(Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14)
33 “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. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Have you ever had the opportunity to witness a house or building being erected? Perhaps you’ve lived by someone who buys untouched land and builds on it. Perhaps the neighbor has simply decided to tear down the existing building and rebuilt from scratch. Perhaps you’ve experienced living in a metropolis setting where nearby buildings were in a constant state of either being torn down or built up. Perhaps you yourself have had a hand in tearing down a building and rebuilding a better one. I have both built and destroyed buildings by volunteering through the Habitat for Humanity organization. What an awesome thing to get first-hand experience helping build a building!! I would recommend it to anyone, young or old, man or woman. But I drift away from my question…
Those of us who have witnessed a building being erected (and for those who haven’t) know that it is an awesome thing to witness. It is a slow, methodical process consisting of various steps and developments. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Many people have their unique contributions throughout the process. The designers envision the overall shape and materials to be used. The financers purchase the necessary materials. The engineers figure out how to obey the laws of nature and use the materials in order to create the designed structure. The constructors actually go about erecting the building. There are many people involved, each contributing their own unique skill and talent to the overall goal of erecting a building. So many minds, so many hands, so many forces at work in reaching this goal! A building is the result of great cooperation between people and nature. What an awesome testament!! It’s no wonder there was a time in my life that I considered becoming an architect. I wanted to somehow be a part of this grand process of cooperation. But then the reality set in that I just didn’t like drawing lines and using math all that much!
When witnessing a building being erected, it always seems that the most time is spent laying the foundation. Between digging out the right depth of earth, combining the right amount of steel and concrete, and erecting the basic framework of the building can seem to go on for weeks if not months. Slapping up siding and insulation, not to mention piping and electricity, seems to happen in a fraction of the time. What a strange allocation of time and resources! After all, nobody will ever see the foundation and framework once the siding and insulation, piping and electricity get put up. Why not spend the bulk of the time focused on the cosmetics of the building…on what people will actually see? Why spend so much time and energy on what people won’t ever see?
Well, because all the people involved in the process know that without a secure foundation and framework then the building will surely fall apart. The foundation may be unseen but it’s pivotal in the success of the structure as a whole. All the siding, all the insulation, all the piping, all the electricity, all the drywall, all the lighting…pretty much all of the house is dependent on the sure and steady foundation. Without it, the building will fall. Everyone in the process of building realizes this to be true.
Of course, just because they realize the necessity of a sure foundation doesn’t mean that people aren’t continually trying to get by without one. People will continually test the foundations of their buildings. Just search for the 10 worst building collapses of modern history. All 10 of them occurred because of weakened foundations and core structures. All 10 of them resulted from people ignoring stress fractures within the foundation. Well, I don’t suppose we can attribute the worst collapse, the collapse of the Twin Towers, to the ignorance of people. The sheer magnitude of that devastation was simply overwhelming. But aside from that collapse, people for the most part believed the foundation of their respective buildings was able to hold buildings up despite clear indicators that they weren’t. Most of the time that belief stems from blissful perhaps willful ignorance and not wanting to believe their buildings can collapse. People knowingly and unknowingly test the foundations of their buildings.
Look at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The building was erected over 800 years ago and it has been leaning at a rate of one-twentieth of an inch per year. It is amazing that it still stands at all. It is currently 17 feet out of plumb, meaning it’s leaning 17 feet off center. That’s simply amazing! Buildings will likely collapse when they are leaning mere inches off center, let alone 17 feet! Yet it continues to defy nature and still stands. Perhaps more amazing than its ability to defy nature are the facts that it sits atop a marsh and only has a 10-foot deep foundation. I wonder what its architects were thinking by building it on a marsh with such a shallow foundation. It’s no wonder it’s been leaning almost since the day it was completed! What a clear example of people testing the foundation of a building.
