God’s Bad Vineyard

Tracy Niven
Wednesday 18 October 2023

Preacher: Dr Joanna Leidenhag, Lecturer in Theology and Liberal Arts, Leeds University
Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46

Lord, let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Hello. It is wonderful to be back with you – I preached in this chapel almost two years ago, and in his invitation to return Donald asked me to reflect on what has been significant in my faith, ministry and experience over recent years, perhaps since I last preached in St Salvator’s.

When I was last here, I took as my refrain two verses from the opening of the book of Malachi.

“I have loved you,” says the Lord.
“But you ask, “How have you loved us?”

I reflected on how, in times of injustice, trauma and suffering, it can be hard to feel or see evidence of God’s love. And so, we ask, “How have you loved us?”

“Where is the God of justice?”

Malachi’s answer comes as a word of hope: “The Lord you are seeking will come to his temple… the one you desire, will come” to you.

In the last two years, I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular kind of suffering and injustice, which I think we see discussed in today’s readings: namely, injustice within the church, spiritual abuse, or religious trauma.

How can the Lord we are all seeking, the one we desire, come to us – if his temple is broken? Where can we find him, if not here?

Over the last few years, I hear friends say that it matters less to them if Christianity is true or not, but whether it is good. Many people I know are not wrestling with historical evidence of the resurrection, but the historical evidence of racism, sexism, and abuse perpetuated by Jesus-followers.

How can the Lord we desire come to us if his church is rotten?

To be clear, I think churches and Christian organisations have also done tremendous good in the world  – from providing free education, healthcare, and social services for centuries in almost every country in the world, to the millions of charities and ministries that exist today.

But God is not interested in a moral calculations. God does not weigh the good against the bad, and decide if overall we’re good enough to love. That is not grace. And so also, for the church, no amount of foodbanks or women’s rescue shelters can make up for the hurt. To think that way would dismiss the suffering we have caused. It is not the way of justice.

This is hard to talk about. It is hard to stand in a church and talk about from the pulpit. But I would rather do it here; show that it can be done from here. By the terms “spiritual abuse” and “religious trauma” I mean any form of abusive behaviour that has religious rationale or happens within a religious community, such that the victims can no longer experience their spirituality in the same lifegiving way. The research in this area is relatively new, but it is also something we see discussed a lot in the ancient texts of Scripture. Even though it’s hard to talk about, the research on this topic very clearly shows that silence only furthers the damage.

In today’s Bible readings we see that spiritual abuse is something God cares passionately about.

Today’s three readings each talk about different problems with God’s vineyard. They also speak with three different voices, different perspectives. This is important; when thinking about sin and trauma in the church, there are different voices that need to be heard.

 Oh Lord, teach us to listen to the cries of distress. Help us to hear the stories that need to told. 

The Old Testament reading from Isaiah, starts off as a love-song – from the perspective of one who loves God, but is not in the vineyard.

I will tell you about the one I love.

I will tell you about their vineyard.

From this opening, we might expect a happy-romance tale – but instead of good fruit, he finds his precious vineyard full of bad fruit – literally translated “stinking things”. It connotes something rotten. Something which should bring healthy and joy, but instead makes you sick, almost poisonous.

The parable we heard from Matthew’s gospel; we see the problem identified in a different way. We have a very similar opening – it is likely that Matthew is deliberately reminding his audience of Isaiah; a landowner who planted a vineyard, and invested in it with a wall, a winepress and a watchtower. But now the corruption is in the tenants, those who are meant to care for the garden and pick the fruit and share the goodness. The tenants are abusing their position of power. Clearly, this refers to religious leaders, and foretells the betrayal and murder of Jesus – but we all have and hold power in different ways within our communities.

And so, we all need to reflect on the question: Do you use the power you have well? How can you use it to nurture others, to share God’s gifts?

Oh Lord, show us our power. Help us use it to bring life to your people.

The second voice we hear in these readings is God’s. In Isaiah 5, verse three then switches from the voice of the lover to the voice of the beloved– God’s voice. “What more could have been done for my vineyard that I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?”

God did not intend his church to be rotten. Verses 3 and 4 clearly tell us – this was not God’s design. We cannot use God as an excuse.

Oh Lord, forgive us when we invoke your name to justify our sin; when we dress up our injustice as your justice. Lord, have mercy.

 Why does God allow it? Why does God allow the church to produce stinking things?

God says: “Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard” … not actively destroy it, but remove its protective walls, remove my provisions.

God will have nothing to do with a church that is poisonous – and a church without God’s protection and provision is not a safe place to be. It is not a place God wants anyone to be. If you have been in, and left, an unhealthy religious community – I want to say that was a good thing to do.

“God looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; God hoped for righteousness, but heard cries of distress”.

These cries are given voice in Psalm 80; our third voice and perspective – that of God’s people.

“Restore us, God Almighty”

“Return to us, God Almighty”

When the walls are broken, when boars ravage and insects pick – God feels far away. God might not even feel real.

The psalmist thinks that it is God who harms them.

That is the travesty of religious trauma, of sin committed with religious justifications and excuses— God’s actions are confused with the actions of sinners and abusers.

Of the three virtues, faith, hope, and love. Faith is the first to leave; as the rooster crows, we say “I did not know him. I was not part of that group.” And without faith, love becomes hallow and fades.

But hope – hope lingers. Hope returns to the tomb on the morning of the third day.

Oh Lord, warm the embers of hope in our hearts.

But where is our hope when the vineyard is rotten, the walls have been torn down, and the tenants have murdered God’s son?

“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone”

This is our hope.

“The Lord you are seeking will come to his temple”

This temple is a body; a body that was beaten and abused – with religious rationale and under religious authorities.

For God has not and will not abandon victims of religious trauma.

It on his son’s body, murdered by the tenants, rejected by the builders, that God builds his church.

The vineyard is rotten. The temple is broken.

But, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit…. Abide in me, and I in you.”

“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvellous in our eyes”

 Just and there and hold the silence for 5-10 breaths. (Smile).



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