Oh yes. And even though I didn’t preach at the morning services, I did preach at the 5:30 Canterbury service.
And to my never-ending delight, I FINALLY got to use this story that I’ve wanted to use in a sermon since about 2001.
Here’s to you, Cliff Gardner. I can’t get you a Congressional Medal of Honor, but I can cite your brilliance in a sermon.
October 2, 2011
Proper 22, Ordinary Time Year A
Isaiah 5: 1-7
Philo Farnsworth invented the television in Provo, Utah in 1927. And
by that, I don’t mean that he was like Jonny Carson, and was the first really
entertaining person to appear on the TV back in ye olden days of very little
mass entertainment. I mean that he invented the cathode ray tube, and a
method to project moving images across a distance to a receiver.
But he’s not the important person in this story.
The important person in this story is Cliff Gardner.
Cliff Gardner was Philo’s brother in law, and one day, as Philo was tinkering
around in his workshop, Cliff saw the drawings that he was working from.
Now Cliff was like pretty much everyone else in Provo– he had no idea
what Philo was on about much of the time. Electricity was brand new and
But there was one thing in those plans he recognized as familiar– one thing
he could get a handle on– glass tubes.
So Cliff moved into Philo’s backyard and set up a glassblowing shop,
because he reckoned that this weird project was going to require an untold
amount of glass tubes.
And that was something that even he could do.
He could make glass tubes.
And while he had no idea about how electricity worked, or how to send tv
signals through the air, doggone it, he could make glass tubes.
Not fancy, not showy, not memorable, but it was what he had to offer, and
so offer it he did.
There’s something heroic about that: this impulse to offer what one has,
even though we are convinced that it isn’t much, or we aren’t sure it will be
valued, or we aren’t in perfect control of the entire project.
There is something heroic about that, mainly because the alternative is so
We have two vineyards in the readings tonight. And though it’s vaguely
possible that among a lesser congregation, eyes might have glazed over,
and brains might have fogged with all the talk of grapes and tenants and
landlords, I know yours didn’t, so it’s not necessary for me to tell you that
they are described sort of similarly for a reason.
And it’s probable that Jesus, being up on his Law and his Prophets, knew
this Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah backwards and forwards, and that
what he’s recorded as doing in Matthew is retelling and reshaping the
passage to suit his own purposes. He’s proof-texting the Pharisees, in
other words. (Again, the writer of Matthew is in a bitter fight with fellow
members of the Jewish community, and it comes out here. Think of church
fights about music, about moving the altar away from the east wall. It’s like that).
And in both vineyards, some of the same things are happening. There is a
landowner. He loves the vineyard. He loves it enough to build it on good
soil, to weed it properly, to install a well, and a guard tower (dangerous
grape thieves about, evidently), and to lease it to some tenants.
and here’s where we run into some trouble.
Because the tenants promptly forget, in both cases, that the vineyard isn’t
And in the Matthean retelling, they even resort to a whole lot of
violence. Pretty presumptuous for some squatters.
They get so invested in tilling the soil, planting stuff, harvesting the grapes,
stomping out some wine, that when the landlord comes and asks for his
harvest, they are outraged. “How dare you presume to take our grapes!
We worked hard for this harvest!”
Which they did. Hard working tenant farmers.
But their problem is that they entirely forgot the point of their labor. The
vineyard was never theirs to begin with. It was given to them to care for
and to shepherd, not to hoard. They didn’t build the protection wall, they
didn’t dig the well, they didn’t even send the rain or fertilize the soil. Here
was this wonderful garden, given as a gift. The question then becomes,
what will those who are given this gift do with it? Will they be good
stewards, or will they forget, and keep all the bounty for themselves?
It’s a fairly easy trap to fall into, this sort of amnesia, and it doesn’t really
matter what the ‘vineyard’ is. We start thinking that all the good things we
have are OURS! And OURS ALONE, through the virtue of our hard work
But really, nothing is ever that simple.
For example, my father is a rather good basketball player. Played college
ball, won the ACC tournament, went to the NIT, played pro in Europe,
drafted by the Celtics. And I could make the argument that he did all that
because he practiced free throws in the driveway as a kid, and worked
hard, and never gave up and was his own never-ending Disney movie.
Which would be true to some extent, but it would be overlooking the fact
that he had incredibly supportive parents, who could afford to send him to
college, the sort of college that wins stuff, a high school coach who took an interest in him, and most of all,
the fact that he grew up in a family of small giants, all of whom are over 6 ft
None of us live in a vacuum. We are products of communities, and
products of history, and products of context, every one of us. In a sense,
we are all landlords to each other.
But most of all, we are tenants to God. Every step, every breath of air on
this fragile goldilocks planet is done at the whim of the God who gave it life.
Our very being is the slimmest chance in a universe full of long shots, and
when we lose sight of that, we start to forget that we are tenants at all.
So for all of us tenant farmers down here, my question to you is this: look around you. What is your harvest going to be? And who will you give it to?
The Cliff Gardner-Philo Farnsworth tale is basically a rip-off of Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” episode entitled “Cliff Gardner” (aired in 1999). You should give credit when you so borrow heavily from others – yes there is historical fact, but other than switching Johnny Carson for Milton Berle in your telling of the tale it’s essentially Sorkin’s text.
Good catch! Generally speaking, because sermons are oral/aural events, trying to footnote sources is impossible within the sermon. So I don’t do it, outside of an honest-to-goodness direct quote (which this wasn’t).
That being said, there was probably a better way to sort out the line of attribution from history–Sorkin–sermon than what I did, so mea culpa!