By the Word Worked

by Jason Micheli

Length: 24:35

Psalm 118, Matthew 21.33-43  (click to see Scripture text)

February 7, 2021

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“Just where in the @#$% does he get off, preaching like that?!” 

Jesus, without the benefit of a seminary education, is in the Temple preaching. “This place is supposed to be a house of prayer, but you’ve turned it into a den of robbers. And look, with all your tight-sphinctered, keeping-up-appearances piety, you’ve pushed all the people with actual biblical problems— the poor, the blind, and the lame— to the margins. And you money-changers, you call that a fair price for a goat? Exactly what part of the commandment (If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not exact interest from him) is unclear to you? I’ve seen fairer prices in airport food courts. Good Lord, toddlers with dirty diapers and babies at the breast could do church better than the lot of you.”

Just to drive the point home, Jesus offers his listeners a sermon illustration. Jesus takes an ordinary innocent fig tree that, so far as we know, never did anything wrong to Jesus, and Jesus gives it the stink eye and hollers with his outside voice, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree, the Gospels report, withered at once. 

In response to his arboreal assault-and-battery, Jesus’s listeners start in on his bona fides. “Just where does he get off, preaching like that?! Did anyone check his references? Who’s actually seen his CV? What divinity school did you say you attended? We liked the last preacher we had a lot better than you?” 

“No, you didn’t either,” Jesus replies, “Your last preacher was John the Baptist, and you all killed him and served him for dinner. It’s not the messenger that’s your problem. It’s the message.” 

And while they chew on that truth bomb, Jesus, proving he’d never pass the United Methodist Board of Ordained Ministry, doubles down on their offense and spins the rudest of all his parables. “There was a Silicon Valley CEO who made a killing before the tech bubble burst,” Jesus says, “so he bought some land up in Napa because he fancied the notion of playing the vintner one day after he’d cashed out his stock options and retired early. When it came time for harvesting the grapes, the vineyard owner sent some of his interns up north with a message, and dammit if the fruit pickers didn’t beat one, kill another, and stone still another.” 

“The rich guy, though, he’s an odd one,” Jesus says, as the parents in the pews cover their children’s shocked and scared ears. “The owner of the vineyard doesn’t react the way you might expect. He doesn’t call the police, cancel them on Twitter, or take his helicopter up to Napa to take matters into his own hands. No, he hands over another message and sends another company car full of overachieving interns to the vineyard. But the fruit pickers do the same to them too. They zip tie them to the grapevines and beat the life out of them. Fool me once, fool me twice— would you believe this fat cat didn’t learn his lesson with these rotten, no-good workers? Seriously, he tells himself, “If I give the message to my son, if I send my son up there, surely, they’ll listen to him.” As soon as they hear the kid’s car coming up the gravel drive, the fruit pickers look to each other and say, “This awol vineyard owner is never going to come around here. If we off his son, we can have this place to ourselves.” So they take him across the property line and kill him.” 

“Now,” Jesus says to his listeners, “What do you reckon this father will do when he learns they’ve murdered his son in a shameful fashion and left his body in the brush, forsaken like trash? Messenger after messenger, what do you guess this father will do after they’ve killed his ultimate message-bearer?” 

“Surely, he will put those wretches to a miserable death!” they answer so fast not a one even raised their hand. 

And that’s when our Lord smacks his forehead. “You mouth-breathing morons,” Jesus responds, “you pick apart your preachers but you don’t even know your scripture. It’s right there as plain as the ugly on your face, “Psalm 118: The stone you all rejected has become the cornerstone of the masterpiece the Lord is building.”

In other words— in light of what God’s determined to do, all our refusals and rejections are only provisional. 

“I’ve made a decision for Christ,” we say. No, God has made a decision for you in Jesus Christ and, sooner or later, by hook or by crook, God’s gonna pull it off. 

———————-

They warned me about him before my first Sunday at the church. Moving boxes in to the parsonage, a lay leader stopped by with a house-warming gift. “Watch out for old Les,” Steve said, “his bite is worse than his bark.”

“Les,” I repeated the name, “Well, how bad’s his bark?”

“It’s like one of those neighborhood dogs that makes you glad you don’t keep a gun in the house.”

“You got a picture? How will I know him?”

“Trust me, he’ll introduce himself.”

Les was short and bald and wiry, the kind of geezer you picture in a tight, white tank-top with patches of hair on his shoulders and ketchup stains on his tummy. In thirteen years, I never learned whether he shouted because of his hearing loss or his general temperament. 

My first Sunday at the church, greeting people in the narthex after I’d delivered the message, Les refused my outstretched hand and crept up close to me, looking me over like a dermatologist. 

“I got absolutely nothing out of your sermon, preacher.” 

