There are places, names, and concepts that define us, you might call these touchstones. For me some of these might be: The Sermon on the Mount, an Upside Down Kingdom, The Rejected Stone as the Cornerstone, Mack and the seven baptized, the Wissahickon Creek in Germantown, Volunteer Service, Camp Mack, La Verne Church of the Brethren, BMC, Stonewall, Lawrence v. Texas, Obergefell v. Hodges, and the Affordable Care Act. You might find yourself resonating with a few of these items mentioned, others may be unknown to you, and each of us may have a list like this. Jesus had a list like this, but for him, it was filled with places, names, and concepts from the First Testament and his childhood and ministry in that corner of the Roman Empire. Toward the end of his ministry we see the dots being connected, as Jesus defines both Christianity and how it will shape the world henceforth.
Our scripture today finds Jesus being pressured by the status quo. The religious leaders of that time are threatened by Jesus and so they try to force him into a corner. They want him to comply with the set of religious laws imposed on the faithful. Jesus’ response is to tell his followers a parable within earshot of the religious leaders. It is a parable meant for the religious leaders more than his followers.
In the story Jesus tells of a landowner, who doesn’t live near his vineyard. The landowner sends three different messengers to the tenants of his land to retrieve his share of the produce. The tenants beat all three messengers and send them away empty-handed. Then, in a foreshadowing his own execution, Jesus tells us that the landowner sends his own son, for surely the workers will listen to him. But they kill the son. What a story. It is most unusual that Jesus, the person who had spent his entire life speaking about loving even one’s enemies might use a parable that ends with someone being murdered in cold blood. We Brethren would strongly condemn such violence, as we do all violence.
A very traditional reading of this scripture is that a new order based on Jesus as the savior had been established and that the old world passed away and that this was metaphorical violence. In taking this conservative reading of the parable to its most extreme, this parable has been used as an excuse to perform acts of violence against people who are not Christians, and in some cases used to belittle people who do not have children. It has been used to subjugate lesbian and gay people, even being used as an excuse for killing people who could not produce offspring. However, I think that interpretation misses the whole point.
The religious leaders that overheard this parable knew it was pointed at them and they were enraged by its world altering message. Vineyards in the Bible are often used as metaphors for God’s creation. The vineyard is God’s. The tenants were the religious leaders who thought they could take over God’s world. The messengers sent to the vineyard were God’s faithful, who were sent away empty-handed by their own faith leaders. And of course, the son of the landowner was Jesus who was rejected by the very people who claimed to speak for God. The very one the religious leaders tried to force into the corner became the cornerstone of a whole new realm.
Jesus was describing the upside down kingdom. I credit Don Kraybill with this idea of the upside down kingdom. Kraybill happened to guest lecture my New Testament class while I was at Goshen College. He writes in his book, of the same name, “The Upside Down Kingdom,” that a student of his, while he was teaching the synoptic gospels years earlier, and on the day of the statement, a passage in Luke in particular, got up and said, “everything seems to be so upside down here!” That is what Jesus requires of us to read this particular passage that those who we often equate at the bottom of the social hierarchy, are actually at the top. This point was emphasized in intense fashion as we continue the parable. Jesus abruptly ends his story of the laborers at the execution of the landowner’s son, and asks those who have questioned him, what they think will happen next. If you had not already heard the message, what do you think you would have said? If we placed this story in a modern day setting, and asked almost anyone off the street today, and did not let the person who heard it know why we were asking, I am sure we would hear the same answer as the crowd gave Jesus.
In almost every translation of the Bible, the crowd answers Jesus that the laborers will be put to death for their acts, and the vineyards will be rented out to those who are deserving of it. After all, what would the law of the United States require of these laborers? I have no legal training, but most certainly it would mean a trial, and if those accused of the murder were found guilty in a state that has the death penalty, like our own, they may likely be sentenced to death.
Jesus almost certainly knew how the crowd would answer, but drawing from his own list goes back to Psalm 118, quoting almost entirely, saying, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Wow, that is tough, even antithetical to a society built on law and order. However, to the society Jesus stated should be built on love in action, including radical forgiveness, this answer would be quite ordinary. To emphasize his point, Jesus stated that anyone who did not understand this, that that same cornerstone would be a stumbling block, even stating, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
I thank Susan for asking me to preach this Sunday; I was surprised and humbled that she would ask me. When she did, I was not sure if I actually wanted to preach on this scripture, but something about it spoke to me. I’ve given a brief reflection at this pulpit, but have not preached a full sermon since I was a Ministry Summer Service intern at the Chambersburg Church of the Brethren in 2002. I have been a member of this congregation for almost seven years, and quite simply, I know that you are prepared to walk in the truth that Jesus spoke. As Susan has asked us to do, we all have to read the Bible, and to be prepared to think for ourselves.
