I took the long way home a few days back.
I drove the roads which were mine growing up, going past vast fields of corn and soybeans which have been part of my landscape my whole life long.
I grew up with kids whose families owned these farms. Indeed, parts of more than one summer were spent de-tassling corn or ‘walking beans’ to remove the weeds and residual corn which inevitably threatened the crop of beans which was otherwise flourishing under the Northern Illinois sky.
Oh, it is easy to understand how any one farmer could begin to believe that his corner of the ‘vineyard’ belongs to him given the hard, hard work and monumental financial investment it takes to put in a crop, nurture it to maturity, and harvest it. One really has to pause ‘up close’ in some ways to take in the full wonder and miracle of it, it seems to me. Indeed, that may be easier to do in my backyard garden which this year has provided an abundance of tomatoes and cucumbers to not only enjoy, but give away! For indeed, it really is quite amazing that those tomatoes just keep coming through little or no effort of my own.
So yes, it is surely easy to see why Jesus would use an agricultural image today. Not only would many listeners then and now understand it, but this image communicates such wondrous mystery in terms of how seeds germinate and produce to feed us all that it is not hard to make the logical connection with God’s abundant generosity. Indeed, it is pretty easy to see how all of it is not really ‘ours’ at all. Rather, we are just tenants on this land (and in this life) which has been loaned to us for this short time.
So it is that today my thoughts are somewhat random as I return to this familiar parable. I offer them here in three parts. Do with them what you will. I hope that something will connect with you as well.
- As I considered the agricultural image before us now, I was taken back to a conversation which took place on the edge of a cornfield a long time ago. A farmer in my first congregation was sharing with me his love of the acreage which had been given him to tend. He stood there with corn kernels in his hand, humbly sharing his own commitment to caring for that rich soil so that the next generation would be blessed by it as well. For Russell knew it was not ultimately his. In fact, I remember another sharing when he told our congregation that in an act of faith year after year, his family’s giving was always determined by the previous year’s harvest, regardless of how the current one was projected to turn out. Russell has long been gone by now. I wonder if he could have even imagined that his words would come to this pastor’s mind today — more than three decades later. I wonder if he knew how vast God’s Vineyard was and is not only in terms of space, but time.
- I also find myself thinking now of the ‘corner of the vineyard’ God has given me to tend. And yes, I am standing still now in this truth that much of what I was taught in terms of how to ‘pastor’ has been tossed up in the air of late. Certainly this is so for me (and for many) as I was mentored early on to simply ‘show up’ in the lives of one’s people: in the hard times and the good ones, too. Even if and when you had no idea what you would be given to say or do in any given situation, if possible you always went: into homes and hospital rooms and nursing homes and on and on and on. But then, Covid-19. And home visits were considered too risky and family members and, of course, pastors, were not allowed to visit hospitals and nursing homes. ‘Showing up’ in the way in which I was accustomed was simply no longer possible. And yes, I grieved this powerfully. I still do. In fact, just this week, in this case because of distance, I have had to ‘make do’ with a phone call to one who was recently diagnosed with advanced cancer. And I took communion to another at the hospital. In her case, a hospice team will help care for her now as she moves to a care facility where visitors are not yet allowed. I am not especially proud to say this, but it is by force of mental and emotional and spiritual will that I force myself to remember that this is God’s Vineyard, not mine. This ‘tenant’ can only physically go where she is allowed to go and when I cannot, God is already there. Indeed, as God always was, bringing the very healing and wholeness that my mere physical presence could only begin to point to.
And finally, this:
- These days I am embracing the truth that this ‘vineyard’ is surely not only the physical, outside world which we inhabit. More and more, I am thinking of it as the landscape of my own heart. (Surely this has occurred to me before. Indeed, without a doubt, this is what Jesus actually meant first of all!) And I am wondering if sometimes by my clinging too tightly to all of it: old regrets and past losses, things I have done or not done which could be counted as successes or failures or a real mix of the two, the regard I hold for neighbors and friends these days across the political spectrum, not to mention the hope or fear I feel as I look to the future. I am wondering if in my thinking of all of this as somehow ‘my own’ if I am then doing exactly what those tenants did so long ago. When I forget that even this is not really ‘mine’ but is wholly in the care and possession of the One who lent it all to me in the first place, am I also ‘rejecting the cornerstone’ as Jesus has it now? And what would it mean for me in the day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment, to simply remember that even this tiny piece of the vineyard ‘in me’ is also all God’s? Might that not help me to live more fully as the ‘tenant,’ I have actually always been, more completely trusting God with all of it? And oh, what difference might that make?
I hope these first thoughts might be helpful to you in some small way. It has been gift to me now to have a place to put my own thinking into words. So thank you for being alongside me in ‘the vineyard’ God has given us all to live in and to tend. Both the one we inhabit together and the ones, the many ones, which are marked by the contours of our own hearts.
I am deeply grateful.