Tile: Uprooted and replanted
Texts: Isaiah 5:1-8, Ps 80:7-15, Philip 3:4-14, Matt 21:33-46
Date: Oct 2, 2011
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
Scattered here and there in our Scriptures for today are images of God’s people, Israel, as vines, planted, uprooted, and replanted; vineyards that need care in order to thrive, to produce good fruit for all people, for everyone who is starving for goodness, for love.
When I read these passages about vines, about God’s people as vines, I think about what it means to belong to a place, to a people, to a community. What does it mean to be planted somewhere, then to be uprooted and replanted?
That’s the case for a lot of us, perhaps all of us — this movement of being uprooted and replanted, this instability, this mobility, transitions from one place to another, from workplace to workplace, school to school, house to house, church to church. Our lives are caught up in rhythms of being uprooted and replanted, of learning again and again what it means to live into a new landscape, to find life in a new place, among new people.
“You brought a vine out of Egypt,” the Psalmist says to God (Ps 80:8). God begins to grow the people of Israel while they are in captivity in Egypt. Israel is a vine, the Psalmist says, that starts growing while in slavery, in the land of Egypt, a foreign land. They are strangers in a strange land. I guess we could say that God plants a vine, Israel, in harsh conditions. According to the people who own the land, if Israel is a plant, it’s an unwanted weed — far too productive, crowding out the native plants. Israel grows as a vine that does not belong in Egyptian soil. So, God uproots Israel; God is a gardener who digs up a vine and finds a new home for the plant, a new environment, a new place to belong.
I don’t think we realize how strange this is, how much it goes against nature. This act of transplanting a people works against the natural order, contrary to the way things are supposed to play out. Nations and peoples are not usually very pleased when they are removed, when they are uprooted from the land that they have called home for so long. The people of Israel grumble all the way to the Promised Land; they want to go back to their homes in Egypt. People who are removed from their homelands are called refugees, exiles, displaced peoples—and all of these words make us listen for what injustice forced them away from their homes.
Yet, for Israel, this was the work of the Lord: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.” Israel is rescued from slavery, taken away from the land that had become their home, and planted in new soil, a foreign land that God says will be their new home.
This kind of beginning for Israel means that the people of God will always have an ambiguous relationship with the land (see Wyschogrod, “Judaism and the Land,” in Abraham’s Promise). Peoplehood is usually dependent on a land—the land gives birth to the people. The identities of native peoples are usually tied to particular mountains and valleys and forests and streams and plains and oceans.
This is one reason why the patriotic hymn, “America the beautiful,” was so needed, in terms of a sense of belonging, a sense of place, for citizens of the United States. The song helps people in the United States to lay claim to the land, to root their identity in the land, to take it and possess it as God’s blessing:
“O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plan! America, America, God shed his grace on thee… America, America, may God thy gold refine till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.”
But Israel is different. God gives them their identity as a people outside of their homeland; they become a people before they enter into the land that is supposed to be their home. To use the language of Psalm 80, Israel becomes a vine while in a land and among a people that want nothing to do with them. And if we fast-forward a few hundred years, the people of God are uprooted again; they are scattered into exile, replanted among foreign peoples. They can go on as a people, even if they are separated from their land. They remain part of the vine, even while uprooted and replanted. Israel remains the people of God even while they live outside of the land of Israel, in places like New York City, Paris, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Montreal, and Miami. Israel can be God’s people anywhere, in the midst of disruption, in the midst of transition, as they are uprooted and replanted and uprooted again. They can send down roots anywhere, because God is already there, because God will sustain them, because the earth is the Lord’s, all of it.
I guess, with all this talk of movement, of shifted from place to place, I’m pushing against a conversation that is happening a lot these days in some Christian circles. There’s lots of talk of the need for stability, of staying put, of sending down roots, of being planted, of sticking to a place. Now, don’t get me wrong: I do think there’s something really important about stability — about caring for a piece of land, about sticking with a community even when you can’t stand the people around you. But I think the language of stability — the virtue of stability, a vow of stability — causes just as many problems as it attempt to solve.
