The Persistence of Planting, Sermon 10/5/14

Homily given in the Chapel at Country Club Christian Church, on the occasion of the building re-dedication.

Text: Isaiah 5.1-7

Have you picked up that today is a special day?

It’s a little hard not to. Hard to miss the announcements, the facebook posts, the emails, the lack of orange fencing and conspicuously normal-looking landscaping outside. It’s starting to look less construction zone and more, well, church. Fancy church.

A lot of hopes and plans and process are being realized and we are celebrating that realization today.

Are we done? I don’t think so. At least, I sure hope not. Together, today, we gather to celebrate and we hope for more to come. We continue to plan and dream and proceed.

And we hope for God’s presence and will to be with us in the midst of all of it.

We put a lot of stock into our plans. Maybe some of you participated in the planting project – something like 1,000 bulbs were planted on the grounds. Can you imagine the sight if all 1,000 yield the blooms they promise? Can you imagine the contrast between our blooming landscape planted along with those bulbs, and the landscape laden with cranes and front-loaders and orange fencing and hard hats?

The before-and-after would be amazing. All this construction business means that we are in the business of hope these days.

Perhaps you read Glen’s article in the newsletter a couple weeks ago, where he reflected on what’s next – noting that he senses that something important and life-changing is happening in this place. I certainly hope so – I’m excited to be starting my third month as one of your ministers – I think I’m finally learning some names!

These do feel like exciting times – the completion of a major project – an opportunity to celebrate… And if we are true to our Gospel, we know that when we are in fellowship with the Spirit, then we always run the risk of being part of something life-changing.

I don’t want to put a damper on the excitement and the effervescent hope – but I think we should talk a little bit about Isaiah. Sometimes the prophets can be a real downer. Isaiah does not disappoint. If you don’t listen very closely you think that the scripture passage I just read is a love song – it certainly starts out that way.

There’s a lot of garden imagery in the prophet’s words, here. I don’t know why, but I always seem to be drawn to scriptures carlisle05that use images and allegories related to gardening or harvest or sowing. I don’t know why, because I am a terrible plant owner. I don’t dare try to grow my own food – my grandpa is an accomplished farmer, but I didn’t get those genes!

Isaiah begins these verses with what sound like a love song. God takes pride in the vines God has planted, and has deep love and care for them. Tending to the vineyard is what brings God great delight – and what a beautiful metaphor, right?

We’re not talking about mere ordinary – or even necessary – farmland. We’re talking about vineyards – which bear fruit, which turn into wine. And God – as the one who plants the vineyard – takes great delight in the work, and harbors great hope for a fruitful and bountiful yield.

And yet.

In spite of the work – and care – and tending, the vineyard did not do its job. Plentiful wine-making grapes do not grow. Instead, wild grapes grew. I’m told that this is bad. Wild grapes are useless; the wine would be awful. And no one wants that.

You’d think of all farmers God would be able to guarantee results – the harvest would assuredly be the best of all possible harvests, and yet, in spite of God being the farmer, the harvest is neither perfect nor plentiful. There is, it seems, no assurance – for anyone – of a resulting harvest.

In this passage we instead are reminded of the risk of life – that no results are guaranteed. Even for God. (Which seems pretty counterintuitive for sure.) We know this all too well, of course. We watch as a world created and called Good chooses war, abuse, isolation over peace, solidarity and community. The Goodness is not guaranteed persistence. That’s the nature of perfect love, which is rooted in freedom.

Now, I have no idea how to plant and tend a vineyard – again, it’s an arduous enough task for me to remember to water a single houseplant. So, I did some reading.

It probably won’t surprise you that planting, tending and waiting on a vineyard is a job that requires one to be tough and incredibly patient. A new vineyard takes at least two years from first planting to see the reward of the harvest. In that time, the owner also takes care to build a wall and watchtower to ensure the vineyard is safe – it can grow freely and securely. The care is great and the expectations are high.

And the result is more than disappointing.

And yet – God remains present. God remains faithful.

We are reminded in hearing these words from Isaiah that God did not enter into a contract with Israel. If that were true, and Israel had neglected to fulfill their end of the deal, God would be right to walk away. Contract broken. Deal done. Instead, their relationship is based in covenant. In promise. In sticking it out.

When the vineyard fails to produce good fruit, God remains present. God is certainly not happy – we hear the love song quickly turn into words of judgment. God is upset – but doesn’t express it as an overlord to underlings. Rather, God is portrayed as a jealous and disappointed lover.

It may be the nature of perfect love rooted in freedom to risk imperfect or disappointing results. But it is also the nature of perfect love to remain faithful – steadfast – hopeful.

God’s end of the covenant deal is to remain faithful to the people – to continue to plant hope and live into patient expectation. God’s faithfulness holds up the reality that sour grapes aren’t the only grapes that can and will grow in the vineyard.

This passage serves as a poignant reminder that “even our most diligent preparations do not always lead to desired results.”[1] We are standing on a precipice built of preparation and hope. We as a community have invested a lot in this day – of time, of thought, and, yes, of money. We have some pretty high expectations for ourselves, our building, our future.

Yet what happens if – and really more likely, when, – we are disappointed with where the road takes us? What if we are unhappy with one another, with the community, with church itself?

We are called choose to love as God loves. We choose covenant.

We remain faithful. We seek the prosperity that is of God – which is not prosperity the way the world defines it, but is marked by the fruits of justice and righteousness.

God is in the business of new life – of creating new life – of cultivating good fruit.

God is in the business of fulfilling the covenant promise to sustain our lives in the Spirit.

We do not guarantee good fruit – but we are called to work alongside God cultivating truth, justice and peace.

We have planted many hopes and dreams in and around this place – both literally in the form of bulbs, and figuratively as we dream about what it means to be a community of faith. We do not know for certain what our harvest will be, but we are guaranteed the creating and sustaining presence of God in the work.

[1] James Burns, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, 127.