October 8, 2023
Words, Words, Words
True to form, this morning I plan to take personal exception to over a dozen centuries of biblical interpretation. I may sound a little flip about it, but in truth, I don’t go about this lightly. It’s simply that every so often, when I read scripture, something jumps out at me and takes hold of my imagination.
Anyway, what grabbed me in this morning’s passage from Matthew is this old phrase you’ve heard a dozen times about “the stone that the builders rejected,” and how it “has become the cornerstone.” I’m not convinced Jesus was talking about what everyone seems to think he was.
It has been assumed for generations that he was referring to himself. Jesus was the “cornerstone” rejected by the “builders” (i.e. the scribes and the Pharisees), and that same stone (Jesus) is the “stone of stumbling” over which the non-believers would fall. And, according to scripture, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” According to this interpretation, we’re all supposed to believe in Jesus in order to avoid tripping over the rejected cornerstone. Well, I believe in Jesus. I believe that the Jesus we encounter in scripture is normative for our lives. But if that is so, it’s not enough to say “I believe in Jesus;” the Jesus we encounter should transform us and cause us to live and act according to divine principles and purposes.
When I read this story from Matthew, I get the very clear impression that Jesus was not talking about words or beliefs at all! I get the idea that Jesus didn’t give a hoot what we say about what we believe in our heads! The story he told was not about what people thought, or what they said. It was about what some people did, and what they didn’t do! The story is about some tenants who were working in a vineyard they had leased. What they didn’t do was to pay their dues at harvest time! What they did was to kill the messengers who told them it was time to pay up! At the end of the story, the owner pointedly does not come on the scene and require of the laborers that they sign a pledge of allegiance, or that they offer words of regret, or promises, or affirmations. The owner is, instead, inclined to throw their sorry rear-ends out of the vineyard and give it over to (please note) “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
So, the “cornerstone” that Jesus speaks of is, I believe, that critical piece of personal architecture that is a life truly committed to the way of Jesus. I don’t think we’re in danger of stumbling over the “cornerstone” by failing to profess our belief in Jesus, I think we’re more likely to fall on our faces when we stop producing the “fruits of the kingdom.” So, in the face of all those centuries of Biblical interpretation in which Jesus is said to be that “cornerstone” and our task is to believe in him, I raise an objection. I think Jesus was trying to point us to the message more than to the messenger. And the message is: “What have you done for me lately?”
How much of our energy is put into creating rumors? At its worst, the church can be likened to a giant rumor mill, where we are all sharing rumors of the Divine realm. We show pictures to our children and tell them stories about things we want them to believe. I get up here in front of all of you and tell you things that I glean from scripture about Divine intentions. From time to time, we have interesting discussions about life and death and after-life, and morality, and social ethics, and things about our belief system that interest us. It’s like we’re all running around here gossiping about Divinity, but how much of our lives are spent producing those fruits, and turning the harvest over to the Landlord? Do we just talk about it, or do we live it, do it, share it?
We speak here of social justice. We look forward to a day when all people will be free from the ugliness of racial and religious hatred and prejudice. Our denomination issues proclamations against violence, and we read newspaper articles extolling the virtues of tolerance. We talk about justice and equality. But, my friends, unless we are participating with or supporting those who are engaged in the dismantling of racial, cultural, religious barriers in our nation and world, or putting forth the effort to learn about the history and the lives of brothers and sisters with different backgrounds, or supporting those who fight the political battles for affordable housing, equal opportunity, or quality public education, then all of our words are just “rumors” about the realm of Divine Love.
We use the word “love” quite freely around here. We speak of the value of forgiveness, and the beauty of the church’s close fellowship. We tell people in our church brochure and on our website that we are an open and affirming community. But unless we go out of our way to meet new people, learn about their lives, and befriend them, unless we pick up the phone to make contact with the person we know is suffering in silence, unless we offer an olive branch of good-will to the one we have been alienated from, then all of our words are just “rumors” of that holy realm. Paul said it bluntly to the Church in Corinth: “the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power.”
I have to confess, just like last week (in fact every week), this sermon is preached to myself as much as to anyone. I live from day to day in a virtual sea of words. I write words for the church website and weekly email, I write words to put in the bulletin, I write words to speak in a sermon. In fact, I love words. I actually learned to say all the days of the week in thirteen different languages. (Why would I do that? you ask. . . parties). So, I’m not down on words per se. Communication is terribly important. But we could put ourselves to sleep with all of our words.
I’m reminded of the story of two American students in a German university who were listening to a famous German philosopher speak. Finally, one turned to the other and said, “Let’s leave. This is too dull.” The friend replied, “Well, I admit it’s dull, but let’s at least wait until he gets to the verb.” The Divine realm is about verbs! It’s about actions, not simply the piling up of words. A Christian isn’t just someone who believes the right things, it’s someone who’s life is transformed. A church isn’t just a place where the right words are spoken, it’s a place that’s supposed to turn the world upside down.
Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” said it best: “Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through. . . . Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme! Don’t waste my time, Show me! Don’t talk of June, Don’t talk of fall! Don’t talk at all! Show me!”
That’s exactly what I think Jesus was saying. When he spoke of the tenants in the vineyard, he was making a point that we ignore at our peril. If we get so caught up in our words that we fail to produce results with our lives and with our world, we might find ourselves left behind as others are busy remaking the world.
I was reminded of that when I came across the story of a young man named Sam Vaghar who never waited around to hear the right words. Vaghar, whose father is from Iran, and whose mother is British, grew up in Newton, Massachusetts and graduated from Brandeis. When he was fifteen years old, he was on a trip to Cuba with his parents and was mugged by a group of kids who took his wallet. Rather than making him enraged, it made him reflective. He wondered about the level of poverty there, and about all the inequities in the world. He resolved to try to make a difference. Vaghar, in his mid-twenties, founded an organization called the Millennium Campus Network or MCN. It motivates students to get involved in making a difference in global poverty. They are using social media to organize, enlist students, engage in projects, and raise money which goes to hunger, poverty, and disease alleviation projects (like buying anti-malaria bed nets for African villagers). “Since MCN’s inception in a university dorm room about a decade ago, over 10,000 undergraduates from 450 universities worldwide have participated in one or more MCN programs. MCN alumni have gone on to work at the United Nations, USAID, and launched their own social enterprises.” Vaghar appealed to a group of 1200 students at a Millennium Campus Conference, saying, “Don’t just think about why you care, but how do we actually have an impact?” What Vaghar cares about is results.
You and I aren’t necessarily going to start some global organization for social justice, but we can write the check, pull the voting lever, make the phone call. We can volunteer some time. We can reach out to a family member, a friend, a neighbor, or even a total stranger with compassion, understanding, assistance and support. And we are doing some good things through our church. Our mission and ministry are of real value. But we should always make sure we are keeping our “eyes on the prize,” as they say. And we might be asking, “Is the church of Jesus Christ, in all its expressions and forms, being all it can be and doing all it can do to be the hands and feet of Divine intention in this world?” There are some blessed people who are taking to heart the challenge to feed the hungry, heal the broken, and bring good news to the poor. Maybe they are the ones to whom the landlord will turn over the vineyard Instead of those who fail to bring forth “the produce at the harvest time.”
That’s enough words.