October 7-8, 2017: Grapes of Justice and Righteousness

Sermon A Pentecost L.27 2017                                   King of Kings, New Windsor                                   October 7-8, 2017

Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells yet another story about a grape harvest, another story about a vineyard.  Three weeks in a row, we’ve been hearing parables about vineyards:  first, the story of the farmer who kept going to the marketplace to hire more day laborers to harvest the grapes in his vineyard; last week, the story about a father who asked both his sons to come and help with the harvest in the vineyard; and, today, this violent story about a landowner who leases a vineyard to tenants and then finds them to be, at the harvest, ungrateful, to say the least.

At King of Kings, every autumn, we reap the benefits of harvest without any effort; we get the benefits not of grapes but of vegetables, vegetables piled in baskets in the narthex, that space between the entrance door and the sanctuary door.  It’s a bountiful harvest, a bounty of zucchini and kale, tomatoes and cucumbers, offered generously from the Roach’s garden.  The fruit of their garden is not fruit but vegetables.

In the parables we’ve been hearing these three weeks in a row, the fruit of the vineyard is grapes, raised primarily to make wine.  Once harvest season begins, a vintner taste-tests the grapes daily to determine when they are ready; when that moment comes, the grapes need be harvested immediately.  That’s why the farmer in the first story keeps going to the marketplace throughout the day, to find more laborers to harvest grapes right away.  That’s why the father in the second story is after his sons to work in the vineyard, to help with the harvest that minute.  The landowner in today’s story gets his harvest help ahead of time; he turns the vineyard over to tenants, expecting to return to reap its fruits.

Today’s parable is set in the midst of increasing conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders.  It ends with Matthew’s editorial comment that the chief priests and Pharisees “perceived that Jesus was speaking about them”.  Based on that context and ending of the story, it’s clear that Jesus is criticizing the Jewish leaders for resisting the messengers whom God has sent.

Now a parable is not an allegory.  Rather than assigning every detail in the story a particular meaning, as an allegory does, a parable borrows a metaphor to make its point.  In this case however, it may be useful to consider the traditional interpretations of the details of the parable.  So here goes.

The landowner, the owner of the vineyard, is God.  We’ll come back to the vineyard later.  This landowner goes to a “far country” after leasing the vineyard to tenants.  The tenants are the Jewish leaders, the scribes, the Pharisees, the chief priests, and the Sadducees, leaders who are particularly concerned with worship at the temple and keeping the Jewish law.  The servants whom the landowner sends for the harvest are the Jewish prophets, whom God sent to call the Jewish people to repentance.  The son whom the landowner finally sends to the vineyard to get the harvest, who is killed by the tenants, is, of course Jesus, whom God sent to the people of Israel and whom the Jewish leaders rejected.  And the vineyard?  What’s the significance of the vineyard in this parable?

A study of this parable is incomplete without looking at its parallel in the Hebrew Bible in Isaiah 5, our Old Testament lesson for today.  The prophet Isaiah tells us about a vintner who owned a carefully planted and well-kept vineyard that yielded not grapes but wild grapes, a vintner who became angry at the loss of his expected harvest and then planned to lay the barren vineyard waste.  In this Old Testament parable, God is the vintner and God’s people are the vineyard; and the fruit which God expects, the good fruit, is justice and righteousness, while the wild grapes are “bloodshed” and a “cry”.  When the vineyard fails to produce good grapes, when Israel does not harvest justice and righteousness, God tears down the vineyard down and lays it waste.

If we read these parables together, God is like a landowner who really wanted some wine.  Knowing that a grapevine doesn’t yield grapes until the third year, he took the long view and proceeded patiently.  He identified land for a vineyard, remedied the soil, tilled it, and then planted “choice vines”.  He watered it carefully, knowing that the roots couldn’t withstand extra water. He pruned it frequently.  Once he was pleased with the quality of the grapes, he leased the vineyard to tenants who took care of it.  When he sent his servants to receive the harvest, however, the tenants did not send grapes.  Instead, they sent the servants back emptyhanded—or not at all, since they were dead.

