Betsy Headrick McCrae is Pastor of Glennon Heights Mennonite Church in Lakewood, Colorado. This piece is adapted from a sermon preached on October 8.
Sour grapes are not good fruit. I have had a bitter taste in my mouth since we heard the news of yet another mass shooting in Las Vegas [and since this sermon was written, in Sutherland Springs, Texas]. Sour, sour grapes indeed.
Why does this keep happening in our country? What is our role in responding to these seemingly unstoppable tragedies? I thought about this as I reflected on Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46: these verses are about calamity as well.
But they don’t start with calamity. They start with beauty, with generosity, with careful planning, with hope. “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.” In the Bible, the vineyard is a symbol of bounty, goodness and care. A prime location is chosen. No expense is spared. The land is cleared. Choice vines are selected and planted. Arrangements are made to secure the vineyard and to process the ripened grapes and store the wine. This is a setting for success. Good, sweet fruit will surely be forthcoming.
In the parable that Jesus tells in Matthew 21, the vineyard turns sour. The landlord establishes the vineyard with all that is needed to produce a good yield and turns it over to tenants in good faith. However, when harvest time comes–the time to collect the good fruits–things get downright nasty. The landlord sends his slaves to collect his produce. The tenants seize his slaves. They beat, kill and stone one another. This happens twice. Finally the landlord sends his own son to sort things out, expecting that he will receive better treatment. But the tenants seize him as well. They throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.
This parable is an allegory about the people of Israel and Jesus, but parables always open more than one door to understanding. In this story, I began to see a pattern which is very familiar here in the U.S. in the 21st century. We live in the vineyard God has provided for us. Everything is set up so that we can produce good sweet grapes. But we don’t always do our caretaking job well. We neglect our God-given duties and it all turns sour. Instead of justice, there is bloodshed. Instead of righteousness, there is a cry. And when this is brought to our attention, we respond with anger and indignation. How dare you challenge our traditions! How dare you suggest that change is needed! Away with you! Off with your head!
As I reflected, I thought about how we as a country refuse to listen and learn. About how we keep doing what we’re doing even though it is obviously destroying our social fabric and endangering lives. James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine put my concerns into words. He wrote,
“Beyond the scores of people who have been killed and the hundreds who were wounded in Las Vegas yesterday, thousands of other people, though not visibly or directly injured, have had their lives changed forever…
The dead and the wounded, and their family and friends, of course deserve support and sympathy. But their fellow countrymen should reflect on the dark truth this episode underscores. I was going to end that sentence with ‘reveals,’ but that’s not right: We know this already. We know that America will not stop these shootings. They will go on. We all know that, which makes the immediate wave of grief even worse.
Five years ago, after what was the horrific mass shooting of that moment, the massacre in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, I wrote: The additional sad, horrifying, and appalling point is the shared American knowledge that, beyond any doubt, this will happen again, and that it will happen in America many, many times before it occurs anywhere else.
That remains true now. I expect it to be true five years from now. I am an optimist about most aspects of America’s resilience and adaptability, but not about reversing America’s implicit decision to let these killings go on.”
In both Australia and Scotland, significant gun-law reforms were put into place following massacres. In neither of these countries have there been comparable episodes since. In both countries, the number of gun deaths has dropped noticeably.
“No other society allows the massacres to keep happening,” James Fallows writes.
No other society allows the massacres to keep happening. No other society rejects the messengers that keep coming, demanding change, asking for good fruit, pleading for a return to sanity so that all may live. We are like those tenants in the vineyard, killing off the messengers while clinging to our sour grapes, telling ourselves how sweet they are even as our lips recoil and our teeth are on edge from the bitter taste.
In the book of Isaiah, justice refers to fair and equitable relationships within society that are grounded in the just will of the Lord and established through honest procedures. When such justice fails, it is because those who are economically and/or politically powerful have taken advantage of the weak. The results of the failure of justice are devastating. “I will remove the hedge from the vineyard,” says the Lord, “and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.”
This is not the way it has to be. This is not what God wants or wills. We have been given a beautiful, fertile vineyard by God our Creator. We are the tenants. We are the ones who, along with our community, who are responsible for the caring, the tending, the pruning and the watering of the vines. Our job, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is to produce good fruit, the sweet grapes of justice and righteousness. Fruit that is life-giving, never death-dealing. Fruit that feeds and nourishes all who eat of it.
Sisters and brothers, we don’t have to follow our reptilian brain. We don’t have to respond in fear. We can choose to respond differently to the messengers who arrive at our gates, challenging our assumptions and begging us to change our damaging ways. We can listen to those who cry out for justice and take them seriously. We can learn. We can follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. We can make a conscious choice to cut down the vines that are producing sour grapes so that we can start once again to grow good, sweet grapes.
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