So what does this passage mean to us both in our own spiritual ancestry, as well as to how we relate to each other today?
To our Brethren ancestors, it would have probably meant the same thing as when we read it today, but with varying circumstances. Probably a few of you, at least, have been to Camp Mack in Indiana, and in visiting have stopped by the Camp Mack Murals. These murals were painted in the early 1950s by Medford Neher, and illustrate the history of the Church of the Brethren from 1708 and the drawing of straws from the seven who were baptized in the Eder River up until the 1950s when the Brethren were struggling with how to react to the threat of nuclear war.
One thing that strikes me about these murals is the care that Neher took to emphasize the counter-cultural outlook of the Brethren, depicting not only key events in the church, but events that put the church at odds with the prevalent society of the day, including, but not limited to, Benjamin Franklin’s order to have the Continental Army burn down the first Brethren Printing Press operated by Christopher Saur Jr., to John Kline being killed off of his horse for preaching against slavery, the unity of the church during the Civil War, the connection with the Chinese Brethren prior to Communism, the denomination’s inability to effectively activate its peace stance during World War I, and resulting commitment to alternative service and the humanitarian work done during and after World War II.
At the end of the last mural in this series is a depiction of the Love Feast, with multi-generation, multi-ethnic, and different abilities all participating together, centered around Jesus with his hands outstretched. What always strikes me most about this mural is the background of war painted in dark pallets, juxtaposed there are the shadows of two people stabbing each other with knives, almost an eye for an eye, but right next to them in vivid color are two sisters of the faith giving each other the holy kiss. It is a stark depiction of the world as it is enacted and how Jesus calls us to love one another.
There would be no way for me to bring these murals here; I do have a link to the Library of Congress scan of the book that holds not the best copies of the murals, should anyone want it. I did wear my traditional Anabaptist coat today, it has no buttons, and a plain cut with no collar. Not only was this a way for the early Brethren to differentiate themselves from the rest of society, but stood as a reminder as to how we are to react in love and forgiveness. Nowadays, most Brethren do not wear the plain dress, like some of our other related denominations like the Old Order Mennonites, and Amish, but we do still practice Love Feast and the baptism, and in so doing remind ourselves to whom we belong. God’s love stands out, and Brethren have stood out for doing what Jesus instructed us to do.
In the early years of this country Brethren were called “peculiar” people, and our enthusiasm was known so much, particularly in our singing, that the Mennonites had a sign for the Brethren, a knocked over lamp. If you have never been to an old order meeting, then believe me, the sound that comes from a small group gathered is almost mindboggling, it sinks to your core. People would come from miles around to see the Love Feast, and viewing areas were set up for visitors, these “English,” that wanted to see this peculiar act for themselves. We keep the Love Feast, but also know that we have to act in the world we live in, and the denomination’s gifts to society include, but are in no way limited to, Heifer Project, Brethren Disaster Service, Children’s Disaster Service, the Peace Corps being modeled after Brethren Volunteer Service, and Peace Studies programs at Brethren Colleges and Universities that trained a generation of peacemakers. This is evident in that that Manchester University, a Brethren Affiliated University in rural Indiana, is the only university in the United States to hold permanent observer status with the United Nations, as a Non-Governmental Organization. It is amazing how much can be built, even from a small group, when we are led in God’s love.
Now, that is not to say that even though the Brethren have been excluded from society, that this automatically drawn us closer to diversity in our own denomination. In fact, throughout the history of the church were schisms here and there over a host of things. Women were excluded from set apart ministry for too long, the denomination struggles with diversity of ethnicity, and welcoming new members. However, that is what I appreciate about this congregation, in particular, is our constant renewal of what it means to be inclusive and welcoming. As our history collides with our present, we interpret the path forward in the light of God’s love. This can be rocky territory, for example, just the other night at Board meeting we were talking about what it means to be welcoming of veterans while still holding a strong peace stance. But you know what, some of the most committed pacifists are those that have experienced war firsthand.
