The setting for today’s gospel is the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is teaching. The Cross lies ahead. The chief priests of the Temple and other authorities are threatened by the truth Jesus speaks, and are doing their best to undermine him. Those leaders have lost sight of the first and second commandments. They have put themselves in God’s place and made an idol of their own power.
So Jesus aims an allegorical arrow directly at them. In the story we just heard, the landowner is God, the vineyard is the Hebrew people. The wicked tenants are the leaders to whom God has entrusted the care, the spiritual wellbeing of the people. The leaders have betrayed that trust and refuse to be called to account by God’s emissaries—first the prophets, then God’s own son.
The message then still holds true: everything in the world belongs to God. We are merely stewards of what God has created and entrusted to us.
You and I are the tenants in God’s creation right now. We are stewards, responsible for the care of all creation and its preservation for future generations.
Lately I saw that stewardship modeled by an old friend in England. Debo Gage’s forebear, Sir John Gage, was an important official at the court of Henry VIII. In the 16th century, he amassed properties in Sussex and built Firle Place. The house is still in the family and Debo is part of the governing group. It sounds glamorous until you hear what it takes to care for such a place. At Firle, simply replacing the roof would take much more than we together raised for our work here.
But Firle is just part of thousands of acres still owned by the Gages. The family are stewards of it all: the land, the villages, and the lives of the people who dwell there. It’s a responsibility they take very seriously.
Five hundred years of history in that place have instilled in my friend and her family an awe-inspiring, exemplary ethic of stewardship and service. Her generation’s focus is preserving it for the communities—all the people–yet to come, as their forebears did. That long-term vision of stewardship recalls the famous one in the Iroquois Nations Constitution: “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation.”
The Gage family and the Iroquois Nations alike are mindful stewards, intentionally caring for their places and their people. They are committed to the future, not just the present; to the wellbeing of people yet unborn, more than to their own. That’s what Jesus was calling the Temple elders to be.
At our best, you and I want to live that way, too. It’s a value I think we share and one reason that we are here together in church! So, as usual, I’m preaching to the choir and mostly to myself.
To get there we have to resist our individualist and consumer culture, which urges us to waste: to use and throw away. So I, for one, find myself often serving self and sometime serving others; often thinking about the present and far less about the long-term future. Those dichotomies in me came into sharper focus after being with Debo.
Then I thought about how recent events have reflected America’s stewardship.
Not well, looking at this place, planet Earth. Climate Change caused this year’s brutal round of hurricanes. Their fearsome power was stoked by the fact that the waters of the Gulf of Mexico never cooled last winter.
That had a devastating effect on people from many countries. American people are threatened further by our tolerance of racism and of gun violence. Both of those evils are rooted in fear. The good news is that in the moment of crisis–be it flood, earthquake, fire, or assault—love can overwhelm fear. We have seen people rush to help, even risk their lives in the hurricanes–to save others whom they might have feared. They did so again in the horrible massacre in Las Vegas one week ago.
Present/future, self/others: these dichotomies persist within each of us and within our society as a whole.
How do we resolve them, bring them into line to care for others and for the future? I think that direct personal experience–relationship/connection–makes all the difference.
Personal experience with people can foster compassion that moves us out of self and toward others. That is faithful stewardship of the love God has given us, freely shared. We do this instinctively in emergencies. Can’t we cultivate it mindfully in daily life?
Personal experience and affection are the key to good stewardship of “place,” as well. It’s how we repaired our Tower. Some folks doubted we could fund the work, since it wasn’t ‘sexy’. But we did it because it mattered to us. Caring for the Tower we are showing our gratitude for past generations and love for future ones, our willingness to give up something for ourselves now to benefit people we will never know. Most of us try to do the same with our family properties, the land and houses we love.
Jesus’ story invites us to honor God’s dominion, to take the feeling we have for our own places in the heart and let it grow until we give God’s creation the same loving care that we have for the particular places we cherish.
It’s up to each one of us. If we can bring that thoughtful care to every decision, we may yet preserve life as we know it on Earth.