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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, October 2, 2005
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Ddedicated with a heart of gratitude to the Revs. Keene Lebold, Phil Hart, Lori Cooke, Jack Seville, Carlyle Smith, Chalmers Coe, Alton Fennell, Herb Goetz, and John Aeschbury whose grace-filled, pastoral and prophetic service to Christ's church as ordained servants has touched tens of thousands of people and always to the glory of God!
The Joy of Good Fruit
Philippians 3:10-14; Matthew 21:33-46

The first Sunday of October is known as World Communion Sunday. Across the globe and the lines that separate us, our prayer on this day is that Christians - Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal - may ALL be one in Christ at His table.

Following WWII and the advance of the nuclear age, this day was set aside in the belief and hope that we would find unity in our diversity; that all tongues, races, and creeds of believers would find a way to come to the table - laying down their arsenal of judgments against one another and embracing our Savior who meets us here - no matter how we know him or speak his name. The idea was (and is) magnificent. The hope it embodies is irrepressible. However, its practice in our times has waned considerably.

Six years into the 21st Century, the decline of Mainline Protestant Denominations and the tumult in the Catholic Church, coupled with the global emergence of Pentecostals and Independent Evangelicals has changed the face of Christianity which appears to be less united while more diverse than in any period since Jesus broke bread at the last supper with his disciples. I often think it must break Jesus' heart to see us so.

Nevertheless, with wars raging and rumors of war simmering in the guise and reality of inter-religious struggles, there is no better time than this current moment to cry out to ALL sisters and brothers in Christ - "Come! Join us at our Lord's Table! Come to His table of sacrifice, victory, grace, forgiveness, and resurrection hope!"

As we prepare to approach First Church's rendition of the Lord's table, with words carved "In Remembrance of Me," candles lit, bread carefully cut and ready for intinction in chalices filled with unfermented fruit of the vine, we pause to hear the Word of God and (as Jesus puts it) to "listen to another parable." We call this the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. As with all the parables, it begins "there was man who . . . (In this case) planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it and built a watchtower . . . " Seemingly more allegorical than parabolic, this story twists, turns, and finally ends with a judgment on people who produce bad fruit and blessing on people who produce good fruit - that is - the fruit of the kingdom of God! In the end, our storyteller celebrates the joy of good fruit.

Everyone wants to identify with the joy of "good fruit" people! We all want to believe we are in the community of the blessed. We want to believe we have our membership in the right church. But, the story doesn't say that membership in the "right" community will automatically place you among the joy-filled people producing "the fruit of the kingdom of God!" Does it?

This story, delivered from the heart of an early Christian community squabbling with the synagogues down the street (and across the Mediterranean Sea), makes no guarantees that Christians are granted special entrance into the kingdom of God. In fact, it makes no promises of the coming Kingdom of God to Christians at all. It is not a story about good Christians and disobedient Jews. Rather, as the "owner of the vineyard," (Read: "our God") is expecting Good fruit growing out of righteous living, human caring and courageous witnessing. We desire to be God's good fruit in these times - but it is not as simple as it seems.

Two weeks ago in The New York Times Book Review, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote a piece called "Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr." (NY Times Book Review, 9/18/05, pp. 12-13). Schlesinger asks why the 20th Century's supreme theologian (and a pastor in the United Church of Christ) has disappeared from the religious discourse of our times. He answers:

...maybe Niebuhr has fallen out of fashion because 9/11 has revived the myth of our national innocence . . . Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later imported yellow men for peon labor - not much of a background for national innocence. `Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem,' Niebuhr wrote, `are insufferable their human contacts.' The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).

As an aside: Who in our times do we associate with such Manichaeism - that is, dividing the world into "good" (us) and "evildoers" (our critics)?

(The late Reinhold) Niebuhr emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature - creative impulses matched by destructive impulses; regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God to history.

(Schlesinger concludes) Niebuhr summed up his political argument in a single powerful sentence, `Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.'

As individuals and as a nation, we want to see ourselves as "innocent" even while we know our motives are mixed. We want to believe we will be joyful "good fruit" bearers, even when our living has not been righteous, our human caring as not been clear, and our witness for justice has not been courageous.

We want to appear to be "happy" Christians even while we feel haunted by the late M. Scott Peck's opening words in his 1979 classic, The Road Less Traveled: "Life is difficult." It is exactly because "life is difficult" that we have come here. We are here not in our innocence, but in our seeking to overcome guilt and shame. We are here not in our perfection, but in the full knowledge that we are broken and yes "sinful" and fall short of the glory of God.

So, today step lightly to the table. Do not step forward in self-righteous arrogance, but come on tiptoe, acknowledging that the only reason you made it here is by the grace of God. Come, seeking to be joyful fruit-bearers for God's Kingdom. But, as you do, come knowing that good fruit is borne by righteous living, human caring, and courageous witnessing - not by wishful thinking.

As you come to the table today, pause to consider all those who won't be making it here: those who someone else has cast out, locked out, or stomped out. Those who some other pastor (somewhere) in the arrogance and innocence of our times - but not of our faith - has called "them" and told his congregation about how "bad" they were. As you come, pause to consider that, while other sisters and brothers in Christ may be forsaking and intentionally shunning someone at their table today, our Risen Savior, to whom this table belongs, remembers each one of us by name. He loves us and calls us his own. Jesus Christ, the founder of this feast, welcomes every child of God to his table of grace. Remember that and you remember him.

Dare I say, "Listen to another parable . . . It begins, "There was a man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord who came for our salvation and for the salvation of the world?... No, not just another parable. This my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the truth of God! Amen.

Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church