Sermon – 10/06/02
This year in America we have witnessed the closest thing to “open season” on corporate CEOs that we’ve had in a good many years. After a decade of “lionizing” their accomplishments – or even the built-on-air promises of some – suddenly the media, and the mass of the population, have discovered that a good number of corporate CEOs are guilty, if not always of violations of the law, then of being shamelessly greedy, incredibly power-mad, uncaring of their employees, and spectacularly self-indulgent.
It’s gotten so extreme that even politicians have noticed these people are out of line.
The heart of the problem, I believe, is that an awful lot of powerful people seem to have gotten up each morning, looked in the mirror, and said, “It’s all about me.”
And then they went about their business assuming that was true – about their lives, and about life in general.
The lesson, however, for those who do their best to ground their lives in biblical faith, is that these people gave into temptations to which we all are vulnerable.
All of us? Oh, yeah. Two of the first words small children tend to learn are “No!” and “Mine!” Mommy says, “Clean up after yourself,” and Johnny says “No!” Daddy says, “Share with your friend” and Susie says “Mine!”
Some people keep those words as mottoes throughout their lives – and all people are tempted, regularly, to revert to that level of behavior.
This is what the Scriptures we just heard are about.
In Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard, God does everything a good farmer should do to produce a crop of first quality grapes: chooses a fertile, easily protected piece of land, thoroughly prepares the ground, plants “choice vines”, builds a protective hedge around it and a watchtower so workers could keep an eye out for marauding animals.
But instead of yielding choice grapes, this well cared for vineyard yielded wild grapes, bitter to the taste.
The vineyard in the parable is God’s people – Israel, in Isaiah’s time. The good grapes God expected were justice and righteousness; the wild grapes he got were violence and oppression. After all he did for his people, all his generosity and tender care, God got rebellion against him and injustice and bloodshed in the nation. So God condemns God’s people to devastating punishment.
Jesus’ story in today’s Gospel is even more pointed. In the story God’s people are the tenants in a vineyard which God owns and in which God, the landowner, had already done the hard work before he leased it out to the tenants. But when God, the owner, came at harvest time to collect what was rightfully his, the tenants killed God’s servants – and ultimately, God’s Son also – so as to “get his inheritance,” the story says.
Jesus’ audience condemns the outrageous and appalling behavior of the tenants – and in so doing, convicted many of themselves, who would soon be calling for his death. They treated the “vineyards” as something they could seize by force and bloodshed, saying to God “No!” and “Mine!”
We human beings are “tenants” of God, entrusted with the stewardship of what Eucharistic Prayer C calls “this fragile earth, our island home.” All of the earth is God’s; God created it, sustains it and has never signed over title to it!
Two anecdotes from American history speak to this. When President Thomas Jefferson was negotiating with Napoleon to complete the Louisiana Purchase, that huge tract of roughly the middle quarter of the lower 48 states,
Jefferson (like most purchasers of land) asked for a title
search. The Emperor Napoleon, in a moment of uncharacteristic humility, admitted that he didn’t have title to the land. Rather, God did.
The transaction went through anyway, but with that principle admitted to by two historical giants.
The second anecdote concerns the “purchase” of Manhattan Island from the indigenous natives by European settlers. Anyone ever heard this one – how the Europeans “bought Manhattan for $24”? I heard it in school, too; it was the classic “dumb Indian” story, used, at least implicitly, to justify the European conquest.
The only trouble is, it isn’t true.
My source for this is not this year’s in vogue “politically correct” revisionist, but Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, author of The Oxford History of the United States. The Europeans thought they were buying Manhattan Island because they had the concept of “total ownership” of property. The natives knew they weren’t selling Manhattan, because they knew they didn’t own it; the Great Spirit owned the land. They just used it.
What the natives thought they were doing is selling these newcomers a hunting and fishing license – and at 17th Century prices, $24 was a lot for that!
