Tending the Vineyard

Karen Cuffie, Field Education Student

RLC Year A Proper 22

When our family first moved to California, my husband and I were not real wine drinkers. Honestly, I couldn’t have told you the difference between a merlot and a chardonnay. Now, after living in the Valley almost 16 years, I think I’ve graduated from wine kindergarten. I’m pretty sure I can tell the difference between a merlot and a pinot noir – without even looking at the bottle! I’ve become accustomed to having wine with dinner and at social events like um. . .Wine and Swine! Wine has become an ordinary part of my life. What I hope will never become ordinary and what continues to take my breath away are the beautiful rolling hills of vineyards right here in our own backyard. This time of year – harvest time – is especially beautiful. Leaves are beginning to turn – clusters of bulging grapes are hanging on decades old vines. You can google “local wine, harvest” and find all sorts of events to fill your weekend. Did you know that there’s such a thing as “Crush Parties”? We certainly know how to celebrate the great wine harvest in northern California! I love how this cycle of the lectionary coincides with our actual harvest season The climate in the Holy Land is very much like it is here, so when I hear scripture that mentions vineyards, vines, wine and grapes, I can imagine Jesus’ parables and the writings of the prophets more vividly.   We have these images in all of our readings today: a parable from Jesus, a love song from the prophet Isaiah, and a lament from the Psalmist. If you remember just two weeks ago we heard the parable of the workers in the vineyard when different workers started working at different times of the day. At the end of the day, the land owner paid them all the same wage -which didn’t go over very well, but no one got beat up, no one died. The parable that Jesus told in today’s gospel reading, also known as “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants” is strikingly different – no pun intended. It’s not exactly a bedtime story. The land owner thoughtfully and carefully planted a state of the art vineyard complete with a protective fence, wine press and a watch tower. He leased the vineyard to tenants who were supposed to take care of it while he is away. Well, the tenants got a little greedy decided that they were going to keep what didn’t belong to them. When the landowner returned and sent his slaves to collect his produce, the tenants beat one of them, stoned one of them and even killed one of them. The landowner sent another larger group of slaves and they too fell prey to the barbaric tenants. As a last resort, the landowner sends his son to collect the goods, thinking that surely they’d respect his son, which seems like a ridiculous strategy. Listening to this part of the story is like watching a scary movie when you know something bad is going to happen. You’re thinking – no -don’t do it, don’t do it! And of course, we know what happened. The tenants actually thought that if they killed the heir they’d be ‘made in the shade’ and as odd as that sounds, that could have been the case. In those days, if the landowner hadn’t returned and the heir was dead, the tenants inherited the vineyard. But that’s not what happened here. Jesus’ posed a question to the chief priests and Pharisees: “What do you think the landowner is going to do when he returns?” Without skipping a beat, they answer, “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.” Once Jesus reminded them of the scriptures they already knew about rejecting the true cornerstone, they put two and two together and realized the story was about them – that they were the ones who were rejecting Jesus, the true cornerstone. The kingdom of God was going to be taken away from them and given to people who would take care of it – people who would produce and gather the fruits of the kingdom. Some of the common typologies in the story are that God is the landowner and the vineyard is Israel, or God’s kingdom. The tenant farmers are sometimes mistakenly taken for the Jews, but the scripture says it is the religious leaders that Jesus is addressing, and it’s important to recognize this distinction. The grapes represent the fruit of the kingdom that should be given to God, the landowner. If we look at the bare bones of the parable, Isaiah’s prophecy and even the Psalm, one thing that stands out is that God lovingly planted a vineyard that had everything it could possibly need to flourish, and flourish it did, at first. In all three, though, something went terribly wrong. In Isaiah, the vineyard yielded wild grapes. The Psalmist lamented because the vine had been ravaged, and in the parable, God is not honored. What is God’s is not returned. God’s only son, Jesus, is rejected and the vineyard will be turned over to other tenants. And, Jesus tells us that all this is God’s doing and it’s amazing. Who do you think are the new tenants? Yes – we are! This parable offers a lot of hope because we know that God loves us and has faith in us. God has handed over the care and keeping of the kingdom to us, right here. – not only as individuals, but also as the church in the world today. So, what kind of work are we talking about? Hard labor, a walk in the park, feeding the homeless, going to church on Sunday, taking time to listen to someone who needs to talk? I think it’s all those and much more. In verse 43 Jesus says that the people who inherit the kingdom will produce good fruit – perhaps good fruit means the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodnessI, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. I will be the first to admit that I have a lot of work to do in several of those areas, but I try just like all of you and it’s a good start. The fruit is what we give back to God when we take care of the kingdom. So, the work starts with us as individual members of the body of Christ. We offer our time, talents and treasure to the church because that’s what the church needs in order to take care of the kingdom. It’s a big kingdom that needs constant tending to – it’s not only people, but all of creation! I’m new to ECA and I’m already seeing how much you care for each other and for this church. I see a loving community that is committed to moving through the transitions ahead with grace, hope, faith, and courage – to ‘keep up the good work’. I also see the work you are doing in the community and the world with Montgomery meals, the Kids Fall Festival, Santa Maria Urban Ministries and the South Sudanese Youth Opportunity to help children go to school in Kenya. I have experienced your warm welcome and generous support for my own formation as I move towards ordained ministry, and for that I am deeply grateful! ECA is working hard and I do believe God is pleased. But as you know, there’s always more work. It can be overwhelming, but I think it’s important to look up and see what else is happening beyond San Jose. If you keep up with the ‘The Good News Along the King’s Highway’, which is our diocesan newsletter, you can see all that is happening in the diocese and even the world. For example, this week Bishop Mary wrote about her recent trip to Taipei for the House of Bishop’s fall meeting.   It’s a very interesting letter and I encourage you read it when you have a chance. She summed it up with, I quote: “I came away with many learnings but chief among them was that we are on the right track as a diocese as we continue to grow our capacity for interfaith, inter-cultural and inter-generational work. Reaching out, over and beyond our comfort zones is a core gospel value and critical to our capacity to effectively be the church.” That’s pretty powerful. And we are part of that diocese! We are the new tenants of the vineyard that is God’s kingdom. As long as there are people who are going hungry, people who are broken and lonely, people who are grieving, people who are treated as outsiders, people who are being persecuted because for their faith, the church has work to do. As long as this earth, our island home is being violated, the church has work to do and with God’s help, we can do it. God has given us what we need, but we need to share what we have, be it love, money, time, food – whatever it takes. The wicked tenants made a big mistake in trying to keep what wasn’t theirs to begin with and we can’t repeat that mistake. St. Francis said, “Remember when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received, only what you have given: a heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage.” The next time you drive by a vineyard, or visit a winery, or take a sip of wine – remember that God’s kingdom is the vineyard and we are the tenants – we have work to do!