Keawalaʻi Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
“Hey, wait! Whose is it?”
by Robert Nelson
October 2, 2011
Some of us remember the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film "Apocalypse Now" about the confusion, violence, fear, and nightmarish madness of the Vietnam War. It was actually based on a much-earlier novel by Joseph Conrad, entitled "Heart of Darkness". In the book, an Englishman, Charles Marlow, works for a Belgian trading company as a riverboat captain in Africa--at that time. He's to go upriver and pick up ivory as well as transport the boss of the trading station, named Kurtz, who's sick, out for medical care. This Kurtz has quite a reputation as eloquent, intelligent, competent, cultured.
But on his way upriver, Marlow begins to hear disturbing reports: that Kurtz has convinced the natives to treat him as a god and has set himself up as ruler of a cruel little empire. He uses torture and beheading against anyone who stands in his way of possessing everything and anything.
As Marlow says, "You should have heard him say, 'MY ivory, MY station, MY river'--everything belonged to him . . . everything--but...the thing was to know what HE belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.'" But his empire was imploding from internal corruption, and, as the boat carries them back downriver, Kurtz, on his death bed, tells Marlow, "I had immense plans. I was on the threshold of great things."
One of the native crewmen, then, says, "Mistah
Kurtz--he dead," words that T. S. Eliot later uses to begin his epic
poem, "The Hollow Men." "Mistah Kurtz",
you see, had a hole inside him and he couldn't find a way to fill
up that empty space. Like a two-year-old, he became enchanted
with the word "MINE" and like a magician speaking an incantation,
he thought the word
"MINE" would change everything.
His life story was shaped by the myth of "MINE": What I make is "MINE" . . . What I have is "MINE" . . . What I get is "MINE" . . . and what is "mine" is "MINE".
When I hear today's gospel story about the tenants of a vineyard, I'm reminded of "Mistah Kurtz" who would use any means at his disposal to fill the empty space inside of him. A landowner plants a vineyard, puts a hedge around it to protect it, digs a winepress for the hoped-for harvest, and erects a tower from which to oversee it all. He leases it all out to tenant farmers and goes away. At harvest time, he sends his servants to collect his fair share of the harvest; but the tenants kill the servants.
Now, reasonable people would understand that killing the servants isn't the best way to keep their tenancy . . . but, when enchanted with the myth of "MINE" people aren't reasonable, and they want all of the profits. The land owner is shocked when he hears what they've done, and he sends his own son. From that tower, the tenants see the heir coming and think that the old man must be dead and the son's coming to claim the land. If he were out of the way, they think the land would be theirs; so they kill him too. You can almost see them dancing on the grapes and singing "What I have is mine! What I get is mine! What is mine is mine!"
In each of us, there seems to be a two-year-old, still enchanted with the word "MINE" and that calling something or someone "MINE will change everything . . . will fill up an empty space inside of us. But ultimately, what is "mine"? . . . Nothing . . . Not my house, my car, my children, my spouse, my money, my business, my computer, my Iphone, not even an Atlanta Braves victory? Nothing. We simply live on borrowed time and with borrowed goods. Am I, myself, even "mine"?
But, you know, when I hear this story about the
servants who were sent to that vineyard and, then, got beat up and
killed by the tenants, I also have to wonder what on earth possessed
the owner to send his own son. I mean, why not have those tenants
thrown in jail right then and there. . . After so many had been beaten
and killed, how could he possibly send his own son?
But it becomes clearer when we come to realize that Jesus was, in fact, telling this story to predict his own fate: that the religious leaders--who were increasingly hostile to him, were out to get him killed one way or another. But, what comes through loud and clear as well is that God, the landowner in this story, is very concerned about his vineyard and his people, and yet, isn't going to stand in the way of them beating and torturing and murdering one another. This is a God who gives his people freedom and power to do whatever they choose to do and who isn't going to intervene to put a stop to violence, whether it's the violence individuals do to themselves or to one another: domestic violence or warfare.
This is a God who does not use storm troopers
or cruise missiles to put right the evil that men do, because this
God (OUR God) is NOT a god of violence. Our God is a God of
grace, who rains blessings on everyone and anyone, who welcomes them
into his vineyard, his garden, no matter
who they are or how they behave in it, and who longs for them to accept his blessings but isn't about to force them to do so. You and I may wish it weren't so, but our God allows the weeds to grow in His garden . . . and sends his messengers over and over to offer us opportunities to change the way things are, to accept his mercy and grace, and to suggest ways we could
understand and experience his love.
No matter how much destruction we may cause . . . no matter how bad
things get . . . our God will not take away our ability and our right
to choose, even if we choose the path of destruction.
Some, like those tenant farmers in the vineyard, assume that because God isn't a heavy-handed tyrant who punishes his people, he either doesn't exist or he's so far removed from what's really happening that they don't need to worry about him.
It's true: our God will not, Himself, take the destructive path: no eye-for-an-eye or tooth-for-a-tooth. But, while the rain falls on the just and the unjust, Jesus words still rumble like thunder from those rain clouds: "Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants who destroy in God's vineyard?"
So, it's up to you and me to pay attention to His messengers, to trust the word of His Son, to build a deep and abiding relationship with the Owner of the Vineyard. It's up to you and me to acknowledge whatever holes--empty spaces in our hearts. . . . It's up to you and me to acknowledge our need and longing to be filled up with "Not MINE, but THINE" and, in so doing, to experience everything as changed. . . . filled up to overflowing with Grace, so that in
Godʻs Vineyard, the fruits of the Spirit begin to ripen and mature in us. Itʻs up to you and me to show our world that there's a different way than violence and destruction . . . a different way than feeding the myth of "MINE", a different way than doing those things that hurt or damage ourselves, a different way than an eye-for-an-eye, a far different way than warfare. It's up to you and me to find a way of sharing our God of love and representing Jesus in our lives, in our families, in our work and play, representing Jesus in our communities and in our world--which is, in reality, God's Vineyard.
That's what I think . . . but what about you? . . . What do you think?
Remember that tower that the landowner built in his vineyard so he could get a better view of the land? Let me suggest that you go climb that tower, and then, tell me what you see. Is there One on the road again? . . . One who's been sent by the Owner of the Vineyard to ask if we've finally learned that it isn't really a jungle out there--it's a Vineyard? Is there One on the road coming to ask if we're ready to offer our harvest of thanks and gratitude to be living in this Vineyard?
We've neglected our stewardship of it for a long time: We've cherished the myth of "MINE" . . . and pretended as though WE were the ones who were in charge, as if we were, in fact, the owners. But we also hunger and thirst for something more nourishing: for something that tastes sweeter. Is there One on the road? . . . Is it the Landowner's Son? Is it the Heir? And, do you know how to recognize Him as He walks along the Way to here and now?
He comes to us, you know, again and again and again, and not even
the empty holes within, nor the jungles without, need to win out over
against a love that risked so much and is that persistent.
And anyway, when the Owner of the Vineyard Himself comes to collect his harvest, then, how wonderful it will be to hear him say, "Well done, good and faithful servants."
(Assist from: "The Myth of 'Mine'", Patrick J. Willson, Biblical Preaching Journal, Fall 2005; and "Why Doesn't God Wipe Out the Wicked?", Janice B. Scott, The Village Shepherd, sermonsuite.com)
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