To Work in the Vineyard, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 8, 2017

Proper 22

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

The easiest way for a preacher to deal with the challenging story in today’s Gospel reading might be to understand it as simply a metaphor for events we already know well – another tale of deadly confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leadership of his day. As we heard at the end of the passage, the religious chiefs perceived that Jesus was referring to them as the wicked tenants. Therefore, they felt threatened and angry and decided to arrest Jesus. However, they had to wait for a more opportune time because they feared resistance from the crowd of Jesus’ followers. And of course, we remember what happened next – Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion – all followed by the resurrection that concluded the action and began a whole new relationship between God and another people.

To follow the story in this way is to see it as an allegory, explaining how the church grew beyond the control of the then-current religious establishment. In such a symbolic narrative, each character corresponds to something in real life. The wicked tenants represent the religious leaders of Jerusalem, the owner of the vineyard is God, the vineyard itself is Israel, the slaves sent to collect the owner’s share are the Old Testament Prophets, the son is Jesus, and the new tenants who would gain use of the vineyard are the Gentiles and/or Jesus-following Jews.

But, to be honest, all this does is provide for us a history lesson, and, in fact, one that we already know. A more difficult way to deal with the story in today’s Gospel is to find courage enough to reflect on a more general theme that few like to consider – the concept of God as a condemning divinity. We may need to face up to the possibility that the story reveals God to us as a punishing one, prone toward retribution against those who choose not to follow his way. The wicked tenants who failed to give God his due suffered the fate of a miserable death, losing all they had hoped to gain for refusing to pay their fair rent, not giving the owner, not giving God, what he deserved.

How can we face the seeming inconsistency of knowing God as loving and gracious and all-giving on the one hand, and on the other – following the tone of today’s story – seeing God as a punishing and judging entity?

And closer to home – can we face the question, “What connection is there between ourselves and the wicked tenants and the selfish, misguided religious leaders who rejected Jesus?” Could their fate also be ours? After all, don’t we often shy away from what Christ would have us do? Are we not sometimes selfish like the wicked tenants? Do we not refuse to share the fruits of the “vineyard” as stingily and stubbornly as they? How often have we failed to respond lovingly to the gifts of God’s creation that envelope our lives – the good earth, the resources we use to sustain ourselves, other people – our brothers and sisters who dwell beside us in this blessed life? Does it not follow, then, that we also deserve to be put to a miserable death?

But surely there is something wrong with such an assessment. Perhaps a better way to deal with this dilemma is to examine today’s story in the full context of the Gospel, to view it against the backdrop of all we know of God’s action in Christ. Then we can draw a less harsh—and truer—conclusion about the conflict of experiencing a totally loving God and the punishment apparent in today’s story. As Christians, we always start with the fact that God initiates the relationship with us – not we with God. God calls us to be in unity with him and all people. God’s reaching out to us is best understood as his giving us everything we have – with no strings attached and without our deserving it, without our having done anything to gain it. Despite this, Jesus made it clear that we are the most precious beings in all creation – so valuable, as he proved on the cross, that we are worth dying for.

We don’t have to earn God’s love; it is given freely. So, why would a loving God put us to a miserable death? The answer to this question lies not in the possibility that we might wind up experiencing a miserable spiritual death, but, if so, to recognize that such a fate can only result because of our choosing. The wicked tenants received all they needed from the owner, but they refused to accept his graciousness and turned their backs on him, his servants, and even his son. They, by their actions and inactions, cast themselves out of the vineyard, no less than Adam and Eve’s disobedience resulted in their loss of the benefits of the Garden of Eden. The miserable death we might experience can only result from our failure to accept the gifts of God and respond to them in thanksgiving and by reflecting God’s love back on that creation and all people in it. It can only result from our selfishly acting as if the vineyard is all ours – or should be all ours and no one else’s, let alone God’s.

It is not so much that God’s patience with us might eventually run out, causing us to be put to a miserable death. It is more like our time runs out only because we wait too long to catch on to what God wants for us, and then we actually by our actions or inactions cast ourselves out of God’s vineyard, producing a self-inflicted kind of misery that we alone can create.

Today’s Gospel story, of course, provides for us a warning about what we can miss out on if we act like the wicked servants. It reminds us of the great theme of stewardship that is so central to the life of the church and to the healthful focus of individual Christians. When we sing the familiar words, “Praise God from who all blessings flow,” we need to remember the actions that they imply – that we need to “walk the talk” by remembering that what we have is not ours to own, but is on loan from God. We need to remember that God’s way of grace and love is wooing us to respond to our good fortune of living in his vineyard by reflecting that love in our actions toward others. That as we care for, as we exercise stewardship over God’s creation – especially our fellow human beings – we do so as a reflection of God’s love. That love is poured out to us in such measure that it overflows from us, and through us can overflow onto all creation. An overflow that allows us to maintain creation and preserve it and protect it from harm. An overflow that impels us to love others and share with them the Good News of God in Christ – a truth they might miss if we ignore our mission and neglect that which so graciously enriches us.

