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SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D RICHARD LORING AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 2, 2011, THE SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

At this time of year, grapes are being harvested in the Holy Land (as they are here) - and as they have been for centuries.  The first buds appeared on the vines in March; the blossoms came in April, and grapes mature from July until now, and some will be picked even into late November, depending on the type of grape and the location of the vineyard. 

The soil and the climate of the Holy Land have always been favorable for the culture of grapes.  That is why the vine and the fruit of the vine have had such rich symbolism in the life and religion of the Hebrews.  Jesus in His teaching used many figures drawn from the vineyard: the parable of the vineyard rented out to tenants who were supposed to take care of it (today’s Gospel); the parable of new wine in old bottles; the parable of the laborers in the vineyard hired at various hours, and of the two sons sent into the vineyard (last week) - to name only a few.  And here at the Eucharist, we might think of the words of Jesus, “I am the True Vine ...” and so forth (John 15).  After Jesus said those words, He honored the vine by taking a cup filled with its juice, as generations of Jew had done at Passover, and passed it to His disciples, saying, “Drink this, all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.  ” The Passover wine became the sacramental wine of the Christian Holy Communion. 

We cannot harvest all the vineyards in a single sermon; so today I would like to concentrate on what the Prophet Isaiah has to say in his parable in Chapter 5 of his book.  There isn’t a great amount of plot to the story.  A man had “a vineyard on a very fertile hill; he dug it and cleared it of stones, and he planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine-vat from the rock ledge in it.  And he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  ” It is a story of crop-failure, of disappointment.  Its meaning is given at the end of the story: the Lord is the disappointed husbandman or cultivator of the vineyard, and Israel through its wilfulness is the bad crop. 

This is of course a story that can be applied to any time and situation.  I don’t want to suggest that human disappointments are on a level with God’s disappointments with the human race - but we do know among ourselves the experience of disappointment.  Many parents have labored and sacrificed for their children - have provided for them nourishment and privileges - and yet have harvested a disappointing crop.  Teachers have poured themselves out day by day, and have had their students literally fail.  Pastors, priests and rabbis have known crop failure, as have missionaries who have labored long and hard in remote places without realizing much if any fruit of their labors.  Presidents and other heads of state have invested high ideals and sowed noble programs, only to harvest wild grapes in the form of corrupt officials and recalcitrant citizens who do not share the vision of those in authority.  Honest and sincere people have invested their life savings into businesses, with the feeling that they were offering a service or a product that we needed - and instead have gone bankrupt.  Institutions as well - particularly churches - have experienced bad crops because of spiritual famines and the moral drought of some members, or the failures or weaknesses of their clergy. God’s disappointment with the vineyard of Israel, which Isaiah has put into his parable with great literary skill - that disappointment is echoed in the human family, which time and again has seen its own vineyard bring forth a harvest of disappointment and failure.  And we must ask whether we in our day have been doing any better with the treasure entrusted to us.  Have we, in the Church and in our lives, tried to keep the harvest for ourselves rather than reaching out to others?  The Lord of the harvest intends us to be His agents who will see, and love, and go to make disciples of all those around us.

No solution is offered in the parable of Isaiah, and I cannot pretend to offer one here either.  The only lesson to be learned is one of acceptance and perseverance - just as God has been patient and faithful with Israel and with all humanity.  If one’s children turn out to be disappointments, in spite of one’s best efforts on their behalf, that has to be accepted without loading the children with guilt for it.  One goes on from there.  If students refuse to learn, or if they reject sound teaching, the teacher doesn’t resign.  The situation must be accepted.  It was a bad year; maybe next year, with a fresh crop of students, will be better.  Some other teacher, or some other parent substitute, may be able to do what could not be done by the original one.

This is not to retreat into resignation or irresponsibility.  On the contrary, it is a mature understanding of the reality of things, and a sound response to that reality.  What is the alternative?  Should we wallow in guilt or remorse or self-pity?  These are all debilitating emotions, bottomless pits which do no one any good.

Of course it is sad when crops fail.  And there are any number of reasons why they do.  But once the grapes have turned sour, there isn’t much that can sweeten them.  One has to take the write-off and hope for better harvests in the future.

Now, how do we pray about these things?  How do we deal with disappointment in our prayers?  Well, the first thing is to share the tears of disappointment with God.  It is not often helpful in human relations to tell a person that he or she has been a disappointment to us.  Too often that leaves the person with a lot of guilt unnecessarily, and then they are angry at us for making them feel guilty!  For who were we to try to shape their lives anyway?  As the old proverb goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink; and there will only be a nasty scene if you try to make the horse feel guilty for not drinking.  But you can lead the horse to a different source of water.  And this can be applied to the raising of children, or to husbands and wives, or to friends and relatives, or the Church, or any human situation.  Share the disappointments with God: He is big enough to take our tears; He knows enough tears of His own, and understands our tears.  And by praying about these things in these ways, you do lead people to a different source, of living water.  That is true even if you do not mention your prayers to the persons being prayed for.

The other thing is to realize that God can and does bring new life out of the broken pieces of our disappointments.  This is part of the promise and hope of resurrection.  And if we can really leave the disappointments in God’s hands, He often will bring new life, or make it possible, in ways we would not have expected.  We may come to see that indeed we ourselves sometimes were one of the obstacles to growth.  But in any case we will come to see that our prayers were answered, often in ways that had not occurred to us in our thinking.  This is true whether these answers come in this life or the next.  Indeed, one of the reasons - not the only one - but one of the reasons for looking for a life after this, is that so much is incomplete and unanswered here.  One of the promises of the next life, I am certain, is that we will see what our prayers accomplished, and find completed what is so partial and incomplete here.  And we shall know who prayed for us.  And there will be some wonderful surprises on all accounts!

Amen.