Grace Presbyterian Church
August 18, 2019, Pentecost 10C
While we mostly think of “song” in Hebrew scripture as principally contained in the book of Psalms, there are other examples scattered throughout the literature that can also be identified as song-like, or which identify themselves as song in some way. For example, the book of Exodus contains passages described as “song” surrounding the event of the Exodus itself, such as Miriam’s triumphal song after the defeat of the Egyptian army.
While the prophetic literature is not necessarily thought of as being terribly poetic or songlike, there are still occasional examples to be found here as well, such as the passage that constitutes today’s reading from Isaiah. It self-identifies as song, as the author begins with the rather obvious clue “Let me sing…” and continues from there. It turns out not to be much of a song, though, as it gets interrupted very quickly (by the very subject of the song, no less), and ends up turning rather bleak and dark before finally being revealed as much more an extended metaphor than a real song.
The song, such as it is, sings of one who plants a vineyard on what is described as a “very fertile hill.” The work this planter did is laid out in meticulous detail; the land is dug out and cleared of any stones that might interfere with the nurture and growth of the vines. A watchtower is erected, in order to keep watch and guard against any who might seek to bring harm to the vines in the vineyard or to poach its fruit. A wine vat is installed, so that there is as little time or space between vine and wine as possible. In other words, the planter and tender of this vineyard has done everything right, everything possible to ensure the best possible results for this vineyard.
Nonetheless, in the end the vineyard produced “wild grapes.”
Here is a case in which our ability to translate the Hebrew idiom being used is a bit lacking. “Wild” grapes is a technically correct term, but doesn’t even begin to capture all of the negative connotations of the fruit of this vineyard. Personally I’m a fan of “sour” grapes in this case, if mostly because the modern slang idiom it represents isn’t a bad representation of the result by the time this song is done, but even that term – pungent as it is – doesn’t fully capture the impact of just how bad these grapes are. They’re not just “sour.” They don’t just taste bad, they smell bad too, even still on the vine. One could almost say these are “rotten” grapes. They are utterly offensive, fit for consumption neither for human nor beast. Heck, maybe they’re even poisonous. They sure taste poisonous.
It is at this point, once the “sour” grapes have been revealed, that the voice of this passage shifts and the original singer is usurped by the planter who was ostensibly the subject of the song. You can tell by the way the pronouns shift to first person: “judge between me and my vineyard.” The language, far from poetic now, has turned prosecutorial, an echo of the language from last week’s reading from the first chapter of this book. While it’s a little bit odd to be asked to pass judgment on a vineyard, our questioner is not much concerned with such niceties. “What more was there to do…?” he asks. “Why … did it yield wild grapes?” You can imagine the questions, possibly from different parts of your own life. Where did I go wrong? What didn’t I do? Whether it’s over a child who seems to have gone off the path or a career that turns south, it’s not unheard of for us to find ourselves asking questions like “what more could I have done?”
This situation is a little different, though, as it turns out, and the narrative takes a darker turn at this point, as our vintner announces his plan for dealing with the sour grapes that have infested his vineyard. It comes as a bit of a shock, does it not, to hear how he plans to – in effect – engage in passive destruction of the vineyard? “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. … it will not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns…” And then the final clue about the planter: “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” That gives the game away, doesn’t it? Commanding the clouds not to rain is rather beyond the capacity of most any planter of most any vineyard or orchard or farm or whatever you might imagine.
No, this is no ordinary vintner and vineyard. Isaiah jolts his readers that the vineyard is nothing other than the nations of Israel and Judah, the divided remnants of the Israel that had first been planted in that land by the Lord centuries before. Suddenly that talk of removing the hedge and breaking down the wall and being overgrown with briers and thorns becomes all the more ominous as Israel and Judah see themselves in that spot. It’s another opportunity for Isaiah’s readers and hearers to respond as last week’s oracle might have prompted them to do: “oh, no…we’re in trouble.”
And yet again, the sins of the people come back to the theme of injustice. The vineyard was planted, as it turns out, to bear justice and righteousness as its fruits. But instead of justice, the Lord saw his “pleasant planting” produce bloodshed, violence against his own people. No righteousness, but instead the cries of those persecuted, punished, suffering. Rotten grapes, indeed.
