Continue

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

November 17, 2019

Isaiah 5 and Isaiah 11

We begin today with a love song in chapter 5. It is easy to forget this is a love song by the time you get to the end, with all of the trampling, devouring, and desolation. This oracle of doom takes place in a love song.

The owner of the vineyard puts love and care and back-breaking labor into this vineyard. Digging and clearing a field, investing in choice vines and the infrastructure needed to make wine are all signs of the owner’s love and of his hope for a future of prosperity.  And this isn’t just a garden of pretty flowers. This is a vineyard that will bear fruit—so that people can eat, so people can drink. It isn’t just for the benefit of the gardener. It is for the benefit of the community.

Those of you who garden and farm know that the harvest is too much to only benefit one person.
An abundant harvest benefits others.

Well-tended vineyards and gardens are illustrations of abundance, of how you live when your cup is runneth-ing over.
The owner of the vineyard has done everything that can be done to assure that this vineyard will be a blessing.

But, as evidenced by the wild sour grapes, there is clearly only so much that the owner can do to affect the harvest.  What else, he asks, was there for him to do for the vineyard that he had not already done?

Somehow the vineyard doesn’t produce the good grapes it should have. There is no abundant harvest.

This doesn’t make any sense.  Good champagne grape vines just can’t decide to disobey the gardener and grow into wild bitter sour grapes. And why would they?  When they could be champagne?

But of course this story isn’t about grapes. It is about us.

“For the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.”

This story is about us.

We, who have been created in love, and put on this earth to be an abundant harvest of good things for the world, choose, instead to give the world sour grapes.

Much like the grapes in the story, it doesn’t make sense. Why don’t we, as humans created in love by God, live our lives as blessings to the world?   Love’s labor is lost when we don’t.

Before this story was about you and I, this story was being told about Israel. And God’s expectation, for all of the care and provision God had given Israel, was for Israel, God’s pleasant planting, to share the abundance of the harvest. A harvest of justice and righteousness.
These two words—justice and righteousness— function together in the Hebrew scriptures to remind us of a “society in which the rights of all, including the most marginalized, are respected. This is God’s reasonable expectation, given the divine provision.” ( Anna Case-Winters Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol 3 (WJK, 2010), p 344.)

But this vineyard has gone terribly awry. Justice and righteousness were not what the people experienced. “He looked for justice but saw bloodshed. He listened for righteousness but heard a cry of oppression,” is another translation of verse 7. “Isaiah’s words…picture what happens when a people refuse the care and nurture lavished on them—or accept it, but keep it only to themselves.” (Stacy Simpson Duke, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol 3 (WJK, 2010), p 344.)

Isaiah is telling Israel that the people can continue to live for themselves, instead of pursuing justice and righteousness, but if they do, God will leave them to it.

I worry about that tendency of ours. To desire and want security for ourselves, but to refuse to help others obtain it. The United Nations estimates there are 26 million refugees right now in the world, people fleeing violence, famine, instability. The US has steadily reduced the ceiling for how many possible refugees we can resettle in the past few years. That made sense during the recession, when unemployment was high and we didn’t have the capacity to resettle as many people.

But unemployment is lower than it has been in many years. And refugee labor take jobs in the agricultural and other sectors.

In October the US admitted zero refugees.

Zero.

Including people who were already in the pipeline, and had been told they could join their spouses and children.

Our harvest in the world does not grow abundantly toward peace when we practice a harvest of exclusion and fear.

Additionally, “69,550 migrant children (have been) held in U.S. government custody over the past year, enough infants, toddlers, kids and teens to overflow the typical NFL stadium. That’s more children detained away from their parents than any other country, according to United Nations researchers. And it’s happening even though the U.S. government has acknowledged that being held in detention can be traumatic for children, putting them at risk of long-term physical and emotional damage.”

Our harvest in the world does not grow abundantly toward peace when we practice a harvest of exclusion and fear.

Listen again to the middle verse of our passage.

And now I will tell you

what I will do to my vineyard.

I will remove its hedge,

and it shall be devoured;

I will break down its wall,

and it shall be trampled down.

I will make it a waste;

Israel, who had been carted off into exile by this point in their history, had seen Isaiah’s words come true. They knew what it meant to live through the devastation described.

The vineyard is trampled. Desolated. Torn down. As far as you can see, there are stumps, and dead branches, and nothing that seems like it will lead to life.

And while God is the actor of the destruction, let’s be clear that God is not the cause. God wanted Israel, God wants us, to bear good fruit in the world. God won’t force us to be just and righteous. God can only show us by example how God loves us and hope we follow suit. This passage is about holding Israel accountable for their behavior, not to kick people while they are down.

And then we get the passage from Isaiah 11.

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch from its roots.

Jesse is the father of King David. And Isaiah tells the people that even now, when the kingdom is divided and destroyed—nothing but the stumps of a clear cut forest as far as you can see and nobody from David’s family sits on a throne—a time will come when life will come out of the ruins.

Because God’s love is faithful and never ending. God’s love is not something we can control and limit. God’s love isn’t something we can even understand, in truth. Why would God continue to love us when we don’t love each other and when we don’t seem to love God?

We don’t understand this grace. We can only receive it.

We heard a refrain of the song last week from Hosea.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?

How can I hand you over, O Israel?

My heart recoils within me;

my compassion grows warm and tender.

What does it take to bring up our compassion for others and let our fear of others subside?

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch from its roots.

Young green tree seedling grow from the old stump.

We often hear this passage in light of Jesus, who claims Jesse in his family tree. And next week in the liturgical calendar, we will mark Christ the King Sunday, or reign of Christ Sunday, the last day of our church year as Advent will begin a new year right after Thanksgiving.

As you think about Jesus as king, as Lord of our lives, think about what this image says about his Lordship. It is not a giant, behemoth, sequoia tree that comes out of the stump of Jesse. It is a tender shoot, a fragile sign of life and beauty.

A shoot growing out of a stump is a reminder of both the tenacity and the tenuousness of life. Fear and selfish concern will not prevail, no matter how much it may seem to be winning in the moment.

God’s love for us continues, in the face of our disregard for each other.

God’s love continues, and continues to call us to turn back to God, to be a good vineyard, with a good harvest, to live abundantly as we are called to do.

We still get those verses of our desolation and trampling, because God will not save us, in the short term, from the consequences of our selfishness. If we build a world where fear wins and love loses, we will live in clear cut fields of dead stumps.

Until.

We continue our part of the work and start clearing the ground, cleaning up our messes, planting new trees.

And then, out of a stump, we’ll see a shoot emerging from one of the dead stumps, and we’ll be reminded that God does things we cannot do. And that will engender hope in us, and remind us to continue.

Maya Angelou wrote a poem called Continue. Here’s a part of it:
My wish for you
Is that you continue
Continue
To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness
Continue
To allow humor to lighten the burden
Of your tender heart
Continue
In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter
Continue
To let your eloquence
Elevate the people to heights
They had only imagined
Continue
To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you
Continue
To remember your own young years
And look with favor upon the lost
And the least and the lonely
Continue
To put the mantel of your protection
Around the bodies of
The young and defenseless
Continue
To take the hand of the despised
And diseased and walk proudly with them
In the high street
Some might see you and
Be encouraged to do likewise
Continue
To plant a public kiss of concern
On the cheek of the sick
And the aged and infirm
And count that as a
Natural action to be expected
Continue
To let gratitude be the pillow
Upon which you kneel to
Say your nightly prayer
And let faith be the bridge
You build to overcome evil
And welcome good

May we continue in our work, with hearts open to recognize God’s continued love and faithfulness in our lives and the lives of others.

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