10.5.14 Living Intentionally

17 Pentecost Proper 22 A                      

October 5, 2014

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It should be really interesting today to stroll around the parish hall and see what all of us are accomplishing together as we engage in God’s mission of reconciliation and restoration of the world.  We’ll observe that our ministries start here, which I suppose is no big surprise.  This parish is our Ground Zero, and we touch people in town and beyond as we radiate help and love from here.  We don’t do this alone—it’s really quite impressive to see the various permutations and combinations of people at work here to accomplish so much.  So study the boards carefully and be impressed!

 We’ve each been converted to living intentionally as a part of Christ’s body here, and we continue daily to be converted to a better way—to THE Way.  In our letter today Paul is talking about his own conversion to Christ Jesus and how his former Pharisaical knowledge of the Law has been subsumed by a better knowledge.  This better knowledge is knowing Christ Jesus in body, soul, and mind.

 Paul says he regards all the previous accomplishments of his life as rubbish—as excrement, in the original Greek.  He rejoices that any good he’s able to do or to be / comes directly from being in Christ.  And he ends this part of the letter to the Philippians by saying that he still presses on to further completeness in the life of faith, spurred on by Christ Jesus his Lord.  He knows he’s still being converted, more and more.  It’s an ongoing process for Paul.  And that’s true for all of us as well.

 Now, our gospel, harsh as it may sound at first, offers us a chance to meditate on our own daily opportunities for conversion.  This is the infamous and outrageous parable of the prodigal generosity of the landowner.  We’ve been taught over time to see the landowner who won’t give up as God the Father, the vineyard as the people of Israel, the tenant farmers as the Jewish leaders, and the son, of course, as Jesus himself.  Our story tells us that the son is sent to bring order and to bring back the produce of the vineyard.  But instead, he’s killed off as the unruly tenant farmers think they might be able to inherit the vineyard themselves if they exhaust all the other claims to it.  You’d think that next they’d mount an assault against the landowner himself.

 This parable is the second in the series of three parables that follow the temple officials’ questioning of Jesus about the source of his authority.  It’s another Jesus story with just enough implications that the Pharisees are the ones who are about to kill off the Son.  It will add more evidence to the Pharisee’s collection that will justify Jesus’ death at the hands of the officials and the Roman state.

 OK, so how in the world does this parable offer us a glimpse into how we continue to be converted day-to-day?  Let’s look at the tenant farmers for a minute to begin to think about conversion.  What’s the role of a tenant farmer?  It’s to grow the crops—in this case the grapes—and at the end of the harvest to turn over to the landowner what is rightfully his.  For the first century that probably means that they pay back the landowner a goodly portion (probably well more than half) of the harvest in grapes, and that they are allowed to keep some for themselves as their pay.

I think that our situation is not unlike that of the tenants.  Solid Biblical theology reminds us that we’re here on this earth to produce fruit for the Kingdom of God, at God’s good pleasure.  We are stewards—like tenant farmers—here to watch over this parish, to watch over our families and our work places.  We work with what we’ve been given, and again, solid Biblical theology reminds us that we’re given all we have / from the hand of God.

 So, if we’re like tenant farmers in these ways, doesn’t it follow that we’re expected to give back to God, our Lord?  It would be very good to figure out over the next week what portion of our income we give back for the express purpose of doing the work of God.  Does that seem fair?   

 That would include, of course, our pledges to our parish, as well as anything else we give to help people who need help:  what we contribute to our fundraiser for Mission, what we may be giving to our Ugandan well, what we may give to charities like World Vision or Heifer Project or Doctors Without Borders or any local charities that help people.  It may include giving to an environmental organization or any of our local land trusts, that help the next generation to inherit a clean earth.

 So figure out that percentage you give back.  Does it seem in line with what a tenant farmer would be expected to give back to the landowner?  Probably not.  My total giving might add up to 25% of my income.  That is paltry compared to what the landowner would probably expect to be returned. 

 My call—our call—is to keep on being converted.  To keep on giving and giving, understanding that we’re returning our thanks and praise to God by giving back.  Give and give more and more each year.  Let conversion proceed.

 And here’s the payoff:  the joy that comes from giving is wonderful and deep.  It lets us sleep at night.  It’s God’s will for each of us.

 Amen.

 And now, there’s one other aspect of this parable I think needs mentioning.  That’s the answer of the Pharisees.  They said, entrapping themselves, by the way, that the landowner should “Put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” 

 That was the Pharisees’ answer.  Not Jesus’ answer.  Jesus’ answer is a warning to those Pharisees, yet it’s tempered.   He says that the Kingdom of God will be taken from them and given to others who can get those fruits of the kingdom back to the landowner.   But even more significant, there is an even more compassionate aspect to Jesus that shines through. 

 In order to identify this even more compassionate aspect to God, we have to do what Martin Luther recommended:  we “have to squeeze the biblical passage until it leaks the gospel.” 
[David Lose, in “In the Meantime” September 28, 2014, http://www.davidlose.net]

 When we squeeze this gospel so that we get all the good, juicy stuff out, we see the nature of God’s character:  God loves us so much that God will go to absurd lengths to win us over and get us back.  God gives us so many second chances, just because God is crazy in love with us.  Just like that ridiculously patient landowner, God gives us lots of chances to get it right.

 So may we take this lesson to heart.  As we struggle with decisions that proceed directly from our ongoing conversion, may we give serious thought to what we give to help others and to thank God.  May we take a risk and increase our pledging to the church very significantly this year.  And may we take heart in the great promise of the gospel:  God’s inexhaustible grace for each of us.

 Amen.