Sunday, October 4, 2020

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Turn us again, God of Armies. Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved.

One of the things I loved most about living in England was the fact that there was a farmerís market in every town. They were on different days of the week, so I could visit one town one day and another town the next. We always had fresh fruit and vegetables and the sellers at the markets offered some strange but wonderful choices. I first learned about broccoflower in England. Broccoflower is a cross between broccoli and cauliflower with its flavor falling somewhere between the two. It is delicious. We also had broccolini, which many people think is ďbaby broccoliĒ but it is really a cross between two types of broccoli. The baby brussels sprouts were the best Iíve ever tasted and they were incredible inexpensive.

We donít have as many farmers markets here in Texas, and the types of vegetables are somewhat limited in our grocery stores. There are a few markets that offer interesting choices, but they are not the most accessible so we live with the choices we have at the store down the street. There are still choices available. You can buy a number of different types of peaches or apples, plums that taste like grapes, mini-bananas and so much more.

It used to be that a grape was a grape was a grape, but now you can choose from a dozen different types, probably more. You can even buy champagne grapes, which are tiny grapes so small it is hard to imagine how you could eat them. They are smaller than peas, but grow in bunches just like regular grapes. I have not eaten any, so I donít know about the flavor, but wine producers have long worked with their vines to develop special grapes to create new and different wines. Each grape gives a unique quality to the wine, and combining grapes can make fantastic flavors. They do this by planting the grapes in certain soils and using special techniques like grafting to make the plants hardier.

People have been grafting grape vines for a long time, even in the days of Isaiah. The vineyard keeper carefully planted the vines hoping to get an excellent crop to make fine wine for drinking. But in todayís passage we hear that the vineyard brought forth wild grapes. We are reminded by this lesson that we can try to control the circumstances in which we live, but we never know what might grow in our vineyard. I imagine the botanists who developed broccoflower and broccolini probably had some failures along the way.

I donít have a green thumb. I have been known to get very passionate about planting pretty flowers in my garden, but the enthusiasm doesnít last very long. I forget to water when it gets too dry. I hate to weed. I donít pay attention when the plants need to be pruned, so they stop producing or fruit. I can keep plants alive, generally, but do much better with plants that do not need much attention. We have settled for a few potted plants, but I really donít have anything colorful planted in my yard.

Iíve had several success stories over the years. When I was in Junior High I grew a sunflower plant that was over seven feet tall. The blossom was nearly two feet across. I had a snake plant that became so out of control we divided it and gave pieces to a bunch of friends. I once had a philodendron that was full and beautiful. We had a white lilac bush in California that began as an unrecognizable stick in the ground and after eight years was so beautiful that we gave cuttings to all our friends when we moved. I had a rose bush here in Texas that constantly produced beautiful flowers.

The bush was located just under the place where two roofs met and the rainwater naturally fell nearby. While the rest of the yard quickly dried out after a shower, that spot did well because it was saturated, giving the rose bush plenty of moisture deep into the ground. I tended to that rose bush, cutting the dead flowers and pruning when necessary. It gave us some beautiful flowers over the years.

I couldnít tell you what type of rose it was, or where it came from. We bought it at a large retail store one day. As with many of those large scale nursery products, the rose bush was probably grafted to a heartier root, possibly for a rose vine. We noticed after a few years that the shoots coming from the roots of that rose bush were different than the original plant. They grew fast and were somewhat wild; the flowers were much smaller. It was pretty and I often thought that I should install a trellis to let it grow. I knew, though, that the wild vines were taking nutrients and moisture from the main plant, so I kept it pruned as best I could.

I managed to keep my rose bush going for all those years and it was as beautiful when we left as it was when it was first blooming roses. However, my lack of gardening skills makes it a fruitless pursuit. The plants die from lack of water or are choked from the weeds. Oh, I might get into it in the beginning, lovingly planting the plants, but it gets old very quickly. I love fresh grown tomatoes, and complain constantly about the quality of those in the stores, but I donít have the motivation to do all that work myself. 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. I donít think I could ever be a farmer. Thankfully, God is able to care for us.

God is more faithful than those we trust the most in this world. The psalmist writes, ďCause your face to shine, and we will be saved.Ē God looks upon His people and shines His grace into our lives so that we will be blessed, especially blessed with salvation. We feel joy, hope, and peace when we are aware of His presence in our lives.

An infant can only see things about 8 to 14 inches from their eyes. While they might be able to distinguish light and dark farther away, they cannot yet focus on items. They would not recognize a person who is standing across the room, unless they could Ďseeí that person with other senses like smell and hearing which are more highly developed at birth. Even at close distances they do not see detail; they look for contrasts and shapes. Infants particularly like staring into the eyes of the one who is holding them. They begin to recognize their mothers first, probably because so much time is spent together. That early interaction is important for the development of both the child and the relationship.

