I have fond memories of growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Like being part of a knothole
baseball team. Back in the day, children who didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket would
find a place, outside the wooden fences surrounding a baseball park, where they could watch the
game - for free. Knotholes were created when a knot in the wood popped out.
I remember playing in our backyard. A lot. We had a quarter of an acre, and I would
retreat back there when I wanted to be alone. I spent hours on the swing set, hours of swinging
and singing. “The wayward wind is a restless wind; a restless wind, that yearns to wander…”
I also have fond memories of my mother’s mother and father, Grandma and Grandpa
Reed. They ended up following us to Memphis, living to be 99 and 106. I remember how they
loved to have their hands in that Cincinnati dirt. I especially remember going through their
house, into their back yard, where everything they grew in that southern Ohio soil flourished.
Fresh fruit and vegetables - in abundance! “The corn was as high as...” - well, you know.
And the highest of all, tall as small trees, were the grapes. That grape arbor - what could have
been their vineyard, if my Baptist grandparents had been wine drinkers - was simply spectacular
in the eyes of my boyhood. I’d look up, trying to find the sky above the grapes. I never could.
Today’s lessons are full of references to grapes and vineyards. The prophet Isaiah sings a
love song about a vineyard. But that vineyard didn’t do as well as the one at my
grandparents’.“It yielded wild grapes,” so Isaiah decided to “make it a waste” (5:2,6). In Isaiah’s
words, as well as in the refrain of today’s Psalm (80:7-14), the vineyard represents “the vineyard
of the Lord of hosts, the house of Israel” (Isaiah 5:7).
I’ll say more about that Jewish image later. For now, let’s look at the story Jesus tells
about a vineyard. Here’s the backstory: After entering Jerusalem with palms and cries of
“Hosanna!” Jesus goes to a Jerusalem temple. He overturns the tables of the money changers
and begins to tell stories. Those stories - parables, as they’re called - are religious wake-up calls.
Today’s parable of the Wicked Tenants, as it has come to be known, is the second of three
stories, part of a series. These stories aren’t being live-streamed, but they’re definitely live and
in-person for those in that temple. I wonder: Was it as hard to stop listening to Jesus and
watching him as it is for some of us with our favorite series on Netflix or Prime Video?
At the end of the parable read last Sunday, Jesus says this to the religious leaders: “The
tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew
21:31). Let me stop here, to say this: For centuries, the anti-Semitic interpretation of this
parable was that Jesus was judging and rejecting his own Jewish people. Historical scholarship
conclusively shows us that Jesus was not speaking to all Jews, but to their religious leaders.
Those leaders were collaborating with the Roman Empire in the oppression of their own people.
Near the end of today’s parable, Jesus tells those same leaders - in case they forgot or
didn’t listen the first time - that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a
people that produces the fruit of the kingdom” (21:43). When Jesus told this parable, he was
making reference to today’s lesson from Isaiah, which identifies Israel, the Jewish kingdom, as
the “vineyard of the Lord.” Isaiah predicted judgment for Israel’s failure to yield good grapes.
Jesus pumps this parable up for the religious leaders with another Jewish theme: people
do reject their prophets. The landowner sends two delegations of slaves to collect produce from
the tenants of the vineyard. Each time in this parable, the tenants reject the slaves, unleashing
violence, even murder. Finally, the landowner sends his own son, saying, “They will respect
(him).” But the tenants do not. Instead, they say to each other, “This is the heir; come, let us kill
him and get his inheritance” (Matthew 21:37-38). As the story goes, they do kill him.
The religious leaders actually finish telling the parable. The landowner will “put those
wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the
produce at the harvest time” (21:41). Those leaders couldn’t help but hear this parable of Jesus
as an indictment. They think they’ve been judged and found guilty, but they want Jesus to be
arrested. Why? It’s that last thing Jesus says, about rejecting the cornerstone. The religious
leaders know that image all too well. It’s from another part of the prophecy of Isaiah (8:14-15).
What are we to make of this story about Israel’s religious leaders? One Bible professor
says “the suffering, impoverished and illiterate common people rightly acclaim Jesus; the
educated leaders do not” (Susan Eastman, Feasting on the Word, p. 145). This week, we honor
someone who came from great wealth and education but chose instead to follow Jesus by
becoming one of the common people. We know him as Francis of Assisi, St. Francis.
In a little while, some of us will gather at the neighborhood dog park with others who will
also bring beloved not-human beings for a “blessing of the animals.” We’ll recognize God’s care
for all creation - including Brother Sun and Sister Moon and all creatures living among us. And
we’ll pray today for “this fragile earth, our island home” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 370).
Today, perhaps more than ever, that adjective, fragile, makes me flinch. Some time ago,
National Geographic explored two different futures for our planet. One future “presented the
worst case scenario: what Planet Earth will look like in fifty years if we do nothing substantive
about climate change. (It) described a grim, dangerous world of mass extinctions, searing forest
fires, deadly heat waves, fierce storms, and widespread suffering for the human race.
“The other (scenario) portrayed a more hopeful, verdant vision. It’s what Planet Earth
could look like in fifty years if we harness our time, ingenuity, resources, and technology now to
undo at least some of the damage we have already done” (Debie Thomas, “A Lament for the
Vineyard, journeywithjesus.net , 9/27/20).
What if we are now living out the parable of the Wicked Tenants? We are indeed those
who work land given to us by God, the landowner. And damage has been done to this fragile
earth, our island home. Even if you or I don’t believe our climate is in crisis, climate change is,
at the very least, more obvious, according to most Americans and mainline Christians, including
Episcopalians, in a recent survey by one non-partisan institute ( https://www.prri.org/wp-
That’s why I’ve been thrilled this year to see something simple happen on this wee part of
God’s fragile earth. It’s something that’s part of a more hopeful scenario: At All Saints’, people
have been finding some sustainable ways to feed themselves and their neighbors. Under the
leadership of All Saints’ church administrator, Sandi Rogers, your Community Garden has taken
good steps in that direction. This week, she and I heard about a way to live into some next steps.
In two weeks we’ll welcome special guests, who’ll have news to share of “a grass-roots…effort…to
help empower people to live a healthier, sustainable life” ( www.urbanharvest.life ).
So…on Sunday, October 22, after we gather for worship and fellowship, we’ll offer our
next “lunch and learn.” It will be about being better stewards of our little vineyard, here at the
corner of White Station and Quince. Soon, you’ll be receiving a special “snail mail” letter from
me, describing some other ways to be better stewards of all the gifts God keeps on giving us.
Maybe someday, we’ll have to try and see the sky, for all the grapes in this vineyard! Stay tuned!
~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg , Vicar, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN.