Read Mark 12:1–11

1. We’re Leasing This Place

In the beach house that my mother rented for us in New Jersey, I noticed two signs. One sign had been affixed to the top of this small refrigerator in the dining room; it read, “Owner’s Refrigerator;” and on the handles of this appliance someone had tied a plastic doohickey to keep us from opening the doors and perhaps pilfering a spare stick of butter. I spent a day imagining the contents of that off-limits refrigerator, and then I forgot about it. We had enough butter anyway. But the other sign in this leased duplex really troubled me. It had been strategically placed in an intimate location—the bathroom, just outside the shower. And in big bold letters, just as you might lift your head, after washing your face there would be this stark reminder. Adjacent to your own reflected image in the mirror were the words, “Owner’s Cabinet.”

Now, I don’t know why I let these things bother me. There is certainly no shame in leasing a place to stay on vacation (especially if your mother is paying for it). People do it all the time, in season and out of season. But to be totally honest with you, I guess my problem resembles the problem of the tenants in Jesus’ parable. Namely, I don’t like the reminders that I don’t own this place. I don’t like the fact that some cabinets and refrigerators are closed to me. And, not to blow things out of proportion, but I don’t like the subtle indications that you and I are leasing this life—that we aren’t so much leading it as we are occupying the space and the time that been allotted to us. I don’t like it that relationships come and go, according to certain peak seasons. And I definitely don’t like the fact that the experiences that we savor are often very short and fleeting. In sum and to paraphrase the rock group, Cold Play, I don’t particularly like the fact that we now “sweep the streets we used to own”… if we ever owned them at all.

“A man planted a vineyard,” says Jesus. And when he begins his story in the twelfth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, what we know intuitively is that we are not that man. That man who conceived of the project and who cultivated the property is not us. In fact that man may be radically different than any person we have ever met.

Two passages from the Hebrew Scriptures are probably informing Jesus here. One is Isaiah 5:1—7, where God is disappointed with Israel in the same way that a vineyard owner might be disappointed with a wild crop of grapes. That vineyard owner doesn’t want wild grapes; he wants cultivated grapes so that he might produce a cultivated wine. And, as a result, he’s going to let things go; he’s not going to prune it. He’s not going to hoe it. He’s not going to care who tramples on the fruit, and what briars and thorns grow up around it. And, if you were looking for a positive spin on the Isaiah 5 vineyard, it is only this: God owns it. God owns the vineyard even if he’s abandoned it; and if we have any role at all to serve in an abandoned vineyard it is to remind God that it all belongs to him.

On a more mundane level, 1 Kings 21 tells about a vineyard that’s owned by Naboth. Naboth is a good guy who would do anything for anyone. But if there’s one thing he will not do it is sell his vineyard. Naboth will not sell—not even to King Ahab, who makes a more than generous offer. And yet, rather than living with the rejection of his offer, King Ahab complains so much that Queen Jezebel gets involved. She counsels her husband to spread lies about Naboth so that as a result of the slander Naboth will be stoned to death and Naboth’s vineyard will be condemned outright by the king. Now, if that sounds like some down and dirty and dubious behavior, you’re right. It is. But why should we expect anything else? When it comes to owning and operating any vineyard anywhere in the Bible the track record is very poor. Even the Garden of Eden didn’t turn out as God planned.
And yet, there is one glimmer of hope with the vineyard that’s described in Mark 12, and that is that Jesus may be the heir.

2. Jesus Is The Heir Unapparent

Jesus may be the heir who has been sent into this vineyard, into this life, into this world; and although we’ve done everything we can to reject him, he’s not going away.

“Didn’t you get the memo?” In the film, Batman Begins, the chairman of the board at Wayne Enterprises makes a sarcastic remark to Lucius Fox, an ingenious engineer who works in the basement on special projects that have been discarded. According to the chairman, the whole division has been scraped, making the work of the engineer un-necessary and irrelevant. But, you see, the true heir of Wayne Enterprises has other ideas. Although he appears aloof and indifferent to the day to day business operations of the company, his secret identity as Batman means that he needs and very much wants Lucius Fox to stay on. Lucius is therefore not fired. On the contrary, in a stunning reversal, he is elevated to the status of the very one who had fired him. “Didn’t you get the memo?” he says with a grin.

