Saturday, 27 February 2016

sermon 28 February

What do you think you own?
 (Mark 12: 1-12)
“Jesus began to speak to them in parables…”
Ahh… parables! Stories used to illustrate truths; stories using familiar motifs, which need little or no explanation. Except of course, for us, these motif are no longer part of our tradition. Part of our common way of life. So it does need a little explanation, and maybe a bit of arguing back and forth. And the first thing I want to challenge is the Gospel writer’s assertion that this is a parable and not allegory.
The difference is that for me, for us, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that this isn’t just a story to illustrate God in action in the world, but also a prophecy of the fate of the Son of God; a foretelling of all that was about to happen.
We know that the Son was indeed put to death; and then discovered to be the cornerstone, the one who would restore the kingdom.
I have pondered long and hard over what to say and explore with you all this morning; it is a reading that is full of temptations; and full of uncomfortable metaphors. We are the tenants!
We are not the owner or the servants – we are the tenants.
We could so easily reject God’s laws and Jesus’ teaching; we could assume that all we have, all we work for is ours and ours alone, we can assume that we would be good tenants, the ones who did pay their rent and care for the owner’s vineyard.
But it is never good to simply make assumptions. Because when we do, we often make utter fools of ourselves.

Let me back track a little and give you some context; we have skipped from chapter 10 to chapter 12 and in the intervening passages Jesus has had some deep and difficult conversations with the Pharisees; they are on the back foot, defensive and anxious, wanting to find a way to rid themselves of this nuisance, who is provoking the people and upsetting their fragile equilibrium. Immediately before this, Jesus has once again outwitted them, and made them feel foolish. He answered a question with a question, and had them struggling to continue; they are now moving from defence to offence. This man is getting to be more than just an irritation, and they want him out of their lives.
So, when Jesus now tells them a parable about the abuse of power; about gaining power that is not rightly due, they know that they are in the spotlight.

It was common practise for absentee landlords to take a small percentage of a crop in order to maintain their ownership of the land. This was the recognised manner in establishing a right to the land. If they neglected to take their tithe, then the land would go to the tenants.
So these tenants were abusing the law to gain ownership from the man; they were not acting in the spirit of the law – their landlord was not a bad man; he did not abuse them, over charge them in rent or leave them with ground unfit for purpose. We are told he had prepared the ground, built the watch tower and winepress – he had done all that he could to make the land as good as it could be for his tenants.
If he had left the ground unprepared and not provided for them… but he didn’t. He did everything in the good and proper manner.
The tenants were simply greedy; wanting more than their share and more than that, wanting to eliminate their landlord all together.

When we think about this vineyard tale in relation to our own faith lives; our own relationship with the church, it can be very uncomfortable.
I want to think that I am a good tenant of what the landlord, God, has done for me. I want to think that I am loyal, hardworking, fair and reasonable in all I do. I hope that when God calls to ask for a share of my harvest I am generous and scrupulously fair in my dealings…

That is my hope.
The reality of course is different. When I work out my giving – how do I calculate what I can give? In money and time and service.
I wonder if I take the easy way out – or stall in how I give; retaining some for me; retaining something for a rainy day…
And when it comes to dealing with those charged with being the messengers – how do I behave then?
And when it comes to decision making – do I bypass God? Do I make choices on secular matters without applying the “what would Jesus do” question?
These are hard questions. 
There were hard answers too: Jesus asked them what will the owner do when he discovers what has been going on?
Will he just give up and let the tenants take over what is not theirs? Will he give up in the face of losing his servants, his son?
The answer is unequivocal – he will come and take back what is rightfully his; and he will remove those unfaithful betrayers putting them to death and installing in their place those who will care for the vineyards properly.

So –to the question posed for the sermon title – what do we think we own?
If we are the tenants – not the owners of the vineyard – or our community, or our countryside, or our society – does it make us look at the world differently?
I think the biggest question for me is this:
I can think of myself as being a steward of creation; of buying fair trade goods; avoiding companies which may be unscrupulous in the way the deal with employees.
But what about how I steward everything else?
Do I steward my work?
My conversations?
My relationships?
When I am impatient, or make a snarky comment under my breath – am I honouring God?
Am I being a good tenant?

This has been a challenge as I reflected on how this story of the tenants resounds in my heart. Because, if I am truly going to ask myself that question – what do I own?
The answer really is: nothing.
It all comes from God
God is no absentee landlord, but the one who watches over me, willing me to make good choices, care for others, give of my time and talents without hesitation.
It is a challenge
I am not there yet
But I am trying…
What do I own?
What do you own?
Everything we have comes from God, is of God, will go back to God
It may feel scary; it may feel uncomfortable – but isn’t that really what life in faith is all about?

O Lord – make us good tenants, prepared to give and give, share and share, love and love, prepared to be yours – through and through

All in; without hesitation or censure.

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