Fertile Ground

Sue Lewis Bodner

October 8, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7
     Matthew 21:33-46

A Teaching for the 40th Reunion of the Eighth Day Faith Community

Good morning.  I am honored to be with all of you this morning.  I have never been so grateful for the lectionary scripture!  It was indeed a challenge to know where to begin for this particular teaching!  The first thing I thought of after reading both the Old and New Testament passages describing vineyards was a sermon Marilyn MacDonald gave years ago in which she had a drawing of the earth enveloped in blossoming grape vines-her interpretation of the words of Jesus in the gospel of John, “ I am the vine, you are the branches”.  It is an image that has stuck with me all these years and I think of it when I am feeling despair for the world.  So many words, images, and actions during my time at Eighth Day sank deep and continue to generate fertile soil for my life. 

Now as for actual vineyards, I never saw one until I found myself with two adult millennials.  In case you missed it, millennials love vineyards!  I have been on my first-and-only wine tasting vineyard trips with my daughter, Gail, and son, Ben in Virginia, New York, and most recently, California.  Last February, I was sitting in a lawn chair in Napa Valley, alone for a few moments.  As I looked across the beautiful fields of succulent grapes, I was reminded of Dayspring and the years I attended retreats there when it was still functioning as a farm.  What a joy it is to see the abundance produced from fertile soil.  And for those who worked the fields and nurtured the vines, there is surely a contentment that feeds the soul.

Isaiah’s words are a song.  “I will sing for the one I love, a song about

God’s vineyard.”  What did the vineyard need to produce fruit? —a fertile hillside, the clearing of stones and the choicest plants.  It also needed watching, looking after.  So there is a watch tower and a winepress—a tangible expression of the expectation that fruit will come.  When only bad fruit comes, there are questions.  “What more could have been done?”

“Why did I only get bad grapes?” 

Isaiah decides that God will take revenge on the vineyard and destroy it.  Worst of all, perhaps, it will be left infertile—a wasteland.  As the tone of the song darkens, we hear that God was looking for righteousness and justice in this “garden of delight” but instead saw bloodshed and cries of distress.  So today, as we are gathered to celebrate the garden of delight we all shared for some time over the last 40 years, how do we hear Isaiah’s song?”  Hold that question!

Now hear about the vineyard in the parable Jesus tells.  It’s not exactly a prettier picture.  Again we have a landowner who planted the vineyard, built a watchtower and dug a winepress.  Again, the expectation is that delicious abundant fruit will come from fertile soil.  When it is time for the owner to claim his fruit, it turns out that those who were entrusted to care for the vineyard are also agents of violence.  “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” Where are we in this vineyard story? 

I think we can safely say that it is God’s clear intention to settle us in fertile soil.  How does it get fertile?  Sometimes it just comes that way and sometimes it takes years of mulching and turning, lots of rain, and lots of luck.  We can also say that vineyards need watching and the right equipment to get the fruit to its intended purpose.  That is the good news.  The harder message is that intention can be thwarted, both by our own inadequacies and by outlying forces whose purposes are at odds with ours.

Both of these vineyard stories give us a realistic picture of the challenge to live in a world full of both wondrous and horrifying experiences.  This community and the larger Church of the Saviour have certainly not avoided that challenge.  We celebrate a legacy of ideas, answers, really, that feed our own hope for the world and have inspired folks all across the world to explore those ideas in their own churches and communities. 

I came to Church of the Saviour in the fall of 1979.  I first heard of the church from Hank and Susie Dunn, whom I met in Macon, GA.  We were all involved with campus ministry, Hank and Susie through a Baptist Church, and I, with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.  Racism, sexism, and classism were all rampant around us, graciously tamed by authentic Southern charm.

Had it not been for the Dunns, I would not have lasted long.  I remember one time when the kids were asleep; Susie turned out the lights and invited me to come to the basement with her to read a Sojourners magazine.  “Do we have to hide even from Hank?” I asked.  “It’s better if he doesn’t know about it—if someone at the church found out that he knew, he’d be fired,” Susie replied. 

It makes me laugh now, but when they left to move to DC to be a part of Church of the Saviour, I was not far behind.  They went to Eighth Day, so I did, too and I was hooked immediately.  There were women leading worship, people starting new ministries right and left and more good looking single men than I could have ever imagined!  Some of them are here with us today!  I lived in the suburbs, initially, but by 1982 had moved into the city, within walking distance of the Potter’s House, and many of the folks I worshiped with.  I loved group-house living and was never lonely.  There was so much to do, so much to learn, and parties every weekend.  I kept meeting one fabulous person after another.  This is not a case of romanticizing the past; it was AWESOME! 