The Great Spirit owned the land. The Europeans had the Bible, but I wonder how many of them had read it. Or at least today’s passages. If God is the owner of the land and people are stewards of it, then people are, sooner or later, answerable to God. That is the reality. Each of us, and all of us, are here on earth only for a season, and we are answerable to God for our behavior during our season on God’s good earth.
This biblical perspective is crucial to how we consider the stewardship of our lives as Christians. Yes, stewardship in the largest sense is what we do with all our time, all our talents and all our treasure. “What did you do with your life to glorify God and serve others?” That’s
a question we can expect to be on the final “final exam”
each of us will be given, at the end of our lives, by Jesus Christ. He lets us know this now so we can spend the rest of our lives living the answer.
Most of Christian stewardship involves how we care for, respect and love those closest to us, how we behave at work, as members of a community and citizens of the world – and how we take care of our own well-being as well. After all, the commandment “love our neighbor as yourself” means we’re commanded to have a healthy self-respect, far different from the narcissism, self-indulgence and megalomania I referred to at the beginning of this sermon.
The fact is, though, that to serve God and humanity with our best in these ways I’ve just mentioned, we all need to anchor our lives of stewardship by explicitly Christian acts as part of an explicitly Christian organization. Only in this way can we keep our standards high, receive forgiveness when we need it and seek it, have the encouragement of a community of people who are also trying to live the faith, and experience God’s presence in our lives in explicit and obvious ways through the Scriptures, the sacraments, and the Holy Spirit working through the community.
Without explicit Church commitments as the capstone of our lives of stewardship, the rest of our lives of stewardship risk getting watered down to merely “being nice to people” and then watered down to “being nice to people who are nice to me” and then to “being nice to people who are nice to me, if and when I feel like it.” Which is not much of a commitment.
To give focus and challenge to the explicitly church part of our lives of Christian stewardship, St. Barnabas provides two kinds of commitments. Financial commitments we will consider in two weeks; pledging financially is a vital part of taking Christianity seriously – and joyfully. The other part is commitments of Time and Talent, which we are starting to consider today for 2003.
We mailed or e-mailed everyone on our list a letter, a brochure and a “Time & Talent” sheet a couple of days ago, and for good measure we have enclosed a “Time & Talent” sheet in your service bulletin this morning as well. Please pull it out and take a look at it.
Some people come to churches with the approach of “consumers” coming to a “store”, looking to “purchase” “spiritual products” without involving or changing themselves at all. And, of course, we welcome people who are at this level. This is America and we expect some people to take this “consumer” approach, people who “shop” for Sunday school, Youth Group, baptism, wedding, music, sermons or whatever expecting a relationship no more involving than watching TV or dropping the kids off at yet another activity.
However, the Christian faith is all about involvement and change. Without change, Jesus tells us, we will die – die externally, and start slowly dying now, because human beings who have not asked God to change them will naturally repeat “No” and “Mine” to God – and everyone else – to the end of time. Salvation is not compulsory; God will let people be terminally self-centered if they wish to be.
So to live – right here and now as well as forever – we have to change, and change requires involvement. So the church is really not like a store at all for those who get involved: it is more like a co-op, in which people offer their time and talent to the glory of God – not for pay – and the service of others.
The different volunteer opportunities you see listed do not require advanced degrees, nor do they require highly technical skills, nor do they require all your waking hours. Most involve 1-4 hours a month. Could you drive someone to church when you’re coming to church anyway? Could you now the grass at church – twice a year? Could you serve coffee after the 10:30 service – every other month? Could you serve at the soup kitchen in New Brunswick - every other month? Could you serve in any number of other capacities – you pick – in accordance with your interests, skills, personality and time availability? Sure.
Life is a team sport. So is church. Join the team. Pick your position or positions. You get your “uniform” when you were baptized; now it’s time to wear it.
Time and Talent stewardship is one, recurring reminder we give to ourselves that God owns all of our days [hold up calendar], and is going to ask us what we did with them. These opportunities are just one part of our answer, just one part of being good “tenants” of the “vineyards” that are our lives.
(The Rev.) Francis A. Hubbard
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church