A sermon preached for Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California
October 4, 2020
We begin today with a love song from Isaiah 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. As we’ve seen photos of wine country burning, and read reports of vineyards burned this week, we pray for our friends and neighbors who have lost their homes and businesses. We are aware of the work they had invested that is now in ruins. And Isaiah’s story 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 bitter 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. There is no abundant harvest.
This really doesn’t make sense. Good champagne grapevines just can’t decide to disobey the gardener and grow into wild bitter 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 be bad 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 he 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 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 love song 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. As my friend and colleague Stacy Simpson Duke wrote, “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. People say they want law and order, but when people protest for laws to be fair and justice to be equal, they call them rioters. Many of our ancestors came here from other countries, often fleeing violence and danger, but when people try that today, we put them in detention centers and take away their children.
Listen again to the middle verse of our love song.
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.
Isaiah calls on them to acknowledge their role and to move toward a better relationship with the God who loves them, who created them, who planted and watered and protected them.
Isaiah leaves his audience and leaves us with this question.
What kind of fruit are we producing?
Righteousness and justice?
Or bloodshed and oppression?
The story we read in Matthew today suggests that Jesus was asking the same question in the Temple as Isaiah had asked. As the religious leaders are asking Jesus about authority, Jesus answers their question with a whole different premise. Using the Isaiah text to start out his parable, he begins. “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower…”
You can almost see the audience acting like eager school children around him, wanting to impress the teacher. “Pick me! Pick me! I know this one. It’s from Isaiah. We’re supposed to be good grapes! Good grapes! Not nasty wild grapes!”
But then the story changes, as Jesus’ stories are wont to do.
God, the owner of the vineyard becomes an absentee landlord. All of the hands go down. “Nevermind. I thought I knew where he was going with this,” they think to themselves. “But why would God be a landlord? All the peasants I know who work for a landlord all the live-long day, don’t have one good thing to say about them. They take every penny earned and they the peasants end up with nothing to show for it. Why would he possibly equate God to a landlord?”
Jesus is okay with our discomfort when God does not behave as we think God should, and Jesus goes on with his adapted vineyard story. Landlord sends slaves to collect the harvest, but the slaves are killed. So he sends more slaves. Same thing. Then the landlord sends his only begotten son.
Hmmm…why does that sound familiar?
Oh yeah, Jesus.
Now it takes an even bigger twist. Because the tenants decide that by killing the heir, they will become the new heirs.
Now where does that ever work out? Any economic system you know of?
The tenants on this vineyard seem to be operating on a false assumption. This land is not theirs. The harvest is not theirs. The labor is not even theirs.
And Jesus, like Isaiah, calls the priests in the temple to pronounce judgment on themselves. “Now, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
They answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
I think their answer is mostly correct. Their answer acknowledges that the next people on that land will also not be the heirs. The mistaken assumption of the wicked tenants—that they could kill the heir and then inherit—is done away with.
And I think they are correct that the new tenants will be people who will hand over the produce at harvest. Because I think this is where Jesus is answering the questions about authority.
“You can ask me about authority all day long”, says Jesus, “but let’s talk about your obedience to God’s authority. You walk around this Temple as if you own the place. Who made you the heir?”
And then he starts quoting scripture. “Have you never read in the scriptures?”, he asks the people who read scripture professionally.
This is angry Jesus.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone….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.”
Jesus then goes on to say, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” So, I wonder. Who is the “one”?
In previous readings, I had always figured that if Jesus was the cornerstone, then the ones who got crushed would be the “wretches”. And maybe that’s it.
But, this week, as I was thinking about World Communion that we’re about to celebrate, it occurred to me that this life-giving meal is available to us because Jesus, in dying on a cross, was broken to pieces. This is my body, broken for you.
What more was there to do for God’s vineyard than God had already done? Death was crushed under a stone that rolled away from a tomb, leading us to new life.
So, I wonder if God’s mysterious justice means that the wretches don’t suffer a miserable death after all. Perhaps Jesus’ parable, like Isaiah’s, is also a love song.
In both stories, in Isaiah and in Matthew, it can be hard to see the love song in the midst of the trampling and crushing and anger. But then I look around at our world, where so much seems to be going wrong, and I get it.
I love our country, AND I’m furious about the ways we harvest injustice and bloodshed, instead of growing a crop of justice and righteousness. I want to tear down the vines that are yielding white supremacy, and extreme income inequality, and violence, so we can plant new vines to yield better harvests.
Can you see the photos of people protesting in our streets and notice the love behind their anger? The love can be hard to see, but in truth, you don’t give up a comfortable day on the couch to go march in a crowd for something that doesn’t matter to you deeply.
Sometimes a love song requires drastic action and protests in the streets.
Sometimes a love song requires speaking difficult truth to your beloved so the relationship can be stronger and healthier.
Are we singing a love song with our lives, with our congregation, with our country?
Are we producing the fruits of the kingdom?
Are we speaking up for justice?
Are we leading people to know God’s love in the things we do and say?
We are beginning our stewardship campaign this month. And while it is a part of creating our budget for 2021, stewardship is not, primarily, about money. It is about producing fruits of the kingdom. Are we using our resources—financial and otherwise—to till the soil of peace, plant seeds of truth, and reap a harvest of justice for all of God’s children?
This week, I invite you to listen for love songs in the anger you feel, and to look for signs of the fruit of the kingdom in our own lives.
Around this table, we will gather. The grapes at this table are good grapes. And we have been invited to enjoy the harvest.
Like the vineyard, this table does not belong to us. It is the Lord’s Table, where God’s love for us is on display. And due to the mysterious justice and grace of God, we have been invited to the feast, invited to join the chorus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.