A study about twenty years ago tested the importance of the interaction between mother and infant child. The mothers entered the childís space and played with them as they would normally play for about three minutes. The mothers then left and soon later entered the space again. This time the mothers held a Ďstill-faceí with no facial movement to interact with the child. This was not what the infants expected and they reacted similarly. The infants first tried to elicit a facial response from their mothers by smiling, reaching out and making noises. After a few seconds, the childís face became somber. Then the child looked away and finally withdrew by leaning away from the mother. This happened consistently in the studies and the series of events happened in just three minutes.

For a child, that line of vision is their whole world. To have their mother gazing down upon them with love and joy and peace gives the child a sense of love and joy and peace. It is like a light shining down upon them. The same is true about God our Father, as our world is more comforting when we know that He is looking down upon us. When things go wrong, it is easy to believe that God has turned His back, that He has abandoned us, much like those infants whose mothers did not respond to their needs as they expected. As our world crumbles around us we cry out to God, seeking His light and His life in our world because we know that when He is near all will be well. Even if all is not well, at least we know that He is in control and will take care of us in our time of need.

The psalm tells the story of Israel, the vine. God brought her out of Egypt and planted her in the garden of His choosing. She did not do well. He expected the grapes He planted but He got wild grapes. Israelís actions brought bad times upon the land; she suffered the consequences of being disobedient to her Father, but He never left. He heard their cry and restored His relationship with them. Unfortunately, we are not always so aware of Godís presence and we become unruly.

We have all seen the comedic scene of a substitute teacher trying to take over a class in the absence of the regular teacher. Sit-coms and movies tend to make this a scene of chaos where the substitute has no power to control the students. Their job is often described as one who keeps the children from killing one another or getting harmed in any way. There is no expectation of teaching or learning when a substitute is in the room.

I donít think most classrooms react so violently and hilariously to a substitute teacher as we see in the sit-coms and movies, but there are certainly issues when a teacher is absent. The substitute is not expected to teach, but is given a lesson plan with certain things to accomplish, usually worksheets or reading. The students are given class time to do homework. There is sometimes a movie or some other quiet activity planned. The substitute teacher is still little more than a babysitter, offering a presence in a room full of kids but no actual teaching or guidance.

This is a shame because many substitute teachers are highly trained and capable teachers. Many of them have chosen to work as a substitute because there is more flexibility in time and experiences. People will choose to substitute if they want to work fewer hours than a normal teacher. They may do this for health reasons, or because they have hobbies or consulting work they want to do. They work as a substitute so that they can say no on days when they have something else scheduled. Some substitutes are trained but have not yet found a full time job or they are at the end of their career and would rather not work full time hours. Some substitutes are second career teachers who are still being trained for licensing to work in the classroom, substituting to gain experience while earning some money toward their training. The movies make it seem like substitutes are incompetent people, but they are bright and talented, possibly great teachers whose circumstances have them dealing with diverse and often difficult situations.

The trouble is that substitute teachers have little or no authority. They have to stick to the plan as it is laid out by the regular teacher because they donít know what the teacher has already taught or the schedule of future lessons. Making their own lesson plans can confuse the students and even cause failing grades. Though a substitute can fall back on the administration and the full time teacher to address misbehavior, they donít have any recourse to deal with it themselves. Misbehavior is certainly taken seriously and dealt with, but without the sense of urgency that might come with a regular teacher. School authorities know that even the best students will find ways to take advantage of the upheaval in the classroom, so misbehavior with a substitute is addressed differently than a recurring problem with a regular teacher. The misbehavior often happens because struggle with change. They feel abandoned, especially the younger ones who do not understand why their teacher is missing.

So, how can a person really accomplish anything if they have no recognized authority? Last week the leaders of the temple ask Jesus about His own authority. They did not believe He had the authority to do or say the things He was doing and saying. Jesus was shaking up their world, and threatening their positions. They needed to find a way to stop Him. He refused to give them the answer they sought and caused them to look at their own obedience.

Todayís story goes a little further. Jesus describes a landowner (God) who built a vineyard (Israel) and left the vineyard under the care of tenants (the chief priests and elders). When the landowner came to take possession of the fruit that was rightly his, the tenants killed the servants (the prophets of God). More servants were sent and killed. Then the landowner sent his son (Christ) because He thought the tenants would recognize his authority. They did not give the son the respect due and even killed him, hoping to gain possession of the inheritance.

