Sunday, October 02, 2011

Fruitful vineyards

One of the great joys of any vacation—especially when you travel far from home—is getting to break bread in other parts of the world. One Sunday, when we were in a romantic corner on the island of Sicily, we found ourselves in a tiny English-speaking Anglican church where fewer than a dozen of us had gathered to practice the familiar rituals of our faith and share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Breaking bread among strangers in unfamiliar places is a healthy practice for our humanity and our faith and is consistent with the intents of our practice of World Communion Sunday where we seek to understand our common identity with other members of the Christian family.

Learning to come around a common table with anyone who isn’t a part of our normal “inner circle” helps us to expand our sense of our common humanity with all of earth’s people. Sitting at a table of welcome and kindness and generosity—whether we are guests or hosts—can deepen our understanding of the need to serve each other and to share our lives and the things we have with those around us.

“Table fellowship” is a term that is critical to understanding Jesus and his ministry and his values. It seems to me that there are things that can happen around a “dinner table” that can happen nowhere else. Thursday night we had our Worship Ministry Team meeting over a meal ... around a dinner table. We had lots of catching up to do and lots of business to discuss and cover, but we started with a meal and the fellowship that is natural when breaking bread together. Every meeting of SALT, our Social Action Leadership Team, begins with a light meal. My best staff meetings are always over breakfast of lunch—but especially breakfast.

Sociologists who specialize in studying families speak of the critical importance of not forsaking meals together as a family. It’s the place where our scattered lives are brought back together ... where the most honest sharing can occur ... where love and affection can be fed and rekindled.

In our modern “Fast Food nation” culture, where a drive-through meal too often substitutes for a dinner table, we have a hard time understanding the full depth of meaning of “table fellowship” as practiced in the time of Jesus. The family table was utterly central to family life and the home in Jewish culture. And to break bread at a common table with others meant that you welcomed them fully into your life and your home ... it was a kind of “what’s mine is yours” kind of gesture. No walls or barriers or separation stood in the way any longer ... it was “communion” in the fullest sense of the word. Whoever was welcomed to your table or any table to which you were welcomed ... this was “family”. At the common table, there was a spirit of loving generosity and kindness and welcome that was more important than the food, even, absolutely essential to one’s life and wellbeing.

We know that some of the harshest conflicts Jesus had with his opponents centered on his practice of eating with “sinners” ... outcasts of all kinds ... prostitutes and tax collectors among others. Proper religious folk of Jesus’ time wouldn’t have dared to pollute the common table with such folk ... keeping clear lines of separation ... clear boundaries ... was a critical part of one’s daily life and practice of faith. For Jesus, the sad fact was that the “proper practice of faith” was leading to a kind of spiritual “stinginess” and selfishness that divided people, one from another ... and a spiritual stinginess cannot help but lead to a material stinginess. Refusing to share at a common table, in many ways, symbolized a wider refusal to share at all.

We have this morning, as our focus text, another farm story ... another parable woven out of the common elements that the listeners to the story would understand. If Jesus were here and spoke in parables today, he would speak in the language of technology or modern investment principles or modern entertainment. “A man had two sons ... one of the sons came to him and said: “Father, you know I have long been a user of PC’s and windows-based computer platforms, but now I’d like to have my portion of the inheritance so I can purchase an Apple i-mac.” The parable ends there, because the father, played in this instance by Doug Holmes, freezes into a catatonic state from which he never returns.

Jesus speaks in the language of his listeners and tells of an absentee landlord who has handed over his vineyard to tenants who will do the farming, collect the produce and hand over a portion of what they harvest. It was a common practice and one that we could easily criticize because it was one of the means by which the richer got richer and kept the poor in their destitute condition. It’s possible that a story like this was originally told to entertain and satisfy poor listeners ... when the rich landowner tries to take the lion’s share of the harvest from the poor tenants, they rise up and resist and finally claim the land by killing the landowner’s son.

Jesus, however, isn’t telling the story to poor tenant farmers, but to the religious powerbrokers of his day. The listeners are the ones who have considerable control over the social economic order of the day. In many ways they help determine “who’s in and who’s out” ... who gets to come to the common table, and who gets pushed away. In such a system, the poor often remain that way or get even poorer. And the impure—by whatever means they’ve become that way—are separated from family and community and even their faith ... their God.

Jesus story is commonly understood to be simple allegory ... and in his telling, the absent landowner is God, the vineyard is Israel and Judaism, the tenants are the religious leaders of Israel, the prophets of old are God’s messengers and representatives, and Jesus, himself, is the heir, last sent, killed and cast out. As a result of the tenant farmers’ boorish behavior and their violence to the landowner’s representatives, even great violence will be done to them ... the vineyard will be taken from them and given to more responsible tenants.

The allegory is a fairly simple one ... so simple, in fact, that the intended audience, Matthew tells us, gets the message. Matthew writes: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they realized he was speaking about them.” It was this parable and the others that Jesus told that helped solidify the opposition to Jesus. And had not Jesus still enjoyed great popularity with the common folk who flocked to him, the religious leaders would have immediately had Jesus arrested.