Now what we are to make of this particular song requires some qualification and clarification. We modern Christians are clearly not the “house of Israel” or the “people of Judah.” We just aren’t. We are not in a position to apply the lesson of this song-cut-short in any kind of direct way to our own individual selves, nor for that matter to our country – the United States is not Israel or Judah by any means.
On the other hand, we do share one thing in common with the “house of Judah” or the “people of Israel”; we do claim (or are claimed) to be the children of God. And that does put a burden of responsibility squarely on us.
And notice that it is “us” here. This is not a prophetic oracle directed at any one individual. No king or priest gets singled out here. The “house of Israel” and the “people of Judah” are the only addressees of this message. The responsibility for the bloodshed and the “cry” of the oppressed is corporate: all of the people bear responsibility together.
In this we do share in the message given. Not even as a country, necessarily, but as the “church” in the broadest sense of the world, we are held responsible. And it is we as the broader, corporate body of the children of God, who face the frightening removal of protection that the vintner plans for the vineyard.
God is faithful to the believer. Whether it is framed in the language of “once saved, always saved” popular in certain circles of the church or in some other framework, God does not abandon any child of God. Period. End of discussion.
Human institutions, on the other hand (no matter how much their origins may be divine), have and can expect no such guarantee. Even a cursory reading of Hebrew scripture makes it clear that Israel and Judah were not remotely spared the ignominy of conquest and exile despite the whole extensive history of God’s call and exodus from Egypt and “promised land” and all of the seemingly “special” status that came with it. Once it came down to the two kingdoms straying from the call to justice and righteousness that had been their birthright, the hedge was indeed lifted and the wall broken down. The kingdoms were conquered and subjugated.
Likewise with any human-structured institution that strays from God’s mandate: if we fail to live up to God’s instruction to practice justice, to defend the oppressed, to protect the widow and orphan and all of those who have been named in countless scriptures we have read for these several weeks – if we produce nothing but “sour grapes” instead of good fruit – then there’s nothing at all to stop God from tearing down the hedge and breaking down the wall around us.
There is no reason for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to continue to exist if it fails to do justice, to do righteousness, to help the poor and defend the widow and orphan and all of those things. The same holds true for the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, or any other body bearing the name of Christian. Any such body that fails to live up to God’s call to that body cannot rely on the continuing guardianship of God.
One might even argue that such a process has already begun on a large scale. We are hardly the only church that has shrunk over the decades. Declining church participation is a large-scale phenomenon in this country (and even more so in Europe), one that cuts across lines of denomination or theological orientation. Trust of the church and of clergy in particular is at long-time lows. And while it’s a popular sport to blame millenials for “killing” this or that established institution or tradition, the decline in church membership and participation has been a long time coming, with roots at least as far back as the baby-boomer generation (long before millenials were even born). To the degree that the church writ large has strayed from its call and borne sour grapes, the outside world has looked at it and said, “no thanks.” God is under no obligation to protect any church from the consequences of bearing sour grapes.
Mind you, that decline may not always be obvious in every church. Such a church or institution that has thoroughly strayed from God’s mandate can actually look quite strong and healthy from the outside, by the standards of the world. It can go on for quite a long time seemingly with great success from that worldly point of view. That does not, however, mean at all that it is succeeding as a body of God’s calling. It’s important not to confuse the two.
All of that does put a burden on us as individual members of the body of Christ. We are responsible for the bodies of the church to which we are drawn. Anything that draws such a body away from God’s call needs to be laid aside. God calls churches and church bodies for a purpose, and whenever that purpose is not being carried out, that body no longer has any claim on God’s protection.
Let us be very careful, then, upon hearing this vineyard song. How we as a church, writ large or writ small, bear our witness and do our work in the world matters, and profoundly so. Let us not forget, and let us never settle for less than righteousness and justice, and let us never be guilty of bloodshed, or of causing “a cry”.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #475, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing; #738, O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee; #—, Our God Did Plant a Vineyard; #265, Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun