Stewardship of Inheritance

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
October 2, 2011 - Ordinary (27A)
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

The passages we have received today are the kind that many Presbyterians like. Indeed many who claim the name of Christian like these kinds of passages. The words we have received today are very comforting to many of us - which is nice since there are so many passages that confront us. We have the Ten Commandments, Paul’s encouragement of what lies ahead in eternity, and Jesus telling stories that discredit the Pharisees. These passages are orderly. They make sense. They offer the rules we follow, the promise for success, and a warning for failure. Not only that, they offer us the chance to point a finger at those nasty Pharisees. What more could we need?

The Pharisees were not all bad though. They were the rule keepers - even the rule makers at times. Had it not been for them the Jewish people may have been consumed, as other occupied people were, by the Roman Empire. Yet Jesus describes them in this parable as the wicked tenants. These tenants did not only break the rules - they shattered them! They used the Land Owner’s resources, killed and beat up his servants, and killed his son - because they wanted his inheritance!

“If we get rid of the heir,” they said, “the Land Owner will eventually die, and we’ll get to keep all of this stuff for ourselves!” And to this - to these wicked tenants - Jesus comparing the religious authorities. He had just cleared the temple and cursed a fig tree that did not produce fruit. He had just compared the religious leaders to the son who told his father he would work in the vineyard but did not. He had just finished telling them that the people they think least likely to be loved by God are in deed going to be rewarded for their repentance. Now he is telling them that their faithful rule making has become selfish rule breaking.

Hmm...that is not quite as comfortable for those of us who like things decently and in order. Maybe there is something that confronts us here after all. Maybe there is even something that convicts us, challenges us, and expects us to respond to these old words in a new way.

I think that is the part of Paul’s message that is so easy to overlook. Whatever we use to comfort ourselves or to make sense of our lives - the belief that we are trying our best to live a good life, the feeling that we could never live a life that is good enough, the idea that we are trying to be good but the cards are stacked against us - nothing we use to feel good about ourselves will ever get us where we have been created to go. All of the “best laid plans of mice and men” are simply trash in comparison to a life lived in concert with God’s will. Nothing we can attain is anything in comparison to what we will attain through faith in Christ.

And yet we have things we are supposed to do. And yet we have these rules to follow. We have these Commandments - not suggestions but commandments. We have this revelation of God through the invitation to follow the orders of the Creator of all things. You may have noticed that the first four are about our relationship with God, but interestingly enough, the last six are about our relationship with others - with other people and their property. These commandments were given as a means of salvation - not just eternal salvation, but salvation in the wilderness. They were given as a means of survival in the here and now and survival as a people in the years to come. They were given as an answer to the question, “Is God with us or not?”

I think that is the question we are trying to answer when we look to rules and order to help make sense of the things we do not understand. I think that is one of the reasons why there is so much emotion around the debates of posting the Ten Commandments in public property. I think the question, “Is God with us?” is part of the motivation for the emails some of us receive and some of us forward, asking others to do the same.

One email that I recently received tells a tale that originated in a book of stories from the venerated preacher, Fred Craddock. It tells of an older gentleman visiting other guests in a restaurant in the hills of Tennessee. He finds out that Craddock is a preacher and tells him a story of a young boy who grew up without a father and was ostracized by his community. One day the new preacher caught him on the way out and was trying to figure out who’s family the boy was a part of. He asked the boy who his father was. The congregation waited as the young minister realized his error and said, “Oh, I know you - you’re a child of God! Go out and claim your inheritance!” The boy is, of course, the older gentleman who is telling his own story story. This man is later revealed to Craddock as Ben Hooper, a former Governor of Tennessee.

It doesn’t really matter whether the Pastor’s affirmation changed the life of that little boy or whether it simply acknowledged the work that God was already doing in his life. What matters is that a child who others rejected was able to claim an inheritance that had already claimed him.

And that is really the question that these scriptures confront us with today. Will we claim the inheritance that has already claimed us, or will we try to take it by force? Will we use the commandments of God to justify our own actions and lives, or will we be guided by them into a right relationship with God and with others?

In many ways, we are the ones to whom God has given the vineyard. In many ways, we are the ones given the opportunity to bear fruit that is pleasing to God. The metaphor of Jesus as the Land Owner’s son is pretty obvious, but the catch is in the response of the Father to his son’s death. The Pharisees say that “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.”

Jesus does not disagree with them, but he also offers more grace than we might expect - even to them. Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

And when I read this I realized he was talking to me, religious authority that I am, and I became convicted. I became convicted because I also heard Paul say, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

You see, I do not believe that it is enough to claim Christ as the cornerstone. Certainly we must claim Christ as a central point of orientation. That is what a cornerstone does for a building - it is the point of origin that orders the construction of the entire structure. And if the church were simply a building then that might be enough. But the church is not simply a building. The church is you and me. The church is all people everywhere who profess Jesus as Lord! The church is people who agree on what Jesus did for us, but can’t seem to agree on what we should do for him. The church is organic and dynamic. The church is expected to bear fruit and when it is not it is expected to be crushed!

And here is the grace in that. Because you see, “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.” You see the vineyard we have inherited has a wine press in it, and the church - the body of Christ - is invited to become new through our brokenness. We are invited to become pressed into something more capable, more hospitable, and more faithful through our limitations.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Anne Rachal how many people she fed last Wednesday night. If you think that was just because of the Luckey’s Jazz Quartet, then as Mirna Patrick how much peanut butter she has collected for the UCO. If you say that’s just because we made you feel guilty, then go ask Jan Harrelson how many emergency food bags we have given out over the last year. If you say that’s just because of the economy, then come by any morning and see the smiles and energy given off by meals on wheels drivers. And if you still don’t believe me, then come talk to Sue Turner about how many Christmas baskets have already been made; go to CUPS with Robert Nash and see how they are rebuilding lives one couch at a time; join us on Wednesdays for prayer and study! There are just so many opportunities here to plant and harvest and press as we watch for the coming of the Lord!

Of course not everyone can do everything, but everyone can do one thing - and that is to pray. Pray and be open to God’s presence. For God is not an absentee land owner. God is not waiting for us to mess up so we can be punished. God is with us in the lamb who is slain again and again and again for me and for you, so that we may bear fruit that is pleasing to God.

Our inheritance is here - in the baptismal font. Our inheritance is here - at this Lord’s Table. So, come. Come and claim the inheritance that has already claimed you! And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!
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