It hurt a little, it being my first Sunday and all. 

But like a good United Methodist pastor, I quickly pivoted into my best mode of non-defensive defensiveness. “Bless your heart,” I replied. 

He narrowed his eyes and sucked at his teeth angrily. 

“Look,” I said, “There’s an unnecessary war going on in Iraq. Maybe the Holy Spirit had better things to do today than speak to you.”

“This isn’t going to end well,” he said, storming off. 

My third Sunday at the church— 

After I brought the message, he came up to me as I was getting a cup of coffee. 

“How much are we paying you?” 

“Suddenly it seems like not nearly enough,” I mumbled, “Why do you ask?” 

“Because it’s obvious you’re not called to be a preacher. You’re terrible at it. The only explanation is that you must be in it for the money.” 

He’d wounded me. 

So I shot back at him, “Well, sir, I may be terrible at it, but then again I’ve always thought churches get the preachers they deserve.”

“This isn’t going to end well for you,” he whispered, but, because he was deaf, all the eyes near the coffee station fixed on us. 

One fall Sunday I offered a message on Galatians 3.28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free…”). During the sermon, I spoke about racism as the refusal to recognize the work of Jesus Christ. 

Monday morning Les barged into my office, throwing open the door so hard it knocked my portrait of Karl Barth off the wall. “Just where do you get off getting political in the pulpit? You calling me a racist, preacher?” 

“Me? No.” I said, “But isn’t it interesting how you heard the Lord calling you one. That’s the problem with a Living God,” I said. “Idols stay conveniently quiet, but you can’t control what a Living God might say to you.”

“This isn’t going…”

“I know, I know— this isn’t going to end well for me.”

In 2010 the church offered hospitality to a neighborhood mosque undergoing renovations, welcoming them into our youth wing for their Friday prayers. The Sunday before that first Friday I delivered a message from Matthew 25— the sheep and the goats. 

You can Google it. 

In it, I said:

“Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant. Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies. Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us.

Rather, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor, and care for those who have no one.”

If we’d had rocks in the pews, he would’ve side-armed a few at me. Instead he got up in the middle of my sermon and marched out, stopping at every other pew in an attempt to persuade others to follow suit. 

More than a few did, which stung me. 

Later that afternoon he filled up the church voicemail litigating the issue. And later that week he passed around a petition for the bishop to remove me. When I saw the signatures on the list…that hurt me too. 

One Christmas the message the Lord gave me was from Matthew’s nativity where Jesus is born a refugee in a Middle Eastern nation occupied by the military of a foreign empire. “Sound familiar?” I asked my listeners before I confessed, “I’m not sure I like my part in the Christmas story.” 

He didn’t like it either. 

“Christmas is about family and cheer and tradition,” he yelled over the brass quintet after the benediction. 

“Family, cheer, and tradition,” I said, “That sounds nice. I like family, cheer, and tradition. I don’t know why the Lord didn’t say anything about those things, but I do like them.”

“This isn’t going…”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, “Merry Christmas.”

One Mothers’ Day I brought the message. It’s always a bad idea for me to preach on pagan occasions like Mothers’ Day or the Fourth of July. Turning to what Jesus said on the subject, I preached on Luke 14, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother…brothers and sisters…cannot be my disciple.”

“Jesus just isn’t all that concerned about the family,” I said, “Of course mothers and fathers love their kids— their kids look just like them. That’s narcissism.That’s not discipleship. Jesus is after creating a different kind of family, bound not by blood but by baptism.”

I didn’t expect anyone, really, to like the message. 

But I certainly didn’t expect Les to challenge me to a fist-fight in the fellowship hall. True story— you can ask my wife. With the whole coffee hour crowd staring at us— like you do at a car accident— Les poked me in the chest and challenged me to fight him. He even dropped to the floor and did a dozen push-ups to prove he was up to the task of making things end badly for me. 

Before General Conference one year, I brought a message on sexuality, another subject Jesus appears stubbornly disinterested in. 

Les later harangued me in a church council meeting, attacking me for being gay-friendly, corrupting his grandchildren, and being ignorant of the authority of scripture. “One of these days…” he pointed at me, smiling, “it’s not going to end well.” 

It wasn’t until his funeral that I discovered one of his sons had never come out of the closet to him. 

———————-

In the ancient Church, Roman persecution provoked an ecclesiastical debate over the efficacy of sacraments performed by preachers who had recanted their faith in the face of torture. Does the eucharist, for example, depend upon the preacher’s strength of faith or moral integrity in order to be a means of grace? With St. Augustine, the Church answered in the negative with the Latin phrase, ex opere operato. 

By the work worked. 

That is, the sacraments remain effective means of grace because it is not the preacher at work in the sacramental work but it is the Living Word of God. 

It is the Living Word of God that is effective and creative, attaching itself to water and wine and bread and the unimpressive, inadequate words of a preacher. 

From his jail cell, the Apostle Paul admonishes Timothy that the only thing a preacher of the Gospel has for which to be ashamed is in poorly handling the word of truth— that’s it. 

Tell me in the narthex that the sermon didn’t make you feel good or give you practical help for Monday, I won’t take offense. Say I stepped over the line with a joke or that a story didn’t land, okay— there’s always another Sunday. Fire off an email and accuse me of being a liberal or a conservative (Oh my Lord, I get both every week). But go ahead, it’s no sweat. I won’t give it two seconds worry. I can take the hits. After all, Jesus says he’s got a cross that’ll fit my back just fine. Gripe until your fingers cramp up, I’ll sleep just fine. 

But tell me I haven’t handed over the unfettered Word of God, tell me I haven’t delivered the Message, I should be ashamed of myself, Paul says. 

“God is so unassuming in the world,” Karl Barth says, “But so revolutionary in relation to it.” He means that the way the Living God makes himself known in the world, brings something out of nothing, gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist is through ordinary words, the words of ordinary messengers. “From this time forth, I make you hear things,” declares the prophet Isaiah, “new things, hidden things, which you have not known…before today you have never heard them.” 

I don’t know why our Lord keeps sending message after message after message to hard-headed people like you. 

Nor do I know why he chooses ill-equipped people like me as his primary mode of communication. No, that’s not nearly offensive enough. I don’t know why God chooses ill-equipped messengers like me as the primary way he is active and at work in the world. 

But I do know that the Word of God says that it is the will of God that all shall be saved. 

That’s the Epistle to Timothy for all you who now want to argue with me. 

I do know the Word of God says it is the will of God that all shall be saved; therefore, all our stubborn, stupid, short-sighted “no’s” are bracketed by a bigger “Yes” that God is hell-bent on speaking to us in Jesus Christ.

———————-

I’m not sure when it happened or what message it was exactly that finally broke through, but a couple of years before he died Les came up to me between services one Sunday morning. He’d been keeping an unusually low profile for a while. I gritted my teeth and steeled myself for another tongue lashing. 

“Bless your heart,” I was ready to say.

He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Preacher, I don’t know why it took so long for me to hear. But now, some days the only thing saving me from complete despair is whatever word the Lord’s given you to bring us.”

———————-

It’s a testament to the depth of our sin— what the Protestant Reformers called our total depravity— that we make the wicked tenants the subject of this parable. For that matter, we get so preoccupied with the supporting cast that we misname nearly all of Jesus’s stories. The Parable of the Prodigal Son— No, it’s not about the rotten kid brother. It’s about the Father who’s already forgiven his children before either of them do an ounce of repenting. The Parable of the Lost Coin should be called the Parable of the Crazy Lady Who Was Willing To Turn Over Her Whole House To Find A Single Worthless Nickel. The Parable of the Lost Sheep is really a parable about a Shepherd who refuses to abide by our expectations for good and responsible shepherding. 

We’re so wrapped up in ourselves we miss the main character. 

In the first verse alone, Jesus credits the Vineyard Owner with a whopping eight verbs. It’s not the Vineyard Owner who’s fooled again and again and again. It’s every one of us who think this parable is about the wicked tenants. No, it’s about the Owner with a capital “O.” It’s about the ridiculous patience of God and the gracious persistence of his Word. 

“Now,” Jesus says to his listeners, “What do you reckon this father will do when he learns they’ve killed and forsaken his son?” 

“Surely, he will put those wretches to a miserable death!”

Wrong again. 

No sooner had we nailed his Son to a tree than the Lord sends out another messenger. “This Jesus that you crucified and killed,” Peter preaches, “God raised him up, having freed him from Death, because it is impossible for him to be held in Death’s power…Repent and believe.”

Ours is a Loquacious God. 

And he’s not squeamish. 

There’s no body count the Lord’s not willing to rack up in order to be in conversation with you. 

———————-

I held Les just before he died. 

Knowing his time was drawing short, he was scared. 

About what came next. 

“What do you think the Lord will do?” he panicked, “What do you think God will do with me?”

“Haven’t you been listening to any of the messages?” I asked, “You’ve been baptized. You’re safe in his death. It’s going to end well for all of us.” 

“Say it again,” he said. 

And though I did not want to, I felt compelled. 

I felt…called and sent. 

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”

Let the house of Aaron say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”

Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”

Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.

With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?

The Lord is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals.

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.

All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!

They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!

They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!

I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.

The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;

the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”

I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.

The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.

Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.

The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

33 ‘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 watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They 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.’

42 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”?
43Therefore 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.

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