What do you think you own?

Mark 12:1-12  February 28, 2016    What Do You Think You Own?

I’ve been listening to a podcast called Dear Sugar with Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, 2 authors giving empathetic and concise advice to listeners, instead of blistering “you’re an idiot” stuff we so often hear. It’s refreshing. They lead with empathy instead of sharp, knowing tongues. So just this past Friday I listened to an episode where a woman wrote in about a money issue, signing her letter as “Entitled and/or Justified”

Dear Sugars, she writes. My sister and brother-in-law are wealthy. They own properties that sit empty 80% of the time while my family eeks it out in a home that is too small for us. My sister and her husband have given us old sofas, used cars, and a bit of cash at Christmas over the years…they believe they have been generous with us. My brother-in-law is worth about $30 million dollars. Their wealth is causing me so much anxiety.  They have the ability to ease so much stress for us. I want them to give us money. I want them to pay off our mortgage or buy us a new house. It would mean nothing to them financially to help us do this.  My relationship with my sister has always been strained. I feel like I might have to cut them out of my life.

Cheryl and Steve respond just as promised: empathetic and concise. They say, the money feels like the problem, but it’s not. It’s about relationship. It’s about 2 sisters who cannot be generous with one another. You cannot demand generosity. This is about relationship and power, not property and money.

Power and property and wealth and relationship are all at play in the story from the 12th chapter of Mark today.

First, a little background:  We skipped a couple of chapters ahead, which puts Jesus in Jerusalem. We’ll go back to the story of when he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, later on in March. What you need to know about Jerusalem is what Jesus has been telling his disciples more than 3 times over the course of 10 chapters of the book of Mark: Jerusalem is the spot where he will be handed over by the religious professionals. Jerusalem is the spot where he will be rejected and beaten and imprisoned and finally killed.

So here Jesus is, teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem, the home turf of the the chief priests, and the elders and the scribes – the religious leaders. And he tells this story that is obviously against them and the religious institution they are protecting.

Today’s story is often referred to as the parable of the wicked tenants. I want to re-tell it to you again, but this time, lets call it

The Parable of the Absentee Boss: Once upon a time, there was a boss who set up shop, hired some workers, and then up and left. Only when the shop began to produce did they hear from her. And then, she only sent middle management to collect the profits. She wouldn’t skype or Facetime or get on a conference call, much less actually show up and run things the way they ought to be run. The workers were tired of being neglected and forgotten, so thought they’d send their terrible, no good, very bad, absentee boss a message. So they bullied the middle management. Every supervisor that was hired and sent to work with the workers, to collect data about profits, was shut out or bullied. They didn’t respond to their emails and didn’t show up to their meetings. They made up rumors, they locked them out, and finally hired a covert company to have each middle management representative quietly and effectively “taken care of”. And wouldn’t you know, one day that lousy boss’s son shows up. Well just who does he think he is, showing up and acting like he owns the place? And then it occurred to them that they might have a shot at owning it if they got rid of him, the son, the err. And they took him out, right there. And that’s when, of course, the absentee boss finally shows up and everyone gets fired and replaced with new workers.

Does this re-telling sound familiar? Did you hear it this way right off the bat? What a foolish landlord, to trust the workers without proper supervision. And then of course she fires everyone anyway when it doesn’t go according to plan. Typical.

Or maybe you heard this story as

The Parable of the Greedy, Entitled Workers

Once upon a time there were a bunch of greedy workers who worked for a creative entrepreneurial startup in silicon valley. The office space was amazing: there were places to do yoga and couches to hold meetings on and even a nap room so as to bring out the worker’s best creative potential. The coffee was gourmet and fair trade. The bar was fully stocked with organic wine. Because this start up was going to spread globally, the creative entrepreneur was continuously on the road, traveling the world to spread this news. As the original start up began to produce, the guru sent his number 2 to do a team-building workshop and equip and encourage and to crunch the numbers. He was met by company-wide resistance. Again, the creative guru sent another trusted leader to assess and collect his assets only to be shut out. Passcodes were changed. ID badges denied. Again and again, whoever the guru sent to collect was turned away in every way imaginable. It was awful for the person who dreamed up this company to be shut out from it. All he could think to do was to send his son, a man much more gregarious, more of a “people person” you might say, to rub shoulders with the workers, win them back. And that was it. They took him out. It’s then that the guru fired everyone and started over.

Which story did you hear most clearly today? Or maybe you’ve got your own version. Now, this is a parable, “not a once-and-for-all story. It’s a story you can walk around in, a story that wants a response from you – hopes for a response from you – one that changes as you change, so that it is different the tenth time you hear it than it was the first.”[1]

As I’ve walked around in this story all week, I keep bumping into ownership. And with ownership, assumed or real, comes power, assumed or real. And when we think we own or deserve things and then don’t get what we want, what we think is ours, it all goes south, it all gets wonky. Relationships get strained, we get resentful, we get angry. We get violent. We push each other away. We kill the messenger.

At the end of this story where everyone’s mad and there is bloody violence, Jesus says: the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.

It is amazing in our eyes, because the Lord continues to build the church, not as an institution that won’t change, not as a group of people that must only worship one way, not as a church that must have committees and annual meetings and church councils and buildings. But as a living, breathing body that follows Jesus and challenges the structures that create insiders and outsiders.

It is amazing in our eyes because God continues to build the church with people like Emily and Nate and baby Vera through the gift of baptism. That’s ownership not in a greedy, creepy, violent, absentee way. God’s claim on our lives redefines how we can own anything at all. It all belongs to God and we live our lives in grateful response to that. That’s church, people.

The sister from the podcast thought she knew who owned what and who deserved what just as the landowner and the tenants had their own ideas about ownership too.  And all the sister actually owned was her anger and her resentment at the cost of relationship. And all that the tenants owned was their anger and resentment at the cost of relationship. God redefines the whole landscape and tells us we are going about this all wrong. It was only ever ours because it was God’s first. And it was only ever ours to give away to others. Not to horde and clutch onto and create rules about who gets God’s love and who doesn’t. Who gets to be part of the group and who doesn’t.

It is amazing in our eyes because God continues to build on the cornerstone with the likes of you and me- people who make mistakes. People who hurt each other. People who get angry and feel entitled. God comes into our lives and says, no. That is not the way forward. You will not destroy this church in your name or mine. I will be your God even when it doesn’t feel like it. I will be your God even when it feels like I am absent. I will be your God even when you push me away. And God shows us this by sending Jesus who we follow in amazement. Who we abandon in a heartbeat. Who we love and who loves us, even when we reject him. It is this Jesus that begs us to imagine church in new ways – so that the church doesn’t kill the message of the love of Jesus as it once did, killing the very messenger: the king of love.

Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith: a rejected and dying savior who welcomes Vera into the waters of death and resurrection. Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith, our very identity, the one who claims us. We can’t even imagine demanding the kind of generosity God shows in sending Jesus. We cannot imagine the cost. God just gives it to us.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, http://www.chapel.duke.edu/documents/sermons/2008/081012.pdf