If, in reflecting on today’s Gospel story, we will concentrate on God’s setting us up on a fabulous vineyard, lovingly and graciously giving us all we have, we can recognize that this is his way of coaxing us and wooing us and encouraging us into being good and faithful servants – good and loving workers in the world he has left to our care – good and faithful followers of his son, Jesus. Wooing us to give and pray for the spread of his kingdom and for the wellbeing of his children, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Download the sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Tenants in God’s Kingdom, 17 Pentecost, Proper 22 (A) – 2014

October 5, 2014

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19 (or Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80: 7-14); Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Any halfway decent real-estate agent or commercial property manager could probably explain today’s gospel parable from Matthew in two seconds flat. It is all about landlords and tenants after all. And there is an entire body of business law devoted to them and their all-too-numerous disputes.

In Jesus’ telling, a vineyard owner contracts with tenants for the use of his land – and then promptly leaves town for another country. At harvest time, the same landowner sends his slaves or agents back to the vineyard to collect the rent – his share of the harvest in this case – from the tenants. But the tenants decide to take matters into their own hands. Apparently hoping to secure the property for themselves, they beat the first slave, kill a second and stone the third. Then they do it all over again, finally even killing off the landowner’s son in the hope of somehow gaining his inheritance.

What are we to make of this graphic tale of greed and mayhem, violence and murder?

At the very least, the landowner in question, we might be tempted to think, ought to have done a more thorough background check before renting out his vineyard – the very source of his livelihood – to those scoundrels who end up murdering his slaves and son. Surely even in the ancient world people knew who was trustworthy or not. Word got around, after all, even before the Internet.

And then the obvious question arises. Why did they do it? The tenants had to have been fairly bright guys. Or they would not have gone into agribusiness in the first place – then as now not an easy way to make a living. Did they really think they could get away with it – get away with murder? Well, apparently they did. Their greed got in the way of their common sense and reason. No doubt not the first time such a thing has ever happened – and not likely to be the last either.

The point of the story seems so obvious to Jesus’ hearers that they leap to it without a moment’s hesitation. The landowner, they declare in moral outrage, “will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” The story must have also resonated with the early church community, for it is one of only a very few of Jesus’ parables recounted in all three of the so-called Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Alas, the news these days is sadly still full of just such parables of greed and corruption. We know them too well. We are even now just exiting one of the worse financial crises in our history – by fairly common consensus the result in large measure of rampant materialism and greed. And millions of people have suffered the consequences. So, yes, some people clearly do still think they can get away with it. And some indeed do. The world has not changed all that much in the time since Jesus told his parable.

We might conclude that it simply does not pay to be an absentee landlord. Better to stay home, lock the back door and mind the store. After all, there is no place like home. Surely, that is where one can feel safe and secure. Maybe so, but try telling that to someone whose mortgage is still upside-down or under water and is likely to remain so for some time to come. Let’s face it. Even security at home is sometimes an illusion.

The parable, of course, is about us as much as it is about thieves – about us as much as it is about the “chief priests and the Pharisees” who come to recognize themselves in Jesus’ words. The priests and Pharisees at least deserve begrudging credit, if not for their actions then for their insight into their own motivations. They want to arrest Jesus for his words and be rid of him. They knowingly seek to neutralize his potent message of God’s righteousness and Kingdom. What they do not know – and what we sometimes forget – is that it cannot be done.

No matter where we live or what we have, we are all no more than tenants in God’s Kingdom. Nothing ever truly belongs to us. In the final analysis, everything we have has been lent to us. Everything is borrowed for a time. As the old saying has it, we are living on borrowed time – quite literally. Like the priests and Pharisees of this narrative, we too might wish the world were different, that tenants were owners and servants, masters. But it is not so.

“They will respect my son,” the landowner erroneously concludes as he decides to send his child as emissary after his slaves are beaten and killed. To paraphrase Doctor Phil, television’s favorite pop psychologist, “What was he thinking?” If only the landowner had gone to his parish priest, he might have been set right. “Do not send your son,” he would have been told in no uncertain terms. “Call the police and report the incident. Begin eviction proceedings. Get back home.”

