Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
©Rev. Alison J. Buttrick Patton
October 8, 2017
Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this one sets a trap for his listeners. Jesus is talking, not to his whole crowd of followers, but to the temple officials, the men in charge, religious authorities accustomed to setting the rules and calling the shots. So obviously, they relate to the landowner in the parable. When Jesus asks, “What will the owner do to those tenants when he returns?” They know the answer. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time!” After all: that’s what you do when someone disrupts production. You’ve got to set an example; replace troublemakers with laborers who will follow the rules. The priority is to bring in the harvest, to protect the bottom line.
But here’s where Jesus turns the tables: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom.” Taken away from YOU. “You are the problem,” says Jesus. “You leaders who are only concerned with upholding the law when it suits you; you who are more concerned with defending the profit margin than with protecting lives. You are the tenants in the story.”
Jesus, it’s fair to say, is royally ticked off, up to his eyeballs with religious leaders who claim to be in charge but repeatedly ignore his message… Sick to death of chief priests and Pharisees who have forgotten what God truly desires – not fruits of a well-run agri-business, but fruits of the kingdom.
I want to unpack this word, “Kingdom.” It shows up a lot in the gospel of Matthew (53 times, to be exact). “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” announces John the Baptizer in the wilderness. And, “The Kingdom of God has come to you,” says Jesus (Matthew 12:28). At the time Jesus lived, the word “kingdom” packed a punch, because it challenged the sovereignty of the Roman Emperor: “Not Caesar’s kingdom. GOD’S kingdom.” Caesar’s kingdom is oppressive, militant and obsessed with the accumulation of wealth and power. GOD’S kingdom? Well, that’s something else entirely. GOD’S kingdom (says Jesus) is like a mustard seed, the tiniest of seeds that grows into a giant bush where the birds flourish. (Mat 13:31) It’s like yeast that leavens the whole dough (Mat 13:33); or like a treasure hidden in a field (Mat 13:44)…” “The kingdom of heaven belongs to the little children (Mat 19:14). Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter GOD’S kingdom before any of those temple officials.” (Mat 21:31)
As he so often does, Jesus takes the status quo and flips it on its head, paints a picture of a community in which the most vulnerable are regarded with honor, prosperity is shared and everyone, everyone, has a seat at the table. THAT’S the kingdom to which Jesus refers.
The thing is, the word “kingdom” has lost some of its clout. We don’t live in a kingdom. We have no king – and haven’t for generations. So theologians have looked for other ways to describe this alternative social structure cooked up by God: The Realm of God (we say), or God’s Beloved Community. I’ve heard it called God’s Commonwealth (which works particularly well if you live in Massachusetts!). Sometimes, I replace the ‘g’ in ‘kingdom’ with a hyphen in order to speak about God’s kin-dom (see the cover of the bulletin). Maybe it’s a bit awkward, but I love the wordplay, the reminder, in the words of the Lakota Nation, that “we are all related” – people and animals, rocks and rivers, mountains and stars. In God’s kin-dom, there is room for everyone, we are interconnected, all siblings, children of the Most High.
And the fruits of that Kin-dom, God’s Kin-dom? Justice and loving-kindness; wholeness, harmony, peace, and well-being. It’s what we call in Hebrew: Shalom.
And it’s what we’re all called to produce; what God invites us to co-create. If we are laborers in the vineyard, then we are laboring to cultivate that kind of community, to embody God’s vision for creation – actively, persistently, daily. There is another Hebrew phrase, Tikkun olam – which means “to repair the world.” to finish what God has begun. Our Jewish siblings believe that this is our vocation. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is among you,” (Luke 17:21). In other words, we’re not talking about some idyllic afterlife, some gold-encrusted, angel-populated heaven up in the clouds; we’re talking about something that’s taking shape right here, right now. Something we can nurture, in partnership with the Creator of the Universe.
That’s the sort of sacred labor that Jesus was talking about. But apparently, it’s not what those first-century religious leaders were doing. Then as now, religious leaders were too easily distracted by the pursuit of power, wealth, and status. Like the tenants in the parable, they forgot that they had been entrusted with something that did not belong to them; they got greedy, possessive, and so they behaved badly.
Maddeningly, some things never change.
