Vineyards Darkness and Exile 10-8-17

In this sermon, which is based on Matthew 21:33-46, along with Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 8:7-15, I explore the imagery of a vineyard for God’s chosen people, and how the reality of exile occurs cyclically throughout history. This is light of the tragedy last week in Las Vegas reminds us of just how prominent darkness is in the world.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/vineyards-darkness-and-exile-10-8-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

There are times when I realize that things I take for granted aren’t quite so obvious or well known to everyone else. I had this thought over the course of the week as I considered our batch of scripture passages for today.  How many people out there are familiar with how those various texts are chosen?

Have you ever wondered about that? About how we pick the various readings that the lector shares…the psalm that we read together…about the gospel lesson that I share…ever wondered about that?

Now some of you out there might know…but we’ve got this cool organizational tool called the Revised Common Lectionary. In its current form, established back in the mid-90’s the lectionary lays out the scripture passages that will be featured each week…its organized into a 3 year cycle, and while it doesn’t cover every passage from the Bible, it does feature a lot of them.

And so, each week as I sit down to prep the bulletin and start working on the sermon, I’m not just pulling these various readings out of thin air…20 plus years ago, a group of Biblical scholars from several different denominations worked together to specify what we, along with MANY other congregations in many parts of the world, will hear as scripture lessons.

Now I can’t tell you why certain passages end up partnered up together for a specific week in the cycle…but typically there is some sort of connection among them…but this week…the connection is pretty blatant across 3 of the 4 different texts…Vineyards. We hear about a vineyard in Isaiah…we hear about another one in the Psalm…the snippet of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the exception here…but then we heard about it again in this parable of Jesus, taken out of Matthew’s gospel…the third in a series of parables that Jesus has offered as he continues to engage in a back and forth verbal sparring match with the religious elite of the priests and Pharisees…the who’s who of the Jewish culture at the time…the ones who have been charged with leading and guiding the rest of the culture in all matters of religious faith. (pause)
But what’s this all got to do with a vineyard? That is, perhaps the big question that we’re posing at the moment…and in short, the vineyard in question…it’s the nation of Israel…the Jewish culture…this mass of people who were chosen to be the people of God…a nation of priests…and it happened generations before Jesus came on the scene.

Now I can’t tell you just why the ancient Jewish culture chose the image of vines or grapes or wine or in this case, the vineyard to represent themselves…likely because of the prominence of this crop at the time…but yet here it is…and we see it from the get-go as we hear a bit of a love song from God in the prophetic words given to Isaiah. “Let me sing for my beloved, my love-song concerning his vineyard.” We hear that he went through the work of establishing it…clearing it out, planting the vines, building a watch tower…and then waited for the fruit of his labor to arrive.”  But what God has hoped for has not come to fruition…and we hear of a harsh promise that the wall and the hedge that protects the vineyard will be torn down…the fruit and the plants will be devoured and trampled upon…the vineyard…will be destroyed… even though the Lord loves his people, the fruit is not what God had in mind…and the vineyard will be taken away. (Pause)

Now think about the Psalm that we shared earlier in our worship service today. It would seem that this story…this illustration of the vineyard has now moved forward…and the promise that the vineyard will be taken away from the people has come to fruition…but we are also reminded of what God has done.

You have brought a vine out of Egypt and planted it. Because of what you have done o Lord, it has taken root and filled the land…you stretched out its tendrils to the sea and to the river.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that the psalmist is asking God to remember what he has done to establish the nation…but then…as we hear, the psalmist begins to question…to lament.

Why have you broken down its wall? Those that pass by pluck the grapes…the beasts graze upon it and trample it down…the vineyard is lost…it has been taken away…and the psalm concludes as the psalmist pleads with God to turn his favor back to the nation…Turn now O God of Hosts…look down from heaven…behold and tend this vine that your hand has planted. (pause)

Are you finding the trend so far? The vineyard will be taken away…and then the vineyard has been taken away…and with that, we find ourselves in Matthew, as Jesus shares a parable that, I hope by now, is starting to become a little more clear.

The master creates a vineyard…he plants it, clearing the ground…he builds a wall around it for protection, digs the wine press and builds the tower…and then the master entrusts its care to others. When its time for the harvest, the master sends his servants looking for the fruit…but instead of doing what’s asked of them…they rebel, roughing up the servants or killing them…several times over…even going so far as to catching hold of the master’s son…the heir…and killing him in an attempt to steal his inheritance. And as we hear…the future promise within the parable…identified by the audience of Jesus…judgement passed by the very people he’s critiquing…the vineyard will be taken away from those wicked tenants and given to others. (pause)

It’s a cycle isn’t it? The vineyard will be taken away…the vineyard has been taken away…once its restored…it will be taken away yet again. That’s what we see as we bring these three different readings together…each of them from a drastically different period in the history of the Jewish culture…the ongoing, overarching story of how God’s favor is shown, then taken for granted, and because of this that which has been promised is taken away.