All good advice to be sure, but it is doubtful the landowner would have followed even his beloved pastor’s counsel. For the landowner’s economy is not that of this world. And perhaps it is just as well. He knows something we tend to overlook, that in the end it is not a matter of land, property rights, wealth, possessions or ownership. For a follower of Christ, it is ultimately not even a question of life and death. It is only the Kingdom that matters, a kingdom most decidedly not of this world.

“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says in explanation of the story, “will be … given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom.” And the fruits of the kingdom of which Jesus speaks have nothing to do with grain or grapes, much less dollars and cents. If we miss that, we miss the point of Jesus’ parable entirely. We miss the Kingdom at work in our lives. For, the Kingdom is, in fact, ours – but only to the extent that we give in turn to others of all that has been so generously given to us. In God’s Kingdom, finally, that is the only way tenants become landlords.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain and area dean at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary – a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page. Isten hozott!

We are more connected with everyone than we find it comfortable to admit, Pentecost 16, Proper 22

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19 (Track 2: Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-14); Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Those characters in the parable we just heard – there’s something about them that’s hard to accept.

The landowner responds to the abuse and murder of his slaves by sending still others who are treated by the rebellious tenants in the same way. He responds to this further outrage by sending his son. But the tenants do to him what they did to the slaves: they murder him. At no time does the landowner seek revenge despite the great harm the tenants do, despite their rebellion against his just demands.

The attitude of the tenants is equally hard to accept. Not only do they murder the slaves of the landowner without any provocation, but they get it in their heads that if they murder his son, the inheritance will be theirs. What sort of lawless world do they think this is, that they expect to be rewarded with a piece of property for murdering its rightful heir?

There’s something about the characters in today’s parable that’s hard to accept, yet it’s something that seems all too familiar.

The tenants, rebellious and illogical, bear a painful resemblance to all of us. For we make the same mistake. We think the vineyard belongs to us, to do with as we see fit. So we human beings abuse the land, the water, and the air. We maintain societies in which a decent life for all is not a reality, but at best an ideal. And when the landowner sends his slaves, his prophets, we abuse them and murder them.

It must be as painful now to be a prophet as it was back when Isaiah was sawn in two for speaking the Lord’s word, or when Saint Paul was beheaded for his witness to the risen Christ, or when Bishop Paul Jones of Utah was driven from office in our own church for speaking words of peace during the First World War.

The behavior of the landowner may be hard to accept, but it is not unfamiliar. It is the behavior of God. For still the landowner sends his slaves who proclaim the demands of justice, and still that message is condemned and rejected. The landowner places more trust in us than the evidence warrants, more trust than we deserve. Still the slaves are sent, and still they are killed, yet the voice of their prophecy is never extinguished, for nothing can stop the word of the Lord.

This story of rebellious tenants and the long-suffering landowner – how does this story end? We are offered two conclusions.

The first comes from those who are gathered around Jesus, listening to him. The horror pierces them to the heart. They cry out that the landowner will put the rebellious tenants to death – a miserable death – and will replace them with honest substitutes.

This is not the conclusion that Jesus endorses. What he says is very different. He reminds his listeners of a verse from the psalms: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”

The rejected stone becomes the cornerstone on which everything else depends; how shocking it is to see this!

Those gathered around Jesus who said that the rebellious tenants deserved to die are advocates for exclusion and violence. The best way to handle murderous rebels is, in their view, to make them taste their own medicine. This attitude is ancient, popular, and leads absolutely nowhere.

If the landowner gives up on the tenants, claims they are not capable of anything but murder, and puts them to death – a miserable death – then it is they, the tenants, who win out in the end. They are dead, to be sure, but the landowner has adopted their methods, he has been converted to their murderous habits, and the cycle of violence rolls on.

Jesus offers a different way. He tells us that it is precisely the rejected stone that is necessary, and must be the foundation for all the rest.

The death and victory of Jesus is the prime example of this. Jesus is rejected, betrayed, and abused by those around him. But he becomes the cornerstone for a creation rebuilt from the ground up.

More recent examples show how it is the rejected stone that becomes central to what is built. This happens in a variety of ways.

Sometimes an influential figure deprived of power gains a new and deeper authority, and so becomes a cornerstone that inspires others and moves them to action.

During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, the Danish king, King Christian the Tenth, rode his horse daily through Copenhagen streets, surrounded by applauding crowds. He told the Germans that he would risk death to keep the swastika from flying over his castle, and they relented from displaying their flag there. These acts of defiance turned the king into the cornerstone of the remarkably successful Danish resistance.

