Of Vineyards, Plumblines and Mirrors

Isaiah 5: 1-7, Jeremiah 30: 1-3, 12-15,18-24

Breakfast in a New York airport was interrupted by “a rather desperate-looking Cuban, waving a nearly empty quart bottle of beer. In loud but very broken English he began to exhort the waiting passengers to pay more attention to Cuba. So disturbing was he to the peace that the waitress behind the counter finally said, ‘This is a business establishment. We don’t want no trouble. Now get out.’ Out staggered the Cuban, and all went back to their pancakes and syrup, with the exception of a sailor, who just sat staring at his coffee. As the waitress went by he said, ‘Look, he wasn’t trying to make you no trouble. He was trying to tell you you got trouble.’”[i] We don’t want to hear that we have trouble – whether its sins long past that we hoped would never come up again or trouble brewing – we don’t want to hear that we have trouble. That is never a word we welcome.

So let’s talk about love. Love is a more welcome topic. Let us listen to a love song of an owner for his vineyard, all the care taken for the vineyard -- and find an analogy that makes sense for us. Because, even though vineyards are important – there must be a deeper meaning for it to be found in scripture.

5 Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it, cleared away its stones, planted it with excellent vines, built a tower inside it, and dug out a wine vat in it.

Most of us have seen an attentive gardener at work. If you come to church during the week at just the right time, you can see some loving gardeners at work – similar to this owner of a vineyard. The painstaking care on hands and knees to pull out the weeds, loosen the soil so that the roots get air as well as moisture. The removal of the stones that make their way into the gardening beds – week after week. One would think the work would become tedious – but it is not so for one who loves her garden. A gardener’s response is, “Creating the garden has brought me so much pleasure…” Or “This is where I most often experience the presence of God.” There is love in the tending of the soil, the clearing of the stones and weeds, and caring for the desired plants. The gardener loves the garden she tends so lovingly, even as this owner of the vineyard loves his vineyard – tended with loving care.

It is not difficult to see this as an analogy for God’s love for us. The care for tending the vineyard may remind us of the way we care for our younger generations. Today we feel such tenderness for Dylan as we first meet her, promising to do all that we can to help her to grow in the faith, and promising to support her parents as they bring her to the community of faith. And our tenderness will continue past her infancy – as we teach, encourage and love her all of her life. With our children and youth, we engage in these activities of the vineyard owner -- clearing as many stones from their path as possible, nurturing and encouraging their growth. It is a rewarding occupation for all of us - teachers, parents, honorary relatives, prayer partners and other leaders who work with our young people. It is a joy to watch them grow into the people God intends them to be. God’s joy in us is as great, regardless of our age, when we grow and are nurtured in a life-giving relationship with God. Such love is lavished on us, as the vineyard of God.

Sometimes love stories and songs don’t end well. People are hurt. Hearts are wounded. And the love that seemed the stuff of legends turns to dust. And the case between the parties is put before their friends, if not the courts, to render judgment.

He expected it to grow good grapes— but it grew rotten grapes. 3 So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: 4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes?

We can hear the pain in the questions. Why after all the loving care given to my vineyard, did it produce bad fruit? Why did the vines not produce as expected? Peel back the façade of goodness to taste the fruit – and the lover experiences the corruption of the beloved. NOW -- remember that the vineyard for Isaiah is Israel – God’s people. The problem is that they did not produce the fruits that were expected: love and commitment to God as the response to God’s love and commitment to them. God’s demand for God’s people for centuries has always been justice and righteousness – but they – or ahem, WE- been more than a bit shy on those good fruits. Instead, we, God’s people, show bloodshed and victimization of the vulnerable – we are rotten fruit. Like the “whited sepulchres” that Jesus mentioned a couple of centuries later – maybe looking good on the outside, but rotten on the inside.

As much as we dislike correction, it is necessary. Correction of God’s people was one of the important functions of the prophets. They knew that God’s people tended to wander from the tight bonds of covenant. Ahem – we still do. And the prophets offered the perspective of correction through allegory, story, example, object lesson, parable – whatever would help get the point across. The prophets of Israel help up a mirror for the people to see themselves more clearly. They named what was wrong in the public life, in the leaders of the nation and the Temple, and they called for people to change their ways.

AMOS. Amos used a plumbline, among other things. Plumblines were used to check the vertical line of a building by holding a piece of wood against the top of a wall, and having a lead cone of the same diameter on the bottom of a string. If the wall was straight, the lead would barely touch the wall. It was a symbol of God measuring whether or not the people were living rightly, had their lives straight.

