Sunday, September 27, 2009

For or Against?

For or Against?

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 27, 2009 Mark 9:38-50

No one who does a deed of power in my name
will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.
Whoever is not against us is for us.

Anyone familiar with the story that precedes our reading for today will find the disciples’ words here toward the end of the ninth chapter of Mark unsurprising. In the passage just before ours, they had been debating on the road as to which of them was the greatest. This self-aggrandizing conversation followed Jesus’ second prediction of his passion and death, showing that even for the disciples of Jesus it was possible to miss the point by a very wide margin.

Not only that, but in the story preceding their debate on greatness, they had failed in an attempt to cast a demon out of a boy. Is it any wonder that they were put off by the fact that some independent contractor was out there successfully exorcising demons in Jesus’ name when they, his own disciples, couldn’t do it?

The critical issue behind this passage, and passages like it, has to do with the phrase, “in Jesus’ name.” Note that the only mention of this in the disciples’ mouths has a negative connotation. This outsider was “casting out demons in your name.” So of course, they tried to stop him “because he was not following us.” Who is more faithful at this very moment, the independent exorcist who calls on the name of Jesus to heal, or the disciples, concerned with whether he was following them? Aren’t we all supposed to be following Jesus? Was their phrasing an inadvertent slip of the tongue, or were they possessed of a misplaced hope to build their own following?

I remember when video cassette recorders first came on the consumer scene in the 1980s. It seemed like a miracle! You could record a program and watch it later at your own convenience! Imagine! I know that most video tape systems are now crowding landfills in favor of the latest computer disc technologies, but that’s not really the point I’m after. I’m remembering that no sooner had that early, new technology appeared than folks with a significant stake in the old system raised their voices in complaint. All that recording for viewing later – which is still going on of course, but with the likes of Tivo and other means of ever-advancing technological sophistication – all that recording and viewing later means a significant loss for advertisers, whose ads are easily skipped by viewers. The question of property rights over all this video content continues to be asked.

These are but the latest chapters in the centuries-long history of human conflict over ownership of copyrights and trademarks, which is really nothing more than a modern expression of an age-old desire to control one’s own good name. We might all be tempted to ask, with Shakespeare’s Juliet, “What’s in a name?” but our answer comes to us, as it did to her, that although a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, it was still the names Capulet and Montague that kept Romeo and Juliet from being a light-hearted comedy.

The answer to the age-old question, “What’s in a name?” is: plenty! Names do have significance. Try opening your own new store in town and calling it “Nordstrom” and see how long it takes for the department store people to initiate a lawsuit about that name. To take someone’s name is to take more than a word, it is to steal what they have spent their lives building. It is what makes personal endorsements such a powerful advertising tool, and it is what makes public personalities so touchy about tabloid journalism.

When the disciples came to Jesus and said that they had encountered a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and that they had forbidden him to do so, since he was not a believer, we can understand what they meant. What is the point of following Jesus around the countryside day after day, if any old Tom, Dick, or Bartholomew can run off into a neighboring town and merely use his name to work some magic tricks? No wonder the disciples were concerned; we would likely share their concern if we found a non-believer organizing church school classes without authorization from the Session. In our church, we reserve the right to use that name to those who are followers of the One who bore it.

But Jesus turned the tables on the disciples. He said to them, “Don’t forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will soon after be able to speak evil of me.” I don’t know about you, but this is definitely not the answer I had anticipated.

As we approach the celebration of World Communion next Sunday, this is a good time to remember that Jesus’ name is there for the whole world to have, it is the name above all names, even our own, even the name Presbyterian, or Methodist or Baptist or Word of Truth Church or any other name we can name. Whether other Christian people are following “us,” are part of our in-crowd, is really of no concern to Jesus. He was not interested in creating a community of people to follow the disciples. Of much more interest to Jesus is the presence of someone – anyone – who calls on his name for help.

