Bad Listeners in the Vineyard

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Isaiah 5:1-7
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

I hope you won’t be shocked to learn this, but I have some bad habits. And I think these bad habits will help explain what Scripture is saying to us today in the image of the vineyard.

I have been known, in my personal life, to be a bit of a bad listener. If Maddy, my wife, is listening now, I’m sure she is nodding and rolling her eyes. That’s a little absurd, you might think, since a large portion of what Pastor Krey and I do is listen to you all, listen to your joys and your trials! But, there’s a specific kind of listening I am bad at.

It has to do with, sort of, life decisions: relationships, school, career moves and these kinds of things. Those closest to me, who know me well, better even than I know myself, will have been nudging me and advising me all along, and I always refuse to hear their advice.

There’s so many examples… there’s a formula to it. Here’s one: back in New York City where I used to live, Maddy and I were talking about my future plans at the time, and she said, “You know, Joshua, you really shouldn’t quit your job when you apply to graduate school for painting. Is that really what you want to do?”

Often I wouldn’t even respond! I’ll still just be thinking my own thoughts, stupidly taking her advice for granted. Or I would say, “Of course I need to quit, this is what I need to do, I have to focus on this!” Stubborn. It happens again and again. Usually I’ll make the big decision, on my own of course. And it will be the wrong one. So, I quit my job having applied to 8 graduate school programs. I was accepted to none. Not one, I was shattered. And every time this happens, I go through the agony of it all alone, basically. While Maddy, or whomever, waits patiently alongside. Probably still reminding me gently of their advice.

And then I come to them, you know, very thoughtfully much later, and say: “I never should have quit my job. That was stupid, even if I had applied to schools, which was also ill-fated.” And Maddy would just look at me, mouth agape. I should have listened!

And this is the meaning of the image of the vineyard this morning. This is what humanity does, whether Left, Right, Past, Present. God tries to help. We don’t listen. Generation after generation, there is a disconnect, we cling and hold onto our sense of being fine as we are, not needing help or change. Here in the Church we call it “sin” for short.

So, sometimes the way to get through to us is by breaking us down, starting over. In Isaiah it goes like this: God has some creatures that God loves. God gives them everything they need to flourish, here, it is the image of the vineyard. They do not flourish. They sprout wild grapes. They go their own way.

In Jesus’ telling in Matthew the image is a bit different and more intense: God has some creatures that God loves. God gives them everything they need to flourish. When God comes knocking to check on them, give them advice. They reject the advice. They reject the advice over and over. Not only this, they completely forget that the vineyard was made for them to tend, and in their pride and stupidity think they can yank it out of God’s hands.

Why don’t we listen to God? God’s own Son, the image of love, comes to us Sunday after Sunday. Year after year, the Holy Spirit blesses us with Good News, advises us of the unimaginable depth of the universe, of the vineyard that was planted just for us. It is a message that we are loved, all people, forgiven and eternally part of God. I guess it’s too good to be true: because we respond with violence and forgetfulness, slavery and war, lies and conspiracy, holocausts and nuclear weapons—selfishness on all levels.

This is us, a human family, together, that responds this way in our vineyard. You cannot wiggle out of this or point the finger at someone else. When we talk about the “sin of Adam,” it means all of us, humanity. Hear God’s voice of sadness in Isaiah, “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”

In Matthew Jesus asks his listeners, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And his listeners said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus must have chuckled sadly as his listeners respond this way. They condemned themselves of course! Just as we condemn ourselves, when we judge the sin we witness in our world as everyone’s fault but our own.

So, what is to be done? What is my hope if I cannot help but ignore the advice of my loving spouse, to say nothing of my loving God? Today Jesus quotes the Psalms about himself: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? The cornerstone of course is Jesus, God our rock. God’s plan all along was Jesus. God knew that Jesus would be rejected and killed and that was the image God had in store to jolt us awake.

Jesus seems to tell us this morning, it was always meant to be this way. There was no turning aside from sin. God feels it is important for us to fall in our face, to linger in this space of broken-apart-ness, of feeling that this all is “amazing in our eyes.”

“The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Because here we can finally see what is important. We can see and feel what God is like.

St. Paul today is certainly familiar with this feeling of breaking open on the rock of Christ and being shown how we are terrible listeners. Paul writes that,  “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member 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.”

According to the rules of Israel, Paul should be considered a good listener. A good vineyard keeper. But he’s not. In fact, he’s learned that it’s not about “being perfect”—having a 4.0 or a 6 figure salary, or memorizing the Bible, Paul says, it’s about the author of the universe reaching out and touching us.

Paul goes on, “Yet whatever gains I had, these 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.”

And so, back to my story about quitting my job: what do you think Maddy did? Did she yell at me and roll her eyes? Well, she did a little. She still does of course. But more than anything she was glad I came to my senses. She is still my partner despite my bad listening, and God is still our God. And God too delights when we come to our senses, when we turn again back to Christ, even for the millionth time—even if we are in pieces.

God will pull down the walls of your own “private” vineyard, and we will certainly break ourselves open on Jesus the rejected cornerstone. Because God wants us to remember all that God has given us. This creation, this “big” vineyard, this universe, our very lives—is a gift. God is our rock, against whom we may break, but a rock that never moves and never leaves us.

The Bedrock, the Cornerstone of mercy that is forever supporting you, holding you, and all of the world, in the same way. Christ the rock doesn’t need our morality, our good deeds, our lists of accomplishments. Instead, Christ Jesus has made you his own, wild grapes and broken pieces and all.

From there, from that place, you can always start over.