A Tale of Two Vineyards

Even God’s plans don’t go according to plan.

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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:1b-16
Matthew 21:33-46

Things don’t always go according to plan.

I grew up on the far southeast side of Chicago, in the neighborhood of Hegewisch. Hegewisch is named for its founder, Adolph Hegewisch, who envisioned a town just like the town of Pullman to the north. Pullman was founded by George Pullman, a railroad car tycoon, who built the town as a company town for his workers in order to provide them the best lifestyle, keep them happy, and therefore keep production high—as well as making quite a bit of money.

Hegewisch had a similar idea, and in 1883, he bought the area on which he would build his town. As president of the United States Rolling Stock Company, he too planned to build railroad cars there. By building two canals, one to connect to the Calumet River and one to connect nearby Wolf Lake to Lake Michigan, Hegewisch expected to be just as, if not more successful, than Pullman was with his company town.

Alas, Hegewisch’s plan wasn’t meant to be. The canals connecting all of those bodies of water were never built. The USRS Company did build railroad cars, but it was never as successful as the Pullman company and was sold in the early 1900s. The community was cut off from the rest of Chicago by railroad lines and much of the land around it simply went undeveloped. Hegewisch himself died around the time his company was sold off, and his vision of the perfect company town was dead.

The little community, now annexed into the city of Chicago, struggled along for a few more decades, its future uncertain. Still isolated and surrounded by undeveloped or industrial land, it managed to eek out a living. It wasn’t until the housing boom in the 1950s and 1960s that the neighborhood experienced an infusion of new life as blue collar workers and city workers, especially police officers and fire fighters, moved into the neighborhood.

But Adolph Hegewisch’s vision of the perfect company town of his own workers building his company railroad cars and making him rich never happened. It didn’t go according to plan.

Thankfully, the little neighborhood of Hegewisch survived and is still there today, but that’s not always the case. I used to do backpacking trips in Zaleski State Forest in Ohio, and along the trail are the remains of a ghost town that once existed there, a mining town that was deserted when the mine went under. There are dozens of ghost towns in Wisconsin and hundreds across the United States. No, things don’t always go according to plan.

Even God’s plans don’t go according to plan, according to our stories this morning. Both the prophet Isaiah and Jesus Christ have something to say about the way their countries have acted in response to God’s ideas, and they both use the image of a vineyard to do so.

Isaiah speaks of God lovingly planting a vineyard, clearing the land of stones, planting the vest vines available, building a wall to keep wild animals out, building a watch tower to protect it from vandals, and building a wine vat to press the grapes; there’s every justified expectation that this vineyard of God’s—which we later find out is the kingdom of Judah—will produce good fruit and great wine just as God planned.

But things didn’t go according to plan. The vineyard produced wild grapes unsuitable for wine. The land refused to yield good fruit in stubborn opposition to God’s plan. And the consequences are dire: the walls, hedges, tower, and vat are all torn down, allowing anyone and anything to ravage the land. Even the rains will stop falling on it, ensuring nothing good can ever grow there again.

Isaiah, like the other biblical prophets, looks at everything that’s happened to Israel and Judah and sees God’s hand in it—but it’s their own fault, not God’s. Things didn’t go according to plan.

When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard and its tenants, he draws on Isaiah’s story. In his parable a landowner plants a vineyard, puts a wall around it, builds a watchtower, digs the wine press, just like God does in Isaiah’s story. But this time it’s not the land itself, but the people working on it, the tenants, who refuse to yield “good fruit” as it were.

When the landowner sends slaves to collect what is owed to him, the tenants beat the slaves and kill them. This happens twice, until the landowner sends his son and heir, assuming that, in an honor and shame culture, the tenants would treat the heir better than the slaves because of who he is. The landowner is wrong.

And when Jesus asks the chief priests and the Pharisees what should happen to the tenants, they give a self-condemning answer: put those wretches to death, and give the vineyard to other tenants.

It’s quite the pair of stories, isn’t it? Stark, violent, condemning. There’s not a lot of good news to be found in them. But they speak to a reality that we all know, even if we don’t always know why: things don’t always go according to plan. We see it every day.

