Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80: 7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
My first homiletics assignment in seminary was committing to memory today’s gospel reading, and dramatically presenting it to my classmates during class. I have to say, this task was daunting, not only because we had to memorize a fairly long passage but, we were required to present it under the watchful eyes of our peers. I was anxious about the assignment, but I successfully memorized the scripture and when the day came to present, I was ready.
Over the two weeks that I studied this parable, a particular phrase gnawed at me. “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” The more I considered it and meditated on it, the more anxious I became. There I was a novice seminarian, about to embark on a new quest to serve in God’s Kingdom, and with one assignment, I was being confronted with a warning, which was turning my spiritual world upside down. Reflecting back, I now realize that there was more to my professor’s assignment, than I ever imagined. Slyly, my wise professor used this little assignment to make me and my classmates think. When I read that phrase over and over again, I wondered, “was Jesus’ warning only the evil tenants in the parable, or was he merely warning the religious rulers of his time, or was he actually warning the church, we Christians today?” The gospel reading we hear today is truly a challenge for us, who must ask ourselves this question every day, “Are we producing Kingdom Fruit.”
“Fruits of the kingdom” is a metaphor for the outward signs, community actions, and observable, incarnated evidence of a people for whom, something much more transformative is going on inside. Kingdom Fruit, for people on the periphery of the church community, stands as evidence that we Christians are truly faithful caretakers of God’s Kingdom. Kingdom fruit is evident when our lives mirror that of Our Lord Jesus Christ. There are indications of Kingdom Fruit in the life of the Christian community by her actions to bring about reconciliation, peace, justice, and dignity to all of creation, just like Jesus did. Jesus brought healing and restoration to people of all walks of life, but with intention and desire, he mostly hung out with folks on the outskirts of social acceptance. Tax collectors and sinners, lepers and the blind , and the forgotten and outcast, these were the people with whom Jesus focused his mission of reconciliation, peace, justice, dignity, and love. We who follow Jesus, who live the claim that we are going to be like Jesus, who take on the mission of Jesus, as the baptized faithful, need to understand our responsibility regarding those on the outside of social acceptance today. Loving those whom God loves is our responsibility, as the baptized in Christ.
My late father, who in the hospital several weeks ago, realized that his health was quickly declining, told me that he wanted me to accept the responsibility of being his Power of Attorney. Dad signed the paperwork and made me the steward of all of his finances, his health care, and all of the legal matters related to his property. He left things in my hands, and I was humbled to know how much my father trusted me. Honestly, I was afraid I would make some huge mistakes and in the process, misrepresent my Dad, disappoint him, or worse yet, fail to honor his wishes. My father handed me a great responsibility but , he retained also the right to re-assign that power, if I failed to do what he needed me to do. You know, I could have easily backed out of that responsibility, but my Dad trusted me, he needed me, and he knew I would remain faithful.
When we hear Jesus’ warning about taking away the kingdom from those who bear no fruit, we can not assume today, that Jesus is talking about some other group . Jesus is warning us that kingdom reassignment, for those who fail to be faithful emissaries and stewards of the kingdom, applies to all. In order to understand our responsibility, we need to fully comprehend our role in God’s mission. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann once wrote, “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”1 This statement may sound a little unsettling for us, because we may think that our responsibility in the kingdom, ends at the doors of the church, that somehow God’s mission begins and ends with us, the church folk gathered .
Our responsibility as stewards and emissaries of the Kingdom of God, begins the moment we leave this place and enter our homes, our workplaces, and our other associations outside parish life. Unlike any other responsibility we have, being a Christian means that we cannot compartmentalize our faith, safeguard it, and minimize it, as if being a Christian were only an occasional day trip to the haven of the parish. The Church is much more than a place at which, we are fed. Church is like a gymnasium in which, we are trained for the work we are sent out to do. In his book Transforming Mission, David Bosch writes, “There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.”2 The community that actively, purposefully, and intensely participates in God’s love toward people is, simply put, producing fruit.
When I consider Jesus’ warning, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” it worries me as much today, as it did when I was a naive seminarian six years ago on that Holy Mountain; Sewanee. Today, through the work I do as Canon for Ministry Development, I meet an alarming number of young adults who have had no faith background ever. Overseeing campus ministry on three university locations across the diocese and helping alternative faith communities emerge and discover their place, I come face-to-face every day with a frightening reality.
Today, in the United States, nearly 20% of the American population (double what it was 20 years ago) claims to be religiously unaffiliated. Statistics also show that nearly 33% of folks under 30 are religiously unaffiliated as well. In the ministry I do, and through my conversations with young students and younger working adults, their religious disconnect is much more than just statistics in a report. I am anxious, concerned, and yes, terrified because now, more than ever, it is so important that we the church, demonstrate to the world the Kingdom of God, through our actions, our mission, our focus on social justice issues, our service to the poor, and yes, how we treat one another.
We must produce Kingdom Fruit, not so that we might merely be seen as holy, pious, moral, or kind, but so that this ever expanding population whom God loves, who may have no idea what it means to follow Jesus, might come to know reconciliation, mercy, and grace, enacted through the lives of we, the Kingdom stewards. As you are sent out from this holy space today, as you walk through the doors of the church, as you enter the mission field out there, please remember your responsibility as a steward of the kingdom. This great mission responsibility was so simply and clearly defined, through the words of St. Francis of Assisi, whose life the church commemorated just one day ago. Francis said, “The deeds you do, may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.”
1 Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, London: SCM Press, 1977, 64
2 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991, 389–390