A resistance movement featuring schoolboys, amateur saboteurs, and underground clergymen kept the Nazi killing machine off balance for years. The Germans wanted normalcy in Denmark, and the resistance movement worked through strikes and other actions to deny them that. A prominent indication of their success was how nearly all Danish Jews were transported to safety in neutral Sweden through the help of their fellow citizens.

Like walls that meet at a cornerstone, sometimes two oppressed groups achieve unity because they want to realize the same audacious vision.

The 1986 reelection of Ferdinand Marcos as president of the Philippines was tainted by widespread electoral fraud. Marital law was imposed. Marcos made personal loyalty to him the criterion for military promotions. As the People Power movement stood up to the regime, civilian protesters and military units overcame their fear of each another. Camps held by military rebels were protected by civilian crowds. According to one observer, the line of defense included “young people in their late teens, early twenties, with their whole lives stretched before them. … I saw one doctor who was beyond seventy. … I saw no one leave. No one yielded to fear.” Civilians and soldiers risked themselves for the once-rejected cornerstone of justice. Days later, Marcos went into exile.

Sometimes a prisoner grows strong in confinement, becomes a legend, and finally, no longer rejected, serves as the cornerstone for a new social order.

Nelson Mandela, for decades an inmate in a South African jail, emerged to be elected the first president of the new South Africa. He grew so influential as a prisoner that the Apartheid regime held secret meetings with him while he was still in confinement. Rebels, young and old, were held with him on Robben Island, which became a training ground for political leaders. Through many slow and painful steps, South Africa was reformed. A nonracial parliament was seated and chose Nelson Mandela as president. Sworn in on May 10, 1994, he vowed that “never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” The former prisoner was now president. Once rejected, he was now the cornerstone.

We are more connected with everyone than we find it comfortable to admit.

Here is how Jesus puts it: the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone.

Here is how it is put by an Australian aboriginal activist named Lilla Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

How will you and I put this truth into practice, not simply in what we say, but in how we live?

We might start by recognizing that whomever we call an enemy comes to us bearing a gift. Each enemy comes to us bearing some broken, rejected part of ourselves. By accepting that enemy, we accept back that part of ourselves. By continuing to reject that enemy, we remain in a fragmented state inside. Acceptance of our enemy means we are changed and so is our enemy, for together both are propelled toward a new and unexpected creation.

The Book of Common Prayer contains a prayer entitled “For Our Enemies.” Let us offer it now:

“O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Written by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).

God’s story and our stories are not over yet, Pentecost 21, Proper 22 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19; or Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80: 7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Today’s gospel is like any clear, simple narrative account in many regards. First of all, it is a story, not exactly a factual account: the characters are anonymous, and the setting is spare. It’s another in a long series of stories told by Jesus, a series that we’ve been hearing for a few Sundays, and will continue to hear for a few weeks yet.
Jesus tells us a story, about an anonymous landowner. We hear it and we figure it’s just another ordinary, unremarkable, simple story: no complications, no allusions, no hard life lessons to be learned. Jesus’ story appears to be just another story.

And what we may miss on first hearing is how like Jesus’ own personal situation the story is. In this parable, we can imagine the landowner as a metaphor for God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity.

The Creator did a lot more than plant a vineyard, put a fence around it, dig a wine press in it, and build a watchtower; but those images show us some basic truths. God created this earth, and the land on it; God separated the water from the land; God leased the land to people; and God developed the property, with and through the work of those human hands.

Simple, right? God owns the universe, and we are mere tenants in it, or stewards of it.

And then we look at the history of the Israelites: God sent his holy prophets to his people, and great leaders, and monarchs, people like King David, Moses, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. And yet the people didn’t listen to what the leaders said. They rebelled, and sinned, and transgressed the law – again and again and again.

So God sent his only son, saying, “They will respect my son.” Up till now, we can imagine this story – and Jesus’ place in it – with no difficulty whatsoever. The landowner’s son, of course, represents Jesus, God’s son. And the son, like Jesus, comes to the story after a series of unsuccessful attempts to deliver a message.

Yet when Jesus tells this story, he knows – and reveals – something else about himself. Jesus predicts something more profound than his return home. Jesus predicts his death, his murder at the hands of our fellow humans.

Just imagine what it was like to hear Jesus tell this story.

Just imagine how it feels to see him drive out all who were selling and buying in the temple, to hear him say, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Just imagine what it would be like to take part in the great procession from the Mount of Olives, with Jesus riding on a donkey, and the crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Just imagine what it was like to sit and listen to him tell stories – prophetic stories, about himself and about us – the very next morning. That’s the setting for this passage from Matthew’s gospel, by the way.