This fall, we on the Protestant branch of the Christian tree mark the 500th anniversary of the Great Reformation, launched when Martin Luther famously nailed to the church door his list of 95 complaints against the religious leaders of his day: the Catholic priests. Among the abuses he enumerated: That priests collected a fee for forgiving sins – indulgences, they were called. Also, those priests had exclusive access to scripture and, by extension, claimed insider access to God. In short, they called all the shots and reaped all the rewards.
Luther’s call to reform the church started a movement that changed the course of history and the shape of Christianity. But 500 years later, we religious leaders still forget that the vineyard doesn’t belong to us; rather, that we have been entrusted with its care and keeping. There are too many shameful and heartbreaking stories of clergy misconduct to list: children systematically abused, money stolen, whole categories of people unjustly ostracized or rejected… There’s a reason young people harbor such distrust of religious authority. According to a study conducted by the Barna Group, 87% of 16-29-year-olds say the church is too judgemental, 85% say it is hypocritical and 70% say it’s insensitive to those who are different. Again and again, we have compromised our moral authority.
You may have noticed that I’m saying, ‘we.’ It’s easy to call out clergy who have broken the law, easy to condemn the misdeeds of others; it’s harder to look in the mirror. But that’s what this parable demands. Jesus has plenty to say to all of us about kin-dom building, but today, it’s the Church, and those of us in positions of leadership, who are in the hot seat. Today, I am the one compelled to ask: When have I failed to to be a faithful tenant in God’s vineyard?
Here is an admittedly partial list. I fail to fulfill my role:
- When my decisions are driven by public approval and not by God’s purpose;
- When I focus more on the survival of the institution than on the spread of the gospel;
- When I fail to interrupt bigotry, to speak up for or stand with people on the margins; when my fear of criticism keeps me silent;
- When worry about profits prevents me from being prophetic (or urging us all to be prophetic);
- When I use my power to avoid risks, rather than to take them;
- When I opt for safe topics instead of opening space for us to wrestle with hard questions and controversial issues;
- When I neglect to pray (that is, when I forget that this is not my ministry, but God’s ministry);
- When I fail to invite all of you to share the joys and the costs of leadership – because if it is God’s ministry, it is also our ministry.
Looking back at that list, two things occur to me. First: I fall short, all the time. So I need your help. I need you to hold me accountable to this sacred labor. If I’m not speaking up, exercising courage, helping us to get real together, reminding myself and you that our sacred purpose is to raise up kin-dom fruits, then I need a nudge! And second, when I do my job, we may ALL feel a bit less comfortable, myself included. Kin-dom building is like that; it requires risk, makes us stretch, prevents us from ever getting too settled. The tenants in Jesus’ parable forgot that they had work to do; they imagined that they could kick back and enjoy the fruits of that vineyard all themselves. But that’s not what God intended. God wants us all to roll up our sleeves.
Yes, when Jesus told this parable, he was confronting the religious leaders in the temple, but the truth is: we all struggle to keep on task, to live faith-filled lives – clergy and lay members alike. We all forget that the very ground on which we tread was formed by God, that we are all laborers in a vineyard that does not belong to us, but which surely relies on our faithful care and keeping.
The Pharisees wanted to hire productive workers. But raising kin-dom fruits means exposing any landowner who is more concerned with proceeds than people. The Landowner sent slaves to do his bidding, but raising kin-dom fruits means condemning slavery and racism in all its forms. The tenants murdered one messenger after another, but raising kin-dom fruits means raging against violence, and lamenting every loss of life, and tenaciously tending communities in which children matter more than weapons. Raising kin-dom fruits means choosing every day to work for God and not for Caesar – cultivating justice and propagating loving-kindness; planting seeds of wholeness, harmony, peace, and well-being – in our relationships, our church, our community, our world.
Beloved siblings in Christ: May we find ways to do that every day; until we break a sweat; until our muscles feel that satisfying ache that comes after a hard day’s labor; until the blisters on our hands and our broken-open hearts and the justice-seeking, love-expanding fruits of our labor bear witness to our faithfulness; until Shalom takes root and erupts into breath-taking blossom all around.
May it be so. Amen.
 Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church, Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, p. 15.