Rebuilding the Vineyard
Sermon by The Rev. Leah Schade, United In Christ Lutheran, West Milton, PA, Oct. 2, 2011
Texts:Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
These are some difficult texts to hear today. If you’ve been in church the last few weeks, you might remember that the vineyard has been our theme for a while. We had the workers in the vineyard all getting the same pay two weeks ago. Last week was the parable about the two sons who are asked to go work in the vineyard. But today’s parable about the evil tenants in the vineyard is very troubling, as is the reading from Isaiah and the Psalm. Because the Old Testament texts are about a vineyard gone bad. And Jesus’parable is about the caretakers of the vineyard gone bad. No matter how you look at it, we seem to arrive at an unhappy ending where either the vineyard or the people end up in ruin.
These parables are especially poignant from an ecological perspective. Some of you may be aware that environmental issues are really important to me, especially as a person of faith and a leader of a congregation. So when I read these passages, I can’t help but apply a green lens to these readings. And now that I’ve been serving in this particularly rural region of Pennsylvania for the past two months, I’ve come to appreciate the care and effort that goes into farming, especially in the harvesting of fruits, vegetables, beans, and corn. This love song for the vineyard in Isaiah could have been composed for any number of the farmers up here:
My beloved had a farm on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice seeds; he built a house in the midst of it, and built silos and storage barns in it; he expected it to yield a bountiful harvest, but it yielded only . . . water-logged fields plagued with fungus and disease and ruined crops.
Sound familiar? The kind of damage that has been done to this area because of flooding has been catastrophic. If you’ve been to Bloomsburg, you’ve seen the houses moved off their moorings and thrown into the next yard. Our friends and neighbors have been devastated by the inundation of water three weeks ago and now again this week.
In the Old Testament, the vineyard was a symbol for the people of Israel. Prophets like Isaiah used the metaphor to show how the people had misused the gifts God had given them, turned away from God’s law, and followed only their own self-serving, sinful ways. In Sunday School last week, we learned that the people of Israel first became divided among themselves, and then fell to foreign powers because of their selfishness and blatant refusal to adhere to the commandments God had given them.
But in our modern world, we can see the vineyard as symbolizing not just one particular nation, but the whole Earth itself. God created this world out of the primal stuff of the universe. This planet is like a green and blue oasis planted amidst the hot and cold stones that orbit around our sun. God planted it with millions of species of plants, created fish, birds, mammals and human beings to live in this vineyard of Earth. God expected this Earth to yield a bountiful harvest. But because of human pollution, the burning of fossil fuels, and rampant consumerism and overpopulation, this Earth is increasingly yielding a harvest of diseased grapes that set our teeth on edge. Waterways are poisoned. Species are rapidly becoming extinct. Air is polluted. Green space is disappearing by the hour. And droughts, floods, and weather changes are having devastating effects on all our lives, especially those species and humans who are most vulnerable.
That is the difference between biblical times and now. These environmental catastrophes are no longer just acts of God—they are a result of the cumulative acts of people.
The National Climatic Data Center, an office in the U.S. Department of Commerce that tracks U.S. weather data, says that we are on track to experience more billion dollar weather disasters this year than in any year since 2008.
So what is a little country church in West Milton, Pa., to do? Certainly, we must help those who have been affected by these disasters. We collect cleaning supplies and money to send to the Lutheran Flood Response Fund, and to Lutheran World Relief to help our neighbors overseas. But as Christians, especially Lutherans, we must also address the underlying causes of these ecological disasters. This text from Isaiah teaches us that our place on this planet as human beings—the ones with the most power—is not only a privilege to be enjoyed but a responsibility to be performed. And it is obvious that human beings have failed to handle this privilege in a responsible way.
Now this is not to say that we should just give up, or think that as a small congregation we have no effect on the wider culture and society in which we live. On the contrary, we have an opportunity to become a place where God’s laws of nature can be taught and respected, a place where people model what it means to live within our means, live simply, and reduce, reuse and recycle. You have already taken steps in the right direction. Just look at the recycling center in the fellowship hall downstairs filled with cardboard, paper and all manner of items to be taken to the Hand Up Foundation for recycling. The Fellowship Committee has made the commitment to stop using throw-away utensils, plates and bowls, and, instead, uses and washes real dishes. This is a really good start.
So I’m wondering in what ways we can expand our care-of-earth practices. Can we purchase recycled paper for our bulletins and mailings? Can we do an energy audit to make sure we’re using energy as efficiently as possible? Can we choose to have our energy produced from clean sources like solar, wind, and geo-thermal? Can we host ecological-education events for the community where we discuss the climate change issue in an open and respectful way? Or provide a forum to understand the latest ecologically-controversial topic of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas?
You may have ideas of your own. Sometime in the next few months, I’m going to explore starting a Creation Care Committee for our congregation. Maybe you have some thoughts you’d like to share. Maybe you would even welcome the chance to be part of such a committee. I hope you’ll speak to me about that. In any case, this will be a chance for us to discern what it means to live humbly and responsibly in this vineyard, this beautiful but suffering Earth, which God created.
We have been the agents of destruction, like those tenants in Jesus’ parable, who had no respect for life or the sovereignty of the Creator, the vineyard owner. But, ultimately, this vineyard is in God’s hands.
It is a powerful image: Jesus before the cross with dead vines in his blistered hands. In the final analysis, God in a triune act of love destroyed his choicest vineyard—his beloved son—for the sake of planting a vineyard of love and grace in the whole world. (Mark Gignilliat)
We are invited to stand beside the crucified and risen Lord, whose wounds, like those of our Earth, remind us of the careless, thoughtless, and, yes, evil that exists in our human hearts. But in standing beside the risen Christ, we align ourselves with the cornerstone of the new vineyard God is building. Can you see it? The land is green and lush, protected and clean. The drilling towers and pumping stations are gone. Our energy, like the leaves of the vine, comes from the sun. The water is so clean you can kneel down and drink it right from the banks. The rain comes softly, not too much, just enough to hydrate the land. All manner of fish and fowl, animal and plant can be seen across the verdant vineyard that stretches beyond the horizon. The fruit from the harvest is equitably shared, and no child goes hungry.
Utopia? Perhaps. But . . . “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” Amen.
Sources: “Billion Dollar Weather,” by Mary Minette, ELCA Director for Environmental Education and Advocacy, e-mail newsletter received 9-28-11
Gignilliat, Mark S., “Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7,” workingpreacher.org; http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx; accessed 9/29/11