Violence in the Vineyard (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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So, I have a confession. Or, maybe not so much a confession, as a public admission (I’m not sure there’s really a difference though). I was going to say that in my mind the word ‘confession’ conjures up wrong-doing, and I’ve not really done anything wrong. Although, when I critically think about it, it’s more what I haven’t done or failed to do that ends up being the confession. 

So, my confession:
I’m not that well-versed in creation care.
I mean, I know the basics. I recycle; I am looking into composting; I turn off my lights and use long-lasting lightbulbs; I conserve water, although there are 6 people living in my house; I buy organic and have my milk delivered in glass bottles; I participate extensively in my local Buy Nothing Group. 

But… that’s about the extent of my knowledge.
And everything I read and hear tells me it’s not enough. 

I don’t read a lot of National Geographic, but recently I was made aware of their Earth Day edition which came out in April. Yes, I know Earth Day was a few months ago, and I’m late to the game. Like I said, it’s not that I don’t care, it’s just not always the pressing crisis on my mind, which when I say that aloud, it sounds an awful lot like an excuse. 

Anyway, I read the issue.
Or, at least as much of it as I could manage, because depending on what article I was reading I was either heartened and hopeful; or dismayed and fatalistic. 

Many of you may be familiar with it, but for those of you who aren’t…

It’s a ‘flip’ issue. One end of the magazine is entitled, “How We Lost the Planet: A Pessimist’s Guide to Life on Earth in 2070.” The flip side of the magazine is entitled, “How We Saved the World: An Optimist’s Guide to Life on Earth in 2070.” The issue paints two very different futures, and does so based on known facts, science, and human behaviors. The outcomes differ based on the one variable: human behavior.

Now, I know that the “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants,” as the Gospel is often referred to, isn’t straightforwardly about climate change and saving the planet. Jesus tells this particular parable to indict the leaders of his day for exploiting and mistreating God’s people — God’s vineyard. The parable is an expose – meant to highlight the corruption of the religious elite, and condemn their obsessions with privilege and power.  

What the tenants in the story neglect to understand — or very deliberately choose to ignore — is that they are stewards rather than owners of the vineyard. Because of their selfishness, power, and near-sightedness violence erupts.
Who is this landowner to expect anything back from them?
Who is this landowner to expect them to freely gift fruit and wine?
Who is this landowner to expect them to welcome someone new to their land? 

From a practical standpoint, the tenants had decided they could run God’s kingdom without God. They were thankful He wasn’t around. They could use and abuse resources and people in the ways they wanted. Which means the tenants killed those that challenge their thinking or their way of life.

Jesus’ point throughout the parable seems to be that the people who have been entrusted with authority have abused it: they are like wicked tenants who have dishonored God’s house.
Where is God’s house, if not the whole of the earth?
Who are the tenants, if not those of us who inhabit the earth?
How is this not also an indictment on how we have cared for creation? Or not cared for it?

To put it bluntly, the tenants have forgotten that they own nothing. They are stewards, meant to care for that which is owned by the landowner. 

Owning NOTHING is something that doesn’t sit well with us.
From a faith perspective, from God’s viewpoint, everything in our lives – our children, our spouses, our land and gardens, our food, our lakes, rivers, and streams; all of it – is not ours. Yes, we work hard at raising children, growing food, building homes on lands, but that is our tending work. It doesn’t belong to us. 

It belongs to God. All of it. 

I’m a bit reticent to preach a sermon on something that I don’t have a deep well of knowledge in, and frankly, because I know plenty of you remember Pastor Sarah. I’m not her; I don’t have her background in environmental sciences. 

But, what I do have is a growing fear that we are in trouble.

There’s so much violence in the vineyard.
That’s the phrase that kept tumbling around in my head over and over again this week.

But more to the point: we are doing so much violence to the vineyard. 

~We demand more and more energy. So, even though there’s a boom in renewable energy, we still aren’t reducing our use of fossil fuels.
~California is aflame again. Warming temperatures dry out fire-feeders. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark. In just 2020 more the 2 million acres have burned – just in California. 

~The global population is expected to reach 10.5 billion in the next 50 years. The way we use freshwater now is not sustainable by that number of people. And, ironically, extreme flooding and storms are becoming more and more frequent.
~Carbon dioxide keeps piling up like trash in a landfill. It doesn’t just dissipate. This causes the earth to trap heat, which then affects the life of plants and creatures, including humans; this means food chains are disrupted, health is at risk, severe weather occurrences rise. 
~And if all those things don’t raise your anxiety – Napa Valley, one the most famous wine growing regions in the world – it’s currently burning to the ground. Talk about violence in the vineyard. 

These are just a couple examples. I mean, likely I don’t need to iterate all the ways the earth and its inhabitants are dying. Or being murdered. I mean, I hate it, but from God’s perspective, I think God sees us as murdering the planet. Like, we are the wicked tenants. We have blood on our hands. I know that’s a horrible thing to say. 

However, when it comes to the planet, the bottom line is crystal clear in Scripture: we are NOT owners. We are tenants of a vineyard God cares about deeply. God’s very essence must ache. I mean, I wonder if watching the earth die isn’t just as hard, if not harder, as watching his Son die… God’s already given us everything: resources, love, abundance, wisdom, Jesus.
What more is there for God to give? 

I’m getting to the good news. I promise. We are people of hope; we are people of promise; we are people of the resurrection. We are not just tenants, but children of a mighty and magnificent God. 

The fact that God has entrusted US to care for and about the stars in the sky and the grass under our feet; the bud that flowers and then dies; the child that is born and the one who dies; the pigs and the mosquitoes – it is pure miracle.

There’s a line in the book “The Lorax” that says: Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
And I think that’s the thing…
It’s up to US. You and Me. To care a lot. And to do something with that ‘caring.’

A lot of the information that I shared in the beginning about the catastrophic challenges we face in regards to the planet were shared in National Geographic. But, as I mentioned, it’s a ‘flip’ issue. And so, there’s another side to this story and I believe it’s the Easter part, the hopeful part, the piece that as tenants of the planet, we can bring about… 

Additionally, God likes to flip things upside down. When we least expect it, God often uses people to do the unexpected – the flip of what’s expected.
I want to be part of the unexpected! I want to be part of the saving; to be part of the flip side! 

Now, what I don’t want to do is inundate you with things you could do. I don’t know if that’s ultimately helpful or not. But, what I can point you to is: get your hand on a copy of the National Geographic magazine I referenced and do one thing: find the fold out map. It offers concrete things we can do to really make a difference, from replenishing fisheries to preserving rainforests to priority areas for protection. It is honestly quite helpful and informative. Pick something new that you and your family are committing to take on. 

Climate change is an opportunity for us to step up – to be compassionate caretakers, and not just tenants. God has an enormous amount of faith in us to entrust all that God’s made into OUR hands. 

Now, another word of hope: I do believe that the earth will be renewed and restored. That somehow, God’s coming kingdom will bring healing to all — even to all of creation. But I don’t for one minute believe that we — the caretakers — are somehow off the hook because the landowner will ultimately reclaim his vineyard.

I don’t have a more eloquent way to say this: But, come on, people. We can do this. We need to. For our own sake, for our children’s sake, and for the sake of Jesus.