A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2017
18th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 8, 2017
To Hear the sermon preached, click below
Have you ever found a treasure? Maybe your grandparents had a house with an attic or a basement where you went and pored through things you sometimes could hardly understand. Maybe your mother draped you with costume jewelry or your father handed you a baseball and gruffly said, “Look at the signature on that, now that was a ballplayer.” Every church meeting house contains a treasure along with its congregation. Look around: many of us here think of the stained glass windows of this house as a treasure and people come to see what we see every Sunday. One congregation I served had a building that had stood since ten years before the Civil War and like a house where things accumulate, it was full of closets that held treasures.
But of all the closet treasures, the greatest was the Victorian silver. It was rarely mentioned; only once in a while someone would allude to “the valuables.” One day when I was avoiding working on the sermon and investigating closets, I found it. A full double size, floor to ceiling closet, overflowing with little soft bags which, when I opened them, contained a treasure trove of silver. There were cream pitchers and sugar bowls, large bowls for food and serving utensils. There were things I didn’t even know how to name: one I later learned was designed to hold and dispense salad dressing.
Like a child on Christmas, I shuttled back and forth, unwrapping and taking out each piece until the next door kitchen counter was full of old silver. That presented a problem, of course; it’s always more fun to take things out then to put them back. Somehow I knew that like Peter Rabbit, I had slipped into a forbidden garden and that if the farmer came along, I’d be in trouble. So I carefully wrapped each piece, put it back, closed the closet and determined to leave it alone.
I couldn’t, of course. Not long after, at a church council meeting, I mentioned as casually as I could that I happened to have found the church silver and that I thought at our next celebration we should get it out; it was too pretty to stay in a closet. Of course, I pursued the matter and when I did, I learned this: the silver was, in fact, a treasure, very valuable, very beautiful—everyone agreed—but it could not be used because it was tarnished.
For those who don’t know much about silver, as I didn’t, let me simply say that when silver sits, it acquires a dull layer of oxide, some places it turns black, and that’s called tarnished. More importantly, those in charge of the silver had pronounced it tarnished and didn’t understand why I was so dumb, so obtuse, not to realize that tarnished silver could not be shown, could not be used, could not be anything but in the closet. It was over; it was tarnished, unfit, worthless for use.
Now you and I are God’s treasure, creatures meant to reflect God’s glory. But often, just as the bright silver stops reflecting when it’s tarnished, we get tarnished and think our days of reflecting God are over. We’re not up to it; we’re not worthy to do it. Sometimes it’s something we’ve done, sometimes it’s something we’ve been; sometimes it’s something we’ve lost or added. We may be treasure but we are tarnished treasure and like the silver, we assume off in a dark closet is the appropriate place.
So Jesus tells this story, this shocking story, that we read this morning. He lived in a restless, violent world where unscrupulous bankers took advantage of people and many people worked for large farms that didn’t offer health insurance, pensions or anything else but a bare minimum wage. Restless, hungry poor people sometimes get violent and there were many instances of small peasant revolts. He tells this story. Some tenant farmers work in a vineyard and the owner lives far away; when he sends a slave to collect the profits, the tenants beat him up, in fact, they beat up several servants. Ultimately, the owner sends his son and heir, thinking this will make the tenants take the demand seriously. Instead, they beat the son up and murder him. I imagine Jesus telling this story, and brows knitting, frowns forming in the ring of listeners as he comes to his final question: “what will the owner do?”
We all know the answer, don’t we? We know what we’d do. The listeners know what the owner will do, he’ll do what owners always do: get the police, in this case, the Romans, come and get those murdering tenants and string them up. A life for a life, the judge will say, and justice will be done. “What will the owner do?”—why even ask? We all know how this ends.
The world’s answer to problems is violence. The tenants feel the injustice of sharecropping and see no way out except to kill the owner’s son. Surely the owner will reply with the authorized violence of the police forces. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Last week I watched a documentary on the Vietnam War. One of the most moving moments was watching a former North Vietnamese soldier say that in war there is only death and destruction, right and wrong don’t matter.
We’ve all seen this deadly dance. We can imagine the people hearing Jesus tell this story. Some are tenant farmers, surely, or come from that world: they know, perhaps they remember when an owner came and killed everyone after a revolt. Others are authorities, owners, and their agents. They’re already mad; Matthew sets this story in the Temple precinct, where not long before Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers.“What will the owner do?” We all know, don’t we?
Except—except Jesus is about to demonstrate the most stunning, amazing answer to his own question. In the crowd around him, there are people already plotting his death. This story is told in the days just before the crucifixion. His friends will remember the story precisely because only a few days later, just like the son in the story, the owner of the vineyard-—for hundreds of years, Israel has been described as “a vineyard of the Lord’s”-—the owner of this vineyard is God. What God does is astonishing: God does not punish the killers, God saves them.
Here is the great mystery of God’s love—that when we are tarnished treasure, even when the most tarnished among us, God yet is trying, seeking, looking for a way to love us back into acting like the treasures God made us. Maybe you don’t feel worthwhile; maybe you feel tarnished. God doesn’t care what you feel—God cares for you.
Because God cares, we are called to care. This church is a community of care. Two nights this week I was here when the whole building was full with people healing in some groups, sharing in others. I know that this week all of us have been held rapt by the violence in Las Vegas. There is no way to disconnect this violence from the violent culture in which we live and the river of guns that flows through it. To the question of violence, God offers this answer: God’s love. And the expression of that love through the way we use our lives and our treasure to extend that love.
The tarnished treasure at that church did eventually come out of its bags and back to a dinner table. A couple of years after I found it, I got tired of arguing about it. We were planning to mark Maundy Thursday communion, with a full dinner, a seder, the traditional Passover celebration. Passover remembers when God saved a people who had become slaves, a reminder of the first communion, in all its passion, darkness, hope and grace. Part of the seder tradition is that you set the table with your best stuff, best china, best cups, best silver.
We pulled the tarnished treasure out of its closet. We didn’t have the time or people to polish the silver but we set it out nevertheless, on white table clothes, with the best church china we owned. We sat down to dinner, to a dinner at the Lord’s Table, someone turned the lights down, and then the candles were lit. Suddenly, the treasure shined, reflecting the light of that moment, reflecting the love shared by a small congregation as we joined together to remember how God had first loved us. The tarnish didn’t matter; only the treasure did. In the light of the candles, in the gathering of people around the Lord’s Table, only the reflected light of God’s love mattered. It just took seeing the silver in the right light to appreciate its beauty.
That’s how it is with us. We are tarnished; God uses us anyway. We are God’s treasure. What matters isn’t our perfection but our persistence, our persistent willingness to choose love over hate, to see others as brothers and sisters, to seek to live as God’s blessing. Maybe you are tarnished; God still sees you as a treasure.
The choir is going to sing a song in a few minutes about a simple blessing. That’s us: that’s how we are meant to live, understanding that we are stewards of God’s gifts, not their owners, giving thanks for the simple blessings which sustain our lives. In turn, we have the possibility to become a simple blessing to others, to give our gifts as well. The kingdom of heaven is not fulfilled by any act of violence or domination. It is fulfilled in this exchange of blessing, bearing the fruit of the spirit.
What will the owner of the vineyard do? The ultimate answer is Easter; the answer is the resurrection. When the vineyard owner is God, the owner will look to the original purpose of the vineyard: to grow grapes and make wine. And the owner will do whatever it takes to make sure the grapes are harvested, the wine is made, the cup of the covenant is filled until it overflows, even if it takes forgiving and reusing the tarnished tenants.