One of the great gifts of our Lutheran tradition is the assurance that we’re never alone. Across our nation and across the globe on this day Lutherans gather to hear the same readings. Today hundreds of thousands of people are hearing readings from Isaiah, Philippians and Matthew. And not just Lutherans! Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ—all these Christians, too, are literally on the same page.
There’s a downside to the discipline of following the church’s calendar each Sunday. It means that we can’t avoid the tough readings, and there are plenty of those!
It’s harvest time in the Northwest. In today’s parable Jesus tells a harvest story that’s hard to hear. Let us pray…
We are blessed in this part of the world with a long growing season.
We can enjoy the abundance of the earth from local farmers much of the year.
But walk into Fred Meyer or Safeway or PCC any time of the year and be reminded that harvest season never ends. Somewhere in the world, fruits and vegetables are ripening. Plants are bearing fruit; farmers and workers are always harvesting. Right now, in the Southern Hemisphere— parts of South America and Africa, the world is moving not from summer to fall but winter to spring. There it’s planting season!
What’s true in the natural world is also true in the Kingdom of God: Harvest season never ends.
It’s hard to raise food for a living and the harvest story in the gospel of Matthew describes how difficult it can be. But in this story Jesus doesn’t talk about the weather and how unpredictable it can be. Unlike the parable of the sower, he doesn’t talk about the soil or the seed, either. And even though farmers are often burdened by debt he doesn’t mention money.
No, in this harvest story the focus is on people. There’s the landowner and the landowner’s son. There are the landowner’s servants, or slaves. And then there are tenants, responsible for collecting and delivering the harvest to the landowner. The farmer’s job is difficult enough with finances and the unpredictability of nature—but throw in the human factor and it becomes really challenging to bring in the harvest!
That’s what the story is about: Knowing the difference between landowner and tenant. God is the landlord. We are the tenants. Our homes, businesses, schools, churches and communities—these are the vineyard.
The tenants in the story took on the landowner’s job for themselves; they forgot that their job is to gather in the harvest. For people of faith, gathering a harvest means being in relationship to the world in a way that transforms the lives of others who don’t know the love of God.
Bringing in the harvest is hard work. It means doing whatever is necessary. Time is of the essence. Growing up in Iowa this time of year I remember seeing the harvesters out in the fields in the middle of the night, lights on. When the harvest was ripe there could be no delay or the grain would rot. The rains would come and they wouldn’t be able to get into the field. The farmers did whatever they had to, to bring in the harvest when it was ready.
So how about us? Are we willing to do whatever it takes to bring in the harvest? One time I was in the sanctuary when someone was talking mess with this sanctuary or I’ll be the one who grumbles and complains.” I appreciated the honesty! If each of us searches our hearts what will we find? The heart of a tenant? Or the heart of a landowner? Is there something inside us that would rather die than change?
That is what the story is about. On the face of things it seems like the tenants would rather kill than change (it’s a violent story!) but the deeper truth is that they would rather go to the grave having had their way than asking, “What is the will of the landowner?” “What is my job as tenant of the vineyard?” “How do I need to change?”
The tenants in Jesus’ story lost sight of their mission. Their job was to bring in the harvest for the landlord. But somehow they forgot that the vineyard was not theirs; they became distracted by concerns for money and personal power.
Before we beat up on the tenants too much, though, we might recognize in their behavior something familiar. These tenants were afraid of what they might lose. This was a landlord who lived far away; the tenants were probably used to enjoying power, independence and freedom to do what they wanted. They thought of themselves as successful.
In his letter to the Philippians Paul teaches that sometimes the greatest obstacle to obedience is success. Paul was a very successful man. He describes his past successes but then he says, Whatever gains I had, I have come to regard as loss…more than that, I regard everything as loss…I regard them as rubbish. Paul understands clearly that he is not the landowner. He is the tenant. Neither his successes nor his losses get in the way of bringing in the harvest.
Paul is right. Sometimes past or present success keeps us stuck by being afraid of what we might lose. But sometimes past success can spur us ontoevengreatersuccessforthesakeofChrist. I’mthinkingofyourvote this past February to become a Reconciling-in-Christ congregation. That’s a huge act of faith and courage. I would even call it a great success. But rather than just say, “We’ve done enough”–we’ve done even more. In two weeks we will welcome neighbors to hear what it’s like to be a young gay person. What is it like to be bullied and beat up because of sexual orientation? What do young people need in order to know that they are loved? There will be folks here that afternoon who have never been in this church before.
The harvest is ripe and is ready for harvest. Notice that the harvest is not about making church members. Notice that it’s not about institutional survival. The harvest is simply offering the assurance of God’s love and welcoming all people.
It is harvest season in the Northwest. In the kingdom of God, every day is harvest season! With joyful hearts may we faithfully assume our role as tenants of the vineyard and do whatever necessary to work together at setting aside what we’re afraid we might lose, to bring in the harvest!