ENDING TO BEGIN AGAIN

Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5  Nov 22.15

My funny valentine

Sweet comic valentine

You make me smile with my heart

Your looks are laughable

Unphotographable

Yet you’re my favorite work of art

Is your Figure less than Greek?

Is your mouth a little weak?

When you open it to speak

Are you smart?

But don’t change a hair for me

Not if you care for me

Stay little valentine stay

Each day is Valentines day

That song was sung first in Babes in Arms (1937) but centuries before, the prophet Isaiah placed a love song on the lips of God.  It was a funny kind of love song.  A song about God’s love for the nation of Israel, planted as a garden, a vineyard.  Heather and I make a point of going down to the (Annapolis) Valley every year to go to Luckett’s vineyard.  We sit on the patio there and look across the carefully tended vines down towards the water.  Vines take work – a lot of work.  If they are going to produce fine wine grapes the work is long and laborious, often by hand.  There are so many different ways in which vines and fruit can be attacked and blighted.  Isaiah’s song tells of a vineyard, planted on a fertile hill, a selection of the finest vines, cared for and tilled in a most loving way.  Israel may have been less than ideal – a funny valentine indeed for God.  But there is great love and care there.

Then things go sideways.  The love song becomes a lament.  The key shifts from major to minor.  We move from a love song to a “hurtin’ song” caught up in two questions for which there is no answer.  “What more could I have done?”  “When I expected grapes, why did you produce only wild grapes?”  The vineyard owner expected choice, wine-producing fruit, the result of choice vines, fine gardening, good care and security from birds, animals and vandals.  Even with all that the harvest was wild grapes: small, bitter and dry.  “What more could I have done?”

In that second verse of this love son we realize that God is singing about God’s people: the southern kingdom of Judah and the great city of Jerusalem.  In the second verse the listeners, who thought they were being lulled to sleep with a beautiful ballad, all of a sudden find themselves doing jury duty.  “Judge,” they are told.  “Judge,” says God.  “Judge between me and my vineyard. “ It’s like you came to church today, plunked yourself innocently into a pew, got ready to doze through another sermon and all of a sudden the voice says: “Right – you decide between God and our national character.  You decide how God would be justified in treating us.  You decide.” 

Some years ago, a church youth group held a fundraising dinner. It was billed as a “Hunger Feast.” Tickets were $5.00 – this was 1976 after all –  and the proceeds were to go toward the fight against world hunger.  As the sixty or seventy people arrived for the dinner they were assigned seats at tables according to the colour of the tickets the guests brought. The “blue” table table, seating five people was served first. They received a piece of chicken, a cup of rice, peas and a cup of tea. (There was some grumbling about the menu.)

These people were the “lucky” ones! Those remaining were in for a shock. The next two tables of about 8 people each received a half cup of rice, a tablespoon of peas and a half cup of tea. Nevertheless, they were still counted among the “lucky ones!” (You can see where this is going – right?) The next entree was a teaspoon of rice, no peas and a cup of water. Finally, at the last table, some received a quarter cup of water and the remaining “guests” received nothing. Several young people spoke about world hunger and how the evening’s “Hunger Feast” represented the various degrees of hunger and poverty in the world.

I can tell you the majority of the people were not amused! A few got the point and supported the young people and their “Feast”. One couple was very touched and contributed $100.00 to the project. Another couple left the “Feast” and the church. The Church Council was tied up for three months discussing the ethics and method of the project. The Youth Group was commended for its enthusiasm and intent, but cautioned that “the end does not justify the means.” The youth director was called on the carpet and told by the council president, “It just wasn’t right that some people didn’t get anything to eat!” (He got water!) The youth director’s response was, “I agree sir. And it also is not right that thousands of children will face tomorrow and the rest of their tomorrows until they die without anything to eat!”

Can you imagine Isaiah’s listeners having a similar sense of being “had” when the love song turned into a trial? “Hey, we thought this was going to be a song!” Instead, it is a trial. The jury must “judge” between the owner and the vineyard. “What more could I have done?” the owner says, “Why did my vineyard not produce grapes instead of worthless fruit?”

Isaiah did not write these words where the beauty of the mountains and the peace of the pastureland made clear the shape of the future.  He was not watching the dazzling sunset.  Instead, he was watching the brilliant swords of the Assyrian invaders as they cut a swath of bloodshed and agony through his native land. Without regard for anyone’s culture, religion, or life they came, like a plague of scorpions.  So Isaiah’s song notes that the protective shields have come down and all the things that make for death have entered.