We know things don’t go according to plan because people like Stephen Paddock can load 23 guns into 10 suitcases, carry them to a 32nd floor hotel room, set them up like a professional, and unload a hail of bullets into a crowd of 22,000 concert-goers, killing almost 60 people and wounding another 500.

We know things don’t go according to plan because gun violence is an epidemic in our land that has been allowed to grow and thrive under the auspices of “rights” that place property and killing above the lives of others, an epidemic we have created for ourselves and that we are responsible for.

We know things don’t go according to plan because Rohingya refugees persecuted by the Myanmar army have endured brutal beatings, gang-rapes, murders, whole villages burned to the ground, while the Myanmar government does little to stop it.

We know things don’t go according to plan because we see it around us every day in the faces of our neighbors and friends who are hungry, who are homeless, who are cold, who are frightened; but have no way of relieving their own suffering.

And neither of the options presented in our stories this morning seem to bring any comfort; in Isaiah, the vineyard is destroyed, and in Jesus’s parable, presumably, it will be handed over to new tenants.

And that’s why the plan has to change and had to change.

A colloquial definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. How many times will the vineyard produce sour grapes and be torn down before a different approach is taken? How many groups of tenants will seize the landowner’s slaves, beat and kill them, before a different approach is taken?

How many more mass shootings must take place before we do something, anything at all, to curb them? How many more refugees must die before the world does something to rescue them? How many poor people are enough to open our community’s eyes to their plight and take action?

Something has to change, and something did change.

Jesus alludes to it in the explanation of his parable: “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”.

Our stories this morning, and the realities of the world around us, speak to a never-ending cycle of violence. Violence begets violence. Violence is not a cure for violence. Violence does not solve the problem of violence. Violence only perpetuates more violence, and more violence, and more violence, and more violence. And so God stopped responding with violence.

Instead, God responded with sacrifice. God responded by sending Jesus Christ, the son of God, into the midst of violent people, and letting that violence be played out on him. To their violence, Christ responded with forgiveness. To their hate, Christ responded with love. And through his death and resurrection, Christ proved once and for all that violence and death do not have the last word; not over this world, not over us, and not over God.

I know it’s not much. Sadly, I have no illusions that last week’s mass shooting in Las Vegas will be the last. Nor will the Rohingya refugee crisis be the last one. Nor will the reality of hunger and homelessness in our town be solved overnight.

But in the midst of all of this violence and sadness, we cling to the hope that there is something more. We cling to the promise of God that violence isn’t the way things were planned to be; that things haven’t gone according to plan; but that a new plan, one based on sacrifice, love, and hope is in place. Even if we can’t always see it.

Featured Image: “Vineyard” by Henry Hemming is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

God Is Unfair

“Is my way unfair?” asks God? Yes! Yes, God, your way is unfair!

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

I know I’m going to regret referencing something like this this early—and I beg your forgiveness now—but growing up, one of my all-time favorite movies was Home Alone starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern. Back then, I didn’t care that it was *gasp* a Christmas movie. I loved it.

Culkin plays Kevin McCallister, a young kid who is accidentally left home alone when his extended family rushes out the door to go on a Paris vacation. Kevin goes on a number of adventures, including fighting off two criminals who want to rob Kevin’s house and wrongly assume that it will be easy pickings. There’s one scene in the movie that is particularly touching. During Kevin’s wild adventures alone, he decides to stop in a church when he hears singing coming from it. It’s a children’s choir practicing for later that night, and he sits down in a pew to listen for a while.

While he’s listening, his neighbor, Old Man Marley, whom Kevin is afraid of because his older brother told him urban legends about Marley being a murderer, enters the church and asks to sit down. Though Kevin is afraid, he agrees, and Old Man Marley sits, explaining that he’s there to listen to his granddaughter sing. But he has to come and listen to her now, because he won’t be welcome when she sings later that night.

