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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Celebrating the life Francis of Assisi is a novel practice for Lutheran pastors. Martin Luther, himself a former Augustinian friar, had a general disdain for the Franciscans. Indeed, the father of the Reformation Movement and the Protestant work ethic often criticized the Franciscans monks in Germany because they considered begging to be a sacred calling. In Luther’s mind, an honest day’s work was the highest human calling. And yet, in spite of these theological disputes, a healthy respect for Francis has emerged, yes, even in congregations in the Scandinavian Lutheran ghettos of Minnesota. For some Lutherans, it is Francis’s deep respect for creation, for others it is his passionate service on behalf of the poor, and for others still, it is his piety that longs to be an instrument of God’s peace. In Marine on St. Croix, it was this deep respect for all God’s creatures great and small that was celebrated each year at the village’s annual blessing of the animals.
Animals and pets were an important part of life on the St. Croix River. It was not uncommon on my drive to work in the morning to see fox, deer, possum, wild turkey, guinea pigeons and bald eagles. The pet owners in the community were particularly dedicated to their animals. So each autumn on the closest Saturday to October 4th, I was invited down to the village park to give a blessing to the animals. I dressed in a brown, Franciscan robe and would walk from one animal to another offering a personal word. There were cats and dogs, chickens and rabbits, reptiles and even llamas.
Francis of Assisi recognized the many similarities between children and their pets. A small child can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down. Every parent tries to discern the right number of children and animals for the family. If not, they soon discover the old adage, “It’s nice for children to have pets- until their pets starting having children.” Later in life we often compare our teenage children to their animals. “Dogs come when they’re called: cats take a message and get back to you.” Of course, our youth would benefit from the habits of their pets, “Dogs have many friends because they wag their tails, and not their tongues.”
St. Francis’ simple theology centered on a belief that if all creatures are from one Father then all creatures are real kin. There was no brother or sister greater than another. All were equals. This same sense of equality and equity was at the heart of Saint Francis’ understanding of God’s relationship to humanity. To St. Francis, the poor, who were easily forgotten and hidden in the dark corners of society, were just as important and worthy of his care as the noble and wealthy.
That is a dramatic contrast to the characters in Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants. In St. Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the horrendous story of a renegade group of tenant farmers working in a vineyard who rejected the owner’s representatives and wound up killing the owner’s son in the mistaken belief that this would enable them to steal the harvest. Even the chief priests and elders who had gathered to challenge Jesus’ authority and his teaching knew what these wicked tenants deserved. “He will put those miserable wretches to death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time!” Ever since then, theologians have debated who the wicked tenants really were.
In the first centuries of the Christian era, scholars argued that the wicked tenants were the Jewish leaders of the Temple, and that because of their evil deeds, the care of God’s vineyard had been handed over to the Church. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the German reformers proclaimed the Roman Catholic clergy to be the wicked tenants. In the church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther preached over 3000 times, there is a painting in the chancel of the wicked tenants working in the vineyard. On one side of the painting, the tenants are dressed as Roman Catholic priests working to destroy the good fruit of the Protestant workers on the other side of the painting. I can tell you this much, name calling and blame doesn’t do much for ecumenical relations. And now today, new religious movements claim that the old former Mainline Churches are the wicked tenants from whom the kingdom of God should be taken away again and given to others. Yes, you might even hear people whisper such words about your own beloved Lutheran congregation.
But my friends, I do not believe that the parable is simply an historical allegory of the passing on of the kingdom of God from one religious tradition to another. It is always easy to find fault and to blame those with whom you disagree. Nor do I believe that it is merely a metaphor colorfully foreshadowing the death of God’s son. No, I believe that Jesus’ story has something to say to us today. It is a message as poignant as Francis of Assisi’s relationship to the creation. Jesus is inviting you and me to look at our lives and he is challenging us to question how we have chosen to manage that little corner of the vineyard that God has entrusted to each one of us.
The acts of evil performed by the wicked tenants were treacherous to be sure. But the parable’s underlying sin is actually far less dramatic and disturbing. In fact, the attitude is so prevalent in our day and age that we hardly notice it. And what is that evil? It is the desire of the wicked tenants to claim and keep for themselves what rightfully belongs to the owner. More startling is their belief that will inherit this treasure- even after they have killed the owner’s son.
We all know that stealing is wrong. It is one of the first lessons that we teach our children. But that never stopped people in difficult economic times from justifying their attitudes and their stealth. Over the course of the past 25 years living in the former communist bloc of Eastern Europe, I have heard countless rationalizations. Laborers lived by the creed, “They pretend to pay, and we pretend to work.” Even today people in the former Eastern Bloc accept the notion that “To not steal from the company is to steal from your family.” But my friends, the same happens in our own society as well Yes, we know that stealing is wrong, but we rationalize it: Does it really matter what we do when it comes from God’s creation and the owner is far away?
In a scene from one of my favorite classic old movies, Shenandoah. Jimmy Stewart plays the role of Charlie Anderson, the father of a Virginia family at the outbreak of the Civil War. He had made a deathbed promise to his wife that he would raise their children to be good Christians. So, Charlie Anderson reluctantly takes them to church and gathers them for a blessing at every evening meal. In one scene, his family is seated around an abundantly filled table when he says,
“Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eatin’ it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for the food we’re about to eat. Amen.”
We can all be just like Charlie Anderson, and we thank God just the same, anyway. Like the tenants in the parable, we believe that the good life does not come from God. But we believe it comes from our own human efforts. And so men and women justify their actions regardless of the harm it may cause their neighbors, the environment or other nations. It is to deny that all good things come from God and that we are merely stewards of these gifts. We need a voice like that of Francis of Assisi to remind us that ultimately nothing belongs to us, but that everything belongs to God.
Now, you may be wondering: so where is the good news in Jesus’ parable? There seems to be nothing more than judgment and loss. No joy and laughter of new wine and the beauty of working of God’s vineyard. It is at this point that the parable abruptly ends. And Jesus asks the accused and guilty Jewish leaders, what the owner should do. They quickly 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.” Or in other words—those wicked tenants, should receive the justice they deserve.
That is not, however, how the real story ends. The tenants were not destroyed. The Lord never stopped loving them. The scribes, Pharisees, chief priests and Sadducees were never excluded from God’s grace. We may think that some people do such bad things that God must reject and condemn them. We know that we certainly would, but the Lord does not. That is the message of the parable. Instead the Lord continues to love them and to encourage them to turn from their wicked, selfish way. Again and again, he invites them into a new, restored relationship. This is good news for us. There is nothing that we can say or do that will separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.
This love doesn’t seem logical, does it? How many times does the vineyard owner need to send servants to be mistreated and beaten and killed—before realizing that perhaps something more drastic should take place? How many times does God need to send prophets to warn his people before he takes more decisive action.
My friends, that is the ultimate surprise and the good news. . That is how passionately God longs for you to be his good tenants and to cultivate the good fruits in your life for sake of others around you. Yes, he would even send his only begotten son- for you. It is a tremendous challenge, and it may seem impossible, but it is a task you and I must carry out in our own little corner of God’s vineyard that he has entrusted to us.
St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.