In the Name...
One Halloween, two boys went trick-or-treating and one brought some eggs to throw at houses. On the way, the older said to the younger, "I'll give you five dollars if you let me break three eggs on your head." The little boy knew it was going to be painful and messy, but because he wanted the money, he agreed, so, the older boy broke the first egg on his head. It hurt and got his head gooey, but he readied himself for the second. This one also hurt, but he was determined to get the five dollars, so he braced himself for the third and last egg, but the older boy then walked away laughing, "I changed my mind. I think I'll keep the money."
Like the older kid in our story, some people go through life trying to take advantage of others, of society, and even of God. We see that in the parable of the rebellious tenants in today’s Gospel, who enjoy the benefits that accrue to them, but withhold the benefits that should go to the landowner.
On one level, Jesus directed the parable at the Jewish leadership of his day. In the Old Testament, the image of the vineyard is often used to describe the world, as we heard in the first reading from Isaiah. The Jewish kings and priests were only supposed to be servants, responsible to God for the world’s well-being. But instead, they had become controllers. They put themselves in God’s place and made everybody else serve them.
But we're mistaken if we think we can sit back comfortably and pour scorn on those Old Testament kings and priests or even the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time. The parable also has a lot to teach us, sitting here today, about how God sees us as a faith community.
"There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.” In other words, God creates everything. We create nothing.
"Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.” This shows God’s trust in us. He does not stand looking over our shoulders, micro-managing our every move. He leaves the job to us and trusts that we will do the right thing. Unfortunately, many times, we don’t.
Therefore, the story also highlights God’s patience. The owner sends messenger after messenger to the rebellious tenants. With each messenger, he provides another chance for them to shape up. Finally, He sends his Son and they kill him. And so, in the end, we see God’s judgment. The rebels lose everything and others, who are more promising, are given the vineyard. And so, we see that God is providing, trusting, and patient, but also just.
Now, like in the parable, everything we have is a privilege. The world, and life have been given to us by God. We have not earned our lives or any of the blessings in life that we receive. This is what we mean when we say that everything we get is by God’s grace. Grace is privilege. But privilege comes with responsibility.
And this is the great challenge of freedom. Freedom is a good thing - a great gift of God. But it is a gift that is easy to misuse. Because God doesn't micro-manage us, it's tempting to forget that we are accountable for the way we use our God-given privileges. And as Jesus showed, it's especially tempting for those in leadership.
When I was in seminary, our warden was a bit sceptical of what were then becoming fashionably called "personal ministry goals." His word to us was that every priest should only have one goal - to prepare for our successors. And he reminded us that all clergy, whether we're in a parish for four years or forty years are really just interims in the great scheme of things. We're tenants and managers. We don't own the vineyard. It’s not there for our benefit and if we lose sight of that, we become Pharisees and Sadducees.
But lest you lay folks begin to get comfortable, now, here's the flip side. He said you don't own it, either. In fact, if we follow this parable's imagery, you're the vines and the only thing the vines are supposed to do is produce good grapes. If they produce wild or sour grapes, as we heard in the Isaiah reading, God can be as unhappy with the vines as he was with the disagreeable tenants.
Both Old and New Testaments teach us, though, that God cares deeply for both his tenants and his vines. He wants us to work together with him, and he provides everything we need to produce a good harvest.
First and foremost, he has given us Christ as our model and guide of how to be good tenants and good vines.
And, we have been given one another. It’s common to hear about clergy being “called” to parishes, but I have long believed that lay people are equally “called”, as well - that people don’t join churches by accident. Either the church is what they need at a particular time in their lives or they have something that some church community needs which is why they have been led to a particular church, even if they don’t realize that.
And, we have been given certain earthly goods - some money, land, a building. By one set of standards we're rich, by another we're not, but what matters is that we have all the material things we need to do what God calls us to do. We just have to figure out what we’re supposed to do and how to use what we’ve got and not worry that we don’t have as much as someone else who is called to do something completely different.
And, last of all, we have been given a certain setting. We're in Kent County, MD. Not Kent County, England, or Kent District, Tasmania. So, what that means is that God believes there’s something for us to do here.
So, we have Christ and one another, some earthly goods, and a specific setting. And God has provided them so that He, not we, may enjoy a harvest. Yet God does not place into our hands a blueprint by which we can construct success. We do not run with the precision of a factory, rather, with the uncertainties of a farm.
This means that our fruitfulness may take a form very different from what we expect or may have experienced elsewhere. The harvest may surprise us. The strangest grapes can conceal the sweetest taste. And we have to be always open to accepting that what we think may be the way may not be what God has in mind. It has happened to others, and it may well happen to us.
So, there it is. You're the fruits and I'm the nut.
But we are all God's good creation. So, let’s produce the harvest God hopes we can achieve and make him very happy.
In the Name...