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Vineyard Haven

vineyard001Isaiah 5: 1-7
Matthew 21: 33-46
Introduction to the reading from Matthew
Jesus continues to teach in the synagogue, drawing followers to himself as he opens up the word of God to them in new ways.

We heard last week how a group of high priests and elders confronted him, demanding to know who gave him the authority to be there, teaching. Jesus countered with the parable about two sons whose father told them to go work in his vineyard. One said he wouldn’t go but then went. The second said he would go but then didn’t. The first son was the one obedient to the father. But the religious leaders were like the second son; they claim to be God’s faithful representatives, debating, interpreting and making judgments about the law, but fail to live by God’s commandments.

In today’s Gospel reading, another parable about a vineyard, Jesus presses his point about faithlessness, to violent, drastic conclusion.

The small community of Vineyard Haven is the main port of entry into Martha’s Vineyard, the resort island off the coast of Cape Cod. The town was built around a sheltered inlet and thus calls up an image of peace and security for seafarers coming home.

Apparently, also, Martha’s Vineyard has been a wine-producing region ever since its discovery in 1602 by the Englishman Bartholomew Gosnold. It’s not clear whether the native Wampanoag grew grapes or Gosnold introduced them, but even today sections of Martha’s Vineyard are set aside as an official American Viticulture Area. And so, to the safe harbor image we add the mental picture of beautiful, well-cared for, fruitful vineyards.

But a vineyard haven image is quite a contrast to the description of the vineyard in both of the readings for today.

The prophet Isaiah describes a vineyard planted on a very fertile hill. We hear that the vines are choice – select, prime, the very best – and carefully protected by a watchtower and hedgerows. At the beginning of this passage what we see is a vineyard haven.

But the beautiful vineyard yielded only wild grapes – small and hard, with little juice and no flavor. And so the grower decided to lay it to waste: I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.

Isaiah’s prophecy holds up a mirror of judgment to the ones who heard him. He explains the metaphor: …the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

The parable Jesus tells carries the same feeling as the prophecy. It is the second of several that Jesus uses to make the point that the current Jewish leadership is faltering and failing to follow God’s way. Isaiah was speaking about the whole people of Israel; Jesus is speaking about their leadership centuries later.

Again, the scene is a vineyard, but again, no vineyard haven.

The problem is the tenants to whom the landowner has leased the vineyard. They’ve assumed control and one by one, murder the slaves the landowner sends to collect the produce. And then, when the landowner sends his son, they murder him too. For some reason they think this will make the vineyard theirs. Wrong.

The symbolism here is thinly veiled. God is the vineyard owner and the vineyard is the God’s kingdom, that is, initially, the nation Israel. The tenant farmers are the established Jewish religious leaders. The slaves who came to collect what was due are the Old Testament prophets. Jesus is the son of the landowner and his murder anticipates the crucifixion. Finally, in Matthew’s view, at the end of the parable, the church is the group invited to work in the vineyard. The idea of Israel rejecting God and God finding a new human outlet is at the heart of this parable, just as it was in the reading from Isaiah.

Since the first century, the Christian church has been in the position of being the tenants and the parable begins all over again. Now the church is responsible to God for the harvest of the vineyard; now the church is challenged to be a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. How has that been going?

As you’ve been hearing, this month marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in protest to many practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his day. He didn’t mean to start something new; he just wanted reforms. But in effect, his actions ended up partially laying that vineyard to waste because the Church thought that God’s vineyard was theirs to do with whatever they found profitable for themselves.

What about in our time, the year of our Lord 2017? As Jesus people, we understand God’s vineyard to be the whole world and we are the sons and daughters who are called to work here, living by and proclaiming the Word of God. Living and proclaiming God’s compassion, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, hope and above all love. Trying to make a haven out of a vineyard threatened by evil, full of wild grapes: insecurity, tensions, depression, mistrust, poverty, injustice, selfishness, anxiety, greed, war, threat, violence.

People expect – or used to expect - to find vibrant spiritual life in a church. People used to expect to find hospitality, compassion, service to the least among us. People used to expect to find what God expected of the vineyard in Isaiah’s prophecy. Good grapes. People used to expect to see of us what God expected to see because of the tenants’ good care – a beautiful, productive vineyard.

But what do we find instead? At least, what makes headlines about the church?

  • That membership and attendance is declining in all Christian denominations, as more and more people reject God and the challenging presence of Jesus in favor of an amorphous spirituality. Or as more and more people reject church because of a pressured lifestyle that demands perpetual work, competition and entertainment and does not allow for Sabbath rest and reflection.
  • That religious leaders of all denominations and persuasions are guilty of sexual misconduct, financial abuses and other kinds of malfeasance.
  • That radical religious extremists are seeking to destroy civil societies in the name of God.
  • That politically conservative “Christian” businesses want to deny health insurance coverage, especially for women, on religious grounds.
  • That politically conservative “Christians” find ways, on religious grounds, to be racist, bigoted, mean-spirited and uncivil.

Friends, I am angry and I am worried for the church. This is God’s world, every one and every thing in it, and only ours to take care of, to be good stewards of. For a very long time, the church of Jesus Christ has been God’s vehicle for doing that, just as Israel once was. But we have to continually ask, how are we doing at that task? I, for one, do not want God to say, as we heard at the end of the parable: “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.”

Where would God find other, better tenants? Good question. But I hope and pray that a congregation like ours is still in his sights. Although we certainly struggle with challenges that frustrate our work in the vineyard, we do continue in small but meaningful ways to care – to take care of the least among us, to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, to love our neighbors; to study and teach and proclaim the Word of God; to worship and fellowship together and support one another through prayer. What we want to be is a vineyard haven, a faith community that reflects the kingdom of God in all that we do.

Today we celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism. Once again, we celebrate the hope and promise of a new life brought into the body of Christ. And once again, we are reminded that we are Jesus’s people and that Jesus is the true vine in whom we must abide if we are to bear the spiritual fruit which God intended for humanity from the beginning. Amen.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
October 8, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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