so, they ensure their own rejection.

This is a tragic tale of harm done and unrepentant greed. It is a story that anticipates the charges against Jesus by the Sanhedrin, a case that is mounting at this point in Jesus’ ministry. And it is a story that does not end well.

What happens when the stories of our faith lead us from life-engaging hope to deep and abiding tragedy? Phyllis Trible, in her book Texts of Terror, plunges us into this kind of dramatic engagement with the whole of the biblical narrative. She says in the introduction to the book, “In this book my task is to tell sad stories as I hear them.” Indeed, she tells tales of terror with women as victims. “Choice and chance inspire telling these particular tales: hearing a black woman describe herself as a daughter of Hagar outside the covenant; seeing an abused woman on the streets of New York with a sign, ‘My name is Tamar’ . . . . attending worship services in memory of nameless women . . . all these experiences . . . have led me to a land of terror from whose bourn no traveler returns unscarred.” Trible concludes, “The journey is solitary and intense. In joining this venture, the reader assumes its risks” (Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror, pp. 1–2).

So also with this story. We know the outcome of this encounter with the authorities. And the penultimate encounter is not good: accusations, trial, beating, death, sorrow, dashed hope. Yes, the ultimate outcome of the walk to Jerusalem is the joy at the empty tomb, but the season of Lent calls us to take the slow and sometimes painful walk into pain, worry, fear, and even violence. There are times in our lives, unless you are the unusual person, when we encounter grave difficulties, whether a failed relationship or a chronic illness; a personal trauma in childhood or a time in adulthood when something went terribly wrong in our career or our family. Our scripture lesson today guides us into a powerful recognition that sometimes facing the fear, the void, the undertow, the sheer sadness of life is opportunity to intensify our life of faith. It requires deep trust in Jesus, the one who foreshadowed the tragedy, and it requires exuberant hope in the face of the principalities and powers of the world that would undo such.

But one of the hard facts of the journey to the cross is that the outcome is not good. This parable has within it the bad news that even in the gracious act of the tenant sending his son, the beloved, those leaders who received him would turn around and reject him and kill him. This is what Walter Brueggemann calls the “sub-version” of the Bible’s story—it is not for the winners, the success stories. And Jesus’ telling of this story is daring speech, undermining the authority of those who had set up an airtight system that ensured power and privilege. He engages the religious leaders with their own question about his authority by opening the way for brutally honest engagement with the question, Who is really in charge?

The bullies in the vineyard show up throughout history, and we see this dynamic in our time as well. Greed, holding onto authority, power-crazed leaders inflicting disrespect and abuse on those they think they have power is a hallmark of our day, and the question of authority arises in so many sectors of our life today: who has it, who drives it, who holds it with respect and care, and who abuses it. I do not need to spend any time in these few moments I have with you this morning recounting the tough stuff that our nation and our world have been facing over the past years. You know what is happening in our global culture. But what I do want to hold up is that to the twenty-first-century Christian there are cornerstones emerging from unexpected places in our time.

Indeed, the shadows cast by the vineyard tragedy is only the first part of the story. The next part of the story is the cornerstone part. And this is where the light of faith is flickering on porches, town squares, and across social media, because the cornerstones that are assumed destined for the wrecking ball are finding their rightful place as the building blocks of the future. Most specifically I think of movements that are launched out of pain and tragedy of monumental proportions and that have, to my mind, culture-shifting authority.

The Black Lives Matter  movement arose from the not-guilty verdict of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch security guard who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, who had gone to a convenience store to buy a bag of Skittles and an iced tea and was unarmed. When the verdict came in, Alicia Garza was in a bar in Oakland, California, with friends. The bar went silent, and people began to leave. Garza left the bar as well, went home, cried herself to sleep, and the next day logged on to Facebook. She wrote an impassioned online message, “essentially a love note to black people,” and posted it on her page. It ended with “Black people, I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”

Garza’s close friend, Patrisse Cullors, read the post in a motel room 300 miles away from Oakland that same night. Cullors, also a community organizer working in prison reform, started sharing Garza’s words with her friends online. She used a hashtag each time she reposted: #blacklivesmatter. The following day, Garza and Cullors spoke about how they could organize a campaign around these sentiments. “A call to action,” says Garza. “To make sure we are creating a world where black lives actually do matter” (material drawn from The Guardian, 19 July 2015).