For one thing, all this talk of the need for stability just sounds so Southern to me, Southern in the bad sense: people should stay where they belong, stay in their place, for the sake of stability, in order to keep the peace, so we can all sip sweet tea on our porches, just like our people have done for generations.
When I hear this, this talk of the virtue of stability, I think about the lives of migrant workers, who move with the seasons, with the rhythms of nature; they are wanderers, like Israel, uprooted and replanted by a desire to provide for their families; they are like birds, following the seasons, building and abandoning nests along the way.
Immigrants also expose the underside of communities who prize stability above all else, because migrant families are such an unstable population, uncommitted to notions of civic engagement or building for the future or investing in sustainability — those values are for the landed classes, people with roots, with investments, stable owners not nomadic renters.
I imagine the reason why I latch onto the parts of Israel’s story that have to do with wandering not stability, with being uprooted and replanted, is because that’s my story, the story of my people. I can’t help but think of my grandparents in Costa Rica, who left their country and their people because they didn’t want their children to die of malnutrition, just as some of their own siblings had died. So they uprooted their children, including my mom who was a toddler at the time, and moved to Miami, then to Los Angeles.
And I think of my dad, who left his family in Colombia and went to LA, to find a job and make some money to send back home to his mom, who was a widow. And he still sends money, which, if you think about it, drains the local economy of currency. This is definitely not a way to create stability in a community, but I would never fault him for it; in fact, I admire him.
I am always being uprooted and replanted — from Los Angeles, to Tucson, back to California, and now here in North Carolina. I feel committed to this place, to the people I’ve met, to the friends who have become part of my life, to all of you. But if the racists take over this part of the country again, I can’t say that I’m going to stick around and contribute to the stability of North Carolina.
Here’s my worry: I think that those who invite us into commitments of stability, of vows to a place, end up tempting us to think like owners, like the land or neighborhood belongs to us, like we are responsible for the future of the community. And I can’t think like that, I guess because I’m an immigrant all the way down to my toes.
There is a word of judgment in the passages we heard from Isaiah and Matthew — judgment against those who act like owners, who live in the land like they can possess it, like it belongs to them. In Isaiah the people of Israel are rebuked because they lay claim to all the land: “you join house to house, and add field to field, until there is room for no one but you” (Isa 5:8). According to Isaiah, the people forget that the land belongs to God, not them; that they are in the land to make space for those without homes, for strangers and aliens without property, to bear fruit, good fruit, for all who are hungry for justice and love.
So, what will God do to the vineyard, to the people who protect their land against the landless, against migrants, against the instability that comes with people who come and go without any local investment, without any concern for the future of Israel? God says in verse 5, “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down” — an ominous warning indeed.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about tenants who try to become owners, of laborers who try to take possession of the land that belongs to the landowner. They kill off the representatives of the owner who come to visit the vineyard; they even kill the owner’s son, the son who will inherit the vineyard. But the tenants will be judged for their attempt to possess the vineyard. And Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matt 21:43).
To be part of God’s kingdom is to be a people that can live among any people, not as owners, not as people who have to be in charge, but as people who can bear fruit. To be part of the kingdom means that we can be replanted anywhere, and for however long we dwell in this place, for however long we can call this place home, we are supposed to find ways to bear fruit, the fruit of life, that others may find life, food for the journey as strangers come and go, and, perhaps, as we are in turn uprooted and replanted.
In a few moments we will celebrate Communion together. At the Lord’s Table, we find the place where we belong, in Christ’s body, with Jesus, who had no place to call his own, whose ancestors were wandering Arameans, who went down into Egypt and grew into the vine called Israel.
At the Lord’s Table, we find Jesus, the true vine, replanted in our midst, here and now; and we drink from his cup, the fruit of his vine, and with Paul we can say, “Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12).
 “Israel becomes a full-fledged people prior to its entry into the land. It remains a people, it does not disappear, after it is severed from the land. It is apparently less dependent on the land than any other people.” Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 92.