Be Honest Tenants – Lectionary 10/04/2020

Matthew 21:33-46

“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.

Sermon Text

            Today the Church celebrates, “World Communion Sunday.” It is a moment to remember that when we take the bread and the cup, we do so as a single people united by Christ. The Spirit that moves between us here is the same Spirit that unites us to all Christians across the world. The Kingdom of God knows know borders, it has no language, it is above and beyond all categories that we would wish to impose upon ourselves. The unity of the Kingdom, made up of disparate and distinct parts and personalities, expressed in the sacramental act that we all participate in today.

            We do not inhabit the Kingdom simply as passive benefactors of God’s goodness, but active caretakers of those who God have given into our charge. We do not belong to ourselves, but to the Church, the Church does not belong to us, but to Christ alone. Our whole life is wrapped up in a consistent and continual service of love to all we meet. We are caretakers of God’s kingdom, sustained by the Grace given freely and abundantly to us. We are tenants in the vineyard which God has prepared for us.

            This creates a dual identity in us, as far as today’s parable is concerned. On one hand we are the produce of the Kingdom of God, the grapes which are grown within the vineyard. On the other, we are the caretakers of that same vineyard. We are born from the ground of God’s goodness, and as we are raised up in the shade of the vines we come to care for that very same ground. Like Adam born out of the clay of Eden to be its caretaker, we are born from the vineyard of God to help continue its growth. We are Tenant and we are crop, and in both capacities we await the coming of God who will gather us together and say to us, “Good and faithful servant.”

            At least that is the hope. To be told we have served God faithfully, we must in fact serve God faithfully. We must tend the vineyard which has been given us, and carry out the ordinances of God to the fullest extent. We can not neglect the weighty call upon our lives to spread the Gospel, to love our neighbors and our enemies in equal measure, to let go of all our unrighteousness and put on Christ’s own righteousness. We are called to be a nation of priests, and a holy people in service to God and one another.

            The Parable of the Tenants transforms an earlier parable, namely the song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5. In that passage God looks to Jerusalem, to Judah, to the surviving remnant of the people of God, and describes how he loves them. God loved them enough to plant them, to guard them, to raise up everything they needed to thrive. Yet, the song says, they produced thorns and bad grapes, they were unfit for their purpose, and the only thing to be done with them was to uproot them and destroy the vineyard. In particular, the people are accused of killing one another rather than living justly, causing people to cry out against their evil rather than praise their righteousness.

            Jesus uses this parable, in which the understanding is that God’s people have failed to meet expectations and shifts the focus away from the produce of the vineyard to those who are working it. When the rightful owner sends slaves to take the good produce from the vineyard, the tenants kill them. Even the son of the owner, sent as a final show of force against the wicked tenants, is killed by them in an attempt to seize the land for themselves. Bloodshed, rather than justice. Blood that cries out from the ground rather than righteousness. Destruction is promised for the tenants, while the vineyard – rather than being destroyed as it is in Isaiah – is given over to other people who will tend it faithfully.

            We are blessed that God has decided that his people are worth saving rather than destroying. Ever since the Flood, God’s mission in the world has been to redeem it through blessings rather than chastisement. If a flood could not drown evil, then perhaps grace could stamp it out through purification and growth. God redeems the land which has been cursed. God restores the crop that was allowed to rot in the ground. God tends to God’s vineyard when those put in charge of it have failed. God is in the business of redemption and God does not abandon even the most dire of situations.

            As recipients of this gift of redemption, we have nothing we can do but give thanks to God. There are those of us who have much that we can be thankful for being redeemed from and those of us with far fewer offenses that have needed covering, but all of us have some blemish that we can praise God for having healed. The hurt of the past, the sins we have committed, the evil we have tolerated, all washed in the redemptive work of God who has not given up on the beloved creation.

            However, we are not simply recipients of God’s grace. We are stewards of it. It is not the duty of ministers alone to care for the church, although we are called specifically to do so. Every person called to be a part of the body of Christ has an obligation toward its wellbeing. No one in all the earth is exempt from their role as steward of God’s grace. We are to give freely of what we are given, to return all that is due to God to God, and at the end of all things to be found honest tenants of all that we have been given.

            On this World Communion Sunday, we should reflect on just how miraculous a gift our salvation is. How we, fallen and prone to wander as we are, can find – not only forgiveness – but abundant goodness. Called not simply to sit and do nothing, but to participate in the grace God has given us. Our taking of the bread and of the cup, our remembrance of Christ’s work, empowers us.

            As stewards of God’s gift we should be open to all those we meet, ready to listen and understand even the most disparate of opinions. At the same time we must be stewards of the truth which is given to us not only within scripture, but in all places where reality is revealed to us – in science, in honesty, in all earnest evaluation of what is. We must be champions of the oppressed, of the plight of the poor and the disadvantaged in all the world. We must love our enemies with the same ferocity, perhaps with even more ferocity, than we love our own friends. We must live into the righteousness of God which brings us to repentance.

            Only when the promise of the Communion table is truly fulfilled, when people of all races, nations, and creeds gather together with Christ as their banner and eat together, will we know we have succeeded in our mission. When we do not regard one nation or another as more significant in God’s economy, one people or another as more righteous or Godly,  when every obstacle to our participation in God’s grace is removed, then we will know that the Kingdom is truly here among us.

The Kingdom of God, founded in antiquity long forgotten, the beloved vineyard grown up and cared for with God’s grace alone. It is from it we are born, and we are its tenants until Christ returns in final victory. Let us live into our role fully. Let us never back down from doing what is right. Let us rebuke all who do evil and bless all who do what is right. Let us atone for all the sins we have committed and make restitution to all we have wronged. Be honest Tenants, now and forever, and may God bless the work as we pursue the righteousness of the one who calls us. – Amen.

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