Today’s gospel is not about Jesus teaching on a mountainside early in his ministry, or visiting a village to cure the sick. Today’s gospel is about Jesus stopping to teach on his way to the cross. Jesus, who knows that he has come from God and is returning to God, Jesus tells us his story. Jesus tells us the story in simple, uncomplicated, ordinary terms. He does this, I suspect, not because he thinks we are dullards. Rather, because he wants to be sure we don’t miss the simplicity of the message.

God has not given up on the ancient Israelites, just as God has not given up on us. No matter how unloving and uncaring, no matter how many mistakes we make, no matter how often we turn away from his messengers, God still loves us, and continues to reach out again and again and again.

And when we reject a stone, when we turn away from Jesus, when we kill the landowner’s son or commit some lesser sin, well, then God just turns around and takes that very rejection and makes it into the cornerstone of the strongest foundation ever, for a structure built of love. God hasn’t given up on us: not then, not now, not ever.

For God loves us, and desperately wants us to produce fruit for the kingdom. God craves a new Jerusalem, where all people live together in harmony, where peace and prosperity abound, where truth and justice reign. But God loves us nonetheless even though we have not yet achieved this state.

God loves us so much that God just keeps on telling us that – in stories, in sermons, in our everyday experiences. God loves us so much that he created us, and made this world for us to live in as his beloved friends. God loves us so much that he gave his only son to suffer death upon a cross. And God loves us so much that he made sure that this rejection, this defeat, was not the end of the story. God loves us so much that the end of the story is yet to come, and it is more glorious and wonderful than we can imagine or understand.

God’s story and our stories are not over yet. There is still time for change, still time for new plot lines, still time to introduce new characters.

The story of salvation is not like a fairy tale; they always end with everyone living “happily ever after.” But our lives are pretty rarely like that. Sometimes, then, knowing that the story is not yet over can be very good news indeed.

Consider, for example, the current financial situation here in this country. Major investment banks have failed, a huge international insurer needs to be bailed out, and our two government-backed mortgage agencies have collapsed. And this may be only the tip of the iceberg.

This particular chapter in our story is a scary one. Retirement savings are at risk, tax revenues are in question (and therefore, significant tax hikes are a possibility), and the health of the US economy is threatened.

Churches are not exempt from all this. We rely on the voluntary contributions of our members, and we know that members are as generous as they are able to be. When your investments are going well, when your savings are safe and secure, when your salary is increasing, then you are able to be generous to your church. In difficult times, charitable giving declines. That is understandable, as we need to take care of our own family first. Yet it creates a challenge that every congregation in this country will have to face in some way.

There may be tough times ahead. We may not suffer the likes of the Great Depression, but it is clear that things are already worse than they were just a few months ago.

And that is why we give thanks that the story is not over, not yet. There is time for the Federal Reserve Bank and the US Congress to come to the rescue. There is time for the market economy to adjust to a new set of circumstances. And there is time for God’s Word to be heard anew.

When God’s Word is carefully considered, there are fewer financial crises, less economic inequity, and there is greater stability for everyone.

In 2007, the average C.E.O. of a Standard & Poor’s 500 company received $14.2 million in total compensation. Five hundred people made a total of more than $7 billion.

At the same time 1.1 billion people in this world had consumption levels less than $1 per day – what the World Bank describes as “extreme poverty.” And a total of 2.7 billion live on less than $2 a day. That’s about 40 per cent of the world’s population.

Surely this is not a sign of God’s inestimable love for all people.

This is why the United Nations’ set of Millennium Development Goals is so crucial for us as people of faith. Goal number one is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, and the first target within that is to halve by the year 2015 the number of people whose income is less than $1 a day.

This is not only a goal of the U.N. It is the mission of the Church. In his earthly ministry, our Savior demonstrated solidarity with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and those on the margins of society. He was anointed to bring good news to the poor. And now that ministry has fallen to us.

We are the Body of Christ here on earth, and it must be our care and delight to help lift up the most lowly, to exalt the humble and meek, to fill the hungry with good things. Justice, mercy, and love for all people: that is what God intends. And we can help.

When the landowner returns, let us be found working not for our own selfish greed, but for the good of all people. The Millennium Development Goals are incredibly ambitious, and we probably will not achieve them fully in just seven short years. But every small step we take means one fewer person in extreme poverty, one more productive citizen of the world, one more righteous soul striving for the kingdom of God.

By more faithful participation in God’s mission for humanity, we can and will make this world a better place for every one of God’s beloved children.

Written by the Rev. J. Barrington Bates
The Rev. J. Barrington Bates is rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.