Sermon: Called to Follow Hymn

Sunday, October 4, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (gospel and sermon start around 23:08)

I’ve been meditating a lot this week on our hymn of the day: “Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service.”  It’s actually one of my favorite hymns.  I’ve been reflecting on the text of this song and realizing that it might actually help us make some sense out of our readings for today. 

This is a really challenging set of scripture texts.  Throughout these readings, we see deep conflict playing out between God and God’s people.  And that’s mainly because God’s people have failed to produce the kind of fruit that God had hoped to find growing in the “vineyard.”  Instead of following God’s will, these people have acted with greed and stubbornness and pride.  Jesus points out in his parable that even when God’s own son comes to them, instead of changing their ways, they double down and treat him terribly too.  And Paul reminds us in this passage from Philippians that Christ is the one we should actually all be striving to imitate.

That’s where “Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service” begins, with a reflection on Christ.  The first verse goes:

Lord, whose love in humble service
bore the weight of human need,
who upon the cross, forsaken,
worked your mercy’s perfect deed:
we, your servants, bring the worship,
not of voice alone, but heart;
consecrating to your purpose
ev’ry gift which you impart.

This verse starts us out in the right place.  Jesus is the humble servant whose example we should follow.  Like our reading from Philippians last week, he didn’t flaunt the fact that he was literally God made flesh, but instead he humbled himself, even to the point of death. Out of love for humanity, Jesus gave himself to save others.  This is a reflection of the divine love we see at work in some of our readings this week in the actions of the vineyard owner.  

The vineyard owner pours a lot of time and work into preparing this vineyard.  He tills the earth and digs up all the stones; he builds a wine press and a watch tower and a wall all around the vineyard in order to protect it.  In our psalm, we see this vineyard owner bringing the vine all the way up out of Egypt so that it can be planted in this vineyard in safety.  He does everything he can think of to give this vine every chance of success at growing and producing good fruit.

Likewise, our first verse sings about using the things God has given us in order to work for God’s purpose: “…consecrating to your purpose every gift which you impart.”  We are called to use the things that God has given us in love in our efforts to imitate that love – the love that was made flesh in Christ.

But in our second verse, we confess that this is a call that we often struggle to live up to.  This turn from the first verse to the second verse is what really kept me coming back to this hymn this week.  Because I think that this is kind of hitting at the same place that our texts for today are coming from.  Verse two goes:

Still your children wander homeless;
still the hungry cry for bread;
still the captives long for freedom;
still in grief we mourn our dead.
As you, Lord, in deep compassion
healed the sick and freed the soul,
by your Spirit send your power
to our world to make it whole.

This verse is a cry for God’s justice – but even more deeply than that, what I hear in this verse is an indictment of all that we have failed to do in Christ’s name.  Caring for our neighbors – feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the sick and imprisoned and dying, these are the kinds of fruits that God the vineyard owner was hoping to reap from this vineyard.  But the reality is that our world is still full of people who are hungry and homeless, people who lack access to healthcare, people who live in places torn apart by violence – and the fact that so many people are still crying out shows that humanity has not really lived up to God’s call at all. 

And in Jesus’ parable, the prophets and preachers and teachers that God has sent to call people to repentance are like the slaves or servants that the landowner sends, who keep getting beaten and killed.  It sucks to be reminded that we have sinned and fallen short, and the tenants of the vineyard do not want to hear it.  Instead, they want to keep all the wealth of the vineyard harvest to themselves.  And in their pride, they decide that they are entitled to everything the landowner has – they even kill his son, thinking that somehow the son’s inheritance would come to them instead.  

Jesus deliberately tells this story to provoke the Pharisees – just as it might provoke us.  They and the other temple leaders have been complaining about him healing and teaching people and challenging his authority at every opportunity.  They display that same sense of entitlement as the wicked tenants; they feel secure in their own sense of authority and they feel justified by their own privilege and pedigree.

It’s really striking then that we read this passage from Matthew side by side with our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians – because Paul himself was also a Pharisee (which we have a tendency to forget)!  Yet what he writes here about Christ could not be more different from the attitude of the Pharisees in our gospel reading.  

First, Paul lists off his genuinely impressive set of credentials, saying: 

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Philippians 3:4b-6

Basically, anything you can do, Paul can do better; Paul can do anything better than you.  But Paul goes on to say that he has realized that these earthly credentials mean nothing next to the glory of life in Christ.  Paul fully understood where people like the Pharisees in our gospel reading were coming from, why they distrusted Jesus’ authority – after all, he was once one of the chief persecutors of the church!  But after his literal come-to-Jesus moment on the road to Damascus, Paul’s heart is changed.  He puts aside his ego and his earthly claims to righteousness.  And instead Paul turns his whole life over to Christ.

Paul presses on toward the goal of living more and more like Christ.  And the third verse of this hymn is really a kind of prayer for us to be able to do the same.  It goes:

As we worship, grant us vision,
till your love's revealing light
in its height and depth and greatness
dawns upon our quickened sight,
making known the needs and burdens
your compassion bids us bear,
stirring us to ardent service,
your abundant life to share.

This verse is a plea for our hearts and eyes to be opened so that we may learn to see the world through the love of Christ.  We pray for God to turn our hearts toward our neighbors with compassion, to help us see where there are needs and burdens that we can help bear – and to move us to respond to those needs and burdens with action.  

A gospel story like this one from Matthew inevitably confronts us with the ways that we as people, as a church, and as a society have failed to be what God has called us to be – to produce the fruit that God wants from us.  We have failed to protect the vulnerable; we have allowed violent means to achieve questionable ends; we have tolerated illness and death so long as we aren’t the ones dying.  The gospel calls us to repentance.  And this verse shows us how we move forward – by laying aside our egos like Paul, and humbly asking God to show us the way we should walk, praying for our hearts to be changed.  

And the final verse of this song simply sends us out to go and do it: 

Called by worship to your service,
forth in your dear name we go,
to the child, the youth, the aged,
love in living deeds to show;
hope and health, goodwill and comfort,
counsel, aid, and peace we give,
that your servants, Lord, in freedom
may your mercy know and live.

This is the “heavenly call of God” as Paul writes.  And like Paul, we know that we haven’t yet achieved it, but we press on to make this call our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own.  And we know that God is still here with us in the vineyard, working with us and through us to produce good fruit. 

I pray that this hymn may get stuck in all our heads this week, reminding us what good fruit looks like – reminding us to live like Christ.

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