Kevin finds out that years prior, before Kevin’s family moved to the neighborhood, Old Man Marley had a heated argument with his son. It got so bad that he told his son that he never wanted to see him again, and his son said the same. And so it’s been; neither Marley nor his son have spoken to each other since that day, and Marley has been cut out of his children’s and grandchildren’s lives. That’s why he’s not welcome later that night. Marley regrets the argument, and what’s happened because of it.

Kevin asks Marley a question: why don’t you call your son? And Marley answers that he doesn’t think his son would want to talk to him; it’s been too long, and he’s afraid that if he calls, he’ll be rejected. There’s too much bad blood between them. Still, Kevin tells Old Man Marley that he needs to call his son.

At the end of the movie—spoiler alert—Kevin looks out his window toward Marley’s house. And outside, he sees Old Man Marley, his granddaughter in his arms, and his son and daughter-in-law with him. He made the call. And his son was indeed willing to talk to him; and not just talk to him, to see him again. Marley waves to Kevin, tears in his eyes, and the four of them go into the house to celebrate Christmas.

How long is too long for reconciliation to happen? Is there a point of no return, beyond which it is simply impossible to mend a relationship that’s been broken?

It was a question on the minds of the Israelites while they lived in exile in Babylon, away from their homeland and everything they knew. Had they finally reached the tipping point? Had their ancestors built up so much ill-will with God that God finally had enough and was punishing them for the sins of history? This is what they meant when they said, “The parents eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” They were paying for the mistakes of their ancestors, and there was nothing they could do about it.

In response this parable, God uses the prophet Ezekiel to set the record straight. The Israelites are accusing God of being unfair by punishing them for the sins of their parents, but it doesn’t work like that, God says. “Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” God asks. For according to God, only the wicked themselves will die, not the righteous. If those who used to be righteous turn wicked, then they shall pay for their wickedness; that sounds fair. And indeed, if the wicked regret their wickedness and turn back to God, then they will not die, for they have turned back to God and away from the wicked path.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if we assume too much if we declare God fair because of this. “Is my way unfair?” asks God, and I think the answer may be, Yes, it is unfair.

It’s unfair because the wicked could live their whole lives wickedly, and at the end turn back to God, and it doesn’t matter how wicked they were before. How is that fair? How is that justice? It sounds like restorative justice, something I talked about last week and the week before, but are we convinced that restorative justice is fair? “Is my way unfair?” asks God?

Is it fair that the son who disrespects his father in Jesus’s parable gets to be the good guy just because he eventually goes and does what his father asks? Is it fair that the Pharisees, the Chief Priests, the elders of the people, who lived their entire lives devoted to the temple and to the teachings of Moses and the Law and serving God—is it fair that they are regarded so poorly by Jesus? Is it fair that Jesus puts tax collectors—people who make a living by cheating their own people out of money—and prostitutes—people who make a living by having sex with other people—are counted higher in Jesus’s eyes than good, hard-working, noble people?

What about this is fair? What about this is right? There should be a point past which reconciliation is simply not possible. Like when family members slam each other on Facebook so much that they get blocked. Like when family members walk out of our lives with no intention of returning. Like when politicians betray our trust. Like when people go to jail for assault and battery, manslaughter, murder, rape.

“Is my way unfair?” asks God? Yes! Yes, God, your way is unfair! Your way is too generous, too loving, too caring, too forgiving, too lenient, too reconciling! How can you call your way fair?!

And the short answer is, we can’t. We can’t call God’s way fair. Fairness dictates that at a certain point, there’s simply nothing one can do to repair the damage they’ve done. There’s no turning back. And yet, that point doesn’t seem to exist for God.

Because as God tells the Israelites, “When the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die…. For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD.”

And again, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him.” Those ugly, no good, filthy people of society, believed. They had faith.

It is human nature to believe that relationships can be broken so badly that they can’t be fixed. And maybe, when it comes to our own relationships, there is. I don’t know. I like to think, and hope, that even our flawed human relationships are never so badly broken that they cannot ever be salvaged. Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I just hope for some fun-loving family members back.

But of this I am certain; when it comes to God, there is no such thing as a hopeless relationship. There is no such thing as a point of no return. There is no such thing as too much wickedness and sin for the relationship between humanity, creation, and God to be restored. The power of God to mend that which is broken and heal that which is hurt goes far and above what we ourselves could possible imagine. It is so very unfair. And thanks be to God.