As Jesus told the disciples not to forbid the unnamed, non-denominational exorcist from his work, the key to the passage is in this phrase: “in my name.” At the very least, this helps us to remember that in our own “authorized” ministries, we are not to take credit for anything that is accomplished. There is no credit to be had. It’s Jesus’ kingdom, not ours. “Being a minister is not a vocation merely to help people. We are called to help people in the name of Jesus. And that’s the rub. In fact, we are not called to help people. We are called to follow Jesus, in whose service we learn who we are and how we are to help and be helped.”[1]

As often happens in Jesus’ teaching, the last line of the first part of our reading turns everything upside down. “Whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear the cup of Christ will not lose their reward.” Those who are struggling to do Christ’s work are, first and foremost, recipients of mercy themselves. We must never forget that. If we do, we may become ministers – which is to say servants – of something, but not of Jesus.

“[vs. 41] reminds the disciples of the conditions of their mission. [‘whoever gives you a cup of cold water to drink...’] They are to depend on those among whom they work. Therefore, they must trust others to provide the basic necessities of life ... Jesus seeks to draw the boundaries between those who are ‘with Jesus’ to include as many people as possible. He came for sinners, not the righteous. The disciples fall into the trap that snares many religious groups: They want to restrict salvation to their group alone.”[2]

It is apparent from Jesus’ words that the work in which we are engaged as Christian people will find us gathered in odd alliances. The word of Jesus presses us to realize that the kingdom of Jesus may be bigger than we thought. Is it possible that someone may side-step a byzantine process of formal ordination to ministry and still be a believer who is as important to the work of the kingdom as the person loaded up with degrees, certificates, and framed credentials? The answer has to be yes, doesn’t it, or else the church devolves to an association only for the professionally credentialed.

The second part of the reading travels down the difficult road of hyperbole and metaphor, with severed body parts littering the landscape. Many of you may know that when a pastor is going through trials for ordination, there comes a time when we must stand before the gathered Presbytery and answer any question the presbyters – elders and pastors – see fit to ask. It can be a terrifying occasion. One age old question, sometimes asked, comes right from our reading. One bright day a young candidate for ministry was asked it, “Would you be willing to maim yourself for the glory of God?” after suffering the pompus, self-aggrandizing questions of a few members of presbytery assembled there, he replied smartly, “Sir, I would be willing for this whole Presbytery to be maimed if it would glorify God!”

When Jesus says it would be better for some terrible thing to happen – that an arm or an eye should be lost – than to miss the opportunity to be part of the new kingdom that is dawning, the emphasis is meant to be on the glory and not on the amputation. To know the love of Jesus is wonderful, so wonderful that a person would sacrifice extravagantly in order to know him. When one of our friends says, “I wouldn’t miss my son’s graduation for anything,” we don’t usually follow up their claim saying, “Really, would you give up your house? Your family? Your career?” We know they are speaking hyperbolically. The point is not that our friend will arrive at the graduation ceremony destitute and in rags. The point is that they think it would be one of life’s not-to-be-missed moments.

Next week, on World Communion Sunday of all days, we may remember this from today’s gospel, which reminds us all of the surpassing glory of knowing Christ, ministering in his name, and seeking the fellowship of others who come to him as pilgrims seeking the light of the world.

[1] William Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, Abingdon, 1989, p. 121.

[2] William Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, Abingdon, 1989, p. 121.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It’s the Little Things

It’s the Little Things

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder
September 20, 2009

Mark 9:30-37

“...when he was in the house he asked them,
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they were silent,
for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

Twentieth century author Nancy Mitford is reported once to have said, “I love children, especially when they cry so someone will come to take them away.” This may sound cold, even cruel to us, but is probably a fairly accurate description of common first century attitudes toward children, as even in Mark’s gospel, the small child whom Jesus takes to place among the disciples is referred to as “it.” No name, no gender, not even a suggestion of its age, just an “it.” But by his next words, Jesus calls into question the utilitarian means by which people commonly deal with each other, especially those who strike us as somehow amounting to less than we do. “By insisting on attending to them, the very picture of powerlessness, the antonym of greatness, Jesus challenges his followers to think of others as something besides a means to an end, and see them as the end itself.”

