Sunday, October 8, 2017

God Heard It Through the Grapevine

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 22A [Track 2], The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017

This sermon began life as a seminary paper. That work, which is more academic in nature, can be found here

Let us imagine for a moment that we are residents of ancient Judah. The setting is Jerusalem in the year 723 B.C.E. Fear is in the air, for the Assyrians are threatening to overrun both the northern kingdom of Israel, against which we hold no small grudge, and the southern kingdom of Judah, where we live and where we believe—or at least hope—that our identity as the keepers of God’s temple will protect us from foreign invasion.

Isaiah on the street corner?
People bustle by, taking care of business and trying not to think about the dire political situation. A beggar cries out for bread, but he is ignored. A thin-faced widow leads her four children through an alley, on her way who-cares-where. And on the busiest street corner of all, the Prophet Isaiah has begun to sing a song.

From its first notes, we recognize it as a familiar and rather hackneyed song about a vineyard. This is surprising fare from a prophet who has gained a reputation for gloom and doom. But the song is a guilty pleasure, and Isaiah is a good singer, so we stop to listen.

The first lyrics we indeed know well, for we have heard them sung often at weddings by a paid musician or a musically inclined uncle.[1] We can even sing along with verse 1: “I will sing now for my dear friend a song about him and his vineyard. My dear friend has a vineyard on a fertile hill.”[2] The lyrics are pleasant to the ear in our native Hebrew, with a singsong quality:

Ashirah na lididi shirat dodi. L’charmo kerem hayah lididi b’qeren ben-shamen.

When we hear “lididi” and “dodi,” it may as well be “do wah diddy diddy” to us … but these are not nonsense syllables. Both words mean “dear one” or “beloved.” The man is setting up a house for his bride, and as the music modulates, we expect to hear about a couple of kids running in the yard. So, imagine instead the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

“And he expected a yield of grapes … but it yielded nasty, stinking grapes.” Whoa, whoa, hang on. This isn’t a love song at all: it’s a cheating song! What began as “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” has become “I Heard It through the Grapevine.”

We move into the second section of what will turn out to be a suite, and it is here that Isaiah changes rhythm and even vocal tone to signify that it is no longer the best man who is speaking. The honeymoon is over, and the bridegroom himself, all worked up in grief and anger, steps up to the microphone for his recitative: “And now, residents of Jerusalem … judge, if you please, between me and my vineyard.” Isaiah has dragged us into court, and we are placed on the bench to hear the farmer’s grievances: “What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not already done? Why, when I expected a yield of grapes, did it yield nasty, stinking grapes?”

Now, suddenly conscripted into service as magistrates, we wonder: how can a vineyard be responsible for its own crop? Could the farmer have done more after all? Did he do something to make his bride feel unloved? Or is this mixed metaphor about to break down completely? We are given no time to review the evidence before a loud voice proclaims the sentence:

So now, listen up! I will declare to you what I am doing to my vineyard. I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed. I will break down its wall, and it will become a trampled-down place. And I will lay it waste. It will not be pruned, and it will not be hoed, and thorn bushes and other rough growth will come up …

The court has become a divorce court, and this relationship seems to be over. We move from the soulful heartbreak of “I Heard It through the Grapevine” into a bitter breakup song, a country song, perhaps “My Give a Damn’s Busted.” The farmer is leaving his bride, and he will allow the vineyard to go to seed in whatever way nature takes its course. “… And I will command the dark clouds not to rain on it!” Here is yet another surprise. This is no literal farmer and no literal husband. Only God can control the weather.

8th century B.C.E., after the Kingdom of Israel
had split in two. Note the menacing
Assyrians to the north!
When we first noticed Isaiah on the street corner, we expected a prophecy of doom, and we’re going to get one. Oh boy! I bet it’s about that accursed northern kingdom of Israel, the faithless ones who worship on a mountain instead of in the temple, and who are about to get served by the Assyrians. Surely this prophecy will be against them, we hope, as Isaiah continues: “And the vineyard of YHWH-of-the-angel-armies is the house of Israel.” Of course it is. We knew it all along, so we exchange self-satisfied smirks.

“And the man of Judah is the plantation of his delight.”

With this line, Isaiah cuts us to the bone. There we stand on the corner, tried and convicted, though we don’t even understand yet what the charges are. All this time Isaiah has been using God’s voice to condemn us! This is not a love song, or a cheating song, or a breakup song, or even a “God Bless Judah” patriotic anthem. This is a condemnation of us for blatant sins against God and humanity.

