Sunday, October 8, 2017

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

Let me sing for my well beloved a song of my beloved about his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a very fruitful hill.

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.

The vineyard keeper in todayís Gospel lesson 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.

The vineyard represents Godís people. Isaiah speaks of the wonderful works of God in creating the nation of Israel. He isnít like me: a 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 of distress.Ē Godís people were not living according to Godís ways. They had written into the law their own ideas, interpreted Godís law in a way that made it a burden. They did not pursue justice, but were oppressive. 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.

God did not stop loving His people. Over and over again 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 seventy times seven 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 heard their cries and restored them. They simply had to live for a moment with the penalty of their own turning.

The Psalm for today is the cry of Godís people for salvation. ďTurn us again, God of Armies. Cause your face to shine, and we will 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 story in the Gospel lesson is of 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 a few 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.

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 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. They expected Godís blessings 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 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.

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 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.

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.

Jesus is the answer to our unfaithfulness.

ďJesus said to them, ĎDid you never read in the Scriptures, ďThe stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner. This was from the Lord. It is marvelous in our eyes?ĒíĒ ďHead of the cornerĒ can be translated in a number of different ways. It is the literal translation of the Hebrew word, but it 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 give 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 part of an arch. It is the central, uppermost stone in an 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.

Finally, 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 were perfectly aligned with where the sides of the building were designed to be. All the other stones were 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 His Church. 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 one with the greatest 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.

Psalm 80 tells the story of Israel, the vine. God brought His people out of Egypt and planted them in the garden of His choosing. They did not do well. He expected the grapes He planted to grow and prosper, but instead they went wild. Israelís actions brought bad times upon the land; they suffered the consequences of being disobedient to the 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.

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.

For a child, that line of vision is their whole world. To have his or her mother gazing down 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. As our world crumbles around us we cry out to God, seeking His light and His life 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.

The Jews relied on their own righteousness, finding peace in their own strength and ability, but they missed the grace which is 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 constantly reminded that Jesus is the capstone, the keystone, the cornerstone, the ďhead of the corner.Ē In the beginning Paul went his own way, too. 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.

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. 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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