How do you respond when someone points out your faults? Do you ... thank them? Offer them a tip for their good service? Or do you call the police? Officer, this man is telling the painful and obvious truth and I want him ARRESTED.

The truth can hurt and when someone we don’t much like is the bearer of the truth, it can lead us to wish unpleasant things for that person. I doubt, though, that we’re a whole lot more kindly disposed to those we care for who yet speak painful truths to us. “Your drinking is threatening our relationship.” “Your anger scares me.” “You’re ignoring your children.” “That behavior is risky.” “You seem to love your job more than me.” “We never eat meals together any more.”

One commentator likened Jesus’ parables to a drill ... he says that “the intent of Jesus’ story is to drill down through layers of denial to the level of recognition ...”. We might say that Jesus’ parable is less like a drill and more like dynamite ... because there’s a lot of violence in the story ... not only are the tenants prone to violence toward any who would threaten their denial, but when Jesus asks his audience how they violent tenants should be dealt with by the absent vineyard, they respond—perhaps not surprisingly—with more violence.

At the end of the story, Jesus asks the Chief Priests and Pharisees: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’” They said to Jesus, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’”

It is, as Martin Luther King said so sadly: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Jesus says to these who seem to understand the truth of his words, but have not the spiritual moral will to change: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Now ... by the time Matthew wrote these words, weaving this story Jesus told into his gospel, the Chief Priests and Pharisees were relics from Jesus’ time ... and how much more so in our reading. If we are to “find ourselves” in Jesus’ parable—and this is the challenge of all parables and all scripture ... if we are to find ourselves in this story, then perhaps we do well to start at the end and ask ourselves: “What is the vineyard and are we being “fruitful”.

To be faithful to this sermon and to this parable, you will of course, have to continue asking yourself these questions. You must allow the story to continue to linger within you and probe you.

In a time when life is no less endangered and precarious than in Jesus’ own time, and in a time when the injustices of life are as plainly evident as in Jesus’ own time, we do well to ask ourselves about our own “stewardship” over the things with which we have been entrusted. This earth ... it’s natural resources ... it’s human resources—our brothers and sisters who share the planet with us ... our inheritances of life and substance from our families of upbringing ... even the gift of the air we breathe and the gift of each new day in which we are privileged to live. Each of these I’ve named and many more are the “vineyard” with which we have each been entrusted. And the plain truth of Jesus’ story is “use it wisely and generously or lose it.”

More of you than I can count or recall have recounted to me times in your doctor’s office where one bit or another of medical evidence has been for you a “wake up” call ... your blood pressure ... your weight ... your cholesterol level ... the condition of your liver. Your body is telling you: It’s time to listen to the message, time to wake up, time to change. Because if you don’t change, your body will return to the dust from which it came a lot sooner than you think or you’d like. Some of us heed these wake up messages ... and some of us don’t. The ball is certainly in our court when the truth is spoken to us. What does it take to get us to hear the truth? And what does it take for us to heed the truth and to discover the will to change?

The commentator who likened Jesus’ parables to a denial penetrating drill says that if you drill down through enough layers of denial, you may reach a new level of recognition and at that new level you can tap “a deep vein of contrition that can finally well up to water new life that is ‘fruitful’ in gospel terms.”

Bad news that leads to good news. Hmm. That might be one way of saying it. You may remember that Alfred Nobel is the scientist for whom the Nobel peace prize is named. But the bad news for Alfred Nobel was that he read a premature obituary of his life that described him as a purveyor of death because he was inventor of dynamite. Seeing his life summed up so grimly made Nobel determine that he would “invent” something else for which he’d rather be known: a prize for those who were purveyors of life and peace. Bad news that leads to good news. Maybe so.

Now back to Sicily for a moment. The day after we worshipped in that little Anglican church, Jan and I went to tea with the priest that presided over the Lord’s Supper. John Price is his name. John had just retired from his parish in a town north of London. It is a town that struggles with every possible blight that any of our communities here might struggle with. For six years, John worked tirelessly to turn bad news into good news. His congregation was beset by the challenges of immigrant populations washing over the community ... and so they became a profoundly multi-cultural church, embracing the unfamiliar languages and customs of Christians from other parts of the world. When John assumed the leadership of his church, the church grounds had become severely overgrown and had become a haven for drug dealers and users. The cut back the overgrowth and cleaned up the grounds. Over 1500 hypodermic needles were collected amidst the clutter. Today the cleaned up grounds serves the community as does the church in new ways that it might never had envisioned had it not faced up to the bad news and determined to bring good news from it.

This earth and these lives and any abundance we might enjoy ... they are all extraordinary gifts ... and the word to us today is that they are not to be hoarded and defended and fought over, but are for us and for all to enjoy and share. The good news is that there is within us all—all of us here, all Christians, all people on this earth ... there is a vein of “God-given goodness” that can be tapped and that can rise up like waters of new life and new fruitfulness.

Let us give proof of that goodness by hearing and heeding the call to make of our lives and of this world a watered garden, a fruitful vineyard, and a table whose generosity and welcome knows no bounds. Amen.

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