Isaiah 5:1–7; Psalm 80:7–14; Philippians 3:4b–14

In this congregation, I can probably ask how the wine grape harvest
is going in the south of France or in Napa, and somebody will be able to
tell us. Out of curiosity, I went looking on the internet yesterday, and
discovered that in northern California this year the harvest of some
wine grapes started on 1 August, the earliest in recent memory. It
started in eastern Washington State about 10 days ago, and at least in
the U.S., it will go on for several more weeks until most of the grapes
have been sent off to start being turned into wine. If you’ve
never seen vineyards at harvest time, it is an absolutely glorious
sight, and a furious buzz of activity. The owners of the vineyards, and
the vintners, have been praying a lot over the last few months—for
rain, sun, and cool weather in the right amounts and at just the right
times. They’re waiting for a harvest of excellent grapes, not so
much a bumper crop as the finest quality.

That image of a fruitful vineyard is an ancient biblical way of
talking about God’s people. God is eager for a rich harvest that
can be fermented into rare and wonderful wine. When Isaiah says,
“Let me sing my beloved a love-song about his vineyard,”
he’s talking about the beauty and abundance and the rich feast for
which all creation is intended: righteousness, justice, shalom.

Go out these doors and see the wonder of creation at harvest tide and
you will appreciate the motivation of that love song. Last weekend I got
to see the glory of leaves changing along the length of New Hampshire,
and in the last couple of days I’ve gotten to see the beginnings
of it between New York and here. I’ll sing that love song, too,
for the wonder of creation and fruitfulness in its season. The created
order does its work gloriously with or without our
assistance—sometimes more fruitfully without—but this great
vision of the prophets is about the vast interconnections between human
beings and the vineyard we’ve been loaned.

That’s right—loaned. Jesus’ parable is a reminder
that we’re all tenants here, and none of us an owner. This loan
was made with enormous collateral and the expectation of pretty
significant return on investment. The financial crisis in this country
and around the world may be an appropriate reminder that all of us live
on credit. We live on borrowed time, in borrowed space, and we’ve
been loaned the skills to plant the vineyard and make fine wine. But God
is our creditor, not the banks. This parable is about what happens when
the tenants forget they’re tenants.

Yesterday this Church made a public act of repentance for our
participation in slavery and profiting from it. Profit from it, you say?
Just a few examples: in 1860, 80% of the clergy of the diocese of
Virginia, and probably two-thirds of them in Maryland, owned slaves.
Today, many if not most of the banks in which we put our meager or
abundant savings have at some point profited from forced labor. The
pension fund that serves the clergy and lay employees of this church was
started by someone who also profited from forced labor. None of us is
clean once we begin to look below the surface. At some level we have
tried to produce a harvest by forcing somebody else to do all the
work.

The very idea of enslaving another human being results from assuming
that we can own any part of the vineyard, rather than having been set
here to keep and till it, and produce fruit that must be shared. Think
for a moment about owning and ownership. At its root, those words mean
possession, and having. Owning can mean having something in your
custody, being a steward, or it can mean having the right of life and
death over another part of creation. That second understanding is what
owners asserted over slaves, the National Socialists over supposedly
inferior races, and what we do to creation when we treat it as a
commodity. The first understanding of caring for the garden is the
biblical one.

There’s another aspect to that word possession as well, for it
is what happens to us when we think we own something in the second
sense, when we believe we have full and ultimate rights over it. We
actually become possessed by it, and it’s a lot closer to the
sense of being possessed by evil spirits from which Jesus heals people
in the gospels. If we assert an ungodly power over another human being
or part of creation, that ungodly power actually begins to possess us,
in a decidedly unholy way. Some have described it as being possessed by
our possessions.

We are as a nation right now reflecting abundantly on what it means
to be possessed, or dispossessed, by our possessions—our
investments, mutual funds, stocks, credit card loans, home mortgages.
Lots of people are feeling empty and sick and pretty powerless in the
wake of recent market machinations. To many, it’s feeling like a
bitter and pitiful harvest. But it is providing an opportunity to tend
the vineyard. There are too many who think there are no grapes to be
found there, or only little sour ones.

Where or how are we going to discover a rich and abundant harvest, or
help others find those sweet grapes? Sometimes that harvest turns up in
surprising places. I visited a tiny congregation last weekend. I gather
there are about 20 people when they get together for worship, and most
of them have had senior discounts for a very long time. They run a food
bank, and a thrift shop, and they’re renovating an old house at
the back of the church parking lot. Part of that house will become an
apartment for a low-income family, and the other part will let the
thrift shop expand into accessible quarters. A rich harvest is being
realized, maybe not in the world’s terms, but in lives
transformed—both those who receive food and clothing and shelter,
and those who have discovered a deeper way to serve their neighbors.
Those sweet and juicy grapes are mostly found as one human being meets
another, where the body and blood of Christ mingles with the world.

But the parable moves on to judgment. The vineyard owner sends the
rent collectors. The tenants have forgotten that their loan is ever
going to come due. And the ensuing carnage is not unlike the recent
chaos of our financial system. What is there to show for all those loans
written only as an excuse to put money to work—money that cannot
rationally have expected any harvest? It’s like planting grape
rootstock in plain water—it may grow for a while, but you’re
never going to get any meaningful harvest. Indeed the rootstock itself
will eventually rot and die.

What are we going to invest in? Where are we going to plant vines and
tend them? The bitter emptiness and fear around us would actually be an
appropriate place to go and plant new rootstock. It’s fresh ground
that’s been tilled, ready and waiting for a bold investment of
life-giving spirit. That’s partly what Jesus means when he says
that new tenants are going to be invited to lease the vineyard—the
owner is looking for folks who can think differently, like a good
entrepreneur. Try new ventures, even unlikely ones. Invest in places and
people that have potential for growth. Plant good news, hope, and
possibility in that newly turned earth—but it can only be done in
person. It needs flesh and blood, incarnate presence, the Body of
Christ, us, to do the planting. That fresh ground will produce a
bountiful harvest. The tenants who think they own the vineyard will
never produce anything like it.

And that line about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone? You
may worry about stumbling into it, but when the harvest comes,
that’s what gets the grape juice flowing. You have to crush the
grapes in order to make wine. Not crush them to smithereens, but just
crack the skins. When we’ve cracked our own shins and skins on the
rocks in our path, any and all of us can become finest wine and richest
harvest.

L’chaim. To life. In abundance. For all.