Tenants of the Vineyard

Jonathan Lacock-Nisly

Readings: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19  •  Philippians 3:4b-14  •  Matthew 21:33-46

Good morning, 8th Day! It’s great to be worshiping with you all today. I’m especially excited to be sharing the teaching today because this Sunday and throughout the fall, there are over 40 congregations in our region who are joining with us in celebrating Climate in the Pulpits. Whether it’s through a guest preacher, like me, or a separate workshop and discussion time, these congregations are joining with you in learning about and acting on our damaged climate.

Many of the caring people who connect with my work at Interfaith Power and Light feel, like I’m guessing many of you feel, that caring for Creation is one of the best ways we can honor the Creator. And throughout today’s readings, we have imagery that shows us God’s connection to God’s creation.

In Exodus, God comes to the people with thunder and lightning, and a smoking mountain. 

In Psalm 19, we hear poetically that “the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork … In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a champion runs its course with joy.”

And in Matthew, we have the image of God as the keeper of a vineyard, with tenants who are charged with the responsibility to ensure a good harvest.

Of course, none of these passages are particularly about caring for creation. The reading from Exodus is about the delivery of the 10 Commandments, and the parable in Matthew speaks to the people’s rejection of the prophets and foretells Jesus’ crucifixion. If you weren’t looking for a word on the natural world, you might miss it entirely. And I think that’s similar to how we have so often failed to care for or even notice the blessings of our natural world. Our use and abuse of natural resources, and particularly our wasteful and harmful use of fossil fuels, has brought us a crisis that too often feels like it’s lurking in the background. 

As I’m sure you know, burning fossil fuels creates pollution that traps heat. Over time, this heat-trapping climate pollution warms the planet and sets off a chain reaction. Going back to Psalm 19, we’ve turned the sun’s rays—something the psalmist tells us we should be able to greet joyfully—into something insufferable, like a winter coat on a July day.  Severe weather and wildfires, hurricanes and sea-level rise—the damage caused by our pollution is far-reaching, but in our region alone we’ve seen growing disruption. In 2016, Ellicott City, Maryland, just outside Baltimore, was hit by what the National Weather Service called a once in 1,000 year flood. Two years later, it happened again. DC broke multiple heat records this summer, and it’s expected that we will continue to do so in the coming years. That’s a trend that is uncomfortable for me, but deadly for our city’s most vulnerable residents. Because of climate pollution, the psalmist’s line that “nothing is hidden from [the sun’s] burning heat” begins to feel like more of a threat.

But with so much going on right now, it’s easy to feel sometimes like the climate crisis is at the bottom of the list. Between covid-19, lost jobs, and work for racial equity, congregations have been extra busy caring for the immediate needs of our communities. If we look closer, however, we can see that the climate crisis is not separate from any of our other problems; our damaged climate is impacting so many neighbors right now, and making all of these other crises worse. 

Covid-19 becomes deadlier when it infects communities who have long been forced to breathe the air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. And although that fossil fuel pollution affects everyone, it’s been especially harmful to Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities who have been forced to breath far more than their fair share of pollution for decades. That pollution is one of the reasons that Black and brown communities have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19. Our work for racial justice is inextricably tied to our work for environmental justice.

(And a quick teaser—Sito asked if I would lead a book group on racial justice and climate change during the Advent season, so be on the lookout for more information on that.)

Because, when our political leaders can see the damage that fossil fuels are doing to our neighbors and to God’s Creation, yet continue to invest in their false promises, that is a form of the idolatry that the Ten Commandments forbids. When our leaders can see that Black and brown communities are disproportionately hurt by the pollution from fossil fuels, and do nothing to change course, that is the idolatry of fossil fuels. 

The sin of idolatry is sharply exposed also in today’s Gospel reading. In the reading from Matthew, Jesus’ parable depicts the people rejecting the prophets, and ultimately, Jesus. But the backdrop of this parable is also fascinating, because it portrays the world as God’s vineyard, and humanity as tenants of that vineyard. We, the tenants, are judged based upon our care for the neighbors God has sent us and our care for the vineyard God has given us. Think about that—Jesus did not tell us that we have “dominion over” the vineyard, or that we should use God’s resources however we choose. Jesus showed us an image of humanity as temporary occupants charged with the good upkeep of God’s property.

The charge to care for the vineyard isn’t just a suggestion; it’s a commandment, with consequences. After expelling the unworthy tenants, Jesus says the owner will “lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time." So we are called to work together to care for the vineyard, to clean our air and repair our damaged climate. We’ve seen congregations across our region do just that through actions like installing solar panels, planting trees, and speaking out to our elected leaders. But this fall, one of the most important actions we can take to care for creation is to vote our values! 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called voting a “moral responsibility,” and I believe it’s a moral responsibility every one of us shares to this day. Voting is a powerful way that we can choose leaders who will reject the idolatry of fossil fuels. Voting is how we can show our care for our neighbors, and value everyone’s voices. I think voting our values is part of what is required of us as good tenants of God’s vineyard.

So I hope you’ll join so many caring people across the region who are requesting a mail ballot, voting safely, and helping to choose leaders who share our commitment to repairing our damaged climate. I’d actually like to take a couple of minutes right now to give everyone time to make sure you’re registered to vote and to request a mail ballot.

Even when we’re gathered online, we can take action together, and in community! So in a moment, we’re going to play a few minutes of music, during which I invite everyone to copy and paste on the link I’m putting in the chat right now, https://ipldmv.org/vote/

Copy and paste that link into a browser to open a form that will walk you step-by-step through making sure you’re registered to vote and have a chance to request a vote-by-mail ballot. I’ll give you time to do that now.


Thank you for taking the time for this moral responsibility. Today we can commit to voting our values and to choosing leaders who care for God’s vineyard and for our climate. And every day, we have an opportunity to make choices, in our homes and beyond, for the climate, for God’s creatures, for our neighbors, and for future generations. Amen.