It’s hard to write a sermon in the eye of an emotional hurricane. My life isn’t that difficult, but that doesn’t matter when I see angry clouds all around. I grew up in tornado-ally, so when clouds circle, it’s time to head to the basement. Which brings me to Monday. I went through my morning routine of journaling and preparing myself spiritually for the day, with no news, wrote the beginning to my sermon, then the Las Vegas shooting popped on my phone alerts. Over 50 dead, automatic weapon fire, angry white male without an apparent motive, and the ritual of prayers for the victims begins. I slammed the door on all of it and went to my emotional basement. No, you are not pulling me into the cycle one more time; not one more sermon hijacked by a dramatic event; I refuse to have one more prayer vigil and a plea for gun control. If we can’t realize the insanity of military assault weapons when turned against school children in Newtown, why would Congress come to their senses just because the massacre happened at a Country Western concert? I respect all my colleagues writing eloquently online and organizing vigils, but my attitude was, if you need me I’m in the basement.
It came to a head Wednesday. My sermon would not write itself, and people around me seemed reactive and peevish. I felt angry and did not understand why. This is when I cook. That evening was roasted tomato soup with grilled guyere cheese sandwiches, and setting Pandora to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, God rest his soul. So I’m cutting onions and waving my knife in the air to “Don’t have to live like a refugee,” and “I won’t back down,” when it occurs to me where my anger lies.
It is not about all the people who were killed, that happens all the time from Syria to Nigeria. At any moment, a handful of madmen out of the billions of people can explode with violence. That is a given tragedy to life on this planet for centuries. My anger is about the hypocricy of people who say there is nothing we can do about it. When Bill O’Reilly says, “This is the price of freedom,” or the Kentucky governor says “You cannot legislate against evil.” If you can’t stop every shooting, why bother at all? This is moral nihilism. Why try to stop evil in any circumstance then? Then there’s the canard, “trucks were used by terrorists in Europe, should be ban trucks?” Well, at least you need to take a test and get a driver’s license and carry insurance on a truck, and a truck is used 99 percent of the time for something other than a massacre. Why is freedom linked to open access to military grade weapons? And why are lawn darts banned because they are too dangerous?
This is much bigger than the reasonable steps towards gun control. The deeper issue is the glorification of violence by turning it into a marketable commodity. Here is the equation: too many guns with too much firepower, violent entertainment, appeals to fear and paranoia, greed, and propaganda by the NRA which has a chokehold on Washington, DC. Violence sells news, movies, video games and guns. Ban military weapons and regulate guns as much as cars, and we must also have a campaign to disarm hearts and minds from violence.
Which brings me to Jesus, and the point of the sermon. We are given the responsibility to take care of the vineyard and the world. We don’t own it and we cannot possess it through violence against others. The parable Jesus tells is grounded in the oracles of Isaiah 5, about God’s hope for a vineyard, and a nation. Have you noticed the God in the Bible seems to really like farming, especially vineyards? Vineyards stand as a metaphor in the Hebrew Bible for the long-term work of peace and prosperity. From generation to generation God seeks to faithfully nurture human life and civilization, to bring about a wide variety of fruitful human beings. God is really into us flourishing. In fact the New Testament speaks of humans created to bear fruit 52 times. In Isaiah and Matthew, human community is described as a vineyard God creates. Isaiah’s poetry is a love song about the vineyard. God plants the choicest vines, digs out the rocks, builds a watchtower and a wall to protect it. Then it yields wild grapes, that is sour grapes not good for consumption. With deep disappointment, God says, “Judge me. Is there anything I left undone? If there is one more thing to try, tell me and I will do it. But if not, why shouldn’t just tear it all down and start over?” Isaiah then launches into a long list of judgement and woe for those who buy up all the land and houses, and those who call evil “good” and good “evil.” (George Orwell did not invent “Newspeak,” Calling things we disagree with as “fake news” has been around a very long time.)
Jesus is channeling Isaiah, and says right to the faces of the chief priests in their Temple, you are the wicked tenants who are rejecting God and taking God’s vineyard as your own. For such a compassionate, forgiving guy Jesus could get real political. The bottom line for Jesus is this: you don’t get to manage the Temple for your own enrichment, it belongs to God and therefore it belongs to everyone. There is such a thing as the common good and leaders are accountable to that standard.
I want to close with what I wrote before the Las Vegas massacre, because it is still relevant. A fruitful vineyard, and orchard, is a long and patient vision. Jeanne and I recently road our bikes to pick apples at the Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton. Its well-known not just for cider donuts and heirloom apples, but also for its sculptures. A giant, red picture frame stands in the center, where we have posed many family photos with the landscape in the background. A piano hangs in a tree. It may be the world’s only pick-your-own-sculptor park where human and divine creativity intermingle.
Jeanne and I found the owner, whom we often see at the farmer’s market. He is a tall, wears a trim Mennonite-style beard, which makes him look like the farmer he is. Jeanne said she had seen his article in “Edible Pioneer Valley” and his face lit up, “You are the first one to mention it.” He told us about his passion for apples, like a sommelier would describe fine wines.
He pointed out the old orchard from the 1950s, where he had developed a new pruning technique to squeeze a little more juice into the apples, not into the upper branches. He described his love for the tart heirloom Red Astrachan and Golden Delicious apples, and frowned at the general public’s love for honey crisps, which have a satisfying crunch, but all the flavor of a gas station fruit pie with a two-year shelf life. In total, Park Hill boasts 45 varieties of apples, and he knows when each will be ripe, and whether it is better for eating, pie, or cider.
This is the passion behind our wondrous experience in the orchard. Jeanne asked how long he had owned the land, and he said he bought the neglected orchard it nine years ago. After years of dedication and investing more than $2 million, this year he hoped to finally turn a profit. The bustles with families, lovers and photographers toting bushels of apples. It is an astonishing success, but it has taken nine years to be profitable. In a Snapchat, get rich quick, instant gratification world, that is a remarkable perseverance. What would you be willing to invest nine years of your life?
Imagine how heartbreaking it would be if the entire crop of apples was lost because of climate change, as they lost their peaches last year. It could wipe out all nine years of work and put them in financial peril. Heartbreak is a way of life for farmers, like the Gulf Coast farmers calling it quits after Hurricane Harvey and Montana farmers burned out by wildfires. I worked hard on the farm, so I could get off the farm.
The heartbreak of the world can’t stop us from trying. There will always be wicked tenants trying to take it all for themselves, and our labors will sometimes produce sour wild grapes that don’t amount to anything. I will keep digging the rocks out of the garden and using them to build a wall of safety. I will still nurture the choicest vines, and watch out for predators, prune my worst impulses and stay dedicated to the long, patient work in God’s vineyard, because I still hope we can share the fruits of the harvest, a beloved community of justice and peace together.