Sunday, October 8, 2023 – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
by Seminarian, Jason Von Ehrenkrook
Sermon preached by Seminarian, Jason Von Ehrenkrook
Below is a TRANSCRIPT of the homily. It may vary considerably from the prepared version. Please do not cite without permission.
In a world prone to violence, we pray for more peacemakers. In a world rife with hate. We pray for hearts that love generously. Amen. Please be seated.
The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. Hi, everyone, I’m your new seminarian. Um, Jason, I know I haven’t had the chance to meet all of you, although some of you I have and, and I do want to say that I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity. grateful for the chance to learn and grow here and grateful for the investment you’re making in my own formation. So thank you. This is my first opportunity to be up here. It’s exciting, little bit intimidating, but exciting. And I woke up Saturday morning, pretty much feeling like I had my homily ready to go. And then I opened the news. And I read of yet another outbreak of violence that is already escalating into even more bloodshed, and will continue to do so in the coming months. I found myself compelled to rethink the emphasis of this sermon this morning. I don’t think this is of course, the place or time to delve into the complicated mess of Middle East politics, or the many different factors contributing to this latest outbreak of violence.
This is a time to lament, to grieve, to weep, to lament the horrifying slaughter of Israeli and Palestinian lives, and to grieve the pervasive presence of violence in this world.
This particular moment in that particular tiny corner of our planet is but one more instance of a seemingly endless cycle of bloodshed that has plagued human history. Well, since the beginning of human history, and let’s be clear about something and this is where I want to steer our reflections this morning. This is not just a them problem. It’s also an us problem. So let’s take a little trip to Germany. There’s a beautiful gothic church, St. John’s Church in bourbon Germany that in the early 15th century, installed a series of stained glass windows in the nave. Among these are two intriguing panels flanking a portrayal of the crucified Christ. The panel to the left of Jesus portrays a woman riding upon a strange four headed beast. She’s carrying triumphantly carrying a Flagstaff, crowned with a cross. This is in one hand, and then the other hand, she’s carrying a chalice and above her is a third hand. This is a disembodied hand, but it’s reaching down from the clouds, and it’s placing a golden crown upon her head. This is obviously a coronation scene, and the woman is a personification of the church. Christianity, that strange four headed creature It symbolizes the four Gospels. And of course, that’s God’s hand coming out of the clouds, crowning the church with power and authority. Shifting our gaze to the right of Jesus, as from the viewers vantage point, the right panel, we can see a parallel image of another woman. Only this woman is riding upon a donkey. And she’s blindfolded. And her head is in a downcast position. She too, is holding a Flagstaff, only it’s broken at the top. And here also, there’s a divine hand, reaching down from the cloud. Only this hand of God is plunging a dagger into her skull. As the crown she wants war, tumbles to the ground. It’s clearly a gruesome scene, and the identification of the second woman is unmistakable. She personifies the synagogue, Judaism. The theological import of this iconography is quite clear. Jews were originally God’s chosen people, recipients of the crown of God’s covenant, but they rejected Jesus and therefore God rejected the Jews, putting them under a curse and replacing them with a new chosen people, a new covenant people, a new kingdom, people, Christians. The kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. It’s not hard to see a connection between these words in the so called parable of the wicked tenants, which was our Gospel lesson this morning, and the scene depicted in the windows of St. John’s Church. Although all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they all record a version of this parable. This language of a transfer of the kingdom from one people to another is unique to Matthew. In this story, we encounter a landowner who leases his vineyard to tenants, and at harvest time he repeatedly sends his slaves to retrieve the produce, and repeatedly, the tenants beat and then kill those slaves. So finally, the landowner sends his own son, naturally, assuming that they would surely treat his son much better than they treated his slaves. But they do not. And instead, they murder the son as well. The Literary setting of this parable with Jesus teaching in Jerusalem, just a few days before his own execution, makes it fairly clear that the author wants us to connect the landowner to God, and the sun to Jesus. And what of those wicked tenants, those who in the story are eventually killed and then replaced with new tenants. They, according to Matthew are the chief priests and the Pharisees, who in response to Jesus teachings, and as if to reenact the details of this parable, immediately initiate a plot to get rid of Jesus and Matthew, and Matthew alone, drives home what he sees as the main lesson of this parable. The kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. This is, without a doubt, troubling language. And it’s not the only place in Matthew’s Gospel that seems to demonize Jewish antagonists, especially Pharisees to frame them as enemies of God rejected by God. In a few short weeks our