Fifth Sunday of Lent
5 Lent, C: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126 ; Philippians 3:8-14; Luke 20:9-19
March 25, 2007
Rev. Lauran Pifke,
Guest Preacher, St. Philip’s, Scotts Valley, CA
Today is the Fifth Sunday in Lent and that means that we are more than halfway through the season of repentance and reconciliation. And if your Lenten discipline consists of giving up chocolate or wine, you are probably looking forward to the end of it. And the hymns are far better in Easter! But, over the years, I have come to appreciate Lent. It seems to me to be a kind of pause in the church year, when we quiet down and look inward. It is a time to remember our mortality (ashes to ashes and dust to dust). Sometimes it almost feels like we are collectively holding our breath waiting for the resurrection. Lent gives us an opportunity to assess ourselves, to repent and change those things that are not helping us to become the people God wants us to be. The self-denial that is called for during Lent seems to me to have more to do with humility and acceptance of our rightful place in creation than it does with whether or not we eat chocolate. This is our chance to ask for and accept forgiveness, to be reconciled and once again enter a right relationship with God.
So today’s gospel is entirely appropriate to the season of Lent because it tells the story of one of the ways a relationship with God can go awry. A man planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants, and went away to another country for a long time. So begins the story commonly referred to as the parable of the wicked tenants. There is, of course, in this story a prediction of Jesus’ death and even the chief priests and the scribes understood that he was talking about them. But the part of this story that strikes me is the fact that the owner of the vineyard went away for a long time – so long, in fact, that his tenants began to believe that the vineyard was theirs. Their “wickedness” seems to be caused more by forgetfulness than anything else – they had all forgotten who they were or whom they worked for. They were no longer able to discern their rightful place in the world. Once they believed that the vineyard and what it produced belonged to them, they were hesitant to share the proceeds with anyone else – including the rightful owner.
This story reminds me of another one –it is one of the first stewardship stories I ever heard. Before I went to seminary, I served as the Stewardship Officer for the Diocese of CA for 5 years and I collected lots of stewardship stories. This one is about a pastor who went out to visit a new parishioner. The parishioner was a man who had recently moved into a rundown house. The previous owners had left the front yard in a real tangle of weeds and brush and tall grass. But in the few months since he bought the place, the man had literally transformed that front yard into a beautiful lawn and garden. When the pastor called he saw the miraculous improvement. He said to the man, "My, isn't it wonderful what you and God have been able to do with this yard?" The man thought for a moment, scratched his head, and then replied, "Yes, it is, but you should have seen it when God had it alone."
This story has more than one point. There is the obvious one that has to do with the fact that everything we have is a gift from God. In the words of the psalmist: The Lord has done great things for us! How easy it is to forget that and begin to believe that we are owners rather than tenants. We can even be seduced into thinking that we have somehow earned or even created what we have – that we are entitled to it. But the truth is that we did not choose the time or the circumstance into which we were born. Nor, as Lent reminds us, do we decide how much time we have. As Gandalf told Frodo in Lord of the Rings: the only thing that is yours to decide is what to do with the time that has been given you. And that is what stewardship is about – how we spend that which has been given to us. And that brings up the other point to this story - that is that God needs us, our hands, to tend the garden or the vineyard that symbolize the earth – we have an important part to play. Because being a tenant or a steward means taking care of things. God needs us to help build his kingdom. There is responsibility and accountability involved.
When I think about God’s kingdom, I remember Jesus saying that it is “at hand.” This makes it seem so close that if we reach out we might even touch it. And in this morning’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah we heard, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth – Do you not perceive it?” This, too, makes me believe that God’s kingdom is incredibly and even frustratingly close – it is right in front of me, I just can’t always see it. I am convinced that one of the things that prevents us from perceiving the kingdom of God is the illusion of self-sufficiency and the feeling of entitlement that accompanies it. Stewardship is about remembering that life itself is a gift from God. It opens our hearts and minds to gratitude and our ability to perceive God in the midst of us is increased.
In this season of Lent we are being called to amendment of life. We are being asked to repent - to turn ourselves around and use the time that has been given to us in ways that serve God’s purpose. That purpose involves building something new –God wants our help in doing a new thing. Remember that in God’s kingdom the rejected stone actually becomes the cornerstone. This is a symbol for the reversal of expectations – this is the good news for the poor and the hope for those who are afflicted. The world will be transformed by God’s love because God loves us so much that his response to our forgetfulness and our rejection is to send his beloved Son so that we might be forgiven. Our acceptance of that forgiveness opens the door to a new world, a kingdom.
In the collect for today, we prayed for grace to love what God commands and to desire what God promises. In order to be receptive to that grace, we need to make sure that forgetfulness hasn’t lured us away from a right relationship with God. We need to remember that we are God’s stewards. We have been given an awesome responsibility. And like honored guests, we are expected to behave in a certain way. God has commanded us to care for the earth and for each other. And if, during our stay here, we are able to hold the desire for the promise of God’s kingdom above all other desires we will more than likely be helping to build it.