Often those who speak most loudly about God’s judgment seem to do so in connection with individual behaviours or trends – usually of a moral or sexual nature.  As if that is God’s greatest – or sometimes only – concern.  Have you noticed that?  Thus, when a devastating hurricane slams through New England, some are quick to make the connection between certain hot-button issues of personal action.  That’s rarely the case in the bible.  Let me say that again: when the prophets speak of the judgment of God it rarely has to do with individual morality.  It is always, always, always connected to injustice in the nation.  National behaviours that the people either participate in or condone by failing to change the way the society works.  God looks at what we, together, produce and sees what?  Wild grapes.

God plants the vines of equitable sharing and finds what – ever climbing rates of food bank use and homelessness – wild grapes.

God tills the seeds of compassion for the stranger and finds what – increasing fear and hard-heartedness towards refugees fleeing terror – wild grapes.

God provides the watering of care for the poor and the marginalized and finds what – tax loopholes for the 1% and people struggling to decide whether to eat or take their meds – wild grapes.

The widespread absence of justice and the vacuum of righteousness in our society utterly defies the Divine Gardener’s intent for a people who have been given every opportunity, showered with chances, shown the true way – in other words people like us.  Ours is a world where God rightly anticipates justice but sees bloodshed; expects righteousness but hears the cries of the most vulnerable who are pushed to the side.  In all seriousness, if you take an average edition of the daily newspaper it’s pretty hard to avoid the diagnosis – wild grapes!

For Christians it’s easy to see the parallels with Easter weekend.  The destruction of Good Friday was absolute.  In 650BCE the Assyrians destroyed Jerusalem, levelled the Temple,  and exiled the leading 10-20% of the population for a number of generations.  The vineyard was laid waste, there was no hope.  On Easter Saturday – which we often jump over or treat as any other day – the followers of Jesus huddled in fear.  There was no hope.  When our lives come crashing down: when we get that phone call or email; or have that appointment with the specialist or the accountant; or we hear those dread words – we feel as if there is no hope.  We mustn’t downplay those days – those times of Saturday-after-the-crucifixion in our lives.  Maybe that’s where you are today.  Maybe this week you heard those words you dreaded hearing.  It certainly doesn’t help when people say: “Cheer up, it’s not that bad” when quite frankly, if anything, it seems worse!  Easter Saturday is a crucial part of the journey.  The Assyrians are real.  The devastation happens.  Only – only – when we take it seriously can we face our own “Saturdays” with maturity and firm faith.  Not because we know what will happen or because it will all be wrapped up by the end of the show or that it will turn out OK.  But because the death of our hopes is not the death of God and the dashing of our dreams is not the same at all as God giving up on you and me.

In Isaiah’s time as in ours, destruction that would wreck our plans did not defeat God.  God may finish one expression only to take up the song in a new way.  God’s will to justice, faithfulness and righteousness overwhelm our failure, our injustice, our faithlessness.  Sometimes on those Saturdays-after-the-crucifixion in our lives we may cry out: the rock is too hard; the despair is too encompassing; the stump is too dead; the rot is too deep for there to be new life.  And yet Jesus came out of the tomb.  From that seemingly dead stock of Jesse emerged the shoot of new life.  From those seemingly lifeless roots came a branch.  The truth is, we are often too quick to decide what is impossible.  Think of the relentless speed with which new life grows through a solid, lifeless concrete slab.

So God’s love song, which began in a major key of devotion and shifted to a minor key of sorrow and judgment shifts again to a major key of new beginning.  A new beginning which seemed impossible.  Notice the character of the promised one: giving righteous judgement for the poor; providing justice for the meek; destruction for the wicked who create unrighteous and exploitive circumstances.  Then God can come again looking for good grapes.

God plants the vines of equitable sharing and finds what – people working to support the most vulnerable in a variety of ways and relentlessly pressuring those in power to create living structures of support that treat all people with dignity – good grapes.

God tills the seeds of compassion for the stranger and finds what – a willingness to welcome those who come amongst us even if we don’t know their parents, speak their language, name God in the same way – good grapes.

God provides the watering of care for the poor and the marginalized and finds what – a social system that recognizes that we are indeed the keeper of our brothers and sister and that when they suffer or are diminished we all are – good grapes.

Let’s add another verse: this one based on the thought of a modern day Isaiah, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Eli Wiesel.  God’s people must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor and reinforces injustice, never the victim.  Human rights are being violated every day on every continent.  There are more oppressed than free in our world, in our nation, in our city.  How can we not feel their plight.  One person can make a difference.  We may not be famous; we may not have buildings named after us.  As long as one person in God’s vineyard suffers, none us is truly whole.  As long as one child is hungry, we are all less than we should be.  As long one voice is unjustly silenced our freedom cannot be true.  What all these people need to know is that they are not alone; we are not forgetting them; while their freedom depends on us the quality of our life depends on theirs.

We are the members of Christ the Vine.  We are his branches.  May his gifts of grace mobilize us to bear the fruit of caring for the lost, the least and the last wherever they may be.