“The Vineyard Problem,” a Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46 & Philippians 3:4b-14 (1st week at St. Paul)

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.  When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.’  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’  So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “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 said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”  When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but 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. (Philippians 3:4b-14)



Grace and peace to you on this day, from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The new pastor started at church. After worship was over on Sunday one of the elders put his arm around him and said to him, “Well done young man. You do a nice job. So when are you going to make it your own?” He was trying to be affirming. “When will you bring your gifts, your skills, and your experience to this ministry?”

A week or so later the same pastor preached a sermon on seeing the big picture of the things God was up to among them and not getting lost in the details. That week after worship when he was taking of his robe in the back, somebody else approached him, and scolded him for not folding the napkins correctly after communion was over.

When I told a colleague of mine that I was moving here, he said, “You’ll do well. Because you bring who you are with you.” He meant it as a compliment and I received it as such, but it also true. We do bring who we are with us, and taking ownership is a good thing –  we each leave our imprint; we bring our gifts, skills and talents to everything we do within every relationship we have: with our families, with our classmates and  teachers at school, at our workplaces, with our neighbors down the street, and even here at church. Problems come not when we make things are own, but when we start to get comfortable.

Sometimes we get too comfortable.

I think that is the “problem” in the little story Jesus shares with us today.

The tenants got “too comfortable.”  The landowner gave them the land to live on and to cultivate on his behalf. Notice the produce itself is never what’s at stake here – they grew a bountiful harvest. What is at stake is the tenants got so comfortable doing it they started to believe that the Vineyard was their own.

The Vineyard owner sent his representatives to collect what was rightfully his – the produce from his vineyard. The tenants decided they did not want to give it up. So they treated his representatives unfairly, abused them, they beat them, they killed some of them; which seems a little extreme, but remember Jesus is telling the story to make a point. Here it is: This is what we do when we think the things God gives us are rightfully ours – we beat up one another, we kill one another (hopefully not literally, but we often do with our words) we even do to Jesus what these tenants due to the landowner’s son – we reject him, and kill him.

Why? Because we believe that the Vineyard, this holy ground, belongs to us.    

We start to look at one another looking for pedigree. Look how Paul introduces himself in this Philippians passage: circumcised on the eighth day (the right time) from house of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin (right family) keeping the law (good kid) the good religious leader (right training) and persecutor of heresy while seeing himself as blameless and righteous (right career). I could do that too.  I was baptized after two months. I went to Lutheran Day school, I attended a Lutheran College and  went to two Lutheran seminaries. “Not bad,” if I do say so myself.  I have twelve years of pastoral experience, and behind that years of campus ministry experience, youth ministry experience, and camp experience.  I haven’t turned thirty-nine yet, and I have been in ministry for twenty years. Don’t I deserve to have my own Vineyard? Don’t we all? 

What does your resume’ look like?

Think about the status you’ve achieved, the schools you went to, the people you’ve brought into your network, the place you live, the car you drive, the cash in your bank account, all the things you’ve collected and call “yours.” Don’t you deserve them for all your efforts? Jesus reminds us that everything we have – from things to relationships to opportunities – are given to us as gifts from God. They are all part of the Vineyard God has asked us to cultivate.  But we get too comfortable and start to see them as our own.

Thankfully Paul keeps talking after giving us his resume’. He says he has come to regard all things as loss. It is not that those things are not important – they make us who we are, and give us the means to bring who we are with us, but they are not the most important thing. Paul says, “I have come to regard everything as loss, so that I may gain Christ.”

The one thing that matters is regarding Jesus Christ as Lord. His life, death, resurrection and the new life he gives us – to tend to his Vineyard and produce good fruit that is what matters. We cultivate the Vineyard not for our own glory but for his. It is being grateful and generous because that is how God treats us. If we regard everything as loss, we won’t get too comfortable. Instead we will start loving and serving and sharing in a whole new way, because we’ll stop looking at each other as people who want something from us, or who fold the napkins wrong, and instead worked together, welcomed one another and shared in the joy of serving.

That’s what these tenants miss, they have some ownership, they are being who they are, even probably tried really hard. But they forgot WHO owned the vineyard and that’s when everything went wrong.

What about us?

I’ve wondered if we could write another ending to this story.

What if when the Vineyard owner’s representatives came,  they were welcomed, shown around, and told stories of the joy of the work, the honor of serving in the owner’s Vineyard, and the great yield that was ready for harvest. What if those representatives went home to share those stories with their master?

What if the son came and he wasn’t met with hostility. What if we didn’t crucify him (as we so often do) and instead gave him not only the seat of honor but his rightful place as the host of the harvest feast to which you and I are invited to participate.

What if when we saw others we didn’t look at what we could gain, but came to regard everything as loss, so that from the harvest feast, we began to share with those who need it most?

We have that opportunity – to cultivate this Vineyard and stand on Holy Ground;  to bring who we are with us – to make it our own, but to also remember whose Vineyard it is and celebrate!

We have the opportunity –  to see everything, not for personal gain, but to regard everything as loss as we join in the Vineyard owner’s bountiful harvest among us.

We have the opportunity – to welcome others as if they were Jesus himself.

Today is the crop walk. I know not everybody can participate but if you do, I want to ask you to do something.  In fact, do this wherever you are.  Split up. Don’t just walk together with your friends and family and people from church. Talk to others. Meet some people. See them as representatives of the Vineyard owner. Share who you are and what you bring with you – your gifts, skills and experience.  Meet Jesus out there.

IMG_3897Don’t worry about folding the napkins, but put your arm around each other and encourage one another to bring who you are and serve in the Vineyard.

We have the opportunity to stand on this Holy Ground.  

What will we do with it?

Let us serve together with joy and humility. Amen.


About geoff sinibaldo

Follower of Jesus, Husband, Father, Son, Friend, Change Proponent, Goofball, Seeking Faithfulness in the 21st Century
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