Now, I am also wearing a shirt with a pink triangle under my plain coat. This symbol was used even before the rainbow flag in the earlier days of the queer movement, taken back from the symbol used by the Nazis to identify gay men during the holocaust. Since I knew my religious history when I came out, I very much wanted to know the history of the LGBTQ movement. Little did I know that so much would change over the next few years. I started by reading about the history of Harvey Milk, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, and Harry Hay. I learned that in studying the history of these people that they too were drawing from a longer history of the queer movement in pre-war Germany that goes back earlier that 1896. Even though the US had helped to liberate the concentration camps after World War Two, still considered lesbian and gay people as security risks, and actively discriminated against us in hiring for government jobs, and the retribution and intolerance these pioneers went up against is incredible to us today. Into this structure, AIDS inserted itself in the 1980s. As a part of leading a small group for Persons with AIDS, I was able to get to know a few of the men in that group, and although they were living in the terminal phase of the disease that had heaped scorn from families, and firing from their jobs, they went right on loving, finding their own family, including many lesbian sisters who risked a lot to take care of Persons living with AIDS in the beginning of the disease when no one else would. They took Jesus’s word seriously, and were living examples of Luke 14:26.
So much has taken place over the last few years, in 1995 President Clinton signed Executive Order 12968, adding protections for lesbian and gay people in federal employment or contracting. However, a few short years later, in 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered, which led, in an eleven year process to hate-crimes legislation was passed in 2009. In 2003, the US Supreme Court found, in the Lawrence v Texas case, against the law criminalizing homosexuality in that state, and any thereby any state that still criminalized homosexual acts of love.
In 2013 the US Supreme Court in the Obergefell v. Hodges case stated that all states must recognize same sex marriage as they would any other marriage. In 2014 President Obama signed Executive Order 13672, adding protections for gender identity in federal employment or contracting. However, that order was reversed by the current administration. Those years were somewhat dizzying to me, and I think many of earned our honorary legal degrees just for being able to argue constitutional law. None of these things would have happened unless mostly straight people stood up as they did, sharing their own stories of their relationships with LGBTQ sons, daughters, parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers.
While I am grateful beyond imagination for what has happened, there is much work yet to be done. For example, lesbian and gay people can be fired in many states just for listing their spouse as an emergency contact. This does happen and will keep happening until the Employment Non Discrimination Act is passed. I will not get into what the church, and in particular the Brethren denomination has not done, that is the topic for a whole other sermon.
I will say, however, that people of faith, and a few Brethren in particular, have been involved in this movement from the start. Instead of taking what came as status quo and the twisted “Bible thumping,” using the Bible to put down LGBTQ people, they took the entirety of Jesus’s teaching to apply the solid basis for a movement based in love, and in particular today’s scripture. In 1977 Martin Rock, founder of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, met with other leaders of the movement and aides to President Carter at the White House. Among other things the 1983 Annual Conference statement reads that Brethren are to advocate the right of LGBTQ individuals “to jobs, housing, and legal justice.” Tonight you will hear some stories from Nancy Wilson about the early days of the Metropolitan Community Church, and that denomination has been resolute in supporting queer justice for a long time. Unearthing this touchstone takes small movements over long periods of time, though, and none of us can do it alone. For example, just the other day the smallest gesture, as I heard a stern warning from son to father after the father made a homophobic comment in the locker room at LA Fitness, turns our attention back towards the love that Jesus intends for us.
It is Earth Day, and the diversity of our tasks is not just related to who we are, but it does start there, we are but one part of God’s creation. Lest we forget the last warning from Jesus in our scripture, let us not have others’ lives be our own stumbling blocks. What are your touchstones? Is it Equal Rights and Women’s Equality, Black Lives Matter, Immigration Rights, March for Our Lives Against Gun Violence, Environmental Justice, education, housing, healthcare, or something else yet to be spoken; how can the church and this congregation honor them? Whatever those touchstones are, we will, and to use the expression we may knock a few metaphorical lamps over in the meantime with our exuberance.
Jon and I have a quote from Bayard Rustin, a gay, black man who was the key organizer of the Civil Rights March on Washington, on our wall at home, and it is a good reminder to me in how to come to love even those I would consider my adversaries in enacting and fulfilling social justice and inclusivity. When asked about loving your enemies, Bayard said, “Loving your enemy is manifest in putting your arms not around the man but around the social situation, to take power from those who misuse it–at which point they can become human too.” This speaks directly to our scripture from today: inclusivity means not only including those people with whom we agree with, but also with those we disagree with, but as Bayard stated, in our modern context that does not mean that we will always be embracing them physically, it means that we need to understand the social context and work to upend the power imbalance. If a cornerstone is not balanced correctly, the entire house will fail.
Despite what we face currently, and we face a tremendous amount, we can raise the house of inclusivity, laying our touchstones on the cornerstone that Jesus’s life and teachings established, and this is the way in which radical love will come to turn the world upside down. After all, what love we share for each other comes from God, and is never ceasing, and we can never doubt the awesomeness of this love in action to affect change in the world. Amen.