Cornerstones and Communion

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on October 4, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.

Matthew 21:33-46

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

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’?

Therefore I tell you, the kindom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kindom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Last week, if you were with us, we spoke of practicing our faith, showing that we are a follower of Jesus by our actions. Today’s passage follows that theme, so I want to first ask how you did that, or how you will do that in the coming week. So take this opportunity to share with us in the comments.

I’ve been practicing my faith through relationships the past few weeks. Especially in this divisive time in our country, I get into attack mode more often than I care to admit, so my practice has been to lean into listening and trying to understand a perspective before jumping into that attack mode. To me, that’s the stance Jesus would take, to truly hear before responding. 

What about you all?

Let’s hold these practices with us, because we continue on in our story with another parable, that’s said to be linked to last week’s, about the son who actually acted versus the one who just said he would and didn’t.

Today’s passage is broken down into five parts. We’re going to use these parts as our guide. First, Jesus gives an intro for us. This is pretty self-explanatory. He says “Listen to another parable”. He’s addressing the chief priests and scribes, the religious elite.

Then comes part two: the parable itself. Jesus tells a story about a landowner who leased his property, then moved away. When it was time for the harvest, the landowner sent his slaves to go take care of the vineyard and get the fruit, but the tenants beat and killed them instead, so they could have the fruit themselves. The landowner heard this and sent more slaves in response, but again, the same treatment happened from the tenants. Lastly, the landowner decided to send his own son, thinking that surely the tenants will respect him. But the tenants didn’t, and killed the son to get his inheritance.

Part three is Jesus’ question. He asks the chief priests and scribes “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Before we dive into their response, let’s pause to hear yours. If you were the vineyard owner, what would you do after trusting the tenants with your land, then finding out they killed the slaves and your own son? How would you be feeling?

I’d be angry, and while I don’t know exactly what I’d do in this hypothetical situation, I wouldn’t be happy or gracious, that’s for sure. The hearers of this parable thought the same way. Part four is their response to Jesus’ question, in which they essentially said “an eye for an eye”, and said that the landowner would kill the tenants and find someone else who would take care of his land.

Parables often model God and God’s people, and this one is no exception. It’s said that the landowner is God, the son is Jesus, and the tenants are us, or in this case, the chief priests and the scribes who were listening. 

So if we make that shift, we read a story about God, who has this land, which we might think of as the church. And every once in a while, God checks up on us, the ones maintaining the church, to see what good fruits we’ve been able to produce for God. But the church is just keeping the fruits for themselves, and turning away or even harming those who are in need of the fruit. And then God sent Jesus, God’s son, to gather the fruits, and even still, the church said no, this is ours. 

The parable is being told to the religious elite, who are being taught by Jesus that they aren’t doing God’s will, that instead of reaching out and being the church, they’re coveting their wealth and in turn harming others. 

The final part is Jesus’ pronouncement. Quoting a Psalm, Jesus says “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The builders are again, the church, the ones meant to take care of things, to produce good fruit. And so when the church rejects, when the church fails to take care of people, when the church harms people, those people, they become the cornerstone, the foundational part of a system. 

The cornerstone is an important and foundational part of something, and it’s also the most basic part of something. 

What is a cornerstone of your faith? What’s a basic belief or practice you hold that is also foundational to your faith?

For me, communion has to be up there. And today, together, we celebrate World Communion Sunday. Communion is powerful, and it can bear the weight of time, traditions, and history. Yet, communion is also basic. It’s the story of Jesus sharing a meal with people he loved. And so, communion as a cornerstone teaches us that all are truly welcome at the table. Even, and especially (according to our parable) the outcasts, the ones rejected, and the ones with spiritual trauma. This table is for those of us who don’t understand the holy mystery completely. It’s for those of us who have been harmed by the religious elite, for those who don’t have all the answers, for those who doubt, for those who feel alone, isolated, afraid. The table is for questions, complexity, struggles, anger, fear, and insecurity. 

On World Communion Sunday, we not only celebrate the table as a remembrance of Jesus. We also celebrate the universality and inclusion of the table. Even when there were those in the church who tried to put limits on the size of the table, or who could be a part of it, God came in and said “no, these people you are rejecting and harming are the ones who are the backbone of the table”. This is their table. 

So as we leave, I want to ask you two questions you can reflect on.

One: In what ways have I been the religious elite Jesus is speaking to? 

And two: In what ways am I the cornerstone Jesus is talking about, rejected or harmed, and still the backbone and purpose for the table?

As we leave this place may we feel stretched and held through the words of this story. May we be convicted to reach out further, to share the good news wider, and gather God’s good fruit more generously. And may we be held by the truth, that we are never too much or not enough to participate and be named in this story of Jesus. Amen.

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