Monday, October 6, 2014

Bearing Fruits in a Borrowed Vineyard

October 5, 2014 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever borrowed something for so long that you think it’s become yours? Even today, I “own” some sweaters and jackets and ties that really belong to my father. Back when I was in high school, I would raid his closet when I needed to dress up for something, and, over time, those things ended up in my closet. Then, I went off to college and then to seminary and then to Montgomery and now to Decatur, and, each step of the way, I’ve packed them up and brought them with me. It’s been so long—twenty years, perhaps—that I can’t even be sure which ones are his and which ones are mine. And the good news is that, for the most part, he can’t remember either. I wouldn’t say that I can wear them with impunity—I can see him sitting across the room eyeing my outfit, trying to remember whether that jacket or that tie once belonged to him—but, after two decades, who cares?

Well, when it comes to the landowner’s vineyard, apparently he does. And why not? He planted the vineyard, built a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and even erected a watchtower over it. After all of that, he leased the vineyard to some tenants and went away to another country. Then, the real work began. On hot days, the tenant farmers went out into the vineyard to dress the vines. On fiercely windy days, they tucked their heads down as they pulled weeds from around the plants. When the rains came late in the year, they braved gully-washers in order to keep the tender plants from being wiped out. And, all that time, they took pride in their work. It takes at least three years for a newly planted vineyard to bear fruit, which means that these tenants spent every day for three years looking after the vineyard that they had leased. When some of the plants withered and died, they felt the loss of digging them up and throwing them away. Finally, when the first fruits showed up, they gathered around the tiny grapes and smiled. These vines became their babies, and they thought of them as their own.

But, of course, they weren’t. Although the leasing agreement would have entitled the tenants to a share of the produce, the vast majority of it belonged to the owner—the one who had invested the capital to get the vineyard going, the one who had taken the risk in planting the vines, the one to whom the whole operation belonged. But, when the landowner’s servants came to get their master’s share, the tenants said no.

Now, at first this parable makes a lot of sense. Jesus lets us know up front that the tenants are wicked, so it doesn’t surprise us that they refuse to give up the owner’s share and beat and kill all those whom the owner sends. And the consequences don’t surprise us either. The owner gathers together a militia, which goes and seizes the tenants and puts them to a miserable death so that the owner can lease the vineyard to others. In fact, the end of the story is so logical that the Pharisees, to whom Jesus is speaking, are the ones who tell us what happened. But, then, we take a deeper look at the text, and a story that seemed simple enough at first becomes a real head-scratcher.

After beating and killing the first two groups of slaves that the owner sent, the tenants, Jesus tells us, saw the owner’s son and said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” But in what sort of crazy world does that make sense? Sure, they operated under the delusion that by show of force they could maintain their control of the vineyard, but what sort of foolishness led them to believe that if they killed the owner’s son they would somehow be able to keep the vineyard permanently? And what about the landowner? After sending one group of slaves, who were summarily rejected, he sent another group, which met the same fate. So what did the owner do? He said to himself, “I think it’s a good idea to send my own son into harm’s way because surely those violent, lawless tenants will respect him.” We have a word for someone who does the same thing over and over and expects different results, and it’s a word we don’t often use to describe God, but this story about the kingdom is a tale of competing insanity—the tenants’ crazy self-delusion and the owner’s crazy self-sacrifice.

So here’s the real question: how is this upside-down parable of the vineyard a depiction of the kingdom of God? If you think it’s because a long time ago God took the kingdom away from some people who thought it belonged to them and gave it to us, you’re wrong. Anyone who thinks the kingdom belongs to him has convinced himself of the same delusion as those wicked tenants. It’s not our kingdom. It’s God’s kingdom. We might have been working the vineyard for as long as we can remember, and the fruits of our hard work might be pretty impressive, but the kingdom doesn’t belong to us. We’re just tenant farmers, working the land that belongs to God.

The reason this parable is a story about the kingdom is because God’s loves us so much that, not only has he given us everything that we have, but he has also given us his son in order to be sure that we realize just how huge that love is.

The problem is that we’ve been telling ourselves that everything belongs to us for our whole lives. It feels that way. It looks that way. From the time we were old enough to do our chores, we’ve been proud of what we’ve accomplished. We work hard to get what we’ve got, and we like to take credit for our successes. When I’ve been borrowing something so long that I’m convinced it belongs to me, it’s hard for me to hear someone say, “Hey, that jacket isn’t yours. It’s mine!” In fact, I’m so sure that it’s mine that I’ll even fight you for it: “No it’s not. I’ve had this thing for years. I got this when I was in high school.”

But life is a gift. Everything we have and everything we are comes from God, and life in God’s kingdom is built upon the recognition of that fact. But that’s a hard thing to remember when we don’t encounter the one who gave it all to us very often. What will break the cycle of our self-delusion? What will help us remember that it all belongs to God? Only God’s unfathomable love can shake us from our own crazy selfishness.

We are selfish, but God is loving. We refuse to listen, so God sends his son. We crucify the one he sent, and God says, “When will you stop and see how much I love you—how much I have given you?” God asks us to produce fruits for his kingdom. That means to stop living for ourselves, and to start acknowledging all that he has given us. It starts with his son, but then it spreads to everything else in our lives. If you haven’t seen how much God loves you, stop and consider the foolishness of the love that is the gift of his son. And, if you’ve forgotten that that same love is found in everything you have—your family, your job, your success, your life—stop and remember the foolishness of the love that is the gift of God’s son. The only way that you can bear fruit for the kingdom is by knowing that everything you have is a gift. Amen.

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