Fostering Growth, Pruning the Weeds
by Lietta Ruger
Lesson Isaiah 5 1-7
Lesson Phillipians 3 14-21
Gospel Matthew 21 33-43
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, oh Lord, our
strength and our redeemeer. Amen
Today's lesson and gospel bring us again to the vineyard. Again I'm thinking of the nature
of vines and a vineyard. I see two contrasting pictures in my mind's eye. That of a well-organized, orderly, attended
vast vineyard in say, Napa California. The other picture I see is our own brambles of blackberry vines and other vine-type
plants indigenous to our own Pacific Northwest. I know what my husband went through trying to keep the vines from overtaking
our yard. As persistent as he was, the vines were more persistent, in their tangled and crossed pursuit of growing according
to their nature.
So for a visual moment lets think about unattended, un-trained vine growth and how disorderly and
chaotic they seem to grow by the very laws of nature. Let's think how much work and effort it takes to master the growth.
How would you go about it? What would be the steps to take and in what order? How much pruning and cutting
back would have to be done?
In our first lesson from Isaiah, it is the Song of the Vineyard. Cited are the steps taken;
digging up the land, clearing the land of stones, planting choice vines, building a watchtower, cutting out a winepress and
an expectation of a crop of good grapes. The Song goes on to lament that after all this careful work, planning
and careful fore-thought what was yielded was a crop of bad fruit. Then the question is asked "What more could have
been done for my vineyard?" The Song continues with almost a reversal of the carefully followed formula so that the
hedge is taken away and destroyed; the walls are broken down and trampled and it is made a wasteland, neither pruned
or cultivated. Briers and thorns will grow there and there will be no command of rain to rain upon it.
This can be a prophetic fore-telling when we look down the road of history to the destruction of
the Temple of Jerusalem. I think that is what our "training" in how to interpret the bible would have us believe,
or something along the lines of the new Christianity replacing the old Judaism, or how good has the owner of the vineyard
prepared the way for the producing of good fruits and yet sour grapes are still the product of the harvest. Have there
been instances you can think of where you ahave applied a carefully developed formula, had all the ingredients in place, followed
a systematic methodology and yet get a result far different than what you expected? Or better asked .. who has
not had a disappointing outcome to a carefully planned dream or vision? Who has not asked of themselves in retrospect
"What could I have done different?"
It would seem in the Song of the Vineyard that the owner took all the right steps and despite everything
done correctly, still got the wrong results. So the Song tells us that the owner dismantled the entire vineyard,
let it go to waste and allows a crop of briers and thorns to populate the vineyard, and even this crop he will not give water
Since this vineyard is not in our region, the Pacific Northwest, where rain is in abundance,
we have to image a desert land and plant growth with no water. Only the most persistent and hardy type of plants could
grow or flourish in these conditions. The small "draught" we are having in our area has my yard looking brown,
neglected and weed-choked. The dandelions grown and flourish while the grass neither grows or greens. And all
those beautiful color spot plants I planted have withered and died and will not see the next growth season in the spring.
I can see two images simultaneously here and it's hard to separate them in my mind. The contrast
of how our vines flourish in our climate with no attendance at all and how much care would have to go into cultivating a vineyard
in a desert climate. So I get two different images of the meaning in this Song of the Vineyard.
One is our own sprawling growth and how much work it takes to beat it back, tame it, domesticate
it. We are looking to buy a house in another community and we wanted to see more about what this community looks
like so we drove around all the roads there. On one of those streets we saw two houses nearly completely overgrown by
vines, blackberry sprawls, bushes and plant life. We had a moment of sympathy wondering if some unfortunate elders lived
in these houses and were no longer able to tend to their yards. My heroic husband announced his intention to cut back
all this growth overtaking these two houses when we moved to this community. I could see him, in my mind, hacking and
cutting and burning for days or weeks just to begin to even see the shape of these houses again. It would be my husband
battling the elements of nature to tame and domesticate a plot of land on which stood someone's home buried beneath the wild
growth of nature taking it's natural course. Much as I love nature and natural growth, there is a point where too much
of nature, unattended overwhelms when one is trying to live in their tiny corner of the world. One can become buried
in the sprawl of natural growth in these parts!
It does feel to me sometimes though, like I am overwhelmed by the natural progression of our societies
these days. I guess I wish some wise, overseeing owner of the vineyard would do some pruning and clearing and set about
a more neatly-ordered progression. I guess it helps me to appreciate that discipline can be a useful tool for
each and every one of us if we are to avoid turning into a sprawling growth of wild impulses, encroaching and choking out
the very life of more vulnerable growth, more vulnerable plants, more vulnerable life-forms, more vulnerable societies, more
The other image I can see is quite the opposite. A dry and barren land where plant life is
not abundant. The back-breaking work to cultivate such land in a forbidding climate. The labor involved to work
the land and have it produce a crop. The attention, the coaxing, the persuading of such land to yield life, to
yield life-giving harvests. The anguish when it does not, the exhileration when it does. The discipline
and patience and faith to undertake such a project, the vision to have it as potentially possible in the first place.
