5Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? 5And 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. 6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
Sermon: Great Expectations , preached by Rev. Sandi Anthony, Sunday, August 18, 2019
Wine has always been one of my hobbies and interests. Clint and I enjoy visiting wineries in our travels and learning about the varieties of grapes, types of soil, methods of production. I love tasting wines and finding good ones that are a bargain. I’m a big fan of organic farming as well and try to buy all things organic as much as possible—it’s better for us and it is better for the planet. I learned about a technique at a winery called Montinore Estate up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley that takes organic farming to the next level. This next level is called “bio-dynamics.” What that means is that the winery uses sustainable growing practices that ensure that the ecosystem functions as a whole; compost is, of course, used. The idea is to leave the land in even better shape for future generations. One practice often employed is burying cow horns stuffed with manure by the vines to slowly leach out fertilizer and promote a balanced ecosystem. Vintners often use the lunar cycle for the optimal time to plant and harvest. In short, bio-dynamics is an agricultural “philosophy and methodology that views a farm as a self-sustaining ecosystem entirely responsible for creating and maintaining its individual health and vitality without any external and unnatural additions [including pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, sulfites]. It is one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture, creating healthier food…and a healthier planet” (www.montinore.com). And the technique is applied to more than just wine—these practices can and should become the norm if we care for our children and their children’s future on planet earth.
So, let’s move into today’s passage from Isaiah. You will see that even in Isaiah’s time, around 742-701 BC, wine was also enjoyed. In fact, our passage today is widely titled, “The Song of the Vineyard.” The “Song of the Vineyard” begins as a love song. Isaiah sings about God’s love for God’s vineyard. Vineyards, you know, are often written about in our Bibles because people lived closer to the land and understood agricultural images. Think about our well-known gospel stories about vines and vineyards. Jesus is the vine; we are the branches. Remember the parable of the Vineyard Owner in Mark 12? This is when the vineyard owner builds a similarly wonderful vineyard and then leases it to tenants and goes away. Those tenants took the vineyard for themselves and beat up the slaves the owner sends—and even beat up the owner’s son who the owner finally sends to collect some of the fruit. We can see the Jesus story through that parable. Fruit, remember, in the Bible, is usually metaphorical for our good works, our seeking justice for the oppressed—that parable particularly harkens back to this Isaiah passage, and I’m sure Jesus had today’s passage in mind when he told it. And then remember the parable about another vineyard in Matthew 20 when all the laborers get paid the same amount of money even though they worked varying hours? That’s a parable about God’s unmerited grace. And there are more vineyard references throughout our Bible.
Anyway, the vineyard of Isaiah 5 is a metaphor for Israel—Judah in particular, since Isaiah at that time is prophesying to Judah. In a sense, the Song of the Vineyard also harkens back to the Garden of Eden and may even function as a metaphor for creation itself. God creates things to be good and then we make them bad—we get things woefully out of balance. Even though Isaiah’s beloved (God) took great care to plant a vineyard on a very fertile hill by digging it and clearing it of stones, planting it with choice vines, building a watchtower in its middle, putting a hedge around it to keep out any animals that would eat the vine’s leaves and branches, and hewing out the wine vat in the vineyard’s center, God had great expectations, great intentions for that vineyard. Unfortunately, it yielded sour, wild grapes—not the good fruit that God was expecting, the kind that would make for good wine. Any good winemaker will tell you that it takes good fruit to make good wine. We know from our study of the prophets this summer that wild grapes are really a metaphor for the lack of justice in Judah’s society, when God had carefully created Judah—all of the Israelites—precisely to be God’s light to the world. God had greatly expected Israel to be Godlike—just and caring preferentially for the “least of these.” But Israel went wild and did not live into God’s careful cultivation, like our society often does not. God’s intention all along was always to bless God’s people. And through those people [and we too can think of ourselves God’s people], God’s intention was always to bless the world—and that is roughly the take-home message today.
And so, our passage today takes a harsh turn. Because the vineyard grew wild grapes, God through Isaiah said that the vineyard would be devoured. God would break down the hedge; the vineyard will become a waste. There would be no further pruning or hoeing, and it would be overgrown with briers and thorns. There would be no rain upon it. Isaiah interprets his own song at the end of the passage and says, “For the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planning; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed. God expected righteousness, but heard a cry!
We’ve talked this summer about God’s judgement being something like karma. When the people don’t live in right relationship with God, with one another, and with the earth, God will leave us to our own devices. Then we suffer the consequences of our sin, which eventually, hopefully prompt us to act, once we can’t stand the pain anymore. Eventually the tipping point comes. And hopefully that point of unbearable pain marking the tipping point won’t be too late.
As I worked with this passage this week, I kept thinking about the dire condition our planet it is—the planet God created to be good like Isaiah’s vineyard, the planet that God gave us stewardship of.
