Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 27A)
Sunday, Oct 4, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester

Watch Here (Minutes 28:08)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

One day when I was a boy, there was a tornado warning for our county. My parents were both gone at the time, but my Mom had trained us exactly where to go and what to do in the event of a tornado.  We were to go immediately to the basement, to the Southwest corner of the house, and hide under the staircase.

And so, I headed to the basement with my grandfather. But first, considering the possibility the house might be destroyed in the tornado, I grabbed the VHS tape of my favorite movie at the time. To this day, my brothers tease me about the movie I grabbed, it was a black-and-white movie about the sinking of the Titanic called “A Night to Remember.” Of all that I could have saved – that was what I chose?

If faced with a similar situation, if in a moment you had to decide what to save because everything might be lost – what would you grab? If given the choice to save one thing, among everything, what would you save? What would you consider to be your most valuable possession – or at least the most valuable possession you could carry with you if you had to leave instantly?  

In our Second Reading today, the Apostle Paul witnessed to what was most valuable in his life. “Yet whatever gains I had,” wrote Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

In his ministry, and for the sake of the Gospel, Paul experienced afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. Paul wrote about shipwrecks, dangers, and anxieties, and yet, here, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes that anything other than the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord, he regarded as loss.

“For his sake,” writes Paul,“I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” Commentators point out that where the NRSV translates the Greek word skubala as “rubbish” –  the King James Version translates it more accurately as “dung.”For Paul, everything in his life apart from knowing Christ was dung.  

I suspect most of us today would agree with Paul that a relationship with Christ should be the most important thing for us as Christian disciples. I suspect most would give passive assent to the statement.  But, discipleship is not about passive assent.  Discipleship is about active commitment.

The question for us today is: “What would our lives look like, if we lived with the understanding that knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was the most valuable thing in our lives?” What would our lives, our homes, our church, our cities, our country look like, if we considered everything else apart from knowing Christ as rubbish – as dung?”

Our readings from Isaiah and Matthew this morning, both reveal what happens when other things become more valuable than Christ. In these two stories of a vineyard, we find people claiming for themselves a whole range of things that crowded out God’s word working in their lives. The result, was wild grapes of injustice in Isaiah and violence and murder of the landowners servants and son in Matthew.

This morning’s reading from Isaiah is a love song. It is a love song of a brokenhearted God who wonders what went wrong.God intended the vineyard to bear grapes – instead, it bore wild grapes. 

Walter Brueggemann suggests the wild grapes of bloodshed God saw when God looked upon his beloved came not from individual “thuggery and murder, but the more subtle, slower, but equally decisive killing through economic policy against the vulnerable and resourceless.” Carol Dempsey describes the cry God heard as “a cry of distress from the collective voices of those suffering economic and social iniquity at the hands of the powerful ones within the community.” The peoples’ lust for power, and riches, and comfort became the surpassing value in their lives, crowding out God’s word calling the people to care for those in need around them.  The result was wild grapes of injustice and distress.

Jesus told the parable in today’s Gospel reading in his ongoing squabble with the religious leaders. Amy Lindeman Allen writes: the religious leaders of Jesus’ day have become absorbed in selfish ends. Their concern is not love of God and love of neighbor as God commands, but rather love of self.” In their love of self, they claimed status and power that crowded out the way of faith in Christ.  

The parable describes increasingly violent tenants who kill all sent to the vineyard by the landowner. Of these tenants, Tim Knauff writes: Their logic, of course, makes absolutely no sense: Why on earth would they think killing the heir means they will inherit the vineyard? But that is the tragedy the parable highlights … are we able to imagine any reality beyond violence, punishment, vengeance, revenge? If we are left only with our own handiwork, and if that is all the farther our vision reaches, violence seems the only logical way to ensure security.” Lust for land, for the inheritance became what was most important – and murder was the result.

These stories from the vineyard point out that when self-centered and selfish things become the surpassing value in our lives – then injustice, violence, and death is the result.  When we grab hold of temporary things, and see less value in Christ, then the yield is wild grapes of injustice, then the prophets are ignored and Christ again is crucified.

Today God’s Word comes to us, inviting us, along with the Apostle Paul, to make knowing Christ the surpassing value in our lives. But what does this look like? Does this mean we abandon the world, leave everything behind, to go off and live in some remote place with Christ in spiritual exile? Or, might it mean that, again like Paul, we give everything away, while we actively live and serve in the world?

I think we make Christ our surpassing value as we honor and serve the vocation daily life. Lutherans understand vocation as all the relationships we have in the world. Vocation is not just a relationship between an employer and an employee, but also all the relationships we have with those around us: relationships as parent, grandparent, son/daughter, friend, neighbor, citizen. With Christ as the surpassing value in our lives – we are led more fully into these relationships – and to give ourselves away in these relationships for the sake of the other.

To love and honor Christ is to love and honor those we are in relationship with. To serve Christ is to serve our neighbor – especially our neighbors in need. To serve Christ in our vocation as citizen, is to participate in our civic life, to vote, not for our own interests or our party’s interests, or in the ways we have always voted – but to vote for our neighbors’ interests, to vote for the candidates who are best for the country at any given time. 

With Christ as the surpassing value of our lives, we give ourselves away, for the sake of the other. This is what Paul did in his missionary journeys – he longer lived for self. He gave away his claim on privilege and status. Instead, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of making Christ known for the world, he gave himself away.  

In October we will hold our annual Stewardship Campaign.  Each member will be invited to make a pledge in support of the ministry for 2021. This campaign is especially important this year as we try to get a handle on our finances, and what to expect in the form of tithe & pledge income for the coming year.

As you consider your pledge to the ministry for 2021, I invite you to consider this: “In what way will your financial pledge – and in the ways you spend your money – reflect knowing Christ as the most valuable thing in your life?”

Tithing 10% is often lifted up as the goal of Christian financial commitment. Last year and this year, I am track to tithe 10% of my income, what you pay to me as your pastor, back to the congregation. Not everyone can tithe, I haven’t always been able to tithe, there are real financial commitments that make it difficult. The point is, with Christ as the surpassing value in our lives, we give of our finances sacrificially and generously, freely and joyfully, knowing we are returning to God what God has first given us.

What would our congregational life together look like, if knowing Christ became the surpassing value among us? What would it look like among us – if we asked ourselves – “How can we give ourselves away so that others will know Christ? What would our conversations be? What would our concerns be? How would we spend our time at Council/and give our time away? How would we spend our money in our budget/how would we give away money? How would we use our space/or give our space away?

In a way, the tornado warning is sounding among us today.  There is a swirl of injustice, calamity, pandemic, disaster, and death all around us. Instead of grabbing hold of what Paul would consider dung and head to safety, instead, as disciples we are called in faith to recognize Christ as our most valuable possession in our lives, and head out into the storm for the sake of others.  Alive as the body of Christ in the world, we are called into the storm to give ourselves away as we demand justice, insist on equality, and proclaim God’s love for each and every person in the world.

We do so in the Good News today that in our striving to make Christ the surpassing value in our lives, God has already made us his own. “I press on,” Paul wrote, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own”

Today in word, water, and bread – here is Christ making us his own.  Here is Christ washing wild grapes of the vineyard, washing us and transforming us into the fruit of the kingdom.  Here is Christ feeding violent tenants in the vineyard, feeding us and reshaping us into the body of Christ. 

As a gift and work of the Holy Spirit, may you know the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord.  May that knowledge provide sure and certain hope of God’s presence in your life filling you with peace, hope and love. Alive in Christ, may you give yourself away for the life of the world.    

Indeed may it be so. Amen.