Sermon: Fruits of the Vineyard
This sermon was preached at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on October 4, 2020.
5 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? 5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
8 Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
The following Matthew scripture passage must be read as an allegory. Allegory is a form of literature in which every word and image stands for something else. Our challenge today is to discover what the actual meaning of the words are and how they’re relevant for us today.
33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “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.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?
43 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. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
As I said, this parable is allegorical in the sense that the words and images used stand in for something else. God is the land-owner. The Land of Israel is the vineyard. The members of the religious establishment are the tenant farmers. Prophets of the Old Testament are the representatives of God who came to collect what was due. Jesus is the son of the owner who came to collect at the last and was killed. And the church is the group invited to work in the vineyard at the end.
The metaphor of a vineyard representing the people of God and the planter representing God is an old, old metaphor. We heard it first today in the Isaiah reading:
“the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting”
Grapes were an abundant crop in ancient Israel and when Jesus or other Biblical writers wanted to make a point, they made it using something as common as a grape vineyard so that everyone would understand.
So what is the point that both Isaiah and Jesus are trying to make with grapes and good vineyard management? God, the landowner, planted good seed, but the vines that have come up are wild. The harvest is not good. And in the parable that Jesus tells us, the tenant farmers who were left to manage the harvest have outright rejected the wishes of the land-owner and have turned violently against every messenger the land-owner (God) has sent.
I was intrigued by this metaphor of grapes. I began to think about the wild grapes I had seen. And they’re everywhere around here so it’s not hard to imagine. In fact, I went behind the church and found a cluster to pick and show you. If you could even call it a cluster. Wild grapes grow where they want to grow; they are invasive and take over other living things, like trees and bushes; ultimately killing what comes in its path. But not only that, the fruit that grows on the wild vines is small and tart. I tried one just as an experiment. The seed took up almost 50% of the fruit and its tartness made it nearly inedible.
Contrast that with cultivated grapes. Grapevines that have been tended and managed are trained to grow along trellises in a way that won’t invade their surroundings. They are pruned so that the plant’s energy is put into its fruit, producing large, sweet berries with small seeds or no seeds. Put a bowl of these grapes out on the table and they’re irresistible.
We can immediately identify with any planter who thought they were growing these (hold up table grapes), and instead these came up (hold up wild grapes). What happened?! What went wrong?!
This is why God (in Isaiah) and Jesus (in Matthew) are so frustrated. But can we see that in this simple story of grapes a mirror is being held up in front of us. That it was a much better version of us, that God thought was being planted in the vineyard, yet instead, the fields are full of wild vines that have spread off their trellises and into the surrounding grounds, overtaking other species, running rampant where they’re not wanted, and making a measly bunch of sour, seedy berries that are a sorry excuse for actual fruit. God is ready to turn the whole farm over to wilderness.
And can we blame God?
Jesus says the problem is that we have rejected the cornerstone: the foundation of our faith; the teachings of Jesus himself. When we reject his teachings, we stumble and fall, the fruit we produce becomes sour and seedy.
If you need it spelled out a little clearer, Galatians 5:22-23 says “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.” When you don’t have these, you are more likely to produce fruit that tastes like hate, anger, resentment, it’s demanding, mean, greedy, abrasive and reckless. Those who produce this kind of “fruit” are mostly only interested in themselves, how fast they can grow and who they can take advantage of in order to advance their own interest. Seems like a lot of wild grapevines I’ve seen recently. They’re not satisfied with co-existing in the plant kingdom- they must dominate and destroy.
We are living through an age that tests us to our very foundation. We are living through a period in human history in which the vineyard in which we grow is hardly recognizable as a vineyard anymore. We’ve justified the ways we’ve replaced love with hate by blaming someone else: “well, they started it.” We’ve justified the ways we’ve replaced generosity with greed by saying, “well, we’ve earned it!” We’ve justified the ways we’ve traded gentleness for bitterness by saying, “well, It’s hopeless.” We’ve justified the ways we’ve tolerated and contributed to reckless behavior by saying, “well, it got the job done, didn’t it?”
God is holding up the mirror. We are better than this sorry excuse for “fruit” that fills our heart with hatred, crowds out our compassion, and puts blinders on our eyes so that the only problems we see are our own. And we wonder why the grapes are so sour.
There is no question that this makes God angry.
It makes God want to clean the field and start over. It makes God want to bulldoze the fences and let the wild animals in. But the cornerstone that we trip over isn’t meant to destroy us, but to help us rebuild. Ultimately God is not a destructive farmer, even at times God may want to be. God is a cultivator by nature. And the question this morning is not binary: are you good fruit or are you bad fruit. The question instead is whether you are working to make better fruit today than you did yesterday. Do you want to improve? Or are you satisfied with sour grapes? Can you see the mirror God is holding up in front of you? Or do your blinders block that, too? The cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching is that your worst action, your most selfish motive, your most putrid thought, your most sour moment doesn’t have to define you. You are better than that. You have been given the gift of tomorrow and you have been given the chance to repent and replant and grow better fruit the moment you say yes to God. The pivotal part though, is saying yes to God. Be better.
Let us pray.
Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.