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Cliff Gardner gets a sermon

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

Matthew 21:33-46


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

very bleak.


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

actually theirs.


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

and dedication!

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?