category: Musings, Sermon Starter

On Being a Vineyard Worker

By Rachael Keefe

It’s no secret that I’m not much of a gardener. Last spring, like many others, I planted more than usual.  Or, at least, I tried. None of the herbs I tried to grow from seed succeeded because I started them too late and transferred them outside before they were strong …

On Being a Vineyard Worker

Image: squash plants over growing the garden edge with two nearly ripe squashes visible

It’s no secret that I’m not much of a gardener. Last spring, like many others, I planted more than usual.  Or, at least, I tried. None of the herbs I tried to grow from seed succeeded because I started them too late and transferred them outside before they were strong enough. The tomatoes I grew from seed were also started too late and aren’t going to bear any fruit this season. The jalapeno plant gave me one pepper in the early summer and is now covered in blossoms. The zucchini plants gave one zucchini and promptly died. The cucumber has been trying all summer and only know has a one cucumber that might be ready before the first frost. The tomato, basil, thyme, oregano, and lavender plants purchased in late May have done all right. My garden is a mystery, really. I don’t understand why some things grew and others did not and still others are just growing now.

Let me tell you about the squash, though. Butternut squash to be exact. I saved the seeds from a squash we ate in late March when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to go to the store to buy any seeds and most places were already sold out of seeds. I ended up planting six seeds. Four in large containers and two in my small garden. It turns out that the large containers were not large enough and the squash has done little more than produce small leafy vines with a few blossoms all summer. However, the two I planted in what had been a small herb garden just went wild. I’ve never seen anything grow like this squash. It managed to hold it’s own against the mint that has been slowly taking over my entire yard. Not only have these two plants produced amazing vines, they have also produced actual squash. I’ve picked four already and there are many more that will be ready soon. Who would have guessed that these squash would grow so abundantly with virtually no help from me?

Image of fall squash leaves with two young squash visible

I wish working in God’s vineyard was more like growing squash. I wish it was as easy as saving some seeds, planting them, watching them grow, and then harvesting the results. Working in God’s vineyard is more like my failed container garden where only the basil was truly happy. The basil and the one pepper and the late cucumber. This vineyard work is not for the selfish of the faint of heart. Some days the hours are long with no noticeable difference. Some days the labor is heartbreaking and full of grief. Yet, there are the days of joy when seeds take root and begin to grow.

We are meant to be the caretakers, the gardeners. We are meant to be the ones who make way for the mysteries of new life and growth and fruit-bearing. The vineyard is not ours. The results of our labors are not ours. It can be so hard not to claim ownership when one has worked so long and so hard. This vineyard tending is tough because it isn’t really about us at all and whose ego wants to hear that? As soon as we start thinking it’s about us, we put everything in jeopardy.

Some days I’m afraid that I am no better tending God’s vineyard than I am at gardening. What I think will grow doesn’t. What I think will flourish withers in the sun. And then I’m surprised by what blooms later than expected and what bears fruit when it appeared to have no life left in it. Sometimes I over water and other times I don’t water enough and I still haven’t sorted that out after decades of this work. Some days I’m like the worker who promises to show up and never does. Other days I’m like the one who said they weren’t going to be there and then showed up late in the day. And, you know, I’ll confess that I can’t always tell a weed from what’s supposed to be growing.

I’ll also confess that there are days when I wonder if all the labor, the time, the heartache is worth the harvest that will one day be. It can take me a while to remember that it isn’t about me, this work I’ve been called to do. Then I remember that this vineyard is cultivated for the sake of my neighbors, particularly those who have been ignored, dismissed, or devalued. The vineyard is cultivated with justice and love, grace and forgiveness. It’s meant to be a glimpse of the abundance that is to come. I am just a caretaker. I do not have to understand all the mysteries of growth, of failure, of flourishing, of dying, of new seeds sprouting, and of old ones bearing fruit.

I will keep working in this vineyard, trusting that I am not alone and this work will bring more life than I can know. I pray for the strength, courage, and wisdom to keep tending these strong and fragile vines. I pray everyone at work in this vineyard. We are not the first tenders and we will not be the last. The best news, though, is that we are not alone in this sacred, mysterious, awe-filled work we have been called into.

Image of late season cucumber surrounded by green leaves with hints of brown

RCL – Year A – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 with
Psalm 19 or
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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About Rachael Keefe

Rachael is an author, a pastor, a teacher, and a poet. Her latest book (The Lifesaving Church - Chalice Press) is on faith and suicide prevention. She is currently the pastor of Living Table UCC in Minneapolis, and has launched a spiritual direction practice.

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