The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 2, 2011
The Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46
Sermon: "Whose Vineyard?"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Jesus said, "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. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, `They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, `This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.' So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" 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."
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'?
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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
They lure you in with deceptively low rent only to make you live in dangerous conditions. They're not landlords, they're slumlords, and New York City recently launched a website to crack down on the worst of the worst. The problem for many New York residents is that living in a dangerous and disgusting apartment is a tough reality. With housing so scarce and affordable rent almost nonexistent, a good number of New Yorkers find themselves at the mercy of a slumlord; a building owner who holds his tenants hostage with relatively low rent, but who in return refuses to protect their safety by maintaining his facility.
The problem has gotten so out of hand that the City of New York launched a watch list for its worst landlords. It's a website that allows angry, abused tenants to lodge official complaints. It also allows prospective renters to search and see if the apartment of their dreams could end up a roach-infested nightmare. The nastiest of slumlords not only find themselves facing fines from the city but, worst for them, the scorn of other New Yorkers. They are publically pilloried in the Press, and on social sites, and, because their faces as well as their names are published, on the streets and in their favorite restaurants. Itís not quite the stocks, but itís almost as good.
Such problems are nothing new. Deep in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus offers a parable about a rough relationship between a landlord and tenants. However, in Jesus' story it's not the landlord who abuses his power and fails to care for those living on his land. No, it's the tenants who take advantage of the landowner's trust and generosity.
Jesus had entered the final week of his life. It was time for any doubts about his mission and message to be cleared away. It was time to increase the intensity. So Jesus laid out this accusatory parable.
His message was clear. God is like a landlord who has leased his vineyard, his kingdom on earth, to his people. The time has come for God to receive a share in the fruit from his people, in exchange for his providence. He wants his vineyard producing a wine that leaves the boundaries of the kingdom walls and fills the entire world with the goodness of what he grows. But the vineyard's residents have hoarded their bounty, and have nothing to show him. As if that weren't bad enough, they've ignored, beaten, or murdered every agent (read prophets and son) he'd sent to represent his interests.
"Enough is enough," Jesus proclaimed. The time was at hand when "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits". A time for new tenants had arrived. Soon after saying all of this, Jesus would be arrested. Weíre so surprised.
Here's the thing. It's tempting for us, you know, as new tenants manning the vineyard, to read these words as simply a rebuke of the old guard. But that would be terribly shortsighted. No, if your landlord feels the need to recount stories of previous renters who failed to pay on time, he's not simply reminiscing about the past. It's instruction for us right now!
Now, take a deep breath and exhale. Itís OK. God isn't getting ready to kick the church out of the vineyard and start from scratch. That's not in the plan. This parable is not meant as a threat to us. But it is highly instructive for us. From it we can discern what God's expectations are for those who've been given the blessing of living in his vineyard.
This is a parable about stewardship. You know, managing God's stuff on God's behalf. There are two central aspects of stewardship in our parable this morning. The first is what we've been entrusted with and the second is what in the world we're supposed to do with it.
So letís look at that first aspect of Stewardship: What we are entrusted with. As tenants we've each been entrusted with two things: the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our personal, worldly goods. Both come from God. Both are to be used in service to God. The Gospel is the message that God desires a loving relationship with each of us. God has pursued us through the sending of his Son and made reconciliation possible through that same Son's sacrificial death on the cross. Because of the cross, the entire world is now welcome to enter the vineyard and labor under God's love.
On top of that, God has not only blessed us with that message, God has made us the dispensers of it to the world. Itís an amazing trust. The greatest gift there is.
Hereís the other: all things we possess, from the clothes on our backs, the dollars in our wallets and even the ceilings above our heads belong to God and are on loan to us from God. King David reminds us "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it" (Psalm 24:1, NIV) God owns everything. It's simply been leased to us. As Paul tells Timothy, "We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world" (1 Timothy 6:7). We are renters of everything and owners of nothing. All that we possess comes by way of Godís providence. All of it is held by us in trust for God, just as the Gospel is held in trust by us for the world. This is what weíve been entrusted with.
Now letís look at that second aspect of stewardship: What weíre to do with what we have. It takes more than simply knowing how blessed you are and who the owner is to be considered faithful. The people in Jesus' parable supposedly knew all that. No, a good tenant, a solid steward does something with the message and the goods. A good steward produces a crop that not only blesses the vineyard, but also brings blessing to the world at large.
