Growing Goodness

Jesus wants us to be growing good, and if we aren’t, the kingdom grows elsewhere.
How can we be good tenants?

Watch at Sunday at 10:45 am on Facebook.

Read Psalm 118:22-24,29; Isaiah 5:1-4; Matthew 21:33-46

A heads up for you about this message. There might be a few grape puns.  Try not to wine about it too much.

In the parable we just read, whose vineyard is It? The ownership of the vineyard is clear.  It belongs to the landowner.  But the tenants in the vineyard seem to have forgotten who owned the vineyard.  Maybe they had been there so long and worked so hard for those crops, that they felt like they owned it.

In life, ownership is not always so clear.  If you are a pet owner, you know this to be true.  This list of rules for the dog demonstrate how this works:

Rule #1: The DOG is not allowed in the house.
• Okay, the DOG is allowed in the house, but only in certain rooms.
• The DOG is allowed in all rooms, but has to stay off the furniture.
• The DOG can get on the old furniture only.
• Fine, the DOG is allowed on all the furniture, but is not allowed to sleep with the humans in the bed.
• Okay, the DOG is allowed on the bed, but only by invitation.
• The DOG can sleep on the bed whenever he wants, but not under the covers.
• The DOG can sleep under the covers by invitation only.
• The DOG can sleep under the covers every night.
• Humans must ask permission to sleep under the covers with……. the DOG.[1]

Do the people own the dog or does the dog own the people?

In this parable that Jesus told, he’s showing how things have gotten similarly mixed up.  He’s alluding to the scripture in Isaiah that Dennis read for us, in which the vineyard is the nation of Israel and the vines are the people.  Isaiah laments that instead of producing good, sweet grapes, the vineyard is producing bitter or sour grapes.  In Jesus’ parable, the problem is the tenants, those who tend the grapes. They’ve forgotten that they are stewards, not owners.

When Jesus asks his listeners at the end of the parable, “What will the landholder do?” They answer, “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 doesn’t say, “You are those tenants,” but the chief priests and pharisees figure it out. They realized that they were the tenants in the story.  And today we could be the tenants in the story, as well, because everything we have, our lives, this world, this church, everything comes from God.  We may think of ourselves as owners, the bank may list us as owners of our stuff, but ultimately all of it comes from God, and we are stewards of all that God has given us.  We are like those tenants.

Jesus wants us to be good tenants growing good fruit. How can we be good tenants?

There are many ways to answer that question.  The answer changes depending on our current situation.  So it’s important to keep asking. One way to be sure we are good tenants is to be seeking to improve. 

One of my professors in seminary said we should evaluate everything.  After an event, evaluate. After you try something new, evaluate.  Been doing something the same way for a long time?  Evaluate. Celebrate what works well.  Take note of what doesn’t work so you don’t repeat it. It’s written into our Presbyterian constitution, our Book of Order:

“…the church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The church affirms Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, that is, “The church reformed, always to be reforming according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit.” -F-2.02

Reformed and always reforming. It’s why we pray prayers of confession. We evaluate and make changes to make sure we’re being good tenants, that we aren’t failing to see and hear what God is teaching us, and to make sure that we are producing good fruit.

The chief priests and elders, when they realized the parable was about them, could have said, “What must we do to atone for our sin and renew our relationship with the landowner?” 

They don’t.  But if they had, they might have learned a little more about God and…

  1. God’s great patience.

The parable tells us that the landowner kept sending people to try to collect the landowner’s share of the crop (34-36), just as God for thousands of years had been sending messengers and prophets to Israel.  All of them brought a similar message:  Repent and turn back to God.

The temple was supposed to be a house of prayer, and the messages God kept sending were all about calling the people to turn back to him in prayer.

God was waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting, and sending prophet after prophet, and last of all he sent his son.

God is incredibly patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish.  He’s waiting so that everyone will have a chance to turn to him. (2 Peter 3:9)

He’s waiting because he loves us.  Jesus came to show us how much God loves us. And if those leaders would have asked how they could be better tenants, they might have seen that…

  • God wants our hearts. 

Our hearts are the very core of us.

Jesus is challenging these authorities because worship in the temple had become about making money and following rituals.  The temple sacrifices had been intended as a means for worshiping God, but instead they had become the end.  They had forgotten what they were supposed to be about.  They were worshipping with their lips, but not with their hearts. 

We too need to remember why we do what we do.  If our hearts are not in it, then there’s no point in doing it.  Worship is about turning our hearts toward God, and loving him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving our neighbors like he does.

One way to make sure we’re good tenants is make sure we don’t lose sight of who we’re worshipping and following – Jesus.

