"God's Harvest Table'" Pentecost 16, October 2, 2011
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the realm of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the realm of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
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Will you pray with me? Welcoming God, it has been a hard week for many of us. We come to you seeking restoration, refreshment, encouragement and hope, knowing we will be fed at your table. Give us grace to accept your gifts without doubt, knowing we are your beloved children, and part of your universal family of love, united through your child, Jesus the Christ.
Yesterday I did one of my favourite things—driving out in the county. There is something about being out there, riding and talking in the company of friends, stopping here and there for apples or a late breakfast, seeing the trees beginning to change—I need that experience in my soul during the changing seasons, in spring and especially in the fall. It brings me to that autumn state of mind—time to make stew, to eat apples fresh from the orchard with cheddar cheese as a bedtime snack, to put away the sundresses and sandals and dig out the turtlenecks and sweaters, to stock up on soup mixes. It’s harvest time, with all the harvest feelings of plenty and full cupboards, of taking stock for our preparations for the winter to come—do we have what we need to make it through? Are the root cellars of our lives full—not just with food, but with friendships, mutual support, love, hope, all the blessings of our lives? Next week is Thanksgiving, when we recognize and name these blessings; but today we can recognize where those blessings originate—the one from whom all blessings flow.
In our reading from Isaiah, that vineyard did not produce, in spite of all the owner’s preparations—the cultivation, the weeding, the wall to keep out predators and thieves, the winepress ready to go when the grapes were ripe. In Isaiah’s day, this vineyard image was a metaphor for Israel—that Israel was God’s vineyard, prepared and planted but not productive of God’s good things. We cannot read that forward to Jesus’ time and say that once again Israel was not ready, did not give honor to the one who deserved it. That is not historical for one thing, and for another, it lets us off the hook. We can dismiss it as meant for those who could not follow Jesus, and pretend it does not also apply to us.
The fact is that God creates, plants, vineyards in every one of us—all of our individual hearts—gives each of us gifts and the means to share them—those vines and the grapes God is looking for.
So—how is your harvest coming? Have you been weeding and watering, pruning and clearing, preparing the vines for the harvest? Are you looking over the vines, seeing if the grapes are ripe and ready to be picked? Have you been willing to share your gifts, your talents, whatever you have that is needed?
We don’t always know which of our gifts will be needed nor how they will be used. Sometimes we know we have a gift—for, say, conversation, we can talk to almost anyone about anything—but we can’t see how God could possibly use it or need it. And then one day, we realise that with our gift, we can be the welcomers—the ones to greet others at the door, to host a coffee hour, to be part of a newcomers welcoming group—or maybe even to become a counselor, supporting people in need, offering hope to people who can’t seem to find any.
God uses all our gifts, no matter how insignificant they may seem to us, how un-useful. The harvest in the vineyard of our spirits is never wasted.
Today is World Communion Sunday. Today we gather in spirit with our sisters and brothers around the world at God’s table of grace. This Communion table is God’s harvest table, full of the gifts we have brought, to be shared with all of God’s people—gifts from the vineyards of our hearts, our gifts and talents and finances and graces.
Do you know the two most powerful forces in human life, the two basic motivating factors in all we do? Eating and sex. They are both necessary—food to continue the life of the individual, and sex to continue the life of the species. And so they both feel good and are pleasurable—and so both can be insidious addictions, because we must eat to live and the vast majority of healthy adult humans have sexual feelings. How we act or whether we act on those feelings of physical hunger and sexual desire is another matter and beside the point. My point is that in every civilization, around the world and across time, these two factors define the culture.
It is said that the two best ways to learn a language are: 1) to learn how to cook and eat that culture’s cuisine and 2) to have a lover who speaks the language as a first language. Any culture’s most rigid rules and customs—not laws, but customs and habits—are around food and eating, and sex. Who may invite whom to eat at their home, the foods offered a guest rather than a family member or intimate, how the table is arranged, who sits where, how the tableware is used—these all have importance and if any of them are violated, confusion and possibly offence and insult are the outcome. In Europe, for a minor example, when the fork and knife are placed parallel on the plate, it means the person is done eating—in North America, it means nothing. In North America, it is common to invite someone to your home for a casual meal after knowing them a short while. In Germany, to be invited to someone’s home is an honour and an indication of deepening intimacy and friendship. In a restaurant in Europe, if it is busy, strangers may share a table—with no expectation of conversation, although it is not offensive to talk. In North America, that is unheard of! And so on.
Sometimes these two factors—meals and intimate relationships—are brought together, such as a date for dinner out, or a special meal prepared the first time a potential partner comes to your home.
But they both come down to vulnerability and sharing. We open our homes, our private space; we open our hearts, our spirits; we dare to share what moves us most, what we would most grieve losing—our homes, our selves, our physical bodies. We risk vulnerability, that openness to being hurt, because it is in that risk, in finding that the other does not hurt us but in turn opens and shares with us, that we find true intimacy. In going to someone’s home, sitting at their table, eating their food, that person risks our presence in their private space—and we risk going to an unknown place, a place that may be dangerous to us in some way—not literally, probably, but where we both, host and guest, risk rejection, misunderstanding, loss of dignity or standing, exposure of our faults or ignorance…any number of things.
And yet, having taken that risk, we may well find a deeper level of intimacy, a better knowledge of the other person. We have both dared to be foolish or wrong—and we were not. To me, sharing a meal in someone’s home, whether it is a full-blown seven-course dinner or simple coffee and cake, is an expression of caring and intimacy, a way to say, I care for you and want to know more about you, to support and encourage you; I trust you with my fears and hopes and vulnerabilities, and you can trust me with yours. This is why, across cultures, violation of these hospitality customs –to injure a guest or allow a guest to be harmed is so grave, and often results in expulsion, temporary or permanent, from society for the offender. Guests require the best of the host, generosity, vulnerability and protection.
All of this comes together in Communion, which is sharing a meal with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We share not only a meal, but ourselves, being vulnerable to them, and them being vulnerable to us; with God as our host, God and God’s people are intimate, open, and trusting with one another. And so we pray for our sisters and brothers, support them, encourage them, both as churches and as individuals. You can see this every Sunday. In our worship service, we come together in worship—the call to worship. We hear what God has to say to us, in Scripture and then the discussion of that Scripture. We put that message to work by returning gifts to God in thankfulness and then by praying for our sisters and brothers, and for ourselves. Then we confess—we tell the truth about what we have or haven’t done as we know we should—and having received and then given forgiveness, we can come to God’s table as equals, with no constraints between us of distrust or anger or hurt. We share God’s marvelous feast, and then, nourished and strengthened by God’s love, we return to the world to share that bounty with other people.
That is the Christian life, wrapped up in symbolism and condensed to an hour! We’ll be talking about it in more detail, incidentally, at our worship study and training event on November 5…
It is God who invites us to this table, all of us. As you have heard me and many others say many many times, this is not my table, not this church’s table, but God’s table. We gather in spirit around this table with all Christians of all times and places—Rome in 75, Paris in 721, Cadiz in 1551, Brazil in 1834, Capetown in 1921, Tokyo in 1965, Sydney in 1999, Windsor in 2012.
It is not for us—you and I—to determine who can come and who cannot come to share God’s gifts. All are invited to share at God’s table—even Judas shared in that last supper with Jesus which we remember in Communion, in the upper room with the other disciples.
So come—today and all days—receive God’s gifts, God’s trust; deepen your knowledge of God, open your heart to God, risk that vulnerability at God’s table. Join with all God’s children in this feast of love, spread for you and for all of us through God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ.
In God’s many names, amen.