Sunday October 5, 2014

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-18
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Turn again, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: Look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine, and the stock which thy right hand planted, And the branch that thou madest strong for thyself.

We had a rose bush at our last house. We planted it in exactly the right place. The bush was located just under the place where roofs met and the rainwater naturally fell nearby. While the rest of the yard quickly dried out after a rainfall, that spot did well because the water saturated that spot, giving the rose bush plenty of moisture. 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.

Iíve often wondered how the vines in todayís Old Testament lesson could grow wild when the vineyard owner so carefully planted good vines in the field. Grafting has been an agricultural technique used since 2000 B.C. It began in ancient China, but was in use in ancient Greece. They were familiar with the technique in Biblical times, since they use the example of it in the scriptures. It is possible that the good vines planted in that field were excellent grapes with less hardy roots that were grafted to a more wild variety that could survive the soil conditions.

Wild grapes thrive in hot, humid conditions and they do not need an extreme winter chill to produce fruit the following year. Domestic vines need cooler temperatures over the winter to provide healthy grapes. Domestic grapevines have both male and female flowers on each plant and are therefore self-fruiting. The sweet, thinner skinned grapes grow in large, tight clusters. Wild grapes require cross-pollination; they grow in smaller, loose clusters of up to forty one inch grapes.

Wild grapes are used in wine-making and for other products, so they arenít useless. However, wild grapes can cause many problems. They are useful for local wildlife, but can be disabling for other plants and trees. Grape vines grow into the tops of trees by growing up with the tree from the seedling stage or by growing into the canopy from a neighboring tree. The trees can become disfigured or killed when the vines become weighed down by snow and ice, in the winter. The vines can also block light from reaching the treeís leaves. This slows the treeís synthesis of food causing the tree to grow at a slower rate. Wild vines in a domestic vineyard can make the good vines unproductive, stealing moisture and nutrients, chocking off the good vines and blocking the sun. It is almost pointless to fight the wild vines when they take over.

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, Iím not a very good gardener. Oh, I might get into it in the beginning, lovingly planting the plants, but it gets old very quickly. I am not good about weeding or pruning the plants. I love fresh grown tomatoes, and complain constantly at how bad the store bought ones are, 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.

In todayís story, the vineyard keeper put his heart into the vineyard. He cleared the land, dug the holes, and planted the choice vines. He prepared the rest of the vineyard, building a watch tower and a wine vat. Everything was ready. But grapes take a few years to grow; the first fruit is usually produced in the third season. 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.

Isaiah says, ďHe looked for justice, but, behold, oppression; for righteousness, but, behold, a cry.Ē Godís people were not living according to the ways He had established. They had written into the law their own ideas, interpreted Godís law in a way that made it a burden on Godís people. They did not pursue justice, but oppressed the people. They did not live righteously, but were self-righteous. It was not what God expected from His vineyard. So, He let it go. He took down the hedge, tore down the watchtower and let the field be trampled over.

God is the vineyard owner. The story is about Israel, but we arenít much different. We are 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 story in the Gospel lesson isnít much happier. In that story we have another vineyard. This time the vineyard owner prepared the vineyard and leased the land to tenants. Then he went away. When it came time for the fruit to be harvested, three years or perhaps more, the master sent some servants to collect his share. It is possible that the landowner gave the tenants a few harvests before he sent his servants, giving the tenants a chance to produce a hearty crop. The time came, however, that the tenants had to pay their due. It was the landownerís right to recoup his investment.

The tenants lost touch with their master. After three or more years, they forgot that the land was not theirs, that they did not plant the vines, that they did not build the tower or dig the winepress. They decided that it belonged to them. So they beat, killed and stoned the servants. The master sent more servants, but they did the same to them. Finally, the master sent his own son to collect what was due.

I like to watch ďThe Peopleís Court.Ē Judge Marilyn Milian is a brilliant judge with common sense. She is able to reach beyond the surface testimonies to discover the underlying causes of many of the problems that come before her bench. I donít always agree with her judgment, although there are things that she has in the evidence that was submitted before the show that we donít necessarily see. Sheís also there, in person, and can better judge the truth of the claims based on more than the edited version we see on television. It is a real court, but it is still television; the viewers donít always see everything.

