Message for October 8, 2017
Glennon Heights Mennonite Church
Betsy Headrick McCrae
Scripture passage: Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46
Sour grapes are not good fruit. I have had a bitter taste in my mouth since we
heard the news of another mass shooting in Las Vegas last Sunday. Sour, sour grapes
Where did things go wrong? Why does this keep happening in our country?
What is our role in responding to these seemingly unstoppable tragedies? I thought a lot
about this as I reflected on our scripture passages for this morning. They are all about
calamity as well.
But they don’t start with calamity. They start with beauty, with generosity, with
careful planning, with hope. “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it
and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the
midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.” In the Bible the vineyard is a symbol of
bounty, goodness and care. It is something precious and well-loved. In both our
passages from Isaiah and Matthew, we see this. A prime location is chosen with fertile
ground, good for producing fine grapes. No expense is spared in the preparations. The
land is cleared of stones. Choice vines are selected and planted. Security is put in place
so that no one can come in from outside to wreak havoc. And arrangements are made to
process the ripened grapes and store the wine. This is a setting for success. Good, sweet
fruit will surely be forthcoming.
This lovely vineyard is for us: It is our earth, our home, our country, our
communities. God provides a place for us to live and to flourish. Great care has been
taken. We have what we need to produce good fruit. And yet it all turns sour. “He
expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” “He expected justice, but saw
bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
In the parable that Jesus tells in the book of Matthew, it is the situation in the
vineyard that turns sour. The landlord establishes the vineyard with all that is needed to
produce a good yield. He turns it over to tenants in good faith. However, when harvest
time comes – the time to collect the good fruits – things get complicated, even downright
nasty. The landlord sends his slaves (yes, this story is complicated in many ways to our
modern ears), he sends his slaves to collect his produce. The tenants seize his slaves.
They beat one, kill another, and stone another. This happens twice. Finally the landlord
sends his own son to sort things out, expecting that he will receive better treatment. But
the tenants seize him as well. They throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. Could
this situation degenerate any further?
Of course this parable is an allegory. The people of Israel were given
everything. They were the apple of God’s eye. But they turned away from God. They
failed to produce good fruit. Prophets appeared to remind them of this, but they wouldn’t
listen. Instead they mistreated and killed the prophets. Finally God send God’s own son
to set things right, but they treated him badly as well. They rejected and killed him. Now
they must reap the consequences. This interpretation of the parable seems pretty
straightforward. We especially like it, because we’re not the bad guys.
But parables always open more than one door to understanding. As I reflected on
this story, I began to see in it a pattern which is very familiar to us here in the U.S. in the
21st century. As do people everywhere in the world, we in the U.S. live in the vineyard
God has provided for us. Everything is set up so that we can produce good sweet grapes.
But we don’t always do our job well. We don’t care well for the vines. We fail to
fertilize and prune. We neglect our duties and it all turns sour. Instead of justice, there is
bloodshed. Instead of righteousness, there is a cry. And when folks or situations point
this out to us, we respond with anger and indignation. How dare you challenge our
traditions, our way of doing things, our sacred cows! How dare you suggest that change
is needed! Away with you! Off with your head!
I thought about this a lot this past week. I thought about how we as a country
refuse to listen and learn. About how we keep doing what we’re doing even though it is
obviously destroying the social fabric and endangering lives. I’d like to share with you
excerpts from an article by James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic
magazine. He wrote this on October 2.
“Beyond the scores of people who have been killed and the hundreds who were
wounded in Las Vegas yesterday, thousands of other people, though not visibly or
directly injured, have had their lives changed forever. Children and parents. Husbands
and wives. Brothers and sisters. Something is instantly and permanently gone from their
“The dead and the wounded, and their family and friends, of course deserve
support and sympathy. But their fellow countrymen should reflect on the dark truth this
episode underscores. I was going to end that sentence with ‘reveals,’ but that’s not right:
We know this already. We know that America will not stop these shootings. They will go
on. We all know that, which makes the immediate wave of grief even worse.
“Five years ago, after what was the horrific mass shooting of that moment, the
massacre in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, I wrote:
“The additional sad, horrifying, and appalling point is the shared American
knowledge that, beyond any doubt, this will happen again, and that it will happen in
America many, many times before it occurs anywhere else.
“That remains true now. I expect it to be true five years from now. I am an
optimist about most aspects of America’s resilience and adaptability, but not about
reversing America’s implicit decision to let these killings go on.
