Sermon at Washington National Cathedral

October 5, 2008

In this congregation, I can probably ask how the wine grape harvest is going in the south of France or in Napa, and somebody will be able to tell us. Out of curiosity, I went looking on the internet yesterday, and discovered that in northern California this year the harvest of some wine grapes started on 1 August, the earliest in recent memory. It started in eastern Washington State about 10 days ago, and at least in the U.S., it will go on for several more weeks until most of the grapes have been sent off to start being turned into wine. If you’ve never seen vineyards at harvest time, it is an absolutely glorious sight, and a furious buzz of activity. The owners of the vineyards, and the vintners, have been praying a lot over the last few months – for rain, sun, and cool weather in the right amounts and at just the right times. They’re waiting for a harvest of excellent grapes, not so much a bumper crop as the finest quality.

That image of a fruitful vineyard is an ancient biblical way of talking about God’s people. God is eager for a rich harvest that can be fermented into rare and wonderful wine. When Isaiah says, “Let me sing my beloved a love-song about his vineyard,” he’s talking about the beauty and abundance and the rich feast for which all creation is intended: righteousness, justice, shalom.

Go out these doors and see the wonder of creation at harvest tide and you will appreciate the motivation of that love song. Last weekend I got to see the glory of leaves changing along the length of New Hampshire, and in the last couple of days I’ve gotten to see the beginnings of it between New York and here. I’ll sing that love song, too, for the wonder of creation and fruitfulness in its season. The created order does its work gloriously with or without our assistance – sometimes more fruitfully without – but this great vision of the prophets is about the vast interconnections between human beings and the vineyard we’ve been loaned.

That’s right – loaned. Jesus’ parable is a reminder that we’re all tenants here, and none of us an owner. This loan was made with enormous collateral and the expectation of pretty significant return on investment. The financial crisis in this country and around the world may be an appropriate reminder that all of us live on credit. We live on borrowed time, in borrowed space, and we’ve been loaned the skills to plant the vineyard and make fine wine. But God is our creditor, not the banks. This parable is about what happens when the tenants forget they’re tenants.

Yesterday this Church made a public act of repentance for our participation in slavery and profiting from it. Profit from it, you say? Just a few examples: in 1860, 80% of the clergy of the diocese of Virginia, and probably two-thirds of them in Maryland, owned slaves. Today, many if not most of the banks in which we put our meager or abundant savings have at some point profited from forced labor. The pension fund that serves the clergy and lay employees of this church was started by someone who also profited from forced labor. None of us is clean once we begin to look below the surface. At some level we have tried to produce a harvest by forcing somebody else to do all the work.

The very idea of enslaving another human being results from assuming that we can own any part of the vineyard, rather than having been set here to keep and till it, and produce fruit that must be shared. Think for a moment about owning and ownership. At its root, those words mean possession, and having. Owning can mean having something in your custody, being a steward, or it can mean having the right of life and death over another part of creation. That second understanding is what owners asserted over slaves, the National Socialists over supposedly inferior races, and what we do to creation when we treat it as a commodity. The first understanding of caring for the garden is the biblical one.

There’s another aspect to that word possession as well, for it is what happens to us when we think we own something in the second sense, when we believe we have full and ultimate rights over it. We actually become possessed by it, and it’s a lot closer to the sense of being possessed by evil spirits from which Jesus heals people in the gospels. If we assert an ungodly power over another human being or part of creation, that ungodly power actually begins to possess us, in a decidedly unholy way. Some have described it as being possessed by our possessions.

We are as a nation right now reflecting abundantly on what it means to be possessed, or dispossessed, by our possessions – our investments, mutual funds, stocks, credit card loans, home mortgages. Lots of people are feeling empty and sick and pretty powerless in the wake of recent market machinations. To many, it’s feeling like a bitter and pitiful harvest. But it is providing an opportunity to tend the vineyard. There are too many who think there are no grapes to be found there, or only little sour ones.

Where or how are we going to discover a rich and abundant harvest, or help others find those sweet grapes? Sometimes that harvest turns up in surprising places. I visited a tiny congregation last weekend. I gather there are about 20 people when they get together for worship, and most of them have had senior discounts for a very long time. They run a food bank, and a thrift shop, and they’re renovating an old house at the back of the church parking lot. Part of that house will become an apartment for a low-income family, and the other part will let the thrift shop expand into accessible quarters. A rich harvest is being realized, maybe not in the world’s terms, but in lives transformed – both those who receive food and clothing and shelter, and those who have discovered a deeper way to serve their neighbors. Those sweet and juicy grapes are mostly found as one human being meets another, where the body and blood of Christ mingles with the world.

But the parable moves on to judgment. The vineyard owner sends the rent collectors. The tenants have forgotten that their loan is ever going to come due. And the ensuing carnage is not unlike the recent chaos of our financial system. What is there to show for all those loans written only as an excuse to put money to work – money that cannot rationally have expected any harvest? It’s like planting grape rootstock in plain water – it may grow for a while, but you’re never going to get any meaningful harvest. Indeed the rootstock itself will eventually rot and die.

What are we going to invest in? Where are we going to plant vines and tend them? The bitter emptiness and fear around us would actually be an appropriate place to go and plant new rootstock. It’s fresh ground that’s been tilled, ready and waiting for a bold investment of life-giving spirit. That’s partly what Jesus means when he says that new tenants are going to be invited to lease the vineyard – the owner is looking for folks who can think differently, like a good entrepreneur. Try new ventures, even unlikely ones. Invest in places and people that have potential for growth. Plant good news, hope, and possibility in that newly turned earth – but it can only be done in person. It needs flesh and blood, incarnate presence, the Body of Christ, us, to do the planting. That fresh ground will produce a bountiful harvest. The tenants who think they own the vineyard will never produce anything like it.

And that line about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone? You may worry about stumbling into it, but when the harvest comes, that’s what gets the grape juice flowing. You have to crush the grapes in order to make wine. Not crush them to smithereens, but just crack the skins. When we’ve cracked our own shins and skins on the rocks in our path, any and all of us can become finest wine and richest harvest.

L’chaim. To life. In abundance. For all.