Proper 22 – 10/4/2020 – St. Paul’s
Martin Luther said that sometimes you have to squeeze a Biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. I find myself doing just that trying to figure out exactly what is going on in Matthew’s version of the parable of the evil tenants in the vineyard. I was told in seminary that that’s what parables are supposed to do, right? Biblical scholars tell us that Matthew is actually preaching his own homily on Jesus’ words concerning the stone rejected by the builders becoming the cornerstone (21:42) in reference to the despicable behavior of the tenants in the vineyard leased to them.
In his homily, Matthew points his finger at the religious authorities of his day saying: Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit…When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking to them (21:34,45).
Using the image of the vineyard not producing the proper yield because of the wicked tenants, Matthew gives us pause to wonder who the tenants are and who the landowner is. Most likely, the Temple leaders thought they were the landowner who was wronged, and more likely than not, as we hear the parable today we think it is God who is the landowner and the tenants are the Jewish authorities. As Jesus nears his approaching death, the tension between him and the Jewish religious leaders is at its most intense. Even though this is the case, how unfortunate that much anti-Semitism has ensued from a simplistic understanding of this parable. At least this is how it was used against my family.
So, as we squeeze the Biblical texts today for the good news to leak out, what is it we discover? Three things come into focus for our consideration: The vineyard may actually be the zip code we live in, the stones the builder rejected by the builder may be the unwanted dimensions of our own personalities, and the landowner, like God, does not give up too easily!
First, the parable challenges us to ponder whether we are producing fruit in the vineyard that bears the address where we live, which is necessary for building the Kingdom of God. St. Francis de Sales addresses this precisely:
Don’t sow your desires in someone else’s garden; just cultivate your own as best you can; don’t long to be other than what you are. Direct your thoughts to being very good at that and bearing the crosses, little or great, that you will find there. Believe me, this is the most important and least understood point in the spiritual life. We all love what is according to our taste; few people like what is according to their duty or to God’s liking. What is the use of building castles in Spain when we have to live in France? This is my old lesson.
From our presiding Bishop, We hear about a new way to evangelize…in the Episcopal Church it is following the Way of Love…..We also hear that the Gospel has lost its taste, it’s freshness, it’s relevance and its luster in much of our culture today. The reigning gods of secularism, consumerism, and materialism erode our confidence in the truths of our faith. We are confronted with acts of terrorism and violence, foreign and domestic, racism, environmental difficulties and contentiousness in our government. Yet, in the midst of all of these givens, we are called to repropose the Gospel in our own neighborhood, and to do it in the ordinary, everyday moments of our day.
Second, think about those wild and sour parts of ourselves we don’t like, those parts of ourselves we want to hide, those things we keep secret. Chances are those very same things get projected on those we are uncomfortable with and do not understand. And now, recall the words of
Jesus: Did you ever read in the Scriptures: The stones that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes? (21:42). What are the rejected stones comprising the edifice of our own personality? What are the rejected stones in our society and world? And, often when we look at what we reject about ourselves, there’s the clue to something wonderful, something new, and something exciting. Richard Rohr makes this point in so many varied ways in his writings, but most especially in what I believe to be his mantra: Everything Belongs.
We exercise the power of grace when we align ourselves, as best as we can, with the rhythm of God’s patient, steadfast love. That love aims always for the common good. Not a lowest denominator good. But an extravagant abundance.
And yet, that love also remembers that we are dealing with other souls, with other free wills, with other people worthy of our respect. Even and especially when they are different from us. If we yield to our self-centered impulse to secure a better place for ourselves on this planet without concern for others, it becomes all too easy for us to justify using force to impose our will.
Sadly, even if we happen to enrich or empower ourselves for a season this way, we cause injury and antagonism. We do violence. We diminish the good for others and, ironically, undermine the security and stability of our own situation.
Here on planet Earth, we are not all alike. We do not understand each other perfectly. But Jesus repeatedly taught us that, in the book A River Runs Through it, the author states….We can love completely what we cannot completely understand. And when we do, the Kingdom of God has drawn closer. This is the power of grace.
There is a saying in the Salesian tradition, attributed to St. Francis de Sales: Love your abjections. This is another way of saying that everything belongs. Certainly, we do not welcome our sin or unhealthy behaviors, but by coming face to face with our own faults and flaws and those we see in others we can learn to love even the negative as we turn it to the positive.
