Failure

10/6/96
Pent. 19
Matt. 21:33-43

Along the roads which parallel Lake Seneca in Upstate New York, there are miles and miles of vineyards. It wasn’t always so. In the late fifties and sixties farmers raised corn, oats, some hay, Concord grapes and apples. Most of the farms failed. The area around Penn Yan and Geneva was as poor as any part of the Northeast. Failure was written on the sagging barns and closed store fronts. Montgomery Ward pulled its catalogue store out. Eisenhower College over in Seneca Falls closed. A pall set over the region. Over the next twenty years there were various attempts to make a go of agriculture. The acreage around our friends’ house became a Christmas tree farm. That didn’t work either. Then a little while ago, some new families began to plant vineyards. Not like the vineyards that once upon a time grew bulk grapes for Welches Grape Juice and Taylor Wines. Rather here and there were planted more select vines.

They were tended and pruned and cultivated. This August my wife and I had dinner along the lake at a restaurant that featured wines from the local specialty wineries. Our host told us that some of the wines were quite good. He may have been right, for the New York Times this week ran a special feature on the wines of Upstate New York. I hope the wineries succeed, and that this is not just another boom and bust cycle. Too often failure has been the fruit of the soil, the area, and the lives of its inhabitants.

Vineyards, the vine, the growing of grapes are common agricultural images in the Bible. Frequently they are used to describe the life and faith of the its people. In today’s Old Testament lesson Isaiah uses the image of the vine to say that Israel has become a wild vine, yielding the fruits of bloodshed and injustice. Like the old vines along Lake Seneca, Isaiah’s wild vines will be torn out and cast away. Israel has failed to live up to its covenants and will be punished.

Jesus was familiar with the farmers’ hazard of growing grapes and with the image of the vine in Israel’s prophetic heritage. In His parable in Matthew 21:33-43, Jesus creates a midrash on Isaiah 5:1-7. That is to say, he takes a known passages and interprets it with a new twist. Jesus tells us that a landowner planted a vineyard and invested heavily in it. He leased the vineyard to tenant farmers, who were to pay the landowner part of the cash crop. The tenants refused to honor the covenant and assaulted the landowner’s representatives, who came by to collect the rent. This was a family business, so the landlord sent his son. Tenants by this time were totally rebellious, killed the son, and figured they would lay claim to the vineyards through squatters rights. Jesus asks what would one expect to be the reaction of the owner. The owner would exercise the death penalty for the tenants and lease the vineyards to new tenants, who would honor their contract. Out of the failure of the original contract, and out of the death of his son, a new relationship and a new structure would arise. Quoting from scripture, Jesus says, that the stone which the builders rejected will become the cornerstone of a new building.

Now this parable is about many things. It certainly anticipates the death of Jesus and the founding of a new community which will supersede the nation, Israel. But if we ask on a very broad scale what this story is about, one thing is clear. It is about failure. The landlord failed to hire the right tenants. He failed to correctly assess their reactions. He failed his slaves. The slaves failed to protect themselves and to strategize. The tenants failed to live up to their covenant. They failed to follow appropriate standards of ethics, religion and business. By hijacking the farm, they failed their own families. They miscalculated the consequences. They failed to control their own rebellion and let things get out of hand. The landlord failed his son. By giving the son the responsibility of collecting the rent, the landlord didn’t “make a man out of him.” Rather he sent his son to his death.

In regard to the issue of failure, this story hits us right where we live. Like so many of the parables, allegories, metaphors, and images in the New Testament, it has the incredible ring of veracity. I once had a tenant in a house I owned, who would not leave. He in effect hijacked the house. I had to bribe him to get him to leave. Back in the 60’s I worked in an organization where the seminarians revolted against the superintendent. “The inmates took over the asylum,” as the saying goes. Fortunately I had enough sense to refuse to join the rebellion, which turned nasty.

You and I experience failure in its various disguises. I suspect a sense of failure is on the heart of most of us in the pews. While there is the obvious failure in sports (someone has to lose), that is not the kind of failure with which I am concerned. Rather, there is failure in a marriage, failure in a business, a career, the rearing of a child, the keeping of a covenantal relationship between child and parent (even in one’s old age). You and I have to deal with the failure of our hopes and dreams, of our expectations and abilities, of our assumptions, understanding and health. Even the young can have a nagging sense of failure, as can groups, communities, and nations.

