Phil. 3:4b-14 Matt. 21:33-46
Would you describe yourself as a “goal-oriented person”? You know, someone who has a firm idea of what they want to do, and one who makes plans for all the specific steps needed to pursue this goal. Some folks are on the extreme end of this spectrum, while others are all the way on the other end—never making a plan, just kind of “rolling through life,” taking it as it comes to them. I suspect that most of us are somewhere moderately in-between these extremes. Having a goal—making a plan—these are good things. But it’s also important to remember that things don’t always go the way we PLAN for them to go!
When I started serving the church in Elko back in ’04, I met a lot of people in the community. I was amazed at how many folks shared a similar story. They told me that they had big plans when they first moved to Elko: they were going to work there for two or three years, “win their spurs” (if you will) and then move on to a more prestigious position or a more desirable place to live or what have you. But after spending some time in Elko, they fell in love with the place. In some cases, they met and fell in love with their future spouse. Something caused them to stay, and they were telling me their story twenty or thirty or even fifty years into their life in Elko! No matter what we plan, things often go a different direction!
One of our favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a young man with big dreams. As a boy, George joins the National Geographic Society, and looks forward to being a great EXPLORER. Then, as a young man, he shares these dreams with a young lady (Mary) he is walking home from a dance. They see an old derelict house, and George makes a wish and throws a rock at a piece of glass still clinging to a window frame. (The idea is, if you break a piece of the glass, you will get your wish.) Then George says to Mary, “I know what I am going to do tomorrow and the next day and next year and the next year after that.” And he describes some worldwide travel, college (to see what they know), and then building things—big, important things. Then he asks, “What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”
But, if you know the movie, you remember that George then learns of his father’s stroke, and all his big plans are postponed as he steps in to run the family business, The Bailey Building and Loan. He expects that his brother will take over once he graduates from college, then George can be off on his travels, pursuing his goal. Problem is, his brother comes home married, and the new father-in-law has a great job waiting for him.
George makes the difficult decision to stay “in the harness” at the Bailey Building and Loan. His consolation prize is that he and Mary get married, and they get busy with the business of life.
Sometimes, “life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans.” And in this film, George learns, with a little angelic help, that his life is one of significance. He learns that, even though it was not the life he had planned, it was full and rich with the things that are truly worthwhile.
Not what he planned, but truly worthwhile.
Our scripture readings for today are both about discerning what is truly of value for us. They cause us to ask the questions, “Are my goals really worth pursuing—or should I re-evaluate them? Am I trying to find happiness in something that will never truly satisfy me?”
Paul says in our Philippians passage that all the stuff he used to think was so important has been revealed to be just a bunch of garbage! In fact, he says, everything is rubbish when compared to that which is of supreme value—knowing Christ Jesus the Lord.
It would help to know something about Paul’s own story. He was born to Jewish parents and raised in Tarsus, located in modern-day Turkey. He had an ambition to be one of the elite religious leaders of Israel—a body known as The Sanhedrin. He came to Jerusalem and studied under Gamaliel, a leading authority in the Sanhedrin. Paul was well on his way toward achieving his goal. He had been circumcised on the eighth day; he was a member of the people of Israel; he was of the tribe of Benjamin; he was a Pharisee; he proved his zeal by persecuting the church; and, as for righteousness, he was “blameless.” But his encounter with Christ set him on a new path, and showed him that all of his “credentials” were just rubbish. He had to let go of the garbage and cling to the righteousness that comes from God. As he wrote to the Philippians, his new goal was to know Christ better and to strain forward to what Christ had in store for him. Even though he was no longer living the life he had dreamed of and worked for, his life was full and rich with the things that are TRULY WORTHWHILE!
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story about some tenants working a vineyard. They are supposed to pay the owner a portion of what they harvest, but they don’t feel like it. In fact, they begin to think of the vineyard as their very own. They get the crazy idea that, if they kill the owner’s son, then his inheritance will be theirs! Now, of course, if this were to happen, these tenants would be killed and others would be found to work the vineyard.
What these fellows HAD was a wonderful opportunity to make a living and pay the owner a small portion of the harvest. Instead of VALUING that arrangement, they focused on how great it would be if they OWNED the vineyard—and they lost everything. (Friends, this is a powerful message to you and to me—since we are also “tenants” of this wonderful world, and we need to remember who the true OWNER is!)
Jesus continues the story, reminding his audience of Psalm 118:22, “The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” This stone is the symbol of God’s work in our lives, the elements that we often reject in favor of something that looks better to us. The stone, once rejected but now the chief cornerstone, represents the things of true value. And our scriptures are urging us to look carefully—and choose those things that will bless us forever…things of the Kingdom of God.
We have, on this Table, symbols of that Kingdom. Bread and Cup, representing the Body and the Blood of Christ, stand as concrete evidence of God’s Welcome to the Kingdom. Sisters and brothers in Christ all around the world are gathering today to celebrate God’s gift of love to us, to remember God’s loving invitation.
The invitation to the banquet goes to ANYONE who is hungry for God, hungry for that which is beautiful and true and life-giving. As we hear in Isaiah 55, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
I’ll wrap this up by taking us to Matthew 6 where Jesus tells us NOT TO WORRY. Don’t focus on food and drink and clothes—these are things the pagans focus on. He says our Heavenly Father knows exactly what we need. So we should seek first God’s Kingdom, God’s righteousness—and all our needs will be supplied. It’s the same thing Paul was saying, only in different words. “Let go of those things that don’t bring you LIFE—embrace those things that are full of LIFE—the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus the Lord.”