I had a rough go with my backyard garden this year. Granted, that little 8’ x 8’ plot, which is bordered by basic landscaping timbers and situated in barely six hours of daily sunshine, has never been all that lush and productive, but I was always proud of it. I was proud of the ways in which the soil I had worked received the seeds and seedlings and nurtured decent growth. I was proud of the juicy tomatoes that I sliced in early August. In fact, I might have been guilty in previous seasons of taking periodic photos of its growth throughout the spring and summer and posting them on Facebook so everyone could see the fruits of my labor.
This year, however, I was not proud of it, and there was absolutely nothing worth taking a photo of. The half-dozen or so cucumbers we got looked like something grown in Chernobyl. Have you ever heard of someone having to stake sunflowers? Well, now you have. Not one batch of pesto could be made from the skimpy basil plants that eked out a yellowish existence, and many folks consider basil the easiest plant to grow. The place where I planted leeks gave way to copious stands of crabgrass, and even that seemed to throw in the towel by late July. And out of nowhere one random volunteer cornstalk grew up in the middle of the tomato vines.
All in all, it was a disaster. In the past I’ve been pretty meticulous with it, but somewhere along the line this year I suppose I assumed the garden could just take its own course. Somewhere along the line I suppose I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need to be that involved…that, on its own and without any work from me, the garden would naturally produce the results I wanted. The truth is I am ashamed of that conclusion, and now, because of my neglect, between now and next spring I will have to rip out the termite-infested landscape timbers and scoop out all the old, tired soil, and start all over.
On a much grander and more complicated scale, that is the gist of the situation between God and God’s people over the years and years of their unfruitfulness. As the prophet Isaiah explains, God has taken great pains in planting his people as a vintner tends a vineyard. He has chosen the spot carefully in an area where they will get plenty of sunshine. He has removed all the stones from the soil so the roots can become established. It’s got a watchtower to prevent thieves from climbing in and a vat right in the middle where the grapes can be pressed. He expects it to produce grapes so that he can make wine, but instead he gets a bunch of crabgrass grapes and a random volunteer cornstalk.
It proves to be nothing but an embarrassment and a disaster. The vintner has no choice but to let it take its course and go to waste, since that’s essentially what had already happened anyway. He removes the protective landscape timbers and lets the wild weeds take over. What was supposed to be a special area of beauty and productivity among the rough hillside is allowed to return to ugly barrenness.
For Isaiah and the people of ancient Israel, this love-song for the vineyard becomes a picture of their unfaithfulness and a prophecy of God’s judgment. It becomes a poem about their unrighteousness and bloodshed despite God’s desire that they be a special people of justice and beauty. Eventually they will read in this prophecy the story of their descent into weedy chaos once the armies of Babylon run them over and cart them into exile. They will read how their inability to be people of righteousness and peace had grieved God to God’s core.
It’s a peculiar thing to consider, isn’t it: that God the Creator of the universe can’t even determine what crops up in the hearts of his people? On one hand, it might raise questions about God’s omnipotence and effectiveness. On the other hand it makes one ponder the great amount of free will God has turned over to humankind, the depth of the relationship God actually wants to cultivate in his creatures…and the joy God must get when they do. We are far more complex than plants, which turn their leaves to the sun and start growing up. We can turn in to ourselves and not even realize it—which is one definition of sin—and assume all along we’re growing the way we’re supposed to. Left to take our own course, we’ll put forth maybe a misshapen cucumber or two, but for the most part we’ll struggle to do even that. It will take enormous effort and sacrifice and suffering on God’s part to break into our hearts and our communities to turn us to him.
And that, my friends, is the basis for this parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees and chief priests as he comes out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Borrowing this vineyard imagery from their prophet Isaiah, Jesus explains how those whom God had left to tend the vineyard, those whom God had put in charge of helping God’s people produce their trademark righteousness and justice had turned wicked. As Jesus re-tells it, the problem lies not just in the vineyard itself, with all its crabgrass grapes and random cornstalks, but with those who are supposed to steward it. They repeatedly reject the landowner’s attempts to get involved from a distance. Slave after slave is sent to help with the harvest, but slave after slave is slaughtered. Prophet after prophet had been sent to assist God’s people in their production of God’s justice among the nations, in their role as special place of beauty and righteousness among the otherwise barren hills.
Eventually the landowner takes the final step and sends his own son, which, you understand, is tantamount to going there himself. The son is the heir to the vineyard. What his father own he owns, too. And still the tenants refuse the care and leadership of the landowner! They have grown so in-on-themselves, they are so overrun with greed and spite and jealousy, they are so misled into thinking that the vineyard belongs to them and not to the landowner that they kill the son, too.
I looked in several sources at what this parable is called. In the version we used this morning it is titled, “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” They certainly play a major role, and in Jesus’ first telling it was clearly directed at the leadership of in the Temple. They were meant to hear themselves as those tenants. Another version called this parable “The Parable of the Vineyard,” a title which certainly highlights the role of God’s people in the analogy, but quite frankly isn’t that descriptive. Vineyards are featured in about a half-dozen parables.
One version, however, called this parable “The Parable of the Passion.” That one interests me the most. It takes the focus away from those terrible tenants and even away from the beloved vineyard and focuses it on that son, that son that comes as not just a representative of the landowner, but as blood of the landowner himself. It focuses on the length to which that landowner plans to go in order to have his vineyard produce what he wants it to. The vineyard will not just run its course, and neither will the wicked tenants just run theirs. For that vineyard to produce anything the landowner’s son will have to suffer and die.
This is the harsh reality that our sinfulness will require from a God who loves so passionately. As much as we would like to think humans are just naturally good...as much as we like to believe that, given the right environment, the right upbringing, we’ll grow the way we’re created to, the truth is we grow wickedness. To paraphrase Martin Luther, we will never naturally, on our own accord, give ourselves over to the type of wholesale re-working that is needed to produce works of justice and compassion. God will need to get involved for that to happen. New life and new harvests will only come as a result of suffering. Bread will be broken. Blood will be shed. And a cross will need to be planted squarely on that barren hillside.
It has been quite the year for this congregation, this little vineyard. Within the span of nine months—to the day—we have had three congregational meetings. A senior pastor has been called, property has been purchased, and the call for another associate pastor has been considered. That’s just the ministry that has required congregational approval, according to the Constitution. Think of what else has gone on! Even as leadership has experienced major changes, the amount of ministry undertaken by our staff, our teams, our volunteers, our Council has hummed along with remarkable consistency.
|Epiphany youth group at Shalom Farms, Oct 2013|
As this congregation begins a new chapter, however, it will be imperative for us to remember one lesson from the Parable of the Passion. That is, fruitful ministry in a congregation or in an individual does not ultimately come from the people who are leading or even the people who are serving. Faithful ministry in a congregation or in an individual does not lie chiefly in the ingenuity or creativity of mission statements or the size of endowment contributions or the vitality of youth programs. All those may be nice, but fruitful ministry in any setting truly arises from the faith that God is deeply, deathly involved in what is going on here. Our life together is a result of someone loving us to death. God’s Son is the cornerstone. This Son is dying to forgive sins and mend relationships. This Son dying to plant in us the righteousness of his kingdom that we might share that with the world.
And—good news of good news, my friends of the vineyard—this Son is dying even to take our pitiful malformed cucumbers and random volunteer cornstalks and transform them through his passion into a tasty treat from the garden.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.