Updated: Oct 16
a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
October 8, 2023
MATTHEW 21:33-46 NRSV
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 watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.
37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 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.” 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’? 43 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. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Well this is a crazy little piece of Holy Scripture isn’t it? You have absentee landowners trying to collect rent from tenant farmers. You have crazy tenant farmers who beat, kill, and stone the owner’s reps who come to collect. Finally, the owner sends his son to collect, and the tenant farmers, hmm, if we kill him we will inherit the land ourselves. I mean what owner is going to give his land to people who kill his managers, and then his son – even out of fear of their craziness and violence? We indeed, live in a world where craziness and violence isn’t a new invention.
This passage follows the one Dr. Feeser preached on last week. Hers followed on the ultimate turning point of the gospels – when Jesus goes into the Temple and runs out the money machine that funded the Temple – the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals and things – “cleansing” the Temple. And you don’t mess with people’s money machines, secular or religious. The religious leaders response was predictable. They were ready to put the hit on the troublemaker, Jesus of Nazareth. All of this is important if we are to understand my topic for today. These next four weeks I want to share “Four Things We All Need.” This morning I want to focus on one of those things - power.
Power is a touchy topic. Most of us feel pretty powerless. But the surprising word I have for you today is you are actually very powerful. The challenge is to discover our power. Someone once said we are more afraid of our power than we are of our powerlessness, and so we often deny our power so as not to use it responsibly and meaningfully. I think that is an important point. Ultimately, this morning I hope to encourage us all to remember how powerful we are. That takes recognizing what kind of power we have.
Back to our friends in the parable. Jesus accurately describes the economic system of his day. Israel was run by wealthy absentee landowners. These landowners often obtained the land by using the power of their wealth to leverage people off their land. They would make loans to small farmers, then when they couldn’t pay they would take the land, then rent it back to them to farm, then charge them so much that they could never buy back their property, destining them to a life of hand-to-mouth poverty. Often, in case of illness or a famine or drought the owner enslaves them to work the fields to pay their debt off without pay. The people rightly felt powerless.
Take note, this isn’t just an ancient reality. Economic powerlessness may explain not only the “crazy” violent behavior of the fictional people in his parable, but the actions of many today. Both the violent January 6 attackers at the Capital and those we condemn for looting in times of chaos and rioting are acting out of their sense of powerlessness. Violence is wrong, but if we understand the economic violence in any era leads to hopelessness and despair and sometimes to violence. These acts of rage and violence aren’t good, but if we understand the source of it perhaps we can rethink types of powerlessness.
Let me lift up a piece another part of this power issue. We take time today to acknowledge “Disability Awareness” Sunday. I hope to encourage all of us who have some form of disability to find ways to focus on what power we have rather than to be consumed and defeated by our sense of powerlessness. I don’t want in any way to diminish or demean someone’s struggle with the challenges they face. But I believe Jesus revealed again and again the true source of power for anyone and everyone in this life. Rich or poor, dealing with great disabilities or relatively good health, however we define our selves, we have more power than we may realize. We do not have to give in to craziness or violence or despair.
In fact, that phrase, “how we define ourselves” is the real key to claiming our real power. Finding and using our real power can require real change. One of the great powers we have is the power to change how we define ourselves. We do not have to let others define our limits or our possibilities or the changes we can make in what we give power over our lives. The first step is asking what have we given power to in our lives that needs to change?
This takes us back to our Scripture. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day and many religious leaders to day fear change. Just as they did in Jesus’ day many religious leaders today fear that change is a threat to their power and their privilege. Those Pharisees and elders of Jesus’ day only held power as long as they appeased the ruling powers of Rome. As long as they kept the Jewish people from revolting, maintained the status quo and Governor Pilate, Caesar, and the powerful army they kept their power as religious leaders. That’s one example of how power works. It is power based in fear and often times, hatred. I’m pretty sure the religious leaders who sold their souls in this way feared and hated Pilate and Caesar. I wonder today about all the religious leaders selling their souls to maintain a status quo in the church and in the nation. The problem is that status quo is based in a fake 1950’s version of America - or maybe an 1850’s version. The fear of change is at the root of powerlessness.
One of my colleagues, [ Michael Piazza, “Liberating Word,” 10.03.2023 ], wrote recently about change. He used the word “neuroplasticity.” He said, “That is a 50-cent word describing the brain’s ability to change and adapt.” I would suggest to you the power to change is one of our greatest powers, but also one of our least used and most feared, in many ways. But as my colleague wrote, it is also the sign of strength and of what he called “intellectual humility.” He says, “Intellectual humility correlates with higher levels of empathy, gratitude, altruism, generosity, and lower levels of power-seeking.”
He added, “John the Baptist preached repentance, or a change of lifestyle and behavior. Jesus called us to a level of humility that allows us to be vulnerable and honest enough to look at our behavior, admit we might be wrong, and change our minds. Jesus said this is the path to discovering and doing God’s will in our lives and in our world. That level of honesty requires a level of profound humility. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said we had to die in order to fully live. We have to die to certainty, arrogance, and hubris in order to genuinely know humility.”
Humility and the power to change are rooted in the greatest power we have. That power is the love that Jesus came talking about, living out, and calling us to enter into. We all have the power to love. When we can honestly love others we can let go of fear and hatred. We can let the power of love change us. But the only way we will find the power of that love is if we come to know the real God – the God that Jesus actually taught about and modeled his life by. His invitation to follow him is to enter into relationship with God where we will discover how powerful our lives can be.
I think of the time Jesus said something incredible. He said, “If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.” I think he was saying, if we truly trust the love of God enough to strive to live by that standard of love we can truly find the power to do incredible, amazing things – that’s an incredibly powerful way to live. The unconditional love of God gives us an amazing power to live, and I mean really live, without the overwhelming belief in our powerlessness.
With love we have the power to forgive. With love we have the power to see a different world. We have the power to change this world as much as those who abuse power. With love we can love those who abuse power and yet still work to change the effect they have on us and others. That’s what Biblical justice is. Biblical justice isn’t punishment. It isn’t about forcing others to accept our opinions about God. Biblical justice digs deeply into the meaning of unconditional love. Then it challenges us to dig into the work of continually striving to change ourselves until we embody that love. Don’t settle for some poorer, lesser example of love. Whenever and wherever we live by the unconditional love of God the Reign of God, what the Scripture calls the Kingdom of God, is right here, right now.
Of course, let’s be honest, this is what Jesus did and we all know the reception he got. Our passage of Scripture ends with a warning of what might happen when you live by unconditional love. But it is still the ultimate power available to anyone who chooses to live it.
Think about the power you have. You can love when others hate. You can forgive when others hold grudges. You can change even when the whole world thinks you can’t. That’s the power of God’s love that we can open our hearts to, open our souls to, open our lives to. And yes, Jesus was and is the ultimate example of that love. Isn’t that why we claim to follow him? Because we believe in the power his love? AMEN.