Saint James Fordham • Proper 22a • Tobias Haller BSG
There was a householder who planted a vineyard.
A little girl, five years old, kneels in the middle of the kitchen floor, building a house of bright wooden blocks. It is a beautiful house. There are round, green pillars at the front door. Windows on each floor are framed by blocks of yellow and orange, and topped by bright red lintels. Just as she is about to place the finishing touch — the blue, notched chimney block — on the roof of the house, the door opens and her mother comes in with an armful of laundry. As the door closes, the floor shakes and the house collapses in ruins — no house now, just a pile of blocks: yellow, red, green and blue. The little girl jumps up, and in frustration kicks the blocks that go sliding across the floor. Then, looking at her mother, she bursts into tears.
We have all known disappointments in our lives — some minor, some deeply painful. From earliest childhood, when we first begin to have expectations, through the shattered dreams of adolescence, and the dashed hopes of adulthood, our best laid plans often don’t work out.
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Today we have heard two stories about vineyards — and about failed hopes. Isaiah sings a tragic song about crop failure. We need not look far to find parallels for this story, what with droughts and hard winters, to say nothing of the collapse of the virtual crop known as the stock market, or the changing climate. A modern day folk singer protesting farm foreclosures or ecological disaster is singing in the spirit of Isaiah; because the song is about more than vineyards; it is about plans going awry, and a world misused.
Isaiah’s beloved, for whom he sings this song, is a careful planner. The land is fertile; the ground is cultivated with care, the stones are cleared away. The property is fenced to keep out the foxes. The vines themselves are choice. In the middle of the property a wine vat is prepared, and a tower is built as a home for the workers. The vineyard owner, looking over the scene, smiles and savors in imagination the taste of the rich sweet wine.
But when harvest time comes, what does the vineyard yield? Wild bitter grapes, good for nothing. Like the little girl whose house of blocks collapsed — like many of us who suffer disappointments — the vineyard owner reacts with violence: tearing down the fence, breaking the walls, trampling the vines under foot, letting it go to wrack and ruin. The vineyard owner even makes it stop raining.
Wait a minute! How can the vineyard owner make it stop raining? Who has the power to do that? Suddenly, with this one phrase — “I will command the clouds” — Isaiah reveals that this song isn’t about agriculture, but about God and Israel and Judah. God is the owner who looks — not for grapes — but for justice and righteousness: justice as sweet and righteousness as fortifying as wine. Instead God finds the bitterness of strife and bloodshed, the stench of injustice.
This song isn’t about farming after all, or natural disasters like drought and hard winters. This is a song about sin: the human tendency to misuse even the best advantages for selfish ends. God delivered the tribes of Israel out of Egypt, and brought them to a fertile hill, a land of milk and honey. They were given the Law as a guardian and watchtower, to keep them on the paths of righteousness.
Instead, injustice and crime are the rule. Sinful humanity thinks of itself first, and in place of a pleasant harvest of righteousness and generosity, only grapes of wrath grow upon the stunted vines.
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Selfishness and greed are even more evident in the second vineyard story that Jesus tells. It starts in the same way, with a carefully planned vineyard. Then the owner leases the vineyard to tenants, and goes off to another country. When harvest comes, the owner sends servants to collect the share of the produce that constitutes the rent, but finds the workers have decided to keep the whole harvest for themselves. They beat and kill the servants, and then even murder the owner’s son when he is sent to set things right.
Selfishness and greed — but surely folly, too. What can these tenants be thinking? What could possibly lead them to believe they can keep the whole harvest for themselves, not even turning over the portion due as rent? How can they imagine that by killing the son they could gain the inheritance? What can possess them?
Well, what possesses anyone acting out of greed? Look around at the world and you will see. God gives us the good earth to live in — but we pollute it with waste, we deplete its resources, we warm it to a boil and then wonder where have all the glaciers gone. Look at the financial crisis: a mixture of greed and misplaced optimism, of thinking you can cut corners and not have to abide by any rules, and squeeze the fruit until it gives more juice than it contains, and even to wager on derivatives that gain when everyone else loses. No wonder we are in a pickle.
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God gives humanity the ability to choose between right and wrong — yet we often place our own needs, our own best laid plans before those of others. As a result, the physical and human worlds both are spoiled. We look “for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!” Fallen humanity clutches the harvest to its breast, crying out like a five-year-old, “Mine! Mine!” and failing to see that what it holds is a harvest of dry and stinking weeds.
Greed and folly make the harvest turn sour. Like the manna of the wilderness, the harvest cannot be stored up, but must be used and shared day by day. If you try to keep it, to possess it as your very own, it will rot. God promised that the bread from heaven would be there daily, but the untrusting souls who tried to store it overnight ended up with rot.
St Paul wrote to the Christians of Philippi about such people: “Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” The greedy focus on their own plans without regard for others.
This is the attitude of the earthly minded. But the earth itself is good — it is God’s own creation, created it for our benefit. What turns the earth bad is our selfish misuse of it. When the earth becomes an end in itself — only good for what we can dig out of it, grow from it, or make of it — the earth itself will rebel — has rebelled — against us. If we go on trying to squeeze every last derivative penny from a stock market based not even on stock any more, but on futures, options and indexes — well, our future is bleak, our options few, and the index is the skin of our teeth. When we begin to think of the harvest as ours, rather than God’s, it will turn sour. If our best laid plans leave God, and God’s children — the whole of humanity — out of the picture, we are as foolish as those who worship their bellies, or who think that by killing servants or son, they will inherit the kingdom.
If, then, we are to lay our plans well, if we are to build on a firm foundation, then God must be at the heart of our best laid plans. The earth is available for our use and benefit, but it is the kingdom of heaven that should concern us ultimately. The market is there to trade in, the banks to invest in wisely and prudently — not in wild speculation but in sober judgment — but the place our dearest treasure should be stored is not here on earth, but with our Father above.
To do so, we must face for a time away from the earth, lifting our eyes toward heaven, and pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
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Seven hundred eighty-two years ago yesterday, a man died whose whole life focused on heaven, but who delighted in things of the earth. Few have so embraced the simplicity of Christ’s life, and few so relished the glories of God’s creation. Yet Saint Francis of Assisi understood the secret of moving amid his fellow creatures — men and women, the sun, moon and stars, the rivers and animals, especially the animals — while keeping his eyes fixed on Christ. He even knew the greatest secret of all, the secret the vineyard tenants did not know. They thought that killing the son would wreck the owner’s plan; that Christ’s death was the collapse and ruin of God’s best laid plans for the world.
But out of death came life. Christ’s death was not the failure of God’s plan, but its culmination. As Saint Francis knew, death is not the end. We joined our voices with his in our opening hymn, based on one of his poems: “Even you, most gentle death, waiting to hush our final breath... You lead back home the child of God, for Christ our Lord that way has trod. O praise him, Alleluia.”
As we pass — as we must — through that narrow door of death into the wide expanse of the kingdom of heaven, may we bear a rich harvest of fruit, the fruit of a life lived in generosity and fellowship with all of our brothers and sisters, ready to present it to the owner of the vineyard. The Lord will welcome us, as he has always planned, with open arms, the same arms he once spread out for us and for the whole world, upon the hard wood of the cross.+