Gordon and Mary Cosby had an incredible vineyard vision.  They knew about the fertile soil, clearing rocks, watching, working hard, and getting the winepress in shape to enable the sharing of all of that luscious fruit.

As I was beginning to understand the pieces that went into becoming fertile soil for God’s work in the world, I was also getting to know the budding L’Arche community.  For the first year or so, I did not understand that this was a whole other vineyard!  Many of those responsible for bringing the first L’Arche community to DC were also part of Eighth Day, including Gene, Mo, Glen and Michael—four more handsome guys who liked to dance!  My vineyard was saturated with the message that being God’s people meant everyone had a part and a gift to bring.  We were one another’s teachers, family, and friends.  We brought varying intellects, personalities, measures of creative ability and a wide range of economic diversity into the wonderful world of seeing mutuality in our relationships with one another.

This was a place that could make a dream like Marilyn’s—a globe encircled with love and peace, a possibility.

AND, we also had the walls that broke down, the briars, the thorns, the rain that didn’t come.  We had death that came to soon, marriages that didn’t last, missions that failed, cherished people who left.  How could that be?  How did we, how can we, hold it all? 

Our history is also our legacy.  Suffering, horror, and the unfairness of it all seem to be just “what is.”  The Buddha offers this: We are all connected.  There will be suffering.  Extend lovingkindness.  I think this is a simple summary of the meaning of the vineyard metaphors.  I recently learned a movement in QiGong called “opening your heart to what is.”  It looks like this: (demo: open arms wide and bring them to chest).  We get to be co-creators, lovers, and peacemakers as our feet are planted firmly in the fertile soil of the goodness of God; our hands busy with watching, working, and ever improving the winepress to best dispense and disperse the luscious fruit of the eternal garden. 

Sometimes we plant the seeds, sometimes we reap the harvest, sometimes we watch, sometimes we work.  It’s the full participation that matters: being wide awake with a clear intention each day to be looking inside and outside of ourselves for the presence of God—or as Elizabeth O’Connor said so eloquently, living the inward/outward journey. 

In many ways, I haven’t yet left Eighth Day.  I can say that because I still have friendships that have spanned the years.  But more importantly, I took you with me.  I found a new church home and community in an unexpected place, at a Presbyterian Church a mile from my home.  I will mark fifteen years there in December of this year and count myself among the most fortunate who get to find love twice in life.  I met two people immediately who had some experience with Church of the Saviour back in the day—even before me—and knew and loved Dayspring.  Slowly, the fertile soil I brought from you, along with a lot of great soil that was already there, has nurtured new things, like small groups for spiritual growth and accountability, lay people in the pulpit (occasionally), mission outreach to the homeless and mentally ill—and a contemplative prayer group.  It will humor some of you to know that I have a reputation as the resident contemplative!

Just shortly before I was asked to do this teaching, someone you might know, Merritt Gillard, approached me about our church making a response to the racial injustices recently happening around us.  We had met when she and Steve first came to Trinity, and I knew that they had spent some time at Eighth Day.  Merritt said that she asked me because she knew I understood the Eighth Day Way!  Of course I said “yes” and we now have a vibrant group ready to take action!  What a gift!  Turns out you really can make new wineskins!

I want to close with wisdom from two men who have taught us about life in the vineyard:

First, from Thomas Merton, in his book, Contemplative Prayer:

And in order that this sweet love of Jesus may grow in your heart, you must practice a threefold meditation: in memory of the past, awareness of present things, and concern for future things.

And second, a poem that Richard Woodard enclosed in a Christmas card to me, some years back:

Even the permanent has an ending
Even mountains wear away.
It may take ten thousand years and only God is around to see.

But what is now will cease to be.
Don’t hold tightly what is passing

There is something new around the corner...
But hold it lightly
While you may
Enjoy the moment while you have it
Then release your hold and slip away.

Just in case anyone was thinking I was going to tell you exactly what to do in the future, well, I am!

Live like Richard:

Say few words
Play with children
Show up at EVERYTHING, especially the parties
Send Christmas cards, especially to children
Be funny
And if possible, have a frog collection.