The Grape of Repentance

Sermon by The Reverend Christian Baron, Co-Rector, October 1, 2017, Pentecost 17, Proper 21, Year A, Matthew 21: 23-32

“For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Good morning.

Last week I was in Texas. I had a lot of assumptions about the way things would go when I arrived. I left Monday the 18th and returned Tuesday the 26th. I saw
The Ocean.
The smiles of children.
Pelicans diving for fish.
Hope in the eyes of those who have experienced great loss.
A parish experiencing the Eucharistic Liturgy as usual.
A dead cow stuck in a fence.
Miles and miles of brush and debris piled 15 feet high.
The tears of those who feel hopeless. Hundreds of volunteers who had given their time to lend a hand.
Michiganders being hugged by those that we were able to assist. Cockroaches.
Sweaty workers.
A bishop getting his hands dirty. Devastation like I have never seen my entire life.
Morning prayer in a parish in defiance of hopelessness.
Some of these things I assumed I would see.
Some of them I expected.
Some of them totally shocked me and jarred me into a new reality.

I had many assumptions.

I usually have assumptions. I usually have expectations… I guess we all do. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the generosity of humankind. Other times I am disappointed with those around me. Occasionally, I am upset with the action or inaction of God, the creator of the Universe.

What did you make of the gospel for today? Did you giggle at Jesus and how clever he seems here? Did you think, “Yea… give it to them Jesus… He’s so smart.He’s not falling for it.”

Did you find yourself relating to one of the sons in the parable? Did you think about a friend, or sibling or an acquaintance that you giggle about?

“That is so, Betty… she commits but then can’t follow through.” Or, I am done making plans with so-and-so. She always cancels. I wish she would just say ‘no’ to begin with.”

When I was younger… I never, ever do this now…. I used to always think that I was the good guy. That I was the one who would do what is right. The rest of the world… the rest of the Church… were a bunch of hypocrites. “Do what is right Church. It isn’t that hard,” I thought. Sometimes I’d even say it as a perceived prophetic act.

Then I’d shake my head at the ne’er-do-gooders and high five my buddies doing real ministry. We had it all figured out. We were so glad that we had what it took to make a difference… We assumed we were right. We assumed we were the good guys.

What about this… when you hear this gospel… when you hear this pericope from Matthew… do you assume Jesus is justified? Do you assume he is right? That his snark is “just telling it like it is.” Do you make assumptions about the good guys and bad guys? About the chief priests and elders? Are they the bad guys?

And how about the sons in the parable? Are those the only two options? I am kind of rooting for a son who says he won’t do it and then follows through with it. Then I could truly insert myself into this story 🙂 “Sorry Dad, I’m going fishing… Why don’t you ask if my sisters are busy.” The story ends with me really fishing and the grapes rotting on the vine. But at least I was honest.

Well, I need to confess. The first few times I read this text… the gospel text for today… I imagined myself next to Jesus. At his right hand… standing up against injustice. And maybe I do that from time to time. Maybe you do. Maybe we all do it more than I assume. More than I remember… more than I give us credit for. Maybe…

I find myself, often times, in the gospels relating to those on the outside. I assume that Jesus is speaking to everybody else. But not to me… not me and the prostitutes and the tax collectors.

I assume I’m on the good guy team. In my head, I am on the margins…

Interestingly… at least it is interesting to me… Jesus is judging the actions of the chief priests and elders against the message of John the Baptist.
Who preached a message of repentance…
who lived an ascetic life…
who ate locusts and wild honey…
who wore clothes made of camel’s hair…
who was beheaded…

And honestly…that description of John…. What he stood for… how he lived… that doesn’t sound very much like me at all. Other than being hairy… I don’t resemble John the Baptist at all.

And so I wonder… after reading this text… and trying to set aside my assumptions….

Am “I” willing to pick the grapes that only grow in the vineyard of repentance?

That was the message of John. That is what Jesus is criticising the chief priests and elders over. That’s what the parable is about. Will the folks with the power submit themselves to repentance? Will they make themselves vulnerable enough to examine themselves and submit to the kingdom of God? The question is…
“To whom will you kneel?” To which Kingdom do you kneel?
To whom will you pay homage? Which Kingdom deserves your respect and allegiance?
Who holds the authority?

And the beauty of the Kingdom of God… the beauty of the Prince of Peace… The beauty of this upside down rabbi… is that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. The beauty is that this prince… this kingdom… busts open our assumptions of how things should look.

It busts open our expectations of power and persuasion and prestige. The Prince of the Kingdom of God is the kind of Prince who serves the subjects… who washes their feet… who gives up power and prestige… who follows the path of his cousin John, who called for repentance and… who both died a martyr’s death. That’s surprising. That doesn’t fit in with our assumptions about a prince or a kingdom.

It is shocking and forces the reflective follower to examine life in a different way.

So I leave you with a few questions… “What do the grapes of repentance taste like?” Are they easy to pick? Are they sweet? Are they the Honeycrisps of the grape world? Are they best for making Eucharistic wine? Are they exactly the nourishment that relief workers need in their Texas lunch boxes?

Or, are they bitter? Are they hard to pick? Is the vineyard overgrown with brush and overrun with bugs? Are there snakes in the grass and is the sun too hot for picking?

My guess is that we will all be surprised when we taste the grapes of repentance. So, when you buy groceries this week, pick up some grapes. If you don’t like to eat grapes, consider buying them in their liquid form. Examine them for blemishes. Chew them slowly. Feel the texture and taste all of the flavors. Look on the package at where they were grown and imagine who picked them. Share them with a friend or spouse. Remember the message of John the Baptiser who cleared the way for the announcement of the coming Kingdom.