St Paul’s, Carlinville—Matthew 21:33-43, Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-14
What feelings does the word “warning” evoke for you? I would bet they are not positive. You get home, and there’s a notice from the electric company on your doorknob: “Warning! Your service will be shut off in three days unless you pay your bill.” You’re likely to feel some combination of fear and anger. You look in the mailbox, and there’s a letter from your doctor’s office: “Warning! Your test results put you at risk of a stroke.” Again, the stomach acid starts flowing. But suppose you then walk into the house, and your spouse says, “Honey, I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is, I got pulled over for speeding. The good news is, the officer let me off with just a warning!” Now that’s when the word “warning” brings a sigh of relief, right?
Actually, a warning is a good thing, when we look at it in the light of cool rationality. I recently attended a conference that featured a bunch of, shall we say, less-than-optimum statistics about that state of Episcopal Church congregations. We were constantly reminded, “Facts are your friends.” A warning, even a friendly warning, may not fix everything. It may be too little too late—but even then, it helps.
Proclaiming “Warning! Warning” is part of the essential job description of a prophet. In Old Testament times, succeeding generations of prophets issued warnings to the nation of Israel: “Change your ways, or there will be dire consequences. It’s not yet too late to save yourself.” John the Baptist, who was, in a way, the last of the Old Testament prophets, had a similar message, “Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand. It’s not yet too late to escape the wrath of Divine Judgment.” As John faded from the scene and Jesus moved onto center stage, Jesus announced the same sort of warning.
We sometimes lose sight of this early aspect of Jesus’ ministry. It was before his ministry of teaching and healing and calling disciples got really under way. It was well before his passion and death and resurrection. And it was even further in advance of St Paul’s developed articulation of the nature of God’s love and grace. It is understandably easy for us to get caught up in these grand themes of the Gospel—the Paschal Mystery, as it is known. It is easy for us to lose ourselves in gratitude for the fact that God’s grace is lavish and free and completely unmerited on our part. God first loved us. Grace, I very firmly believe, is the “shaping power” that forms our lives as Christians.
Yet, there’s a fine line between gratitude and lassitude, between thankfulness and presumptuousness. God’s grace is so abundant that it becomes easy for us to view it as just part of the natural environment. It’s all around us, like the air we breathe and the water we drink. Whenever something is plentiful, we tend to eventually take it for granted. A hundred years ago, having electric lights, or a telephone, or, in some places, indoor plumbing, were considered luxuries for the affluent. Now, they are basic standards, and the lack of any of them is part of the definition of poverty. Thirty years ago, a microwave was a luxury; I can remember when we got our first one as a gift from Brenda’s parents—it was a big deal. A few years after that we got our first VCR—remember those?—and very much considered it a splurge, a luxury. Ten years ago, a smart phone was a luxury, as was a computer with a broadband internet connection. Now, even many families on public assistance have these items in their possession, and they are more and more thought of—informally, at least—as a matter of basic entitlement. So, it is quite understandable that we should begin to perceive God’s grace in the same way, as a matter of right, as a matter of entitlement.
But, today, we are reminded that Jesus is still in the warning business. He is engaged in a long and sometimes tense dialogue with some leaders of the Jewish religious establishment. He tells a parable about a man who invested in an agricultural business—a vineyard, in this case. The investor took care of all the capital improvements and brought it up to operational status. Then he leased it out to a group that would run the place in return for a percentage of the profits. When it came time for him to collect his cut, the tenants conspired against him. They beat up his agents, and when he finally sent his own son, they killed him. And then, just after Jesus gets his audience to agree that the tenant farmers deserved to be done away with and replaced, he reveals that he’s talking about them—they are the tenant farmers. They have, in effect, conspired against God. They have mistreated a succession of God’s emissaries—the prophets—and they are on the verge of killing God’s own Son, Jesus himself. “Therefore I tell you,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”
The Pharisees and others whom Jesus was addressing in this parable were soaked to the marrow of their bones in the notion of Israel’s privileged status as God’s chosen people. Sometimes this took the form of smug superiority over “those Gentiles.” On occasion, perhaps, they remembered Israel’s vocation to be “a light to the nations.” But in either case, their favored standing in God’s sight was just a given, part of the environment, not to be even questioned. What Jesus was telling them in the parable, however, was that they had abused God’s grace. They had made it proprietary, a matter of right, something they owned, rather than a matter of God’s continuing free choice. They had developed a presumptuous attitude, taking God’s favor for granted.
