I Will Fall Upon the Rock

tenants_in_vineyardOne of the strangest and to my mind most disturbing sayings of Jesus is in Matthew’s Gospel 21:44.  It occurs after a parable of conflict with the Jewish religious establishment.  Jesus said, “The very stone with the builders rejected has become the head of the corner?  Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on anyone it will crush them.”  What does this mean?

I can’t be certain of all it means but I believe that these remarks of Jesus point to the root of the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious community especially the Pharisees.  This is also the issue between Paul and his Jewish opponents. It is a sort of which came first the chicken or egg question. According to Jesus and Paul it was the gift of God’s presence that made a good life possible rather than if you live a good life God will be present as a reward for your goodness. The challenge of Jesus was this: obedience does not lead to God, rather God’s love leads to obedience. This is the reverse of what was happening in 1st Century Judaism.  Christianity is not immune from the tendency to think we should or could EARN God’s love.

The deepest longing of the Jewish people was for the Messiah to come and bring the Kingdom of God.  The Pharisees who have a bad reputation among Christians were really a renewal movement among Jews.  They longed for the Kingdom and Messiah.  Further they were proactive and decided to do their part to make it happen.  They believed that if everyone followed the law that Messiah would come.  They pushed not just the 10 commandments, but all the rules and interpretation of the law. TAKE IT FURTHER!

Jesus is the rock

They wanted the ritual purity of the priests in the temple – to be normative for all Jews in all parts of their lives.  They were deeply motivated to keep the law and hostile to those not so  inspired because the laxness of some prevented the coming of Messiah. Now Jesus tells them that they had it all wrong.  Being good and getting your ticket punched will not bring God’s presence; rather God’s presence enables goodness.  Keeping all the laws won’t bring Messiah – Messiah will come when he chooses and furthermore here he is: the stone, which the builders rejected, has become the keystone of the arch.

The Jews have a saying: “If a jar falls on a rock, woe be to the jar. If a rock falls on a jar, woe be to the jar. Either way, woe be to the jar!”

God will being in his reign of peace, the Kingdom in his way, on his terms, not because we hold our mouths just so and wish real hard, keeping all the rules and getting our tickets punched.  When the Pharisees and others thought keeping the law would produce God’s presence they were forgetting their own history.

  1. Abraham didn’t go to Canaan looking for God. God lead him there.
  2. Jacob fled his home to escape his brother Esau, whose blessing he had stolen.  As he slept God came looking for him so that Jacob awoke and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”
  3.  Moses did not set fire to the bush – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob came looking for him
  4.  The prophet Isaiah reminds the children of Israel (and us) that it is God that makes a way in the sea, who does a NEW THING, waters in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.
  5. Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Philippi that he presses on to reach the goal of participating in the resurrection of Christ from the dead.  “…but I press on to make my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
  6. In the reading from Matthew, Jesus tells the story of the wicked tenants, who refused to recognize the heir of the vineyard’s owner when he came to receive what, belonged to the owner.  The vineyard was a common symbol of Israel.  The scribes and chief priests understood the story as a critique of their leadership of Israel.

The irony is that Messiah had come.  The very one that their hearts most longed for had come and they didn’t recognize him because he had not come on their terms [they weren’t good enough yet] but on his father’s terms.  That’s really tragic.

It’s sort of like the old couple who began dating after their spouses died.  They spent a lot of time together and one day as they sat on the porch he leaned over and whispered, “Let’s get married.”  She laughed and said, “It’s a great idea but who would have us?”

