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.

Healing

Lenten reflection for April 2.

Andy* is an energetic, inquisitive little boy. He would come into my office and play with my stuff while I tried to work on a sermon or prayers. He would sit on my bike and see if he could touch the pedals. His mom works for the church, so the building is like a second home to him. He knew that I wouldn’t be at that church long, but that didn’t stop him from becoming my friend anyway. He has that smile and glow about him that makes you wonder what happened to your own youthful energy.

Andy also has ITP, or Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. ITP is a condition in which the body’s white blood cells become confused and begin attacking the blood’s platelets, killing them off. Platelets are the cells that clot bleeding, so as their number drops, the body is not able to stop bleeding if it occurs. If the number of platelets drops too low, spontaneous bleeding can occur.

Most cases of ITP are either mild enough that only some treatment is required, and in most cases, it fixes itself on its own in a few months. Andy is not one of those cases. Andy’s platelet counts had, at times, dropped to the point where he was at risk for internal bleeding. While he responded to treatment, it did not last, and his count would plummet again. The use of steroids, another form of treatment, made him violently ill. It has been two years since he was diagnosed, and it looks like he may have this condition for the rest of his life.

It is hard to look at Andy and wonder why God doesn’t just heal him. God could. It is certainly not from a lack of faith or prayer—his family and the church pray for him all the time. In our story tonight, Jesus says that faith can heal. So when it doesn’t, what does that mean?

Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, tells this story about a trip she took to Rome and the aftermath:

“The last day in Rome I caught a lulu of a cold. As I lay in bed the Friday after we returned searching the TV for a football game, I came across a televangelist. I was mesmerized. He was preaching to a packed house in a converted NBA coliseum. His text was from Matthew 21, the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, the disciples’ wonderment at Jesus’ authority and Jesus’ teaching about faith being able to move mountains.

The televangelist’s exegesis (explanation) of the passage led him to conclude that Jesus said we must “speak to the mountain” — prayer was not enough. If we wanted a better job we needed to “speak to that mountain” and all the heavenly forces would be set in motion. Poor health? Fear of foreclosure? Troubled marriage? “Speak to that mountain” and get it fixed.

Wow. When my father was dying why didn’t I speak to that mountain? When Paul prayed three times that the thorn in his flesh be taken away, why didn’t he speak to that mountain? Here it was, the “Name It and Claim It Health and Wealth Gospel.” The people in that arena were cheering.”

I don’t know why God hasn’t answered our prayers and healed Andy. It can’t be because we never “spoke to that mountain”. I know his family has. I know his church has. They’ve put all of their faith into loving and supporting him and his family. Maybe there is no easy answer. Maybe prayer answers don’t  I don’t know.

But I do know this: when Andy is in the hospital, it is God holding his hands, whispering, “I’m right here—I’m not leaving your side.” When Andy has to sit out in gym class because any hard hits could cause him to bleed internally, God sits next to him and says, “That’s okay, they never let me play, either.” And no matter what happens to Andy, God will be there with him, walking with him, caring for him, as God does with all of us who love Andy dearly. That is where God is in suffering and pain–right there with it.

*Name changed to respect privacy.