Giving and Trust

As I was lying in bed, not sleeping, listening to the wind and rain from Hurricane Irma I imagined the damage the storm was causing. I could hear the broken branches from our massive camphor tree hitting the side of the house as the wind gusted yet again. When would calm finally come? My thoughts wondered to the poly tanks at my office and the memories of gathering them in the woods after Hurricanes Charlie, Francis and Jean (Yes, we had to gather them 3 times).  I remembered seeing all the rollup doors on 4 of my building blown down. When the wind and rain finally stopped I was anxious to go to the office to survey what I expected was another mess.  Laura, Brynlee and I climbed into my Tahoe to make the 10-minute drive from Babson Park to the office. As we were coming around the north side of Crooked Lake on Hwy 17 I saw several pickup trucks and cars backed up and a Polk Deputy’s car with the lights flashing. I thought to myself, now what? I’m not in the mood to wait! We stopped in the line. A huge tree had fallen across most of the road.  From where we were parked I could see someone with a chainsaw cutting branches then dragging them off the road all by himself. I said to Laura, “do you see that, no one is helping him!” I had Laura come around and drive as I climbed out of my car and ran past all the parked pickup trucks and cars. Many of the drivers were looking at their cell phones, some were just sitting there with disgusted looks on their faces. They were all sitting in the comfort of their airconditioned vehicles. Some were people that I knew, all of them just sitting there. When I reached the man, I realized it was my nephew Todd, working all by himself. We began working together, he would cut and I would drag the branches off the road. Little by little we were making progress. After working a while, I looked up and to my surprise, there was Sam Petersen in one of his trash trucks. He pulled the truck up and began loading the branches with the boom and claw bucket. With the help of Sam, we soon had the tree out of the way and road open. As we prepared to leave the deputy came up to us with his pad and pen in hand and asked for our names, then asked why we would stop when everyone else either drove by or sat in their vehicles? The truth is, I really didn’t need the deputy to reinforce the feelings of judgement and self-righteousness that I was already feeling.  

Feelings of judgement, isn’t that the position we have the tendency to take many times when we read Jesus’ parables? Isn’t it easy to look at the characters and think, “how could they act that way”? Or, I would never act like that! In His parables Jesus chose to use things that His listeners could relate to, things that were common place in His society to make a point. This morning He chose to use the “Vineyard”, He has used it before, because it was very familiar to his listeners. The religious leaders had challenged His authority, their question: By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? Jesus was on the attack, He responds by telling them a parable, it begins much like the lesson we just heard from Isaiah; describing his beloved vineyard, “Israel”. Jesus describes what sounds to me like an ideal vineyard. Perfectly setup, already planted, with a fence around it, a winepress and a watch tower already in place. In other words, considerable effort had been expended developing this vineyard, effort reflective of God’s creation and care of His chosen people Israel. Then he turns it over, (leases) it to tenants for caretaking and nurture. 

Consider this with me: It is probable that the time between planting the vineyard (that is the time that the tenants took over) and the first real harvest may have taken perhaps 5 years. If these farmers had been working the land for that long without a return and suddenly a slave comes and wants to take the fruit just as harvest time is near, isn’t it a little more understandable why they didn’t want to give up the fruit of their labors? In other words, reject and send them away. I won’t speak for you all, but for me I can kind of relate. Don’t we all want to take ownership of the things we invest our time and treasure in, claiming it as ours? And in many cases rejecting anyone or thing that might change that. Jesus tells the story of rejection, ultimately the rejection and murder of the owner’s son. His listeners knew that he was talking about them. What is the landowner to do? We notice that the vineyard is not destroyed, but turned over to new tenants. We have seen this before, in another biblical metaphor; the unfaithful, greedy, shepherds are removed and new shepherds are installed to care for the sheep. Jesus was telling the leaders that because they were unfaithful and they rejected Him, they wuld be removed, replaced. Could this interpretation be applied to us? In verse 43 Jesus ties it together for us when he indicates that the vineyard is the “kingdom of God.” In that context who do the tenants and landowners slaves represent? Who are we in the parable? If we that is, all believers are the tenants, I think that the “vineyard” represents all the places where we are called by God to produce the fruits of the kingdom.