“Do you want to spend more time with God?” one preacher asked. “Then get down on the floor with Sarah over there. Get finger-paint all over your clothes and laugh at her dumb jokes and never mind that you have more important things to do...She is not filler. She is the main event.”[1]

When Jesus began to speak about his call to be rejected by those he came to serve, to suffer and die, the disciples looked the other way, determined to continue the human greatness game. “What were you arguing about on the way?”Jesus wanted to know after a day of walking. He already knew, he’d probably overheard them, but they were sullen in their silence. That’s when he put the powerless, nameless, genderless child in their midst, as if to say, “Want to see the greatest? Here is the greatest in the kingdom, the one to whom you owe your debt of service, the little thing, the one who could never repay.”

And why is that, do you suppose? It is because that is the very model of the way God is toward us. There is nothing we can do for God to earn God’s love, God owes us nothing, but chooses to love and give himself for us anyway. If we want to be like God, Jesus explains, then we need to be just the way God is when we think of power and greatness, and recognize that in gospel terms, greatness is measured solely by a willingness to serve those who can never repay.

The disciples are not so much confused by Jesus’ prediction of his own death, as they are resistant to it, along with his other ideas that don’t subscribe to an earthbound idea of what constitutes true greatness. Jesus consistently associates the title of Son of Man with suffering and death, and the disciples don’t want any part of it. Perhaps they hope he’s not serious, that he’s just engaging in a little hyperbole, and that when push comes to shove, he’ll see the need to define greatness the way the world has always defined greatness.

As one preacher, in a sermon at my seminary alma mater a couple of years ago, reflected on this passage to the students gathered in the chapel, saying, “In the Gospel of Mark those idiot disciples are at it again: dense, scared, whining over which of them earned the highest GPA. Thank God, that does not look anything like us...Let us heave a relieved sigh that we are beyond all that...Lord have mercy: We are Princeton.”[2]

Isn’t it amazing that Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for their continuing blindness, their willful desire to continue to see greatness as the world sees it? Instead, he continues patiently to serve them, using the child as an example of the way to greatness if we would follow him. It’s an amazing moment. The disciples — and we, to be honest — measure greatness by success and the ability to demand service from others, Jesus measures greatness not by success but by service to others. The object of a disciple’s ambition should not be influence and authority, but usefulness to others.

Augustine — the 4th century priest and theologian — reminded us that we so easily get things turned around. What we ought to be using — money, career, power — perversely, we love. And those whom we should be loving, we seek to our use for our own selfish advancement. Jesus announced that in God’s kingdom, there will be no place for dominion over other people, and the desire to be somebody special will be fully realized when we treat others as special.

A few years ago a story appeared in the Houston Chronicle about a judge in that city whose signature summons required a two year-old child to appear for jury duty. It was one of those wonderful computer errors made, no doubt, by a sleepy public records clerk on the night shift, who probably added a digit in front of the child’s actual age, or entered “89” instead of “99” in the space for the child’s birth year. The child’s parents called, of course, to tell the court clerk that the person by that name was a two year-old. But no one believed them! After all, it was in the computer! It clearly indicated that he was an adult and eligible for jury duty. They would be required to bring the child to the court, or a bench warrant would be issued. Exasperated, the parents took the child to the courthouse.

Faced with this farcical turn of events, the judge decided to use the situation to make a point. Though it must have seemed ridiculous for a two-year old to appear for jury duty, he held up the child and said to those gathered in the courtroom, “A child is the jury before which our civilization must stand. The way we treat our children, and what we pass on to our children, speaks volumes about who we are as a people.”

I think of this story as I watch our beloved state and nation allow our schools, healthcare system, and other services once deemed non-negotiable to go underfunded and understaffed, as the old colonial battle cry “No taxation without representation” has been turned on its head, into, “No taxation period.”

Jesus took a child and placed it among them. Among them.

The disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ definition of greatness, in some measure, because they didn’t want to understand. It simply wasn’t in the plans they had made for themselves in the kingdom they saw coming. They were too busy making advance arrangements about who was to be Secretary of State and Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff after the revolution to pay much mind to Jesus’ dark sayings about impending death. They had a new kingdom to get ready for.