So, the question arises: are you and I being good stewards with Godís vineyard, or are we simply squatters? If we were to make an honest confession about ourselves, as tenants in God's kingdom -- workers in his vineyard -- what would we say? Would we admit that we are at times incredibly ungrateful? Terribly unfruitful? Would we confess that we tend to live as if everything we've been lent by God is actually ours totally by our own wits and hands; ours to keep, as though we could take it with us? No matter to what you and I might have to confess to, the Good News is this: because God loves us, because God sees you and me through the eyes of our Savior Christ, because God sees us through the eyes of a loving parental heart, God is still glad to have you and me as his, even when we donít always pay the full rent on time.
Given Godís providence toward us, and Godís love of us, our stewardship of everything weíve been given is not a dreaded chore. Itís not a response to a threat. It is, instead, a chance to respond to Godís love, with love and gratitude. So, let me suggest a few ways that you and I could use the gifts we possess to bless our vineyard, and bless the world outside it. First, we could bring more tenants into this vineyard to be blessed by Godís message. Seeing the increasing number of new folks coming through those doors, itís clear that several of you are indeed already inviting others to join in our blessings here. All of us, though, are to be helping others share with us by giving the invitation. This is one fairly easy way of spreading Godís message, yet it bears great fruit for the vineyard and beyond.
Another way is to invest your time and talent in helping lead worship: as a lay reader, declaring the Good News of the Scriptures; or as a Lay Eucharistic Minister, distributing the body and blood of Christ to all who seek such grace; or as an acolyte, increasing our awareness of Godís mysterious movement among us; or as a choir member, singing the glory of God in our midst. You could be a blessing among our youth, teaching in Sunday School or helping others guide their growing leadership; or you could take the training to be a Stephenís minister, helping the sick, the shut-in and the aged. You could become a link in the Prayer Chain, or give time to help with the Day School.
As to taking our blessing of the Good News outside these walls, I have found myself marveling at the numbers of you giving the treasures of your time to those in need around us: thereís the daily work of the Soup Kitchen, the weekly delivery of food through Meals On Wheels, the Thanksgiving feast prepared for hundreds of folks every year, not to mention all the individual and collective acts of grace delivered to others in need by you every day. Folks, we are about the business, the blessing of those outside with the fruit of the vineyard here. We could use some more hands.
Now letís talk stuff. You know, money, possessions; our stuff. Correction; Godís stuff! As the great baseball pitcher, Orel Hershiser, once said, ďMy main philosophy is that my money is a loan from God. Iím in charge of it. Iím responsible for providing for my family, investing it, and protecting it, and for giving some of it away.Ē There are a number of you here who tithe. You return the Biblical standard of 10% of all God gives you back to Godís work in this vineyard. Let me just say, on behalf of this entire congregation, thank you! I know you donít think you need this thank you; you give as a thank you to God for the sheer joy of living with the grateful hearts with which God has blessed you. But thank you anyway!
Many of you are ďfirst fruitersĒ. That is, you return your gifts to Godís work off the top of Godís blessings, rather than off the bottom of your needs and wants. You show your gratitude to God, and your faith in his providence, by making your gift the first thing you do each time with your money. Thank you! Your spiritual growth will continue to be blessed even as you seek to bless others in theirs, for you already know some of that deep joy of the grateful heart.
Most of you are pledgers. You hear the annual call for the ingathering, the financial fruit that it will take to keep this vineyard producing for Godís blessing to you, to us, and the world outside. When that pledge card comes you take the time to carefully and prayerfully consider how God has blessed you, and how, with a grateful spirit you will return some of that blessing for his work in this place. Thank you! Your pledging, whatever percentage of your income it represents, puts you squarely on a spiritual journey that can lead you to a life of inescapable joy; the life of generous gratitude.
What kind of tenants are we? We have been entrusted with much. We are the new inhabitants of God's incredible vineyard. Life-giving wine must flow from its walls. It's time to be a good steward. "The season for fruit" has drawn near. As Kahlil Gibran has said, ďAll you have shall someday be given; therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours.Ē
We've been given the gospel. We've been entrusted with material blessings. May it all be used to bear incredible fruit to the Glory of God. Amen.