Stewardship – Not Ownership

(Proper 22, Mt 21.33-43)

10-02-05

 

Jesus said, “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.” (Mt 21.43)

Exasperation is an emotion that we have seen and heard a lot of in the last week.

I guess that there is nothing quite like a 36-hour trip to Waco to make people exasperated, right?  I happened upon our Mayor Thomas on TV yesterday (I guess it was a replay of a recent meeting or press conference) and exasperated would be an understatement for her mood about the way that our evacuees were tooled around. 

There is something about knowing that you have done everything right – prepared in great detail - planned all the probable outcomes – and still it gets messed up by others that irritates and exasperates us to no end. 

It is a very human trait to feel anger and frustration, to be exasperated, when we see our very good work turn out to be all for nothing.

Now notice, I said exasperation is a very “human” response.  One that we blame on our humanness; it is not a quality that we nurture or one that we are particularly proud of.

Therefore, we rarely imagine God, or Jesus, as exasperated.  Rather, always loving, always forgiving.  That is much more the way that we like to think of our Christian God.

-------------

But in our gospel reading today – we meet a very exasperated Jesus.  If we look back a few verses at those that most of us missed last week, we will see that just the day before, Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem .  And had gone straight to the Temple and, we read that he “drove our all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers.”  And he accused those who were using the temple for monetary profit of turning a house of prayer into a den of robbers.

Sounds like exasperation to me.

But Jesus was just getting started.  Because after he drove away those profit makers and began to teach and to heal the sick, the chief priests and elders caught wind of what was going on.  And they came and confronted him and questioned Jesus’ authority.  Who was he to come into their Temple and behave like he owned the place?

Of course Jesus has some very pointed things to say back to them.  And in this morning’s reading, it is the next day and they are back in the Temple and back at it again.  Jesus versus the chief priests and elders, round two.

And this time it is God that is portrayed as exasperated.  In answer to another question from the religious authorities that is intended to trap him, Jesus tells them a parable.  A parable which mirrors our reading from Isaiah.  And in the parable, God is depicted as the vineyard owner who does everything possible to see that things will work out well for the caretakers of the vineyard. 

He sees that the soil is cleared of stones and tilled.  Fences are carefully constructed to keep out animals.  A watchtower is built to help keep workers from harm.  And the owner even plants the vines and supplies a winepress.  All the workers have to do is nurture the fields.  And then of course, bring in the harvest and give the owner back his fair share. 

But as easy as that sounds, and as good a deal as that may seem for the workers, they could not and would not live up to their side of the bargain.  

The bottom line is that they were unwilling to accept the authority and control that the owner would have over their lives.  The workers wanted to be in control themselves, and they resented the authority of the absentee owner.  After all, he may have provided a nice piece of land to work, but where was he when the going really got tough?  Where was he when they were sick or when a loved one died?  And what if there was a hurricane or a flood?  What then?  So the workers decided to just take the land for themselves – after all, why did they really need the owner??

---------------

I am reminded of a story – a modern day version of today’s parable - that I recently read in an article about church growth.  The story is told by a college professor who was asked to speak at a big conference out of town.  He decided to go early, so he could take his family along to enjoy the weekend sightseeing with him.  As they  were driving around on Saturday, they passed a large, impressive church that was near their hotel.  The man said, “we’ll go to that church tomorrow.”  The next morning they got up, got dressed, and walked to church.  As they neared the building, they could hear music, loud music, with guitars and drums, emanating from the neo-gothic building.  “What kind of church is this, Dad?” his son asked. 

“Well, it’s one of ours,” the father said, “you’ve just got to remember that this is California – things are different here.”  A smiling usher greeted them at the door.  And when the door opened, they could see that the service had begun.  Inside there was a band in full swing.  People were clapping and swaying to the music, people of all ages, of every color of the rainbow.  “Is this a Methodist church?” the professor asked the usher.  “Oh, NO,” said the usher.  “We rent this from the Methodists. 

Let me take you to the Methodist church.”  And the usher took his family and him around the corner of the building to a small chapel where there gathered a small group of mostly older folks who were plodding through a traditional service.  On the way back home, as they made their way through a sidewalk filled with people from the larger service that had also just ended, the professor looked back at that throng of all ages, nations, and races, and said to his family, “That WAS the Methodist church. That WAS the Methodist church.”

------------------

I wish I could tell you that the demise of mainline churches is an uncommon story – but it is not.  Many of those churches of my youth have grown old and have withered on the vine. 

And it is even worse in England and Europe – where many of the old village churches have completely lost their congregations, and are now being used by Moslems and other non-Christian organizations for services or secular activities.  Turned into museums.

So what happened?  Is the moral of the story that if we don’t get some drums, we might as well turn our building over to someone who will? 

NO.  NO.

The lesson of that story and of our Scripture readings today is not that we need to get a rock band or God will take our church away. 

The lesson IS about authority and it IS about WHO is in charge of the Church – and it is not you – and it is not me. 

God is the owner of this vineyard and it is God’s purpose that we must seek in this place – not our own. 

The mistake that the religious leaders of Jesus' day made, was they thought that the temple was theirs to use as they wished.  

We do not want to make that same mistake today.  

But if we decide that God is not needed.  If we look around and say, “Who needs God?  After all aren’t we doing all of the work?” 

If we decide that we are the owners of the Church – then most assuredly we will lose it – Just like the owner of the vineyard took it back from the ungrateful workers.

-----------

You know, the Church of my youth was just part of our culture.  Everybody went – it was the accepted social custom.  But that is not the church of today.  People who become Christian today are more likely to do so out of conviction than custom.  Therefore, I believe that the integrity of our faith (that is, the proof of God’s authority in our lives and in our church) is evidenced by whether or not we have spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

We are entrusted with the gospel.  And we are told to plant and harvest and give God back his fair share.  Churches do not go stale and die because they don’t keep up with the latest musical trends or change the message to fit what people want to hear.

Churches die because they forget that their purpose is to love God and to share the gospel message with all others.  That is the fruit that we are intended to produce for God in this vineyard.

Churches die when we worry more about who might get mad if we try something new than we do about making newcomers feel accepted and welcome. 

 

Our lessons this morning are all about our stewardship of God’s vineyard – about caring for the church.  And we are plainly told that as we are to be about God’s purposes – not making up our own rules for how things should be.  And Jesus makes it very clear that the penalty for taking over the vineyard and doing it our way is steep.

-------

The annual Stewardship campaign will begin at Grace in a couple of weeks.  So it is very appropriate that we read this gospel lesson this morning that tells us that, we – the people of God - are to be about stewardship – not ownership.

As usual, our lay people will make talks about stewardship and about their experiences at Grace Church.  But their underlying messages are really about accepting God’s authority in our lives.  And responding to that authority.

Because stewardship is not about money.  It is about entrusting everything in our lives to the one who gives us life. 

Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of this church.  And I pray that we will always look to him in caring for this place and in sharing his gospel message with all who come through those doors.  Amen.