Sunday, October 05, 2014
Psalm 19 and Matthew 21:33-46
Today we talk about stewardship.
This subject takes a number of forms. You’ve all received new pledge cards in the mail, because today is the beginning of our annual parish pledge drive. Making a financial commitment to St. Paul’s allows the vestry to draw up a budget for the coming year. Having a workable budget allows us to keep the lights on, pay salaries, and continue our outreach ministries, our small but crucial efforts to contribute to the care and healing of our community.
Today is also the day when we observe the Feast of St. Francis, the beloved thirteenth-century saint who embraced poverty and loved nature. Echoing the psalm we heard today, which affirms that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” Francis’ ecstatic Canticle of the Sun celebrates all of the ways God’s creation sustains us:
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Because Francis especially loved animals, our 5:00 service today will feature our yearly Blessing of the Animals, although most of the people who bring their dogs and cats and ferrets and turtles and guinea pigs and lizards to be blessed would probably agree that the pets we love bless us more than we could ever bless them. Honoring St. Francis, we remind ourselves to be caring, responsible stewards of our beloved planet and of everything that lives on it.
And, finally, our Gospel lesson today is also about stewardship, although these are bad stewards rather than good ones. The tenants in this story refuse to acknowledge their landlord or pay what they owe him. They’ve made the crucial mistake of forgetting the difference between stewards and rulers.
A steward is someone who looks after and manages someone else’s property. Stewards do not rule or own that property; it is not theirs to use as they wish, and certainly not theirs to waste or ruin. They are subject to the rules imposed by the owner of the property, not the other way around.
The tenants in today’s parable aren’t the only people who’ve gotten confused about this distinction. Faith communities, and Western civilization in general, have only recently started to grasp the difference. In our own Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer C -- the most environmentally conscious of the Eucharistic prayers, with its beautiful description of “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home” -- still contains the line, “You made us rulers of creation.” I wince whenever I hear this; I cheer whenever the priest says, instead, “You made us stewards of creation.” Even St. Francis, writing in 1224, recognized that our “sister Mother Earth . . . feeds us and rules us,” not the other way around. Maybe the next edition of the Prayer Book will do better.
We do not rule nature. We don’t understand half of what happens even in our own bodies, those astonishingly complex organisms. Physician Lewis Thomas once wrote, “If you were put in charge of your liver, you’d be dead in a day.”
And there’s a real question now about how many days remain to human civilization, how many more editions of the Prayer Book we’ll survive to see. By all accounts, we’re in the middle of an ecological cataclysm, fueled largely by human intervention, that could lead to widespread social collapse within the lifetimes of people in this room. Pollution and habitat destruction change weather patterns, which create drought and famine, which fuel social instability – economic crises, wars, migrations -- which lead to more destruction of the natural world. Species are dying off; the last four years alone have seen the extinction of the Eastern cougar, the Western black rhinoceros, the Formosan clouded leopard, and the Japanese River Otter. Lonesome George, the last surviving Pinta Island Tortoise, died in 2012.
We are people of resurrection, and we have faith. But while some forms of life will surely survive all this, there’s a real question as to how many humans will be among them.
Many people are trying to be better stewards now. A friend of mine at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City tells me that museum biologists, acutely aware of the rate of species extinction, are creating tissue banks of as many species as possible to try to preserve their DNA. On September 22, more than 300,000 people marched through the streets of New York City, demanding swifter government responses to climate issues. “Reduce, reuse and recycle” has become a familiar catchphrase.
The problem is so huge, though, that it’s easy to swing back and forth between despair and denial. Despair tells us that there’s nothing to be done; denial says that nothing needs to be done. Either stance allows us to continue with business as usual – but that’s what landed us in this mess. I think the important thing is to remember that any action, however small, can help. Perhaps the most useful thing we can do is to change our perspective, to stop seeing ourselves as rulers and start seeing ourselves as stewards.
Author and activist Joanna Macy tells the story of visiting a friend, a young Buddhist monk, in India. They were drinking tea when she realized that a fly had fallen into her cup. Her friend saw the change in her expression and asked what was wrong. “It’s nothing,” she said. “Just a fly in my tea.” Embarrassed, she didn’t want the young man to think that she, an experienced traveler, was squeamish about insects.
Crooning softly in concern, Macy’s friend rose from his chair, inserted a finger into Macy’s tea, lifted out the fly, and left the room. When the monk came back, Macy reports, “he was beaming. ‘He is going to be all right,’ he told me quietly. He explained how he had placed the fly on the leaf of a branch by the door, where his wings could dry. And the fly was still alive, because he began fanning his wings, and we could confidently expect him to take flight soon.”
Macy had told the monk that the fly was “nothing.” Her friend knew otherwise, knew that the fly, however small and humble – or even despised – was a beloved and cherished part of creation, with its own role to play. He acted as a good steward.
What will become of our vineyard, “this fragile earth, our island home”? Installed as tenants, we have grievously mismanaged the property. We killed the landlord’s son the first time he showed up. The question now is whether we can mend our ways quickly enough to regain the trust of the landlord, or whether our irresponsibility will cause us to be replaced by other, more respectful tenants. As much as God loves us, God also loves the rest of the creation, the oceans and forests and jungles and everything that lives in them. Let us love them too, saying with St. Francis, “Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures.”