ISAIAH didn’t just speak in allegories like the vineyard – he also went down to the potter’s house to learn (and share) that God wanted to mold the people, and walked around Jerusalem naked for three years as a sign of the coming humiliation at the hands of the Assyrians. He was in himself an ever-present reminder of what was to come.

JEREMIAH, the other prophet we read about today, was called “the weeping prophet” because he knew from God that defeat and exile were coming and he couldn’t get the people to listen on how they should change their ways. It pained him that the people were so focused on their own desires in life that they were set on self-destruction – and he couldn’t do anything about it.

The prophets were like a FLIGHT NAVIGATION system for God’s people – suggesting constant corrections, explaining the detours and importance of getting back on course. Like a doctor, they would TELL THE TRUTH about what was going to happen if we didn’t change our habits. They were a reminder, in word and deed, that God won’t leave us lost and wandering in the wilderness – but will address our problems and remind us what is necessary to “return to the Lord.”

Prophets are showing up in unlikely places and new voices these days. They are the women and girls who have found their voices with #metoo demanding to be respected – challenging the disparity of perceived worth that names them as acceptable victims while male victimization is seen as heinous (except at historically Christian Wheaton College if the victim is Muslim and the perpetrators are white football players.) Men may name these voices as women causing trouble – but we could call them prophets. They are holding up a mirror and telling a very unpleasant truth.

Anyone protesting the massacre of black citizens at the hands of police may be accused of showing disrespect – but is there any disrespect that is too much to point to the inherent injustice of taking lives, or treating people as if their life doesn’t matter because they have a different skin color, or hair style, or accent? We might name the protestors of violence against blacks in our country and against the inherent injustice of our prison for profit system as prophets.

We’re seeing a Holy Disruption of the status quo. It may be, as Paul Tillich names it, “The Shaking of the Foundations” because God’s values are being violated. It may be that God is shaking our foundations to get our attention.

Hurricane Florence has devastated the East Coast, and Puerto Rico has not yet recovered from Hurricane Maria a year ago – indicating that the literal foundations of the earth are being shaken. In a country that has considered itself a moral leader, we are learning that women and girls have been disrespected and abused in epidemic numbers in our culture – and now they are demanding justice, shaking the halls of our government. In this country where “immigrants get the job done,” the recent treatment of immigrants has lead to charges of human rights abuses and the horror of the world at the incarceration of children within our borders. And sure, there are false prophets saying that “all is well,” but (Slow down and increase volume) ALL ISN’T WELL and HASN’T been well for a long time – not from God’s perspective. So God is calling prophets to recall God’s people to a bondage to God’s covenant greater than our bondage to the world. To a commitment to justice for ALL, and righteousness – living plumbline straight instead of by standards we change to suit ourselves.

Holding up mirrors, talking of plumb lines, going down to the potter’s house, or weeping – prophets do whatever it takes to help God’s people see themselves clearly and what they needed to do to change.

But prophets don’t just point to where we are heading steadfastly in the wrong direction, or falling short on God’s morality scale. The prophets also offer messages of HOPE. Of Promises of God’s love – or restoration of the nation and the LAND. “God does not abandon. Even when it looks impossible – I will make a way out of no way, says the Lord.” Our second scripture reading is from the part of the Book of Jeremiah called “The Book of Consolation.” On the other side of the hard stuff there is restoration. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, has these beautiful words of hope to share. There WILL come a day! There will come a time when God’s people are restored and reunited under the dynasty of David. And that word comes from Jeremiah to the people just when the city of Jerusalem is about to be destroyed, the king, their leader, will be carried off in chains, and the Temple is destroyed. When it seems that there is nothing left for Israel – there is a word of hope.

And here is where the hope lies: Renew the covenant and live as God’s people. Our decisions have political and economic implications and they should be weighed according to God’s principles of justice and righteousness. Serve the purposes of the Lord with every aspect of our lives: especially justice, righteousness and love. Live as the human part of a divine/human partnership.[ii]

The sages say that without these three things, the world will not continue in existence: 1. Justice 2. Truth 3. Peace. Of course, they may also be prophets. [iii]

CONCL: Prophets tell us of God’s tender love, like a loving gardener or grower of a vineyard. In love, they point to the places where we need correction with mirrors and plumblines, caring rather desperately that we reconnect with the God of the covenant. And in love they remind us, again and again, that hope lies in God, not the world. Justice. Truth. Peace. In these three things lie the way of the covenant – they way of life for the world.

Let those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

[i] Narrated by William Sloane Coffin in “The Word,” in Sermons to Intellectuals, ed. Frank H Littell. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.p. 1.

[ii] Walter Brueggeman, The Bible Makes Sense, 56.

[iii] Sefer Ha-Aggadah 690.1) in Michael Williams, The Prophets I. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996. p.40.

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