Mark 12:1-12
Fox Valley Presbyterian Church

My bike repair shop has a bumper sticker up on the wall: “Illinois Earthquake Survivor.” By God’s grace, that earthquake on February 10 was a minor one. (I know I rolled over and went back to sleep right after concluding that perhaps a snowplow had hit out building.)

But I know, for me, that earthquake is a metaphor for what has been a shaky winter.

We are living in world where things are changing, shifting, shaking, maybe even sinking depending on how much of a pessimist you are.

And the truth is that everything is not always changing and shifting for the better. It’s a fearful time. We don’t know when the economy will rebound, where the next earthquake will hit, if our Toyotas will slow down, if health care can or should be fixed, or when the snow will stop falling. We worry about who has what, and if we have enough, and if there might just be some people who simply have to get left behind or swept under a rug–as long as those people are not us.

This week especially, our own particular community at this church is reeling, over grief for people we’ve lost, and in sadness for the losses of people we love.

And when people get scared and anxious, sad and exhausted, it’s easy to get grabby and crabby, worried for ourself and ours first and foremost.

Which, I think, makes this a tough parable to hear this week. I know that what I need is something placid and peaceable. Some Bible passage where lions lie down with lambs and Jesus wipes away tears.

Not a passage where people get beat and seized and struck in the head, where tenants kill servants and sons, and owners kill tenants. And we’re supposed to find God in the middle of all that bloody mess.

So maybe here we can find a road into the passage. Who was Jesus talking to, and what would they have heard in this?

The Israel of Jesus’ day was a country under siege. The Greeks and then the Romans had trampled across the Mediterranean world, and under their feet were crushed nations, from Spain in the east all the way to Persia in the west. And guess who made out best economically in this system? The occupiers held the power, politically, socially, and monetarily.

For the occupied countries, the Romans were not entirely welcome. So the people Jesus spoke to were an occupied country. There were rumblings of revolution. There were periodic uprisings. There were absentee-occupier land-lords, and people who were desperate to get back land that they thought was rightfully theirs. Land ownership could shift based on squatters rights and the tenant of an absent or dead landlord could easily take over what someone else owned.

It was a world where things were changing, shifting, and shaking. And where people were anxious and scared about the future.

And that may just be our road into this passage this morning.

The vineyard is an old image for Israel. Isaiah and the prophets use it. Israel is the vineyard,

Those called to the vineyard are the workers. And they work there on behalf of God, one with God in mission and purpose: doing God’s good work, growing fruit, and creating joy for all of creation.
The understanding, if you are a tenant farmer, is that the fruit you produce is not all yours to keep. You owe something to the owner. Not so much that you can not live and be happy yourself. But enough that the owner’s work in setting up walls and watchtower and winepress are rewarded. It is not your vineyard, after all.

And so the tenants in this story are way out of line. It’s not just that they withhold what it rightfully the owner’s. They beat the messenger sent to collect some of the fruit.

On that violation alone, the owner has every right to evict the tenants.

But, he keeps trying, again and again, as the violence escalates.

And, in the end, he makes what is clearly an unwise choice. He sends his only son, whom he loves.

This is a huge mistake for two reasons: first, the obvious: these are bloodthirsty, irrational tenants.

But secondly, the fact that isn’t quite as obvious to us: according to the laws of the time, if the landowner died without a clear heir, the tenants would claim the land. By sending the Son, the owner accidentally suggests that he has died and his heir has come to collect. So the tenants could see this as an opportunity to gain the land for themselves.

And they kill the son.

The owner is reckless to send his son. His servants have been killed. But he does it anyway.

He is either reckless, stupid, or eternally hopeful that the tenants will get the message.

And since we are quick to see the owner in this parable as God, it’s probably the third option that fist best with what we’ve learned about God throughout history. God is long-suffering when it comes to our human inability to recognize the messenger, to hear the good news, and to live it out.

Over and over and over again, we fail to see, we fail to hear, we fail to do what God would have us do.

Maybe not literally, but al least figuratively, we have all had those moments when we kill the messenger. Or at least tie him up in a corner so that we don’t have to listen to what God has to say.

Think about it. Think about some of the things the Good News of Jesus has to say to us. The ideas of the Gospel sound nice, but if you really think about it, they go against how we think the world works.

The Gospel says: Ask and you shall receive.

The world says: If you really want something, you have to take it.

The Gospel says: Goodness is stronger than evil.

The world says: Might makes right.

The Gospel says: Death is not the final word.

The world says: Death is the end.

The Gospel says: Grace is free.

The world says: There are no free rides.

So when the messenger arrives, we aren’t always sure that the message will really help us get along in this world.

And it’s easy to get stuck on the parts of the message that bug us.

If I’m not careful, here’s where I get stuck in this parable: That the landowner, who I thought was God, just out and kills the tenants.

Like I said earlier, that is not the message I need to hear this week.

But it’s not the end of this story.

Jesus takes it a few steps further. Remember, he says, that old line from the Psalms?

The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone
the Lord has done this
and it is marvelous in our eyes.

It’s from Psalm 118, one of the Psalms that I think of as one of the “Israel goes to war” Psalms. Psalm 118 is a pep rally for the people of Israel going into battle. And these lines are an elevated way to talk about their king.

The kings around us thought them could disregard OUR King? Oh, no they don’t. Because he, the one they rejected, has becomes the most powerful, the one who holds everything together, the one by whom the standards are set.

But Jesus is about to turn that image completely on its head. His journey from this point is Mark’s Gospel is toward Jerusalem. He’s about to walk into Jerusalem on palm Sunday, with crowds acclaiming him as the coming Messiah. With crowds imagining that he will be the new cornerstone, with all the military and power-filled connotations that Psalm 118 has in place.

But what Jesus is about to do is become the son of the landowner, foolishly sent into danger, on the face of it, an utter failure. He is about die a death that looks like a senseless waste.

The opposite of victory. The opposite of a marvelous thing in our eyes.

A bad judgement and folly, a complete and total defeat,

…until the earth shakes on Easter morning, and two women find an empty tomb and a strangely familiar gardener.

In a world that shakes and shifts, the messenger is the one who turns everything upside down.

It is death that brings life.

It is folly that becomes wisdom.

It is weakness that speaks to power.

It is the shaking that brings stability.

It is the breaking apart of a gravestone that gives us a cornerstone.

And so it is that a story of a bloody vineyard reminds us that God’s ultimate plan is not foolishness or vengence, or defeat.

God’s ultimate plan is to give us the sure footing of Jesus as the cornerstone.

The sure footing from which we are able to see that there will be enough in the vineyard. and in the world, so that we can face fear, anxiety, scarcity, sinking and shifting ground, and know that we stand on something solid.


One Response to “Cornerstone”

  1. Katherine Says:

    Great sermon. I really like your style of having these sections of really powerful statements that are set apart, visually on the page and I would also imagine orally as well. It’s… uncluttered. I’m going to try that sometime. Maybe this week. ;-)