Tending the Vineyard

Vineyards in Hermonville(Creative Commons image by Vincent Brassinne on Flickr)

Dear Working Preachers,

This past week, Walter Brueggemann was on the Luther Seminary campus giving the inaugural presentations for the Fretheim Lecture Series in Biblical Theology. Amazing. At 81 (or maybe 80, not sure of the actual month of his birthday), he is an extraordinary presence — personally, theologically, spiritually, biblically. Having had the opportunity to spend some individual time with him over the last few years — I know! Lucky me!! — I am consistently moved by this biblical giant whose simultaneous gentility causes him to listen for the voices of justice in the text and those in the world. His topics were “Why the Old Testament Should Not Go Away” and “Preaching the Old Testament.” Of course, those of you who know Brueggemann would expect that there was more to the topic than the topic. In this case, it was a stunning critique of totalism.

His proposal: that totalism in which US Christians live is market ideology that is connected to US exceptionalism that is supported by the military that wants to control world markets under the guise of globalism and that all totalisms end in violence. Holy cow. I am not sure what all of that means, but I think I get the central point. “Preaching in this reality,” he insisted, “is hugely urgent. The health and well being of our civil society is dependent on preaching … as hard a time of preaching as I know about.” Great, Walter (I can call him that. We’ve had lunch AND dinner together). Thanks. A lot.

What an entry into this parable from Matthew.

The parable could certainly be a critique of the totalism that was the Roman Empire at the time or even the Jewish authorial and religious structures that sought to maintain totalities given the audience in the text. But that seems a little too easy. In other words, that is too much “third person” preaching. You know what I mean, the kind of preaching we do that keeps Jesus’ critique on the safe lips of Jesus. “See?” we say. “Jesus doesn’t like these things. We shouldn’t either.” End of sermon. And then, we just keep silent and say nothing at all and, more critically, do nothing at all.

Are we willing to be the voice from the outside, especially when we think there are things that we simply cannot say? Are we willing to give utterance to that which exposes totalism as a “veiled project that cannot lead to life?” Are we willing to be the prophetic voice of judgment and hope (Brueggemann)? Because when you think about it, a lot of preaching out there is either one or the other. A heck of a lot about judgment or generic and bland hope that does little to instill hope. Are we willing to say, first person and all, that God has entrusted the Kingdom of God to our tending while admitting that our perception of the importance of God’s realm lacks the magnitude and holiness that God demands and deserves?

I imagine we wish that God’s request had a few more guarantees. That there would be certain percentages or results that would correlate with our efforts. That’s how market productivity works. While we are preoccupied with net product, God is preoccupied with protection. While we seek to secure the harvest of our efforts, God insists that our harvest is not ours alone. That is, it’s not our business to secure maximum yield. But it certainly is our business to tend the possibility of yield. And tending is no easy task.

The Kingdom of God does not work like the reign of the marketplace. What you do, who you are, is not for the sake of yourself, but for the sake of something beyond yourself. In the end, tending to the presence and potential of the Kingdom of God is not just about tending the vineyard, but tending something that is beyond your control. We have no idea what the yield will be. And the unsettling question of it all is what will you do with it?

Brueggemann is right. Our preaching, even our faith, is imprisoned by the market ideology that preys on our fears of being exposed for our lack of productivity, and therefore, more so, our fears of being found inadequate disciples. I have no doubt that many in our congregations worry about the same. Where or when will they be exposed for not knowing the Bible; not knowing when to stand or sit; not having proper instruction in ecclesial practices and beliefs. In the end, someone will discover that they are imposter Christians from whom the kingdom of God will indeed be taken away (21:43).

God has bequeathed us the vineyard. God calls us to tending that is merciful and kind. God needs us to move from speech that is mere passivity and consolation to prophetic preaching that is about judgment and hope.

Grace and peace to you this week in your prophetic preaching for the sake of bringing about the Kingdom of God, here and now.