Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sermon for Proper 22

Matthew 21:33-43

Most of us are only too aware of the particular details of the economic and financial mess our country is in, along with much of the rest of the world. So it’s easy to forget some of the other ways our system can get messed up. This morning’s gospel parable reminds of the 1990s, when every day you could pick up the newspaper and read about one more “hostile takeover” of a corporation by an outside investor or group of investors. If I had a few million dollars of spare cash, for example—I don’t, just in case you’re wondering—if I had a few million dollars of spare cash and saw a company that I thought I could make a profit on if I bought it and broke it up and sold it off piecemeal, or at least reorganized it in some way, I would start by quietly buying shares of stock through normal channels at the market price. Then I would start actively seeking out other shareholders and offering them an above-market price for their shares. If my strategy succeeds, I can vote out the board of directors at the next stockholders meeting, appoint their replacements, and then make whatever changes in the management and operation of the company that I care to. 

But ... you can bet that, before I accomplish all that, the senior management of the corporation is going to get wind of what I'm doing, and do everything they can do to stop me.  They’ll try everything they can think of to prevent me from threatening their position of influence and control.  They don’t own the company, you see—the stockholders  own it—but they do run the company.  They’re there, on site, every day, in the office, in staff      meetings, on the assembly line, in the marketing department, looking over the books, and taking pride and a sense of accomplishment from turning out high quality products and services and making a profit while doing so.  Their day to day lives are bound up with the corporation, not as a bunch of numbers on a balance sheet, but as a living, breathing, producing organism.  They put in the hours, the sweat, and the imagination—who do I think I am to just waltz in there and take things over?  Sure, the shareholders are the owners, but that’s only a technicality.  In reality, they’re a group to be ignored, if possible, and, at worst, to be pacified through mis-information. “We run this company. We’re the real owners!” they would say.

So … today Jesus tells his listeners a parable about some “corporate management” that felt just this way. They were in charge of day to day operations in a vineyard and winery.  They hoed the ground, and pulled weeds, and pruned vines, and harvested the grapes when they were mature. They crushed the grapes and fermented the juice and sold the wine. They did everything that needed to be done to take care of that vineyard. But they didn't own it. From time to time, on a periodic basis, the owner of the vineyard, who lived in a distant location, would send a representative to collect the profits and distribute the agreed-upon share to those who managed and operated it. 

Now, this was an important transaction, even if the vineyard were to have lost money, because one of the fine points of the law was that if a certain amount of time elapsed without the owner making contact with his manager/operators, ownership of the vineyard would automatically be transferred to those who had contracted to run it. 

Unfortunately for these contractors,  the owner of this particular vineyard was diligent about adhering to the law, and regularly sent his representatives. So they hatched a rather intimidating plot. They started killing off the owner's representatives. They figured the owner would get their point and just leave them alone and give up his ownership interest in the vineyard. Well, they guessed wrong, because the owner finally sent his own son, thinking that surely they would respect him. This time, it was the owner who guessed wrong, because they killed the son just as they had killed the emissaries who came before him. 

To the original readers of Matthew's gospel, it would have been very obvious what the characters in this parable symbolized.  The vineyard owner is God, the operators of the vineyard are the nation of Israel, the representatives of the owner are the prophets of the Old Testament, up through John the Baptist, and the owner’s son is Jesus himself. 

Matthew’s point was that Israel, a fellowship based on ethnicity, was being relieved of duty in its role as the agent of God's plans and purposes for the human race, and this status was being transferred to the church, a fellowship based on repentance and faith. 

Well, folks, that’s us! We are the church. So, how are we doing? We've had custody of God’s vineyard for almost 2,000 years now. Have we been any better stewards of it than the nation of Israel was?
 
Maybe, and maybe not, but that really isn’t my point. The fact is, that since we all have day-to-day “operational” responsibility for it, it's almost impossible for us not to begin to think  as though we are the owners of God’s vineyard. And when we begin to think  in such a way, we soon begin to act in such a way, and we are led to usurp the prerogatives of ownership.  We find ourselves trying to re-invent God, not as God is,  necessarily, but as we would have God be.  We find ourselves trying to re-invent Christian faith and practice to conform to our needs and our whims and our egos, rather than submitting our needs and our whims and our egos to the norms of Christian faith and practice as they have been revealed—revealed, that is, by the God whom we did not invent, but who invented us.  A passion for what is true is replaced by a passion for what “works”—what “works”, that is, for me. We slip into the grasp of the deadliest of all sins, the sin of pride, which is attempting to put ourselves in the place of God. We say to ourselves, “I run this operation, so I may as well own it. Why should I be a slave to some absentee owner?” 

The operators of the vineyard in Jesus’ parable knew they were on shaky ground. As much as they wanted to own the vineyard, they knew that they did not. They had contracted to run it for a share of the proceeds, and that was exactly the basis on which they were being treated. The same holds true for us, we who make up the church, Israel’s successor as God's primary agent in the world. We are not stockholders in God’s kingdom. God himself is the sole stockholder. We are managers and laborers. The word “church” means “those who are called out.” God has called us out from the world and into the church. We did not choose him. He chose us.  

According to the terms of our covenant with him—a covenant born in the death and resurrection of Christ, sealed in our baptism, and renewed at every Eucharist—we are the stewards of God’s vineyard.  A steward is not an owner. A steward is a caretaker, a trustee—in legal terms, one with a fiduciary responsibility.

As a community of stewards, we have three fundamental responsibilities:

First, we are to live and model among ourselves the values of the gospel, the values of the kingdom of God. I cannot emphasize this highly enough! It would be difficult to place too much importance on Christian community, on loving and forgiving one another, on bearing one another’s burdens, on being present for each other in time of need. But this is not just for our own benefit, to make us feel better and be happier. 

My concern is missionary. It is part of the mission of the church to be a foretaste, a “sneak preview”, of the kingdom of heaven. If there is not something palpably different about the way we relate to each other than the way people “in the world” relate to each other, then our witness is of no consequence. 

Second, the church is to announce the kingdom of God. “Get ready, world, the kingdom is coming (and, by the way, if you want to see what it looks like, look at us).”

Finally, we are to make disciples. This means we first have to live as disciples ourselves, and then our invitation to others to join us on the same road will be authentic and have integrity. Living the gospel, announcing the kingdom, and making disciples are the ways in which we as the church are faithful stewards of the vineyard God has placed in our charge. 

It is always tempting to usurp the privileges of ownership and change these basic duties. But that is a path that, in the end, will not lead us where we want to go. If we remain faithful to our covenant of stewardship, though, God, the true owner, will reward us beyond any of our hopes or expectations. Unlike the shareholders of a corporation, our “sole stockholder” happens to love us infinitely, and has already made us his heir. There is absolutely no need for us to take over the company! Amen.

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