Saturday, October 4, 2014

Getting the Boot from the Vineyard

Matthew 21:33-46, Isaiah 5:1-7
World Communion
October 5, 2014
William G. Carter

Jesus said: “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

On a recent visit to the wine country of New York, I heard the unusual tale of Walter S. Taylor. Walter S was the third generation of a wine-making family. Perhaps you remember the famous Taylor Wines of Hammondsport, New York? That was his family’s business.

Walter S was a feisty character with high standards. He regularly angered his neighboring vintners by accusing them of low standards. Rumor was they imported California grape juice in railroad tank cars after dark, and still sold their product as Finger Lakes wine. In one memorable speech at a national convention, he blurted out, “When the wineries of Keuka Lake bottle their product, the water lever of the lake drops several inches.” Shortly after that, probably for the sake of public relations, Taylor Wine fired Walter S.

It didn’t slow him down. He started the Bully Hill winery on family land, overseeing the use of local grapes and keeping the standards high. Meanwhile, Taylor Wine went through some changes. The company was sold to Coca Cola, probably not a good idea. One day, Walter S discovered they had a federal injunction against him: he was not allowed to use the Taylor name on any of his own products, he could never imply that Bully Hill was a continuation of Taylor Wine nor that the winery sat on Taylor Family property. What’s more, any labels or promotional materials that mentioned to his last name had to be handed over to Taylor Wine for destruction.

Walter S thought that was ridiculous, too over the top even for him. So you know what he did? He loaded up a manure spreader, the old fashioned way, then put the labels and promo materials on top. He dressed in bib overalls and climbed on his three-wheel motorcycle to lead the manure spreader four miles through town to the offending winery. The people of Hammondsport thought that was grand. They came to the street corners and began to cheer: “Give me a T! Give me an A! Give me a Y-L-O-R. What’s it spell?” And the people shouted, “Nothing!”  Then he dropped his load on the Coca Cola property.[1]

In my mind, Coca Cola should never have gotten into a family wine business. Within a few years, they sold the whole shop to Seagrams, another company ill-prepared to make quality wines. Seagrams sold it soon after, and it continue to rot on the vine. Meanwhile Bully Hill continues to flourish. Shortly before his death some years ago, Walter S was written up with admiration by the food critics of the New York Times.

It is a cautionary tale. We can lay it beside the thinly-veiled parable that Jesus told. Both stories declare there are guaranteed ways to lose a vineyard. Here are only three:

  • forget what you are in business to do
  • show persistent disrespect for the Founder and those who follow him
  • get swept up in acts of force which are nothing but a distraction from your reason for existing
All of this is a parable. The lessons are many. It can be applied to businesses, public schools, and even governments. When Jesus spoke the parable, the leaders of the Jerusalem Temple perceived he was telling it against them.  Maybe so; that’s how parables work. If the shoe fits, it’s intended for you.

Yet they should have seen it coming. For seven hundred years, they had onto a poem from the prophet Isaiah called “the Love Song of the Vineyard.” It begins essentially the same as Jesus’ parable: “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” It goes on to say how much he showed his love for it: he cleared it of stones, planted premium vines, carved a vat out the rock and built a watch tower around it . . . but it yield sour grapes, wild grapes. He had done everything to make that vineyard flourish, but it turned out to be a major disappointment. So it was abandoned until it fell apart. Isaiah said, “That vineyard is God’s people.”

As for the vineyard of Jesus’ imaginary story, it was equally loved, equally cared-for. But the custodians didn’t take care of business. They refused to pay the rent. Their negligence turned to abuse, as those in charge beat up the rent collectors, murdered another, threw stones at another.

By all accounts, the Founder of the Vineyard should have stopped there. But no, he was abounding in good will and steadfast love. So he sent his own Son to collect the rent and they crucified him. The tenants were so twisted that they believed they could inherit what only rightly belonged to the Son, if only they got him out of the way.

“What do you think is going to happen to them?” asked Jesus. The tenants of the Temple said, “They should be destroyed.”

Pregnant pause. Let the truth sink in.

These days, the Bully Hill winery seems to be flourishing. It is perched up on the hill, high above Keuka Lake. The young lady in the tasting room popped open a bottle and cracked a number of jokes. I didn’t ask if her name was Taylor; there might still be a federal injunction from her telling us. But it was clear she knew what business she was in: to produce the best quality grapes and the finest possible wine. Nobody there was interested in becoming the biggest winery. Walter S was right: if you want to be the biggest, you will water down your product. That’s the truth; it happens with churches all the time.

And then we went looking for the old Taylor Winery, now called something else. The signs were gone, couldn’t find it right away. “Maybe that’s it,” my wife said, and we pulled in an empty parking lot. The front steps were crumbling, the paint was peeling. The visitor’s center looked pretty shaggy. Turns out, all the wine in the tasting room was made somewhere else.  So what do you think happened to them?

On World Communion Sunday, we uncork the wine of Jesus Christ. We do this to remember why we are here: to pour the living Word of God into our cups, to drink Christ into our blood streams, to digest the Gospel and turn it into raw energy, and then to live together a life that matters to a hurting world and produces fruit. We are here because the Son that they thought they got rid of is the One who comes back to choose people like us. And the obligation is the same: he wants us to become fruitful in his vineyard.

He doesn’t have to give it to us. In fact, he could take it from us and give it to somebody else, because it is his vineyard. We are only the tenants, the stewards of Somebody Else’s beloved land. He expects us to come up with the rent. He wants us to grow the best harvest we possibly can. He really wants us to do that, and he is watching to see what we do.

For the caution comes to our generation from the great prophet Joni Mitchell: "Don’t it always seem to go / You don't know what you got til it's gone / They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."[2]

So today, with these parables circling over our heads, what is the Word of God for us? I think it’s something like this: chosen of the Lord and precious, remember whose vineyard this is. Live charitably. Love abundantly. Speak truthfully. Forgive generously. Pay the rent. Most all, bear fruit. Bear a lot of fruit.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2] Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” © Siquomb Publishing Company.

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