In my fifty years of going to church, I have heard clergy talk about sin and evil, confession, redemption, and even success. Never have I heard anything said about failure. (Of course maybe I failed to listen, or the preacher failed to be articulate.) There is a stigma to failure. It often seems to carry a disgrace or leave one open to ridicule. Sometimes pain is associated with failure, for the response to failure can be punishment, either by someone else or by yourself. Failure can carry an enormous emotional burden and cloud one’s memory or vision. It can destroy relationships and one’s physical and spiritual health. From the perspective of today’s parable, I want to say a six things about the Biblical and the Christian attitude towards failure.

First of all, failure is part of life. It is a given. Shepherds lose sheep to wolves and disease. Crops fail. What is unusual about the vineyard in both Isaiah and Matthew’s parable is that it flourished!

Secondly, there is purpose and meaning to life. The landowner builds a vineyard. The stone which the builder rejected becomes a corner of another structure. History is not cyclical nor random. It moves ahead.

Thirdly, there is a moral and value dimension to life. Contracts and covenants are made. They are to be kept. When they are not kept the relationship between the parties becomes strained. When they are kept there is a balance or wholeness to life.

Fourthly, Mankind has choice and responsibility. The nations of Judah and Israel were allowed to fail. The tenants were able to take over the farm. The landowner was allowed to choose to send his son and thereby to make a dreadful mistake. This fallibility, as well as the tendency to disobey, is accounted for in the story of the garden of Eden.

Fifthly, there are always consequences for one’s actions. When the vines are cultivated and pruned they flourish. Because there is direction and meaning to life, because there are moral and value dimensions to life, we can expect consequences of judgment and punishment sometimes. But punishment for the failure to keep moral values is meaningful and not capricious

Lastly, at the very base of failure, there is a creative and positive redemptive power. Failure fails. It is as though within the rhizome of the vine there is a creative surge that is part of the mind of God. Out of old Abraham and Sarah came Jacob. Out of the betrayal of brothers came Joseph the provider. Out of slavery in Egypt came the Exodus. Out of left field came David. Out of the Babylonian Captivity came Ezra and Nehemiah. Out of old Elizabeth came John the Baptist. These are not phoenix-like manifestations. They are not simply the fecund force of nature. Rather throughout the Old Testament, and culminating in the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus, there is the assurance that even in the blackest depth of failure there is the intentional power of a creator-redeemer God.

You and I fail, and fail, and fail again. That is life. That is the way the vineyard is. But there is a basic purpose and meaning to life. Nihilism and negative existentialism are simply wrong. Within our lives there are values in which we can believe and by which we can take our bearings. We are given choice and responsibility to live with these values and to live our own lives. We are not doomed to repeat our failures over and over and over. As there are consequences for our good actions, so are there consequences for our mistakes. Sometimes we are sinful and rightfully feel guilty. (That’s why we have confession in the Church.) But in the last analysis God’s creative and redemptive positive life-affirming power triumphs in life and in our lives. We can learn from our failures, and sometimes we are strong because of them. But often it is hard to see any education or any tempering of our souls. We have, however, deep down at the base of our failure the beating pulse of God’s creative and redemptive power. This is revealed most clearly in His Son, Jesus, who came out of the crucible of mistake after mistake after mistake. Out of His crucifixion came the resurrection, revealing to you and me that God does not fail, we do. And our failure in the last analysis fails. At the very core of existence God’s powerful, creative redemptive spirit triumphs not only against the powers of darkness and despair, but against the systems and structures of life to such an extent that it becomes personal in the form of a human being. The incarnation of God in Christ Jesus brings the ultimate success out of our failure because it reveals God’s very personal, very specific love for each of us.

At the altar today you and I receive not only the bread but also the wine. It is the wine from grapes, grown in vineyards, which prevailed over against the mistakes of man and the calamities of nature. Along with the bread which like the body of Christ sustains us, the wine, like the blood of Christ assuages our thirst for meaning and success not our own. At the altar you and I offer up and release our mistakes. With the body and blood of Christ you and I become part of God’s Son, “He in us and we in Him.” Failure fails as we receive new beginnings. For in the last analysis we are given the power of forgiveness and love. Amen.