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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Heirs of the Beloved

We are heirs of the Beloved! Jesus invites us to be heirs of God’s kingdom, an abundance we cannot begin to imagine. It is given to us freely, and in response, we are called to receive the gifts of God, tend them, and share them with everyone around us. 

Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
   Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 27 A
   Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I don’t know about you, but from the time I was a child, I was taught to secure my future by working hard, dressing well, saving money, getting a degree from a “good” school, earning the right title in the right organization. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing inherently wrong with these things, and I knew I was loved, but I always felt somehow that I would be loved a little more, be a little more successful, if I could just master these basic credentials. And as I reflect on this experience, I recognize that I adopted an underlying belief that all good things in the world, even love—perhaps especially love—were a scarce commodity that needed to be earned, and once earned, defended. I suspect that this is a common perspective among those of us who have grown up in middle-class America, who have been taught that you get what you deserve, that there is “no free lunch.”

The readings for today paint a very different picture of God’s kingdom. In the passage from Isaiah, we hear a song to the Beloved who has created a place of abundance for us—a vineyard on a very fertile hill, cleared of stones, planted with choice vines. There is a watchtower, a winepress, all that is needed for a full life. It is a gift freely given by God to God’s people, before they have done anything to earn it. Matthew echoes this image, describing almost identically a lush vineyard in which God’s people live, in which they—we—can bear the fruits of the kingdom, or as Isaiah puts it, produce grapes instead of wild grapes. We are given all we need to live a fruitful life.

Most of us probably haven’t spent a lot of time in a vineyard, but hopefully all of us can imagine a place of great love and abundance. A place where there is always room for us. All needs are met. We are loved without condition, without measure. Close your eyes for a moment. (Come on, close them!) Where is this place for you? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Who is there? What food is served? What happens when new people come, asking to share in the love of this place? How do you feel when you are there? This is what Isaiah, and Matthew, and the psalmist, are talking about—this is what God has promised us. We are heirs of Isaiah’s Beloved, the God who loves each of us abundantly.

Unfortunately, the tenants in Matthew’s vineyard don’t seem to experience this promise. When the landowner sends messengers to ask for a share of the produce, they have forgotten that the land is a gift from a God of extravagant abundance, and that there is enough for all. They react by defending their territory, casting the messengers out of the kingdom, even killing them, because they are afraid. They believe that the only way to be sure they will have what they need is to defend it, by violent means if necessary. And when the vineyard owner sends his son, they kill him too, sure that this will guarantee their future. They have claimed the vineyard as their own property, forgotten that it belongs to God. Rather than receiving the gift, tending it and sharing it, they mistakenly think that they have earned it and must defend it. And in the very process of defending it, they lose the inheritance they sought to keep for themselves.

Before we let ourselves off the hook, though, claiming that we have not killed anyone to defend what we have, it is important that we acknowledge that violence does not always mean physical death. There is a violence inherent in the systems — racism, classism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism—that protect those of us in privileged positions, ensuring that we will have more than we need while others in less privileged positions don’t have enough. 17th century German preacher Franz Hunolt quotes Augustine as saying, “He who refuses to share his superfluous wealth with the poor is evidently guilty of keeping what belongs to another.”   Keeping what belongs to another. What we have is not our own. It belongs not just to us, but to all the heirs of the Beloved. When we ignore these systems, and hold on to what we have while others go without, we are acting as the tenants did. We will inevitably cease producing fruit, and we will lose the kingdom.

We miss out on the abundant blessing of the kingdom when we claim ownership of that abundance by virtue of our own credentials, our degrees, accomplishments, even religious affiliation. Our attempts to earn or prove our place generate only exhaustion, and inevitably fail. Paul speaks to this in his letter to the Philippians, saying that if anyone can claim to belong to God’s kingdom based on their own merit it is he, and then lists an impressive resume . . . circumcision, heritage, religious connection, righteousness under the law, even persecution of the church that some believed to be a threat to Judaism. Paul goes on to say that all of this is counted as loss—he actually uses the word “dung”—in comparison with knowing Jesus, being in relationship with the Beloved.

The abundance of the kingdom of the Beloved extends far beyond monetary wealth. We all have gifts and passions we have been given, for the purpose of sharing them. We take the role of the tenants when we hold ourselves back, believing that the gifts we have are not good enough to be shared with others, fearing that we might be rejected, afraid that somehow we might not get what we need. We bring death to ourselves as well as those around us by not sharing the abundant life and love our Beloved has created within us.

So, then, how shall we live? When we are aware that what we have comes from God, the Beloved, we live in abundance and not in scarcity. Rather than trusting in our own efforts or credentials, living in fear that we will not have enough or that what we have will be taken from us, we will bear the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience . . . . We will share ourselves and what we have freely with those around us. And when we see systems or circumstances that keep others locked in oppression, that prevent our neighbors from being able to fully participate in the abundance of this world, we will courageously work to ensure that everyone can take their place as heirs of the Beloved. And we will tend the kingdom by caring for ourselves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and allowing others to care for us as we care for others.

None of this is easy, because it is not what the world around us teaches, and because it requires us to surrender, a challenging task for those of us who like to feel that we have some measure of control. As with everything in the spiritual life, we are to live into the promise—and the call—knowing we cannot do it without God. Paul says, “Not that I have already attained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Because Jesus has claimed us, we can claim the kingdom, not solely as future promise, but also here, in this moment, as a present reality.

Jesus invites us to be heirs of God’s kingdom, an abundance we cannot begin to imagine. We do not have to earn it; in fact, we can’t. It is given to us freely, as a gift. And in response, we are called to receive the gifts of God, tend them, and share them with everyone around us. We are heirs of the Beloved! With whom will you share your abundance today?

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