The Best-Laid Plans

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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.”

+ + +

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.+

Making Ends Meet

Saint James Fordham • Proper 13a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, They need not go away; you give them something to eat. They replied, We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.

Has anyone here ever lived through a time of scarcity? Perhaps you lost your job or were out of work; or if you were working you were always struggling to meet the bills. I remember my own childhood in a large household with six kids, Mom working hard as a housewife at home, and Dad working as a schoolteacher in a time and place where schoolteachers made far less than they deserved. It was a family of hand-me-downs and making do, of bargain hunting and vacations that mostly meant staying with my grandmother in Boston, after the long drive up from Baltimore. In fact, one of my earliest childhood memories is of what seemed to me to be the amazing complexity of the ramps coming off the GW Bridge and onto the Major Deegan, just a hop skip and a jump south of here. So our paths have crossed before, at least as far as the Interstate is concerned!

But I know I’m not alone in having lived through some hard times. I’m sure many of us here can testify to living through that kind of scarcity. Just as I’m sure that with the rising fuel and food prices, not a few of us are feeling the pinch right now, living through our own present time of scarcity — whether anyone wants to call it a recession or not, we are living through the midst of it, whatever it is called.

The fact is, though, that however bad things seem to be, however much we need to tighten our belts to live through these hard times, we do in fact live through them. We come out the other side, somehow having made ends meet. However short the resources, somehow they seem, in the long run, to meet the need.

Today’s gospel is a gospel for such times — and timely in that it comes at this time. It is a reminder to us that even when our resources seem to be meager —
— barely enough for a small family to survive on, five loaves and two fish — somehow the grace of God will provide what is lacking, and will make ends meet after all.

+ + +

There is, of course, a bigger lesson here — an eternal lesson about much more than bread and fish; about much more than a miraculous picnic in the desert. In fact, it is a lesson about salvation.

For in the miracle of the feeding of the five-thousand-plus people, Jesus didn’t just make ends meet. It wasn’t a case of cutting the cake into enough pieces so that everyone got at least a little. No, Jesus went so far beyond making ends meet that there were twelve whole baskets of leftovers even after everyone ate and had their fill.

Think about that. Imagine five-thousand-plus people attacking a buffet at a parish luncheon, each one piling his or her plate as high as humanly possible, then going back for seconds or thirds, and eating so much that they are fully and completely satisfied, and couldn’t eat another thing, just lying around leaning back in their folding chairs — why, some of the men have even unbuckled their belts — unconscious, and as we used to say in Baltimore, “bloated” — and yet the buffet is still full, with enough to serve a second seating! This is not just about making ends meet — but about exceeding all that can be asked or imagined.

Now, it won’t surprise you, given the sequence of parables we’ve been hearing in the gospels these past weeks, that this whole passage isn’t really about food — Jesus wasn’t really in the catering business — rather it is about the abundance of God’s grace. It is not about just making ends meet, just making it, by the skin of your teeth, but about the overflowing grace of God.

The key to this is in the first lesson from Nehemiah. The historian Ezra recounts the well known story of how bad his ancestors were — and I remind you, no other nation on earth takes such delight in portraying its ancestors as such wicked cusses as do our spiritual forebears the children of Israel. Most people, you know, like to portray their ancestors as good decent folk, but the historians of Israel weren’t shy at all about recounting their failures and foibles. Ezra reminds his brothers and sisters about the awful stiff-neckedness of their ancestors, how they rejected the one who saved them, ready to go back into slavery rather than trust God to bring them through the desert to the promised land; ready even to turn from the living God to worship a thing made by their own hands, a cast image of a calf, and to have the gall to say, “This is our God who brought us out of Egypt” — I mean, really! To think that their own melted earrings and bracelets and necklaces could do that!

And the amazing thing, the abundant thing, that God does — in spite of all of these blasphemies — is to continue faithful to them even when they proved so faithless to him; not to abandon them when they were ready to abandon him, but to remain with them in a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire; and even more, to see to their sustenance with miraculous bread from heaven and water from the rock.

+ + +

This is the great good news of God: that even when things go rough, even when the cause of their going rough is our own doing, even when we work hard at our own destruction — still God is faithful to us, and forgiving, ever gracious. Saint Paul captures this stirring feeling of the abundant and insistent grace of God in that beautiful passage we heard today: that nothing, no nothing on earth can take God from us, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Can hardship or distress? No, it can’t. What about persecution, famine, nakedness or peril? Nuh uh. How about the sword — that’s a tough one, isn’t it. Can violence and death separate us from God? Why not at all: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth” — did I forget anything? Well if I did — “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Only got two fish and fewer than half a dozen loaves — sit down to supper, for Jesus is here. Made mistakes in your past, losing hope in God, and ready to give it up and call it quits? Look out the window, the pillars of fire and cloud are still there waiting for you. Turned away from God and worshiped idols of gold, or fame, or success, or addiction, or violence? He knows; he knows. But he’s still there — still here — waiting for you — with your supper prepared and the table set.

This is the abundance of God’s overflowing grace — the only thing you can compare it with is an unending banquet, a picnic for eternity, the church buffet that never stops. For Jesus doesn’t just make ends meet — he is the End, the goal, the final point, as much as he is the Beginning, the source of light and life. He is Alpha and Omega, the first and the last — he is the cause of our seeking him as well as the goal whom we seek; he is the one who gives us hunger and thirst so that we may appreciate the food and drink that satisfies them, and that he also provides. And that food and drink, my friends, is not just bread and water, not just loaves and fish. It is his own Body and Blood, given for us and for our salvation, to feed us unto everlasting life.

And nothing can stop those ends from meeting — not our own insecurities or lack of resources; not anyone else trying to obstruct God’s access to us, or ours to God; no power on earth or under the earth can keep those ends from meeting.

So thanks be to God, who always makes ends meet — our end is in him, and by his grace, and his grace alone, we have been saved, and made inseparable from the one who created us, from the one who saved us and feeds us with his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, and the one who sanctifies us with the outpoured grace of the Holy Spirit. To God be the glory, in whom all ends meet, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever more.+