Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

March 29, 2010, 9:22 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 28-03-10

Our two readings- from Isaiah and Luke- obviously go together. As Luke (following Mark and Matthew) clearly looks back to Isaiah, we will start there. How should we imagine the context of the prophecy? It starts as a song, sung to a dear friend, about his vineyard. At the time of the grape-harvest in ancient Israel, there was much celebration and singing (no doubt drinking too!). One commentator suggests that the Prophet offered his words in this form in order to disguise the fact that he was telling a parable, until the end, when he reveals what it is all about.

The friend has planted a vineyard. He has taken great care over it. He has chosen a fertile spot on a hillside, he has dug the soil, cleared away the stones, and planted the very best vines. He has built a watchtower to guard against thieves, as well as giving it both a hedge and a wall around it. Having done all this, he expects to gather a good harvest at the proper time. He has even constructed a wine-press, to press out the juice ready for fermentation.

But what is this? When harvest comes, all the grapes are sour! They are no use at all for wine-making! The owner asks his neighbours, in dismay, “What more could I have done? What can I do with such a vineyard?” In a rage, he threatens to knock down the wall, uproot the hedge, and let the cattle trample it and eat the leaves, and let thorns and brambles grow all over it. He won’t waste any more time on it! He will even command the clouds not to rain on it.

This is deliberately “over the top” when applied to a literal vineyard. The audience might be expected to laugh at the vine-owner. But then comes the punch-line; the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the House of Israel, the vine is the people of Judah. It’s  you I’m talking about. God planted you to produce fruits of justice and integrity, but there is only violence and oppression.

That was more than 700 years before our Lord. What changed in the meantime? When our Lord came to Jerusalem, he too told a story about a vineyard. It starts in the same way as Isaiah’s song: in Mark’s version the man builds a fence, a winepress and a tower, although Luke leaves out these details. But then the man leases out the vineyard to tenants, while he goes abroad. At harvest time, he sends his agent to collect his due share. But what is this? The tenants beat the bailiff, and send him back empty-handed! They do this twice more, to add insult to injury. The owner is at his wits’ end: What am I to do? Perhaps the tenants will have more respect if he sends his own son. But no! So confident are they that the owner will never return, that they decide to murder the son and appropriate the vineyard to themselves. And they do it.

There is no need for Jesus to explain the thrust of the story. The vineyard is obviously still the House of Israel, the People of God. But notice- in this story, there is nothing wrong with the grapes. It is the men put in charge of the vineyard who are found wanting. It is the leadership of Israel, the priests and scribes, who are failing to render to God the fruits of their stewardship. The people are fine: God will reject the old leadership, and establish a new one. What Luke is saying is that Israel will continue, but under new management, namely the Apostles who Jesus has chosen and sent out as his ambassadors.

This is, then, a more hopeful story than Isaiah’s. God does not give up on his vineyard, his People, his Church. In every age there will be a harvest of holy souls, good grapes who will be transformed into the wine of the Kingdom. But in every age, those who tend the vineyard will be called to account. Priests or bishops who abuse their position, or who neglect to correct abuse, will answer to the Lord. And that goes not only for clergy, but for all in authority over, or with responsibility for, others. Parents, teachers, politicians, policemen. We are all to some extent God’s vinedressers, as well as his vine. What we do to the least of his brothers and sisters, we do to our Lord. Shall we thrust him out of the vineyard of our hearts, and take his life?

The irony is that by his willing submission to those who sought to kill him, by his actual death on the cross, Christ achieved his goal of opening up the way of salvation to those who were estranged from God. “O happy fault,” the deacon will sing on Easter eve about the sin of Adam, the sin of mankind. It gave God an opportunity to show even greater love. By allowing himself to be cast out and killed, Christ identified himself with the sufferings of all who are the victims of human injustice. What was and continues to be done to others, was done to him. Yet it is the stone rejected that becomes the corner-stone, the foundation of God’s Temple.

C.S.Lewis once contrasted those who see themselves as victims, and cry out for justice; and those who see themselves as sinners, and cry out for mercy. In Jesus we see the paradox of a perfect victim who cries out for mercy, mercy even and especially for those who victimise him. When we see good men maligned and unjustly accused, we see Christ. When we ourselves are mocked and unfairly treated, we resemble Christ. Jesus really means it when he says that if we want to be his disciples, we have to take up our cross and follow. The cross is not trivial, it is terrifying. But whenever it comes, we are with Jesus and he is with us. May we enter into his passion this Holy Week, so as to rejoice with him at Easter.


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