And who is the “other nation” to which God’s habitual grace was to be transferred as a result of the presumptuousness of the Jewish leaders? Well, folks, according to the Christian scheme of things, that would be us—the Church, the “Christian tribe.” The Church has seen herself as the “New Israel,” the succeeding heir of the promises made under the Old Covenant with the Jewish nation. But before we go patting ourselves on the back, we need to look at this situation with very clear and sober eyes. Our parable reminds us that to be in a favored position is also to be in a risky position. There are consequences to abusing God’s grace.
If the Christian community is the “new nation” to which privileged status in the Kingdom of God has been transferred, either in whole or in part, then we are also susceptible to the same sort of smug superiority, the same sort of proprietary attitude, that led to the Jewish leaders being deprived of their privileged status. And if this is the case, then we need to hear today’s parable as aimed, not at those Jewish leaders in the first century, but at us. And when I say “us,” I don’t just mean Christians in general, but North American and European Christians in particular. When Islam spread across North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean in the seventh century, Christianity’s center of gravity shifted northward and westward. By the end of the eleventh century, all of Europe, including Russia and Scandinavia, had been thoroughly evangelized. Church and society were one and the same. When the Americas were discovered by Europeans, there were missionaries almost literally in the wake of the explorers. The societies that took root in the New World, including that which eventually became the United State of America, were also thoroughly Christian. There was conflict between the various brand names, but no one challenged the Christian foundations of American society.
So what happened? Did we take our privileged status in society for granted? Did we act presumptuously and assume it as a matter of right, a matter of entitlement? Apparently, something along those lines took place, because we have lost that status. It’s already been several years now since the building at San Jose State University in California that used to be called the Chapel is no longer referred to by that name. The powers-that-be apparently felt that such a designation gave not only Christianity itself, but religion in general, an inappropriately privileged status in a state institution—an institution that is now presumed to be as thoroughly secular as our society’s institutions were once presumed to be Christian. Again, I ask, What happened? But I don’t have an answer to propose. I can only observe that if we look around our society, we see a Christian influence that is vanishing, and churches that are getting grayer and smaller.
Yet, when we look at Africa and Asia, we see a Christianity that is vital and growing and expanding so rapidly that their administrative infrastructure cannot keep up with their numerical growth. In some Anglican dioceses, for example, they cannot consecrate bishops fast enough. In Nigeria alone, there are over 20 million Anglicans—compare that to slightly less than two million Episcopalians in the U.S.—and even more Roman Catholics and assorted Protestants. Yet, Christianity isn’t even the majority religion in Nigeria, and there is fierce persecution of Christians by Muslim groups in many areas of the country, as know all to well with Boko Haram and the school girls they kidnapped. Similar stories could be told about other parts of Africa—I suspect that I have still confirmed more people in Tanzania, during only seven days last year, than I have in Illinois—and many regions of Asia, including officially atheistic China. Are these “third world” peoples the next “new nation” to whom the blessings of the Kingdom of God will be transferred, putting North Americans and Europeans in the position of the Jewish authorities in our Lord’s parable?
That is the sobering question before us today. But it’s not bad news. It’s still gospel—it’s still “good news,” because it comes to us as a warning. Warnings are rarely pleasant. They make us anxious. They make us fearful. They can make us angry. But they can also arouse us to action. If we are warned that our power is about to be cut off, we make some arrangement with the utility company. If we are warned that our health is in danger, we make changes to our diet and exercise routines. If we are warned that we are driving over the speed limit, we are motivated to make some changes in our habitual driving patterns. Warnings are good things. Thank God for warnings. Thank God for Jesus’ warning to us in this parable. God’s grace is abundant, but it can be abused by taking it for granted. Are we abusing God’s grace? What do we need to change? We can’t say we weren’t warned. Amen.