This is the time of year when we think about the harvest – at least in the popular mind. We have passed the autumnal equinox, the leaves are turning all their glorious fall colors, there a gourds and mums and bundles of corn stalks everywhere, and every coffee shop is featuring pumpkin spice lattes. In reality, October is the last month of the agricultural harvest season, at least here in the Northeast. And that is true for grapes and vineyards, as well.
For the previous two weeks we have had Gospel readings that make mention of vineyards. In part that is because they were such an important part of daily life in the ancient Middle East; and in part because grape vines were one of the symbols and metaphors for God’s People in the Hebrew Scriptures: vines, fig trees, sheep.
Today’s Gospel not only is a parable that Jesus tells about a vineyard, but it talks about the harvest, the produce of the vineyard. And that theme of harvest connects to where we are in our annual parish cycle – the time in which we focus on our financial stewardship for the coming year. We often think of this season of harvest abundance and reflect on and pray about how we will offer back to God a portion of that abundance to fund the mission and ministries that we have undertaken in Christ’s name here at All Saints’.
That’s a very important conversation to have and reflection to make, especially in this year which has been so up-ended by the pandemic, and we will be having that conversation in a number of different ways over the next weeks. But this week’s Gospel leads us, I believe, to a consideration of something that is both more basic and much bigger than our offerings of time, talent, and treasure.
We pick up where we left off last week. Jesus is in the Temple, the seat of religious, cultural, and (to some extent) civil authority and power. And in Matthew’s chronology this scene takes place after Palm Sunday, after the noisy celebratory parade which accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem. In the Jewish calendar it is just days away from the start of Passover with all its longings for God’s Messiah to come and deliver the people from Roman oppression, as he delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The tension in the city is running high. And Jesus continues to confront the Temple authorities by telling them this parable that Bible editors have labelled “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.”
It has all the elements to grab the attention of and connect with the Temple leadership – a wealthy landowner, a well-established and provided for agricultural operation, tenant farmers who work the land and harvest the crop for the owner. And because this is a story about a vineyard, the symbolic connection to Israel cannot be overlooked. The owner’s servants get sent to the vineyard to collect the produce, but the tenants have decided to keep the harvest and the profit for themselves and so they refuse, progressively abusing and then murdering the owner’s representatives. When the landowner decides to send his son – essentially arriving in his father’s place – the tenants see a new opportunity: to keep the inheritance for themselves; and they kill the son as well.
That is where the parable ends, and Jesus then turns the focus onto the chief priests and the Pharisees. He asks them what should happen to the tenant farmers, and they rightly proclaim that the landowner should have the tenants put to death and hire new, law-abiding workers. Jesus then goes on to quote Psalm 118, one of the Psalms associated with Passover and with Succoth (or Tabernacles) the harvest festival; it’s that part about the stone which the builders rejected. And he makes a play on words in Hebrew that is not apparent to us in English. The Hebrew word for “stone” is eben, and the word for “son” or “son of” is ben and the only difference between those two words when they are written is a vowel marking that tells the reader to pronounce the initial “e” in eben. So the son in the parable (ben) becomes the stone (eben) which has been rejected by the builders but becomes the chief cornerstone.
This word play helps to drive home Jesus’ point that the Temple authorities are in the role of the tenant farmers when it comes to their stewardship of God’s People. They have ignored the landowner (God), they have beaten and abused the messengers (God’s prophets) and now they are ready to kill the son (the Messiah). Because of all this, Jesus declares to them that God will remove them from their place and role of authority and oversight. Under their leadership God’s people in Judea and Galilee have not produced the spiritual harvest of covenant love and loyalty and faithfulness to God; there has been too much giving-in to Rome and the illegitimate assumptions of Roman power and authority. No wonder the Temple leaders are enraged!
How does this connect to us, in such a different time and place? The connection I want to make is to the Church writ large – especially with the Episcopal Church and “main-line” Protestant denominations in the US and in Europe. For nearly five hundred years our historic, main-line churches had been centers of spiritual authority in many cultures and many countries - powerful witnesses to the truth of God’s love for humankind and a force for good in the world. Over the last forty to fifty years the central role of the Church in society and in the lives of many people has declined. There are many reasons for that decline – a discussion for another day – some of which the Church deserved, and others were not of our own making. But over time that decline has eroded our confidence – our confidence in the Truth (capital T) of Christian faith, our confidence in what we know and believe for ourselves, our confidence in whether anyone who has not already got some sort of grounding in the Church would be interested in hearing about what following Jesus is all about, our confidence in discerning God’s presence and direction in our lives.
While the Church as a whole may not have been exactly like those wicked tenant farmers, the harvest of faith we have offered to God has often been skimpy and the light that we have shone in our neighborhoods and communities and countries has often been peeking out from under a bushel-basket, and our voice has been muffled and indistinct, rather than clear – mostly because we have not been confident, we have lost our nerve, and our faith has not had the room or light or air it needs to grow.
And yet we are at a time where the world sorely needs the love and grace and truth of God as we know it in Jesus, and as we have experienced it in our lives. As Episcopalians we are often hesitant to talk about our faith – because we don’t want to seem pushy, or rigid, or because we don’t want our non-Church-going friends to look at us funny, or maybe because we don’t know how. We don’t have the vocabulary, we don’t feel we can quote the Bible chapter and verse, we think we need to be an expert on Christianity and comparative religion before we can say anything.
But that’s not what God asks of us. We don’t have to be experts; we certainly shouldn’t be pushy or rigid. If you are squeamish about your faith because of what secular friends might say then maybe you need to also develop some friendships with other Christians who can help you become more comfortable with acting and speaking as a Christian. If you feel you don’t know much about the Bible or Christians beliefs, that’s what I’m here for, in part – to offer resources and conversations to help you learn and grow; and there are lots of other folk here at All Saints’ who can help you, too. Faith isn’t just something static that gets handed to you and you either have it or you don’t; there is always room to grow, and we are always stronger together.
And on a larger level we all need to be praying for the renewal and revival of the Church – All Saints’ Church, of course, but the Episcopal Church and the Church universal. The Church needs our prayers, and our willingness to be part of whatever God does next in this time of great upheaval and uncertainty. When the Church and her witness, her voice and action, are diminished by hesitancy or lacking of faithful confidence then there are people in the world who suffer, who go without hope, who go unloved, unfriended, unhoused, unfed, unmoored from truth and goodness, untethered from any connection to God.
This is the harvest we should pray for. This is the abundance God longs to give us, and of which we have been called to be good stewards.
Let us pray.
Lord God, we know that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love. Give us the will, the wisdom, and the confidence to be bearers of your truth and love. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 4, 2020