The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
The work of planting a vineyard is a lesson in long-term commitment. Grape vines take at least three years to begin producing fruit. However, once they are established, with proper care these vines can live and produce grapes for fifty years to a century. The bottom line is this: it takes good stewards of the land, the vine, the natural resources, all of it, in order to actually get the fruit, and ultimately get to the wine. Some vines in the Napa Valley region of California are nearly 100 years old. Many of the people who planted them are long gone from this earth, but the vines that are left, they still bear fruit. The vines are the living legacies of their stewards.
Bishop Rickel from the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia tells a story about a farmer who told the preacher he was tired of hearing that we didn’t own anything, and that it all really belonged to God (clearly, this was a farmer who felt he had endured more than his fair share of stewardship sermons.) The farmer invited the preacher over for dinner, and after dinner took him out to look over his land. He had that preacher stand and look in all directions, and he said to him, “As far as the eye can see, this is all mine. Now, can you really stand there and say I don’t own it?” The preacher just smiled at him and said, “Ask me that in a hundred years.” The shorter versions of this same idea are these: there are no luggage racks on a hearse, and at the end of the game the king and the pawn go in the same box.
In the Old Testament lesson for today, Joshua, having grown old and nearing the end of his life, gathers together all of the tribes of Israel. Here’s what he understands. Now that Israel has defeated her enemies and dwells in the promised land of God, it will be all too easy for her to be tempted to assume that she no longer needs God. You see, as of this writing, Israel has the land, has won the land—and now it’s not too far a leap for her to believe that she owns the land--all of it. So Joshua gathers the people and challenges his fellow Israelites to throw away the gods her ancestors worshipped in Egypt—gods they hadn’t quite gotten rid of in all the time he had known them. He calls them to serve the Lord by worshipping the Lord Go only, saying: “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Picture it this way—Joshua is taking the people of Israel by the hand, and asking them to look in all directions, as far as the eye can see, and consider—whose land is this? Really…to whom does it belong? Because, if it truly belongs to God—well, what then, is the lure of these other gods which continually, even after all these years, manage to captivate their attention and lure them away from worshipping the true God; a God who loves, leads and protects them.
I think of those Israelites gathered before Joshua and their Lord and then I consider ourselves and cannot help but conclude that we aren’t so far apart. Like our ancient forbears, it’s easy for us to chase after other gods—gods of wealth, of power, prestige, youth and beauty. And, we too like to think we own things—lots of things—from our vehicles to our homes, our degrees and all our stuff. And, for many of us, we’ve worked hard for what we’ve earned—so, it’s not too far a leap for us to assume that it belongs to us—only to us. After all, we have the deeds to prove it. Like the farmer who surveys his land and believes that all he sees belongs only to him—he, in many ways, resembles ourselves.
Joshua reminds the people of Israel that God called Abraham from beyond the River Euphrates to come to the Promised land so that his offspring might be many. This same God led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In other words, the fact that the Israelites were now in control of the Promised Land didn’t occur by accident—it was purposed by the Almighty.
It’s stewardship season here at St. Paul’s. Let’s take a moment to consider our own plot of hallowed ground. Founded in 1758—our parish is now 259 years old. Consider the countless number of lives she has touched—of people who have come to this place and encountered their Savior, who have lived and died in the knowledge that they are secure in the love of God. People whose loved ones are buried in our memorial garden and whose family members are memorialized in our windows. People both great and small—all of them members of the family of God. We do not own this place, none of us. We simply care for it for a time. We are its stewards. Oh, it’s true enough that we need money (and we do) to keep the lights on and maintain the structure of our building—but St. Paul’s is much more than a building. We are a living being—a family, called out of the busyness of our lives to remember that we are part of something far larger than ourselves, larger even than our immediate family. We are part of a mission—one which assists those who are poor and in need within the borders of our town, certainly—but also in the wider world. When you make your pledge to St. Paul’s, you are doing more than helping us keep the doors open and the heat turned on—your pledge enables us to continue to share the vital mission of our parish with the wider world. You are enabling us to continue to be a beacon of light and hope in a world which desperately needs to be reminded of the presence of God in a world teeming with other gods, apathy and illusions of grandeur.
All we have been given in this life is on loan, at best. It is not ours. We will never truly own it. We have it, for whatever reason, in order to care for it as best we can. This is true of everything we, or the bank, says we own, and it is just as true for every relationship we have. We are stewards of all of it, called by God to leave the land, our material possessions, our money, our relationships—this beloved church of St. Paul’s, to leave all of it, better than we found them, or they found us. Look around you. All we now see, hold, and know is God’s vineyard, and we are called to tend it for the One who truly owns it all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.