Sermon for Sunday, 4 October 2020

Opportunism or Opportunity?

Isaiah 5: 1–7 and Mathew 21: 33–46

Lord we thank you for the gifts of creation.
As we listen to your word, open the ears of our hearts
so that we may hear and learn that faithful servanthood in the vineyard which is this world.


A few years ago, I watched a movie trailer whose title I cannot remember, but it left a lasting impression on me. It showed a funeral procession of expensive vehicles driving single file behind a hearse towards a cemetery, and as the camera zoomed in on the well-dressed passengers, a voice could be heard in the background. It was the voice of the solicitor rehearsing the reading of the will:

‘To my nephew.’ said the voice, ‘who didn’t know the value of a dollar – I leave one dollar; to my grandson, who spent money as though it was nothing – I leave nothing.’

On and on the litany went, as the solicitor announced the share left to each of the relatives. Most of them, it seemed, had displeased their rich relative. As the sequence closed, a young man, driving a shabby car and wearing clothes not as fancy as the others, was shown driving at the rear of the procession looking completely out of place. When the camera zoomed on him, the solicitor`s voice said,

‘…and to my nephew, who believed that a penny saved is a penny earned – I leave my entire fortune of 800 million dollars!’

That movie trailer in some ways sums up what is going on in our parable this morning. Almost every element within the story can be seen to represent something in real life. In its original context, the parable was a severe condemnation of the chosen people of God whom he had prepared to receive the Messiah, but when the Messiah came, they killed him.

In some way, the point of the parable is much the same as the message in that movie trailer: a wealthy relative offers the family an opportunity to use and inherit everything he owns – but first they must show that they are in tune with his mind and will. And so, it is with us. The universe God made is his property, which he turned over to us to tend and care for it. God trusts us with it: we can use it well, misuse it or even abuse it; and we do. He does not hover at our shoulder watching to see what we will do with what he has given us. Quite the opposite, He seems to bow out of the picture altogether. That, of course, is overstating it: God is as close to us as life itself. But from appearances, He seems to have done what the owner of the vineyard in the parable did. He turned the property and its potential over to tenants and went into another country, not explaining when he would return.

If we interpret the parable in this manner, however, we invite disaster. Contrary to modern myth, God has not abandoned us; He has simply sat back and given us complete freedom with the vineyard. In the parable, we see the turn events took when the tenants discovered that the owner was an absentee landlord. It seems incredible to us that tenants of a property could conclude that by killing the owner’s son they would inherit everything. But by doing something that stupid, not only will they lose the property and the right to make use of it, but they will surely be put to death.

But before we judge them too harshly or shake our heads too readily, let us look at our own case. God has given us a planet, rich in natural resources, water, and sun without our asking. A planet teeming with all sorts of living things and all manner of productive vegetation. He asks us to make use of it and when we are finished, we are to become part of it: earth to earth, dust to dust.

But what have we done with what he gave us? We have poisoned the water ways and polluted the air; a lot of farmland is no longer agriculturally viable because of toxic chemical accumulation. There are gaping scars across the landscape where we have dug out minerals but not put the earth back in a shape permitting re-foliation. We consume natural resources too rapidly and refuse to take urgent measures to develop renewable sources of energy.

As a result, we endanger all life on the planet. To quote Greta Thunberg, we are in a climate emergency. If you were God, looking in on how we are managing the universe, what would your reaction be? God has also given us the human family, rich in potential for development of community life. But what are we doing with what we have been given? There are of course some happy stories to be told, but overall, things look miserable. Families and nations rise against each other; children, women, and those who need protection are exploited, traded, used, and abused by their very protectors. Last week I mentioned the oncologist from Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge who abused children under his care. Globally, hatred, hostilities and discrimination thrive within families, communities and nations, based on gender, nationality, and religion.

We constantly fight and abuse one another; something that must sadden God, who dignified humanity by becoming one of us in the person of his Son. The failure of the institution of marriage among us is beyond debate. It seems to be increasingly despised by those who enter it, and this must displease God immensely, who ordained it as a holy sacrament.

Then there is the matter of direction. Where on earth can we be headed, with our headlong rush after unsustainable goals? Whose name is glorified when we build empires with our own names on them? Our culture extols the simple hedonistic path of get rich, get famous, get comfortable. But the Scriptures talk about a different kind of getting: In your getting, get wisdom ... says the writer of proverbs. He too wrote in a world not hugely different from our own.

The fact of the matter is that God has given us the world and all that is within it so that we might have an opportunity to know and serve him. But we squander the opportunity through selfish schemes. The logical conclusion of it all is that which we read in this parable: We kill the owner’s son and in our headlong dash into vain opportunism, we completely lose what was given to us in love. A planet meant to be conserved and used for wealth, health, and healing turns into a burning, rotten dumping site unfit for life. Like the servants in the parable or like the wealthy relatives parading to the cemetery, we can start with a promise of inheritance but end with nothing.

Faithful service in the owner’s vineyard is not an easy task. It is more tempting to take the vineyard for ourselves because in the short run, it looks so easy and so fulfilling to pretend we are in charge. But taking such a gamble with the owners’ property will surely lead to our death. By contrast, using our life on earth as an opportunity enriches everything we do. It gives direction and deep purpose to our lives and keeps us from pretending we are God instead of giving God the glory.

So, today, as we celebrate Harvest Sunday in our community, let us thank God for the goodness and loving kindness shown towards us: that he has not decided to deal with us like the foolish tenants. Let us thank him for our creation, preservation and all the benefits of this life. Because living a life based on gratitude, rather than one which constantly complains that nothing is ever right, can make all the difference. But let our thanksgiving be more than just mere platitudes. Let it move our collective consciences, our actions and the choices we make. Let us take seriously the challenge to live more fairly, more sustainably and more harmoniously in God’s world with all those we share it with.

Ladies and gentlemen, give the owner of the vineyard what rightfully belongs to him and affirm that everything we have belongs to him. He has made a promise to us that if we are meek, we shall inherit the earth. And indeed we will, because God is good.