October 8, 2017

Service to Others as Rent – October 8, 2017

Passage: Matthew 21:33-46

Bible Text: Matthew 21:33-46 | Preacher: The Rev. Dr. James R. Wheeler

Dell Kendall, who many here know because she used to sing in our choir, has a quote she uses as a signature at the end of all her emails.

Service to others is the rent we pay for the space we occupy in the world. (The quote or something similar to it is attributed to many people, but the idea goes back as far as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.)

I love that quote and I think it is absolutely true. I think that is the ultimate meaning of the Jesus’ parable we just heard – the parable of the wicked tenants. Of course, the wicked tenants in Jesus’ parable are wicked precisely because they refuse to pay that rent.

Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard was a pointed barb at the leaders of Israel who had rejected him and had rejected God. They are the tenants of the vineyard who reject the owner’s son and kill him. But, beyond the context of telling this parable in Jerusalem in the week in which he was killed, it has a wider and more universal meaning. God is the Landlord who planted the vineyard and rented it out and we are God’s tenants. We owe God rent, even if God seems distant, even if we deny God’s messengers and refuse to pay it. The vineyard is not ours. We don’t own it. It was given to us not just for our own use but as a way for the Landlord to profit. We are tenants. God is the owner.

Think of that meaning for our lives. We must recognize that all things — the clothes on our backs, all our possessions, the dollars in our wallets and even the rented ceilings above our heads, belong to God and are on loan to us from God. King David reminds us “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1) God owns everything. It’s simply been leased to us. Everything we have belongs to God. It’s not ours but God’s. We can accept that and pay rent or we can deny it and reject God’s messengers who remind us of what we owe.

What is the rent we owe? Well, I’ve already leaked out the answer in my opening words. “Service is the rent we owe for the space we occupy in the world.” But service isn’t the whole answer. We owe God our obedience and faithfulness. The 10 commandments, which we heard today in the reading from Exodus, describes the ethical way of living that God expects of us as part of the rent we owe. We shall not murder. We shall not commit adultery. We shall not steal. We shall not bear false witness. We shall not covet, etc. God alone is the Lord and we shall have no other God but God. Ethical living is part of the rent we owe.

But Paul told us today in Philippians that ethical living isn’t enough. Paul had every reason to boast of his obedience to that Law. He had a spotless resume as one of the best and brightest and most fervent of God’s chosen people. He was honored and recognized for his zeal. And yet Paul counted all that as so much rubbish (so much garbage!), in comparison to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord. For Paul, nothing less than knowing Christ, sharing in his death and knowing the power of his resurrection, will do. In essence Paul is telling us that a response of immense gratitude for the gift of Christ dying for us, forgiving us and giving us new life means nothing less than paying the rent of following Jesus in the very love and service that Jesus gives to us.

The tenants in the vineyard refused to pay the landlord the rent. They refuse to listen to the owner’s messengers. They beat some and killed others. They refused to acknowledge the real owner and pay the owner his due. How about us? Do we recognize God as the true owner and source of all that we have? Or do we think it is all our stuff – our possessions, our savings, our jobs, our income, our knowledge and skills, our time, and even our bodies – are our own? It seems to me that denial of the first commandment that we shall have no other Gods than God, is at the heart and root of all our attempts to deny God’s ownership. If we claim all of it as our own we deny acknowledging God as the owner. We put ourselves in God’s place. It’s a kind of idolatry.

The wicked tenants treatment of the landlord’s servants may seem rather extreme. They beat some and killed others. And yet when we look at the events in Las Vegas this last week and the massacre of people by Stephen Paddock don’t we see someone doing just that, claiming his total right to the vineyard and killing and trying to obliterate others who somehow in his madness seemed to come between himself and his claim that all is his? That’s the essence of evil. It comes from the lie that we are the owners of the vineyard. It denies the giftedness of life. It denies the debt we owe as tenants. It’s a refusal to pay our rent.

The remarkable thing in the parable is how patient the landlord is. His response to the tenants denials and wickedness is not to send an army and evict them but rather to send more and more messengers. Finally he sends his son. God chooses to respond to evil through his followers. In the face of evil, God keeps sending messengers into it. His response to evil is to send those who do good.

Finally the landlord sends his own son. The wicked tenants decide that if they kill the heir then the vineyard will become their own. Jesus asked the leaders of the city and the Temple who had come to test him what the owner would do to those wicked tenants. And they pronounced the judgement that the owner would surely send an army, kill the wicked tenants and give the vineyard to others. It’s easy to think this is the ending to the parable. But it’s not. The true ending is found in the death of God’s Son on the cross at Calvary. Jesus’ death results not in judgment but in mercy and forgiveness. Jesus’ death offers us the chance of a new birth a new start, a new beginning in right relationship with God as the Owner of the Vineyard. The merciful gift of Jesus’ death upon the cross and the power of God that overcame death and raised him from the grave is the true ending of the parable.

Starting last Sunday and for the next several weeks a parishioner from St. John’s will share a brief witness of why they support St. John’s financially and what they get out of that themselves. Tithing – giving a portion of our income to God and God’s work through the work of the Church and God’s people – is an ancient practice. What I want to emphasize today is that it is a spiritual discipline. It is the practice in the most basic measure of all that we have – our financial income – of giving back to God something concrete and valuable. It instills in us the practice of paying rent. It instills in us the right relationship as tenants to God as the owner. It is an essential spiritual practice to spiritual health in God’s Kingdom.

Service is the rent we pay for the space we occupy in the world. Ultimately as Christians our life is meant to reflect that of Jesus and Jesus’ gift of himself upon the cross. As Jesus came as a servant of all and emptied himself of all power and glory to take our place, so he calls us to follow him. We are blessed by that cross and we are also shaped by it. We best follow Jesus by imitating him. As he gave his life for us and for the world he invites us to give ourselves in service to others. A financial tithe puts us in the practice of recognizing God as God. Service to others is the ultimate fruit of God’s love invested in us. It is the true rent we pay as Christians who have not only been given everything by God, but also given a new life through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Service to others is the rent we pay in loving response to all that God in Christ has given us. Amen.

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