This past week had a lot of distressing news regarding our country’s care of creation. You may have heard how the US Department of the Interior announced sweeping reductions to the Endangered Species Act. We know that God created a delicate balance of interrelatedness among all species on the earth—and we were supposed to be the stewards. Instead, our country has abdicated its God-given responsibility. The EPA won’t ban Chlorpyrifos, a pesticide tied to children’s health problems. Additionally, the EPA is allowing the use of pesticides beekeepers say decimate beneficial insects, the very insects we depend upon to pollinate our crops. Moreover, the current USDA has suspended the honeybee survey. What we do know is that the population of bees, which help pollinate a third of food crops, has been in decline since 2006. July was the hottest month in history—since records began to be kept anyway. There is record ice melt in Greenland. Fox and CNN aren’t even reporting on the unprecedented, 100+ intense and long-lived wildfires raging in Siberia and in Alaska north of the Arctic Circle. These fires have been responsible for the release of over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The current administration has eased restrictions on coal-burning power plants, which are heavily polluting and major producers of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that trap sunlight and contribute to the warming the planet. Fortunately, a coalition of 29 states and cities are suing to block this measure and keep the Clean Power Plan restrictions. The Clean Power Plan had required states to implement plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2022 and generate electricity using natural gas or renewable energy.
As someone who lived in Europe, I know that there are better ways to preserve our planet for our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I got to see how European countries do things. Here are some of the things I learned when living in Germany that we can all practice here—little things that can help make a dent anyway. All trash that could be composted, was. All trash that could be recycled went into the big bins in our village. And then, the county issued a trashcan for everything else based upon a given family’s size. Since there were only three of us in our home, we could only generate a couple gallons of unrecyclable trash every two weeks. We were issued a trashcan with about this much space in it. So that forced us to “pre-cycle” when we shopped. We had to calculate while we shopped if the containers could be recycled or composted because we only had so much space for any other waste. By and large, grocery stores didn’t give us plastic bags. I learned to do what the German fraus did: march down to the local bakery and butcher shop with a sturdy basket under my arm. Last summer, when we went back to our German village, we noticed windmills dotting all the hills in the distance that weren’t there when we lived there before. Germany, and especially Scandinavia, are some of the most progressive in the world in terms of environmental success and sustainability. They are moving forward with clean energy while the US is going backwards. Yes, we may be making a quick buck now, but without caring for God’s creation and the succeeding generations who will inherit our mess, we may not make it very far into the future.
The United Church of Christ, whose current motto is a very biblical “A Just World for All,” continually talks about three great loves: Love of Children, Love of Neighbor, and Love of Creation. And I think of how we at CCOV endeavor to promote God’s justice that prophets like Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea are talking about. We show love of children with our healthy packs and back-to-school projects. We show love of neighbor with UMOM and our Christmas collections. To show love of creation, we have attempted to incorporate more sustainable practices at fellowship time here and not use Styrofoam or as much plastic and paper products. We recycle. It’s great when small systems like ours adopt these practices—and I am sure we could brainstorm together so much more to actualize God’s great expectations for a just world. There is so much God wants to do through us. For the most impact, though, we need to advocate for change in the way our country as a whole is heading—it’s going down a dangerous and unsustainable road.
So, you might be saying, how did Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard, which is really about that same old thing I’ve been preaching on: you know, Judah’s lack of justice and lack of righteousness; how did this turn into an Earth Day message? Well here’s the thing, our denomination is very concerned with what is known as environmental racism. You can read all about it on the UCC website—you will also find a detailed list of how we can involve ourselves in achieving environmental justice. In short, the problem is that “hazardous waste sites, landfills, incinerators, and polluting industries are often positioned in communities inhabited mainly by African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, farm workers, and the working poor. These groups were, and still are, particularly vulnerable because they are perceived as weak and passive citizens who will not fight back against the poisoning of their neighborhoods in fear that it may jeopardize jobs and economic survival” (https://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_environmental-racism.) Additionally, “Climate change and global warming bring an additional peril to communities of color or poor communities all over the world. Many who live near the coasts or in lower-lying areas will be the first to feel the effects of rising temperatures and oceans. They will not have the resources to make choices that others can make and may lose their homes and their livelihoods and will be displaced as environmental refugees. Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast in 2005 was one of the most dramatic examples of what may occur in the future, as those who had no transportation or means of escaping the rising waters became refugees” (https://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_environmental-racism). We need to care about the worsening of the environment because of the impact first and foremost on the earth’s most vulnerable, the ones God keeps calling to us about through the prophets—the ones who don’t have second homes up north to escape the heat.
We need to call our government officials. We need to sign petitions offered by the Sierra Club and support organizations like the Nature Conservancy, which protects the land and water. We can adopt green practices at home. When it’s time for a new car, consider a hybrid or plug-in, or both. Compost. Recycle. Pre-cycle. If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down. Buy organic. Better yet, buy bio-dynamic. If you are a wine drinker, try Montinore’s wines or other bio-dynamically produced wines.
Friends, God took great care to prepare a wonderful vineyard for us. God expects great grapes to grow in that vineyard, grapes that would yield sublime wine. But again and again, all God got was wild grapes. Israel, Judah, we—all of us often cycle back into unrighteousness, in other words, out of right relationship with God—which is really shown through our relationship with one another and with the earth. But our New Testament even more so teaches us that God is never content to leave us wallow. There is abundant forgiveness and grace. God wants transformed hearts and for us to be in right relationship. We can do this, through grace, and through the New Covenant. That’s why God sent Jesus, so we can best know God’s heart, so we have the best example to follow of how to be in right relationship with God by being in right relationship with one another. Justice and love flow out of that relationship, the kind of justice and love that wants the best for our neighbors, the best for our children and their children’s children, and for all of creation. We can indeed have relationships characterized by the love God shows us. Our God is always wooing us back to the garden, back to the good vineyard, because it has always been God’s intention and great expectation for us to be a blessed people cultivated to bless. Amen.