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. (Matthew 21:33, NRSV)
How do we know who we are in our current situation? Many of us could reel off a list of our identities, by race or national origin, by age or gender identity or sexual orientation, by height and weight, hair color and eye color, by first concert we attended or favorite baseball team. If a pollster calls, we could answer questions about our level of education or our party affiliation. We might identify by our hobbies or our preferred pets or our favorite ice cream. We have built these identities by some mixture of inheritance and experience. They are what we know.
When my sons were high school age, we watched the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, a sci-fi story replete with religious themes. The human characters have a polytheistic faith, and their enemies, the Cylons, are monotheists. The Cylons are also robots, but some of them don’t know it because they are programmed to think they are human, with memories of lives they never lived.
How do we know who we are?
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. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. (Philippians 3:4b-7, NRSV)
Paul knew exactly who he was, could identify himself by his heritage, his faithfulness and righteousness, even his zeal. He knew he was superior in all these. We know from looking around at our current situation that people who can claim certain identities of power and privilege operate from a position of advantage over everyone else, due to birth or education or financial position.
What identity do we claim?
I’m captivated by the watchtower in the parable Jesus tells. Such a tower was a security feature, a way to keep an eye on the vineyard and whoever or whatever might come to threaten it. It’s a sign of care and planning and the resources to do things right. But the workers in the vineyard, entrusted with its care, decide that they don’t want to share its crop with the landlord. They kill his servants; they even kill his son. They can see what is coming, but they cannot see who they have become.
The religious leaders listening to Jesus tell the story supply their own ending. Of course the landlord will kill the faithless servants! Please note that is not what Jesus says. He turns to another metaphor, the rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone.
There are many ways we can identify ourselves, but the most crucial one is as people of God and followers of Christ. For Paul, that became his primary identify.
More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Philippians 3:8-9)
Jesus warned the religious leaders that they would stumble over the cornerstone, and this is a needed reminder for us. When we take the vineyard into our own hands, when we forget who has given us all that we have and all that we are, we get in our own way and create our own hazards and make our own bad ending. In our current situation, the church feels the pressure from the world to conform, to succeed, to survive. When pandemic and politics occupy us day and night, it may feel like we are all tripping over the stone and at risk of being crushed. But think of Paul! Think of the way Christ changed his life!
In Battlestar Galactica, when the sleeper Cylons realize who they are, the music playing is a setting of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. It sounds, maybe, like a memory from childhood. Dylan drew on the image of the watchtower in Isaiah. “There must be some way out of here,” the song begins. It’s not too late to see things clearly. It’s not too late to know who we are and whose we are. It’s not too late to write a different ending to the story.
For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you, and I hope you will share this post with colleagues who might be interested.