October 8, 2017

The Fruits Of The Kingdom

Before we read the second lesson, I would like to begin with a few introductory words.

When endeavoring to write a sermon, I often read through collections of sermons written by other pastors. Sometimes it is a pastor who is currently serving in a church. Sometimes it is a pastor that served a church in 15th century Europe. I also read through commentaries that scholars have written about the biblical passage. I also read through other writings, poetry, books and the like, in hopes of finding ways that the scripture for the week connects to our everyday lives--our hopes, our worries, our fears, our joys.

In preparing for this week's sermon, I found no other pastor that had preached on this passage from Matthew that we are about to read.

Now, my search was not extensive--I didn't access the library at Princeton Seminary. I didn't do a thorough search in google scholar. But, in the resources I have close at hand, there were no other sermons on this passage.

After reading through the passage from Matthew, I began to suspect why this might be the case.

I invite you to listen for the word of God from the gospel of Matthew.

 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.  When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.  But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.  Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’  So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  They 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 said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Well, let's get right to the issue, shall we? Can we see a possible reason for why I found no other sermons on this passage?

In the time of Christ, the Israelites were the people of God. They were the vineyard in the parable. The Israelites were the people of God and the chief priests and the Pharisees were the religious establishment. In the Gospel from Matthew, they are told quite bluntly that if they, the people of God, won't do what God calls them to do, then the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to a people that are able to produce the fruits of the kingdom. You can imagine that it was difficult to hear those words.

But now, fast forward two thousand years, to, oh, say the year 2017. One of the basic concepts that we hold with respect to biblical interpretation is that the word of God, though written and spoken at a particular time in the past, has an enduring message that is applicable to the lives of believers in any age. With that in mind, let's look at a modern interpretation of this passage. In doing this, we see that the people of God, the vineyard in the parable is now not the chief priests and the Pharisees. The vineyard in the parable, the ones called to account by Christ, are the members and pastors of the church today.

Jesus speaks to us when he says, "if you are not able to produce fruit, then the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom."

Well, now we see why some would not want to preach on this passage and why it is uncomfortable to read this passage in worship.

The reaction of the chief priests and the Pharisees is understandable. They, like any of us, don't like to be told that they are falling behind and have to step up the game.

In high school, I was on the tennis team. I joined as a freshman, and, like everyone else on the team, I had to work my way up. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had earned a spot on the number one doubles position. On our high school tennis team, the number one doubles position is reserved for those two people who are the strongest competitors on the team, outside of those who are in the singles division. The singles division in tennis is where there's one player on one team versus one player on the other team. Doubles division is where there are two players on a team facing two players on the opposite team.

I had earned a position as one of the two people in the number one doubles team. However, about halfway through the season my game was deteriorating. My serve was weak and predictable. My backhand was inconsistent. My coach had a frank conversation with me, and said, basically, that I had to step up my game or he would hand my position to another.

As you might suspect, this hurt. But this is what a good coach has to do. A good coach has to be able to tell us when we are doing good but also when we need to step up the game.

This is in effect with Jesus was telling the religious establishment of his day. They needed to step up their game, and if they didn't, their position will be handed to another.

It is important to note that he was not talking about their salvation. He was not saying that if they didn't produce fruit, they would not enter heaven. He was saying that if they couldn't be entrusted to bring about the justice and mercy that would usher in the kingdom of God, then this responsibility and this joy would be given to another to accomplish.

So if this is the word of God and if it is still applicable to us in our day and age, then this scripture passage invites us to reflect on how we are doing, reflect on whether or not we are living up to our calling as the body of Christ.

So how are we doing here at Winter Park Presbyterian Church? Are we living up to our calling or are we just coasting? Are we actively being the body of Christ here in Winter Park with an impact reverberates around the world?

I have been reflecting on this recently, so let me share my perception with you.

Nearly two years ago, the session established the Sustainment Committee. It was a committee that was asked to explore ways that this church could maintain a strong and vibrant presence in our community in the 21st century. The committee has accomplished a lot in these two years; sometimes the work was very slow, because it has been very difficult. Some steps the committee has already taken include revitalizing our stewardship process, revising and expanding our policies that guide us to be effective stewards of the church's financial resources, and working two more effectively use those resources so the ministries of this church can have a wider and deeper impact in people’s lives.

It also seems to me that more and more in our conversations and in our committee meetings, we are thinking critically about who we are as a church, who we are called to serve, what we are to do, and how to do it effectively.

One result of this work is the 2018 ministry action plan brochure that I have here in my hand. It is available in electronic form on our website, and is available in printed form in the narthex at the exits of the sanctuary. This brochure is an attempt to distill all the programs and activities of this church into one place to help us answer the question of who we are, what we are doing, and why we are doing it. The plan for 2018 is not drastically different from what we have been doing in recent years past. It does not show dramatic change but it does indicate incremental movement forward, as we seek to discern where God is leading this church. I invite you to read through this ministry action plan and spend time praying for all of the activities of this congregation and for all of the people that are engaged in or impacted by this church. This type of prayer is vital for this congregation.

Another way in which we have been seeking to be more faithful to our calling has involved the focus groups that we convened a few months ago. You, as members of this congregation, were invited to participate in these focus groups, to share your opinions, to help guide the Session and church leadership in discerning where God is calling this church over the next few years.

The feedback that you gave was exceptional. The sustainment committee then spent a lot of time working through your recommendations and ideas, in order to present to your session some recommendations. These recommendations were presented to session, and at the session meeting at the end of September, the session accepted the proposal from the sustainment committee.

The project was given the name Vision 2020.

We won't be launching this Vision 2020 project until the spring, because we still have a lot of groundwork to do before we can launch the project. All the details are still being worked out, and the church session will share all those details with you in the months to come.

But I will say this. The leadership of this congregation asked you, the membership, what you wanted from this church, and what you believe God is calling this church to be, and how we can be more effective in our ministry both locally and globally, and Vision 2020 takes your ideas and puts them in action.

So we have a lot going on at this church right now. We have our annual stewardship campaign, and as part of that process we will be turning in our pledge cards next week. We have the ongoing ministries as outlined in the 2018 ministry action plan. We have the soon to be announced Vision 2020 project that will guide our steps for the next few years.

The Gospel reading for today is an invitation from Christ for us as the church to reflect on how we are doing, to think about whether or not we are living up to our calling as a church. It is easy to understand how a sermon on this topic can make us feel uncomfortable. But rather than feeling uncomfortable, I hope this invitation from Christ makes us feel excited about the future.

As I have been working with your stewardship committee, as I have been reading and praying through the 2018 ministry action plan, and as the session and I have been working on the Vision 2020 project, it makes me very, very excited for the future of this congregation.

There will certainly be challenges and difficulties along the way. But I know that God has given us all that we need. And I trust that the Spirit of God will continue to guide us on our way.