lectionary will take us into Matthew chapter 23. And there we will encounter a harsh, bitter biting and vector DivX targeting the Pharisees. A few short chapters after this, we entered the crucifixion story. And in Matthew’s Gospel alone, Matthew has the crowd, this Jewish crowd who is clamoring for for the execution of Jesus, but also crying out in unison, Let his blood be upon us and upon our children, words that in the centuries to come, would fuel ideas of, of Jewish collective guilt, this idea that all Jews in any time in any place, are guilty of the murder of Jesus. What are we to do with this kind of rhetoric enshrined within our sacred text? Of course, and I’m a firm believer in this, it’s very important that we interpret this and other similar text within their historical context. And it’s clear, whoever the gospel the author of the Gospel of Matthew is, and we’re really not quite sure, they’re embroiled in an inner Jewish struggle, a tension in this particular moment in the late first century CE II, a tension between Jewish followers of Jesus the community of Matthew’s Gospel, and other Jews who weren’t as persuaded by the story of Jesus. And that tension surfaces in the form of harsh invectives rhetoric that is, nevertheless very much consistent with other inner Jewish polemics that we can find in roughly contemporary Jewish literature, texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example. While this doesn’t necessarily justify the rhetoric, it certainly does help us to understand the messy circumstances from which it arises. But Matthew’s Gospel did not stay in that first century Jewish context did it? Obviously not we heard it this morning in our context, it was copied and circulated and over time became foundational for a growing and expanding religion that was becoming increasingly non Jewish, while defining itself over against Jewishness. And as Christianity moves moved from the margins to the center of empire, these scriptural traditions now reinforced by the power of the state, would fuel a theology that elevated Jews rejection of the Jews as proof of God’s love for Christians, thus giving rise to things like our stained glass window, and in St. John’s Church, and the many other manifestations of Christian antisemitism that have surfaced over the centuries, and this is well documented.
And of course, this dirty underbelly of our tradition is not limited to antisemitism. Tomorrow, as you well know, is a federal holiday. One that officially celebrates a Christian man, Christopher Columbus, who, armed with swords and the sword of the Lord, along with the authority of the Church, harvested the fruits of the kingdom of Christ by slaughtering and enslaving indigenous peoples, and seizing their land. So where does this leave us in the here and now, I’m not going to be inspecting your stained glass windows anytime soon. Although maybe that’s an enterprise worth exploring. I do think it’s crucially important that we openly acknowledge and reckon with those troubling parts in our history, in our tradition, in our sacred scriptures, they’re part of our story. They’re part of us, and we can’t simply dismiss them or sanitize them. But as we wrestle with these problematic facets of our tradition, I think it’s also vital that we explore ways to use our scriptural tradition, this library of diverse voices from our spiritual ancestors, to use this diverse collection of traditions within our scriptures more responsibly. That certainly includes doing the hard work of reading and analyzing these texts within their historical context, but it also includes amplify Find redemptive scriptural voices, those texts that invite us to embody divine love that call us to subvert cycles of violence, while actively pursuing justice, for the oppressed, and the marginalized. It’s interesting that notwithstanding the troubling rhetoric in our parable, the vineyard imagery featured here is drawn from the Jewish Scriptures, from the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah chapter five. And Isaiah in that context rhetorically deploys this vineyard imagery, precisely to denounce those who were using their power to exploit and violently harm the vulnerable. That’s significant. These are the kinds of voices we need to place under a spotlight as we seek to flush out our faith in our particular moment under the sun. So let me close with another work of art, a sculpture commissioned by and installed at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in 2015. Like the St John’s stained glass window we just discussed, this statue group features a personification of synagogue and church. But here, both figures are sitting side by side in an equal position. Both are crowned, both are holding their respective sacred texts in the hands of church, we have a codex, in the hands of synagogue, we have a scroll. And both are engaged in conversation with the clear implication that they with mutual respect, are listening to and learning from one another. I think this beautifully captures a much better model for us. One in which we come alongside our Jewish siblings. And let’s expand this a bit. We come alongside also our Muslim siblings, or Unitarian siblings, or Buddhist siblings or Hindu siblings, or non religious siblings, et cetera, et cetera. acknowledging our obvious differences in the differences are obvious and they’re there. But finding common ground, finding common ground drawn from our respective sacred traditions and underlying philosophies in a shared desire to bring healing, wholeness, shalom, human flourishing in this world. This is the fruit of the kingdom that I pray we harvest from our vineyard. Amen.