Sunday, October 05, 2008

Paying the Rent

Here's today's homily. The Gospel is Matthew 21:33-46.


I’ve talked here before about my meandering conversion process, which took decades. My decision to start attending church, though, was made much more quickly, and I made it for one very specific reason: my husband and I had just bought a house.

I’d spent my life entirely in rented apartments, first my parents’ and then my own. As a renter, I was always very aware that the property didn’t belong to me. Renting apartments also brought me into regular contact with neighbors, connecting me --however tenuously at times -- to a community. And the apartments I’d lived in were small.

At 1,700 square feet, our house is small, by Reno standards. But it was far more living space than I’d ever had before, and it sat on a third of an acre. I’d watched people who’d bought houses become defensive and protective of “their property.” Friends who’d once championed civil rights instead started worrying about falling property values, anxious about sharing their schools or neighborhoods with certain other families. I listened to acquaintances talking about “deserving” big, beautiful houses because they worked so hard. All of this troubled me.

Even as I reveled in our newly acquired 1,700 square feet, I also knew that house ownership represented distinct dangers. I didn’t want to forget that I was living with one other adult and three cats in a space that could shelter entire third-world villages. I didn’t want my status as a homeowner to make me afraid of other people, and I didn’t want to forget that no matter how hard I work, there are many people in the world who work much, much harder than I ever will, and who still have to live in substandard housing.

In short, I didn’t want to become complacent. So I started attending church, where, among other things, I learned that Jesus advises us to sell all that we have and give it to the poor. As a new, anxious Christian, I fretted about this over dinner with my husband. “Susan,” he said, “we aren’t going to sell our house and give away the money.”

“But it’s what Jesus would do,” I said, still worried.

It’s also what Saint Francis would do, and we’re observing his feast day today. Francis was born during the late twelfth century to a prosperous cloth merchant, but later renounced his family’s wealth, and even the clothing his father had given him, to embrace voluntary poverty. He delighted so much in the natural world that he is known as the patron saint of animals and the environment. At 3:00 today we’ll be blessing companion animals in his name, and our loose offering this morning will be donated to the Nevada Humane Society.

I love animals, as most of you know, but I’m very, very far from being St. Francis. I give small sums to various charities, but I haven’t sold my house to feed the poor. Nor, frankly, do I plan ever to do so, for which I have to hope that God will forgive me.

The tenants in today’s Gospel, though, are even farther than I am from the Franciscan ideal. The parable we heard this morning is a cautionary tale about greed, entitlement, and complacency. God has granted humans stewardship of his creation, a glorious vineyard full of all good things. We have been entrusted with the responsibility of caring for this creation, for “paying our rent” by ensuring that land, water and sky remain healthy and productive.

Some of us have managed to remember that we don’t, in fact, own the planet, that it isn’t ours to do with as we please. Others, though, have become greedy and complacent. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, you can hear them argue, and if the landlord’s agents only show up once a year and do none of the work, why should they receive any of the yield? Why should the tenants share the results of their own hard work with anyone else?

In the parable, the landowner’s slaves are clearly the prophets who have warned God’s people to follow God’s law, and the landowner’s son is clearly Jesus, stoned and crucified. The lesson here isn’t at all subtle: unless we both care responsibly for God’s creation and give back to God what is due Him, we will, much sooner than we’d like, be evicted.

This may be a painful analogy to use at a time of widespread foreclosures, when so many families are losing homes. The current grim economy illustrates, among other things, that various institutions and individuals have not done a good job of managing their resources, of stewarding the treasure with which they’ve been entrusted. Embracing involuntary poverty isn’t a saintly act: it’s a symptom of social injustice. Neither Jesus nor St. Francis would approve.

How do we keep from being bad tenants, from taking God’s creation for granted? How do we keep from becoming complacent? How do we remind ourselves to pay the rent? The first step, I think, is to remember that we do not have an absentee landlord. Our faith calls us to see the face of Christ in everyone around us, even those whose presence in our neighborhood makes us nervous. Our faith also calls us to remember that nothing we claim to “own” is truly ours. Everything we have comes from God. We have done nothing to “deserve” the grace of God’s love, mercy, and generosity, to deserve the earth we stand upon, the water we drink, or the air we breathe. We obey God’s commandments not to earn God’s love, but to thank him for the love we have already received. And God commands us to love our neighbors.

