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Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7

 1Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? 5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!


Psalm 80:7-18

 7Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. 8You have brought a vine out of Egypt; you cast out the nations and planted it. 9You prepared the ground for it; it took root and filled the land. 10The mountains were covered by its shadow and the towering cedar trees by its boughs. 11You stretched out its tendrils to the sea and its branches to the river. 12Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes? 13The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it. 14Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted. 15They burn it with fire like rubbish; at the rebuke of your countenance let them perish. 16Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man you have made so strong for yourself. 17And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your Name. 18Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.


 Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

 4bIf anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — 10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.


Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46

 33{Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people,} “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” 42Jesus 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 marvelous in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.


Rebellion in the Vineyard

The story is told about a man who, several years ago, decided to plan a trip to Japan.  It would be his first visit, and he was a little anxious because he couldn’t speak Japanese.  He became concerned about how he would communicate with the people he encountered.  Since most taxi drivers, at that time, didn’t speak English, someone suggested that it might be a good idea for him to carry something bearing the name of the hotel, at which he would be staying, written in Japanese.  That was exactly what he did.  As soon as he arrived in Japan, he picked up a box of matches bearing the name and address of his hotel.  Feeling confident, he then went sightseeing.

A few hours later, he got into a taxi and did as the friend suggested, he took the box of matches out of his pocket to show the driver where he wanted to go.  There were a few awkward moments before the driver understood.  Finally, the driver’s face lit up.  Quickly they sped away.  Half an hour later, the taxi came to a screeching halt.  The driver turned and beamed at his passenger, pointing out the window.  There was only one problem.  They had stopped, not in front of a hotel, but at a match factory!

Misunderstandings, they happen more often than we’d like.  Someone will say something and for whatever reason we don’t understand.  It’s as if they were speaking a foreign language.  You want to go back to the hotel and instead find yourself in front of a match factory.  There’s another story about two men from Mars who decide to do a little sightseeing on Earth.  They realize that to avoid causing a panic they needed to appear as inconspicuous as possible.  They obtain American clothing, learned the language, and in general make themselves as ordinary as possible.

During their first day on Earth nobody noticed anything unusual about them.  At the end of the day, they celebrated their successful foray at an exclusive restaurant.  As they were paying their check, they were astonished to hear the waiter say, “You guys must be from Mars!”  “What?” asked the dumbfounded Martians.  “How can you tell?”  “Well,” replied the waiter, “you’re the first customers to pay cash since I’ve been working here.”  Oftentimes Jesus tried to communicate profound truths to those around Him, and they acted as if He were from Mars.  Usually, it was either the disciples or the religious leaders who couldn’t quite grasp what Jesus was teaching.

Jesus, it seems, would say something, and then He would watch as their eyes glazed over.  In particular, He had difficulty getting through to the religious leaders of His day.  Sadly, they wanted nothing to do with Him or His teachings.  Worse yet, they wanted to get rid of Him.  Not only did they discount His teachings, but they also saw Him as a threat to their religious instructions and their power and authority over the people.  Most of the time, they outright condemned Him without even listening to Him.

They were so sure of themselves, of their long-held traditions, and their standing in the community that they were impervious to everything He did or said.  If we were in His place, what would we do in that situation?  You’re trying desperately to communicate something very important, the truth about God, of the proper understanding of scripture, but they just don’t get it.  Nothing it seems you say is getting through.  That was the situation Jesus found Himself in.  So He did what He so often did, He told a story.

Before we go further, it would be good if we also remember that the parable Jesus is telling, in our gospel reading for this week, follows right on the heels of the parable of the two sons that the father has asked to go and work in the vineyard.  As you recall, from last week’s gospel reading, the first son refused to go, but later changed his mind and went.  The second said he would go, but then didn’t.  It’s obvious from last week’s parable and the story Jesus tells this week, that He’s trying to get the religious leaders to understand that they have things twisted around.

