Sermon–October 8, 2017


18 Pentecost—22-A

October 8, 2017

William Bradbury

Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-14, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

Ten years ago Stephanie and I spent a few days with her sister in San Francisco. One afternoon we drove north to Sonoma County in the Russian River Valley to visit a small family owned vineyard. Going in we promised ourselves that we would only buy one bottle of wine, but we ended up with a case of exceptional wine to bring back to Massachusetts.

This magical experience comes to mind when I hear the prophet Isaiah recite his poem:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.

He 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.

After all that backbreaking work, we expect the vineyards in our lives to produce excellent grapes. So, we are disturbed when we end up with wild grapes, or as one translation puts it, rotten grapes, grapes that cannot be used to produce drinkable wine.

Isaiah’s poem describes the experience of YHWH, God of Israel, after bringing the Israelites into the Promised Land. It also describes the experience of YHWH after bringing people into Britain, France, and Germany. This song is God’s experience of bringing us into America.


God expected justice but saw bloodshed,

God expected righteousness, but heard a cry.

God does not bring people to a promised land so the strong can lord it over the weak, but in order to create a society that produces justice for all.

Isaiah uses an important play on words here: the Hebrew word for justice is mispat. The word for bloodshed is mispah, differing by only one letter.

The word for righteousness, or better, covenant faithfulness, is sedaqah; the word for cry is se’aqah—again different by only one letter.

Is Isaiah telling us that when we make even small changes to justice and righteousness we turn them into their opposites?

Pour just a teaspoon of sewage into a glass of fine wine and you now have a glass of sewage that looks like wine.

A small change the successful and strong don’t even notice becomes inequality, oppression, and injustice for the vulnerable and the victimized. But as long as we keep saying the right words, we can convince ourselves the oppressed really don’t have it so bad.

This makes me think of our Pledge of Allegiance.

The Pledge of Allegiance was composed by Francis Bellamy, an ordained Baptist minister, who as a young man served churches in New York and Boston. Then in 1892, at the age of 38, he began working for a family magazine where he wrote the Pledge for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World

It was a rousing success!  He hoped it would help heal the continuing division between north and south following the Civil War, and it did. But of course in 1892 women were not allowed to vote or hold many jobs. In 1954 when the words “under God” were added to the pledge, people of color could not sit in the front of the bus or go to schools and restaurants for those whose skin was the dominant color. Read more:

So while the Pledge may announce our hope that we will become a country in which there is liberty and justice for all, the fact is we only have liberty and justice for some.

God expected justice but saw bloodshed,

God expected righteousness but heard a cry.

Jesus takes up Isaiah’s song and changes it a little: in Jesus’ story the owner does all the hard work of creating the vineyard and lets it out to tenants who produce good grapes and fine wine. The problem, however, is that they are not willing to return a fair share of the wine to Owner.

They want to be owners instead of stewards, so they kill the owner’s servants and murder his son. They vainly imagine they can keep all the wealth for themselves without damaging the wine of justice and righteousness.

We live in a time when justice and covenant faithfulness are under assault every day. In most cases, it’s the same old assaults: assaults against the usual suspects: people of color, immigrants, the poor, women, gays and lesbians, the Trans community, and Others who are deemed to be too strange and too weak to fight back.

We rightly decry these assaults, but at least these attacks make a kind of sense, because they come from people who are trapped in their racism, misogyny, and fear of the other.

But too often lately our nation has had to endure assaults that we cannot make sense of at all. There is no sense to the murderous shootings in Las Vegas last week. Last I checked no one had a clue why the shooter decided it would be a good idea to amass an arsenal and then to murder and injure people enjoying life.

I assume we may get some insights into his mind, but whatever we learn the truth remains, 

God expected justice but saw bloodshed,

God expected righteousness but heard a cry. 

For some reason the vineyard of our country produces mass murderers faster than other advanced countries.

Time Magazine reported one study that estimated that 31% of public mass shootings occur in the U.S., although we have only 5% of the world’s population. Wikipedia

God expects the U.S. to yield grapes,
but it sometimes yields wild grapes.

What are we to do with all this madness? 

I think we are living in a season where we need to practice the Biblical prayer called “lament”.

After the Babylonians destroy The Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BC and take the people into exile, the author of the Book of Lamentations cries out: “The joy of our hearts has ceased; dancing has turned into mourning”.

The psalms are filled with the lament of people who are brokenhearted and afraid. Psalm 3 begins:

1      LORD, how many adversaries I have! *

how many there are who rise up against me!

2      How many there are who say of me, *

“There is no help for him in his God.”

The most powerful lament for Christians is the one Jesus recites as he hangs on the cross: My God, my God why have you forsaken me…

Lament is a profound act of faith in the one we cry out to.

The psalm Jesus quotes ends with these words:

My soul shall live for God;

my descendants shall serve him; *

they shall be known as the YHWH’S for ever.

How do we get from lament to praise?

Not through our faithfulness, but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. For as Paul says:

For Jesus’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from being moral, but a righteousness that comes through the faith of Jesus Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

Jesus is the stone who the builders rejected, who has become the cornerstone of new life in God.

Lament and praise are both necessary acts of faithfulness.

They open us to God, who alone can make us into fine wine to refresh those for whom justice is still in the future.