And just maybe, as I said a few weeks ago, just maybe, that’s all the power we need to mend a few of our own relationships too.

Featured Image: “forgiveness” by scem.info is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

You Are Worth It

We begin worship with forgiveness because we need to know—I need to know, you need to know—that we are not only in need of forgiveness, but that we are worth forgiveness, that we are not beyond hope.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Mr. Hinton was at his mother’s house on an otherwise normal day in 1985, helping her around the house as children often do for their mothers.

Except on this day, two police officers came to the yard and arrested Mr. Hinton. They asked if he had a gun, and when he said he didn’t, they asked if his mother did. She did, and they went in the house to retrieve that gun. It was the only piece of evidence used to try Mr. Hinton of murdering two restaurant managers in Birmingham, AL. The expert witness admitted he couldn’t see through the microscope very well because of poor eyesight. Mr. Hinton passed a lie detector test, had a solid, verifiable alibi, and the only incriminating evidence was supplied by the aforementioned deficient expert.

Mr. Hinton was found guilty of the double murder and sentenced to death row.

Years later, Mr. Hinton met a lawyer named Bryan Stevenson, who agreed to take on his case. Mr. Stevenson found three highly credible and well-known experts that testified that there was no way the bullets that killed the restaurant managers came from Mr. Hinton’s mother’s gun. The prosecution actually agreed. Mr. Hinton was innocent! Yet he still spent another sixteen years on death row as appeal after appeal was rejected.

His case eventually reached the Supreme Court which, in an almost unheard of unanimous decision, ordered a retrial. The case against Mr. Hinton quickly crumbled, and thirty years after his arrest, after spending three decades on death row, Mr. Hinton was released a free man.

Mr. Hinton’s life was forever changed by his stay on death row. He still wakes up every morning at 3 am, because that’s when he had to get up in jail. He bought a California King-sized bed to sleep in, but sleeps curled up tight on one corner, because that’s how he slept on death row. But spending three decades on death row couldn’t rip his joy away from him, he says. He still has so much joy.

To this day, Anthony Ray Hinton doesn’t speak ill of the people who falsely put him on death row for thirty years. “I do not hold any hatred for the people who put me there,” he says, “I have seen what hatred can do. What would it profit me to hate? … I forgive them. I forgive them without them asking… I forgive them so they can sleep good at night… I forgive them so that I can sleep good at night.”

Shane Claiborne tells Mr. Hinton’s story in his book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. In it, he says that Anthony Ray Hinton “is one of the most incredible faces of grace I have ever met,” even though he endured a thirty year nightmare and has every right to hate the people who falsely accused him of murder because he was black and “looked evil” and the jury that sentenced him to death with no evidence.

Instead, Mr. Hinton forgave those who wronged him.

Mr. Hinton’s story has parallels in the Joseph saga recorded in the book of Genesis. Refresher: Joseph is one of Jacob’s at least thirteen children (twelve sons and at least one daughter), and is Jacob’s favorite. After Jacob gives Joseph an expensive, rich coat, Joseph’s brothers plan to kill him out of jealousy. Instead, they sell him into slavery in Egypt, where Joseph is falsely accused of trying to put moves on his owner’s wife and thrown in jail. There, he earns a reputation as an interpreter of dreams, which comes in handy when the Pharaoh starts having worrisome dreams.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that a big famine is coming, and Pharaoh is so impressed he puts Joseph in charge of administrating the entire country’s supply of food. When the famine hits, Joseph’s brothers who live outside Egypt come to Egypt to buy food because of the famine. They don’t recognize Joseph, who puts them through a few tests to see if they’ve changed, and when he sees that they have, he breaks down in tears because he’s so happy to see them again. He brings his father’s entire family to live with him in Egypt, where they can live comfortably.

Which leads to the part of the story we read this morning, where Joseph assures his brothers that, like Anthony Ray Hinton, he doesn’t harbor any ill feelings toward his brothers, the people who put him through hell. He’s forgiven them.