If we’re looking for examples of loving our neighbors, we could do worse than to watch the animals St. Francis loved. My friend Mary loves to tell the story of her favorite dog, a collie named Blaze. Mary lived on a farm in Massachusetts, surrounded by other farms. Every day at 4:00 PM, Blaze left the house, returning promptly at 5:00. Her neighbors told her that he made the rounds of neighboring farms, stopping briefly at each one to make sure that everything was all right. One day, Blaze started coming home at 5:15. Curious, Mary called the other farms on the route to find out what was going on. “Our dog just died,” one of her neighbors said, “and our little boy is devastated. Blaze has been playing with him for fifteen minutes every day.”

A few weeks later, Blaze started coming home at 5:00 again, and Mary called her neighbor. “We just got a new puppy,” the other woman said, “so Blaze knows he doesn’t have to spend time here anymore.”

My friend’s dog didn’t limit his love and loyalty to his own household: he expanded his definition of “home” to include everyone he knew. He acted as a conscientious steward, both taking care of someone who needed him and knowing when his attentions were no longer necessary. Rather than avoiding a farm where another dog had died, he stepped in to help.

My friend’s collie took care of a little boy who temporarily had no dog of his own. The Humane Society takes care of animals who, we hope temporarily, have no people of their own. By donating to the Humane Society, we will help them care for these beloved creatures until other humans claim them. But let us remember that the Feast of St. Francis isn’t just about the domesticated animals so many of us love. Francis reminds us to renew our care and commitment to all of God’s creation: to all plants and animals, to air and water and earth, sky and sea and land. Francis reminds us to praise and bless the Creator who has given us these gifts, and -- even if we do not plan to sell our houses or give away our clothing -- to ask always how much we really need ourselves, and how much we can give to others.



  1. Poignant! I love the story of Blaze. Are you participating in Blog Action Day next week? The theme this year is poverty. (Last year's theme was the environment, which also figures highly in your post/homily of the day.)

  2. Just wanted to say how much I treasure your homilies. :-)

    Both my parents died just over a year ago, and I've been having a hard time since. I am fortunate that I have a really great Counsellor who I am seeing for bereavement counselling. I am one of the lucky ones - not everyone can afford to go to a Counsellor, and there isn't much counselling offered in our NHS.

    So your ministry is reaching further than you realise! I am in Liverpool, UK. So very far away from you, but your words often reach my heart. Thank you!

    Best wishes from Liverpool, where the sun has shone nearly all day despite the poor prognostications of the Weather Forecast! ;-)

  3. Anonymous12:26 PM

    Thank you as ever, Susan, for the thoughtful sermon. I often find the vineyard parables difficult to deal with - God's economy is so different from our human economy, perhaps because God offers abundance while we are more likely to feel scarcity. I am in the middle of buying my own first house of my very own in spite of the fact that the American economy seems to be melting down around my ears, and I am already feeling the temptation to think that I deserve to have and hold my new shelter more than any of my fellow citizens who bought out of their price range. I have to remind myself how lucky I am to have a good job with a stable salary in a city where whole houses are incredibly inexpensive.

    This year's feast of St. Francis marked the one-year anniversary of the death of my friend Russell, himself a third-order Franciscan who dedicated himself to poverty and obedience with the joy of a true monk and mystic. Russell worked hard to keep track of the difference between crucial needs and optional wants, and we had many and many a conversation about which were which. Russell dressed every day in khaki pants and a blue work-shirt - I like to move from jeans and t-shirts to silk trousers and fabulous finery. Russell was happy to give up his house in exchange for a small apartment - I wish he were still alive to tease me about my joy in the prospect of giving up a small apartment for a large house.

    In one of the last face-to-face conversations we had before I moved to France and he went into the hospital, Russell reminded me of something that has become the key to the whole difficult dilemma for me - the trick is to own your possessions without letting them own you.

    Each of us in our own way, may we all learn to be as open of hand and as light of heart as Jesus, Francis, and Russell.



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