This was the sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2002. The Scriptures were Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Philippians 3: 4-14, and Matthew 21: 33 – 46.
Many years ago, I was a football official. It was something I enjoyed doing and, up until the proverbial career ending knee injury, one with a promising future of college games.
Like all football officials I started off with the Saturday morning elementary and junior high games. As my Dad, a veteran official in his own right, once told me, “You do these games to see things and make calls that you will never make at the high school and college level.” It was also at that level that the four most common words spoken by an official were “This isn’t Sunday, Coach!”
You see, most coaches at the lower levels try to use what they see the pros doing on Sunday when they are coaching their kids to play on Saturday. They ignore the fact that the kids they coach are not at the same physical level as the pros and that the rules for play on Sunday are dramatically different from the rules on Friday night and Saturday morning. And many times, the coaches try to coach as they were coached many years ago without trying to find out what is now legal and proper technique.
What people, coaches, fans and parents alike, forget is that the rules of the game are there for a purpose. And when you attempt to circumvent the rules or not even bother to learn the rules, problems arise.
Be it football, baseball, or just daily living, we have to have a set of rules by which we can live and be successful. We must remember that we have rules not to prevent life but rather to help life.
When the Israelites first left Egypt and began the long journey through the wilderness, they were simply a collection of people. That all changed when they came to Mt. Sinai. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites changed from a collection of people into a nation established with God as King and a covenant or treaty to govern their lives by. The Ten Commandments represent the covenant entered into by the people of Israel with God and represent a set of rules that reflect the relationship between God and themselves.
We see this relationship clearly defined when we look at the Ten Commandments. The first three commandments define the relationship the people will have with God. By extension this is a statement of the relationship each of us has with God as well. The last seven commandments define our relationship with others. What we must understand clearly is that our relationship with God comes before our relationship with others but that neither relationship works without the other. If we fail to realize this or if we try to reverse the order of the commandments, if we put our interests before our relationship with God, then there will be trouble.
The parable from the Gospel reading for today is an example of that outcome. The owner of the vineyard first sends his representative and then his son to check on the status and well being of his vineyard. The workers of the vineyard ignored the representatives and killed the son, thinking that in doing so they would gain the vineyard for themselves. But the ownership of the property doesn’t go to someone who gains it by illegal or immoral means and trouble comes to those who seek action in such a manner.
Jesus told this parable as He was preparing for His own death on the cross. It was a story to remind the disciples that the vineyard owner was God and that the vineyard was this earth. Killing the Son of God would in no way give the workers rights to the property.
Jesus simply pointed out that you could not forget one’s relationship with God, which the people of that time had done.
In Paul’s letter, we hear Paul boasting that if anyone could claim sufficiency through the law it was he. For he was raised in the law and he knew the law and he did everything in his power to uphold and keep the law. But the law that Paul tried to keep was the law of man designed to enforce the rules of living. And such law will always be written or made in such a way as to favor the one making the law. As Paul points out, simply holding to the law, a man-made instrument, cannot and will not guarantee everlasting life.
More than once Paul reminds us of this point, of the need to have accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, of holding to the relationship with God first. We are also reminded that the Covenant established on the mountain in the Sinai desert also included a relationship with others.
The rules for living have been laid out before us. They are not meant to be complex but rather a simple statement of the priorities of daily lives. When we put ourselves and how we view the relationships we have with others before our relationship with God, we cannot find a balance in our lives.
In a day when we seek to find a balance in our lives, when we seek to find a peace in daily living and a way to get through each day, it is nice to know that a set of rules, rules for living, does exist.