Sunday, October 2, 2011

Lectionary 27A
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Howbeit what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ.

It is hard work keeping a garden, not that I have a great deal of experience at it. As a matter of fact, I donít keep a garden because of the hard work. Iím usually pretty good at the beginning, preparing the soil, choosing the plants, putting them into the ground. I might, occasionally, remember to prune or pull weeds and water, but it gets harder to keep up with it as time goes on. Something distracts me from the task, or the temperatures just get too hot to be in the garden. I get frustrated when the plant withers or the fruit doesnít grow. I donít know how to deal with the critters that manage to get to my fruit before I can harvest.

The home garden might not take a lot of time, but the gardener must be dedicated. It is even truer for the farmer who works at growing food as a living. The farmer must prepare the land, tilling the soil and removing stones. He must plant the crops and keep them watered and free of weeds. He must build and maintain fences or walls to keep out those who might destroy or steal the fruit. He might even build a watchtower. The farmer must have buildings to process and store the crops, equipment to do all the work. The boundaries, buildings and equipment must be maintained even when there is no crop in the fields. It is a year round task, one that takes commitment.

Unfortunately, the work does not always pay off in the end, often leaving the farmer with barely enough to survive. Too many farmers have to give up because they suffer one too many droughts or locust infestations. When they canít produce a crop that is worth the work they put into the field, they have to let it go. The fences and walls fall, the fields are left to the weeds and wild animals.

In the Old Testament lesson, the farmer has a vineyard. He has put time and heart into the building of the vineyard, preparing the field and planting good vines. He guarded the vineyard and readied the wine press to created fine wine. But instead of yielding good fruit, the grapes were bitter or wild. The Hebrew language here suggests the grapes were not just bitter, but diseased. Bitter grapes might still be used for wine, and might even create a fine tasting wine if properly prepared. Diseased grapes are worthless, unusable. They must be tossed away.

In this passage, the vineyard represents Godís people. Isaiah speaks of the wonderful works of God in creating the nation of Israel. He isnít like meóa gardener who puts the plants in the ground and then lets them go. He took care of the vineyard. He took care of His people, providing them with everything they needed. He guarded them, protected them, and provided for their every need. No matter how much God did for His people, however, they turned wild. They became dis-eased. They turned from Him and did their own thing. They were no longer constructive for Godís purpose.

But that does not mean He stopped loving them. Over and over again in the history of Godís people, they turned from Him and suffered the consequences, but over and over again God loved them back into His heart. He gave them second, third and fiftieth chances: when they cried out, He was never far. He saved them, over and over again, because He is faithful despite their unfaithfulness. In the prophecy from Isaiah today, God warned that they would see the consequences of their unrighteousness and the prophecy was likely fulfilled in the Assyrian invasion of Judah. We know, however, that even though the watchtower has collapsed and the fields have gone fallow, God will hear their cries and restore them. They must, for a moment, live with the penalty of their own turning.

The Psalm for today is the cry of Godís people for salvation. ďTurn us again, O God of hosts; And cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved.Ē They knew Godís good works; they didnít know why they had been abandoned. They didnít see their own failure, but despite this reality, God did come to their aid. He restored His people and called them to the life He intended for them. Despite His grace, they continued to fail. Despite their failure, He continued to be faithful. He replanted the vineyard and began again.

Unfortunately, by the time of Jesus, the faithlessness of Godís people came in the form of self-righteousness. They believed that they were guarded and protected by God, that He would provide all they needed. But they expected this to be true not because God was good but because they thought they were. The watchtower was their own interpretation of the Law, the wall was their heritage. They thought they were good because they relied on their own abilities. They did not see how they had turned from God or how they had rejected Him. The leaders had allowed even the Temple to become corrupt.

The passage from Matthew occurs shortly after Jesus cleansed the Temple, during those last days of His life. They had made Godís house of prayer a den of thieves and Jesus called them on it. But they were not prepared to accept His word. Last week we saw the leaders questioning Jesusí authority. Jesus told them a parable about a son who did what was asked and another that never did. Who are the leaders of the Temple? They might see themselves as a son who said ďyesĒ and obeyed, but Jesus did not. He continues this week with a parable.