 Jesus gives these leaders an analogy – the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  He’s quoting from Psalm 118:22-23, the psalm we read as our call to worship this morning.  The prophet Isaiah also tells about a cornerstone.

Isaiah 28:16 Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem, a firm and tested stone. It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on. Whoever believes need never be shaken.

We don’t build with stone in quite the same way as they did back then.  Now instead of laying a cornerstone, we more often pour a foundation of cement.  But if there is nothing built on that cement, it becomes something that is easily tripped over. 

In my backyard we have a patch of cement sticking out of the dirt.  Maybe years ago it might have been the beginning of an attempt to pave the driveway, or maybe the foundation for a shed.  Now, it’s been distorted by tree roots, and if we don’t look where we’re walking, we trip over it.

A cornerstone is the most important stone because it sets the direction the building will face.  To build properly, all the subsequent stones have to be in line with that cornerstone. But if you don’t build on the cornerstone, it’s just another rock in the field to trip over. Jesus is our cornerstone. If we build our lives on Jesus, he offers us God’s grace and patience and love.

But the Jewish leaders in Jesus time were focused on keeping the peace and maintaining the status quo, which sounds like a good thing, but it’s only good if the status quo has you in a good, safe, comfortable place.  In Jesus’ time, the status quo meant that anyone who didn’t meet their requirements was shut out of the temple and away from God.

In our time, the status quo is a system and economy that was written by white people for white people.  It’s important that we denounce white supremacy.  It’s also important that we listen to the prophets of our time trying to help us see how our systems need to change so that they are more fair and just to all people.  We need to make sure that whatever systems we build have Jesus as the cornerstone, love and justice as the cornerstone, and not our safety and comfort at the expense of others.

If we’re willing to listen and learn and grow, we’ll get there, with God’s help. God is incredibly patient, and God wants all our hearts. And…

  • God wants us to be thankful and to share.

The tenants in the vineyard had gotten confused about who was really in charge and why they were taking care of the grapes in the first place.  The tenants didn’t own the land, and they owed the landowner his share of the produce, but they forget that everything they’ve produced belongs to the landowner and mistakenly think they’re entitled to keep all of it.

As I was working this week on raisin my understanding of how vineyards work, I came across an article that said everyone should grow grapes in their back yard.  They give ten reasons.  Top of the list is that you get to eat the grapes, of course.[2]  They make it sound so easy . . . but, then, they don’t know me. I don’t have a green thumb. 

If I were to try to grow grapes, and be successful at it, that would truly be a miracle and a gift from God, because I’ve never had success with plants or gardens.  But it’s normal when we have success to be proud of our accomplishments and we can forget that even our ability comes from God. One of the reasons the Bible tells us over and over to be thankful is so that we don’t lose sight of that perspective.

There’s something else that helps us keep perspective and to produce good fruit – pruning.  According to several of the articles I read about growing grapes,[3] the key to success is pruning, cutting back the vine each year so that the energy of the plant goes into producing more fruit instead of more vine.  To get new growth, you have to prune off the old growth.[4]

Jesus talks about this, too, on his last night with the disciples before he is arrested.  In John 15, Jesus says, “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.”

This pandemic has helped us to do some pruning in our lives, and helped us to do some prioritizing, but we need to be sure we’re doing this even when there isn’t a pandemic.

Sometimes what needs pruning are sinful ways that we need to stop.  Sometimes what needs pruning are ways that aren’t sinful necessarily, but they are old or unnecessary, and we’ve been holding on to them because we’re afraid to let go and because it can be painful to let go.

Can you think of a time when you have gone through some pruning in your life?  Or maybe that’s happening right now.  What sort of fruit came afterwards?

Pruning helps us to be more grapeful. (Grateful)  We are good tenants when we are thankful to God for everything.  Thankfulness helps us to remember who gave us everything in the first place.  Pruning helps to renew that perspective.  As hard as it is, loss can help us remember not to take things for granted.

If I were to plant grapes in my backyard, I would surely need to keep asking how to be a good tenant of that vineyard.  I would need God’s patience, as I would inevitably get some things wrong.  And I would have to be thankful for whatever it produced.

But do you know what might be the best reason to grow grapes in your backyard?  So you can share them with your neighbors.

 We are good tenants when we are thankful and willing to share. 


[1] http://www.schnauzers-rule.com/miniature-schnauzer-fun.html#RULES

[2] https://www.monrovia.com/10-reasons-you-should-be-growing-grapes-in-your-backyard/

[3] https://www.coffey.k-state.edu/lawn-garden/gardening/Grapes.pdf

[4] https://www.monrovia.com/cheers-6-easy-steps-for-growing-your-own-grapes/

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