“Growing in Service” Rev. Stacy Swain, Oct. 8, 2017

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-18

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder.  You shall not commit adultery.  You shall not steal.  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. 

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance.

Matthew 21:33-46

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.  When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.  Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.’  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’  So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?  Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”  When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.  They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.


Will you pray with me?  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God our rock and our redeemer Amen.


It’s been a tough week.  Actually it’s been a tough many months.  How much more bad news can we take?  The scale and scope of suffering right now is overwhelming.  When I first heard the news of the horror of the mass killing in Las Vegas, I was devastated.  I wanted to lie right down on the floor and not get up. And throughout the week, I have found myself alternating between despair for the world and a fiery hot anger; between wanting to crawl into a cave, and wanting to yell at the talking heads on the TV. 

It is so hard to know what to do.  And so what we tend to do is to return to doing what we know best.  And that it is to tend to the vineyards of our home, and of this our church home. 

Tending the vineyard is a good thing.  There is good work to be done.  The soil needs to be nourished, the vines tied up, and the weeds pulled.  Pests need to be eradicated and tender shoots encouraged and when the time is ripe, the harvest needs to be brought in and all of its sweetness enjoyed. 

Over the years we have tirelessly tend this vineyard.  Look at it now! This church is a thing of beauty.  It is a place of such bounty and sweetness.  It is a place of beauty and rest.  It is a place of welcome and healing.  It is a place of hope.  I have heard many of you say, many time, that every time you come into this place you leave feeling much better than when you arrived.   What a lovely, lovely vineyard.


The tenants in the parable that Jesus tells had been working hard as well.  They had been working hard to tend vineyard.  They had created a place of beauty and bounty and the harvest was plentiful and the grapes sweet. 

Now I am not suggesting that we are anything like those tenants.  If anything, we are the opposite for when someone showed up on the steps of their vineyard, they beat them, stoned them and killed them.  But when someone appears on our doorstep, we throw open the door, wrap them in our arms, take their hand and do all we can to make them feel at home.  We have the extravagant welcome down pat and cannot wait to share all we have with the one who comes through our doors. 

But I do think that there is a word of wisdom in the parable for us as well.   Jesus tells the chief priests and Pharisees this because they had lost track of the purpose of the work they were doing.  They had come to believe that their workwas their purpose and they had begun to fiercely guard what they assumed was theirs. They had lost track of the truth that the purpose of the vineyard was to share in God’s plan for the world and that they were to share in that purpose by sharing the bounty of what they were helping to create.  The vineyard was not to be an island of beauty amidst a ravished land.  It was to be a source of nourishment for the wider building of the kingdom of God in which the way of Love was to be the cornerstone. 


Years ago, when I was in seminary, I had a class that was about ministerial formation and vocational call.  One day, fairly early into the semester, the professor of this class turned to me and asked me to say something about my understanding of the call to ministry that I was feeling.  “What do you think this call is calling you to?” he asked.

I took a moment and then began to speak.  “I think my ministry is to be about ________________” , but before I could finish my sentence.  Before I could get another word out, this usually quite soft spoken and mild mannered professor jumped in. 

He interrupted me with an intensity that startled not only me but that visibly shock others in the class as well. He broke into what I was saying with words I will never forget. 

With a heartfelt urgency he said, “You must remember and must never forget.  It is not your ministry.  It is the ministry that God is doing through you.  The moment it become your ministry is the moment it no longer is ministry.” 

My professor was sharing with us the same wisdom that Jesus was speaking to the chief priests and the Pharisees.  Jesus was warning them not to forget that all that they are doing is not meant to preserve and fortify their own well-being.  All that they are and are doing is meant to be in service to God and to God’s people.


         So what is it that we are doing here?  What is the purpose of this, our vineyard that we are so lovingly tending?  How are we to respond to the needs of our time? How are we to step out and share the sweetness we know here with the world?