Trustees Office at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

We will encounter the rock, the stone rejected by the builders, whether we recognize him or not.  We will finally encounter the reality that we can’t make it on our own.  We may live in denial and avoid it for as long as humanly possible but eventually the jar and the rock will collide. Most of us talk about grace but we really prefer to earn our way.  We believe that our goodness brings God’s presence when God’s presence brings whatever goodness we display.  Salvation finally is a gift, if we are to be saved.  I at no other time at death we will finally admit/submit to power beyond us – the jar and the rock will collide.  Fortunately that reality is a God who is generous and wants the best for us.  We do not have to wait to the end.  We can choose to embrace the reality that God’s presence is a gift now!  “If you fall on the stone you will be broken to pieces but if the stone falls on anyone it crush them.”  I submit that it is better for God to pick up the pieces of our ego and rework them than to be pulverized.  We can cooperate with our salvation or we can resist it.  It is up to us.

The Shakers have a hymn that sums this up,“I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble (bow like the willow tree).  I will bow this is the token I will wear the easy yoke.  I will bow and be broken, Yea, I’ll fall upon the rock!”

Let us then fall upon the rock – For indeed – brothers and sister it is the rock of our salvation.      Amen.

 

 

 

 

It’s Grace + Nothing!

Robert Farrar Capon 1925 – September 5, 2013

Anyone who knows me at all knows how much I am indebted to Robert Farrar Capon. He is the one of my spiritual heroes who taught me more about grace than anyone. Robert was RUTHLESS about grace which got him in trouble regularly, especially with good church people.   I know because I saw it happen in front of my eyes.  It was a Sunday night in Madison, Mississippi, deep behind the Magnolia Curtain. At the Chapel of the Cross, the parish I served there, we had a Lecture in Easter-tide.  Whoever was invited was  simply asked to speak to us about grace.  I learned that Father Capon was leading a retreat at the nearby Diocesan Conference Center. I called him immediately and asked if he would care to do our lecture on either end of his other engagement. He graciously agreed and now back at the ranch it was Sunday night and he was lecturing in the parish hall to at least a couple of hundred people.

He launched into a vintage set-piece, a “tirade” about grace, and said that it was “grace plus nothing!” A man in the back of the room raised his hand (I’m standing in the back of the room watching this) and right then and there asked, “Why be good?”  This fellow came to Eucharist most every Sunday but was not a member.  He and his family were from a very fundamentalist sectarian form of Christianity and though he was very attracted to what was going on in our service, afterward he beat a retreat home to accompany his wife and children to their congregation.  He was by training a lawyer and by temperament a Pharisee.  He asked his question with an edge.  Robert totally unaware (or so he let on) of the implied hostility replied, “Because it’s more fun!”  Well that sat a match to the cotton bale.  “So, you’re saying it doesn’t matter how we live,” said the trial lawyer by day and Pharisee all day and night!  “I didn’t say that,” said Capon.  “Of course it matters how you live, it just doesn’t earn you anything; Its grace plus nothing!”  That was when it happened.

Chapel of the Cross – Madison, Mississippi

The room divided about 60/40, with 60% offended beyond measure and 40% thrilled out of their minds.  I thought this is how it was when Jesus taught. If I had been beside the lake it would have been just this way.   Well, the 60% were not seen the next night at the second lecture, but the fascinating thing was that the 40% were back dragging with them whoever had been injured or offended by the righteous and for whatever reason didn’t accept or buy the Gospel.  The net effect was that the attendance was about a third to a half larger than the night before.  And this crowd heard Robert gladly.  I’m here to tell you that that weekend I saw with my own eyes how deeply offended good people can be by the preaching of the Good News, the very ones who should have glad. The other folk, on the other hand, heard clearly what they would have hoped for if they had any notion of how good the genuine Good News really was!

The gravestone of Henry Grey Vick in the churc...

The gravestone of Henry Grey Vick in the churchyard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Robert, I know that God chuckled when he saw you coming yesterday afternoon and said, “Son, put on that apron and let’s go cook a batch of grace to use at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. I know I made the recipe up originally but I have always enjoyed the sauce you made to go with it. Nobody could whip up a batch of grace like you.

Robert, please save me a place at the bar so I can tell the one about the time you preached behind the Magnolia Curtain.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”  May light perpetual shine upon him.  JWS