Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 4, 2020
This gospel passage that we just read holds a special place in my heart. I was assigned this passage for my very first paper in seminary. We were told to dive into it, break it open, look at the original Greek words, put the passage into its context. And being the earnest student that I am, that’s exactly what I did. Or, at least, what I thought I did. After hours of research, writing, and labor I got my paper back and right at the top, in giant red ink – “B.”
B? I don’t get B’s! I got into the University of Texas at Austin by being in the top ten percent of my high school class. I was on the Dean’s list. I graduated early with Honors. I don’t get B’s. And yet there it was, staring at me.
Because I totally didn’t mention the most important verse of this entire passage. Verse 43. Go back and read it with me. “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Jesus is struggling against the leaders in Jerusalem and the leaders of the Temple. They thought that simply by who they were, by their pedigree, by their identity, by their history, they were the rightful heirs of the Kingdom of God. And yet Jesus spins this parable back at them, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
See, God is a shrewd vineyard owner. If a vine is soaking up water and fertilizer but fails to produce, then it’s time to chop it down and allow another vine to grow, a vine that will produce. If a tenant fails to produce the fruit, then what are they doing? What’s the point of having a vineyard if you’re not growing any grapes?
Things, ideas, ways of doing things in the church do not have a right to exist forever into the future just because they have existed forever in the past. If they are not producing the fruit of the Kingdom of God, then it must be time to move on and to allow something new to take its place. We have all seen churches saddled, burdened even, with their past because they had not the courage to let something go.
Just look at where we are today. The things that used to produce fruits of the Kingdom of God in “normal times” don’t work anymore. Because things are just different. What once took place in the Parish Hall now takes place over Zoom. What once could only be done in person is now also on YouTube. And strangely, incredibly, more people, new people have worshipped with us since this all began. Because it is not about the vines that used to produce, it’s about the vines that will produce. Together, our parish family has already done this time and time again. Shrove Tuesday became Shrove Sunday and we raised more money for outreach. An old church became a new church and we behold its beauty. Meals and potlucks became Sunday schools and discussion groups, and we have more disciples.
Just because those things stopped doesn’t mean that anything in the past was necessarily bad. It doesn’t mean that God is done with us. It just means that a new vine is ready to produce. And rather than continually pouring more money, more energy, more time into something that has run its course, we must have the courage to take on the new thing. Like God, we must be shrewd keepers of the vineyard.
This goes for church life and it goes for our own spiritual lives with Jesus. In a way, we are all burdened with the things that we have been doing forever and don’t have the courage to give up. We must be shrewd keepers of what has been given to us. Admit it, we keep pouring time, energy, money, water, fertilizer, into the things that don’t work for us. We must have the courage to prune those vines and move on. This is the hard work of discipleship and confession of sin. Confession is not about beating ourselves up for bad things we did; confession is about pruning back the dead growth in our own souls so that something new can spring up. Confession is about admitting our failure to embrace the new thing that God is trying to do in our lives.
Funny enough, the content of this passage was the very lesson I needed to learn way back in that first seminary class. See, I thought that it was my divine right to be the top student. I thought that my pedigree and my pedigree alone should allow me to sail through seminary. I thought that the diploma on my wall and the academic accolades I had achieved spoke for themselves. But I had failed to consider that what God was calling me to do was something new. Something different. Something in the future. I had failed to consider that God would not allow me to live off the fruits I had already produced.
In other words, it is not who you are, it is what you do. That ought to be our litmus test for any new thing or new people that wish to be part of the church. We ought not ask who they are, or where they come from, or to consider their pedigree. No. We ought only to see if their lives, if their discipleship, is producing fruits for the Kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is being taken away from the leaders of the Temple and given to a new people, to a new “ethnos,” to the Gentiles. That is the whole point of verse 43, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
Yes, we the people of Holy Comforter have done incredible ministry. We have had the courage to trim the vines and plant new. We have built, we have ministered, we have grown. And yet, we cannot rest on our laurels and think back on all the good grapes that we’ve grown. We are to press ahead, to produce fruits again for the Kingdom of God. We at Holy Comforter will claim no pedigree for ourselves – we will only look to the future and the opportunities for gospel work set before us. Imagine with me what more the church, what more our church could do – helping more people get jobs. Helping more people get fed. Helping more kids at our elementary school. Inviting and growing with more disciples. The Holy Spirit is inside of you, right now, calling you to do something better, to do something new, to grow new fruit for the Kingdom of God. We must assess all that we are and all that we have, including our money, yes. That probably means that we have to give up some vines in order for new ones to grow. But the only thing standing between us and our future is courage.
See, at the end of the day, God is going to make that vineyard produce wine. God is dead set on producing fruit for the gospel, because that is who God is. And if we are not producing those fruits – if we are not compassionate, and loving, and generous; if we are not welcoming, and kind, and considerate – then God will find somebody else who is. So the question is not whether God’s vineyard will produce fruit. The question is: is our vineyard producing fruit for God?