What kind of Vineyard is this?

Proper 22.A.2017
Matthew 21:33-46
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

In the Gospel lesson for today, we are told that there is a landowner who planted a vineyard, and bestowed upon this fair piece of land everything it needed in order to succeed and be a blessing to those who lived there. And then he leased it to tenants and went away.

When the time of the harvest arrives, the owner of the vineyard sends servants to the tenants to collect what rightfully belongs to him. They respond by beating, killing and stoning the servants. The Owner sends his son—and, in truth, given their past behavior, we shouldn’t be surprised at what happens next—because these are a violent and greedy people. They kill him as well. Here’s the interesting thing. No one to whom Jesus tells this parable doubts what is going to happen when the Owner of that Vineyard returns: “He will get rid of the evil tenants, and lease the vineyard to other people who will remember to whom this land truly belongs.” It’s about now that we can imagine Jesus pausing, and looking pointedly at the Pharisees. Why? Because this is a parable about them. They are the wicked tenants who have despoiled the vineyard of the Lord. They are the ones who have killed the prophets and stoned those who have been sent to them.

I find myself wondering about that vineyard—the one which the Owner leased to the tenants. Ask yourself: Is this a place (under the Tenants present leadership) where you would want to make your home? The Bible doesn’t tell us if it was a productive vineyard—so, let’s imagine that it was. Picture a thriving place where the harvest is plentiful and the stock shares of the wine have soared into the stratosphere. It’s a productive, beautiful land. Even so, is this a place you would want to live? Is this the vineyard in which you would hope to raise your children and feel secure with the people you love? Probably not.

There’s no escaping what Jesus intends for the Pharisees—and ourselves to see. That vineyard, that beautiful place, blessed with every reason to hope for success—it’s the world that God has gifted into our care. And those greedy, gasping tenants, the ones who have managed to despoil the vineyard of the Lord—sadly, they are ourselves. As the comic strip character Pogo says: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

It’s been a horrible week, hasn’t it? And, let’s face facts, this is not the cheeriest of Gospels to be faced with this morning. What can these ancient words say to those of us struggling to grapple with the modern day horror of mass shootings, occurring in our country on an unprecedented scale? Who, indeed, bears responsibility for the situation in which we find our portion of the Vineyard? And, what can be done about it? I suspect there’s a host of people who want to point the finger at the lone shooter in the Mandalay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas and say it was his fault—and his alone. There’s an element of truth in this observation—but it is too simplistic to make me comfortable. Wisdom urges us to look a bit deeper. What is it about our particular vineyard that has caused such a rapid rise in shootings such as these? Consider, in the history of our country, while violent crimes have actually decreased since 1970 (that’s right, you’re safer now than you were thirty years ago), we have seen an exponential rise in mass casualty shootings. In fact, the majority of the deadliest mass shootings in the United States have taken place since 2007. Doesn’t it behoove us to ask “Why”?

From what I can tell from my history books of yore—we Americans have been a proud gun-toting lot from the time of the War of Independence—where musket bearing revolutionaries routed the English from our shores. But I doubt that our Founding Fathers ever envisioned the type of weaponry we have at our disposal today--guns designed with the sole purpose of killing as many human beings as possible in the shortest amount of time. I wonder what these same men would think of the bill, scheduled for a vote in congress this past week (that has since been delayed) which would make it easier to purchase silencers—thereby enabling shooting sprees such as we saw last week to be even more difficult to stop? Of course, there’s no way to know what they would have thought. However, that we’ve moved into a different era from when shotguns and rifles were used to hunt animals to marketing weaponry specifically designed for mass killings of human beings—surely, this should cause such men who wrote the Constitution—a reason to raise their eyebrows. Think of it this way—at least, with a rifle or a shotgun, we give the animals we hunt a sporting chance. Who have we become, that this is considered moral or sane? What kind of vineyard is this?

I know, as well, that there are those who will look at the shooter and say that there was no way to prevent this particular disaster from occurring. On the one hand, I’m inclined to agree. On the other hand, a rifle, shotgun or handgun—while deadly enough—would have killed far fewer people than a legally purchased semi-automatic weapon, illegally modified with a legally purchased bump stock. I don’t think there’s any question, if given a choice, what those located in the shooting zone would have preferred.

Yet, it seems to me that it is relatively simplistic to blame the entirety of what has become a national problem solely upon the gun lobby. I think Jesus would want us to look a bit more closely at ourselves, and consider ways in which we all contribute to the problem, if by nothing more than the complicity of our silence. Some issues which come readily to mind include the propagation of violent media: movies and ever more realistic video games, marketed to younger, , more impressionable viewers where killing has become entertainment. Then there is the festering issue of the lack of accessibility to adequate mental health care for a good percentage of our population.

Finally, there is the issue of community. And this, I suggest to you, is where the church and other communities of faith, have perhaps the most to contribute to this issue. Unlike other countries, our culture and its emphasis on the individual places us at a greater risk of mass shootings compared with other countries where guns are prevalent. Mass shooters in any nation tend to be loners, without much social support, who strike out at their communities, schools and families. Many countries, where gun ownership is high, such as Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Israel, tend to have more tight-knit societies where a strong social bond supports people through crises, and mass killings are fewer. America has a shockingly disproportionate number of mass shootings, even when you account for variances in size of population. (Sarah Voisen/The Washington Post).

It seems to me, that if we take both the Gospel, and the best of what we know of the causes of mass violence to heart, we would see that the answer isn’t simply a matter of changing laws; fundamentally it’s about changing hearts. It’s about changing the culture of the vineyard in which you and I currently live. From what I can see—our country is consumed with anger. And with this, some of the social bonds which held us together in the past seem to be eroding at warp speed. We seem to be losing the ability to listen to others who hold alternative views. We talk at rather than with those whom we disagree. Communication with those of differing opinions is relegated to snarky posts, quick sound bites or tweets—and look more like vicious jabs, a quick means of wounding others, rather than an earnest attempt at communication.

And this is where I believe the church—as a community of faith, as part of the vineyard of God, has something important to offer to our world. We may not be able to put an end to every horrific event such as that which we witnessed last week; but we can offer a community of support to those in emotional pain or crisis; we can be a place of listening (both to others, and—most importantly, to God); we can be a place of healing and a visible symbol of hope to a society of increasing estrangement. The question is, how we are we at St. Paul’s to do this? I suggest that we begin by taking a closer look this week at the vineyard in which we live, taking time to search our hearts, and then reaching for the grace of God, to help ourselves and those around us to change, to become more and more the kind of stewards of whom our Savior would be proud. Stewards who, in the words of our Lord, produce the fruits of the kingdom of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.