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Sermon for October 8, 2017: You will know them by their fruits (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

I like to refer to today as “Vineyard Sunday,” because our readings all seem to be focused on grapes. This is no surprise, as grapes were both common and extremely important for thousands of years in Middle Eastern culture. “No plant is mentioned more times in the Bible than the grape and its products…The grape vine is grown solely for its fruit; there is no other use for the vine in the Scriptures. Even the wood of the vine is worthless…Pruning is essential if the vine is to produce grapes. This is referred to in several Scriptures including Isaiah…and John…The Greek word for prune and cleanse is the same… [It is crucial to protect the plants] when the vines are flowering…If left unprotected, they are subject to being ravaged by animals.”

Most people in the times of both Isaiah (about the eighth century BCE) and Jesus would have been familiar with these facts about grape growing and been able to understand their use as metaphors for God’s relationship to humanity.

In our Hebrew scripture, God, speaking through Isaiah, compares Creation to a vineyard, and human beings to the fruit it yields. This reading is actually a song – a love song, in which God expresses both his love of and disappointment in humanity. “My beloved had a vineyard,” a fertile place filled with choice vines and all that was needed to yield healthy grapes that could be made into excellent wine – perhaps something like what we call “The Garden of Eden.” God did everything right to make this vineyard thrive, but somehow his children did not turn out the way he expected. “A famous wordplay in [Hebrew, the language Isaiah was written in] drives the point home: God expected justice [in Hebrew, ‘mishpat] but saw bloodshed (mispakh); God sought for righteousness (tsedaqah) but instead heard a cry (tse’aqah), the cry [of the oppressed].” We can imagine God feeling much as we do when we suffer loss. She has put so much time and work and resources into this project that means so much to her, only to have it turn out wrong. “God’s love, care, and protection [came with the expectation that they would bring] justice and righteousness,” but instead God’s people have engaged in hatred and violence. They have become more focused on being right than on being kind. They have forgotten God’s desire for them to love one another.

According to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he, living seven hundred years later, has done the same. This portion of Paul’s letter is both a confession and an invitation. In it, he shares with his people his own transformation from being an oppressor of the Jesus Movement to its chief evangelist. Paul makes it clear that he has not just re-evaluated his priorities or changed the way he looks at things; his entire identity as a person has shifted – and he is happier and healthier because of it. “Because of Christ, Paul’s perspective changed entirely. The very things that were once central to Paul- his God-given religious identity…plus a healthy dose of pride in his own achievement…-he could now discard…Paul renounces the past as the defining marker of who he is.” He has come to value relationship over rules and being known instead of knowing things. Paul has experienced Jesus the Christ, and his relationship with Christ is now the heart and soul of his faith.

He is only able to say this because of God’s persistence. Way back in the time of Isaiah, God recognized his creation for what it had become, and what it would continue to be: prone to disobedience, selfishness, and willfulness. In other words, wild grapes. Despite this, God continued to answer the cries of his people for help with their unruly nature- over and over. “Again and again,” we say in our Eucharistic prayer, “you called us to return. Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous Law. And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.” We are saved because God kept trying to be in relationship with us. We are saved because God sent Jesus to live among us and heal us.

Of course, Jesus did not find the world in a much better state than had Isaiah before him. The passage from Matthew’s gospel that we heard today is the second of three parables that Jesus told against the ruling religious leaders, whom he flatly condemned. Today’s story occurs near the end of his ministry. He has traveled the lands of the Jews, listening to their problems, healing the sick, and even raising from the dead. He has returned to Jerusalem in triumph to cries of “Hosanna” – “Save us” – Lord. And what he finds in the great city of his ancestors appalls him: people paying for prayer; violent behavior at all levels of society; pride and hypocrisy even among religious leaders. He sees wild grapes – and it makes him angry – so angry that he vandalizes the temple of his ancestors, berates the moneychangers who serve there, and curses a fig tree simply for its “refusal” to offer fruit. Then, he stands in the temple itself and preaches this parable, thereby launching a direct attack on the rich and powerful, which begins the process that ultimately leads to his death.

In Jesus’s story, the landowner, like God, has planted a vineyard with all of the right ingredients, but when he gives its inhabitants free will, they abuse it – and when God returns to see what his work has produced, he finds the vineyard ruled by greedy, cruel, and callous stewards. Fortunately, this is the same God who sings love songs to his creation, a God who does not give up, so she tries again to turn her people to the right. But when God again offers a share of his kingdom, his beloved respond with more anger and more aggression. Finally, when the great Creator sends love itself in human form to face this tragedy, they kill him. “What,” Jesus asks, “should God do to these people”? And the disciples answer just like the human beings they are: “Kill them.”

But here is the amazing thing. God does not say that he will punish the wicked. He does not offer the justice that the disciples think is deserved. Instead, God says she will give humanity the justice they have asked for, the justice that answers their plea to, “Restore us, O God!” Instead of punitive justice, God decrees restorative justice. The difference is profound. “Punitive justice asks only what rule or law was broken, who did it, and how they should be punished. It responds to the original harm with more harm. Restorative justice asks…what are the needs and obligations of all affected.” Punitive justice repeats the cycle of violence and hate; restorative justice brings things back in sync with God’s desire for us to practice justice and righteousness, to love one another, and to be fruitful.

We know how to do these things because Jesus has shown us. It is not always the easiest path, as Paul knew, but it is the true way. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call in Christ Jesus.” Unlike grapes, our potential for goodness and fruitfulness cannot always be perceived with human eyes, but God sees it. God knows our desire to do what is right, to practice obedience, and to be good. But how do we know when we are on the right track? In the midst of the confusion in our own lives, how do we become the good fruits of righteousness and justice?

Peter Scholtes had a simple answer and he put it to music:

“We are one in the spirit we are one in the Lord. We are one in the spirit we are one in the Lord and we pray that all unity will one day be restored.

And they’ll Know we are Christians by our love, by our love Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

And they’ll Know we are Christians by our love, by our love Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

We will work with each other. We will work side by side. We will work with each other. We will work side by side and we’ll guard each other’s dignity and save each other’s pride.

And they’ll Know we are Christians by our love, by our love Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” AMEN.

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