There are also some people who respect and enhance the foundations of their buildings. The architects behind the Leaning Tower of Pisa failed to acknowledge the marsh and depth requirements for their building and the result reflects their ignorance. But there have also been great architects throughout history. Frank Lloyd Wright was tasked with building a hotel in Tokyo, a city well-known for its frequency of earthquakes. Wright cleverly decided to “float” his building on top of sixty-feet of soft mud. The mud absorbs the impact of earthquakes and keeps the hotel secure, as it proved when an earthquake hit a couple years after it was erected. Wright understood the importance of a sure and steady foundation and built accordingly.
Now then, what does all this discussion about a sure and steady foundation have to do with our assigned readings for today? The prophet Isaiah talks of a vineyard that produces nothing but wild grapes and the Lord sets about destroying it. In this case, Isaiah is referring to the nation of Israel as the vineyard. God is unhappy with the sour fruit produced by the people of Israel and punishes them for it. Likewise, the psalm for today also shows David questioning God’s power for having brought his nation Israel out of bondage only to make it vulnerable to attack: “Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.” The parable from Matthew is no cheerier by lifting up the selfish bitterness of the tenants. All three readings highlight disgruntled people and their broken relationship with God. Where do we find the good news in these readings?
Paul’s letter to the Philippians offers a glimpse of the Good News in this week’s readings. Even though he bemoans all that he has given up to follow Christ, he seems glad to have given them up. He writes, “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.” Paul understood the full extent of what he gained in and through Christ by giving up everything that got in the way of a deep and abiding relationship with Christ. Paul gladly boasted of what Christ gave him. Of course, he doesn’t tell us exactly what Christ has given him in this text. Perhaps nothing more than sheer gladness and zealousness.
Accompanying this zealousness for Christ is the good news found hidden in the Matthew parable. Jesus himself gives us the good news for this week: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” Jesus is alluding to himself as the cornerstone. The whole parable is about how God the Father sends his prophets into the vineyard that is Israel and they are either killed or ignored. The Father sends his Son only to be killed as well. The landowner must have suspected such a fate would befall his son. And YET…and yet the landowner still sends him. The Father still sends the Son despite the high probability that the Son would be treated like the servants were treated before him. This is part of the good news for this week, that God the Father loves us so much that he was willing to send his Son despite all the warning bells going off. God wants to be in relationship with us so much that he’d sacrifice his Son to our selfish violence. What a great and merciful God indeed!
But that’s only half of the good news. The other half is that Jesus is set up as the cornerstone. Many people take his statement to mean that his life, death, and resurrection is what becomes the cornerstone of the church. Quick explanation: the cornerstone of a building is the stone upon which all other stones rest. If the cornerstone is removed, than the building collapses. This is different than a capstone. A capstone simply rests on top of the other stones as a type of crown. It adorns the stones rather than helps the stones. Jesus defines himself as the cornerstone instead of the capstone. He doesn’t want to adorn our church. He wants to hold up our church in an integral way.
I believe the imagery goes beyond simply the church though. Jesus wants to be more than the cornerstone of our church. Jesus wants to be the cornerstone of our lives. This is the truly good news! Jesus wants to hold each of us up. Jesus wants to be at the heart of all the stones in our lives. Jesus wants to be in our work, in our play, in our relationships, in our struggles, in our joys, in our fears, in our love, in all the stones that make up our lives. Jesus wants to be more than the mere capstone in our lives. Jesus wants to be right in the middle whereupon all the other stones rest.
In a sense, the cornerstone is the foundation of a building. Without a sure and steady cornerstone, the building will fall. Without a sure and steady foundation, the building will fall. Jesus wants to be a sure and steady foundation in the buildings of our lives. Our lives are buildings. They’re slowly and methodically built over time. Many people contribute to the process of building our lives: parents, siblings, teachers, bosses, mentors, pastors, spouses, children, doctors, etc. Just as a building needs a foundation, a cornerstone, so too do our lives need a cornerstone. Jesus wants to be the cornerstone in our lives. Let Jesus be the cornerstone in your life. Build a foundation with Jesus as the cornerstone and be assured that your life will be…built to last.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.