St Stephen’s, Harrisburg— Matthew 21:33–46, Isaiah 5:1–7, Psalm 80:7-14
We’re a month away from a presidential election in this country, and to say that we are collectively “tightly wound” is a huge understatement. One of the sub-themes in the political conversation, both this cycle and throughout the last few decades, is the notion of America being a “Christian nation.” The question has basically been weaponized in social media, as any number of graphic memes and comment threads on Facebook and Twitter will demonstrate. Most of us gathered for worship here this morning are old enough to remember when it was kind of a slam dunk. When I was starting school, a baptismal certificate was considered sufficient evidence of age for registration purposes. I recently watched a movie on Netflix called Greyhound, which starred Tom Hanks as a religiously devout skipper of a troop transport vessel across the Atlantic in the early days of World War II. Some crew members were killed in a torpedo attack, and they were buried at sea, with the captain presiding, using a prayer book that simply presumed that those gathered there were a community of Christians and that the Christian gospel was the basis for the hope in which they were taking leave of their departed comrades. Nobody raised so much as an eyebrow, let alone a protest.
Our society has certainly changed since then. A majority of Americans still profess some version of religious faith, but the most rapidly growing category is made up of those who do not, principally among the young. They are neither Christian nor anything else, but simply … nothing. “None of the above” is the box they would check on a survey. Sunday mornings are long since no longer considered sacred time in our society, as I can testify every time I spend Saturday night in a hotel and see all the members of traveling youth sports teams and their families—I might add, even during this time of the virus. The collapse of what we used to refer to as “Christendom” has accelerated exponentially within the lifetime of everyone here. And the same applies, of course, in Canada and Europe—only even more so.
In our liturgy this morning, we have three parallel narratives about a grape vineyard, a winery: one in Isaiah, one in Psalm 80, and then Matthew’s version of a parable of Jesus. The Isaiah text is a poem, a song, about a vineyard planted and a winery constructed on a lovely hillside. It starts out cheerfully and then takes a sudden dark turn, as the crop that the grape vines yield fails to measure up to the expectations of the planter. Then there’s a quick pivot, and the vines yielding “wild grapes” are revealed as the people of Israel and the planter as God. He is displeased with them, because he “looked for justice,” and found only “bloodshed.” Now God is going to remove his protection and allow his vineyard, Israel, to be overrun by her enemies.
Psalm 80 tells a similar story, with the vine identified with Israel right away. The Lord takes great care of it; it seems to be his pride and joy. Then, suddenly, “the wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.” The vineyard is burned like rubbish, and the people of Israel cry out for restoration.
The gospel parable told by Jesus is amazingly parallel to both the Isaiah passage and the Psalm, with some added elements: the planter, who symbolizes God, leases out the property to tenants, and then sends emissaries periodically to collect the agreed-upon rent. But the tenants get greedy, and mistreat the owner’s messengers, eventually killing the owner’s own son, who symbolizes Jesus.
So, today’s lectionary readings give us an incredibly rich opportunity to see the same thing from three distinct perspectives. Now, the key to interpreting a parable or parable-like poetry is to identify with one of the characters in the story. Clearly, none of us is the vineyard planter/owner because none of us is God. We’re also not the son of the owner because we’re not Jesus. So, are we the emissaries, the messengers sent to collect the rent, who get shabbily treated? This doesn’t feel like a good fit because we haven’t been treated quite that shabbily. How about the greedy tenants? That’s certainly a closer potential fit. Americans and other westerners—“Christian nation” westerners, that is—can certainly act pretty “entitled,” after all. But it still feels off. We haven’t treated others quite so shabbily as the tenants in the parable treated the owner’s representatives.
What’s left, then? We seem to have exhausted the possibilities. But, if we think outside the box, and include inanimate objects among the possibilities, how about the vineyard itself? Is it plausible for us to identify ourselves … with the vineyard? In both Isaiah and the Psalm, we see what eventually becomes of the vineyard—it’s destroyed. From the Psalm:
Why have you broken down its wall, *
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?
The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, *
and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.
And from Isaiah:
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. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
In the Psalm, we are never given a reason for this devastation. But here’s what Isaiah tells us:
When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? … For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!
In other words, the vineyard was a disappointment. It did not yield the fruit that the planter was looking for, what he had intended when he made the original investment. The people of Israel are the vineyard, and the Lord is looking among them for justice and righteousness, but all he sees is strife and violence.
In the gospel parable, the vineyard is not destroyed, but the theme of unfruitfulness is also taken up. Jesus says to the leaders of the Jewish religious establishment, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” The Church—you and I—are those to whom Jesus gave the Kingdom. But are we producing the fruits?
Well, in North America and Europe, one might argue, probably not. Why? Because it feels like we are the vineyard that has been abandoned by its planter. We look at a thriving Christianity in Africa and Asia, and can be forgiven for wondering whether the Holy Spirit has abandoned us for those places and left us swinging in the wind. The Church in the developed world is arguably under the judgment of God for failing to bear the expected fruit. I’m not talking about American being under the judgment of God, because American was never God’s people to begin with. I’m talking about Christians in America, and Canada, and Europe.
We might well ask, then, what, precisely, is this fruit that we’re not bearing? Let me suggest three ways that Christianity in the west has not borne the kind of fruit expected by God.
The first is unity. The mission of the gospel is to reconcile, to bring together those who are divided. Yet, if our nation and society are divided, the Christian community is no example of an alternative way. We are conflicted among ourselves, and conflict produces division. Reconciliation is hard and demanding work. It is painful to the core. We have shrunk back from it. We have lacked the moral virtue of courage. And, for this, we are under God’s judgment.
The second fruit we are lacking is that of fidelity. Rather than being a light to the world, we instead conform to the world. We adopt the categories of the world’s divisions and conflicts, and we import them into our life together in the church. One of the realities that I find most disappointing is how the polarization of secular politics—you know what I’m talking about; the extremes run the table, and anyone who’s not on either of the extremes gets chewed up and spit out—the polarization of our secular politics is reflected pretty accurately among Christians. Instead of offering an alternative to the secular ways of seeing things, we just adopt them wholesale. This is a severe indictment.
Third, we lack the fruit of compelling witness. Since we are so divided and so unfaithful, our witness to the world lacks integrity. We are inconsistent. We rightly express deep anguish over the loss of innocent human life through abortion, but we too often remain silent over how innocent human lives—the lives of innocent children—are treated at the southern border of our country. We stand up for the biblical view of marriage as between one man and one woman, but we are completely blasé about divorce, which the Bible says God hates. The list could go on, but those are two of the hot buttons that explain why our witness is compromised.
We can lament that fact that our position in society as Christians is compromised, that we live in a world where an American Navy commander can’t conduct a burial at sea using Christian prayers. We can push back and resist. But … you know what? That’s a fruitless strategy, because we would be resisting God. You see, we are under God’s judgment. It’s no fun. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but I can tell you we’ll be out of these masks before we’re out from under God’s judgment. We are the unproductive vineyard, and we need to bear the consequences of our cowardice, our unfaithfulness, and our inconsistency. To our comfort, the God who judges us is also the God who loves us. We will have the opportunity to repent, because God is infinitely merciful. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.