Our texts today give us the comforting picture of God as a farmer tending to a vineyard, but they also contain ominous words about God breaking things down. What does it really mean for us to be broken by God?
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 27, year A
Mount Olive Lutheran Church
Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15; Matthew 21:33-46
Loving and living God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of every one of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
It’s hard to find the good news on a week like this.
This is one of those weeks when we share stories that confront us with judgment and violence. In both Isaiah and the psalm, we read about the Assyrian invasion of the Promised Land. The psalmist cries out for help, begging God to save Israel from a terrible foreign power: “Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; preserve what your right hand has planted!” But we know from history that God didn’t show up to save Israel. The northern kingdom was conquered. Its tribes were lost forever – and many of the people of Judah were also killed or enslaved. So we look to the Gospel reading for some comfort, but in Jesus’ parable, we encounter a tale of greed, betrayal, and murder. And just to make matters worse, Jesus’ explanation of the parable has been misused for centuries to hurt our Jewish brothers and sisters. There isn’t a lot of hope shining out of texts like these.
And this is also one of those weeks where it’s hard to see the good news at work in the world. Our nation has been hit with a series of heartbreaking disasters, but it’s not just the human suffering that’s hard to bear. It’s the fact that none of this is inevitable. We don’t have to live in a world with so much injustice and violence, but it’s the world we keep choosing for ourselves. From where we stand this week, it looks like storms are going to keep getting worse, and our responses are going to be insufficient to meet the needs of those most vulnerable to a changing planet. It looks like guns are going to maintain their chokehold on the spirit of our nation, and they’re going to be used to end human lives. It’s hard to find healing when we have every reason to believe that we’re going to let all of this happen again. It’s one of those times when it rings a little too true when we read that God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.” It’s hard to find the good news on this kind of week.
But there is good news here. There is always good news here, and we see that in the faith of Isaiah, because as disaster looms, Isaiah tells us that God is a gardener. The prophet is staring down the world’s most fearsome army, and even though he believes that the coming invasion is a sign of God’s anger, he describes God not as a judge, nor a warrior, nor a king, but a humble tiller of the earth. And he calls this gardener his beloved, and sings about God’s marvelous works. Isaiah is sad and scared and full of fury about how things have gone wrong in his nation, but even then, he addresses God with a love song. He tells us that God looks like a farmer who sweats and toils in the hope that life will emerge from the promise of the fertile soil.
And the psalmist goes even further than Isaiah. The author of Psalm 80 doesn’t just talk about God preparing and tending a vineyard; he remembers how God once brought the vine of Israel out of Egypt. It’s this beautiful, intimate image of God’s hands gently holding the beloved community. God, the creator of the universe, personally carried them out of slavery so they might flourish in peace and freedom. Even on the brink of losing everything, the psalmist reminds the people of the promise that they are carried in love.
We too are like that little vine. We are so fragile, so very vulnerable to the elements and to those who would harm us. The good things we create together are so easily destroyed. All too often we don’t produce the good fruits that we hoped to make for the world. But God holds us in love, and cares for us, and gives us all a chance to grow. We feel our gardener’s love in the richness of the soil. We feel our gardener’s love in the unfurling of tender leaves. We feel our gardener’s love in the sun and the turning seasons, in the world’s abundant beauty that surrounds us and sustains us and brings peace to our troubled spirits. Because we have a God who gardens, we know that we are never alone.
Now, that promise doesn’t magically erase the fear that these stories carry for us. We can’t escape the fact that Isaiah, the psalmist, and even Jesus all use some violent words to describe God’s work. Today, we hear of God tearing down the wall around the vineyard, leaving it vulnerable to the world outside. We hear of God’s cornerstone breaking those who stumble on it, crushing anyone who gets in its way. Those are hard words. It’s much easier to sing about a God who heals than a God who breaks.
But what does it really mean to be broken by God? To answer that question in faith, we must look to the cornerstone, to Christ. When Jesus broke those around him, did he bring justice down on the heads of his opponents? Did he kill, or injure, or seek revenge? No! He broke down the self-righteousness of those who thought they were without sin. He broke open the lonely, corrupt lives of tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus. He shattered the worldview of the Roman centurion, who could look at a criminal hanging dead on a cross and proclaim, “truly, this was the Son of God.” He broke down the divisions between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free. He gave up his own body to be broken, and in the end, he broke open the tomb, freeing us all from the jaws of death, forever.
In Christ, we see that even the boundary between God and humanity was forever destroyed, for when God became human in Christ, we learned that God is not just the gardener, but also the true vine that abides in us every day. Christ is with us and in us, teaching us that brokenness is how God brings life. The spirit breathes hope into the world’s most broken places, and breaks apart its callous triumphs. Like a farmer tilling the unyielding earth, God is at work in us, turning over our hard, unforgiving places until they are transformed into gentleness and possibility. When we try to close ourselves off, to harden our hearts, God is cracking us open to new realities, new relationships, new ways to live.
None of us want to be broken. In a world that demands success and strength, we hate the idea of letting ourselves be torn down. We are taught to hate the way of the cross. We might say we love the cross, but our world tells us to despise it, and we are very good at listening to the world. We want to keep our walls high and strong. We greedily hold on to the parts of ourselves that we know need to be pruned. Even when we can barely live with ourselves, we are afraid of letting go of what we have and living into what we could be. Change is a fearful thing, so when we hear that God is transforming us, we’re tempted to hear that as a threat and not as the promise that it is. We think that, in changing us, God is going to take things away from us, but that’s not right at all. The Gospel tells us that God is giving us the chance to give ourselves away. We want to flee the cross, to flee weakness and loss, but it is only in losing ourselves that we will find Christ growing in us. God is inviting us to see that the cross is the tree of life.
When we feel God tilling our hearts, we are being given a chance to let go of our defensiveness, to be free of our fear. We can hold tight to our hardness, we can choose to produce bitter fruit, or we can become the garden we were meant to be. We can delight in this beautiful vineyard Earth that God has planted for us. We can rejoice in the abundant mercies that sustain our every breath. In the living vine of Christ, we can grow fruit to feed the world, and in giving ourselves away, we can be fed with all our souls desire. We can let the good news burst through the life we have known, and nurture us into something more wonderful than we could ever imagine.
Sometimes it is hard to find that good news, but we know that, no matter what, we have a gardener who is making all things new. Out of our brokenness, God will let us grow. Out of our brokenness, God is already growing.