St. John's, Centreville
October 8, 2017
Proper 22 A
Exodus 20:1-20; Matt. 21:33-46
Take my lips, O Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them; take our hearts and set them on fire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In our Old Testament lesson from Exodus, we heard the 10 commandments given to Moses by God on the mountaintop. God has brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the wilderness. We have heard the Israelites complain about lack of food and water and each time, God has provided for them. God has given them what they need for this journey and God asks for their faith and trust in God.
God now comes to the Israelites with these rules, these commandments - not suggestions but commandments - and gives the tablets to Moses. The people need some structure, some common rules about their relationship with God, which are the first four commandments, and their relationship with each other, which are in the last six commandments.
The people are to acknowledge God as the One who brought them out of Egypt. They are not to worship other gods or make images of other gods or take God's name in vain. There will be no other God for the Israelites than the One True God.
God tells them they need a day of Sabbath rest, to remember that even God rested after creating the world in six days in the creation story. We need a day to rest and to worship God. God tells them to honor their parents. The other commandments tell the Israelites what they cannot do. They cannot kill or steal, or commit adultery or covet what someone else has. For the next three chapters, God tells Moses the ordinances that he must tell the people. These are how specific situations are to be handled concerning one's slaves and animals and property. Fortunately, the lectionary spares us from reading all those details!
These 10 commandments help us to live out the love and the justice of God. But what causes us some trouble is the fact that were written for a culture that is radically different from ours. It is evident that this culture condoned slavery, which we do not today. Thou shalt not kill is a tough one. What if you are defending your own life from attack, or engaging in a war that frees millions of people who were subjects of ethnic cleansing? How many times in our history have we used the commandment to have no other gods to eradicate other cultures who have other gods, by either killing them or enslaving them or taking their land? The Native Americans are just one example.
I think we need to struggle with the ten commandments and see what they mean for us today as 21st century Americans.
Our devotion to God demands a certain way to live and to treat other people. It is a way of life that brings forth the fruits of God's kingdom. And that is what Jesus' parable in the gospel of Matthew that we just read is about.
Jesus is responding to the religious and civil authorities who are questioning his authority. Jesus describes a common practice in first-century Palestine, where an absentee landlord plants a vineyard and leases it out to tenants. At harvest time, the landowner sends his servants to collect his share. But the tenants beat and kill the servants. He then sends more servants and the same thing happens. So he sends his son. Surely they will respect his son. But the tenants kill the son and seize his inheritance.
Jesus asks the chief priests and Pharisees what the landowner should do to the tenants. They reply that the tenants deserve a miserable death and the landowner should lease the vineyard to other tenants.
Because this story is an allegory, everything stands for something else. The vineyard represents Israel and the landowner stands for God. The servants are the prophets who endured beatings and death as they tried to bring God's message to the people. The final messenger is God's Son, who is also beaten and killed.
The wicked tenants are not the whole nation of Israel but the rulers who should have been faithful stewards but were not. Their authority should have been taken away and given to those who would give to God what God required.
This story is a challenge for us who are now the tenants in the vineyard. We have been given the responsibility of spreading God's message to others, of living the kind of life that God calls us to live, of returning to God a part of what God so graciously gives to us. So what does that mean for us? How do we do that?
First of all, we need to take an inventory of our lives. What have we done with the lives that God has given us? What have we done with the resources that God has given us - our time, our talents, our treasure? Some might say, "I will decide how I will use my time. I only have one life, right?" Others might say, "Well, its really my money, not God's, because I worked hard for it and I earned it." But who gave us the skills we have? Who opened doors for education or skills training? Who provided us with the motivation and the resources to obtain what we needed? If we think we have gotten to where we are in life all by ourselves, we are seriously mistaken. The diplomas that hang in our offices come from God. The paychecks we receive every month come from God. Because everything we have and everything we are comes from God.
In the parable in our gospel lesson, God, the landowner, asks for a portion of what God has graciously given to us. And since God has given us everything we have and everything we are, how do we determine what to return to God? Part of how we determine that is by how we define ourselves. Do we define ourselves by the jobs we have, by our bank accounts, our homes, our possessions? Or do we define ourselves by our compassion, honesty, love and generosity? Do we define ourselves by earthly values or eternal values?
God calls us to be generous in our giving, to give with a cheerful heart, not just out of duty or obligation, but with a generous heart. What you return to God in thanksgiving for all God has given to you is between you and God.
Our Annual Pledge Campaign this year is entitled "To you all hearts are open". You should have received your first letter from our campaign chairpeople explaining this year's campaign. The second letter with your pledge card was mailed on Friday. I ask that you pray for God's guidance about what percentage of your income you will give back to God through the church to ensure that the ministry of the church continues. Pray for how you might offer your time and talent in the church and in the community for the benefit and welfare of others. Pray to understand what God's vision is for St. John's church for the coming year and beyond, and how you will be a part of that vision. And then listen. Allow God to talk to you. Be still in God's presence that God's Holy Spirit will lead you and guide you. Amen.