Iím always taken aback by what the litigants are willing to admit on national television. Too many of them have confessed being drug addicts (not former), to selling illegal drugs, to doing illegal things, to stealing from their neighbors. They often justify their criminal behavior or have the attitude that it is not a big deal. Many of them will tell the judge that they work better, harder, faster when they are on the drugs. They will say that they deserved to have that item they stole because of something they did for the owner. They will claim that the dog is mistreated and that they were saving it from horrible abuse. They have no proof for these things, of course, but they see the world through the lens of their desire and believe that the world must satisfy it.

The hardest for me, and for Judge Milian, to understand are those litigants that think they are owed things for free. Take, for instance, the many litigants in court cases of landlords verses tenants. The bad guy is not always the tenant; sometimes the landlords expect more from the tenants than is right. Many of the cases involve landlords who refuse to return security deposit. There is often good reason; the tenants leave behind messes that need to be cleaned up and damage that needs to be fixed. Many tenants stop paying rent and the landlord must keep the security deposit to get what they are due. The landlords will sometimes take advantage of the situation, charging much more than necessary to fix the problems. It takes a wise judge to read between the lines of each side, to discover what is truly fair in the end.

Whatís amazing, though, how many people think that they deserve something for nothing. Some tenants sue for all the rent theyíve paid because after living there for months they have discovered some sort of problem. They claim that they had to live with rats or bugs, so they should get their money back. Others claim that the rental property was not legal, and so the landlord should give them back what they paid to live there. Theyíll often sue for more than they are due, claiming emotional distress or some other justification.

Judge Milian explains to the litigants that court is about making people whole, not about giving them something for nothing. She gets angry with the tenants that insist they should have lived in the place for free and with the landlords who expect the renters to pay for brand new carpeting when the carpets were already extremely old when they moved in. Oh, there are times when the judge wants to throw the book at one of the litigants, to give every penny to those she knows deserve it. However, she makes her decisions based on what is right.

As I read the Gospel story for today, I think about those litigants on ďThe Peopleís CourtĒ and imagine these tenants standing before Judge Milian. ďBut judge, weíve worked these fields until our hands are raw and our backs ache. We grew these grapes and they should be ours!Ē They are so willing to fight for what they believe is right that they even beat, kill and stone those who came to collect the rent. ďIt isnít fair that he should get all that money and we should be left with so little!Ē

We donít know what percentage of the crop the master demands from the tenants, but if we put it in the context of Biblical religious faith, it was probably only ten percent. That left the tenants with ninety percent, and they probably had a couple of free years. Those tenants, like the ones on the court show, forgot that the master did put a great deal of time, resources and work into that vineyard. They would not have a job or a place to live without him. They forgot that it all came from him and that he, too, deserves a piece of the harvest. It is right that he should expect his share.

I shake my head in complete astonishment that the tenants would come 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. 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.

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.

We know that spiritually this tells 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.

Which message would you rather hear? Would you rather hear a preacher tell you that God wants you to be happy or that you are a sinner in need of a Savior?

Hereís the thing: we might want to hear the happy message, but true happiness is actually found in the other. See, no preacher can promise you a lifetime of happiness and it is crazy if they try. True blessedness is found in the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ. We donít need Jesus if we can find happiness with our own work. We donít need Jesus if we arenít sinners. We donít need Jesus if thereís no reason to be saved. Those happy prophets and preachers deny our need for salvation and reject the God who wants to save us. The true prophet will call Godís people to the truth that they need Him and that He is willing to save those who humble themselves before Him.

Jesus followed the vineyard story with a hard lesson. ďThe stone which the builders rejected, The same was made the head of the corner; This was from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes?Ē When we reject the truth of God in Christ Jesus, we reject that which is the very foundation of our faith. The Jewish leaders had rejected Jesus. They refused to believe that He was from God; they refused to believe that He had the authority to do and to say what He was doing and saying. God sent Him to call them to repentance, to remember the God who had built them into a nation. It was a nation from which He expected great fruit, but they disappointed Him over and over again. They were not the people He meant them to be. They lost sight of His commands and His promises. They went their own way. They demanded that He give them what they wanted instead of giving Him His due.

The word in this passage that has been translated ďhead of the cornerĒ can be translated in a number of different ways. ďHead of the cornerĒ is the literal translation of the word, but that translation is outside our modern understanding. What does ďhead of the cornerĒ mean? Translators have used the words capstone, keystone and cornerstone. Though these words have similar meanings, they are representative of stones that have slightly different purposes.

