Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
My wife Terri and I usually plant herbs and tomato plants that we nibble on throughout the year. A few years ago at our home in Florida, we planted a tomato vine in our tiny herb garden. We did everything we thought possible to insure our plant would bear fruit. We watered it obsessively for days, we staked the plant so it would have something on which to grow, we used zip ties around the vine to help anchor it.
Despite all our efforts and despite the extraordinary height this plant attained, despite the flowers that emerged several times, the tomato vine never bore fruit; there were never any tomatoes. The plant never, ever attained its ultimate destiny, which was to provide sweet, succulent, home-grown flavor to our salads, burgers, and sandwiches throughout the summer. The problem was that our small garden space was being taken up by a non fruit-bearing plant, and the only solution it would seem would to have pulled it up, and put something else in its place. As God always does, there was another plan that we had not yet seen, nor were we ready to make the changes needed.
Today’s unusual parable about a vineyard and the tenants who occupied it, is found not as an isolated story, but as a part of a series of parables Jesus uses to confront the religious leaders. Today’s story comes after last week’s parable in which, Jesus teaches about a father who sends the sons into the vineyard and both respond differently. One does his father’s bidding, the other refuses. This week, Jesus tells about a vineyard leased to tenants and the owner, after some time, sends folks to gather up his crops. However, the tenants become deceitful, and so they beat up one, killed another and stoned a third servant. Finally, the father sends his own son, and they kill him as well. This parable is about God’s chosen people and their mission to be a blessing to all nations.
Throughout the Biblical narrative, the people of Israel strayed from their original mission, and yet God was faithful and sent prophets to call them back to the path. The parable today speaks about when Christ, God enfleshed came to call his people back to the chosen path, and he too faced the same fate as that of the prophets. The parable concludes with Jesus’ warning to the religious leaders that the Kingdom responsibilities they had been given, would eventually be given to another group, whose lives would bear the fruit of the Kingdom. These two parables (last week’s and today’s) are given by Jesus in response to the leaders’ attempts to trap him, because in essence, his ministry posed a threat to their notion of what the Kingdom of God was really all about.
Not our Vineyard but God’s
Sometimes we have our own ideas what God’s Kingdom should be like. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time nurtured their own ideas of washing hands at the right time, eating with only certain people, avoiding certain foods, and worshipping in particular ways, which were all a part of a religious system that developed over time. There were strict laws that were upheld so that one could identify who was in the community and who was out. Holiness in some cases became less about molding a people to be a blessing (the original mission), and more about exclusion of those on the outside. There were laws that even prevented them from helping a friend in need on a particular day because it thwarted the law. The people forgot why they were brought together in the first place.
Early in the narrative of Israel, Abram (later renamed Abraham) was called out by God and he was given a mission to accomplish for the Kingdom. God said, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12) The mission of God’s chosen people, was to be a blessing to all nations, to stand out as a presence in the world of God’s Kingdom lived out in the lives of an entire people. The mission of the chosen folk was not to be exclusive, but to be inclusive and life-transforming through their example. God’s patience in dealing with this people set apart to be a blessing, is seen throughout their history. Then the Son came.
Jesus was a threat to the religious complacency that stemmed from the people’s concept of God’s Kingdom. Jesus and his disciples did not follow some of the hand-washing and other purity codes, he ate with sinners and tax collectors, he healed his sisters and brothers on that particular day set aside for something else. Jesus did not merely thwart the system because he wanted to be a “change agent,” Jesus actually reimagined Abram’s understanding of our mission. Jesus lived it and taught it and died for it. Jesus turned upside down the misconstrued notions of the Kingdom of God the religious leaders embraced at the time, and Jesus clarified that the Kingdom was not a worldly nation, but a people gathered whose purpose was to be an example, a city on a hill, a lighthouse for the lost soul. Jesus brought radical change to the Kingdom, so the Kingdom represented the mission of God; transformation, reconciliation, and resurrection (new life).
