Ownership and Belonging

Matthew 21:33-46 Isaiah 5:1-8

 I wanted to belong. I wanted to know what the answers were to the big questions of my life: Would I marry? Would I have children? Would I have a home? Those were the yearnings that simmered inside me when I was graduating from college in Enid, Oklahoma. College life was wonderful, but the summer after graduation, the path ahead was unclear. I was thrilled when a music professor asked if I wanted to house-sit for a month. He and his wife had one young son and a dog. Their home was a lovely, older house in the part of town with big trees and shaded yards. They invited me to make myself at home: eat what is in the kitchen and freezer. I did, and with gusto!
There was so much to enjoy: a wonderful collection of music recordings; a washer and dryer, an outdoor hot tub; a spacious home, filled with light and art. I made omelets that melted in the mouth. I lit all the candles in the living room. I was living the good life—a life that, at age twenty-one—I was eager for, and that seemed so distant. Even the housecleaning was enjoyable. I took pride in knowing that I was leaving their house cleaner than they had left it. But, as the weeks passed, I got a little too comfortable in that borrowed home.
At some point, I realized that the wife and I were near the same size in clothes. It started with wearing a pair of her socks. Then a jacket. And so it was, one evening when I was wearing one of her lovely turquoise blouses, drinking a glass of wine and reading in the den. I didn’t hear the family come in the back door (they were back a day early.) We were all surprised when they walked in and found me looking like I owned the place and everything in it! They were kind, but I could see the question in their eyes. I still blush to think of that moment. Looking back, I realize, I was just a bit too eager to use what wasn’t mine.
Whose is the vineyard? Whose is Creation? To whom do we belong?
Have you ever taken what wasn’t yours? Or maybe a sense of entitlement took hold and you crossed a boundary that you knew you shouldn’t cross? If we zoom out and ask these questions at the global level, about our sense of ownership and entitlement, it gets uncomfortable, doesn’t it?
Covetousness: wanting what someone else has. Some of us wrestle with the demons Covetousness and Envy more than others. As we look at human history and current events, isn’t it evident that there is something in humankind that tries to possess as much as we possibly can, regardless of the cost to others? Writers over the ages have played on this theme—Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Also, Joseph Conrad’s character Kurtz, in The Heart of Darkness: Kurtz was “. . .a hollow man to whom the wilderness has whispered ‘irresistibly fascinating’ things about himself. As a result, he came to belong to the powers of darkness and to believe that ‘everything belonged to him.’ He was a man who knew no restraint. . . He wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him.”
Whose is the vineyard? Whose is Creation? To whom do we belong?
When we forget that we belong to God; when we believe that it all belongs to us, there is an emptiness in our hearts. It is the opening through which powers urge unrestrained greed and sometimes–violence against others.
When we forget we belong to God, we have a state with too many hungry children, and nations at war. When we forget whose we are, we have centuries of violence by peoples claiming the same ground; and hatred based on religion. When we forget whose is the vineyard, we eventually destroy the environment.
This passage from Matthew (which is also in Mark and Luke) makes us squirm for a variety of reasons. The parable suggests an absentee landlord who might have been exploiting the workers on his vineyard. There would have been hearers of this tale who would have cheered for the tenants’ revolt! If we allegorize this parable, and cast God as the landlord, we’re uncomfortable, because what kind of landlord repeatedly sends servants (and his son!) to die? Another reason this story makes us uncomfortable is that, even if we think the tenants are entitled to justice, their murder of servants and the son– is extreme and immoral! Where and how can we see ourselves in this violent story?
Whose is the vineyard? Whose is Creation? To whom do we belong?
This passage is also uncomfortable because it has been used to justify anti-Semitism. Jesus said to the chief priests and elders, “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the Kingdom.” Over centuries, that has been interpreted to mean that God’s kingdom will be taken from the Jews and given to the Gentiles. But given the context of Matthew’s early church, made up of Christian Jews, the “unfruitful people” probably referred to the religious elites, who were questioning Jesus’ authority.
Jesus begins the story with an image of the vineyard from Isaiah 5, that would have been very familiar to the religious leaders.
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it. . . He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. . .
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Is.5: 78)
When Isaiah denounced the “wild grapes,” he spelled out the wildness in terms of society-wide covetousness. God “expects justice but sees bloodshed.”

God’s dream for the harvest, for creation and humanity is sweet. It is abundant life. It is a dream of binding up what is broken; a dream of mercy. A dream of rootedness, home and belonging.
Throughout the Bible, the grapevine symbolizes abundance, life, rootedness and hope. A few weeks ago, we heard Beth preach on another parable about the vineyard laborers who received generous wage from the landowner: all were paid the same wage, whether they had worked one hour or three hours or all day. That parable was showed the generosity of God, lavishly bestowed. But some laborers begrudged that grace given to others. That parable, alongside todays reading, suggests that the envy of others can lead to a murderous separation from one another. Our unwillingness to rejoice in God’s generosity to others can lead straight to violent rebellion against God. We forget we belong to God, and we belong to one another.
What’s our honest answer?

 Do we believe that we have only ourselves to count on? That is a common way of life for our culture. What’s your answer?
Before Karl and I had kids, I had read about the importance for children of having family meals together. Studies showed that it develops confidence and character and strength. Since have children, though, I can think of many times when I’ve scurried to get a meal on the table, and sat down with the family, not feeling particularly thankful, as we reached out hands to one another to pray. But think about it: maybe eating together is important because we are showing, every day, that we belong to one another. And as we pray at the meal, we are remembering: we belong to God.
In a few minutes we will hear from the Revetts, missionaries and educators in Paraguay. They are members of Genesis Fellowship, a church here in Portland that we are in partnership with. Genesis and Westminster belong to one another. Look around at the people sitting next to you—we belong together. That belonging is visible when we share a meal, in a time of hunger. It’s visible when we are there, as a listening friend, in a time of grief. When we are there, as a volunteer and voice for children, when the needs are great and small.
On this World Communion Sunday, we get to taste the sweetness of Peace in Christ through our meal shared with sisters and brothers near, and far. Despite all that separates us, in this meal, we are one in Christ. We belong to God. And we belong to one another.

What if we knew in our bones, that we belonged to God? What if we lived as though we belonged to one another? What priorities would change, across political, class and economic lines? How would our community change? What would the world look like, then?


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