This week, Jesus tells a story of rebellion that communicates some key information about our role in His kingdom.  And we, like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, need to remember that this world is His kingdom, and we have the responsibility to be good stewards.  Jesus begins by saying, a landowner planted a vineyard.  It was well planned, the land was carefully selected, and he included a protective wall.  The owner even built a watch tower to guard against outside attacks or wild animals.  After it was complete, and the vines were producing fruit, the landowner leases the estate to tenants and leaves it in their care.  All he asks in return is a share of the produce at harvest time.  The tenants gladly agreed.  When harvest time comes, the landowner sends some of his servants to the vineyard to collect his share of the produce.

High in the watch tower the tenants see the servants approaching.  But instead of welcoming them and handing over their rightful payment, the tenants beat one of the servants, killed another, and stoned yet another.  Word gets back to the landowner.  To say the least, he was extremely displeased.  So, he sends more servants for his share, and again the same thing happened.  Finally, the landowner decided to send his son. “They will respect my son,” he thought.  When the tenants see the son approaching, they said among themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”  And that’s exactly what they did.  The tenants kill the landowner’s son.

Rebellion is an ancient theme in the Bible.  It’s the story of Adam and Eve and of Cain and Able.  It’s the story of Noah and the Ark and of the tower of Babel.  It’s the story of the children of Israel during the Exodus and the story of countless others throughout the Bible.  And the result is always the same, alienation, heartbreak, and tragedy.  And like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, we too need to realize that Jesus is talking to, and about, us.  We are the tenants in His story.

The anecdote is told about the last presidential campaign.  An asteroid hits the speaker’s platform at a Seattle conference center, and Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Elon Musk, all arrive before God’s judgement seat.  They’re all greeted by Jesus, who is sitting on His golden throne.  First, the Lord speaks to Biden asking what he believes in.  “I believe in social programs that help people and a clean environment,” Biden replies.  “Very good,” Jesus says.  “Stand over there.  “Then Jesus asks Donald Trump the same question.  “I believe in cutting taxes and taking good care of the military,” Trump replies.  “Excellent,” says Jesus. “Stand over there as well.  “Then Jesus asks Elon Musk what he believes. “I believe,” Elon replies, “you’re sitting in my chair.”

There are times when all of us try to put ourselves in God’s seat.  There are times when all of us act as if this world is our kingdom and we’re the supreme ruler over all we survey.  We forget that everything we have is on loan to us from God.  We’re merely temporary tenants.  The truth is, we don’t own anything, even though we sometimes act as if we own it all.  Everything we have, including ourselves, ultimately belongs to God.

There was a church located next door to a supermarket.  Since the church was short on parking spaces and the supermarket was closed on Sundays, the church leaders asked the owner of the supermarket for permission to park in his lot.  The owner’s response was “Fine.  You are welcome to use it 51 weeks a year.”  “What about the other week?” the church members asked.  “That week,” said the owner of the market, “I’ll chain off the lot so you will always remember that the lot belongs to me, and not to the church.”  Good point.  What is the saying we’re so fond of repeating, possession is 9/10s of the law?  Look at all the problems people are having with squatters.

Far too often we forget and act like we’re the owners, when in truth is we’re simply the tenants.  This brings us to the second thing we need to remember.  Happiness comes to those who understand they own nothing.  These tenants in our lesson were greedy.  They wanted everything for themselves and were unwilling to give the landowner his fair share.  The landowner, on the other hand, was very generous.  He had done all the creative and cultivating work and given them control of his vast estate.  They could enjoy the vastness of its abundance.  All the landowner asked was a share of the produce.  Sounds like you and me, doesn’t it?  Sounds like every person who has ever walked this earth.

God has provided for us so abundantly.  All He asks from us is to be good stewards and for a small portion in return.  But we become greedy.  We want to withhold what is rightfully His.  In truth, it’s sad.  The happiest people who have ever lived are those who gratefully acknowledge God as the owner of all that is.  William White once told of visiting his 98-year-old mother-in-law in a nursing home. He remembers her quietly quoting the passage from St. Luke’s gospel, “Think of the lilies and how they grow” (12:27).