A capstone, or coping, is a stone that is used to finish the top of the wall. It is not just decorative; it is also protection for the wall. It helps hold the wall together. Coping stones are larger, or longer, than the bricks and stones used to build the wall, and therefore gives strength to the top. Capstones are also used as lintels, on the top of a doorway. The capstone supports everything above the door and also the posts that create the opening. The entrances to ancient tombs were often created by standing two stones side by side and placing a capstone on top of the two standing stones. I saw one of these doorways in England. The only parts of the structure to survive were the standing stones and the capstone, still standing because it was all held up by the capstone.

Another type of stone used in building is a keystone. A keystone is used in building an arch. It is the central, uppermost stone in the arch, often shaped slightly differently than the other stones to give the arch a decorative touch. I like this translation of the word because of the statement that the builders rejected the stone. The keystone need not be the strongest, largest or prettiest stone. It offers no support to the arch, but instead locks it together. To build an arch, the builder creates a form that will later be removed. The stones are carefully placed along the form. Finally, the keystone is put into place. The arch would fall if the form was removed before that keystone is in place, but once it is there, the arch stands strong. The builders rejected the stone because it was not big or perfect enough to use in a strong and longstanding building. But it can be a keystone. The third translation is cornerstone. There are two types of cornerstones. When the builders began laying the foundation of a building, they placed one square stone in the corner of the building site, making sure that the sides are perfectly aligned with where the sides of the building were designed to be. All the other stones are then placed in relation to the cornerstone. These stones were often marked and in ancient societies were given spiritual and superstitious power. We no longer normally lay a stone in the foundation of our buildings, so the cornerstone has become a purely informational and decorative feature of buildings. Inscribed with dates and the names of those responsible for the building, the cornerstone stands as a testament to the work of those people.

Isnít it interesting that no matter how you define the phrase ďhead of the cornerĒ you can still see Christ in its imagery? Jesus is the capstone, not only a physical and tangible manifestation of the highpoint of our faith but also that which holds together the walls of His people. Without the capstone or coping, the buildings would fall. Without the capstone, the doorways would fail. Jesus is the keystone. He was not the most powerful man or the one with the most earthly authority. He was in no position to rule. He was easily cast away by the leaders of the faith. The scriptures tell us He was abused, beaten and killed. Yet, the Church cannot stand without Him. He locks us together. Jesus is also the cornerstone. He is both the stone laid in the foundation and the stone that testifies to the work of God. Without Him the church would be misaligned, the walls would be uneven and the building out of whack. Without Him we would still not recognize the God of grace from whom we have faith and hope and peace. Jesus is the ďhead of the cornerĒ in every way, and this is truly marvelous in our eyes.

Again, before we think too highly of ourselves, we are reminded that we are not any more perfect than the Israelites or the religious leaders in Jesusí day. We forget that everything we have comes from God. We seek out the message that makes us feel good and reject the one that reminds us that we are sinners in need of a savior. We like to go our own way, demand from God what we think we deserve. We reject the people that God sends to give us the truth because we would rather have our ears tickled. The word of a false prophet might sound better, but it makes us like those wild grapes in Godís vineyard or like those tenants who think God owes us His kingdom.

Before we go to the other extreme, thinking ourselves unworthy of Godís grace, we have to remember that everything God has done is not based on the good or the bad that we do. He sent Jesus to die for our sake when we were His enemies! He saved us not because we begged Him to save us, but because He loves us and He is faithful to all His promises. He is the Master and He will ensure that there is a harvest of fine fruit.

Psalm 80 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. In the Old Testament lesson we learn that He expected the grapes He planted to grow and prosper, but instead 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. They sought His face and He shined it upon them. The Psalm 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.

Despite our failure, He continues to be faithful. We are still not perfect. We still separate ourselves from God and mercy. We still get angry, bitter, frightened, violent and hateful. We arenít perfect, and we wonít be perfect in this world. Even Paul knew that he had not yet reached the goal. 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.

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.

In the beginning Paul went his own way. Well, he went the way of men until he had an encounter with the living Lord Jesus. That encounter led him on a journey that took him to places he never expected. He learned what it meant to have faith, to believe God and to live as He called men to live. He learned what it meant to take refuge in God. His world had been turned upside down, but in that new world, he found peace. Paul learned 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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