You see, if it is true that Jesus is the Crucified and the Resurrected Son of God, he alone has the authority to say whose work is necessary and critical to God’s Mission and who, because of hubris and pride of ownership, needs to hit the road. Jesus is the heir, and although his authority may be unapparent to some—although he is the heir unapparent—a huge component of our faith commitment to him means that we will not be afraid of rejection. In fact, the rejection that we sometimes face may be the very sign that we have been sent by his Holy Spirit. We say in effect—this is the Owner’s House. This is the Owner’s Business. These are the Owners Resources, the Owner’s Tools.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes two Desert Fathers—two mystics who spent their time in the desert of Egypt during the second century. As they lived far from any real property or civilization, however, they had a problem in that they couldn’t understand what ordinary people fight about. One of them found a brick, however, and told the other one, “You must say, ‘This is my brick,’ and I will respond, ‘No, this is my brick.’” So, there, in the middle of the desert, as the sun sunk beneath the horizon, the two men engaged in a little ancient role playing. One pointed to the brick and declared, ‘This is my brick.’ The other said and did the same thing. They repeated these phrases on into the night, until finally they prayed, “O Lord God, Sovereign King of the Universe, this is your brick.” So,
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…”

3. The Best Mortar For Building A New Church Is Rejection

This is the main dynamic that I want to address. Mark 12:10 reflects back on a passage from Psalm 118. And when Jesus pulls this poetry out of his heart and out of the received tradition of the people of Israel, everything that we once considered as foundational begins to shake and shift. Suddenly, you see, every season of rejection that’s recounted in verses one through eleven becomes like mortar. God actually makes use of our rejection. God actually mixes it with the rejection of people who have gone before us and the rejection of those who will follow us. God actually takes every tear that we’ve shed over some lost job or some lost marriage or some lost opportunity—and puts it alongside the same blood that Jesus shed on the cross. And suddenly, our vulnerability to risk, our willingness to suffer rejection becomes the very stuff that keeps us close to the cornerstone. The stone that the builders rejected—that stone that seemed so cracked and weak—has become pivot point upon which all things are built.

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1. By Practicing Faith Ourselves We Help Others Wake Up To God’s Activity In History

We returned from vacation last week, and on the very next day, Philip started football practice. He practices now for the upcoming season, which takes place every year around this time. And, as I thought about the types of activities that would occupy the remainder of his summer—the running, the catching, the tackling and the sweating—it occurred to me that faith in Jesus Christ resembles that same kind of same physical routine.

Faith is practice. And faith, in order for it to be an exercise of trust, must be practiced. And, you see, just as I wake up to the beginnings of fall, when Philip practices football, I wonder if others don’t wake up to God’s activity in history by the way that you and I practice faith. That’s the theme for today’s scripture passage:
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you…”

You see, the Christians of Thessalonika, don’t require any additional information. They don’t require a download of theoretical knowledge about God What they require, and what we desperately need, is the encouragement to put what has already been communicated into a tangible, blood, sweat and tears practice.

“You’re going to talk about God again, aren’t you?” The question came out of the blue. I was just sipping my beer, balancing my body weight on the barstool. The BCS Bowl game had just flickered to an end on one of the television sets. And just as the weather forecaster began her update on the latest hurricane to strike the Gulf of Mexico, I could feel the heavy breath of the new season upon my face. “You’re going to talk about God again…”

Now, whether or not, this is an occupational hazard, I must admit that I can talk about God.
I can talk about God the way a mechanic can talk about a carburetor. I can talk about God the way a seamstress can talk about the new fashion. I can talk about God the way a doting mother can talk about her toddler. I can talk about God the way a politician can make campaign promises ad infinitum. But I’ll be honest with you. When this former high school athlete at the pub extinguished his cigarette on his plate of nachos and asked me that question, I didn’t feel like talking about God at all. In fact, after cursing out the bad call of the referee and second-guessing the fourth and one decision of the coach that I had seen via satellite, God was the furthest thing from my mind. And yet, with one season fading into the next, the man next to me ached for a radically new set of practices. And, amazingly, for the first time, he was ready to listen.
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written too you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

2. The First Rays of Light Are Already Shining On Latah Valley

Craig Barnes has an interesting way of describing what happens on the tightrope between the proclaimed words of the Bible and the everyday experiences of people we know. He says that sometimes there is “a flash of recognition” during which some people will discover treasure that has been buried under years of busyness and anxiety. The treasure is the nothing more and nothing less than the restored value of a person’s soul, his or her life. But for others that same message of grace is perceived as a threat, almost as if Jesus has come or is coming, “like a thief,” to steal what they’ve earned fair and square.

“At the name of Aslan,” C.S. Lewis writes in his classic Chronicles of Narnia,

“each one of the children felt something jump inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer” (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, p. 68).