But what have we done to deserve this condemnation? Isaiah saves the charges for the very end, and here he uses one of the most famous examples of wordplay in the Hebrew Bible: “And [God] expected mishpat—justice—but behold, mishpah—bloodshed! ‘Tz’daqa’—righteousness—but behold, ‘tz’aqa’—a cry of distress! The words stick in our ears as they stick in Isaiah’s throat. We have cheated on God. We have produced stinking grapes, rather than the sweet grapes that God took every possible measure to assure and which we had no right not to produce. God loves us and longs for us, but what have we done? We stand guilty as charged … right there on the street corner in Jerusalem, surrounded by beggars, widows, and orphans.

Is all hope lost? No. For as we prayed in today’s Collect, God is always readier to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve. The harvest will come, but not in the way we expected.

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard …” Sound familiar? After three quarters of a millennium, the new prophet Jesus stands in Jerusalem—right in the reconstructed temple!—developing the song further. The behavior of the tenants is deplorable. Their logic is ridiculous—how will killing the heir get them the inheritance? Yet this is what they do. What treatment do they deserve from the landowner? Death, we cry, of course!

But we have seen the enemy, and he is us. We have cheated on God. We have killed the Lord of Love. We have concentrated our wealth among very few in the name of “progress.” We have wrecked our planet, and that is affecting the poor first. We continue to allow all sorts of injustice. We have tried to take God’s Kingdom by force, when force will accomplish, at best, a sickly parody of what God desires for us. By our fruits we are known.[3]

Is all hope lost? No. For we are God’s beloved planting, and God is always ready to give more than we either desire or deserve. The harvest will come, but not in a way that anybody could have expected.

Now, we should probably let go of the husband-and-wife metaphor at this point. Otherwise we just might wind up thinking of God as an abusive spouse, and overidentify ourselves with wanton strumpets or some other ridiculous sexist term. Let’s focus instead on the humility to which the vineyard song calls us. We are God’s beloved creation, made for the purpose of love. Creation is like a spillover of divine love into billions and billions of consciousnesses, made in the image of God—made to love and to create and to give joy. When we fail to do that for which we were made, we yield stinking grapes.

But the vintner will see that the good harvest comes. “I am the vine,” says Jesus, “and you are the branches. Abide in me.” You are God’s beloved. Do you get that—really get that? We are invited to be the harvest, and to live eternally in God together. “Eternally” doesn’t just mean after we die; it also means right now.

Now, I don’t know about your own experience of God’s love, but let me tell you mine: it was only once I truly understood myself to have yielded stinking grapes that I felt God at work within me, redeeming my life. Sin-and-redemption is not a narrative that our culture is comfortable with, but it is a narrative that defines who I am in relationship to my creator. When I was in the pit, God jumped down into it with me and held me and called me “beloved.” I didn’t become a better person through logic or willpower or shame, or in order to get something from God. I became a better person because I am loved. “We love because He first loved us.”[4]

And so we give love to people who need it, not just people who deserve it. We use the talents that God has given us in joyful ways—not calculated for maximum efficiency, but with abandon, as labors of love. And we give away our money, especially in a culture like ours where money has the final say in most matters. For the sake of our souls, we must practice not needing as much of it! We seek out the joy in giving away our wealth—not to meet a budget, but to help support the work that the Holy Spirit is already engaged in.

As I look around St. Paul’s, I see good grapes ripening for the harvest. And it’s not like we are incapable of producing filthy, stinking grapes—after all, this story is for us, not just some kingdom next door. But God has given us more than we could ever deserve. If we have lack, it’s not God’s fault. It’s either because we don’t see the abundance, or because some other human beings are keeping the abundance from us.

So let’s be a different kind of human beings, relaxing into God’s generosity. Let’s share, and in that sharing, let’s grow more closely together in love. For that, my friends, is God’s dream for this vineyard, and we are the planting of God’s delight. Amen.

[1] For more about Isaiah 5:1-7 as an “uncle’s song,” see John T. Willis, “The Genre of Isaiah 5:1-7,” in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Sep., 1977), 337.

[2] The translation of Isaiah 5:1-7 throughout is my own.

[3] Matthew 7:16

[4] John 4:19