A Sermon for Proper 22 Year A
Preached at The School for Deacons
Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC
October 14 2017
It’s a romantic vision, to be sure, having your own vineyard. Rolling hills, covered with green vines, each one stooped over with plump, luscious grapes. The crushing, the fermentation, the bottling, oh, the anticipation.
But the reality of a vineyard is a little different. The climate has to be perfect, with warm, dry summers and mild winters. A single early frost can wipe out an entire year’s harvest—and a long, cold winter can completely kill the vines. And that’s not to mention drought, disease and even pollination: grapes are hermaphroditic, with each vine bearing both male and female flowers. So a grapevine can self-pollinate but it can also be pollinated by another varietal—or even a wild, uncultivated pollen, which can wreak havoc on a vintner’s romantic vision of that perfect Cabernet.
The priest-prophet-poet Isaiah pictures Yahweh as a starry-eyed would-be winemaker, with hopes of a great vineyard that produced great grapes to be made into humanity’s most beloved drink after water: wine. And like lots of other would-be winemakers, Yahweh’s wine is pretty terrible.
Now Yahweh didn’t plant an actual vineyard, except maybe in Eden, but in the story that didn’t work out so well either. In Isaiah’s poem, the vineyard is Israel, the unlikely collection of wandering tribes that rose into a powerful religious and political culture on the ruins of collapsed Canaanite society. Israel’s great differences from its predecessors were both cultural and social. Its Laws-the Torah-founded upon 10 Commandments, were focused on two things: purity in religious practice and social justice. Which, in Isaiah’s metaphorical poem, are only one thing.
The great tragedy of Israel is this: they had squandered the opportunity to show how a single nation could change the trajectory of human history for good, bending it towards compassion, equality and justice. It was against the law to loan money to each other with interest on the loan. It was against the law to amass great wealth at the expense of your employees. It was even against the law to acquire the hereditary property of another family and keep it for your own forever.
But like a vineyard, cross-pollinated with wild grapes, there was very little to show for this revolutionary way to live. Israelite society evolved into a society that looked pretty much like every other society: a powerful oligarchy that protected its interests at all costs, an exploited underclass that struggled as subsistence farmers or laborers that made the oligarchy even richer. Its military strength became ever more important, its elites ever more corrupt, its promise of a new human society ever more bankrupt. Eventually when things fell apart, all that remained was a remote province of a succession of Empires: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans.
Now it wasn’t that Israelite society had not known the danger of being in love with money, power and prestige. From its religious and working classes there arose a long tradition of dissenters, prophets who reminded them of the reason for their founding and called them back to justice. The prophets were rewarded with imprisonment, torture and death.
Finally, there came another prophet, from the north of the country, where people survived as fisherfolk and artisans. He had been born to a teenage mother and a carpenter father, in circumstances that were, to be honest, a bit unsavory. His mother became pregnant before she married his much older father. His family, descended from royalty, was a mess; poor, uncouth, uneducated. There was the crazy cousin who ate bugs and wore a long fur coat in the hot summer, while screaming scripture passages at soldiers, priests, business and random passersby. There were the siblings who thought he was an ego-maniacal whack job, with delusional visions and a politics just teetering on the edge of a terrorist cult.
It was the perfect curriculum vitae for the elites to frame him as danger to the state, the religious order and the economy. The final verse of today’s Gospel, after Jesus of Nazareth retells the poem metaphor of Isaiah’s vineyard, warning the elites that their reign of exploitation is nearing an end, Matthew adds, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because [the crowds] regarded him as a prophet.”
And that came near the end of a day which began with his arrival in a street theatre ceremony and during which he’d been hailed as a new Prophet-King by adoring crowds. Barely a week later, he was dead at the hands of the Empire. The owner of the vineyard “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.”
So what do we do with this Gospel today? Just file it away under “Cool But Kind of Tragic Jesus Stories”? Tweet it out with an #SMH hashtag? Give up on hope for justice and equality because of the failure of the vineyard to produce good grapes? Do we just walk away?
In 1807, Thomas Jefferson had a plan for a magnificent vineyard at Monticello. He imported 287 vines of 24 of the finest European varietals. The site was carefully selected and prepared to produce a new American vintage, which would, in Jefferson’s vision, rival anything that Europe produced. The vines were planted and cultivated with hope and love (and enslaved people—but that’s another whole story).
Jefferson never got a single bottle of wine. The vineyard was a complete failure and he had it destroyed. But in 1985, following his plan, a new generation of hopeful winemakers replanted the vineyard. This time, the grapes came in, full and sweet. Today, if you go to Monticello, you can buy lovely American wine, from the same ground, using the same plans that Thomas Jefferson had.
The social revolution called Israel failed. It failed countless times on that fertile sliver of land by the Mediterranean Sea. It failed in every new planting whether across that Sea or across all the other seas of human hoping.
Yet, like the stubborn dream of a failed vintner, the hope of the prophets and the promise of Jesus remain. The vineyard of humanity, especially in our time and especially on this particular plot of ground, certainly looks to be a ruined mess, all broken walls and broken promises. Instead of justice, there is mass incarceration of people of color. Instead of equality, there is a racial rage whose end is white supremacy. Instead of peacemaking, there is the rattling of nuclear-tipped sabers. Instead of economic opportunity, there is devastation for the working poor. Instead of love there is the demonic drone of automatic weapons above the screams of the wounded and the dying. Meanwhile the politicians reach for their towels, to dry the hands they have washed of all of that.
Seeing the failure, over and over and over, of the Divine Vineyard and repeating harvests of reverse-image Magnificats, where the poor are downtrodden and rich lifted up, I am filled, not with despair, but with anger. With every innocent murdered by the State for having dark skin, every child who lies hungry in her bed, or whose refuge is withdrawn for political expediency, with every act of terror, every bombed dropped in every war, every stream poisoned, every species brought to extinction, I feel the blood rise to my cheeks. I want to swing Yahweh’s scythe and slash the hedges, I want to grasp Yahweh’s hammer and bring down on the wall, in a glorious rain of stones and mortar and barren dirt. I want to light the fire that will burn it all to the ground.
Full disclosure here: I am not Yahweh, and my anger at my own failure and the failure of the Church to bring a harvest of justice is just an ego-fueled pretension at Deity. While anger is natural when injustice rules, Jesus reminds me that the vineyard is not mine to destroy. It will, he says, be given those who will produce its fruit. I—and you—we, must wait, and in that waiting time, patiently work the soil with renewed hope.
Nearly forty years ago, Tom Petty sang:
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
(From “The Waiting” on the 1981 album Hard Promises)
It’s hard, this waiting, this yearning, this hoping. It’s hard to keep planting justice and watch as the fruit turns wild and bitter. It’s hard here, on Yahweh’s hill, which is everywhere that humanity is, and where we can see, not only this failing vineyard, but all of Creation, aching and groaning for liberation. The whole bloody mess stretches out endlessly before us.
Hard as it may be, we cannot lose hope. We’ve taken it on faith, taken it to the heart: no matter how long and no matter how many times we have to do it, we must replant, cultivate and nudge the vineyard toward fruitfulness.
Because someday we will crack open that bottle of wine.