.  ~~~

A glimmer of an answer came home for me this week at our Council meeting on Wednesday night.  Many of you may noticed when you returned from the summer that something outside our church had changed.  Something new had appeared something that in all of my time with you I had never seen.  And that was a sign.  Have you seen it?  A humble little sign appeared on the grass near the tree in the circle driveway out front.  A humble little sign on that says “Love thy Neighbor/No Exception.” 

Since the start of the church year, this little humble sign has been whispering “Love thy neighbor/no exception.”  Love thy neighbor is a commandment we first hear in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy and that later Jesus lifts up this commandment making it a part of the Great Commandment when he says we are to Love our God with all our hearts, souls, strength and might and love our neighbor as ourselves.  Love thy neighbor is a commandment that holds within it at least six of the 10 commandments that were given to Moses in our scripture this morning. To love one’s neighbor is to honor our mother and our father,  to not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, not false witness, not covet.  Turns out that that humble little sign on its spindly little legs has much to say.

Though Council had voted to approve the request of one of our members to place that sign on the lawn, we had not up until last Wednesday had had a chance to come together to discuss the sign and what it means for our life together. 

Putting up a sign is a big deal for us.  Our commitment to inclusive welcome makes us a bit cautious of putting up any messaging that may shout out in ways that may feel alienating to others around us.

And so on Wednesday night we began talking about the sign and what it means.  The conversation opened with the one who had requested the sign be put up, talking about why and what that sign means to her.  She said something that shock me to the core and that I will never forget.  She said that more than speaking for her, that sign speaks to her. 

She said that that sign sat and the end of her driveway all summer and every day as she came and went from her house and it reminded her and commanded her to love her neighbor.  That sign reminded her what was to be underlying purpose that was to guide what she did and said throughout her day.  That sign reminded her of why we as church exist, of what our purpose is and what we are meant to do in this broken and weary world of ours.  We are to love our neighbor and draw on the bounty and blessing of this vineyard to enable us to do so.  This person said that that little humble sign emboldened her to reach out to not just those neighbors she liked and whose company she enjoyed but also to those with whom she disagreed and found difficult. 


That sign, I believe, was pointing her to what Trappist monk Thomas Merton fell in to one day quite accidentally and remarkably.  Merton writes in “Conjectures of a Guilty By-stander” of a day when he was out walking through the shopping district in Louisville.  He was standing at a busy intersection when suddenly it hit him.  When looking around at all the people coming and going he says that he:

“was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation….

Merton continues:

“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . .


He then goes on to say that he suddenly realized that he had “the immense joy of being [hu]man, a member of a race in which God . . . became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now [that] I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . .

He concludes:  If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

Over these last few days I have come to see that humble little sign in a new way and have come to love how it speaks to me as I come and go from this place day in and day out.  I appreciate that it is reminding me of my purpose and it whispers to the purpose of this beloved vineyard we tend so lovingly together. 

For ultimately, it really is not important what signs we have on our front lawn. What is important is that we are to be living signs of the Way that will deliver us from the madness of our time.  This vineyard exists in order to capacitate us to do that.  This vineyard exists to teach us and all who walk through the door and all who are touched by the ministries of this place, to choose not despair or anger, but instead to step out with our arms full of the abundance of this harvest, to share and extend the Love that is the ministry God is doing in and through us.

So I wonder if you would engage in a practice with me this week.  Would you take time perhaps in our time of prayer or at another moment that feels right to name one thing that you would like to share with the world this week?  What is one practice that you can commit to this week that will help you live into loving your neighbor?  Perhaps it is suspending judgment.  Perhaps it is deep listening. Perhaps it is stepping into a place of need and offering to help.  Perhaps it is spending a bit more time with your children and hear what is on their hearts.  Perhaps it is pledging to look everyone you meet this week in the eye and to bless them with a smile.  Perhaps it is talking with Nancy and Beth, our heads of mission outreach about getting involved with our justice work.  How will you share the harvest of the vineyard this week?

         Love thy neighbor.  We know this.  It is who we are and what we can offer the world.  So thanks be to God for this vineyard we are gifted to tend. Thanks be for the harvest of love we are gifted to share.  Thanks be to the ministry God is doing in and through us, this ministry of Love.  Amen