We shouldn’t be too hard on the disciples, because that would be too easy on us. It’s too easy to point the finger at a tattered group of 12 misfits from 2000 years ago and cluck our tongues and remark that they were awfully slow to get the picture. We shouldn’t be too hard on them if we are part of a denomination in which the majority of churches offer two or three, and sometimes four glorious services on Easter, yet none at all on Good Friday — the day of the cross. We may be in the same camp with the disciples, claiming the promises of the resurrection, yet avoiding the demands of the cross.

The fact of the matter was — for those 12 disciples as it is for us — that our leader, our Lord was hung upon a cross for our sakes, and he calls us to share the same depth of commitment. Mark wrote his gospel to a suffering church in which people were frequently disappearing off to the local police headquarters and made to answer for their faith with the ultimate price. Some in the church wondered if it was worth it. Mark wanted them to know that this suffering wasn’t an aberration of their faith, but something which Jesus had to endure, and for which he called on his disciples to be ready.

Probably the key to understanding our lesson from Mark lies in a picture of Jesus with a child on his lap. Not some Sunday School art picture with a bright-faced little cherub perched upon the Lord’s knee, but the Greco-Roman picture of children, which is to say no picture at all. No group in that society were more voiceless than children. Jesus does not so much want to point out that we are to adopt a childish attitude in order to receive him, rather it is precisely our attitude toward the child, who stands for all the world’s helpless, that nominates us for great office in the kingdom of God.

We share the disciples’ fear when we are afraid to take up our cross and, obeying Jesus, support the helpless, to throw ourselves in the way of governments and economic interests that would bully those who cannot defend themselves, to take up the part of the homeless, powerless, voiceless, loveless, worthless creatures of humanity. That is what the child is meant to represent. If we do not understand why Jesus was so insistent about the inevitability of his suffering and death, we must return to the image of the child, the helpless one, who in the most ultimate sense, sits on Jesus’ lap in our place.

It’s the little things.

“Menachem Schneerson, a famous Lubavitcher rabbi from Brooklyn, used to stand every week for hours as thousands of people filed by to receive his blessing or his advice about matters great and small. Once someone asked him how he, who was in his 80s, could stand for so long without seeming to get tired. The rabbi replied, ‘When you’re counting diamonds you don’t get tired.’”[3]

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Last of All,” in Bread of Angels, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1997, pp. 131-135.

[2] C. Clifton Black, “Return of the Double-Mind,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, February, 2001, p. 85

[3] Joel Markus, “Counting Diamonds,” Christian Century, August 30-September 6, 2000, p. 861.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Look One Way, Speak Another

Look One Way, Speak Another

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 13, 2009

Mark 8:27-38

There is probably only one sure way to approach an understanding of this reading from Mark, and that is to take it one step at a time, almost living through it phrase by phrase, as the disciples themselves had to do. To skip too quickly to the end is to miss the startling points that Jesus addressed to those with whom he ultimately entrusted the continuation of his ministry.

To start with, the geography of the passage shouldn’t be overlooked. Jesus and the 12 had marched through his healing ministry and up to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, which were located in the foothills of Mount Hermon (now in the present-day Golan Heights, just a few miles from the Lebanese border). From this elevated perspective, they could look back toward the South, over the region of Galilee and beyond the horizon toward Jerusalem. Here Jesus invited his disciples to take a figurative look back over the Galilean ministry and ahead to Jerusalem.

Jesus’ discussion with his disciples was really a matter of answering three questions, and then determining what the answers implied for living in this life as disciples. Jesus asked all three questions, and the second two build upon the foundation provided by the first. “Who do others say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” and finally – although he didn’t really say it this way – his words answered a third question, “Who do I say that I am?”


First, Who do others say that I am? Jesus was not the first nor the last religious figure to ask questions about public opinion. In fact, it’s fair to say that some modern religious figures are a bit overly-concerned about it. For instance, some of us may remember the emergence of the so-called ‘moral majority’ in the 1980s, a name that implied that numerical superiority in some way blesses this or that religious opinion. In fact, the name never really was even close to being true, only a single digit percentage of the general population ever claimed any affiliation, far from a majority. But somehow just saying it seemed to make it so. A series of exposés about the organization led to its downfall by the middle of the 1980s.