There’s a word for this…something that the Jewish culture knows quite well…Exile…when the culture, or at least individuals within the culture are taken away from their homeland…when they are held in oppression at the mercy of a culture that is larger and more powerful than they are.

We see it over and over again through the scriptures…beginning with slavery in Egypt…wandering in the desert…struggling to settle the promise land with the natives…the conquering Assyrian Empire…the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans…over and over again, we see that the vineyard…the physical representation of God’s promise is removed from the people…truly they are a culture who has known hardship and oppression. (pause)
But there is another sense, perhaps hiding within the psalm today that serves as an important reminder for us. Even in the midst of exile…even when the individual is wallowing in the despair of the vineyard having been taken away…the presence of God is with them…and the cry goes out “Turn now, o God of hosts….preserve what your right hand has planted.”

The promise of God for his people…beginning all the way back in the covenant made with Abraham and tracking all the way across the ages to today…is that God is always present with those that he loves…even in the midst of turmoil…even in the midst of exile. God hears the cries of his people and the promise is real…that he will not leave us stranded…that the vineyard will be restored. (pause)
Now something tells me that when I bring up the subject of exile, or oppression, or perhaps, darkness…we don’t have to try very hard to imagine just what that’s like do we? All too often we are reminded of just how dark this world is…how broken it is…and even though God has begun his redemptive work of the world through Jesus Christ we still feel the effects of this broken down, messed up world…and we see this same brokenness within ourselves don’t we?

Perhaps we too find ourselves crying out in lament just like the psalmist…Restore us O God of hosts…let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved…and as we wait for this promise we ask the question posed in the previous psalm “How long o Lord?”

We see despair…we see destruction…we see oppression and pain…and we see darkness. Our nation…once more…was reminded of the presence of darkness 1 week ago…when the peace and joy of a music festival in Las Vegas was broken by a mad-man who opened fire…wounding hundreds…and killing more than 50 people…and the truly troubling part of this is that we can’t call it isolated…but in recent years we’ve heard these reports with WAY too much regularity.

Once more…children must live without their parents. Fathers without their sons. Mothers without their daughter…people without spouses…individuals without friends…it makes no sense and to simply call it the darkness of the world…while perhaps accurate…is insufficient to express the pain and the outrage that we should feel.

But I fear that in this case…like in every other case that didn’t happen in our backyard…we have the tendency to throw out the typical social media comment about thoughts and prayers…and we hug our family and friends tight for a day or two…and then we all go back to business as usual…numb to the reality that the vineyard has been ripped away from the families of 59 people…and that hundreds more will feel the effects of this madness for years to come.

I think about this situation…and my own tendency to get over it too quickly…and I’m not okay with it. I think that this time that old slogan that we all know is wrong…what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas…because if we just ignore this kind of thing time after time then the darkness continues to loom…and I for one am not okay with that.

We are told in the opening verses of the Gospel of John that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…and I’ve thought long and hard this week about how we as individuals and how we as a community of faith can in one way shape or form begin to reflect that perfect light of God shining in the darkness…how can we…as heirs of the promise made real in Jesus Christ begin to live in the reality that the kingdom has come near right here right now in the middle of all this darkness…in the middle of what often feels like exile from that which is good and beautiful in the world.

I can’t answer this question for you…but I will say this…be the change that you want to see in the world.  Its going to take a miracle to turn this all around…but you know what, Jesus is that miracle…and he invites us to take part in it…You…go be the miracle…and don’t get stuck in the same old excuse that we all like to run in our heads of “What can I do?” Because opportunities exist everywhere. (pause)
Jesus reminds us that the commandments can all be summed up when we love God and love our neighbor…and maybe changing the world means making a tiny difference in the life of one person.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the man walking along the seashore at low tide…and as he walks he’s amazed at the immeasurable number of star fish left out on the beach to dry out and die in the sun…and as he continues he sees a young girl picking up star fish to throw them back in the water…one after another after another…and the man says “Little girl…what are you trying to do? There are so many…how can you possibly make a difference?”  The little girl bent down, picked up another star fish and threw it into the ocean. “I just made a difference for that one didn’t I?”

This world isn’t perfect…we all know that…pain and brokenness and death and darkness are all around us…and at times its easy to feel lost in the midst of it…but remember that we have a God who has promised us…repeatedly…that we are never alone in the midst of this darkness…and that this God shines a light for us…and invites us to reflect that same light…that same hope in the midst of despair, in the midst of darkness…in the midst of exile to those experiencing it right alongside us. May we reflect that light so that they might see it. Amen.

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