The Rev. Peter M. Carey
Sermon 15 August 2010
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
Stark images emerge from this mornings readings. In Isaiah, we hear what is supposed to be a “love song,” but it is unlike any love song that I have ever imagined. The vineyard starts as a fertile hill, and the beloved clears it of stones and plants it with the best vines. Next the beloved builds a watchtower and hews out a wine vat in it. But the vineyard yields wild grapes, not the cultivated ones. And so, the vineyard is left, unprotected, and it will be devoured, overgrown, the walls destroyed, and the vines trampled. Even the clouds will not give water for growing. “[For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;] he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
The image of the vineyard that is laid waste continues in the Psalms reading. Here, the psalmist cries out to God to have mercy upon the vineyard, to have mercy upon God’s people, so that the vineyard might grow again. Crying out to God, the psalmist hopes there may still be a root of the divine plant. Crying out to God, the psalmist prays there may be mercy amidst justice. “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; * show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”
Images and metaphors of judgment still ring in my ears from reading today’s Gospel. Jesus is full of righteous anger, full of judgment for his hearers who have been listening, but clearly do not understand. The Kingdom of God will turn everything on its head. This is not a mere pastoral visit. This is a visit from the Lord! Remember why God turned to sending his son, after all. It was only after the covenants were forgotten, it was only after the prophets were killed, it was only after the vineyard had not born fruit that God sent Jesus into the world – to redeem it, yes, but also to judge it.
So, how do Jesus’ words ring in your ears? I have to admit, I was hoping to avoid talking about the righteous anger and judgment of Jesus. [Perhaps we could have done an instructed Eucharist, or I could have written a poem this week.] But, there it is. The Lord has come into the world. The Lord has come into the vineyard, and things will never be the same. Get ready people. Get ready.
Jesus is calling out his hearers. Jesus is calling out his hearers and letting them know that the Kingdom of God is going to rattle things up. Even the cherished relationships of father and son, of mother and daughter, and of every family will be shaken. The vineyard is not yielding up the good grapes. So, some recultivating will be needed.
Where is the good news in all of this? Well, first of all what is “good news” for the entire land may require some changes in our corner of the vineyard. But, I think one place is to look is the letter to the Hebrews.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, . . . “
This great cloud of witnesses includes the saints who have gone on before us. Included with these saints is the friend and colleague of St. Francis, St. Clare whose feast day was just last Wednesday. St. Clare was well acquainted with vineyards, and when you walk from Assisi through the gates of that marvelous city, you can walk down the hill through rows and rows of vineyards. St. Clare was a model of humility, and of holy poverty. She fled from her parents’ house, to find freedom and peace in a life of radical prayer and poverty, causing [most likely] anything but “peace” in the household. Her model of repairing her corner of the vineyard was to not only reflect upon “where she puts her treasure,” but also to walk the talk.
Where do we put our treasures? Are they in barns that will mold and rust? Or, have we stored them up for us in heaven? I speak as one who has far more “stuff” than I need, and after reading a recent New York Times article about a couple who gave everything away (except 100 possessions!), they have found happiness like never before. Would beginning to repair, restore, and recultivate our corner of the vineyard begin with our own stewardship and spending? Could the radical life, prayer, and poverty of Clare and her spiritual brother, Francis, be a model for me – or for you?
The judgment embedded in today’s readings should be a cause for concern, they should be a cause for waking up, for embarking on the work of transformation. For Clare, the encounter with the living Christ meant leaving behind the life she had known. For us too, the encounter with the living Christ means turning to a new life, ever turning to a new way of living.
Judgment in the text is not the sole part of the story for the one who judges us is the one who created us. The one who judges us is the one who loves us. The one who judges us knows us better, even, than we know ourselves. Judgment and grace are intertwined. Judgment and loving-kindness (chesed) are intermingled. Judgment and love embrace us.
And, so, we are loved, and we are also asked to step up to the plate.
I think we can glean at least 4 lessons from our readings today that will help us step up to the plate.
1) We are to tend the vineyard that we have been given. This means the earth, and it means the creatures of the earth, and it means God’s people. We are to care for, support, and build up the vines, teach the youth, help the needy, care for the sick, and show up for our neighbors.
2) We are to pray real prayers. We are to really ask God for what we need. God does not want whitewashed spirituality. God does not want the projected image that we push out into the world. God made us. God knows us. Ask God for what you really need. Be frustrated, angry, sad, melancholy, joyful, depressed, ecstatic…Be yourself! Be thankful for all you have.
3) Things are going to get topsy turvy when you begin to live authentically. When you embrace a new way of life, you may not get the kudos you crave – conflicts may arise even in the relationships very very close to you. Get ready.
4) Pray, knowing that there is a great cloud of witnesses accompanying you on the journey. Clare, and so many others, have gone before. And, once you pray, pray for discernment for how to follow the road – how to run the race that is set before you.
I, Clare, a handmaid of Christ, a little plant of our most holy father Francis, a sister and mother of you and the other poor sisters, although unworthy, beg our Lord Jesus Christ through his mercy and the intercession of his most holy Mother Mary and of blessed Michael the Archangel and of all the holy angels of God, of our blessed father Francis, and of all men and women saints, that the heavenly Father give you and confirm for you this most holy blessing in heaven and on earth: on earth, by multiplying you in grace and his virtues among his servants and handmaids in his Church Militant; in heaven, by exalting you and glorifying you among his holy men and women in his Church Triumphant.
I bless you during my life and after my death, as I am able, out of all the blessings, with which the Father of mercies has blessed and will bless his sons and daughters in heaven and on earth and a spiritual father and mother have blessed and will bless their spiritual sons and daughters. Amen.
Always be lovers of your souls and those of all your sisters. And may you always be eager to observe what you have promised the Lord.
May the Lord always be with you and may you always be with him. Amen.
From the final blessing of Clare of Assisi, quoted in The Lady: Clare of Assisi: Early Documents, translated and edited by Regis J. Armstrong (New York: New City Press, 2006).
“Joy can be real only if people look upon their life as a service, and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness” - Tolstoy