Our Mission – Herbal Mission
We embrace the sovereignty of God (the Kingdom of God) when we are a blessing to all with whom we come in contact. This is the heart of the mission of the Church, which is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” In other words, everything we do should be based on this mission. We are called together to be a lighthouse, an example, a welcoming respite, a faith forming, life-transforming, community that helps all people, not just the ones we like, so they all might be restored to God and each other. That is our mission, that is why we are brought together, and that is why we are the Body of Christ. We are to be a blessing to all with whom we come in contact both as individuals and as a community. Jesus warned the religious leaders about what happens when a community fails to embrace its mission, he implied that the task would be given to others who bear the Kingdom’s fruit.
In our mini garden a few years ago, right alongside our non-bearing tomato plant, we decided frustrated, to place in the ground a wonderful assortment of fresh basil, a lovely lemon thyme, and selection of Greek oregano. Over several months, we enjoyed omelets, salads, main dishes and vegetables seasoned with some of the most aromatic and flavorful herbs we ever had. The food we prepared at home was enhanced, because we added the fruit, or rather the irresistible leaves of our fresh herbs. It was amazing how the presence of such flavor, aroma, and oils brought a change to everything into which it was placed.
Ongoing mission requires Change
The Church is like that, because we are planted in our neighborhoods to bring God’s grace to bear on the lives of our neighbors. We sit here today as witnesses to the grace, the love, the reconciliation of Christ in our lives, made possible by your participation in the life of this congregation. Your mission to the people in the surrounding neighborhoods though, may need to be different, because the neighborhood may be very different than when the church was planted many years ago.
The neighborhood has changed, but the mission remains necessary because the spiritually hungry need to be fed, the emotionally downtrodden need to be lifted up, and the cold and needy must to be provided warm clothes of mercy, grace, and reconciliation. The Church is called to be a flavorful herb and spice that makes the Kingdom of God possible right here and right now.
However, the Church must always be ready to adapt to its situation as the vineyard changes. Our mission and how we accomplish it must be evaluated, reconsidered and possibly reformulated sometimes. We may need to try new things, make some radical changes, and that may mean that we will need to take a look over the next few years and realize that we are being called by God to tweak, adjust, add to, or take away from areas of ministry. I am sure that in the past, there were ministries here that bore great fruit, but for some reason they do so no longer, but God is always making things new.
Tomatoes and Mission
The tomato plant in our mini garden after several months, never bore fruit. On a weekly basis, I continued to add additional Velcro stabilizing straps, I watered it, and cared for it, and it continued to grow higher and higher. The flowers continued to burst forth, but there was never even one tomato that emerged on those branches. I also never just pulled it up and planted something new, because I believed, and I had hope that as long as it was green, and as long as it was growing, at some point, in God’s time the fruit might emerge. What I realized was that the tomato plant was actually a part of the entire garden. It’s mission changed from being a fruit bear to providing shade from the scorching Florida sun. When I added something new, I changed the nature of my herb garden with fruit bearing herbs that would grow alongside the tomato vine, and in time change it as well.
I believed in the tomato vine, and I had hope that the day would came when a little red fruit might emerge, alongside the blend of new herbs, new thyme, new basil, and new oregano, which once was only an additive of herbs. I believed the whole garden now could become a source of impeccable flavor that would enhance any dish.
As you look over the rich tapestry of congregational life here in this community, you have everyday asked God to give you the grace to grow in a love of Christ. Now it is a new day and time to seek the wisdom to make right choices regarding the evolving and emerging mission you have been given. Pray for the Spirit to bring it all to God’s abundant table of love, mercy, and grace. Pray that you have the courage to focus on your mission, that God will give you a renewed vision of mission, so that you can continue to be a rich addition to the vineyard, the broader community where the lives of the least, lost, and lonely around you, need your presence, your love, and your service to God.