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Stewards of Creation

St. John’s Lutheran Church
8 October 2023 + Lect. 27a (19 Pentecost)
Matthew 21.33-46

Rev. Josh Evans



Living in an apartment has its downsides, to be sure: the smaller space, the lack of a backyard, the occasional loud party down the hall – or, even worse, upstairs.

But it also has its advantages, especially if you’re anything like me and not exactly “handy”: Plumbing issue? Call the landlord! Heat goes out? Call the landlord! Dishwasher broken? Call the landlord!

All things considered, the trade-offs I make for living in an apartment are a small sacrifice in comparison to the responsibilities I relinquish by not owning the building.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean I don’t care for my apartment. I care for it for my own sake, and for the sake of the tenants who will come after me. I care for it because it is my home – a place of rest and renewal and safety.

Such care for that which we don’t own can’t always be taken for granted, though. Just ask the landowner in today’s parable – often titled “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.”

As with many of Jesus’s parables, the premise begins with a common cultural experience – the leasing of land to tenant farmers, who would be expected to care for the land and turn over a portion of the produce to the landowner at harvest time. If the tenants failed to do so, the landowner would simply replace them with new tenants who would.

What’s surprising in this scenario, however, is the unexpected patience that the landowner displays – sending not only a second delegation of slaves after the first had been brutally beaten, killed, and stoned, but also sending even his son, the heir to his land, when the second round of slaves is also beaten, killed, and stoned. Even so, it’s a grim story with death at every turn.

While many of Jesus’s parables are dense and their meaning often eludes his hearers, in this case, the chief priests and Pharisees immediately realize: He’s talking about us … we’re the tenants.

This parable is an indictment of the religious leaders of Jesus’s day who abused their authority and oppressed those under their power. They had been called to care for their people – to love their neighbors – but instead they treated them with contempt and harm.

It also strikes me as an indictment of the perils of ownership. What the tenants fail to understand – or perhaps outright ignore – is that they are tenants – stewards entrusted to care for that which does not belong to them. But they get greedy and power-hungry.

***

The thing about pointing fingers, as the saying goes, is having three more pointing right back at ourselves.

The allure of ownership is attractive, to be sure. If we own it, we can control it. It’s ours for the taking, ours to manipulate in any way we see fit.

It’s easy to fall victim to this thinking – living in the “on-demand” culture that we do. Smartphones and tablets connect us instantly to entertainment, and the “Buy Now” button on online shopping sites drives our desire to accumulate and own more – even when we fully know we don’t need it. And what we do have quickly becomes outdated, or so we’re led to believe, so that our first instinct is to discard it and replace it with the “latest and greatest” – even when the “old” version is still perfectly fine.

And we know the downside to this, even if we’re unwilling to admit it: Our cultural drive toward ownership exploits our neighbors and exploits our planet.

“O God, is all this devastation our fault?” as our words of confession and lament at the beginning of today’s liturgy urge us to confront.

One hymn writer minces no words in her own lament (ELW 739):

We who endanger, who create hunger,
agents of death for all creatures that live,
we who would foster clouds of disaster,
God of our planet, forestall and forgive!

It’s especially appropriate to consider our role as stewards of creation as we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi, the 12th-century monk known for his great love and care of creation and often depicted in artwork as being surrounded by animals.

And as uncomfortable as it might be, confessing our failure of creation stewardship is important.

Not to guilt or shame us into recycling more and consuming less – though certainly those are good practices worth pursuing.

But more so to remember our place within God’s creation – as fellow, fragile creatures on this fragile earth – calling us back to our God-given task to “touch the earth lightly” and care for that which none of us owns, but is meant for all of us to enjoy – for now and for generations to come.

***

The so-called “wicked tenants” in the parable, and the religious authorities they represent, exploited the land and the people they were entrusted to care for. They failed to recognize their role as stewards. And the result is destruction and devastation – “agents of death,” in the words of the hymn writer.

Our drive toward ownership and control exploits our neighbors and exploits our planet – our fellow creaturely siblings and our created home. It cuts us off from each other and drives us inward rather than outward. We, too, fail to recognize our role as stewards. And the result is a planet of increasing “natural” disasters – wildfires, hurricanes, flooding – and increasing climate change, inequality, and injustice.

This parable calls us to re-orient ourselves and to re-calibrate our focus:

We are stewards and caretakers of the good creation that God the vineyard owner has graciously and abundantly given to us for our enjoyment and entrusted to our care.

With Francis, this day calls us to delight in creation, to bless our fellow creaturely companions, and to recognize the awesome gift entrusted to our care – a care that is as much for us as it is for those who come after us, on this our shared earthly home.

This is our calling and God’s promise:

We are stewards of God’s creation,
first given to us.

We are stewards of God’s people,
made in God’s own image.

We are stewards of God’s love,
fiercely and extravagantly loved.

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