Under New Management – Whose Vineyard Is It Anyway?
The first Sunday in October has been called World-Wide Communion Sunday for as long as I can remember. This year I have heard that it is being called “Global Sunday.” Last week the choir introduced to you a global song, “For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table.” We will be singing it today as our Hymn of the Day. The words are compelling to me – EVERYONE BORN – no one excluded – a place at the table. I had sung it before, but when we sang it at this year’s Synod Assembly, the words and the melody persisted in my very being. In this day of building walls, trying to send refugee children back to where they came from, trying to keep out others seeking a new country for a new life, this song speaks volumes to me. Even the way in which we dispatch aid to those who are suffering from the recent hurricanes and fires is not done with equity. How can it be that some are more entitled to assistance than others. Years ago I went to Puerto Rico with other Wartburg seminary students to help after Hurricane Georges, and witnessed the devastation of the land, but also to the people. There is a depression that sets in after the storm is past and people see the incredible amount of work to be done to restore their homes and their land. It occurred after Hurricane Katrina, and is happening now after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma here in the States, and is certainly a part of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. While I may not be able to do the same work I did then, my contributions to Lutheran Disaster Relief will help with other volunteers and their work at restoration to make a difference in the lives of these battered people and their homes and land. They all have a place at the table that God offers to everyone. We all hunger to be loved and to find that place at the table for ourselves. I long to know that God’s gift of his son, Jesus Christ, makes that possible for me as well as for others – for EVERYONE.
We also have the parable of the vineyard in Matthew’s gospel where the land owner is likely the chief priests and elders, who are allowed to own land and the slaves are subordinates, others they have hired to do the work. We actually have a chance to look at this in a couple of ways, and the second way is that this has often been interpreted as God being the owner, God’s chosen – the House of Israel, are the tenants, the slaves are the prophets, and the landowner’s son, the heir, is God’s Son, Jesus. Here we have the place, the possible players, and the story. We are asked a similar question to ponder. What have we done to produce good fruit, social justice, righteousness, and how do we take seriously our responsibility for the gifts we have been given in our lives for each day? And whose kingdom do we live in – are we the owners or are we the tenants?
Pastor Stacy Swain of the Union Church in Waban Massachusetts tells of a happening at her church on a Communion Sunday. In the midst of her sermon as she was defining how important she viewed the communion table as a defining symbol of faith, Harriet walked in from the side door of the sanctuary. Harriet had been visiting the church for several weeks off and on, and their church was open to those who were homeless and low-income people. She was making her way in front of the pulpit, headed the center aisle to find a seat, when she noticed the communion table set with bread and trays of juice. She stopped and took off one piece, and then another, eating as she pulled off one piece after another. She then took a piece in each hand and headed for a pew. The congregation watched, as did Pastor Stacy, who had continued on with her sermon about what she believed the purpose of the church to be – that of love, working towards healing and wholeness for others, and for the world. Then Harriet was up again, headed back to the table, filling her hands and with more bread. A deacon, Brenda, slipped out of her pew and walked up to the table as well; standing next to Harriet, she wrapped her arms around Harriet’s shoulders, and they turned together and walked slowly back to the pew – Harriet holding the bread, Brenda holding Harriet. They sat there together, side by side. Pastor Stacy said she could imagine what some of the thoughts were. And she noted that in this gospel about the sons and the vineyard, the Temple religious leaders thinking about their responses as they challenged Jesus and thought about his responses. Perhaps God was wanting to show them something through Jesus’ teaching, through this image of the vineyard, and the opportunity to reconsider a response of no, and then to go as opposed to a quick yes, but then not going. Perhaps the lesson was about considering what divides us, and the opportunity to give further consideration to the opportunities one might have if they reflected more deeply, and then acted on their yes to go, to make room for the other, the outsider, to open their arms, and to find a place where they can be side by side. That communion has an extended meaning besides eating – more in that we can communion with others by opening up our very selves to share a place at the table and beyond, to not be closed off because we don’t think they belong there. After all, whose vineyard is it anyway?
The same mistake, but with their own vengeance, was made by the vineyard tenants in the parable told by Jesus. The tenants, the chief priests and scribes, did not own the vineyard, nor do those they have working in them. They also did not own its fruits. As tenants, they had only leased the piece of ground. They had not paid a purchase price; they only paid rent, and the rent took the form of a portion of the harvest; they wanted the first fruits for themselves. If you have ever rented a house or land, you know that legally the renter’s first obligation is to pay the owner. This is the obligation the tenants in the story had assumed in entering into this agreement with the vineyard owner. When the owner sent workers to collect the harvest from those who had leased the land, the tenants failed to acknowledge their obligation. Instead they were mean-spirited and plotted, “Let’s make the vineyard our own.” They then proceeded not only to deny the owner the rent that was due, but to mistreat and kill those whom the owner sent to remind them of their obligations.
That’s our story as well. All our lives we’ve been helping ourselves to God’s vineyard, to the bread on the table, so to speak. Whether we realize it or not, whatever fruit or bread we may have are fruit and bread that come from God. What have we returned to God for the gifts, the life, with which we have been entrusted? Our challenge is the same challenge presented to the chosen House of Israel. In whose kingdom do we live: in our own or in God’s? The mystery is that we are responsible for what we do not own. Wow, that’s a hard pill to swallow. We live in a rent-to-own culture; we pride ourselves in how much we own. The more we have the more power we believe we are entitled to have. We sometimes feel pulled up short when we talk more directly about stewardship, usually part of the Fall programming in preparation for program planning and budget making. We hear that we are stewards of much and owners of nothing, that it all belongs to God and has been gifted to us to use to build up God’s kingdom. God’s Word tells us that we have been given the responsibility to take care of what God has planted, to tend the vines so that they’ll produce an abundance of good fruit. We are entrusted with much in God’s kingdom and left-overs and little tokens just won’t get it. Our best, our first fruits, our generosity is what God expects because God gave us the very best, was and is generous with grace and love and forgiveness. We have good news in our parable about the vineyard.
God is in charge and takes the ultimate responsibility for repairing, saving, restoring, and guiding our worldly vineyard. The owner’s son, God’s son, indeed is killed, but in his death, in Jesus’ death on the cross, we are forgiven, restored, and given a fresh start. Those grapes we harvest become the blood of Jesus, given and shed for us. His body becomes a living sacrifice for us, his body given for us, so that we might know the greatness of God’s love. Today Christians around the world are coming to the table to taste of God’s goodness. It is my prayer that we always come hungry to worship – hungry for what God has to offer and will want to eat and drink often of this cup and this bread and of God’s Word because that’s where our strength comes from. And we don’t come alone, but with a great cloud of witnesses who gather to eat this feast with us. We are given strength so that we can be the servants God has created us to be, faithful and loving, generous and open to all the possibilities we can tend and harvest as we serve as God’s hands in the world.
We as a group of God’s tenants gather together weekly on the anniversary of the Son’s victory over death in order to offer back to the owner of the vineyard a portion of the grain and wine his land has yielded. We offer up the sweat and tears and laughter of our lives. In doing this, we receive back as our food the body and blood of the Son who was slain that we might be redeemed. The Son was offered that we might be nourished and saved by the God who will not leave us alone, that we might live with him in his blessed kingdom now and forever – a real home for eternity. It is this hope that our faith is built on – Jesus’ blood and righteousness. The table is ready, the meal is abundant. For Everyone Born, there’s A Place at the Table. Thanks be to God! Amen
Ezekial 18: 1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25: 1-9
Philippians 3: 4b-14
Matthew 21: 33-46