First Congregational Church
October 8, 2017
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Philippians 3:4-14 & Matthew 21:33-46
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
It may be a more frequent internet search than many of us might think, but I was a little surprised at the plethora of answers I discovered in how to handle rejection. Yeah, I know. Not one of the top ten sermon topics of any decade, but, well, we’re human beings, and life happens.
Anyway, despite the number of ways to deal with rejection that can’t be mentioned from the pulpit, there are some that can. Whoever Joe Soriano is, his method to handle rejection is to remember that Tom Brady was the 199th overall pick in the (football) draft. And he made it work. Maybe not the most practical of methods, Meg Silver said that she deals with rejection with rubber gloves, Clorox bleach, and quick drying cement.
Then there was the person with an earnest plea that said, “Can someone please tell me how to get over my fear of rejection. I can’t even ask a girl out because I’m afraid she’ll say, “No.” I’m not bad looking. I’m just afraid I’ll look stupid if I get rejected. And then in capital letters, the individual wrote, “Please help.” And you gotta know that the first answer after that plea was “No.” Rejection can cut so deeply, and we get that, in part, with this morning’s scripture passages.
As Mary Ann and Sharon make their way to the pulpit, I’ll give you a little spoiler alert. The passage from Matthew can feel a little like Jesus getting distracted in the midst of his story. But stick with it, because it makes sense in the end.
Matthew 21:33-46 (NIV) The Parable of the Tenants
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Philippians 3:4-14 (NIV)
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Thank you, Mary Ann and Sharon. I won’t give away any specific names, but there was a day when the Worship Committee was meeting in my office, and it was one of those days of lively discussion, which, upon reflection, is most all the meetings of the Worship Committee. Anyway, we were discussing the topics important to that group, and all of a sudden, one of the members of the committee said, “Swing!” The person had never noticed the swing in the tree between the church and the driveway, and it struck that person, at that moment, and out the word came. Something very similar happened in the animated movie, “Up,” when Doug the talking dog was introducing himself to Carl, the main character, and all of a sudden, Doug interrupts his own introduction by noticing the nearby “Squirrel.” I think, in the Matthew passage, something sort of similar happens when Jesus says, “stone.”
Jesus had been painting this agricultural story, and then Jesus goes off to a metaphor about construction. Thankfully, Jesus ties up the two seemingly disparate analogies and the chief priests and Pharisees understood that the rejection that Jesus was speaking about was in reference to themselves - rejecting Jesus himself. As shocking as such a pronouncement was, it wasn’t a strong enough indictment for the chief priests and Pharisees to change their ways. In fact, they rejected Jesus’ point and passed right on to trying to figure out how to get around the popular opinion of the people.
Then there is passage from Philippians, from the great Paul, describing the things that at one time made him a poster child for Pharisee of the year in the Roman/Jewish world in what is today, modern Turkey. The passage is not about how anyone rejected Paul, although there was probably good reason for it in his earlier life, but how he rejected the very attributes of his earlier life that caused such pride, choosing instead the life as a follower of Christ. The “life” of rejection is certainly a double-edged sword: there is rejecting and being rejected.
It’s interesting that, as Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary point out, that “This parable is one of only three that appears in all of three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Curiously, some of Jesus’ best-known parables (like the Good Samaritan) occur in (just) one gospel alone but nowhere else. Only the parables of The Sower, The Mustard Seed, and The Tenants get repeated in triplicate in the New Testament. It seems that (Matthew, Mark and Luke) the synoptic evangelists each concluded that no gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry could be complete without these particular parables being in there somewhere. You could pick and choose among the others but not with these three.
In one sense that is rather surprising, especially considering that these days The Parable of the Tenants is not as familiar or beloved as any number of other parables that did not get repeated. Yet there is something within this story that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all perceived was central to the gospel.
I think, one of the big aspects of both these scripture passages comes in the little line at the end of Paul’s passage, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” and then just a sentence later, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
At various times and places in our lives, any one of us may be or feel rejected for one reason or another. I don’t know that there are various kinds of rejection, but I’m guessing that by and large, if a person rejects you or says something that is deeply hurtful, it is probably not so much about you as the other individual. There is so much truth in that gesture of a finger pointing at someone - that while there is one finger pointing at the other person, but there are three fingers pointing back at you.
Even so, if someone says something a little sideways or without as much thought and care as they perhaps should have, it hurts. And it can hurt deeply, to the very core of our being and we can get stuck on that word, sentence or phrase. And letting go of such rejection can take a good deal of work.
Or we can, after some good soul-searching, discover that we have a need to reject or turn away from some things of our lives that are keeping us from being what we sense God needing us to be. It could not have been an easy conversation at Paul’s parents house, when he told them that all he had considered dear, as his parents had probably taught him, was now nothing, compared to the love and mercy and grace that he found in Christ.
Rejection is one of those elements of life that is tough to live through. But there is that little “sign” in this morning’s passage from Paul, like the sign in a crowd at a marathon, that tells the runners, “You can do it!” Paul’s sign, though, says, “Press on!” “Forget what was behind you, and strain toward your goal.” And in case any of us forgets what that goal is, Paul tells us, it is the “prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Whether it’s rejection, dismissal, enmity, animosity, antagonism, bitterness, resentment, bad blood, hatred, loathing, malice or spite, Paul reminds us that none of those things is our end goal. We may get caught up in those things from time to time, like a plastic bag that gets caught in a tree. But God - through Paul and the Holy Spirit - reminds us that ours is not a race against any one person or issue, but a race toward Christ and the eternal life that he has prepared for us. Everyone else’s races are none of our affairs. Those belong to God, although if we have it within us to help another racer get up after a tumble, it is all to the greater good. Our main race is the one that gets us to God’s presence, to that place of pure, unadulterated love, joy, mercy and peace. Which seems like the place to pray.
Gracious and Most High God, we thank you that you give each of us a course to run in this life - one that is ours alone, even though we live it out with others. We regret those times when we forget that that course is ultimately the most important thing in this world, because it is the thing that will live with us into eternity. Forgive us when we make that course difficult for others, especially those times when we know nothing of the inflicted pain. Make us aware of those opportunities we have to rectify rejections that have deeply wounded us, inspiring us to do so through the power of the love of Christ and the indwelling of your Holy Spirit. Help each of us help each other, that we can be the people that make you proud to call your own. As we all press on, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.