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The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens

The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens is senior minister of Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Dunwoody, GA


Who's in Charge Here?

Matthew 21:33-46

Proper 22 - Year A

October 05, 2008

"Who's in charge here?" can communicate so many different feelings. It may be in reaction to chaos, such as following a disaster, when we are looking for one who can make certain decisions. It can be a plea to help when the normal lines of communication are down. Or it may be an irritation said to a subordinate, in this case reminding the one being spoken to who has the authority. Or it may be simply an inquiry in trying to find some guidance or information. Haven't we all found ourselves in a strange setting and we cannot always know who might be in a position to give us accurate directions?

"Who's in charge?" is the heart of our parable from Matthew twenty one. The landlord demonstrated that he considered himself in charge by the careful preparations he made as he planted the vineyard, built a fence around it, dug a wine press, and built a watch tower. These were all expensive improvements you would not make to property you did have control of. By taking these steps he was increasing the value of his investment. No one would do this to someone else's land. You would not go to the expense or trouble to improve the value of someone else's property. Obviously, he thought he was in charge.

For some reason he was preparing to leave the country. He would not be there to tend the new vineyard or to gather in the harvest. So he took another step that would be prudent to one who could not be there. He entered into a lease with some tenants to take care of the vineyard in his absence. But when the harvest was in, the one who thought he was in charge sent representatives to collect his share of the produce. After all, it was his land, his improvements, his vines that the harvest would be gathered from. But here the issue of who is in charge begins to arise. Those who had worked in the vineyard felt as if they were in charge. So they seized the slaves sent to collect the produce and beat one, murdered another, and stoned even another. Perhaps they allowed one to live to get back to the landowner the message of who was really in charge. But the landowner would not accept this takeover without putting up a battle. So he sent more slaves and they too were mistreated. Finally the absentee owner sent his son, thinking surely they would not do the same to him. But they did, thinking they would actually gain control by doing this.

G. K. Chesterson wrote, "A man walking, comes to the edge of the cliff, and keeps walking, he will not break the law of gravity, he will prove it." All that the tenants did to try to take charge did not change the simple fact of who was in charge. The ownership of the land did not change. The legal right the landlord had to a portion of the crop did not change. What was broken was the relationship between those who were tenants and the landlord.

The first part of this parable speaks of trust. God has not gone to a far country but he does not micro manage our days. He blesses us with opportunities and then places his trust in us to be good stewards. Just as the owner of the vineyard had taken all the steps necessary for success, so God has blessed us. The question is what kind of stewards will we be?

The risk with all segments of our lives is that we will become possessive. We think of the church, for example, as our church and fail to see that it is the very body of Christ. We can be guilty of seeking to speak to the various challenges of the world not as Christ would lead us but in ways that are convenient or self-serving for ourselves. Thus our measure is no longer the Gospel but popular opinion. Or when we need to reach out to the needs of others, we place self first. We begin to see stewardship as a burden instead of a joyful response to all that God has done.

It is not in just the area of the church that we become possessive. In our relationships with our families, we can easily place self before the others. We can begin to take for granted the love that others have for us. Love is never a matter of meeting halfway; it is always a matter of going the extra mile. And when love is truly the motivator, the extra mile is never a burden. There is always a need to be worthy of trust if a relationship is going to be strong.

In our professional life we cease to seek ways to benefit our clients or customers or patients or students or parishioners and view the bottom line of profit as more important than service. Judge Elbert Tuttle in a commencement address in 1957 at Emory University said, "It turns out that there is no right price for service, for what is a share of a person worth? If he does not contain the quality of integrity he is worthless. If he does, he is priceless. The value is either nothing or it is infinite. So we do not try to set prices on yourselves. Do not debase yourselves by equating your souls to what they will bring in the market. Never confuse the performance which is great, with compensation, be it money, power, or fame, which is trivial."

In all our lives, the "owner" God has expectations. Our world is not just a play yard that he will let us live in. The commandments of scripture are a reminder that God has expectations for the chosen, chosen not for privilege but for service, for witness. We have viewed the world as a Garden of Eden, not as a vineyard where vines have to be tended and fruit comes from effort. But, more importantly, a harvest is expected.

When we try to be in charge, it speaks of privilege, our misuse of freedom, or our arrogance. We fall into the trap of thinking we have a right to the many blessings that are a part of the world we live in. The opportunities we have many times come from the hard work of others and we should be good stewards of them. The freedom we live with was bought and preserved by many who gave their lives that we might be free. The challenge is will we use them in ways that benefit not only ourselves and our loved ones but in ways that will benefit others, particularly those who live at the margins of our society, those with no voice. The question is will we be as foolish as the tenants in the parable and forget that all we are and all we have is God's. There is no such thing as a self-made person.