Some might say, “But who would listen to a religious minority?” The historical answer has been, plenty of folks. The church started with 12 people who held a minority opinion in a minority culture in the middle of an ancient Roman civilization that really represented a minority of the world’s population then as now. There is more to be said for holding the minority view than we usually admit. Jesus asked the question, not to go begging after public approval, but to begin to help the disciples learn who he was.

Jesus had raised the question so inescapably that even ... ordinary people, people who made no pretense of being disciples – had found themselves not only asking it, but forced to admit that Jesus must be some great figure indeed, John the Baptist or one of the great prophets risen from the dead.[1]

People all around the disciples were answering the question before it was asked. Jesus was doing things that demanded an answer, and the likely explanation presented itself to a people who had lived in expectation of a Messiah for centuries. They began saying that this must be the forerunner of the one for whom they had waited. Probably they all had varying images of who the Messiah was to be, and since Jesus did not fit those images exactly, they thought he might be the Master of Ceremonies, the one who would make the introductions. A Messiah who has not yet come leaves our preconceptions intact, makes no demands on us. But a present Messiah we could find disturbing, because a Messiah who is already here would call for an altered image, an altered view of who we are and what we should be doing about it. We would have to begin to change our comfortable patterns: much easier to continue the wait than to give in and begin to follow.


Jesus’ first question inevitably led to the next, just as surely as “Don’t you just love the upholstery in this car?” leads to, “and which payment plan do you prefer?” Jesus knew what some of those plain folks were saying about him. He wanted to know if the disciples had heard it. They had. So he put the next question to them. “Who do you say that I am ?”

Now the disciples hadn’t been asleep during the ministry of Jesus, and they knew that there was more to him than the ordinary bumpkin in Galilee would have guessed. Peter spoke for them all when he said that Jesus was the Christ the Greek word for Messiah. Then the interesting thing happened. Instead of slapping him on the back and giving him a cigar for arriving at the right answer, Jesus commanded them to silence. And when he next referred to himself, he did not call himself “Christ” or “Messiah,” but went back to that mysterious title he seemed to prefer, “Son of man.” Why? Because of what was yet to come. Jesus cannot be appropriately understood apart from the cross and his suffering on our behalf, and the disciples, as yet, knew nothing of this. When they called him Christ, Jesus knew that they had no idea what they were saying. So he began to tell them. And it was a beginning that took the rest of his ministry for them to understand.

Through almost 8 chapters in Mark, Jesus’ power and authority had been emphasized. In this story, Jesus shifted the emphasis. From here to the cross, his suffering and death would receive all the attention. It was not an emphasis that the disciples enjoyed any more than our culture does, which is demonstrated every Spring when tiny Good Friday services are followed by extra large services on Easter Sunday. But Jesus’ warning is clear to all: the way of the Christ, before it can be the way of resurrection and life, must be the way of suffering, rejection, and death. A handful of people at a Good Friday service are closer to an appreciation of it all than hundreds crowding the pews at Easter.

Jesus had to suffer because his understanding of the will of God ran counter to that of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, the members of the governing councils, the Pharisees, the scribes, the television preachers, the denominational authorities, almost everyone with a stake in seeing the religious life of Israel remain as it had for hundreds of years. What is ironic is that it also ran counter to Peter who, acting on behalf of all the disciples, “took him” – the word implies an assumption of authority – as one would “take” a naughty child from the room for discipline. Then he “rebuked him.” In a word, Peter called him down as Jesus had called down the demons in his healing ministry.


That action forced the asking of the 3rd question. “Who do I say that I am?” The real issue at that moment was, as it is today: Who is in charge? If we call Jesus the Christ, we give up the right to define for him what that name means. We hand him the authority to name himself. Peter tried to behave like the big shot who gives his money away to endow some showy thing or other and then raises a fit if his name isn’t engraved at the top of the program for the annual meeting. Peter acted more like a patron than a disciple. Like us, he wanted to do “what God himself would do if only God were in full possession of the facts.”

