This scene will be familiar to many of you: our eight-month old, Hank, started solids recently and he’s made it clear he doesn’t need our help. When Blair or I go in with the spoon, Hank grabs it and looks at us as if to say: I got this. Last week, Hank decided that since the spoon made a beautiful noise on the table, it would make an equally beautiful noise on the floor. When we didn’t pick the spoon up, he looked at us in horror. We didn’t react which led to whining for what seemed like an eternity. It was a lovely dinner, as you can imagine.
About halfway through the incessant cries, Blair looked at me and said: "We shouldn’t give him the spoon back, right?". "I think so?" I replied.
And while our adventures in parenting seem a far cry from this morning’s difficult-to-swallow Good News, the tenants actions feel strangely…familiar.
Remember with me – a landowner builds a vineyard and leases it to tenants – to laborers.When the harvest comes, the landowner sends his messengers to collect what is rightly his. The tenants violently react, killing the slaves. This scene repeats itself again with more slaves. Then, the landowner sends his son – his beloved, in whom he is well pleased – and greed overcomes the tenants once again. The son is killed. Jesus’ biographical allegory comes to a head when he asks his hearers, the chief priest and elders in the temple, what God should do with the tenants. They say, put those wretches to a miserable death. Christ responds: Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.
The tenants are violent and that is a wickedness unto itself. But the violence is a reaction from a much darker, insidious wickedness: greed. When the landowner’s slaves came to procure their master’s fruits, the tenants were struck with a sudden urge of to be gratified – and to be gratified instantly. They stopped at nothing to be satiated.
When Hank throws his spoon on the floor, he wants it back immediately. You know what will happen if we give it back – he’ll come to expect such cause and effect. It would make our dinners much more peaceful for the meantime but in a year, we’ll be picking up forks, cups, plates, and be kicking ourselves for not taking the time to put in the hard work. We aren’t naive enough to think our lives will ever be peaceful again but still – it seems worth the effort to put in a little elbow grease on the front end, in hopes of a better tomorrow.
But putting in effort today, in hopes of what may – or may not come – tomorrow, isn’t the way of the world these days, is it?
We live in a time that is frenetic and hurried beyond measure. The world is constantly at our fingertips. Through smartphones and tablets and laptops, computers in our cars, our pockets, our cubicles at work, we can know almost anything at the swipe of a finger. Waiting in line seems inefficient, not hearing back from someone you sent an email to 20 minutes ago seems rude. We can get what we want anytime we want it with little effort. Such pace of life has shifted our cultural understanding of investment, of the longview, of putting in effort. Why imagine the possibilities when we can have them now? Why wonder when we can know? Why invest when we can cash out now?
Because, Christ promises, there is a better way – a way lived out in his flourishing vineyard. A way that certainly takes time to cultivate but a life that doesn’t rely on speed and gratification, on greed or on possession. Christ’s vineyard gives us an abundant life. His is a vineyard where we can live together as a community, as a covenant people. This holy, blessed vineyard is big enough for everyone and it also needs everyone there. It is land where you and yours will be safe, land where hopes are fulfilled. It is a land where you are not measured by your salary nor by the size of your house, not by the car you drive nor the clothes you wear. It is a fertile land where you are granted grace and are forgiven. It is a place set apart and a place made for you.
This vineyard, Christ warns, can and will be taken away from those who misuse it. It will be given to a people who revere the land, who care for it, and produce the fruits of the kingdom. His words are purposefully demanding, albeit a bit harsh. The vineyard is open for all but when you’re in it, you have to work, you have to tend and prune and harvest. The tenants in our story worked but they also thought they’d get ahead by greed and impulse, by avoiding their landowner and keeping the harvest for themselves. They tried to avoid the tedious steps it takes to make the vineyard flourish. Had they waited a few more years, the tenants would’ve seen that the vineyard multiplies its wealth with steady and purposeful work. It takes time for the harvest to come, slow, dedicated time.
Our vineyard here at Westminster flourishes because there are countless tenants who are faithful to their core. There are people in this church that invest so much of their time and effort to make sure ministry happens. There is a woman who goes around after church events and turns off all the lights so that our electric bill is lower and God’s green earth stays a bit greener. There are people who come in here to the sanctuary every week and clean up the messes that Chris, Betty, I, y’all make so that when we come into worship on Sunday, our space is ready. There are men who gather in the mornings to change our lightbulbs, fix our blinds, sand our door jams so that our building is maintained. There are people who count the offering after church so we can keep record of our finances and then turn around and use it to the benefit of our community. The library staff facilitates our education, the garden team harvests for us and the Food Bank, the nursery volunteers wipe the noses of our children, the ushers welcome us on Sunday mornings.
These tedious, small steps make our vineyard flourish because they – you – are taking the time to tend the holy, sacred ground Christ has prepared for us. These aren’t one-time offerings or tasks done for self-congratulation. This is the unhurried, methodical work of faithful tenants who know the importance of investing in our vineyard and waiting patiently for the harvest to come.
When I dreamed of our youth going to Iona, I dreamed not of what would happen there but what would happen later, when they were grown and gone, when I was retired and gray-er. I imagined the world our youth will live in thirty years from now: a world far more frenetic and hurried than now. And I dreamed of how this place, you, could plant some important seeds in their hearts that Iona would water and help grow so that when they were weary, they could remember their roots and know: they are a vineyard people.
We have similar dreams when we serve our sisters and brothers through a shelter meal at Urban Ministries or through the knitting of a prayer shawl or through the sending of a birthday card. We don’t know how a warm plate of lasagna will nourish a hungry person, or how the shawl might comfort someone who weeps, or how a birthday card will carry a sense of belonging for the wandering. But yet, not knowing doesn’t stop us from such important ministry. We are a people of the vineyard, a people who dream and hope, a people who invest in their community.
In ministry, in church life, we are called to work the land together not out of obligation, but out of gratitude for the God who built the vineyard for our flourishing. We work retrospectively with thanksgiving and we work with hope for what may come. It is a risky life, this life of a laborer. Living in our vineyard – in Christ’s vineyard – means that for many years, we might not see much of a harvest. For many years, giving might feel strained or difficult or pointless. Vineyards take years to cultivate before the delicious vintage comes. So, we live with hope for what may come. We decide and commit to stick around a bit, roll up our sleeves and put in our hours in the dirt. Living in this vineyard means living with faith that one day, the harvest will be so plentiful that we will never hunger again.
I invite you to listen to a poem by the 20th century Jesuit priest and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It is entitled Trust in the Slow Work of God.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability-
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually-let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
What kind of tenant will you be? The vineyard is waiting.