Wild Grapes, Wicked Tenants and God the Constant Gardener

I’m not preaching on October 1, so I’m looking ahead to October 8.  This sermon was preached on World Communion Sunday in 2014.  I think you will find the exegesis on the theme of vineyards in the Hebrew scriptures still very relevant to our current situation.  Todd – With All My Soul.

World Communion Sunday is a time to celebrate the unity of the church, through one thing we all do, sharing bread and cup, remembering Jesus, his love for us, and seeking communion.  Community + Union=Communion.  World Communion, now that is audacious!  Through luck of the lectionary draw, the text we get appears not to be about communion but disunion.  The vineyard owner and the vineyard renters are engaged in violent conflict, and that is bad for grapes.  No grapes=no wine=empty cups=no World Communion.  It sounds like an accurate description of present world politics and the state of religious cooperation.  It takes courage (or perhaps turning a blind eye) to proclaim a World Communion Sunday in our sad state of affairs.

 

We might be inclined to dismiss Jesus’s parable as an ancient saga about a vengeful, judgmental God, of whom we want no part.  (We don’t want to drink from that cup!)  I want to convince you of something else this morning.  I believe this is ultimately leading to a hopeful message of a generous, loving and just God.  Despite the reality where we have made of mess of the world, often especially through religion, Jesus proclaims a God that continues to plant and cultivate this vineyard.  Grapes will grow again, wine will flow again, and ultimately Jesus says to us, “I am the Vine and you are the branches.  Abide in me and you will bear much fruit.”

 

Vineyards are a hopeful metaphor early in the Bible.  When Noah gets to dry land the first thing he does after God makes a covenant with him is to plant a vineyard.  The text doesn’t even tell us he built a house!  (Maybe he lived in the ark!) I thought, “why a vineyard?  Why not wheat, barley or corn?  He needs stuff to eat right away.”  Vineyards take a long time and hard work to develop.  I Googled “starting a vineyard.”  After you buy the land, it costs $20,000 a year per acre to cultivate a vineyard, and there is no cash flow for 3 to 5 years while you wait for the grapes to be good enough.  And it is a lot of patient, intensive work.  You need time and labor.

https://winegrapes.tamu.edu/grow/startingavineyard.htm   Obviously this is a long-term investment, a labor of love paying off only over your lifespan.

 

So when you read about planting “Vineyards” in the Bible, it means “Now we are finding enough peace, stability and hope to work for the long haul.”  For immediate needs you plant wheat and pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  When people longing, hoping and dreaming-in the wilderness of Sinai, exile in Babylon, or drought, preachers say, “You will plant vineyards again.  There will be new wine.  We can believe in the future.”

 

Prophets talk about vineyards when people get greedy and oppress others to build bigger vineyards.  Remember the name Jezebel?  She became infamous because she conspired with King Ahab to steal Naboth’s Vineyard.  They had him stoned to death on a trumped up charge because he would not sell.  This leads to the prophet Elisha to anoint Jehu to be a new king, and starts a coup.  So other prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea-condemn economic injustice by saying, “You are devouring the vineyards and throwing people off the land, therefore your grapes will be blighted and worms will eat your vines.  Think about the verse of the Battle Hymn of the Republic  “He is trampling down the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

 

This brings us into the heart of Jesus’s parable.  His audience would have quickly noted he was using Isaiah 5, The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard.  Hear what the vineyard owner (God) does in Isaiah.

5 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.

2   He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;

he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  (The owner does the same work in Jesus’s parable!)

3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,

judge between me and my vineyard.

4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?

When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.

I will remove its hedge and it shall be devoured;

I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.

Jesus parable about the wicked tenants is taking things a step further.  The vineyard isn’t just yielding wild grapes, they tenants are beating the help and killing of the heir, the owner’s son.   The temple and the priestly class are cooperating with injustice, turning blind eye to the poor, and they are like Ahab and Jezebel and all other kings who became too greedy.  They were messing up God’s vineyard, and God loves the vineyard.  What is God to do?  Both Isaiah and Jesus ask, how should the vineyard owner handle this?  What would you do about the perpetrators of violence and injustice?

 

The violence in this passage is not being initiated by an angry and vengeful God, it results from human greed and injustice.   Note that Jesus never says that God is going to harm anyone.  He asks “what will (the owner) do to those tenants?” 41 They (the listeners) said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  Jesus tones down the violence as says, “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you.” (He later changes the metaphor and says “those who fall upon the stone will be broken by it.”  This could imply that God is not violent and vengeful, but rather injustice contains the seeds of its own destruction.  Live by the sword, die by the sword.”)

 

The heart of what Jesus wants to get at is this:  God’s spirit moves to the people who want to bear fruit.  God will find people who want to hear “I am the vine and you are the branches.  Abide in me and you will bear much fruit.”

 

Here is my takeaway for us this morning.  The world is God’s vineyard.  The planet itself and all life upon it, the means of production and work, the activity of the church and the lives we are leading, are all encompassed by the vineyard.

 

– We are called to the work of Elisha the prophet and Noah the grower.   A progressive church works for social and economic justice.  We have two full committees (Peace and Justice and Missions) that work on immigrant rights, schools in Haiti, feeding the homeless, CROP and at least 30 other things.  That is vineyard work, common good work, World Communion hope.

 

But we can’t neglect the work of Noah.  We must plant for the long haul, we must care about all the tender vines and grapes, and to nourish and enjoy this vineyard.  That work includes our spiritual lives, our worship, prayers, building relationship and community, spreading forgiveness and hope, welcoming those at the margins and teaching children and supporting stronger families.  That is vineyard work too.  To speak to the rest of the world, we need a healthy vineyard and produce our own good wine.

 

We have planted the vines of new ministry, Common Ground and Children’s Ministry are like our vineyard, something we are planting now that will bear fruit over time and well into the future.   This is World Communion hope too-making sure we are still producing new grapes for new wine, and not just drinking everything down in the cellar.  You have worked very hard to tend this vineyard of First Churches, and it is working, bearing fruit.  And our challenge ahead, mine, yours, our work together-is to do the soul work.  We are not just building an organization, working the vineyard, we are creating a communion, a beloved communion.  That is soul work, and the question we will keep asking is this: How is God calling you to abide in the vine?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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