“Decision? Yes. Other advanced societies have outbreaks of mass-shooting gun
violence. Scotland, in 1996. Australia, in 1996 as well. Norway in 2011. But only in the
United States do they come again and again and again.
“The story of Australia’s response to its Port Arthur massacre is the most famous.
A conservative government pushed through significant gun-law reforms, and the country
has had no remotely comparable episode since then. The story of Scotland’s reaction to
its Dunblane massacre is less familiar but is also important. The Dunblane shooting was
Scotland’s version of the Newtown horror in America. A gunman killed 16 students, and
a teacher, before shooting himself. A Scottish newspaper, the Sunday Herald, reports
what happened after gun controls were implemented in 1996:
“The year of the Dunblane massacre, gun homicides peaked at 84 across the
UK—the most on record. Today, gun killings have dropped to almost a third of that. In
England and Wales in 2013, the police recorded 30 gun homicides, 12 fewer than the
previous year, and the lowest figure since the National Crime Recording Standard was
introduced in 2002. Today, in Scotland, firearms account for just 2 percent of all
homicides. Gun deaths in Scotland have dropped noticeably since the introduction of
those handgun laws.
“Three years after the Aurora shooting here in the U.S., the toll goes on. Here’s an
update from the Mass Shooting Tracker of mass shootings in the U.S. just in 2017 so far:
62 people killed in January. 44 people killed in February. 58 people killed in March. 46
people killed in April. 30 people killed in May. 60 people killed in June. 42 people
killed in July. 34 people killed in August. 31 people killed in September. And now 58
people killed in early October. And many, many more were wounded.
“No other society allows the massacres to keep happening. Everyone around the
world knows this about the United States. It is the worst aspect of the American national
[End of the article by James Fallows]
No other society allows the massacres to keep happening. No other society
refuses to listen and learn. No other society rejects the messengers that keep coming,
demanding change, asking for good fruit, pleading for a return to sanity so that all may
live. We are like those tenants in the vineyard, killing off the messengers while clinging
to our sour grapes, telling ourselves how sweet they are even as our lips recoil and our
teeth are on edge from the bitter taste.
In the book of Isaiah, justice refers to fair and equitable relationships within
society grounded in the just will of the Lord and established through honest procedures.
When such justice fails, it is because those who are economically and/or politically
powerful have taken advantage of the weak. The results of the failure of justice are
devastating. “I will remove the hedge from the vineyard,” says the Lord, “and it shall be
devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a
waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I
will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” We cannot as a society
perpetuate injustice and not expect repercussions. If we choose to cater to fear and
violence, that’s what we will get and it will kill us. We will reap what we sow. We will
no longer be a land of milk and honey. Instead we will be left only with the bitter, bitter
taste of sour grapes.
This is what happens, but this is not the way it has to be. This is not what God
wants or wills. We have been given a beautiful, fertile vineyard by God our Creator. We
are the tenants. We are the caretakers. We are the ones who, along with our community,
are responsible for the caring, the tending, the pruning and the watering of the vines. Our
job, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is to produce good fruit, the sweet grapes of justice
and righteousness. Fruit that is life-giving, never death-dealing. Fruit that feeds and
nourishes all who eat of it and is available to all.
Franciscan Richard Rohr says that we do this by centering ourselves on God, by
committing ourselves to love and by paying attention. “I am convinced that ‘the sin of
the world’ is ignorant killing,” he writes. “We are destroying the world through our
ignorance. We need to recognize our own personal and structural violence. The death
instinct always comes from people who are unconscious, unaware, and indeed do not
know what they are doing. Now we can hear Jesus on the cross and know why he said,
‘Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they’re doing.’ When we love, we do know
what we are doing! Love, if it is actually love, is always a highly conscious act. We do
evil when we slip into unconsciousness.”
Sisters and brothers, we don’t have to follow our reptilian brain. We don’t have
to respond in fear. We can choose to respond differently to the messengers who arrive at
our gates, challenging our assumptions and begging us to change our damaging ways.
We can listen to those who cry out for justice and take them seriously. We can learn.
We can follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. We can make a conscious choice to cut
down the vines that are producing sour grapes so that we can start once again to grow
good, sweet grapes, the fruit which will feed and nourish us and the world.
So I say to you this morning, make a choice. Choose to stay conscious. Choose
to love. Challenge injustice. Welcome and listen to the messengers who bring news that
is hard to hear. Believe them. Then speak up for what is right and good. Cherish and
take good care of the vineyard that is our collective home. Produce fruit worthy of the
One who desires the safety and well-being of all.
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” The grapes from this vineyard
are sweet and hope springs eternal. Amen.