The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE FOXES IN THE VINEYARD

Delivered 6/5/05
Text: Song of Solomon 2:8-15
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William Temple, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, once went to a revival service where the evangelist preached on that great text from Isaiah, "Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool."(1) Temple was just an undergraduate at Oxford at the time but, even then, he had religious sensitivity. His comment on the service was, "Though I went to the meeting in a serious, enquiring spirit, I found myself quite unmoved, for, alas, my sins were not scarlet, they were gray - all gray. They were not dramatic acts of rebellion...but the colorless, tired sins of omission, inertia and timidity."

Sound familiar? It does to me. I have not murdered anyone lately. No armed robbery. No rape. None of those "scarlet sins." You? We have perfect lives, right? Hardly! Nothing to get us thrown into jail, but there are still those "gray sins," the "little foxes" that our lesson talked about.

There is great truth in that Biblical picture...the lush and lovely garden in which two lovers celebrate poetically the depth of their feelings for one another...a warm and sunny scene, like springtime. But then there are these interesting words, "Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards..." Even in the midst of the beauty of these lovers' lives, there is the recognition that some unwanted visitors might appear. And we know all too well that it happens.

A man and woman marry. All is sweetness and light for a time, but with the passage of years, the bloom is off the rose. No longer are they willing to overlook the little annoyances, the minor inconveniences they once were content to ignore. Molehills become mountains, minors become majors, and marriages fall apart. Why? Scarlet sins? No. Gray ones. Little foxes.

Or there is the wife whose hard-working husband is always on the road. His day starts with a breakfast meeting somewhere and often does not end until the children have gone to bed. He puts in long hours so his family will be able to afford the best. But, meanwhile, mom stays home with her social contacts limited for the most part to people who write with crayons...on the wall. The little foxes of frustration and loneliness.

Of course, those foxes do more than ruin relationships between husbands and wives. Picture in your mind the reaction of the woman in Baghdad yesterday who stood looking over the pile of rubble that once was her home. She wants to lash out at those who wreaked such senseless destruction. Or the 50-year-old Palestinian man in Gaza, a Christian, who was born in a refugee camp and has spent his entire life there waiting for the politicians of the world to do him justice - after 50 years of waiting, no wonder he wants to fight. There were tears in those eyes yesterday...tears that spilled over at the foolishness of the conflicts that overwhelm their lives. Their vineyards are spoiled by the little fox of anger.

But now, it is Sunday, the Lord's Day, and all of those folks have gathered into the church...folks whose marriages are not what they once were, lonely mothers, angry Iraqis and Palestinians, you and me...millions of people whose lives, whose vineyards, have been invaded by little foxes. Communion. We sit quietly, ready to receive the bread and the juice, not particularly worried about major sins in our lives, because there are none, just those GRAY sins - little foxes that have made life less than it might be. And we wonder...will all this make any difference?

It can. Let me tell you a story.(2) A family is out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon, and they relax at a leisurely pace down the highway. Suddenly, the two children begin to beat their father in the back: "Daddy, Daddy, stop the car! Stop the car! There's a kitten back there on the side of the road!"

The father says, "So, there's a kitten on the side of the road. We're having a drive."

"But, Daddy, we've got to stop and pick it up."

"No, we don't."

"But, Daddy, if we don't, it will die!"

"Well, then, it will just have to die. We don't have room for another animal. Our house is a zoo already. No more animals."

"But Daddy, are you just going to let it die?"

"Be quiet, Kids, let's just have a pleasant drive."

"We never thought our father would be so mean and cruel as to let a helpless little kitty die."

Finally, the mother turns to her husband and says, "Dear, we are going to have to stop."

So, reluctantly, Dad turns the car around, returns to the spot and pulls the car off the road. "You kids stay in the car. I'll see about it." He gets out to pick up the little kitten.

The poor creature is just skin and bones, sore-eyed and full of fleas; but when Dad reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy, the little kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw. Ssst! He picks the kitten up by the loose skin of the neck, brings it over to the car and says, "Don't touch it; it's probably got leprosy." Back home they go.

When they get to the house, the children give the kitten several baths, about a gallon of warm milk, and intercede, "Can we let it stay in the house just tonight, please, please, please? Tomorrow we'll fix a place in the garage."

The father says, "Sure, take my bedroom; the whole house is already a menagerie." They fix a comfortable bed, fit for a pharaoh.

Several weeks pass. One day the father walks in, feels something rub against his leg, looks down, and there is the cat. He reaches down toward it. When the cat sees his hand, it doesn't bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress. Is that the same cat? Is it? No, it is NOT the same as that frightened, hurt, hissing kitten on the side of the road. Of course not. And you know as well as I what has made the difference.

This morning the Lord is reaching out his hand to care for us. He is making a place for us at his own table. And as he does, look at his hand - it's covered with little scratches, the scratches of our little foxes. The scratches surround one very ugly scar, a scar where a nail was once driven through, a scar that came, not because of our scarlet sins (there ARE none), but because of all those "gray" sins, the little foxes. Such is the hand of love...extended to us whose vineyards of life are never fenced quite well enough to keep all the foxes out. Fortunately, to him, it does not matter.

Amen.

1. Isaiah 1:18

2. Fred Craddock, "Praying Through Clenched Teeth," in The Twentieth Century Pulpit, Vol. II, James Cox, Ed., (Nashville, Abingdon, 1981), pp. 51-52

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