Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sharecroppers in God’s vineyard

Matthew 21:33-46

After the end of the Civil War in the US, former slaves and poor whites became tenant farmers, also called sharecroppers. Without slaves to work the crops, landowners divided their land into small plots, provided small houses, seed, and equipment to the tenants. The expectation was that out of the harvest, the advance expenses would be repaid and the owner’s share of the crop – perhaps 50% -- would be profit for the owner.
If the tenant farmer was skilled and the harvest was good, it was enough to live on for the tenant and a small family. Most years, it was a challenge to pay the landowner and have enough left for oneself and the family. If the tenant wasn’t skilled or the crop failed, the landowner had the right to remove the tenants and find other willing tenants.
This is essentially the same as the situation described in Matthew. Jesus tells a story about tenant farmers. The tenants decided they did not want to give the owner his share of the crop. We don’t know if the absent landowner was unfair or if the tenants were evil. We just know what Jesus said. The tenants killed the slaves the owner sent to collect the crop. Then they killed more slaves. Finally, they killed the owner’s son, assuming they could keep the land for themselves.
Jesus asked the Pharisees and priests what the landowner should do in this situation. They replied with the very human response – basically, kick those no-good-nicks off the land and put new tenants there.
The chief priests and Pharisees correctly saw that Jesus was talking about them. Jesus was implying that they, the designated leaders of the Jewish people, were terrible tenants of God’s land and they were going to lose their power and be replaced. As in previous stories, they were powerless to do anything about it, because of the crowds.
We should notice that it is the leaders who state the outcome of the parable, not Jesus. The reality is that the leaders who were alive in Jesus’ time died long before the calamity of the destruction of the temple. They and others like them continue to rule for another 40 years. I’m sure it seemed to them that Jesus was wrong. Even the upstart Christian sect had little impact on their leadership for many years.
After the destruction of the temple in 70CE, the sacrificial system ended because there was no place for offering sacrifices, and those who were in charge lost power. While people continued to visit Jerusalem for the holidays, the city was no longer the year-round center for faith practices.
The local synagogue became the more important location, and the sacrifice was not animals and grains but prayers. While the leaders were not immediately thrown out of power by Jesus’ death and resurrection, their successors were eventually replaced to a great degree by local rabbis. The goal of revitalizing the faith was accomplished, even though it took time, God’s time.
… What did Jesus want the leaders and all the people to do? Bear fruit. What does Jesus want us to do today? Bear fruit. Although it might be fun to imagine apples and oranges hanging from our fingers, bearing fruit as Christians means something different.
On Blue Bloods TV show Friday night, a man was being sought for a crime he committed several years earlier. Since that time, he realized he needed to change, and has been working to help others in the community avoid the mistakes he made. He has served his time, although not in prison. Through God’s grace, a man who could identify him as the shooter in the old crime decides to hold his tongue. They have both borne fruit.
I read the newsletters from my former congregation, Hope in Plainwell, Michigan. This month they reported on an organization called Women Who Care. The mission is to gather women who will commit to giving $100 four times a year. They meet quarterly for a meal and a meeting.
Each woman nominates a charity by writing it on a slip of paper with her name. Three slips are drawn, and the nominator tells why she nominated that charity. All the women vote, choosing one of the three charities. This time, the chosen charity was Hands 2 Hands, a weekend food program like our Citrus County Blessings. With 40 women in attendance, Hands 2 Hands received $4,000. Together, these women are bearing lots of fruit.
Williams, Arizona, is a small city, population about 3,000, but representing about 44 square miles of land. It’s near the southern end of the Grand Canyon, so in tourist season, the residents do pretty well. But, other times of the year, finances for the families get pretty tight. The local Kiwanis Club recently held a pajama drive, seeking funds and pajama donations for the needy children of their area. In one month they were able to give 250 sets of bed-ware. That’s a lot of fruit, and a lot of warm children.
Right here at Hope, Hans gave of his time and talent to create a beautiful new altar for us. Together, we share a meal from this table and enjoy the fruit of his labor as well as the fruit of the vine in the meal Jesus gave us.
… We are the sharecroppers in Jesus’ vineyard, and he expects us to bear fruit, and to share that fruit with others. What fruit do you bear? Do you find forgiveness in your heart for someone who wronged you? Do you give generously of your time to mentor others? Do you give generously of your money to help those in need?
Since it is time to turn in your commitment cards, are you praying about the amount you give to Hope, to support the ministries of this congregation, so we can bear fruit in our community, in Florida, around the country, and around the world? Do you give generously of your time and talents, and agree to serve on committees, to guide the ministries of this congregation?
Today we join with millions of Christians around the world in sharing the fruit of the vine and the bread of Holy Communion in World Communion Sunday. We recognize that together we are sharecroppers in God’s vineyard and celebrate Jesus’ Lordship over us all. Together, we bear fruit, lots of fruit, and offer it all to Jesus.

Please pray with me. Lord Jesus, we give you thanks for the gifts you give to us: the work we are to do in your vineyard, the talents we have to share with others, the money that fills our pockets, and the blessing of forgiveness. We gather with you around the table and enjoy the taste of your goodness. Amen