How long would you be willing to put up with the antics of a spoiled brat of a child before you did something about it? The possessive, self-centered child who wants everything and thinks he/she ought to have it. The child who ignores the word “share” and focuses on the word “mine”. You know, the – “give me, give me, it’s mine, leave it alone, I want more,” kind of child. The kind of child who throws a temper tantrum if she doesn’t get what she wants. The kind of child who will hit you if you try and take something he thinks belongs to him. Personally, I have no tolerance for that kind of behavior and I last about 90 seconds before I want to blow my stack. In our house, we call this kind of behavior being a “Veruca” after the spoiled overindulged little girl from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Don’t be a Veruca,” we say when one of us gets a little selfish, a little too self centered.
Well, on this last Sunday in Lent, Jesus is speaking directly to you and me and every other human being on this planet and proclaiming to each of us that we are spoiled, self-centered, over indulged, ungrateful brats. He dresses it up in a seemingly innocuous parable but he is calling us Verucas of the worst kind. We are the tenants in God’s vineyard of life and for the most part we are an ungrateful lot. Everything we have comes from God, we don’t own any of it, we are only renters. From the money in our wallets, the clothes on our backs, the food on our tables, to the very fact that our hearts beat 72 times a minute – all of it is gift, God has given us everything, everything. But what do we do? – we talk about how we don’t have enough, we hoard what we have, we are slow to share, we cling tightly to the gifts life gives us, we even sometimes resort to violence if someone or some group tries to take something we claim as our own. We live in the delusion that the vineyard is really ours, that we deserve the harvest, it’s all “mine, mine, mine.” And the last thing we want to hear is that God wants God’s due. As much as it makes me cringe, the truth is – from God’s point of view I am the spoiled ungrateful child that I dislike so much when I see it in others – and you are too. Feel a little guilty? Good, it’s Lent, we’re allowed to feel a little guilty.
The Bible tries to make it clear from the very beginning. In the very first chapter of the very first book the Bible lays out the truth about life. God created everything – the earth, the oceans, the stars, the plants, the animals – everything. Not because God had to, but because God wanted to. God is love and love creates. God created you and me and gave us everything – the earth, the oceans, the stars, the plants, the animals. What do we do? For the most part we totally ignore the creator. We spend most off our lives thinking that this lush vineyard is ours. We don’t think we’re tenants, we think we’re owners. We don’t think we have been given all this, we think we earned it, deserve it, own it.
As a result, God sent us some crazy, brave people called prophets whose job it was to remind us of our responsibilities as tenants. Isaiah told us to: loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? . . . share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. Micah told us to: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Amos told us to: let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. These were God’s messengers sent to remind us of our responsibilities as renters. God had given us so much and all God wanted in return was that we should love one another as God loves us. But we didn’t and we don’t. We ignored the prophets, killed the prophets, banished the prophets, for telling us things we didn’t want to hear.
Loving us still, in spite of our spoiled and selfish ways, God sent us his son. Jesus came among us as the self-expression of God to show us in person what it means to be faithful tenants. But we didn’t like him either. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, blessed are the poor – you have got to be kidding – so we killed him too.
Put yourself in God’s shoes, what would you do with such spoiled, ungrateful children? Maybe you’d punish them, lock them up and throw away the key. But you’re not God. God’s different. The owner is different from the tenants. God didn’t punish us. Instead the good news of our faith proclaims that God won’t let anything get in the way of God’s love for us. The crucifixion is followed by the empty tomb. Easter follows Good Friday. God won’t let us kill love and God won’t stop loving us – no matter what.
In closing, when I was a teenager I had taped on my wall a series of quotes that meant a lot to me. One of them came from our lesson from Philippians for this morning. Paul said, This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Now lest you think I was holier than I actually was as a teenager, you ought to know that these quotes were taped right between my two favorite posters of Farrah Fawcett Majors and Cheryl Tiegs. Any male over 40 will know exactly which two posters I mean.
Paul’s words moved me. I loved the idea of constantly striving to grow towards God. For many years I thought these words meant I had to earn my way into heaven. I thought it was all a matter of good works. But as I have grown older I realize that these words aren’t about striving more they are about clinging less. You see, I think we press on towards the goal for the heavenly prize by learning how to be the tenants we were created to be. I think we press on by getting it into our heads that nothing we have is actually ours that all of it is a gift from God. I think we press on by giving up our illusion of control, our illusion of ownership, our illusion that we deserve all the blessing we enjoy. I think we grow toward God by living a life of gratitude, a life where we give more than we take, a life where we serve others more than we serve ourselves. This isn’t earning our way into heaven this is facing the truth about our real lot in life. We are the tenants, God is the giver, everything we have is gift. Amen.