a sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22A/Lectionary 27]
Matthew 21:33-46 and Isaiah 5:1-17
Let me sing for my beloved congregation a love song concerning my daughters’ carrot garden. My middle school daughters had a carrot garden in a four-by-four plot of our backyard this year. They themselves mixed the soil with manure and tilled it, they chose the packets of carrots from the hardware store rack and planted them in April.
They did not build a watchtower in the midst of it, but they did watch over those little tufts of green furry leaves like hawks and when their dad tried a time or two to pull one up for a taste test he was rebuked and scolded multiple times and told to stay far away from the carrot garden, Daddy, and tend to your own flower garden over there!
The daughters expected their carrot patch to yield dozens of plump, succulent carrots but instead it yielded, in most cases, barely visible micro carrots, too small really to do much with. What more could they have done for their carrot garden, after weeding and watering in the dry weeks of July? They expected it to yield thick, substantial carrots. Why did it yield little shrimpy carrots? Probably the soil quality and the lack of sunshine, but it was still determined to be dad’s fault anyway for messing too much with them and trying to dig them up to early.
Such is the lament of the prophet Isaiah, except it’s not a carrot garden, but a vineyard. Isaiah looks out at God’s people and sees none of the fruit that God expected God would see. Who is to blame? What is to blame? Even with all the effort of a watchtower to keep lookout for predators and poachers, even with soil cleared of menacing stones, God got nothing like he imagined. God planted and tended justice among his people, things like concern for the poor and peacefulness and harmony but instead they gave him bloodshed and discord.
How many of us have known this song? How many of us have labored and labored on the lives of our own children, or our work colleagues, or our friendships, or our marriages, our communities, within the gardens of our own hearts, only to have things turn out unpleasant and disappointing?
As it turns out, God feels that, too, with his people ancient Israel. It may be a sad song, a sad feeling, but it is sung in a song of love. It is a song of truest love—love that keeps at it, love that thinks of everything it can do to save things…and does all of that and more. It is a never-tiring love that is rooted in the very heart of God, who has created these wayward people and redeemed these wayward people and brought them out of slavery and made them his prized possession.
It is this song and this never-tiring love that Jesus tries to explain to the Pharisees and chief priests as he faces off with them in the Temple in Jerusalem. Borrowing from this love song from Isaiah about the vineyard, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who plants a vineyard and does all the things. Fence, watchtower, wine press in the middle of it. It is deluxe. It’s doing so well, supposedly, that he lets some tenants come in to manage the grape-growing process. But when the time comes for the landowner to get some of the fruit he’s planted, the tenants turn ugly. They kill the first set of slaves he sends to receive the produce, so he gets nothing. So he sends another group of slaves, and they, too, get executed by these tenants.
Eventually the landowner just decides to send his own son. In those days, sending a son, provided you had one, was essentially just like going yourself. Today it just as well could be a daughter. The child doesn’t just stand in place of the parent but is seen as a real extension of that parent and that parent’s authority. This really makes no difference to the tenants. They see taking the son as a way of claiming ownership of the vineyard. Then it will be their vineyard! They throw him out and kill him. Who is to blame for all this bloodshed and injustice, for not giving the landowner the fruit of the vineyard he deserves? Clearly it is these wicked tenants!
Some love story, huh? Jesus, though, is reaching the end of his road. He is doing all he can to explain and show that God’s kingdom is built on things like love of neighbor, and that God’s righteousness is not known by how well you follow all the religious rules but by how compassion rules your faith. But no matter how much he talks about and displays this compassion the religious authorities feel threatened and angry. By the end of his parable, they realize it is really a story about them and about how they are eventually going to reject Jesus and have him arrested.
Yet for all the violence there is love here, for the landowner is not willing to hold back anything to tend to his vineyard and gather the harvest he desires. But more interesting than that is that Jesus doesn’t seem to want to make this love song about blame, about who is going to get what they deserve. At the end of the parable he asks his listeners a question: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They respond that those wretches will be put to a miserable death. But Jesus does not affirm that. God will not respond to all this tragedy by killing anyone. In fact, it seems that the son’s death puts an end to this cycle of violence in the vineyard.
“The stone that the builders reject has become the cornerstone.”That is to say, Jesus, the son, will be arrested, thrown out of the garden and crucified, but God will raise him up to make him the foundation of a new creation—a new creation that we have faith will bring justice and righteousness and beauty and mercy to all people everywhere. This song tells of a love so strong and so deep and so true that it can look the most awful death and tragedy right in the eye and still be triumphant. This love is so pure and so powerful that it can venture into our violent and corrupted world and redeem it and make all things new. God never holds back in loving us.
This is the love that brought us out of the waters of baptism, that has cleansed us of our sin and granted us freedom in the Spirit to love and serve our neighbor. And now we are those who tend the vineyard of God’s kingdom. We are the tenants who work the fields and do what we can to make sure that the good things of God’s harvest come to fruition in the world around us.
Last Sunday in this very location we saw five young tenants of God’s vineyard publicly profess their own faith by affirming their own baptism. Doing anything publicly in these times is challenging. For seven months we have been isolated and to varying degrees shut down. But these young men and women of our congregation—Riley, Ryan, Matthew, Joe, and Cole—had completed confirmation classes last spring and wanted to find a way to make their confirmation happen. Rather than staging the confirmation indoors, they opted for something outdoors. We ended up, as you will see, holding the ceremony right in front of our giant cross, each of them facing in the direction of Monument Avenue as they say the Apostles’ Creed and ask God to help them and guide them in their faith.
We knew it was a bit of a risk to hold the confirmation service right there because, as you probably know, Horsepen Road and Monument Avenue can be rather noisy. We weren’t sure how clear our audio would be and if it might get overpowered by something loud that drove by. There is a point, as if on cue, where someone paying really loud rap music descends on the intersection right as we are praying for the Holy Spirit to be present in their lives. (Bonus points if anyone can tell me what the name of the song was). In any case, we took any interruption and any noise around us as a blessing and a call.
Where does God give us faith to practice but in the world, in the midst of the sirens and shouts and songs of humankind? Where does God ask us to tend to the fruits of his vineyard but in the everyday lives of people and communities around us? Where else does God send us as his servants, often into situations where we’ll lay down our lives, lay down our agendas, lay down our privileges, but the harvest that is literally all around us?
This was part of Francis of Assisi’s story. Son of a very wealthy and powerful businessman, Francis originally thought of becoming a knight. But after some experiences with God Francis felt drawn toward a life of faith and service to the others through the church. This caused friction with his family, and he was rejected. In one dramatic point, brought before a bishop’s court by his father and accused of squandering money, Francis renounced worldly wealth by stripping off all his clothes and giving them back to his father. From that point on he took on a vow of poverty, becoming a Christlike ambassador of kindness and service and charity for thousands of communities across the world.
As we pray again for those young people today, let us add in that their lives will continue to be built on nothing other than Christ the cornerstone that was rejected. It is on Christlike compassion that the arrogant and prideful ways of the world will ultimately fall and be broken to pieces. It is the grace and mercy of Jesus that will crush the hurtful and hateful hearts we often bear.
As we pray for them let us also then recall our own part in the love song that God sings. Let us pray that God make us good tenants who give thanks and praise in all our days for a God who holds nothing back to make his kingdom’s heirs bountiful and beautiful again. And let us pray for a field of fruit in us that is exactly what our vineyard owner wants to see.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.