Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many of you know that I generally have little time for debates about how the church should or shouldn’t employ certain language which might rub against contemporary norms, not that they’re unimportant, but mostly because I find there are more important issues in theology and Christian ethics, and frankly, I find those issues more interesting. Further, in an age where it seems to me our chief focus as the Episcopal Church, and as Christian churches more broadly, needs to be in the areas of Evangelization and Discipleship, endless conversations about what pronouns to use for each person of the Trinity seems increasingly like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

One of the issues which gets brought up fairly frequently in scholarly circles which I’ve tended not to worry terribly much about is the charge of anti-Semitism (or, more properly, anti-Judaism) in the Bible. With the exception of the author of Luke and Acts, every person who had a hand in writing the Bible was Jewish. Thus, even when John’s Gospel—the most frequent object of the charges of biblical anti-Semitism—refers to the “bad guys” as “the Jews”, we are seeing an internal division within Judaism between a group of Jewish leaders and a different group of Jews who were thrown out of the synagogue for following Christ. Trusting preachers to highlight this distinction seems a better course than, for example, endless wrangling over revising the Holy Week liturgies.

Despite my initial lack of interest in what I take to be a largely manufactured issue, all of this morning’s lessons can be taken in a way which might prove problematic, to employ an overused phrase. Rather than excise them from the lectionary, though, being exposed to them and realizing they are not what they may first seem is, I think profitable.

So, in the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, we hear the word of God as given to the prophet which suggests that God has become very angry at His people. Because God looked for justice and righteousness in Israel and found the opposite, he has sworn to tear down the hedge which protects His chosen people from the ungodly who would devour the Promised Land.

The Psalm adds a later perspective, after the judgment proclaimed in Isaiah had taken place. The psalmist cries out to his Lord in words which seem to charge God with abandonment. While the God of Israel had planted a vineyard, He had indeed torn down its walls. The psalmist casts an accusatory “why?” and in what seems to be a defiant reminder to God of His own responsibility to His own people, the psalmist says:

Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.

The Psalm we just read was not a song of praise but of protest, protest against none other than God Himself!

Shifting to the New Testament, Paul, in his Epistle to the Philippians, reflects on his Jewish bona fides:

[C]ircumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.

He immediately responds to this by claiming that he counts this rather impressive CV of Jewish piety as loss; he seems to be rejecting his own heritage and its value system. Indeed, he calls it “refuse” in our translation. The word Paul actually uses here is σκύβαλα,which is, lets just say, a somewhat ruder word than “refuse.” I’ll refrain from providing a list of possible English equivalents from this pulpit.

Finally, Jesus’ parable in Matthew appears to take things a step further. It is no longer an angry God (the landowner) who has despoiled the heritage of Israel, but the Israelites themselves, the evil tenants who killed the landowner’s messengers, the prophets.

The lectionary today has done a very dangerous thing in throwing all four of these reading at us in one day because, to be frank, they’ve made the assumption that the preacher who is given these texts to explain is not an idiot. We might assume that the majority of the clergy are smart enough to avoid the false conclusion these four reading might suggest when taken out of context, but, what I said at the outset of this sermon notwithstanding, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism stand as evidence against the claim that such an assumption is a safe one. Medieval persecution of Jews which were believed to have poisoned water holes and defrauded debtors were more than occasionally “egged on” by stupid clergy. A case can be made that there was more compliance than confrontation from the churches when facing the catastrophe which was the holocaust, and much of this might be attributed to the false and offensive belief that the Jews killed Jesus. Even today, there are sadly many who call themselves Christian but reject God’s own people and Jesus’ own religion and have traded in the Good News of the God of Israel for, anti-Christian “blood and soil” rhetoric. It is almost refreshing when these frightening people trade in their oxymoronic claim to be “Christian nationalists” and just go all the way in worshiping Odin and Thor and so-forth (the religious worldview of pre-Christian heathenry being much more in keeping with that ugly political worldview).

So, how do we marry what I hope is our wholesale rejection of so-called Christian anti-Semitism with an appreciation of this morning’s lessons as being part of the inspired Word of God? I think Jesus’ own words can and should be our starting point. After he shares the parable, he asked his audience what should be done with the evil tenants, and they respond without charity and apparently (considering the fact that Jesus’ audience was Jewish) with a lack of understanding of the referents of his parable:

They said to him, “He [the landowner] will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus’ Jewish audience gives the argument which an anti-Semite might, because they didn’t understand the parable either.

Jesus immediately recognizes where this is going and he rejects the position:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

`The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner;
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

Far from rejecting His people, God has come to give them a new and everlasting foundation, indeed to make them part of the foundation which cannot be shaken. There is a great deal that could be said by manner of explicating this, for which there is not nearly time enough in this sermon. For the initial questions which arise from Jesus’ words here, I would, for now, refer you to St. Paul’s argument in the Epistle to the Romans, particularly the eleventh chapter, which I know I gave a lesson on not too many months ago, in which the Apostle states without reservation that God has not by any means rejected His people, and that with regard to election, the faithful Jew (even if he does not recognize Jesus’ status as Messiah) is guaranteed salvation due to God’s irrevocable promise to his forefathers.

The Good News here for Christian or Jew is that God does not engage in breach of contract. God keeps His promises to Jew and Christian; He’ll never be so short on Grace that he has to cut back benefits or apply a means test, and for this we can be truly and eternally grateful.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.