Occupying the Vineyard: A Sermon for Pentecost 17


Matthew 21: 33-46

Ask yourself what the central activities and industries are that turn our economy. We hear a lot today about LNG plants, the oil sands, pipelines, and the supposed changes from a resource based to an information based economy. In the midst of all this, as people of faith, we want to care for the world in which we live – a world we believe is the expression of a creator who inhabits it and has revealed much to us about how to care for it – and we want to sustain human societies where people live in positive relationship – in the midst of a strong social, economic and ethical fabric where human beings made in the image of the creator can flourish.

This flourishing of human life, which Jesus spoke of as the presence or ‘reign of God’ among us was one of his major concerns during his earthly ministry. One central activity he used to help people visualize his, and by his calling, our mission to flourish in the reign of God is the vineyard, a central economic focus of his society.

Mentioned more than any other plant in the entire Bible, the grape vine was crucial both culturally and economically in biblical times. Because of its centrality in everyday life, as April pointed out to us last Sunday, it is often used symbolically in Scripture. A fruitful vine in Jesus’ teaching represents flourishing human society under God. The abundance of a fruitful vine is to be shared so that all are nourished – symbolic of spiritual well-being in a healthy human society.

Typically grown on a hill, a vineyard needed to be cleared of many stones which are common in Israel. Only then could vines be planted. A wall or hedge built around the vineyard, along with a watch tower, kept thieves at bay. Careful pruning was required to maximize the production of fruit — an appropriate image of caring for one another in human society.

Recorded in Matthew’s Gospel immediately following the parable we looked at last week, the parable of the landowner and the tenants makes a powerful point. The cleared land, the planted vineyard, the wine press, the abundant harvest, and the wine are all indicative of God’s peaceable Kingdom; of the land flowing with milk and honey for the Israelite ancestors; of the lion lying down with the lamb. The violent and destructive behaviour of the tenants seeking to take over the vineyard for themselves is a shameful dishonouring of their contract with the owner and an act of blind pride and exploitation. These tenants even think in their state of greed and selfishness that if they kill the owner’s son, the whole industry will be theirs. Their thinking is totally irrational, anti-human and socially destructive. Unfortunately, the story is a familiar one down through human history – the grasp for power with the exploitation of others as collateral damage.

In their guilt, the corrupt religious leadership of the day knew Jesus was speaking about them. Once again, Jesus points out, the religious institution had failed God’s mission; the institution, represented by the vineyard’s tenants, was self-centred and power hungry. So, Jesus proclaims, it’s time for something new to happen. As April unfolded to us last week, Jesus spoke with new authority – and authority has as its root word “author” — one who acts creatively. Jesus calls for nothing less than a new order – a replacement of a worn out and visionless religious establishment with something new and exciting where the Reign of God among people could flourish like the fruitful grape vine.

The structure of human society will have a new “cornerstone” upon which to build God’s vision for God’s reign among people. That cornerstone smashes the old ideas and practices and replaces them with new.

Now where are we at St. Laurence pictured in this parable? I hope we are the visioners, the new vineyard tenants, in what Jesus sees as the ever-renewing power of the Holy Spirit to bring about new life, to tear apart old, unproductive ways and values and replace them with a community flourishing in its response to God’s mission – to be the hands and feet of Christ – to do what God commands us to do — support and encourage one another, to feed the hungry, to care for the weakest in our society, one act at a time. Jesus’ call in this teaching parable calls us to new heights. We see behind it the futility of debates about, and maintenance programs, for past institutions and ways of doing things. The parable pulls us forward toward that unknown future in which we will be both blessed and be a blessing.

So God’s call to us here is to resist a path that too often accepts an inadequate status quo and won’t envision new things. If institutional leaders are hard, fixed, obstinate and resistant to the new revelation of what God is doing in their midst, we must help them to ‘get it’.

In this way, we breath life, as a community of Christians, into structures that extend God’s peace, hope and justice to all people. And God works among us as we pursue our mission in this community – through Share, through the Homeless and Affordable Housing Task Group, through working with the Tri-Cities Ministerial on the Cold Mat program, through our service to the residence of Lakeshore and Madison Care homes, through our chaplaincy at the Legion, through our pastoral ministries and prayer links, our connection with St. Barnabas, through our parish membership in the Metro Vancouver Alliance – that new coalition of faith communities, labor unions and business and community organizations – our own newcomers’ events, participation in community events, work with the women’s shelter, Sorrento, the downtown East Side, our growing spiritual practices group, and on it goes. These are some of our “redemption projects” and we humbly thank God that we can have a part in them so that the community is impacted and we grow as the Body of Christ.

We at St. Laurence are people with a vision for the spreading of God’s kingdom, and our visioning process we’re launching into this year as we develop and refine our parish profile will be based on what God continues to call us to do. Each one of us has a ministry that may only be known to us, to individuals and groups within our community. Not one of us in the St. Laurence community is without significance when it comes to ministry, for no ministry is too small.

We are a fruitful vineyard because we respond the needs around us, and as church analyst Tim Keller has pointed out in his book Center Church, the biblical image is not success as our end product, but fruitfulness. May we continue to be fruitful.

Let us pray.

O God of the harvest, of fruitful vine and winepress, we pray that we might grow as active participants in your kingdom through all the redemption projects you have called us to. Enliven our spirits to be full agents of your grace in the world. We pray in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam and a blogmaster at NW Anglican Blog. 

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