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Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: “Clearing the Vineyard”
Psalm 80:1–2, 8–18
I’ve noticed something odd about each summer’s bumper crop of movies. Maybe you’ve noticed this pattern too, which seems more exaggerated every year. In this season, when we may have a bit more leisure time, when we may be drawn into a cool theater to unwind, the blockbusters we’re offered for entertainment are big, booming epics of destruction. Giant budgets and outsized special effects are harnessed to give us a vision of futuristic apocalypse and the demise of humanity.
This summer alone, in the sci-fi and fantasy category, we’ve been served up “After Earth,” “Iron Man 3,” “Man of Steel,” “Star Trek into Darkness,” “World War Z,” “Pacific Rim,” and “Elysium”—movies featuring the threat of mass destruction from everything from zombies to monstrous sea creatures. These violent summer escapes, along with our buckets of popcorn and maybe even 3-D glasses, are perhaps a distraction—but also an odd reflection of the headlines we see every day.
When I sat down to compose my thoughts for this homily, here’s what stood out on the front page of the New York Times: “A Burst of Brutality in Egypt”; “Philadelphia Edging toward a Financial Precipice”; “Inequality in America: The Data Is Sobering”; “Syrian War Fueling Attacks by Al-Qaeda in Iraq”; “Killing of Strikers Still Haunts South Africa.” I could go on. I could describe the pictures of instability, inequity, and collapse these articles describe. But I don’t need to.
The pictures have already been put in front of us by our readings this morning. We hear the voices of Isaiah, and our Psalmist, and Jesus confronting times of impending destruction, division, and fire with great passion.
So wherever we look today—to popular culture, to the news, even to our sacred texts—we’re asked to consider some questions that have always disturbed and challenged humans across time. Where do we find meaning in times of personal hardship or social breakdown? Where do we find the strength to survive them? And how do we experience God’s presence when we face catastrophe or collapse?
I don’t have absolute answers to these questions, of course. But I do sincerely want to engage with them, with you. In their way, our summer moviemakers are grappling with these issues in our troubled world. Our politicians, policymakers, and journalists are too, trying to make meaning out of a current cycle of global distress. As are the authors of our assigned readings from long ago.
Now, believe me, I’m tempted to grab a bucket of popcorn and put on the 3-D glasses and safely distance myself from these texts. Maybe you are too. To rest assured that the destruction of some ancient vineyard has nothing to do with me. To keep the world of raging wild boars and trampling beasts comfortably in the past. To insulate myself with the knowledge that the end of the world did not happen in Jesus’s present time, as he predicted.
But if we try to connect with these voices, we can connect not only with their passion but also their reassurance. That after any time of collapse—personal or collective, long past or present day—renewal and restoration are possible with God.
As I read Isaiah, the vineyard he describes could represent any number of ways we humans have imperfectly organized our lives on this fair earth. We’ve taken this very fertile planet we’ve been given, and the choice vines of our lives, with all their possibility for good fruit—and made sour grapes. We’ve constructed all sorts of flawed relationships and institutions—from families to governments—based on inequality, not love. Institutions so unjust, imbalanced, and damaged that they are not sustainable and are destined to collapse.
In the language of the blockbuster movies, we are our own monsters.
If this sounds too abstract, I can share my own blockbuster of the summer of 1971, when my childhood family collapsed pretty spectacularly. You may have had these utter meltdowns in your personal life, too, when the old ways of relating and managing just don’t and won’t work anymore.
My alcoholic father lost his job and retreated in drunkenness and shame. My mother left the country, liberating herself from the mess and sadness. My sister took off with her first love to parts unknown. And I left home for college, alone and disoriented, surrounded by social upheaval in our country that mirrored my family’s collapse.
The power structure of patriarchy, the social norm of hiding alcoholism, just couldn’t support my troubled family any more. It was a sick system of relationship. It needed to come apart at the seams to begin to heal.
This, I believe, is what Jesus is telling us about his time, too. To arrive at peace on earth, to build an equitable Kingdom of God, would require a fundamental collapse of a sick, oppressed society—from family relationships to Rome’s occupation.
The number of dispossessed poor was growing in 1st century Palestine; the anger against Rome was mounting, with countless other “prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramping through the Holy Land” delivering messages of an impending apocalypse. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled,” Jesus says. Fire would be necessary to clear the unhealthy vineyard of Palestinian society. It would be the necessary pain of collapse before healing.
But do we ever willingly choose pain, even if it does lead to healing? Jesus rebukes his listeners as hypocrites who know how to predict foul weather, but choose not to acknowledge the impending collapse of their social order. I can see myself in that crowd.
Because it’s usually easier to go into denial when you’re part of a sick system. To tell yourself that the status quo is really not as scary as the unknown; or that things aren’t so bad today; or that you don’t want to upset relationships, even if they’re bad ones; or that you can somehow manage to cope, or adjust, or make excuses without having to give up the little stability or status you have. Because that would be just too painful.
But here’s where the good news comes in. Our prophets and poets this morning reassure us that we can find meaning by undergoing necessary times of personal pain or social breakdown.
Destroying the old vineyards that trap us can open the possibility of our renewed growth, as fruitful vines.
And our willingness to go through painful changes can lead to our being strengthened and restored: restored not to the status quo, but to God’s higher, joyful purpose for our lives. In Jesus’s words from John 15: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful."
This is a picture of a loving God, not one who sends wrathful punishment. A God who wants above all the renewal of our lives and our commitment to making a more just society.
This is where I find God in stories of catastrophe and collapse: the Source that restores life when the broken parts are cleared away. The Source that helped me, and my father, and my family, rebuild. The Source that keeps clearing the ground of unstable societies with conflict that, we pray, gradually leads to new understanding that leads to greater justice.
As the Psalmist prays, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”
What does this renewal look like? Often long, often hard, always unsettling.
I just spent the month of July in the company of sixty remarkable women who spent every Monday night not in movie theaters, but here in our church, opening themselves to a book called Changes that Heal. This study led us all into some painful awareness: acknowledging our broken places; naming aspects of our development that were unhealthy or incomplete; examining imbalanced relationships and old habits that would have to change for us to mature into emotional and spiritual adults.
We were pruning our branches! Always with the help of mutual support, always with the vision of God as our loving gardener, always with the purpose of gradually bringing our new strength into the world to lift up others.
Sometimes it did feel like we were going through fire together. But in the hardest moments, we could pray together, in confidence, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts.” And we could see the Kingdom of God appearing among us, one new leaf at a time. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
August 18, 2013