When we moved to Virginia nine years ago, one of the first things we did was to go to out to Loudoun County wine country.
I think the first vineyard we visited was Willowcroft, the oldest vineyard in Loudoun County. While we were there we picked up a booklet, The Loudoun County Wine Trail which listed all the wineries in the county. Marilyn and I decided that we would try each and every one of them and check them off in our booklet as we went. There were about twenty-seven of them listed in our book. At the rate of three per year we finally visited the last one this past Saturday up on the Harpers Ferry road. We checked it off in our book (the cover of which was falling off) and, while we were there we picked up the current Loudoun County Wine Trail booklet. It, too, had a list of all the vineyards. So we checked off all the ones we had been to over the nine years and found out that, lo-and-behold, there were fifteen more!!! So it looks as if we have some more work to do. It is painstaking, but somebody’s got to do it!
I know that many of you, too, like to visit our beautiful wine country. And so, when I came across this morning’s readings, I said to myself: “Ah, finally! An agricultural image we can all relate to.” We often have to explain biblical allusions to sheep and shepherding, but wine making – hey we know about that.
Three of our readings have to do with vineyards. The first, from Isaiah, speaks of a vineyard which had been planted lovingly, but had produced nothing but wild grapes. In our gospel, Jesus uses this passage from Isaiah to fashion a story about tenant farmers who mutinied, took over the vineyard, and killed anyone the owner sent to resolve the situation, including his own son. Our Psalm, too, speaks of a vineyard which started off nicely but ended up with broken walls and stolen grapes.
One of the reasons Marilyn and I like wine country, besides the good wine, is the beautiful scenery. Grand old horse farms are being saved from the developers as they segue, intact, to agriculture. As a matter of fact, one of the newest establishments of fermented spirits (this one beer and hops) has named itself Vanish because the owner wanted to save the entire estate from vanishing into commercial development.
The reason I’m spending too much time with this mini-mercial for the county in which Marilyn and I live is that there is a parallel between what is happening there and what happens in all three of our readings which have to do with vineyards – preservation and salvation from destruction and decay. The vineyard, in our readings, is presented as the thing which is created pure and pristine – much like the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Then the thing comes along which devastates the unspoiled, pristine, creation.
In the Psalm the vineyard is destroyed by the boar which may represent Israel’s foes. In the gospel the vineyard is defiled by tenants who represent Jewish religious authority and those who would kill Jesus. In Isaiah it is God, himself, who lays waste to his own vineyard as punishment to Israel for turning away from him. But in each case, that which was created pure and perfect becomes defiled. It is the story of paradise lost.
Now, there are two ways to preach this – and in the last third of this sermon I will attempt to do just that. The first is to let all of this be a metaphor for salvation history. God created the earth and lovingly put it in the stewardship of the people he created – also lovingly. But, when the people rebelled, God first punished by destroying it all with food, fire, and brimstone. Finally, he sent his own son to redeem his creation – and even the son was rejected by some. That’s one way to understand today’s theme. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son that whosoever should believe in him would have life eternal. That wraps things up neatly. Things are bad, but God will make them good. Salvation.
But another way to approach these destroyed vineyards is from the midst of the destruction itself. Isaiah’s image of a scorched-earth vineyard, in particular, highlights other contemporary images from the past few weeks which have been sort of burned on the back of my eyelids: Images of the complete de-forestation of the Caribbean islands, of homes blown away, of flooded homes in Texas, of endless food and gas lines. And what more devastating echo of a destroyed vineyard could there be than the happy crowd of concert-goers enjoying country music one minute and the very next minute being mowed down – killed and maimed – by machine gun fire. (Yes, I meant to say ‘machine gun.’)
I don’t know about you, but I am almost shocked out. Ten years ago we were told that, unless we did something about climate change, temperatures would rise in our vineyard, storms would become more frequent and intense. It is ten years later. One week it is Harvey came. Then Irma. Then Maria. Then the wild boar trampled the vineyard --- someone whose name CNN refuses even to mention randomly kills 58 people … and we don’t even have the satisfaction of knowing why he did it.
Yeah, our vineyard has been trampled down. The bad guys have taken it over. We cry out for salvation, for redemption. We want to know why, but moreover, we just want it to stop.
We’re beyond preservation. We need restoration. We need restoration. In today’s psalm we sang out, “Restore us, O God of hosts. Let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.” The psalm goes on to express the hope that the vine which was planted so long ago could be restored. The psalm refrain, which we sang four times, prayed, “Look down from heav’n, O God: behold and tend this vine.”
We’re beyond preservation. We need restoration. We need for the air to be restored. We need for the water to be restored. We need to have restored a sense of normalcy and sanity in a nation which experiences fun deaths at a rate 25 times higher than nations with similar economies
We’re beyond preservation. We need restoration. Christ is the vine to which we all are grafted. Our hope is in him. We pray our psalm prayer, “Look down from heav’n, O God: behold and tend this vine.” But, as I said in my e-mail to you this past week. Let’s pray last. Let’s get to work in the vineyard first and clean things up. If God is going to do something about climate change, he will do it through us. If God is going to do anything about gun violence, he will do it through us.
We need restoration. Let’s pray for it. But let’s get to work in the vineyard first.
Scripture: Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-15, Matthew 21:33-46