Sermon preached October 2, 2011
Text: Matthew 21:33-46
Are you saved? How many of you have ever been asked that question? How many of you have ever been asked that question by someone you had never met before they asked the question.
I entered the question into an internet search engine – googled it – and found some interesting results including this story told by a retired Ohio University professor. The professor had two young men appear at his door and they began asking him some questions. Did he have a Bible in the house? He assured them he did and wanted to know if they were interested in Hebrew, Greek, German, French, or Spanish – or did they prefer an English translation? They followed up by saying they wanted to take a “religious census” – which turned out to be another way for them to ask the professor “are you saved?” They asked if the professor believed that the Bible is the Word of God? He told them he believed anything could be a symbol for God. They asked if he believed the Bible to be inerrant. “I admitted that I could not recall having found a misspelled word, or punctuation error, or an omitted line in any edition of the Bible…. That did not seem to be what my visitors had in mind.” They asked if he believed that the Bible is the infallible Word of God revealed for our salvation. I replied that before I could answer that question, I’d have to know whether they had in mind Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, or Bezae. I must say to their credit that they perceived dimly that I was referring to texts from which translations are made. But they felt I was evading their questions. The conversation deteriorated from that point on. (“Brother, Are You Saved” Troy Organ, The Christian Century October 15, 1975)
If we have ever had anyone come to our door or approach on the street and ask a question such as, “Are you saved?” we can appreciate the humor in this anecdote. We must admit that those who ask the question ask it very seriously and they believe the right or wrong answer has serious consequences. Most of the other web-sites that came up when I googled “Are you saved?” provided very different kinds of responses. There were a few tests, and most had to do with whether or not you believed a series of statements (Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Heaven and hell are literal and real. Jesus blood, not just his death, takes away sins.), or had certain kinds of experiences (Baptized, received the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues). If you believe the right things and have the right experiences you are right with God and will be given heaven as a reward in the afterlife. If you are not right with God, well…. And there is a clear demarcation between those who are saved and those who are not saved. You are either in or out.
The Pharisees in Jesus time knew they were saved. They knew all the things that needed to be done to be right with God, and they were doing them. They were the in group – in the know, in the right relationship with God.
Jesus tells this in group, the Pharisees and chief priests a little story, a kind of weird, scary story. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He made improvements on the land – built a fence, dug a wine press, built a watchtower. There is a clear echo here of a passage from Isaiah (Isaiah 5): My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. The Pharisees would have knows this passage, and they considered themselves to be those of God’s vineyard who yielded the right kind of fruit. Those outside were wild grapes.
But Jesus changes the story up. The landowner leases the vineyard to tenents, and when harvest comes he sends his slaves to collect the produce. Twice, slaves are sent and twice the tenants treat them miserably, even killing some. Jesus story is a bit gruesome. Finally he sends his son. Kind of a strange twist, but he expects that his son will be respected. He is not. Instead he is killed – the tenants thinking that they now will possess the vineyard for themselves. Those listening to Jesus story are outraged and think that the owner will wreck vengeance on the current tenants and give the land to others. Then Jesus springs a surprise. You who think you have it all right, you have missed it. You who want to define the religiously in and out so markedly don’t get it. So the kingdom of God will be alive in those who produce fruits of the kingdom (love, justice, righteousness, peace, reconciliation, gentleness, kindness – Isaiah 5, Galatians 5).
So those who clearly define the religiously in and out are the ones who don’t get it. Those who think that a right relationship with God is like a vineyard that one can possess, and they cling to it with a certain violent intensity, are the very ones who are stumbling in their journey of faith.
Isn’t it ironic, then, that some who follow Jesus – teller of riddles and stories – have often gotten to that same place as the Pharisees. Here is the Cotton Patch rendering of part of Matthew 21. The ministers and church people listened to his Comparisons, and were aware that they were aimed at them. Are you saved? Those who ask the question in that way often believe that the answer is a simple “yes” or “no” – and if you don’t know then surely you are not saved. And the demarcation between the saved and unsaved is clear and distinct. There is an in group and an out group.
This story complicates things. Jesus does not always keep it simple. The story seems to say that God’s grace, God’s intention for the world in love (the kingdom of God) is not about owning. God’s grace is not about in and out, not about you clearly have God’s grace or you clearly don’t. There is something in God that doesn’t love a wall. God’s grace, God’s kingdom is not about who is in and who is out, it is about growing and producing. It is about a journey. It is about where you are and who you are becoming.
A youth pastor was once discussing the baptism of Jesus with his youth group. He focused on the phrase in Mark’s gospel where it says that at the baptism of Jesus the heavens were “torn apart” (1:10). The youth group was not really getting into the Bible study. Sometimes that happens. The youth pastor sought to turn it up a notch. “This is amazing, truly! Look at this: Mark says that the heavens have been torn apart. Do you know what that means? That means that now we all have direct access to God. There’s nothing between us and God! Isn’t that wonderful?” Finally, a young man responded. “No, that’s not what it means.” While the youth pastor was glad for a response, he was puzzled by the challenge. “What do you mean? Do you have some insight into the Greek here?” “Torn apart. Yeah. It means that now God can get at us. It means that now no one is safe” (Anthony Robinson, Changing the Conversation, 64-65).
God’s grace is not something we possess, we own. God in grace keeps coming to us again and again and again – wave upon wave, like the landowner sending person upon person to his vineyard. Jesus’ story suggests that the question “Are you saved?” leading to a yes/no, in/out response is not the best question. Better to ask, where are you on the journey? What kind of fruit is your life producing? How are you experiencing this God who tears open the heavens to come to us again and again and again? These are the questions we should be asking, asking ourselves. We don’t need some stranger knocking on our door to ask. I appreciate the sincerity of those who want to know if I am saved. I worry about the consequences of a too simple understanding of that question though – yes/no in/out. Sometimes those who ask are quite smug in the certainty that they are among the saved.
On this World Communion Sunday, where we celebrate the wonderful variety in the church, it seems especially fitting that I share my favorite googled response to “Are you saved?” It was a brief video produced by the Orthodox Church. In the video, the person responds: I was saved – saved 2000 years ago by the gracious action of God in Jesus Christ; I am being saved daily; I will be saved in the end. We are saved in the sense that God is who God is, and the nature of God is love and grace – a love and grace that comes wave upon wave. No one is safe! We are loved by God simply because we are. We are being saved as we respond to this love of God in our lives and are changed by it – producing fruits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, righteousness. We are on a journey and the better question is not an in/out question but a where are you question. We finally trust that living our lives in relationship to God as we know God in Jesus Christ, God will care for us when this life ends. Amen.