Through Peter, Satan tempted Jesus to think that God’s anointed one could avoid suffering, rejection, and death; that God’s rule can mean power without pain, glory without humiliation, election without service. Satan’s agent in this tempting pattern of thought was Peter, whose thinking was human, perfectly understandable, a devilishly good idea. But wrong.[2]

The task of discipleship is not to guide, protect, or possess Jesus, but to follow him. Answering “Who do you say that I am” we must eventually ask what his being the Christ means for our discipleship.

Peter, for all his brashness and faults, was ahead of most of us. He could begin to see the writing on the wall. If Jesus was the Christ, and if they were his disciples, and if even the Christ was going to be called on to suffer, to give up his life so that others might have life, well what would that mean for his followers? Could they be called upon to do less? He could see coming what Jesus was about to say, and he tried to block him. But Jesus would not be deterred from his faithfulness to his calling. And so, the inevitable logic of what they had been hearing bore fruit in Jesus’ next statement, which was made not only to the disciples, but to the multitude and, ultimately, across the centuries to us: “If any would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me.”

This statement might strike us as familiar, but it ought never to lose its impact for a people accustomed to humming along when Frank Sinatra sang, “I did it myyyyy waaaaay.” What statement of autonomy is more familiar to a parent experiencing the fresh grief of an empty nest than, “It’s my life.” Jesus’ words fly in the face of all these assumptions about whose life we are living. He says that no one has the capacity to raise the price that would buy his or her life as a secure possession.

“Whoever is ashamed of Jesus now in the common pressures of life will feel the shame of Jesus in the end, when those who wanted to save themselves stand before the One who did not.”[3]

Finding comes through losing, living comes from dying, I find out who I really am by discovering who Jesus is, the way to fulfill myself is to set self aside. The call of Christ then, as now, was filled with such paradoxes.

Jesus’ words are a challenge to any group or person, no matter whether conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, believer or doubter. To churches that doze along in a comfortable pew piety, Jesus’ call is clear to get up, take up a cross and follow on the hard way; to those who occupy themselves telling people to “get saved,” Jesus offers a rather stern warning about a preoccupation with saving one’s self; to radical movements for liberation, Jesus warns against identifying the assertion of any group’s economic and political agenda with the self-emptying work of the kingdom; to those who because of self-interest are opposed to movements to free people, Jesus issues afresh the challenge of self-denial.

Not everyone who responds is a plastic saint, either, but often is simply the woman whose self-interest is set aside in order to rear a houseful of homeless children, or the man whose devotion to his mentally ill wife is the one constant in her life, or the neighbor who sets aside her own plans to lend a hand in the church school, or the one who offers the cup of cold water to the thirsty stranger.

I Gotta Be Me may well be the anthem of the self in every age. Jesus is also concerned for self-fulfillment. But his way is more challenging, and, ultimately, more fulfilling: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Shall we wear the cross or the crown? In the end, it must be both.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Saint Mark, D.E. Nineham, p. 224.

[2] This paragraph thanks largely to Lamar Williamson in Mark, p. 153.

[3] Ibid. p. 155

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Vintage Tale

A Vintage Tale

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 6, 2009

Mark 11:27-12:12

A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it,
dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower;
then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

Whose vineyard is it, anyway? It’s a question put by Jesus – by means of a parable – to those who questioned his authority. Isn’t a parable an odd sort of way to address a question about authority? Maybe. But I’m guessing, since it’s Jesus doing the teaching, not in this case.

To understand Jesus’ parable, the first thing we have to think about is what it means to be tenants. Some of us probably rent homes or apartments. Some others of us probably own our homes...or imagine we do, until we have to send in that monthly mortgage check to the people who really own our homes. We may be more like tenants than we like to think, unless the house is completely paid off. And even if it’s paid off, just try withholding property taxes for a few years and see whose house it is then.