It’s a practice called “restorative justice”. When we think of the word “justice”, we’re usually thinking of retributive, or criminal justice: a crime is a violation of law. It creates guilt. Justice then is the meting out of punishment to fit the crime so that the offender gets what they deserve. It’s the kind of justice that the slave in Jesus’s parable expects, since he can’t pay his debt; and it’s the justice he gives out when another slave can’t pay his.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, treats crime as a break in relationship between people. It creates an obligation. Justice involves people coming together to make things right and focuses on the needs of the victim and the responsibility of the offender to meet those needs. It’s the kind of justice the king in Jesus’s parable gives out at first, when instead of worrying about the 10,000 talents owed him, he instead focuses on the slave’s life and family, and chooses to erase the debt to avoid hurting him and maintain the relationship.

As Claiborne explains it, criminal justice asks, “What laws have been broken? Who did it? What does the offender deserve?” Restorative justice asks, “Who has been hurt? What are the victim’s needs? Whose obligations are these?” And it involves a lot of forgiveness.

We’ve talked about forgiveness before; just last week, actually. And we talked about how hard it is to forgive. Forgiving once is tough enough. But more than once? I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” It means, “If I trust you and get hurt, that’s your fault. But if I’m stupid enough to let myself trust you and get hurt again, well, then that’s my fault for being so stupid.”

Forgiveness is for the first time, right? Maybe the second? Which leads us directly into Peter’s question to Jesus: just how many times is he supposed to forgive someone who hurts him? Seven times, a rather generous number?

Sometimes, it’s hard enough to forgive just one time, let alone seven or 490! I know it is for me. Every time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I lie—I don’t want God to forgive me the way I forgive others, because I’m terrible at forgiving others, and I don’t want God to be terrible at forgiving me!

Fortunately, this is something God excels at. And we need to be reminded of that.

Do you ever wonder why, almost every Sunday, we begin worship by confessing our sins? It’s so that, every week, we hear again these words:

When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God. In the same way, you were dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God. By the mercy of God you are united with Jesus Christ, in whom you are forgiven. Live in the peace of Christ!

When was the last time, outside of Sunday morning, that you heard the words, “you are forgiven”? I don’t know when I last heard them. It’s not because I don’t need forgiveness—I screw up a lot. But I don’t hear them a lot. In the absence of those words, it’s easy to think that, maybe, I’m not worth forgiving. Or that I’m unforgivable.

But God forgives. God forgives more than Anthony Ray Hinton forgave our racist criminal justice system that sentenced him to death on no evidence because he was black. God forgives more than Joseph forgave his brothers for trying to kill him and selling him into slavery. God forgives more than the 490 times Jesus tells Peter he should forgive each person that hurts him.

God forgives because each and every one of us is worth forgiving. Because God values our relationship more than punishment. Because God loves. Because if God was able to boldly proclaim forgiveness to the people around Jesus Christ as they literally drove nails into his arms and hoisted him up on an instrument of torture and execute him, then what do you think can possibly stand in the way of God forgiving you?

We begin our worship the way we do not because it’s the way we’ve always done it. We begin worship with forgiveness because we need to know—I need to know, you need to know—that we are not only in need of forgiveness, but that we are worth forgiveness, that we are not beyond hope. And maybe, in the process, we’ll be able to recognize that those around us who have hurt us too are also in need of and worth forgiveness. Which is the really hard part. Because it means we have to be vulnerable, both victims and offenders, valuing our relationship over our need to be right. Which is, of course, ultimately better for all of us.

Near the end of his book, Shane Claiborne talks about forgiveness. He says, “Forgiveness does not undermine or subvert justice. It creates the possibility for real justice to happen. It casts out the toxic residue of resentment and the desire for revenge. It frees from the inside out.”

Forgiveness heals both the victim and the perpetrator. It restores relationships. And even when we can’t forgive others–or worse, we can’t forgive ourselves–God forgives, more times than we can count, and with a patience that never runs out. Because we’re worth it. We are worth it to God.

You are worth it to God.

Featured Image: “Forgive” by Paul Sableman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.