The language in this weekís story is much like we heard in the Old Testament lesson. The landowner put everything He had into the vineyard, and then leased the land to some tenants. The landowner then went away, perhaps to check on other fields, trusting the tenants to take care of his vineyard. When the landowner sent servants to collect the rent, his portion of the yield, the tenants killed the servant. This happened several times, and each time the servants were killed. Finally the landowner sent his own son, thinking that the son would have more authority. The tenants decided to kill the son so that they could have the field for themselves.

We could spend hours considering how anyone who killed servants and the heir would ever think the landowner would give them the vineyard. The son might be heir, but the landowner still owns the land. This thinking doesnít make any sense to me. Are there ways which we ďkill the SonĒ while still expecting the Father to bless us?

In this story, the landowner does not give the vineyard to the tenants. As a matter of fact, he throws them out and leases the vineyard to other tenants. We know that the first tenants in this story are the chief priests and the Pharisees, who killed the prophets and who were already scheming to kill the Son. Even they recognized themselves in the story. The new tenants would come from unexpected places. They wouldnít have their Law or their heritage on which to rely. They wouldnít be protected by their own righteousness. They would rely on God and for this reason the fruit would be good. The chief priests and the Pharisees did not like what they heard and they began to seek ways to be rid of this Jesus.

We know that this story was fulfilled when Jesus and the apostles took the story of God into the whole world, something which was intended from the beginning. Jesus might have come first for the Jews, but God meant for Him to be the shining light for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. The early church may not have understood that completely, as they fought amongst themselves about how to deal with those who were not Jews but who believed in Jesus. At first they expected the Gentiles to convert to Judaism and then be accepted in the Church.

But Paul recognized the foolishness of this practice. He knew that Godís grace was meant for Jew and Gentile alike. He knew that those things which they were requiring of new believers were self built watchtowers and walls. God had promised to guard and protect them, to keep them and to produce good fruit through them. But like those to whom Isaiah was speaking, the people in Jesusí day had turned from God. They didnít trust Him; they trusted themselves and their own righteousness. And they were requiring others to rely on that righteousness instead of God.

Paul was everything a good Jew should be. He had the pedigree. He was born to the right people, did all the right things. He followed the right rules and was zealous for God. Yet, he realized that none of that mattered. His encounter with Christ broke down the watchtower and the walls and his field was left follow. But Paul learned that everything on which he relied was worthless, and God planted a new vine in that field.

We are like the Israelites in Isaiah and the chief priests in Matthew. We are wild or dis-eased grapes growing in Godís vineyard. We fail. We sin. We go our own way. Despite all that God has done for us, we want to be in control of the world in which we live. In doing so, we often make the wrong choices. This passage does not leave us much hope, as God swore to repay His wayward people with justice. Yet, this is not the end of the story. There is hope because Godís promises are greater than our failures, and He is faithful.

Weíll fail, weíll turn from Godís grace, but when we cry out we will find that He has never left our side. He will be there to renew us, to transform us, to recreate our lives. We will fail again, just as Godís people have always done, but He loves us in spite of our selves.

The Jews relied on their own righteousness, finding peace in their own strength and ability to take refuge in their God. But they missed the real grace which was found in Jesus Christ. It is true that we should seek refuge in our God, but the center of our faith is not found in our ability to do so. We are reminded in the Gospel text that Jesus is the cornerstone. He is the foundation on which everything is built. Without Him, we are nothing more than wild grapes. He is the vine. He is the center of our faith. As we grow, the fruit we produce will be sweet and satisfying.

We arenít perfect, and we wonít be perfect in this world. Even Paul knew that he had not yet reached the goal. But he knew that he belonged to Jesus and that every day took him closer to the prize, so he pressed on toward that goal. We are called to do the same, to live in the faith, trusting that God will provide all we need. We donít need to rely on ourselves, because God has done it all.

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