Saturday, November 25, 2023

“A Dark Love Song, A Hopeful Future” - November 26, 2023

Text: Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-5

I know that a number of you are gardeners.  How many had a vegetable garden this year – even if it was just a couple of plants?  Even if you just used containers?  How many had a flower garden?

We just had a couple of tomato plants and some basil and cilantro.  We won’t talk about the basil and cilantro, but the tomatoes really produced.  We still have a few green tomatoes that we brought in before we had a hard freeze.  That was a few weeks ago if you remember.  We have had a lot of 60 degree days, even a few 70 degree days since then.  So that’s been a while, and those green tomatoes are still ripening on the counter.

But we have had plenty of years when things did not go so well.  A number of years ago we had raspberries – I got some starter canes, as they are called, from Michael and Jill Leininger.  It took a year or two, but they did pretty well for a few seasons, and the raspberries were delicious.  And then the yields were less and less until they hardly produced.  I mean, I was eating a few berries on the spot, as I picked them, and that was it – there weren’t any to put on my cereal, much less make a cobbler.

Growing things can take some work.  Our first scripture this morning is about a vineyard.  The owner takes great pains to prepare the vineyard for the best possible grapes.  It was planted on fertile ground, on a hill.  He cleared the ground of stones.  We can read that and think oh yeah, good idea, but this is serious labor.  Has anybody dug up stones out of a field?  I personally would not sign up for it.  Those stones may have been used for the wall surrounding the vineyard.  The vineyard owner planted choice vines.  He didn’t just pick up what they had on clearance at Wal-Mart, these were quality vines that would produce grapes for fine wine.

The vineyard owner really goes above and beyond.  There was a wall around the vineyard and there was a hedge.  That is even more planting.  And a watch tower is built so that the vineyard could be observed.  Presumably this was to look out for animals who wanted to eat the fruit or mess with the vineyard as well as individuals who might be up to no good - as well as to just get a look at the whole vineyard.  (The watchtower was necessary because they had not invented drones yet.) 

So I hope you have the picture: a great deal of planning and preparation and lots of hard work went into readying and planting and caring for this vineyard.  And the end result, the goal of all this, was not simply the grapes, but to produce wine.  Before there were even any grapes, a wine press is built.  Remember that this was long before refrigeration.  Oil and grain and wine were important commodities – other than what could be sold locally, these were the ways that what was grown were stored and traded.

It is a beautiful picture.  You can just imagine that vineyard on a hill, a winery in the making; maybe there were plans for a little café on site.

Has anybody grown grapes?  I am told that it takes a few years, maybe even 4 or 5 years for vines to really produce grapes.  It just takes time.

So the vineyard owner has invested not only a great deal of effort and financial resources; he has invested time.  He has put so much into this vineyard, and it will be a few years before he even sees and yield.

In time, the vines produced.  I’m sure it was exciting that first year that the vines started putting on grapes.  I’m sure everyone was looking forward to the harvest.

There was so much anticipation, but then when they finally tasted the grapes, they were awful.  They were sour.  They weren’t fit to eat.

The vineyard owner decided to cut his losses.  These vines produced wild grapes and they were good for nothing.  He doesn’t outright destroy the vineyard, but basically says, "I’m done here."  He removed the hedge, removes the wall, and essentially lets nature take its course.  The vineyard becomes overgrown, there are briars and thistles, wildlife invade, and it’s done for.  

The vineyard is a metaphor for the nation of Israel.  We are told that it is a love song - at least that is how it begins.  God loves the house of Israel and has taken great effort to care for it.  The purpose of the vineyard was not just to produce grapes, but wine.  Wine is often a symbol of the good life – of joy and contentment and celebration and fellowship.  But Israel has not produced fruit of justice and righteousness.  That is the fruit God intended, those were the grapes that were expected.

Now it is not that there were no grapes.  It’s not like my raspberries that stopped producing so well.  The grape vines produced, but the grapes weren’t any good.  They tasted awful.  And so the vineyard was useless.

I went to the grocery a couple of weeks ago and Susan put grapes on the list.  I saw some that looked OK and the price wasn’t bad so I got some grapes.  I brought them home – and they hardly had any taste.  They were not what anybody would have in mind when they want grapes.

Our translation says that God “expected justice but saw bloodshed, expected righteousness but heard a cry.”  There is actually a play on words in the Hebrew.  God expected mishpat (justice) but got mishpach (perverted justice), God expected tsedaqah (righteousness) and got tse’aqah (a scream).  

The Hebrew pun is hard to replicate in English.  Maybe God expected justice but got “just us” – as in a complete disregard for others.  Robert Alter tries to capture that Hebrew play on words and translates this as “He hoped for justice and, look, jaundice, for righteousness and, look, wretchedness.”

Israel was not producing the wine of justice and goodness and compassion.  They may have thought they were doing justice; they may have thought they were righteous, but it was a perverted justice and a false righteousness.