 These places could easily be our households, our place of business, our school, our neighborhood, our clubs and our congregation. If we know that we are called by God to produce fruit in His kingdom, why do we have trouble with who owns it?  

Let’s consider our congregation Good Shepherd for a moment. When we make our pledge and work here don’t we have at least a little tendency to claim it as ours? You know our church? Rather than God’s? We all know that we are approaching Stewardship Sunday, and the thought of a 10% tithe is part of the discussion. Many times, I need to be reminded that it is not the 10% that belongs to God but 100% and we are the managers of the perfectly set up, already planted vineyard, “that is all that is given to us by God”. Jesus tells us that God wants tenants who will produce for him. Do we want to be His tenants? If so, what will we produce? If we produce, we will receive the kingdom of heaven. That is His promise.  It can’t be taken by us. It can only be given to us. The only rent God will charge us is our time, our abilities and a portion of our money. All things that He provided in the first place. We are called to be stewards of our lives, to give of ourselves in the name of the Lord as ministers of Jesus Christ. We are to share ourselves, our time and our possessions as a sign of God’s love. Wherever we spend vast amounts of our time an energy working at a job, caring for a family, helping those in need, making sure that the less fortunate get a fair deal, etc. these are places for us to be conscious of the fact that we are doing work in God’s vineyard, and we will be held responsible for it at the proper time. 

34 years ago, I started Chemical Containers with absolutely nothing more than an idea and one person me! I had the desire to have and to build something of my own. I had no money and no employees. I did have the ability and desire to work hard. You’ve heard the saying 90% perspiration? In many cases committing everything to my work. I have worked 60 to 70 hours a week for nearly all the past 34 years. Many times, missing out on vacations, time off and family time. As the years have passed, the company has grown. We now employee nearly 120 people and have revenues in the millions of dollars. I continue to show up between 5:00 and 5:15 every morning.  When it comes to ownership, lessons like this morning are good for me, as I know the feeling of ownership and I know the feeling that it was me. “Mine!”

Something happened to me some years that very much changed all that for me. I had been struggling with my purpose and what was I doing all of this for. God reveled to me that if I trusted Him, He would Bless me and those around me.

 He gave me the gift of understanding and the realization that my problem was that I had it all wrong, it wasn’t about me, and it isn’t about the money, it was about the people. It was all about making people’s lives better. Those working for me and those beyond, those in the church, community and everywhere, everything we do should be about the kingdom. Making people’s lives better, Including, those who sit in their trucks and watch and those who come along side. We lost power at the office for a week and we lost nearly 2 weeks of revenue right at the end of my fiscal year, leaving no opportunity to recover from the loss. Many of my employees were home cleaning up their own messes. Most of them had no power. We were unable to work so what was I to do when it was time to for payroll. I knew they all needed their checks, I also knew what it meant for the company and to each of them. How much did I trust in the Lord?

Times when things happen like the recent hurricanes: Harvey, Irma and Maria, even tragic attacks like Las Vegas are times when we see people reach out and make a difference. We hear stories of people who ran into the terror instead of running away. People giving of themselves even to the point of ultimate sacrifice when they gave up their lives to save someone that they didn’t even know.

Just this past week several of you contacted me about how to support the relief efforts in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean

I received an email yesterday from Father Jose Rodriguez a priest in our diocese. He is working with the Disaster Recovery Center in Orlando at the airport.  His message was: Dear John: Can I call you? I’m at the disaster recovery center for Puerto Rico in the airport, I need your assistance. When we talked on the telephone he shared that there is way more need than we can severe. There are more people coming than we can house. Help, we have a disaster right here in Orlando.  He told me that he had reached out to Fr Jon Davis for some temporary space at Canterbury and he had located some space in some church parish halls and some apartments. I offered that I would talk with Rob Quam about some Care Center Transitional space, and we agreed that we would work together on this. He then invited me to come to Orlando and see the center. The Diocese of Central Florida is being asked to step up in a leadership position.

These are times of great need, they will pass, and our lives will return to normal. When we return to normal I pray that we will all remember that God has placed each of us smack dab in the middle of His Vineyard, in the middle of His Kingdom. We have the opportunity in our everyday normal lives to produce fruit right where we are.  

Amen