I shake my head in complete astonishment that the tenants of the vineyard came to the conclusion that they would inherit the vineyard if they kill the son. These are people who have twisted justice and righteousness to the point of being upside down.

The chief priests and elders were much like the students in a classroom, refusing to recognize the authority of Jesus. They didnít recognize the authority of the prophets sent before Jesus and their self-centeredness and greed led to the same end of all Godís servants Ė death. Did the tenants (the chief priests and elders) really think that the landowner (God) would leave them to their scheming and violence? Though the story has a sad ending, there is hope. With God there is always hope. We know that God is near even when He feels far away. We need to remember that it is us that turn away from God.

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.

In both the Old Testament and Gospel lesson, God is the vineyard owner. In the first, the vineyard is Israel and it is rejected because the grapes are wild. In the Gospel, the tenants are the leaders of Israel who have rejected God but think they deserve to keep Godís kingdom. In the first, God allows the vineyard to suffer the consequences of disappointing Him. He takes down the hedge of protection and allows the beasts and the weeds to take over. It is trampled and devoured. The rain of blessing stops falling and it withers and dies. In the second, God puts out the unfaithful tenants and gives the vineyard to those who will care for it and give Him His due.

This is the story of Israel. God gave them the world, but they lost sight of Him. They turned to other gods, they did what they wanted to do. They rejected him by ignoring His servants. The prophets were beaten, killed and stoned, because they did not like the messages they shared. We donít want to hear that times will be tough, that we have to be obedient. There were plenty of false prophets willing to tell the kings that God was on their side and that they would win every battle. There were plenty of prophets willing to tickle their ears with happy promises even if they had nothing to do with God. Godís real prophets spoke the truth, called people to repentance, reminded them of their sin and warned them of what would happen if they did not turn back to God.

The Old Testament scripture shows us that God is the vineyard owner. Jesus was talking about the religious people of His day, but we are also like those wild grapes, growing up in the midst of the vineyard that the Lord has planted. 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 the promises of God reach far beyond our failing. For every curse there is a promise and God is faithful.

The warning was fulfilled when Jesus and the apostles took the story of God into the whole world. 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 the Master. They didnít trust Him; they trusted themselves and their own righteousness. And they were requiring others to rely on that righteousness instead of God.

Not all Jews believed the message of Jesus or that He was the Messiah for whom they were waiting. Some believed that the new Christians, a named originally given as an insult to those believed to have wandered from the true faith, were apostate and traitors. Some Jews were more zealous among the company of religious leaders and they believed that the new Christians deserved to die, that the new faith had to be stopped at all cost. One of those zealous members of the ruling party was Saul of Tarsus.

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.

God had something wonderful planned for Saul, who was named Paul after his conversion. He was no longer the zealous religious leader who was willing to kill to hold on to the power and authority of those in Jerusalem who were unwilling to follow this new way of life. Heíd had a dramatic moment of clarity as the Lord Jesus Christ came to him on the road to Damascus. He left Jerusalem with the intent of doing more harm to the Christian Church, but arrived in Damascus a changed man.

Paul soon had an entirely different reputation. As he began preaching the Gospel to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, the Jews began to question his authority. Many men continued to live devotedly in the faith of their heritage while also believing in the Gospel message brought and won by Jesus Christ. Many men were disturbed by the way Paul was taking the blessings of this new faith to pagans and foreigners. There were those among the Jewish Christians who believed that the Gentile Christians must first become Jews, through conversion and circumcision. They were against Paulís evangelism techniques and his expectations of the new non-Jew Christians.

Paul had a hard word for them. He called them dogs and mutilators of the flesh. He said they were evil. They were evil because they put their confidence in the flesh, rather than the Spirit. Paul learned on the road to Damascus that the flesh is not faithful, but God is. The conversion on that road was more than a change from Jew to Christian. Paulís life was turned upside down as he learned that faith is not about trusting in his works to be saved. It is about living in trust of God and His Work in and through Jesus Christ. In this letter, Paul writes that he knows he is not perfect and that he has not yet reached perfection, but he refuses to turn back to the ways of his old life - which was commendable - to live in a faith of the flesh that fails. Instead, Paul continues forward, despite the assault from those Christians who still rely on the flesh for salvation.

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.

We arenít perfect, and we wonít be perfect in this world. We go our own way, and think that we deserve the blessings of God based on our work rather than Godís grace. Paul knew that he had not yet reached the goal, but 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 look toward God, to live in faith, and to trust that God will provide all we need. We are to call on God to turn us so that we can see that He was with us all along. He will bless us in His vineyard and give us all we need to continue glorifying Him with praise and by giving Him the fruit He is due.

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