In a book, No Place For Truth Or Whatever Happened To Evangelical Theology?, David Wills shows how in adapting to the standards of the culture, the churches have paid a high price. He reminds us that culture is never harmless or neutral, nor is culture a partner amenable to being co-opt to the cause of celebrating Christian truth. The danger is when we present Christ as beneficial in getting what culture wants, we transform Christ. If God is in charge, we must seek his standards and ways, not the worlds.

When we play to the world and reject God, we are as guilty as the tenants of the parable. James Turner in his book Without God, Without Creed, The Origins of Unbelief in America, says that we have a god who promises too much, too easily, and if we don't hear any demand or challenge, we have moved to atheism. In trying to adapt their religious beliefs to their convenience, they have slowly removed God from their lives. The truth is we cannot put God in any place accept as our Lord and our Father. We must recognize God as the one charge.

God, just like the landlord, doesn't give up easy. Most of us would agree that after the first attempt to collect the portion of the harvest that was due and the brutal action the tenets took, that most would have struck back with either violence or some kind of legal action. However, the landlord, instead, sent another group of slaves to collect what he thought was due. When this met the same resistance, he sent his son thinking that surely they would not do the same to him. The analogy between the son and Jesus is very clear. The nation of Israel had rejected the prophets on more than one occasion but now they were resisting the very Son of God. Of course, the cross reminds us that that God's Son met the same fate as the son of the landlord. The Good News of our faith is not even death stops God.

There is a warning in the parable. When we refuse to recognize the one who is ultimately in charge, we are held accountable. In the parable the landlord puts the tenants to death and leases his vineyard out to others. We are accountable for what we do with our faith. We must accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, which means we are answering the question of who is in charge of our lives and ultimately our world. Even though we speak of the patience of God, there is that point where we are accountable.

The Methodist theologian John Cobb wrote, "Several years ago while vacationing at the beach with our family, I began my early morning walk long before the others had awakened. Each morning my walk along the expansive ocean afforded time for lengthy meditation and gratitude for the glory and grace of God. Far too often we forget how powerful our creator God actually is. Yet he owns the mighty ocean and forests and fields, and never a cloud moves in the sky without his knowledge. That still is abundantly true every day. Sometimes we carelessly relegate God to the backgrounds of our lives, wanting Him there is case of an emergency but quite sure we can handle things very efficiently in our own way." In other words, Cobb is saying, we forget who has a right to be in charge.

If we dare to listen, the story is about us, or at least Jesus is talking to the religious community of his day, the keepers of the status quo who had shaped the status quo to fit their expectations, their control. How easily we fall into that same trap, worshiping a domesticated god instead of the one true God who sets the rules, draws the boundaries, and gives the orders. In other words, we are called to worship the one who truly is in charge of our world and our lives.

In most Protestant Churches today we celebrate what is known as World Communion Sunday. It is a day in the liturgical calendar set aside to remind us of all the barriers we have built to divide the church, and all the theological arguments we have continued over the ages are not near as important as to remember whose church it is. We are invited to the Lord's Table as sisters and brothers together. We are guests at the table but we are guests also in this world. This Sunday is for us to see the vastness of God's vineyard and our responsibility for others. Though we may call the sacrament by many different names, the Eucharist, the Holy Mystery, Mass, the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion, it is not our table but His table where we gather.

Our call is to accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. This acceptance is to let him be in charge of our lives. Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, "Are you worried because you find it so hard to believe? No one should be surprised at the difficulty of faith, if there is some part of one's life where one is consciously resisting or disobeying the commandments of Jesus. Is there some part of your life in which you are refusing to surrender to his behest? Maybe there is some sinful passion, or some animosity, perhaps your own ambition or reason? If so, you must not be surprised that you have not received the Holy Spirit, that prayer is difficult, or that your request for faith goes unanswered. If you dismiss the word of God's command, you will not receive the word of God's grace."

These words of Jesus are a challenge to our culture of "ownership, autonomy, and self reliance." The basis of this parable in Matthew is we forget in fact who owns all of life and all of creation. It points to the risk when we start to think we own what we are a part of instead of being stewards of what God has given us to use while we pass through this life.

Let us pray.

O Father, always let us remember that we are called to follow Thee, not to lead ourselves, but to go the way you would have us to go. Amen.


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