Third, God does not give up on us too easily, even as we need to do more tending to the vines in our own gardens. Often we are like the wild grapes spoken of in both the reading from the prophet Isaiah and the gospel of Matthew this morning. We scapegoat and cast the blame on the other, forgetting the mercy God grants in our regard. Jesus asks his audience, the chief priests and elders, Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? The tenants offer the obvious answer: 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 (v. 41). Imagine that god is pointing his finger at us as we tend the vineyard right now—what have we got to show for it?
What the tenants in the story neglect to understand — or very deliberately choose to ignore — is that they are stewards rather than owners of the vineyard. Somewhere along the way, the tenants have forgotten their place. Their vocation. Their standing in relationship to both the land and the landowner. To put it bluntly, they have forgotten that they own nothing — nothing at all. Everything belongs to the landowner. Theirs is not a vocation of ownership; it is a vocation of caring, tending, safeguarding, cultivating, and protecting — on behalf of another.
The analogy I’m drawing is of course obvious. Have we not, like the tenants in the parable, deluded ourselves into thinking that we own the earth and all that is in it, when in fact, we are meant to be stewards only? Have we not, like the tenants, assumed that God is absent, or apathetic, or uninvolved — and hoarded the beauty and bounty of creation for our own selfish ease, gain, comfort, and convenience? Have we not, like the tenants, ignored and even maligned the countless messengers who have warned us over the past many years that our rapacious relationship with the planet will lead us to destruction?
This is the case even when creation itself exposes the ridiculousness of our stingy notions of ownership. I have seen news stories about people actually going to court because they want to “own” their view — meaning, the narrow slice of Pacific Ocean visible outside their living room windows. I’ve seen neighbors fighting over who owns the 500 year old redwood tree on the border between their properties. What does it mean to own the sea? What does it mean to own a tree that existed before your great-grandparents were even born? A tree that will outlast your great-grandchildren by another several centuries?
When it comes to the planet, the bottom line is crystal clear in Scripture: we are NOT owners. We are caretakers of a vineyard God cares about deeply, a vineyard that will not thrive or even survive if we continue to treat it as a cheap, inexhaustible commodity. One need only glance at environmental news headlines — 8.8 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean each year, A quarter of all mammals are currently threatened with extinction, Sea levels will rise by 1 to 8 feet by 2100, to recognize how precarious our situation really is.
This week, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, commemorating the life of a 12th century monk who cared deeply about creation. Today we will Bless the Animals, recognizing God’s care for the creatures that live among us. We also pray from time to time what the Book of Common Prayer calls, this fragile earth, our island home. This year, perhaps more than ever before, I think many of us will flinch at that adjective. Fragile.
But I don’t for one minute believe that we — the stewards — are somehow off the hook because the landowner will ultimately reclaim his vineyard. Our vocation is lifelong, and our relationship to the landowner is eternal. Unfortunately, reclaiming the vineyard will always meet with opposition from those who have a vested interest in keeping the vineyard broken. So our calling isn’t even close to over. When we hoard, exploit, abuse, or ignore the work of God’s hands, we wound and reject God’s heart.
Thomas Merton wrote: A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice. In the vineyard of the world today, we witness gruesome and unimaginable horrors, we see widespread and unnecessary waste, we hear silent or eerily audible screams of the vulnerable–do we make mental notes of these crimes, or are we stirred to action in some concrete way?
The warning in the parable reminds us that we are accountable for what we do with our faith, and the God of love and compassion desires a response from us. And, just like in the parable, God does not give up too easily!
At this Eucharist, we ask God for the passion we need to live in the garden where he has planted us, for the clarity we desire to accept our complex personalities and those who we do not know or understand, and for the determination to accept responsibility to produce a good yield in the vineyard of the world.
Welcome Christ into this new week.
After all, this vineyard really belongs to the Lord.
Build upon what God has already done in Christ.
Forget what lies behind.
Strain forward to what lies ahead.
And God will honor your efforts
as you recognize and follow his Son,
present with the blessing of God Almighty…..
Invitation to the Offering
We bring to God our failures and our successes, that these –
like the heavens above and the ground below,
like the daily rising and setting of the sun,
may tell the glory of God and proclaim his handiwork.
What we give from our hearts is only part of our offering
to the One who knows us best and loves us most.
We can hoard the gifts with which you bless us, God of generosity, or we can share them with others. May what we offer in these moments be the very blessing, the very hope, the very peace others need. This we pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.