Looking Ahead to Sunday's readings and the Good News of God I will strive to speak that day, I am wrestling with how we understand the relationship between of God's mission and the church's mission. Stewardship themes also come through strong, especially in the Gospel.
(full text of readings here)
In particular, I am struck by the words of Jesus in Matthew 21:43:
The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.
Jesus speaks these words after telling the chief priests and the elders a parable about tenants of a vineyard who had been entrusted with tending the vineyard and producing a crop for the landowner. When the landowner sends servants to collect the produce, the servants are killed or beaten or otherwise rejected. The landowner sends more servants, to the same end. Finally, he sends his son, who is treated in the same manner. Jesus asks what will happen to the tenants when the owner comes, and the chief priests and elders replay that the owner will put them to death and lease the vineyard to others who will give the owner the produce at harvest time.
A few things to note here:
For one, it is clear that we are talking about tenants working in the owner's field. Are we willing to view ourselves as tenants working in God's field? We cling so tightly to notions of ownership – of our land, our homes, our clothing, our cars, our money, our gadgets – yet we can too easily forget that all that we have comes from God.
And if we are tenants, entrusted with land and work (as in the parable) or with goods and money and house and time and energy, how are we called to use these things? What does the owner – God – intend for us to use these resources?
And if we are not using these resources according to how God intends them to be used, today's Gospel reminds us that responsibility for their sacred use can be taken from us and given to another. "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." God's kingdom is not dependent upon us. It is God's work that extends beyond us and our churches, and God is glad to give the work of building his kingdom to whomever proves willing and able to carry out the work.
Another thing. In the parable Jesus does not imply that the grapes in the vineyard were neglected or in any manner unworthy. For all we know, the tenants might have done a good job growing the grapes, and for this reason would rather keep the valuable harvest for themselves rather than share with the owner. The problem is that those responsible for delivering the crop to its rightful owner have no interest in doing so. How do we seek to keep for ourselves what we rightly owe to offer to God?
In the Isaiah text, we see God's disappointment that his beloved vineyard is not yielding the intended fruit, and he withdraws his care for the field and allows it to go to waste. As in the above parable about tenants, it seems in this reading that no single field is indespensible to God's mission. God will sow seed and harvest fruit wherever there is good soil.
In the Psalm, the psalmist pleads with God to restore the vineyard … a follow-up, of sorts, to the Isaiah reading, reminding God of what he has done in the vineyard, and asking him not to let it go to waste.
The Philippians reading is great, but isn't speaking with me in concert with the theme set up in the other readings.
In fact, as good as the Isaiah text is, if you wanted to go with the stewardship theme – in advance of the traditional November stewardship Sunday(s) – a text such as Deuteronomy 26 or Leviticus 2 could be helpful to set up a discussion of the proper use of that with which we have been entrusted by God. So too with the Psalm. Psalm 24 could be good for such a theme.
Blessings to all who are preparing and delivering sermons this week!