Long ago this frail, blind woman made the discovery that all of life is a blessing from God.  She spent much of her time repeating scripture verses that she learned throughout her life.  The scriptures gave her both strength and comfort during many lonely hours.  She was an active woman right up until she entered the nursing home, walking a mile a day, even as her eyesight was gradually worsening.  She loved people and was always helping them.  Even in the nursing home, she used a walker to spread her joyful faith.  “Facing each day isn’t easy for her,” White reflected, “but she keeps her spirits up.”  She felt that even at ninety-eight years of age she had a mission.

There in the nursing home she was able to touch the lives of other residents as well as the employees.  In fact, some former employees who changed jobs still returned to the nursing home to spend time with this remarkable woman.  William White was inspired when his mother-in-law told him how thankful she was to have memorized so many scriptures before she lost her eyesight.  Those scriptures filled her heart with the Lord.

That dear 98-year-old lady didn’t have much left in this world, but she had the only thing we ever really own, her faith in God.  Everything else that we have is simply on loan.  Someday, the things that have been placed in our care will be passed on to someone else.  Don’t you see?  No matter how rich we think we are, if we’re not rich toward God, we don’t have anything!  Remember what Jesus told His disciples?  As part of His Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).  The estate and the vineyard belong to God.  Happiness is found in recognizing our place as His tenants.  And there’s one thing more to we need to see in this parable, Jesus is calling us to good stewardship.

We have another important responsibility, to care for all that is entrusted to us.  Jesus asked the religious officials what the owner of the vineyard would do to the rebellious tenants.  They had no difficulty responding, “He will put those wretches to miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will care for what has been entrusted to them and will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  In their arrogance, little did they know they were condemning themselves with their own answer.  As I said before, in the end they came to realize that the parable was about them.  They had been entrusted with the spiritual care of God’s people and they were the tenants who became greedy, and who had abused and killed the prophets.  And soon they would be the ones who killed God’s Son.

Unfortunately, many of them looked at their calling simply as a job, as a means to wealth and power, as a way of earning a good living, a source of prestige.  They were so set in their ways, that they stoned the prophets who threatened their comfortable life and eventually they crucified God’s own Son.  That’s a warning to every one of us involved in religious work, both clergy and laity.  We have a responsibility.  We are the tenants that God has entrusted with His kingdom, and we have work to do.

The story is told of a great oil refinery.  This refinery was huge.  It employed all the modern techniques of chemical engineering.  It was an impressive structure that was very well kept up.  The interior was bright and shining.  The workers were proud to be part of such a company.  They made sure that the plant was clean, and everything was in perfect working order.  In fact, the oil refinery soon gained a world-wide reputation.  One day, some visitors asked to have a tour of the oil refinery, but there was hesitancy at first to allow any guests.  The visitors insisted.  They had traveled a great distance and wanted to tour the facility.  The plant manager contacted his boss who reluctantly gave permission for the visitors to tour the plant.

The visitors walked through the vast chambers where they saw the processing petroleum, the gleaming pipes that carried the petroleum products from place to place, and the extensive organizational system that had been set in place to keep the refinery going.  The visitors were impressed.  Near the close of the tour, one of the visitors asked the guide if they might be permitted to see the shipping department.  “What shipping department?” asked the guide clearly confused.

“Why, the shipping department that ships out all the gasoline and oil you process here,” said the tourists.  “We don’t have any shipping department,” answered the guide.  “You see, all the energy products produced in this refinery are used up to keep the refinery going.”  Could that be us?  Is all our resources and energy used up just keeping our lives afloat?

Could it be that we’re no better than the religious leaders of Jesus’ day?  Could it be that we, too, confuse our call to discipleship with comfort and ease?  Would Jesus receive the same reception here that He received there?  The bottom line is, that this is not our world, it’s God’s.  This is not our church, it’s God’s.  We are not in control, God is.  We are merely the tenants.  We are the stewards God has entrusted His kingdom to.  We have an obligation and a responsibility to return to God a portion of what’s already His, our time, our talents, and our tithe, and to use that which we have received, for His kingdom and to His glory.


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