Sermon – October 8, 2017 – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Who’s in charge?

So, I will tell you one more of my army stories and then I’ll lay off for a while. But this week’s Gospel lesson got me thinking about this.

I was just an enlisted man, medic, the first time around.   I joined because I was a bit adrift and college wasn’t much of a prospect unless I got a little bit of help in the form of the G.I. Bill. Anyway, there are a lot of guys like me. One was a guy named David. David was from New York, he came from a lower middle-class family, gotten little trouble and was not exactly college-bound. So, like me, he joined the Army and availed himself of the training the Army offered. We were both medics, he was assigned elsewhere. David had some problems with authority. He didn’t like being told what to do, so he’s decided that he was going to organize the enlisted ranks into a union to challenge the bosses, the officers, the system that demanded that soldiers do what they were told. You can imagine how that went for him. His time in the Army was shorter than mine, although I’ll give the guy a thumbs-up for consistency. Last time I heard he was an antitrust lawyer in New York challenging corporate greed and corruption.

But David didn’t get is that he was subject to the authority of the system. He was a soldier. That relationship was unambiguous. Yet, he tried to claim some prerogative that wasn’t his to claim. I’m not saying that the military doesn’t have its problems, on the contrary I’d be happy to share them with you. But who’s in charge was never an issue and that was something David didn’t get.

That is the issue in our Gospel story today. The ownership of the vineyard is not ambiguous. There is no question of the landowner’s prerogative. And there is no question of the role of the tenants. Jesus is using this example, of course, to make the claim that those who had been charged with the stewardship of the things of God – of the landowner – had asserted their own, misguided prerogatives in defiance of the landlord. Not only were they confused about their relationship with the land owner – God – they were willfully ignorant of their responsibilities with the fruits of the vineyard. This was motivated by greed and self-interest to the point that they violently dispatched the emissaries of the landlord who came to make their legitimate claims. Their self-delusion even prompted the murder of the landowner’s son under a false narrative that without him, they would claim ownership of the things vineyard and its fruits.

Of course this is an allegory of God’s relationship with the leaders of the covenant people, the teachers and priests and authorities whose commission was to watch over the people and help to produce the fruits of God.  Isaiah, using the base metaphor of the vineyard, named those fruits as justice and righteousness. This is a time bound, circumstantial parable where those in authority denied the pedigree of the Son, refused to believe in or accept him as the Messiah. But it is by no means restricted to that small universe.

This is about how we get confused about who’s in charge.  The challenge of this parable, the word to us, who are now the tenants of the vineyard, is let’s not forget whose is whose. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” sang the psalmist. The truth that we, like our forebears, continually deny, is that we are stewards of these fruits, these gifts, these mysteries of God. We too, in our acts and decisions that deny his Son, do violence to this relationship.

I think a key oversight and deficit of the tenants in the story is that they fail to understand that they have the promise of the landlord in their own hands. Regardless of their station, those who do the works of the kingdom, Jesus says, those who steward these responsibilities and bear this good news do in fact enjoy citizenship in the kingdom of God. They did not accept or at least appreciate that the landowner had already given them the gifts of vocation and trust and relationship that would allow the vineyard to produce abundantly to be shared as the landlord saw fit. They were in no danger of not receiving the very same gifts, in fact they already had, as those who were to also share and receive them.

So too do we and our greed and defiance and self-interest obscure and undermine this relationship. We become the arbiters of our own morality and that always has us in charge. That is not stewardship, that is defiance and we stage our little coups to leverage our positions.

This is played out in a host of ways, not the least of which is our inability to see the face of Christ in the other–our refusal to accept those who have been created in the image of God but who don’t bear our own image,  and to thus them deny these fruits. We decide and set the terms for who should receive a safe place to live, good health, sufficient food,  an education,  decent work at a livable wage. Given the gifts of reconciliation and hope and mercy, when it is in our personal or tribal interest to do so, we will deny those very things. With the care of creation placed in our hands we equivocate on that responsibility and take what we want because we can, regardless of the cost.  We make a fetish out of violence and a religion out of fear and we shake our heads in wonder when those who buy into that narrative slaughter innocent people, and then we turn away thinking it is not our problem.   Nevertheless, the God of love and justice and authority broods in sorrow and resolve, but will not be turned away.   God’s ownership of the vineyard is unambiguous, so are the fruits of the vineyard. And as tenants of the vineyard it is our only responsibility to attend to these fruits as the land owner directs.

So there’s a bit of a burden for you and me. Given these great gifts of God, we routinely squander them and defy God at the cost of our neighbor and of our own security in the kingdom.

How’s about I send you home with that? Nope, not even close, because the last emissary of the landlord is his own son. In this God reveals God’s love for creation and God’s intention to never let it go. In the sending of God’s son, that love is proclaimed in a persistent and unfailing way. God will not give up on us and Jesus is the reason why. If you listen carefully to Jesus’ audience in the telling of this parable, you will hear them proclaim upon themselves.  You’ll hear them say God should give up on them,  “he will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants will give him the produce at the harvest time.” That was their own conclusion about the defiance of the tenants.   At this point Jesus goes on to tell them that the kingdom will be taken from those who act like the tenants and be given to those who produce fruits of the gospel. . Read that, those who think that they are the foundation of this world will have that false reality crushed, those ideas, those demands,  those delusions, collapsed under the weight of the true cornerstone of the foundation of the kingdom. This, in other words, they bring upon themselves in defiance and unfaithfulness.

Nevertheless, the invitation is extended, the promise is made that those who practice the gifts of the kingdom.  The Son keeps coming.  This is the gift of baptism and those who share these fruits find themselves in the midst of the kingdom of God, the kingdom revealed in God’s persistent love in Jesus are welcome and vital members of the family.. You see, this parable does not bear the weight of the whole of the gospel.  It is an example, a warning, but grace abounds, and grace is always seeking our healing. It is love that feeds the vineyard, and it is and always has been the holy and singular prerogative and purpose of God to do so.  And this kingdom, this love, this reality will emerge in spite of our cynicism, violence and disregard for the vineyard.  And finally, hope emerges and change happens.

It is not news that we have trouble with authority, that fear or greed will prey upon our sense of justice, that our own self-interest will trouble the lives of others. The good news of this parable, the gospel, is that God loves what God created and will stop at nothing—not sin or fear or defiance or ego or evil itself– to sustain its life and its beauty and its blessed people.

God will not give up on this world.  And as the tenants of this vineyard, under his guidance, his hope, his Son,  his authority and is love,  . . . . neither shall we.   Amen