Stewards of the Vineyard (with St. Francis)

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On October 8, 2017, The Church of the Holy Trinity celebrated St. Francis Sunday with the Blessing of Animals within the regular Sunday services.  The scriptures were Isaiah 5:1-7Psalm 80:7-14Philippians 3:4b-14, and Matthew 21:33-46

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The feast day for St. Francis was October 4, but today, we use our worship time to give thanks for him, to learn from him, and (of course), to bless animals.  While many people are familiar with St. Francis’s kindness and charity towards animals, this was only a part of the way in which Francis almost understood the world as upside-down.  He treated the poor as though they were powerful, and when he encountered the powerful, he showed them a kind of humility that even they found refreshing, attractive, and inviting.

One of my favorite St. Francis stories has to do with some notorious robbers.  Francis was away, and one day those robbers came to where some of the Franciscan friars were staying.  They demanded food and money.  But Friar Angelo, the guardian on duty, gave those robbers an earful:  “You robbers and murderers! You aren’t ashamed to steal the hard work of others and now you’re bold and shameless enough to try to devour the alms sent to the servants of God! You aren’t worth the ground to hold you up!”  And he continued.  Eventually, the robbers left, ashamed and angry.

When St. Francis returned, Brother Angelo reported what he had done.  I imagine he was looking to be rewarded.  But instead, Francis was angry.  “You’ve acted cruelly, Brother Angelo.  Don’t you recall how Jesus said that he has come for the sick, not the healthy?”  Francis made Brother Angelo take the bread and wine that Francis has just gotten, and track down the robbers and offer it to them.  Francis told Brother Angelo to apologize to the robbers for being so cruel and to ask for their forgiveness.

Brother Angelo did just that.  He took the bread and wine—the only that the friars had, at that point—and shared it with the robbers and murderers.  But after a little while, the robbers came to see Francis.  They marveled at the kindness he had shown and wanted to learn more about this Way of Jesus.  To make a long story short, the robbers repented of all the bad things they had done, and became friars along with Francis and the rest. (“Little Flowers of St. Francis,” Chp. 26, FA:ED III, 609-614.)

In this little story about St. Francis, we see a number of clues to his strangeness, and to his faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  First, he was able to hold on to the words of Jesus in the Spirit of Jesus—that Christ came to save people from themselves sometimes, and from all that would harm us.  Much like Jesus, Francis saw the robber, the murderer, and anyone else who might seem like the ultimate moral failure as JUST the kind of people to get close to and befriend.

But second, we see in this little story how Francis viewed all creation as belonging to God.  The bread and the wine, creatures provided for out of God’s bounty, are to be shared, not hoarded, not wasted, and not held from others in need.

Both our Old Testament and our Gospel readings today speak of vineyards.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel itself is pictured as God’s vineyard—a place of beauty and goodness.  And yet, Israel has fallen behind on the weeding, and the vineyard is overrun with bad things. It’s choking out the fruit and the produce is spoiling.

In the Gospel, Jesus makes this same point, especially aimed at the religious officials of his day, but the point is valid for everyone:  we are called to be good stewards of what God has given us.  We’re called to be good stewards of creation.  And we called to be careful stewards of the Gospel.

That word, “steward” is thought to come from Old English, originally having to do with a house guardian or overseer. The Germanic roots to the word also carry a sense of “being on the lookout,” being perceptive, and wide-eyed.

St. Francis is thought of as a patron saint of the environment for good reason. He understood all creation as sisters and brothers.

Praised be my Lord for sister moon and the stars, which thou has set in the heavens, clear and precious and fair.
Praised be my Lord for brother wind, and the air and the clouds, and clear skies and all weathers by which the life of thy creatures is sustained.
Praised be my Lord for sister water; most useful is she, and humble, and precious and pure.
Praised be my Lord for brother fire, who illumines the night and gives us warmth; bright and merry is he, and mighty and strong.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, mother earth, who sustains and teaches us, and brings forth divers fruits and the many-hued flowers and grasses.

Christians may disagree on HOW we should be good caretakers of creation.  We can disagree about methods and percentages and who pays for what, but there can be NO question of our responsibility.

As another Francis (Pope Francis) stresses in the encyclical Laudato Si,

It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience. (217)

We’re called to be stewards of creation, but as followers of Jesus Christ, we’re also called to be stewards of his message, his way of life, his love, and his joy.

Today’s Gospel has harsh words for those who trample on the gifts of God, for those who reject the way of love and peace.

Francis of Assisi was someone who followed Christ as closely as possible.  He looked foolish to many.  He did things that didn’t make sense in the 12th and 13th century, or in the 21st. But he lived with humor, with joy, with passion, and with deep sensitivity to all of God’s creation.  Francis understood stewardship of God’s vineyard, of his sisters and brothers in creation, and of Christ’s message of love, welcome, and acceptance.

As we welcome brother and sister dogs, cats, birds; as we greet brother wind and sister rain; may we also follow Christ by living more gently towards one another.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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