Skin in the Game

Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Proper 22/Year A ▪ October 4, 2020
Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46

Skin in the Game

WCEC: 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass (October 4, 2020)

Celebrant and Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes, Sermon "Skin in the Game" (Matthew 21:33-46)Crucifer/Candles: Mr. LeGrand Jones Gospel Book/Bells: Mrs. Dianne Jones Readers: Ms. Keitra Waterman (First Lesson), Mrs. Dianne Jones (Epistle) Intercessor: Mr. LeGrand Jones Altar Guild/Flowers: Ms. Christine O’Donnell Visibility: Mr. Hugh Shannon/Sharon Soto assisting (video) Music: Ms. Gina Spano (Keyboard); Choir: Ms. Katherine Knippel Greeters/Ushers: Mrs. Sharon Soto, Mr. Pete Soto Counters: Mrs. Sharon Soto, Mr. LeGrand Jones

Posted by Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church on Sunday, October 4, 2020

Our gospel passage directly follows last week’s encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders in the temple. Jesus’ authority, and the source of it, had been publicly challenged by his opponents, the chief priests and the elders of the people. Jesus cleverly called them out for their hostility toward the prophets sent by God, to God’s, people to guide them in the way of righteousness. Righteousness meaning to be “right” with God, morally right, by God’s standards.

Doubling down on his scrutiny of his opponents’ credibility and authority, Jesus told them the parable of the wicked tenants. The story tells of a landowner who sets up everything necessary for his vineyard to successfully produce fruit for harvest—the fence, a wine press, and a watchtower—for the tenants to live on and tend the land. When harvest time came, the landowner sent slaves, on two occasions, to collect his produce from the tenants, and all were met with violence or murdered.

The landowner’s third attempt to squash the wicked tenants’ hostile takeover was a personal one. There’s a saying, that in order for someone to truly care about anything, they have to have “skin in the game.” With this third attempt, in sending his son to confront the greedy, blood-thirsty tenants, the vineyard owner had put his own “skin” into the violent business game.  And, the son was thrown out of the vineyard and killed. The end.

Jesus then asked his opponents what they thought the owner would do to those tenants when he came to the vineyard himself? Judging by their immediate response, they knew what ought to happen. The wicked tenants would be put to death and new tenants would be brought in to ensure that the business of the vineyard moved forward. For them, the parable was about a business relationship gone wrong; not a personal relationship that had been broken.

God himself, in the human person of Jesus, God’s only Son, put his own “skin” into his plan for the salvation of humankind. Jesus will soon lament Jerusalem’s earned reputation as the city that “…kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matt 23:37). Jesus’ encounter with his religious opponents was a deeply personal attempt to confront their rejection of God by their rejection of God’s prophets.

This parable resonated with the learned in scripture—those who knew the law and the Prophets—because it mirrored the allegory of the Prophet Isaiah’s “The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard.” The allegory says that the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting…”.  In Isaiah’s allegory the vineyard owner took great care to prepare the vineyard, on a very fertile hill, expecting it to produce grapes. When he found only wild grapes, the landowner removed all of the land’s protection so that it would be made a waste. In the allegory, there were consequences for the vineyard’s unsuitable yield.

“Therefore…the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” Jesus said to the religious leaders (v.43). There was no denying that Jesus was speaking about them, but their fear of crowd retaliation delayed them from throwing him out of the vineyard and killing him—this time.

No doubt, many of you have heard the saying, “It’s just business; it’s not personal.” I heard it often in my corporate circles.  I also witnessed the destructive impact of transgressions committed for personal gain, which violated the accepted rules of partnerships, which contrary to popular belief, are never devoid of a relational component. What is left behind is broken relationship.

This parable is about more than a business transaction gone terribly wrong. It should remind us of God’s mercy in extending his grace when our sinful actions don’t warrant it. It should also remind us that God wastes nothing. Essentially, Jesus told the leaders that if they could not produce the fruits of the kingdom, the Jews’ exclusive access to the kingdom of God would be forfeited, and God would give the vineyard work to a people who could accomplish the required task.

As we stand at the other side of the cross, and proclaim the risen Christ, the Church, across the centuries, has represented those people to whom God’s vineyard work has been entrusted. We are the tenants.  As workers in God’s earthly kingdom, faithful followers of Christ do well to remember that we did not create the land; God did. In our human arrogance we must not forget that we do not give the growth; God does. And, too often human beings forget that we are creatures; and not the creator. All are invaluable messages for a newly-forming congregation like ours, as we have been called to nurture this faith community and strengthen it for the vineyard work beyond these four walls. This business of reconciliation, which God invites us into, is God’s business.  And, by virtue of our baptism into Jesus Christ, we share in God’s deeply personal business of reconciliation.

We hear a lot about our Baptismal Covenant as the blue print for our lifelong growth in Christ. But we don’t spend time with the foundational laws given by God to Moses and the Israelites—the 10 Commandments, heard in our Old Testament lesson today.  At its core the 10 Commandments is a set of rules for living in harmony with God and our neighbors, and can be summarized with, “Love God, love your neighbor.”

This pandemic has produced no shortage of opportunities to love God and to express love in myriad ways to our neighbors. Perhaps a more intentional digestion and application of the 10 Commandments in the 21st century, and in the middle of a pandemic, might just be the healing balm for the physical, mental and spiritual violence inflicted upon others, personally in our own families, and by those in authority in the public places of our nation.

Lived with intention, God’s 10 Commandments, can ultimately stop, the rapid decay of humanity—caused by idolatry, blasphemy, disregard for our elders, murder, adultery, lying and covetousness. Living the 10 Commandments is risky business, and the fact that we do not fully obey them, reminds us of our vulnerability to sin and the gift of salvation which Jesus paid for with his life so that all who believe in him will have life eternal with God now, and after this life is done.

The God of love is about healing the sin of broken relationship. The God, who is love, restores humankind to unity with God’s self and with each other through his son, Jesus Christ. And, with his own “skin” in the game, God’s reconciliation can never be “just business;” it is necessarily, and unequivocally, deeply personal.