We can say all the right things.  We can put on an air of niceness.  Now don’t get me wrong, I prefer that to an air of meanness, but true justice is seen in the way we act.  It is seen in our living and it is seen in the way we demonstrate our values.  The nation of Judah was falling far short, talking justice but neglecting the poor and the widow and the stranger.

Rosalynn Carter died this past week.  To me, she is an example of someone whose life reflected a true concern for justice.  You probably remember those images of Rosalynn alongside Jimmy, swinging a hammer working on building a Habitat for Humanity House.  

Rosalyn was an equal partner with Jimmy in founding the Carter Center after Jimmy left office.  Through the Carter Center, she continued her long advocacy for people with mental illness, working to combat stigma and discrimination and to promote better mental health care in the United States and abroad.  

She helped campaign to end guinea worm disease, a terrible tropical disease that has now nearly been eradicated.  

And she saw how being a caregiver to others can take a toll.  She founded the Rosalyn Carter Center for Caregivers to support those who selflessly cared for others.  She said that “there are only four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers.”

President Jimmy Carter was instrumental in founding the New Baptist Covenant in 2007.  It was an effort to bring together diverse Baptist groups, especially both predominantly white and black Baptist denominations, to work together especially around issues of justice.  Several of us were there at that first gathering in Atlanta – I remember Wayne and Irene Shireman and Bob and Jenna McCarley and Jere Maddux and Michael Thompson and myself, along with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.  Working for justice, trying to make a difference.  Mrs. Carter said, “Do what you can to show you care about others, and you will make our world a better place.”

Now I am not trying to do a eulogy for Rosalynn Carter, but it just struck me this week that she was about producing good fruit, fruit of the spirit.  Isaiah prophesied in a time when Israel was failing to produce goodness and justice and righteousness.  And it led to a bleak future.

This is purportedly a love song, but it is a pretty dark love song.  Fortunately it is not the end of the story.  We continued reading in Isaiah with chapter 11.  This is a familiar passage – often an Advent text.  Advent begins next Sunday so we are getting a little bit of a head start here.

We first read about a vineyard that was overrun.  There was destruction, and indeed the metaphor was accurate: the temple in Jerusalem was eventually destroyed and the nation of Judah taken into captivity in Babylon.

But that was not the end of the story.  From the stump of Jesse, a shoot would grow.  A branch would grow from the roots.  

We also know what that is like.  We have a pagoda dogwood in our backyard.  It is a small multi-stem tree – it had 3 trunks.  I say had because the largest of the three was injured and starting to die.  It had to be cut off.  But a new shoot started to grow from the roots, and today that new shoot is the tallest of the three trunks.

The nation of Israel was a mess, and the future looked bleak.  The turn away from justice brought disastrous consequences.  But that was not the end of the story.

Isaiah foresees a new leader, a shoot from the stump of Jesse.  Jesse was the father of King David, so this would be someone in the line of David.  He would rule with justice and equity.  He would have a spirit of wisdom and understanding and counsel and power and defend the poor and the humble.

When things look bleak, when we are discouraging and despairing, it is hard to see light.  It is hard to hold onto hope.  But those despairing moments are not the whole picture.  They are not the complete story.  And the future is not set in stone.  There are possibilities.  There can be wonderful possibilities.  Things can be different.  Things can be better.  Things can be made right.  The life we long for and the world we long for are possible.

I know, this can sound naïve.  Sometimes it can look like the world in a going to hell in a handbasket, and I can be discouraged as well as the next person.  But in the midst of a desperate time, Isaiah holds out the possibility, holds out the vision of a just and peaceful future, and that vision is as needed today as it was then.

Having dreams and visions, seeing another way, can be a counter-cultural act of defiance.  The conventional wisdom may be that the poor may always be with us, don’t worry about it; but it is an act of defiance to believe that things can be better, that the world can be more fair, more equitable.

The conventional wisdom may be that people of different races and ethnicities and faiths cannot peacefully coexist.  It is an act of defiance to live with and work with and befriend those who are different.  The conventional wisdom may say it’s a dog-eat-dog world, only the strong survive, you have to look out for #1.  It is an act of defiance to put other values, like compassion and love and family and making a real difference, ahead of simply “getting ahead.”

King Hezekiah was a leader to come who helped to restore, at least for a time, a commitment to justice in the nation of Judah.  That commitment did not outlive his reign.  But ultimately, we believe this prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus, born in the line of Jesse, who brought hope and showed us the way to peace and justice and righteousness.  

How do we tap into that?  Jesus showed us the way.  He said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  As we stay connected to Jesus and as we follow in the way of Jesus, we are led to peace and hope and love.  And as we share that with those around us, the world becomes a little more hopeful, a little more just, and little more fair and equitable.  And the vineyard starts to produce good fruit.

May it be so.  Amen.

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