Now, what’s intriguing to me about this paragraph is that I have known fully grown and very sophisticated adults who have just as varied a response to the name of Jesus. Depending upon life circumstances, Jesus is either the one who will uncover a long-lost and buried treasure, or Jesus is secretly shutting down the security system with an eye to plundering everything that we’ve worked so hard to achieve. Michal J. Fox, the famous star of Back To The Future, looks at his Parkinson’s Disease in a profound way. During an Oprah Winfrew, he said it’s like the gift that keeps on taking. The gift that keeps on taking.

I once performed a funeral service for a woman who had lived forty years in the same house. She lived there all of her married life. She raised five kids there. She made breakfast, lunch and dinner there. In this same house, she dusted the furniture, made the beds, ironed the linens. She shoveled the walks in the winter and opened the windows in the summer. And when I met with the family of this woman, trying to gain an insight into this person’s life, the youngest child recalled “the night of the break-in,” which also happened to be the morning of her birth. Evidently, there had been a series of robberies in the neighborhood, and because of the small size of the police force, nothing could be done. But when this thief jimmied the lock and entered the home of this now deceased woman, she stood in the doorway and pointed her finger. With a commanding voice, she said, “I’ve been waiting for you. Now get out of this house.” She then promptly went into labor and gave birth the next day.

And, you see, it may sound strange, but maybe that’s the way we need to think of church. Maybe that’s the way we need to picture Latah Valley’s newly forming community. This is actually the point of the break-in. This is actually the birth canal through which the new life comes. The day of the Lord, according to First Thessalonians, is breaking in. But because we belong to that day, we don’t need to be caught by surprise.
We can practice. We can get ready for God in the same way a pregnant woman rouses easily in the dawn hour of the season in which she’s due to give birth.
“But since we belong to the day, let us be sober and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

3. Routine… Routine… Sudden Glimpse of Change… Routine… Complete Salvation!

In other words, routine is not the antithesis of fun-loving, adventurous faith. Craig Barnes says that “after wasting far too many years trying to do the spectacular, it has finally occurred (to him) that God loves routine.” Routine, in fact, is what First Thessalonians recommends with its continual imagery of day and night and night and day. Moreover, in chapter five, verse eight (which I just read), the apostle Paul takes up a military metaphor. Military people drill and drill, submit to boot camp rituals, all with the notion, of getting ready, of practicing for the real engagement. And could it be that God involves us in routine for the same reason?

Thomas Merton once wrote about a conversation which took place between two monks—one a novice and the other, his teacher. After years of training, praying the five offices of the day, waking up early and doing menial chores and chanting hymns in Latin, the novice had had enough. He said to his teacher, if God’s grace is like the sunrise, why must I do these exercises and learn these disciplines? The teacher’s response was perfectly timed: “Ah, you do them in order to be awake for the sunrise.”

Routine… Routine… Sudden Glimpse of Change… Routine… Routine… And that’s how it goes. “One season following another, ladened with happiness and tears…” According to The Fiddler On The Roof, that’s how it goes. And yet, for followers of Jesus Christ, there is this profound hope: One day we will wake up to something radically, radically new. A new day.
It will be a day more real and more solid and more genuine than anything that we’ve experienced in the routine of life and death.

Last week, for example, I went on vacation with my family. We went back to Pennsylvania and to New Jersey and at the beach in Sea Isle, New Jersey, I picked up again on the routine of my lazy childhood days. This is how it went:
The sun would rise, the waves would crash on the beach, and I would be asleep. I slept until about nine o’clock, stumbled into the kitchen of our rental house and made a cup of coffee. After reading a few chapters in a good book, I ate breakfast on the deck and chatted with my mother and sister. It was good to talk with them. Then, after breakfast, I put on my bathing suit, lathered up with sun block and headed east. I shuffled my feet about half a block to the ocean, found a decent spot of open sand and flopped in the sun. This was my routine, and by entering into it I remembered what it was like to not be responsible for much of anything.

Well, suddenly something changed and I’ll tell you when it happened. It happened when the grandchild of my sister Linda came down. His name is Jackson and he is a precocious, little two year old chunk of a boy. And I don’t mind telling you that this kid knows things. He’s like a sponge; every word that’s around him is absorbed into his vocabulary. And I could see how Jackson’s mother would have her hands full with the routine of raising this child. But think about this moment. Jackson wants an apple and he sees very clearly on the table a bowl of apples. He reaches for one and prepares bite down when his mother breaks the news. “Jackson, that’s not real. That’s not a real apple,” she says, pointing to the plastic, decorative display of fruit. And then, of course, the child cries. “No…” he screams with the pathos that only two year olds can master. And when I hear that cry, I remember my own cry. And, God help me, I want to be there. Don’t you? Don’t you want to be there at the change of seasons to help others live out what’s real and what’s not real? Amen.