SERMON 10/2/11 Pentecost 16A
This year, we planted two tomato plants in our tiny herb garden. We did everything we thought possible to insure our two plants would bear fruit. We watered them obsessively the first few days, we staked the plants so they would have something on which to grow, we used zip ties around the vines to help anchor them. Despite all our efforts and even with the extraordinary height these two plants attained, despite the flowers that emerged several times, neither plant ever bore fruit; there were never any tomatoes. The plants never, ever attained their ultimate destiny, which was to provide sweet, succulent, home-grown flavor for our salads, burgers, and sandwiches throughout the summer. The problem now is, the small garden space is being taken up by two non fruit-bearing plants, and the only solution it would seem, is to pull them and put something else in their place.
Today’s unusual parable about a vineyard and the tenants who occupied it, is found not as an isolated story, but as a part of a series of parables Jesus uses to confront the religious leaders. Today’s story comes after last week’s parable in which, Jesus teaches about a father who sends the sons into the vineyard and both respond differently. One does his father’s bidding, the other refuses. This week, Jesus tells about a vineyard leased to tenants and the owner, after some time, sends folks to gather up his crops. However, the tenants become deceitful, and so they beat up one, killed another and stoned a third servant. Finally, the father sends his own son, and they kill him as well. This parable is about God’s chosen people and their mission to be a blessing to all nations. Throughout the Biblical narrative, the people of Israel strayed from their original mission, and yet God was faithful and sent prophets to call them back. For many of the prophets’ their fate was ridicule, stoning and for some death. Then Christ, the Son comes and he too faced the fate of the prophets. The parable concludes with Jesus’ warning to the religious leaders that the Kingdom responsibilities they had been given, would eventually be given to another whose lives bore the fruit of the Kingdom. These two parables (last week’s and today’s) are given by Jesus in response to the religious leaders’ attempts to trap him because in essence, his ministry posed a threat to their notion of what the Kingdom of God was really all about.
Sometimes we cultivate our own ideas of what God’s Kingdom should be like. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time nurtured their own ideas. Washing hands at the right time, eating with only certain people, avoiding certain foods were all a part of a religious system that developed over time. There were strict laws that were upheld so that one could identify who was in the community and who was out. Holiness in some cases became less about molding a people to be a blessing, and more about exclusion of those on the outside. There were laws that prevented folks from eating with certain “types” of people, and laws that even prevented one from helping a friend in need on a particular day because it thwarted the law. The people forgot why they were brought together in the first place.
Early in the narrative of Israel, Abram (later renamed Abraham) was called out by God and he was given a mission to accomplish for the Kingdom. God said, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12) The mission of God’s chosen people, was to be a blessing to all nations, to stand out as a presence in the world of God’s Kingdom lived out in the lives of an entire people. The mission of the chosen folk was not to be exclusive, but to be inclusive and life-transforming through their example. God’s patience in dealing with this people set apart to be a blessing, is seen throughout their history. Then the Son came.
Jesus was a threat to this whole system of religious burden. Jesus and his disciples did not follow some of the hand-washing and other purity codes, he ate with sinners and tax collectors, he healed his sisters and brothers on that particular day set aside for something else. Jesus did not merely thwart the system because he wanted to be a “change agent,” Jesus actually remembered and embraced Abram’s understanding of our mission and Jesus lived it and taught it and died for it. Jesus turned upside down the misconstrued notions of the Kingdom of God the religious leaders embraced at the time, and Jesus clarified that the Kingdom was not a worldly nation, but a people gathered whose purpose was to be an example, a city on a hill, a lighthouse for the lost soul.
We embrace the sovereignty of God (the Kingdom of God) when are a blessing to all with whom we come in contact. This is the heart of the mission of the Church, which is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” In other words, everything we do should be based on this mission. We are called together to be a lighthouse, an example, a welcoming respite, a faith forming, life-transforming, community that helps all people, not just the ones we like, so they can be restored to God and each other. That is our mission, that is why we are brought together, and that is why we are the Body of Christ. We are to be a blessing to all with whom we come in contact both as individuals and as a community. Jesus warned the religious leaders about what happens when a community fails to embrace its mission, he implied that the task would be given to others who bear the Kingdom’s fruit.
In our mini garden at home, right alongside our non-bearing tomato plants, we placed in the ground a wonderful sort of fresh basil, a new type of lemon thyme, and another planting of Greek oregano. Over the past several months, we have enjoyed omelets, salads, main dishes and vegetables seasoned with some of the most aromatic and flavorful herbs. The food we have prepared at home was enhanced because we added the fruit, the irresistible leaves of our fresh herbs. It is amazing how the presence of such flavor, aroma, and oils can bring a change to everything into which it is placed.
We are like that. Could you imagine this village without the wonderful presence of this faith community? It just would not be the same would it. We all sit here today as witnesses to the grace, the love, the reconciliation of Christ in our lives, made possible by our participation in the life of St. David’s Episcopal Church. Through our worship, our Christian formation, our many ministries, our fellowship and our service we are experiencing the Kingdom of God and we are not alone. The people in the surrounding villages have also experienced God’s grace because of the mission of our parish. The hungry are fed, the downtrodden are lifted up, the small ones experience love and safety, and the cold and needy are provided warm clothes. We are and have been a flavorful spice that makes the Kingdom of God possible right here and right now.
Even so, we must always consider whether there portions of our mission that we need to evaluate, reconsider and possibly reformulate. We are participating in so many beautiful ways in God’s Kingdom, but we may need to take a look over the next few years and see where we are being called by God to tweak, adjust, add to, or take away from areas of ministry. I am sure that in the past, there were ministries that bore great fruit, but for some reason they do so no longer. We do not just uproot them and replant. No, we prayerfully discern what areas of our common life need to be adjusted, what ministries need re-visioning, and what new and evolving mission work to which God is calling us to respond. Please remember that God is always making things new. Then, there are those areas that we dare not disturb, but with patience and care, we nurture and support.
The two tomato plants in our mini garden after several months, even now in October, they have still born no fruit. On a weekly basis, I continue to add additional Velcro stabilizing straps, I water them, and care for them, and they continue to grow higher and higher. The flowers continue to burst forth, but there has not been one tomato emerge on those branches. It is unlikely that I will ever just pull them up and plant something new, because I believe and I have hope that as long as they are green, and as long as they are growing, at some point, in God’s time the fruit will emerge.
When that day comes, that fruit will be joined with a blend of the herbs, the thyme, the basil, and the oregano and before long, what once was only an additive of herbs, will become a sauce of impeccable flavor that will enhance any dish. As we look over the rich tapestry of our parish life, we should everyday ask for God to give us the grace to grow in our love of Christ, the wisdom to make right choices with the resources we have been given, and the Spirit to bring all to God’s abundant table of love, mercy, and grace. We must pray that we never lose the focus of our mission, that God will always give us a renewed vision of our mission, so that we can be a rich addition to the lives of the least, lost, and lonely among us, and wherever we may find them.