As part of a farm-to-table dinner in a vineyard a few years ago, I learned more than I ever knew about viticulture, which is the work of vine-and-grape-growing. What I learned showed me that the vineyard is the perfect marriage between the miraculous generative work of nature and the ingenuity of humankind. Among other things, humans have figured out how to make use of the temperature shifts intrinsic to hillsides and soil moisture to allow a variety of grapes to thrive in a variety of climates.
In that visit I realized that the vineyard is also the perfect symbol of stewardship. Whenever we come across a vineyard, we can expect a story of how we use what God has given us.
Today’s vineyard story is not a happy one. What a painful parable this is, this story of bad stewardship, stewardship that is not just bad but evil. The Gospel speaks of despair. Isaiah recounts God’s response when the people of Israel simply cannot keep hold of the covenant relationship God continually offers. When we reject God as the people of Israel did again and again, we can no longer produce or enjoy the sweet fruit of the kingdom that God has in store for us.
Where do scriptures guide us in times when natural disasters are the occasion for denial, racism, injustice, and neglect? When a seemingly normal person stockpiles automatic weapons and shoot dozens of strangers? The psalms are often the bridge from despair to hope. Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. Psalms are the prayers in which we can name every mad, bad and sad feeling we’ve ever had toward God and toward those we don’t understand or don’t like. This is one of the reasons I always suggest doubling down on the daily office when the going gets tough in the world around us. The psalms connect us with the betrayal and sorrow in the world around us and throughout history. Psalms are the prayers of a community fully engaged in the world as stewards of the gospel, even when the gospel is about betrayal and sorrow. Even when the betrayal and sorrow of the gospel matches the betrayal and sorrow of the world.
It is in being a community of prayer that our particular hope lies. Christian stewardship is commitment to community. It is in being a community of prayer that the light of God’s countenance is revealed. This begins with our sad and desperate cry on behalf of those who suffer, on behalf of ourselves. When the psalmist cries about her vineyard: Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes? We can join in the cry and we can respond: Restore us, O God of hosts; show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
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Yes, we can take actions. Yes, if we have it, we should send money to help Puerto Rico, a vineyard whose fence has been ripped to shreds. Yes, we need to ask every person running for any elected office to satisfactorily answer the question: What are you going to do to prevent mass shootings? Yes, we can connect with someone in our life who might be scarily disconnected and alone. But action begins with the commitment we make in baptism to be part of a community of prayer and response. Action begins with how we steward our community of prayer and our place in it. This is not the same thing as sending thoughts and prayers. Nor is it marrying the church to political process. Tom Breidenthal, Bishop of Southern Ohio, wrote this week that the way we prepare to act out our hope is “going to church and seeing the body of Christ there, poised to move out into the wilderness. Our inheritance and right as baptized persons to be in union with Jesus. However we open ourselves to that union, it will flow in.”
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Some of you may have seen the video released this past week, part of a beautiful series we’re calling Voices of St. Paul’s. Our stewardship theme this year is “Stewardship for such a time as this,” but it could just as well be called “Voices of St. Paul’s.” In keeping with both of those themes, John Sutherland has a parable to offer on this subject:
There once was a man who lived in the city of Seattle, nowhere near a vineyard, and he was the steward of certain gifts.
One of the greatest gifts was a community called St. Paul’s.
And he looked at his other gifts, to see what he could contribute to the community, because he loved it very much, and wanted to keep it alive and healthy. And he decided that among the gifts he could share, he would include making music and making bread. And sharing these gifts gave him both pleasure and satisfaction.
And he looked around at the other people in the village and saw that they were also finding things they were good at: greeting people in the entryway, greeting people at coffee hour, keeping the fount beautiful, keeping the labyrinth beautiful, keeping everything beautiful, watching over the practical affairs of the vestry, balancing numbers, feeding each other, taking personal responsibility for the financial survival of the village… a whole host of things.
And he saw some people who were feeling a bit overwhelmed in their lives, and the most they could do was to show up on Sundays and be with us. And he remembered times when the church felt too empty, and remembered times when he was also overwhelmed in his own life, and realized that the very presence of these people now, prayerfully among us, was a gift to the community.
And he stood back and looked at all the ways those gifts wove themselves together into one whole gift. But in standing back, he also saw how that great gift stood in contrast to the dark state of the world, how it stood in solidarity with people in the path of storms, or of bullets, or of hatred.
And with every disaster, every betrayal at the vineyard, or at the office, or in relationships, he knew that people in his immediate area would be looking at the world with the same dismay, bordering on despair. And he could see all of the small gifts like bread and music feeding into the larger gift of this community, and the light of it shining against the surrounding darkness.
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This radical thing we do when we gather together is sometimes mistaken for keeping silent, or irrelevant, in the face of hurt and evil and disaster. But our small gifts, the light we shine in darkness, our work as Christians is always to find hope in despair, and to find ways to infuse events around us with the experience of resurrection and crazy hope that we celebrate every time we hear “the gifts of God for the people of God.” This is our altar call, our stand against violence, hatred, denial, and apathy. When we gather at this table we cross a bridge from despair to hope. My hope and my prayer is that when we go out from this table to love and serve the Lord, we bring that hope with us as we walk, talk, pray, and act, in the light of God’s countenance.