Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 4th October 2020
Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43
I said to Fr. Adrian on Tuesday, that since he had returned from holiday early to say Mass at St. Peter’s last Sunday, that I owed him a sermon – so I’d preach today. Besides, I said, I hadn’t yet preached a Harvest Festival since I’d been here. It would be good for me.
It was only then that I looked at the readings for today, and the idea of Harvest as an olde-worlde, twee tradition of the Church of England – something out of Lark Rise to Candleford or Call the Midwife – came crashing down around my ears.
Because today’s readings are serious warnings from God to his people, whom he portrays as a vineyard that produces sour grapes.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that we shall know people – and be known – by our fruit or theirs; he tells us that no good tree produces bad fruit, and no bad tree produces good fruit.
The sour grapes Isaiah refers to are symbols here for Israel’s unfaithfulness – throughout the Old Testament Israel had an on-off relationship with God, who longs for his people – as we hear in the Psalm, he drove out the nations to plant his vine in the Promised Land. But the Israelites used to flit between worshipping the one true God, and worshipping either idols of their own creation, like the Golden Calf, or the idols of the pagan countries around them.
As a result of this, and as a result of the way in which they had treated the poor of the country, who were “sold for a pair of sandals”, God allowed Israel and Judah to be invaded by the Assyrians and the Babylonians – the tearing down of the vineyard prophesied by Isaiah.
The Kingdom of God, too, is compared to a vineyard by Jesus, who tells the chief priests and elders of the people the parable we heard in the Gospel – how the tenants placed in charge of the vineyard not only failed to yield the produce, but abused and then killed first his servants, and then his own son – a symbol of how first the Old Testament Prophets, then John the Baptist, and Jesus himself were scorned by God’s people.
So, Jesus prophesies, the Kingdom of God will be given to a people who produce its fruit – and here we see a prefiguring of the Book of Acts, where after being rejected by most of the Jews, the Apostles preach with great success to the Gentiles of the places they travel to. Whether tended by Jews or Gentiles, the vineyard of God’s kingdom is tended by those who are faithful to him.
What unites the people of God, male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek, is Christ himself – Christ, who calls himself the true vine. In St. John’s Gospel he says that we, the branches, cannot flourish unless we remain united to the vine.
Over the summer I’ve been growing tomatoes, and Jesus’s words in John 15 have resonated with me. Jesus says that our Father cuts off every branch that doesn’t produce fruit, but prunes each plant that does, so that it produces more. Leah and I have done plenty of cutting and pruning over the summer, and even though we know that it’s necessary – to conserve and channel the plant’s energy – it still feels like I’m doing violence to these plants.
We can feel this way, too, sometimes – we can feel as though we are suffering for no reason – only to look back on it later and realise that we have grown as a result – that we have produced more fruit. God the gardener tends us with care – and never wishes to cause us harm. Rather, he strengthens us and enables us to bear much fruit – so long as we abide in him.
So on this Harvest Sunday, let us give thanks for the fruit of the earth that feeds us; but let us give thanks even more for the fruit that springs up in each one of us – the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And let us give thanks, most of all, for the most nourishing food of all: the food of the Eucharist, the word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who gives us his body, to nourish us to eternal life.