Diligence, persistence to work through each of the steps in a carefully designed plan, executing each step at just the right
time in just the right increments, tending and carefully planning the vines in just the right way, just the right measure.
Embracing daily the vision of what it will all look like at the end when the fruit has arrived and is ready to be harvested
only to find it is soured and unpalatable. How disheartening after all that careful planning and nurturing.
I guess this is where I might want a wise vineyard owner to be willing to try again and not give
up on the project as unworthy or unattainable.
I wonder if we must spend time in the barren wasteland before we have the knowledge, skills or tools
to become nurturers of growth, able to bring forth life in ourselves and others. I wonder if we must spend time lost
in a forest of growth before we have the knowledge, skills or tools to know what and when to prune, to cut back, what weeds
will become obnoxious and choke out other growth, what is poison and what is safe. I wonder if the verses sometimes
are not always about the bigger picture of God's son, messengering God's plan and will, forecasting Jesus death and
resurrection for surely those over-arching concepts are there. But I wonder in the minutia of our daily lives if
the verses speak to us in how to be human.
In our gospel reading today is another story of a vineyard. The vineyard owner makes ready
a productive vineyard, all is in readiness to be tended and harvested when the time is right. The owner rents
it out to tenants, leaves seemingly in trust and confidence that when the fruit is harvested his due will be given to him.
This is not the outcome he gets, no rather quite another outcome of death, death again, rejection, disrespect and death again
for his own son.
Was it resonable for the owner to expect the tenants to behave with the same trust and confidence
he put in them in renting the vineyard to them in the first place? Was he foolish to send first 3, then more servants
and finally his own son when he could see to send anyone resulted in that one's death? Was it wise for he himself
to go, would there be any more respectful treatment of him than was given his son, his servants? Were the tenants rebellious
for any good reasons? Surely they could not believe they would be permitted, unchecked, to murder living being
so as not to share the fruits of the crop gained from land they rented, land they did not own. Did they come to believe
they had more rights to the harvent than the one who prepared the vineyard? What kind of stewardship is presented
in this parable, what is the interplay of the relationships?
Is this a parable of allegory as it so obviously seems to be? Perhaps so, probably
And maybe some other things lie just beneath the surface verses....maybe unintended and subtle.
I can feel the owner going away as perhaps an abandonment. I can feel the tenants give rise to resentments
with the unexplained absence and the reappearance at the height of their labors..just in time to collect his due and what
is to become of the tenants after the harvest? Will the owner continue to rent to them? Will the oner go
away and abandon them again? Why does not the owner come himself for his share of the harvet, why does he send his servants?
Why does not the owner come and see for himself the tenants fine work, results? Is their labor so inconsequential to
the landowner it bears no acknowledgement? Are the tenants simply greedy, thankless souls who would do murder to keep
what they grew from their own sweat? Did the tenants forget the original contract...land is provided and prepared
for them to grow their fruitss with a due portion of that harvest to be given or paid to the owner?
Did the tenants have something to hide or cover-up, something they did not want the owner to know
or see or hear about? What would be so compelling to the tenants that they would kill others who came to collect what
Was the Judean order of the time so corrupted that we can make assumptions this parable alludes to
the Judean way of life as bad fruit, the killers of Jesus, a religion gone sour? I think not.
I think we have a responsibility to re-think the scriptures carefully, prune and cut back outgrowths
that may have grown wildly out of control. I think we have a responsibility to not only read our scripture but learn
about the formations of the scripture we are reading. I think we need to try to find the other depths in Jesus besides
the Christian interpretation of the Judean interpretation of who Jesus was and why he came.
I think that the opportunity to give thise sermons with the research, study and thought that goes
into them is giving me more pruning and cultivating than I bargained for. Sometimes cutting through the weeds and vines
that have grown up around the scriptures is a wrestling match. Sometimes the work to grow the root vine and follow it's
winding derivatives is a labor of love. Today's gospel reading has been, for me, another winding journey where
I cannot say as I put pen to paper in preparing this sermon that the obvious conclusion is____________.
Almost the opposite. I think the obvious interpretation I am supposed to have and preach on today becomes less and less
obvious with each sermon I write. What becomes more obvious is that this is indeed a Mystery that when we enter, we
cannot easily exit without having taken twists and turns along the course. The seeming only certainty is that in so
much uncertainty, there is ultimately only "faith".
sermon by Lietta Ruger
Oct 2, 2002