I think that the major point of this parable is that God will go to any lengths to collect the harvest, the harvest, as Isaiah puts it, of “justice” and “righteousness”.  God wants us to sow and grow and then harvest justice and righteousness; God expects us to produce fruits of justice and righteousness, and, if we don’t, God will find someone else who can bring forth the desired harvest.

What are you harvesting, my friend?  What sort of fruit are you producing?  Are you growing justice and righteousness in your life?  Are you writing your representatives in Albany and Washington?  Are you reaching out to someone who is lonely?  Are you seeking to raise your children with attention to their relationship with God, teaching them the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed and the Ten Commandments and talking with them about your own faith?  Are you bringing your grandchildren to church?  Are you sending money to help victims of natural—or unnatural—disasters?  Are you inviting a friend to join you at worship or for Young at Hearts or Men’s Club?

This week I went to my regular monthly meeting with my interfaith colleagues, and, because I had just come from Bible study where we were reading this gospel, I began thinking about what sort of fruit Jesus expects of us and the fruits that each of the congregations is producing.  Fr. Dustin and St. George Episcopal offer summer programs for Newburgh kids and a “Girl Power” program.  Pr. Jeff and the people of Grace United Methodist Church, where our secretary Leetha is a member, offer a variety of programs to their neighbors, to feed them in body and spirit.  Pr. Dave and the people of Union Presbyterian started a food pantry in Balmville, and Father Rigo and Good Shepherd Episcopal Church on Broadway offer a free meal at noon every Saturday and Sunday, with help from several local congregations.  Sr. Virginia, both through St. Francis Roman Catholic Church and Newburgh Ministry, works with immigrants who are undocumented.  Pr. Ernie and the people of Christ Lutheran in Newburgh, after studying the needs in their central-city community, opened Baby Steps Baby Pantry to distribute diapers, diaper wipes, diaper ointment and baby soap to their neighbors.

This is the fruit I see our companion congregations producing…  St. George is empowering girls.  Grace and Good Shepherd and Union are feeding people who are hungry.  St. Francis is walking with people who are afraid of deportation. Christ Lutheran is assisting parents in providing for their children’s daily needs.  What fruit is King of Kings growing?  Can you help me make a list?

welcoming the newcomer

telling the good news in worship and VBS

empowering youth to lead worship through ABC

creating intergenerational community through BING

providing support through A-A and Al-Anon and RAPP

feeding hungry people by donating to the New Windsor Food Pantry                                                                                                  and sorting boxes and cans at the Hudson Valley Food Bank

and providing space for community-building through WELCA and Young at Hearts and Book Club                          and Game Night and yoga.

We, too, are producing fruits for the reign of God.

And then there is our local Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Rock Tavern and their pastor, Rev. Chris.  How are they producing the fruits of justice and righteousness?  While they do not consider themselves to be Christian and have no common creed, they espouse “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, tenets to which these famous Unitarians committed themselves:  John Quincy Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pete Seeger, and Christopher Reeve.  The Rock Tavern congregation is accustomed to being at the forefront of efforts for social justice in Orange County.  To that end, over the years they have become supportive of public efforts for peace and justice; recently they added four flags to their sign on 207 near Tolmann Rd.

Last Sunday Rev. Chris arrived for worship to find the church sign and some of the flags vandalized.  Spray-painted in blue over the glass were the words “Blue Lives Matter”’.  The “Refugees Welcome” and “Black Lives Matter” flags had been stolen, and two others were defaced—the “Veterans for Peace” banner and the rainbow flag, a symbol of solidarity with the LGBTQ community.  Because the Rock Tavern congregation understands that God expects them to bear fruits of justice and righteousness, they are offering a community forum today at 12:30 pm at 9 Vance Road in Newburgh; they have even invited the unknown perpetrators of the incident to attend and to share their thoughts, promising that no charges will be filed.  You are invited to join them as they seek to harvest the fruits of justice and righteousness.

Each congregation of the Greater Newburgh Interfaith Council is producing fruit in its own context, its own vineyard.  King of Kings, too, is producing fruit in our context, in our own vineyard.  Not yummy, nutritious vegetables but grapes, the fruits of justice and righteousness!  Where is your vineyard?  Where is God calling you to produce fruit?  What fruit is God calling you to produce?  What are the grapes God is inviting you to share with others?  AMEN

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