I have been a renter and I also have “owned” 6 different homes in my lifetime. Though, I have to admit, I never really owned any of them, don’t really own the one I live in now, the mortgage lender always has and still does own a pretty large interest in my home. In many ways, I am a tenant on someone else’s property.

These random musings about ownership of property might help us begin to make connection with Jesus’ teaching on authority through the parable of the wicked tenants in an absentee owner’s vineyard.

I remember my first years of ministry, living in what Presbyterians call a “manse.” Methodists and others call them “parsonages.” Whatever we call them, they are church-owned homes in which pastors are invited to live during the time they are serving a particular church. In the last half century, many churches have sold their manses in favor of a housing allowance for pastors. Still, when ministers gather, even if it’s been years since they occupied a manse or parsonage, there is almost invariably a time when tales of woe from bad experiences in the church manse are shared. I recall the story of a pastor friend whose wife had the audacity to move the sofa in their church manse from one room to another, only to suffer the wrath of church members who had collectively donated the sofa specifically for the room from which she had moved it. A great uproar ensued, and eventually the pastor and his wife moved the sofa back where it had been. Then, as soon as possible, they found another church to serve that did not have the “benefit” of a manse.

That little fracas involved, of course, a question of authority. Whose manse was it anyway? The title deed had the church’s name on it, and the church authorities had charge of the stewardship of it, and only by their leave did the pastor and his or her family live there. “By what authority are you moving that sofa?” the elders wanted to know. And, of course, they held all the cards, the authority over property in the church was theirs to exercise. “By what authority are you doing these things?” the priests, scribes, and elders asked, after Jesus had come riding triumphantly into Jerusalem, moving the moneychangers’ furniture on the Temple grounds. Jesus wouldn’t say, instead he told this story.

God’s kingdom is something like a vineyard, Jesus said, which an owner planted, improved with a new fence, wine press and watchtower. Then he leased it to some tenants and for reasons all his own, he went to another country, which is to say, out of sight and, judging by the rest of the story, pretty soon out of mind.

A few years back the newspaper carried a front page story about a California company, Premier Pacific Vineyards, that had purchased and developed six vineyards in Polk and Yamhill counties here in Oregon, as an investment on behalf of the retirement system for California public employees. Now I doubt that any of the front office folks at Premier Pacific come up here on a regular basis to cultivate and water the vines in their vineyards. My guess is that they hired vineyard managers who, in turn, hired workers to till and cultivate the vines. My guess is also that if a day dawned when the vineyard managers and their workers decided that they could just keep all profits from those vineyards for themselves, the parent company would put a quick end to their folly.

But that’s not how it went in Jesus’ parable. In his story, the tenants enjoyed the vineyard and all the owner-financed improvements for a while, and then began to develop a proprietary sense about the place. It wasn’t their vineyard, never was. They didn’t purchase the ground, had made none of the original improvements on it. They enjoyed the fruits of a vineyard established by someone else, who had invited them to live and work there on his behalf. That’s how things stood until that day, that seemingly normal day like other days, when the owner sent someone to collect the rent that was due to him for the benefits they derived from his property and its improvements.

Incredibly, the tenants in the story responded as if they were owners rather than renters. They shamelessly beat the representative the owner sent to collect the rent. The incredibly forbearing owner sent another unsuspecting servant to collect the rent, money which was clearly due him. What did the wicked tenants do? They pulled out the brass knuckles and baseball bats, beat him, and, for good measure, added insults to his injuries, and tossed him out the gate.

Unbelievably, the long-suffering owner sent a third unlucky servant to collect the rents, but now feeling empowered in their evil, they killed this one. Jesus said, “so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed.” By now, we may recognize the servants as representations of the Old Testament prophets, and the land owner as a representation of God.

