As many of you know, and as many of you have experienced in our church’s zoom meetings and prayer times, Jeremy and I have an adorable, feisty hound mix named Amos. Amos has zoom-bombed more meetings than a Russian troll. I was reminded in looking at my calendar that 3 years ago yesterday, we officially “adopted” him and added a 2nd dog to our family, a decision we have been so glad we’ve made especially since our first dog, Takouhi, died rather suddenly a few months ago from an aggressive form of lymphoma. If you’ve adopted an animal recently from a shelter, you know it’s not a simple transaction. We had to fill out an 8-page application; They did a thorough background check on us – checked our references, called our vet. And after we were approved to adopt him, we were sent a Contract to sign – which is 4 pages long with 21 different terms and conditions, all of which basically state that the rescue organization had the right to do anything and everything to ensure that we take absolutely perfect care of this dog, or they reserve the right to take him back. When it comes to deciding who they will trust their dogs with, they are no joke.
Now, not all of you have an animal, but many of you know what it’s like to be entrusted with caring for something – this is NYC after all – the city of renters. Landlords entrust their property to tenants, and it is the tenant’s responsibility to take care of the place.
OR, Maybe you have a child. Talk about being entrusted with caring for something – or in this case someone!
Even if the most you’ve taken care of something is a cactus on your windowsill, chances are you have *some* experience with having responsibility to care for something or someone else’s welfare, making sure it turns out OK.
In fact, the truth is, we all have someone to take care of: ourselves. Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “our bodies are really just on loan to us for a little while.” Even the Great Commandment, to love God and neighbor, includes love of yourself. And ESPECIALLY because we are made in God’s image, each of us has worth and value and an inner goodness to nurture.
Today, God is asking us to grapple with this question: How are you taking care of what’s been entrusted to you?
Both of our Scripture readings today get at this question via the metaphor of a vineyard that God has planted. And both tell us how God sees humankind – as caretakers of God’s creation.
It’s an important take on creation, the very nature of who we are and who God created us to be. We are the tenants, not the landlords, of this world. We are the caretakers, not the creators. And we have 2 examples from Scripture today telling the story of God entrusting something into the care of God’s own people.
In both these readings, things go terribly awry. The vineyard doesn’t yield the fruit God intended. The tenants get greedy and violent and refuse to meet their end of the bargain. The moral of the story in both cases is: this won’t be tolerated.
But here’s something that strikes me – when the vineyard yields bitter fruit, or the tenants resort to violence to keep the harvest for themselves, God is surprised at these outcomes. God is deeply grieved and upset. It seems that God actually expects the best in people. We are, after all, created in God’s image. God still, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes we will do the right thing, bear good fruit, care for ourselves, others, and the whole creation appropriately.
So why does it keep going so wrong?
I think the answer has something to do with attachment. The longer something is entrusted to your care, the easier it is to forget you don’t actually get to keep it. It’s normal to form attachments to things you see as “yours.” The tenants of that vineyard worked hard to help it yield fruit, and naturally, they formed an attachment to the outcome of the work they did. While they were wicked and greedy, I wonder if that was rooted in a deeper pain at having to give it all back when they had worked so hard for those grapes to bloom.
But some of our attachments can become unhealthy, and even lead to violent and destructive behavior. Like Lenny from “Of Mice and Men,” we can grow so attached to something that we end up destroying it – or it destroys us. Our care can become disordered, turning in on ourselves, and forgetting that we are not created to exist for ourselves alone.
So How do we stay attached – to ourselves, our neighbors, and this world that God has given us – in a healthy and holy way?
As I pondered this question, one story kept coming to my mind.
About 3.5 years ago, when my dad was in the final stages of cancer, my Mom called my brother and I and arranged one final family vacation at our family beach house, one of many memories we wanted to make one last time. My parents, my brother and sister-in-law and nephews, and Jeremy and I went “down the shore” for a few days, for our last vacation together.
One afternoon, my mom and I took my nephews to the beach. We surfed, we built sandcastles, we dug a moat. At one point, my then-6-year-old nephew Owen came running up to me excitedly, with one hand outstretched: “Look, Horcore Julie! I found a hermit crab!” We put it in a bucket with some sand and beach water, to give it a mock habitat for the afternoon.
If I believed in reincarnation, I would tell you that Owen was the reincarnated spirit of St. Francis. This child truly, genuinely forms deep attachments to all living creatures, great and small. From the moment he caught that hermit crab, he loved it as his own, as if he’d found a new best friend. Throughout the afternoon, he’d return to the bucket to check on his little friend, talk to it, pet it, tell it how much he loved it.
The time came to pack up and go home, and I told Owen we had to let the hermit crab go. His face immediately changed. “Okay,” he said, with his voice shaking and head held low. He had formed a real attachment to the little sea creature and even though he knew he couldn’t keep it, he was seriously sad at the thought of losing it.
I took the bucket in one hand, and Owen’s hand in the other, and together we walked down to the edge of the ocean where the waves were lapping at the sand. Owen took the hermit crab out of the bucket, cupped it in his hand, stroked its little legs with his little finger, and said in a voice cracking with tears, “Goodbye, Mr. Hermit Crab. I really wish I could keep you.”
Then he ever so gently placed it in the shallow water at the edge of the ocean. We both stood there, staring at the shell of the crab who had burrowed itself into the sand. I looked over at Owen, and there was a single tear running down his right cheek. He said, again, how sad he was to have to let the hermit crab go. I looked past him at the deck where my dad was sitting, overlooking the beach, and fighting back my own tears, I reminded him if the hermit crab stayed with us, it would die, but if it went back to the ocean, to its home, it would be happy and healthy and be with its family again. Owen stared down at the hermit crab for another moment, then in a gesture of sad acceptance, raised his hand and waved a slow, sad wave, the goodbye he could not bring himself to say. And as he waved goodbye to this little hermit crab he loved so much, a giant wave crashed down and washed the hermit crab away. I looked at Owen again; now the tears were streaming down his face. The hermit crab was gone.
As a general rule, human history tells us that we haven’t done so well with taking care of what’s been entrusted to us, whether it’s ourselves, our fellow citizens or planet earth.
But my friends – perhaps we can take our inspiration from the wisdom and understanding of a 6-year-old child who innocently and lovingly cared for a beloved creature by doing what was best for it, even though it wasn’t at all what he wanted.
Because here’s the thing – despite our failings, God keeps coming to us, reminding us that bitter fruit is not what we are meant to grow, and greed and violence is not part of who we were created to be. There are still prophets among us, reminding us of God’s love for us, that we are the tenants of this world, and that we are, indeed, our brother’s and sister’s keeper.
Despite the evil we witness around us – and even within us -we are not doomed to be wicked tenants. We are destined to be faithful stewards. And one day, when we are asked “How are you taking care of what’s been entrusted to you?” I hope we will look at our Savior who gave himself to us and for us and say, “In the same way, Lord, as you have cared for me.”