We see it in the “Me Too” campaign as well, where the power of the individual, beloved child of God meets the collective voice of the many and the fear and secrecy are unleashed through social media, through therapy groups, through churches and synagogues and mosques, through the courage of so many men, women, children, and youth to name the issues of sexual violence. The cornerstone of anyone’s life is that the beloved son or daughter will arrive at the vineyard and will receive the respect of those who have authority. Yet so many have been taken advantage of and wounded, deeply. Here is another call to action: to name the pain of sexual and domestic abuse and to step forward to make the world a safe place for all of God’s beloved ones. Another cornerstone hidden, held hostage only to be brought to light by two words: “Me Too!”

We see it in the most recent movement of young people in Florida, who found their lives completely shattered by a former student who came to their school at the end of the day and shot and killed many of their friends, a coach, and a teacher. We all know that this is not the first time it has happened. But a group of students at Stoneman Douglas High School decided that this kind of thing should never happen again. A few days later, students went to the parking lot of the Publix Supermarket to board three white charter busses. They were on their way to Florida’s state capitol in Tallahassee to advocate for stricter gun-control laws. These students have launched the “Never Again Campaign.” As one of the students, Tyra Hemans said, Tallahassee should change gun laws. “This law does not deserve to take lives anymore,” she insisted. “It is a law that takes lives; it is a murderous law. It is a dirty law. I’m getting rid of the law.” School violence should never again happen. Another cornerstone, built on the foundation of God’s love made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (material drawn from the New Yorker).

As Ronald Heifetz says in his book Leadership without Easy Answers, “Just as social systems organize themselves in relation to a structure of authority, they focus attention at the head of the table. . . . Leadership may more often emerge from the foot of the table, but that is not where we spend most of our time looking” (Ronald Heifitz, Leadership without Easy Answers, p. 184). Indeed, the foot of the table, the stone rejected by the builder, those with no power become the spokespeople for all of us. It is out of the tough stuff that strength arises.

There are moments in each of our lives when we find ourselves facing the tragic reality that things don’t come out the way we had hoped. Our image of what we thought life would add up to comes undone. But this particular scripture helps us recognize that God also faces the depth of disappointment, tragedy, and loss. Even the most gracious gift of the precious very Son of God, whose boundless grace sweeps over us, is often swept aside from our lives. We think we have to do it all ourselves, finding our way into grace by the skin of our own teeth. The story of the vineyard plunges us into the reality that some situations do not end with the happy ending we hope.

There is also something comforting, in a rather pernicious way, in this story, because intensifying the upset, looking into the face of the monsters, defying the averted eye, and being bold in our faith in ourselves and our faith in God, of all things, is the boldness of this gospel we believe. This is the faith that Jesus calls us to—one that squarely faces his opponents and with authority that defies the structural evil of his time, faces what is to come with boundless grace and with deep and exuberant hope. This is our baptismal imagination, as Walter Brueggeman points out. It is peculiar and particular,

because Christians are always odd men and women come together in odd communities and congregations, always at odds, always at risk. . . . We are forever reimagining and retelling and reliving our lives through the scandal of Friday and the rumor of Sunday. We . . . devise signals of new life, the bread of brokenness, the wine of blessedness, and the neighbor, always the neighbor, who is for us a signal of the love of God. (Walter Brueggemann, Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, pp. 10–11)

Indeed, the bullies thought they had the last word in the parable. They discarded the trust given to them to tend the vineyard. In the end, they took the beloved son to the cross. But the last word, the pressed and crushed cup of salvation made from that vineyard’s fruit, is on our lips for such a day as this very one. This is Christ’s rousing word, for you and for me, this day.