In exasperation, the owner sent his own son – and now we begin to see the parallel with the story of Jesus – the owner sent his own son to set things to right, but the tenants, consistent in their evil, killed the owner’s son, unceremoniously pitching his lifeless body outside the property. They believed that now, with the owner’s heir out of the way, they would inherit the property themselves, perhaps by squatter’s rights. What would you expect that the owner of the vineyard would do to these tenants? You know the rest of the story, and it wasn’t a happy ending for those tenants

Why did Jesus tell this story? It’s a parable that appears in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and each reports that it was told in response to a question about authority. By what authority, the presumptive authorities had asked Jesus, do you do these things? But Jesus knew whatever authority they had was only derivative. If the priests, scribes and elders had authority over matters civil and religious in Israel, it was like the authority of the tenants in the vineyard, derived, granted by another, by the God of Israel.

When pastors or musicians select a hymn or anthem for a Sunday morning, we frequently ask ourselves, “Do the people know this hymn? Do they like to sing it? Is it good music?” Rarely do we ask, “What does this hymn say about God? Will God be pleased with our singing of it today?” When we fail to ask these other questions, we are guilty of acting as if this were our church, our vineyard, owned by us and the members who gather here. It goes along with sentences like, “This isn’t the pastor’s church, it’s our church,” or “This church doesn’t belong to the session, it belongs to the people.” In truth it belongs neither to pastor nor session nor people. We are the tenants. God is the owner who has called us to come and till this corner of his vineyard for a time.

If we plan Sunday worship, or anything else in the church for that matter, saying, “What do we want from this worship or this activity,” by the measure of this gospel parable, the questions we ought to be asking instead are, “By whose authority do we do these things that we do? What does God require? Whose church is this, anyway?”

This teaching goes beyond the worship and fellowship life of the church, of course. In our confessions and by our study of scripture, we believe that the whole bountiful, beautiful earth is not ours to use for our own pleasure. We’re all tenants in this garden of delights, in spite of the fact that we often use and abuse the earth and its creatures as if we were gods unto ourselves, owing nothing to anyone else. In the end the church doesn’t belong to elders, pastors, or people, but to God. Easy to say, more difficult to live as though it’s true and we believe it.

Some have called Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants a parable of judgment, but is it really? Could it be that it’s a story of grace? When we ask ourselves, “What do I want from this church? What do we need to do to keep this congregation going, to make worship meaningful, to keep being faithful?” Ought we not to be asking ourselves, “By whose authority is all this singing, serving, and speaking done?” This is not our church, this place is God’s. This church is ours on loan. The one who created this church paid for it with the death of his Son.[1]

There is grace in this message. A pastor can’t keep a church going. Nor can anyone sitting in a pew in the congregation or choir. This church is God’s. Worship leaders can’t make “it” happen for you on Sunday – whatever “it” is – no matter how hard we work on music, anthems, prayers, sermons. If something worshipful happens, it’s a gift of God. The church is gathered under the authority of God, not as a self-generating society of unfulfilled expectations.

A Methodist friend of mine shared a story of a family he knew, visiting in a university town in California where the father was teaching for the summer. When they entered town, they passed by a large, impressive Methodist church. Of course, this story could as easily be about Presbyterians or Lutherans as about Methodists.

The father said to his family, “Let’s go to that church on Sunday.”

On Sunday they got up, got dressed, and walked to church. As they came near to the building, they could hear music, loud music, guitars, drums, emanating from the neogothic building.

“What kind of church is this?” his son asked. The father replied, “Well, it’s one of ours, you’ve got to remember that we’re in California....”

A smiling usher greeted them at the door. When the door opened, they could see that the service had begun. In the service there was a band in full swing. People were clapping and swaying to the music, people of all ages, of every color of the rainbow.

“Is this a Methodist church?” they asked.

“Oh, no,” the usher said. “We rent this sanctuary from the Methodist church. Let me take you to the Methodist church.”

And the usher took him around the corner of the building to a small chapel where there gathered a huddled, small group of elderly people, plodding through a traditional service. On the way back home, as they made their way through a sidewalk filled with people emerging from the larger service around the corner, the father looked back at that emerging throng of all ages, nations, and races, and said to his family, “That was the Methodist church.”

We need always to remind one another that the church is not ours. We just work here in the vineyard for the time being, a vineyard which really belongs to God.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] From “Taken and Given to Someone Else,” a sermon preached by William Willimon at the Duke University chapel.