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!
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
A gardener decided to plant a garden.
She started the fall before, picking the perfect spot—for days, she watched the suns daily movement across her land, until she knew the pattern of light well enough to know that that patch, over there, past the oak tree, near the dam, would get the best morning and afternoon light. She tested the soil and squealed with delight to find it rich and nourishing, perfect for what she had planned.
Only then did she set to work—tilling the soil within her plot, pulling out stones, removing the roots of distant trees snaking beneath the soil, digging up those intrepid volunteer weeds that would not be able to share this space with what she had planned.
And then, because she knew there were plenty of foragers who might be tempted by her garden, she laid a fence. No scavengers or menaces would be welcomed here. She buried it a foot into the ground to keep out the groundhogs and rabbits, and hoped that the four feet would be enough to deter the deer that year.
As the winter frosts set in and the sun retreated earlier and earlier into the night sky, she began to plan—poring over seed catalogues, planning out the garden of her dreams on paper, plotting each plant to ensure the best possible yield. She ordered seeds—tomatoes and corn, beans and lettuce, beets, potatoes, cabbage and celery, herbs upon herbs and FLOWERS—And then she waited for the mailman to bring her treasures to her front door.
In February, her garden lay frozen beyond the oak tree, but she continued to work for her garden, starting the tiny little seeds in unassuming flats of soil on shelves in her basement. Every morning, she checked the grow lamp, water levels, tended to her babies as though they were her most precious possession. She counted the days until the final frost had passed, sowing carrots, peas, beets and lettuce in neat rows of dark, damp loam.
In the mornings, she began to sip her coffee on the porch and laughed at the rabbits as they hopped around the fence, unable to find their way in.
In late spring, she brought her little babies out of the basement and set them on the porch—seeds that had become tomatoes and eggplants, peppers and cabbage, herbes upon herbs and FLOWERS—and she laid them in their plots. She put cages around the tomatoes and built trellises for the beans and the cucumbers, piled the dirt upon the beginnings of potatoes and corn, and when all was finished, she sat back on her porch, tired and satisfied, and waited for it to grow.
In June, she started to get worried. The plants were growing, alright, but they weren’t setting any fruit. Her carrots were spindly, and her lettuce was as pokey as could be. What was wrong with the garden that she had planted? There were no pests to be found—the rabbits, the groundhogs, even the bugs had left her patch to itself. Only the bees zipped around, seeking in vain for the flowers that refused to emerge.
In July, she got angry—not even the hint of an eggplant or a tomato to be seen. All of that labor was threatening to yield nothing more than a few sparse salad greens and whole lot of frustration. She had a stern talking to her plants, and then retreated to her porch, stewing as the sun set in the sky.
What then, do you suppose she should do in August, when nothing has changed? She has done everything right, and these plants she had tended lovingly, they have refused to do the one thing that ought to come naturally to them—they have refused to bear fruit. Would we blame her if, in her frustration, she gave up entirely? Ripped out the plants, the fence, the trellis and the tomato cages, plowed under the garden and let the grass overtake it once more?
I can relate to her—for years now, I have been tending the roses in the back yard of the manse, willing them to flower. And I have done everything I could for these plants that I did not even choose—when we moved here, Sean Pope helped us cut down the weed trees that choked out the light. We weeded, we mulched, we fertilized. When Japanese beetles and rose slugs and aphids emerged, I picked them off, sprayed them with garden soap, smothered them in a bucket of soapy water. Most of the roses have responded gratefully, and this spring their blooms were overwhelming and received with joy.
Except for one. One sickly, spindly, leggy rose in the corner by the nursery has flat out refused to flourish. Despite my best efforts, it has produced little more than a handful of pale pink blossoms on the end of sickly, leggy, stalks. Nothing I have done for it has worked.
And so, it will go. This fall, three summers into this rescue mission, it will go the way of all ungrateful plants, and make room for something that will do something with the plot of land that it has been given. There just isn’t room in our yard to be wasted on roses that refuse to bloom.
Am I sad? Of course. I didn’t plant that rose, but I tended to it like it was my own. It received the same attention and care that I gave to everything else—the dahlias and Echinacea, tomatoes and tulips that grace the earth. But unlike them, it didn’t seem to care how much time or attention I gave it. And so, I will save my efforts for those corners of my garden that show promise. They haven’t given up on me, and I won’t give up on them.
Of course, this was never really about a garden, was it? In our first lesson this morning, Isaiah speaks in metaphors—and when he speaks of the garden, we know that what he means is the people of God. That God is like a gardener who planted his people, who gave them everything they needed to flourish. And in our text today, perhaps we find ourselves threatened as God tears down the walls and leaves his garden to perish. Or perhaps we are intimated by Paul’s list of all of the faithful gardens of the past, whose examples seem impossible to follow.
But there is another way to read these lessons. Perhaps we can take heart in the knowledge that God has given us absolutely everything that we need to flourish. That if we are God’s garden, we have amazing potential. We have been given the same care and attention that God gave to the Israelites in the desert, to the judges and the kings, the prophets and the martyrs, who at the end of the day were ordinary people who trusted that the Gardener would stand with them in extraordinary times.
The truth is that the garden that is Ivyland Presbyterian Church could produce the most amazing fruit—enough to feed everyone. And like any good garden of the people, we have so many different gifts to share. Spiritual tomatoes and corn, potatoes and eggplant, peppers and celery, herbs upon herbs upon herbs and FLOWERS! And none of us isn’t important. We all have a purpose. Remember, the tomato and the corn may seem like the king of the garden, but they are stronger for the carrots and marigolds and beans that provide additional nourishment, deter pests, and encourage the bees to take a visit. And the herbs—they provide so much flavor to our communal life with so little.
I could beat this metaphor into the ground, of course, but the point is this: when we see ourselves as the garden that God made us to be, then we see that what comes naturally, what we would call faith, is the work of learning to live together. That what comes naturally is supporting one another, encouraging one another, loving one another, because together we are far better than we are alone. Together, we have everything we need. Together, we make the most beautiful garden you have ever seen. A garden of justice, of mercy, of kindness, and righteousness.
And that, my friends, is what faith looks like. It looks like a garden of people, planted by God, filled with the goodness and promise of harvest. People doing what they were made to do, because they trust in the Gardener who made them and who tends them still. And that, brothers and sisters, is pleasing to God.