Tending the Vineyard – Isaiah 5:1-7
Sunday, October 4, 2020 – World Communion – Parkminster United Church
Rev. Heather Power
Many years ago, a colleague that I was in team ministry with coordinated a church bus trip to some Niagara wineries as a Spirituality of Wine tour. Let me tell you, never have I seen a church event fill up so fast! That bus was filled in less than a week and in September a group of us went off for the day to explore the wineries and my colleague taught us all about the spiritual significance of wine in Scripture and beyond. It was a truly beautiful time of year; the vines were green and red and heavy with abundant fruit. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that all those in attendance had a fantastic time.
On World Communion Sunday, it’s especially powerful to remember not only the grapes, but those who plant them and pick them, crush them and aid in fermenting them, all over the world. In our reading this morning, Isaiah sings the Song of the Vineyard, which tells a story of the vineyard’s keeper and the operations of the vineyard. Choice vines, the prophet reminds us, make choice grapes – plump grapes, small seeds and juice with a high sugar content. But there are those grapes that never make it to the harvest, small fruit with large seeds and sour juice. Some translate the Hebrew wild grapes to the root word, bitter or rotten. Some others suggest that a more literal translation is simply, stink fruit.
The great vineyard owner invested great love and care into their vineyard and yet, Isaiah tells us, the harvest was a poor one. Only rotten grapes have come from the harvest. But this is about much more than grapes. Israel was to lead the nations, the prophet laments, but it has forgotten its covenant with God and failed to practice justice and righteousness. Justice, to Isaiah, is the practice of fair and equitable relationships within society, grounded in the justice of God. When justice fails, it is because the powerful have taken advantage of the weak. The Song of the Vineyard begins as a love song, but ends with sorrow, for all has not gone well in the vineyard and the harvest is all but lost.
I’ve felt some of that love and sorrow these past months, some of the broken heartedness of living in this time. Living in this time of pandemic can be exhausting, can’t it? Last week a colleague posted something on social media that really resonated with me. She shared the words of Dr. Aisha Ahmad who wrote about the 6-month mark in a sustained time of crisis. She acknowledged the feeling like you’ve hit a wall. Like feeling an intense desire to just make this pandemic time stop; make it go away. That it was okay to feel depleted in happiness or creativity. Yet she assures us that while this is normal, it is also temporary. That this 6-month wall is not permanent. We have what it takes to keep going. Even when we don’t feel like it. (Dr. Aisha Ahmad via Twitter)
I’ve heard this lament of exhaustion echoed by some of you. I feel it myself. I want to honour that and give space for it. Because we need to be able to lament together. We need to be able to lament and not feel guilty that we aren’t being appreciative of all that we have. To ignore it or pretend that those feelings aren’t there dishonours our reality of being human. So, feel those feelings. But know this: They aren’t permanent.
In the midst of pandemic exhaustion, both Joe and I continue to witness such grace from you. We’ve witnessed such gratitude and love for this community that continues to do its best to stay connected – not only to one another – but to the wider community. That while individually we may feel like we’ve had enough, collectively we are committed to responding to the needs of a hurting world. A community that responds in solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement and to right relations with all people. A community that responds to the ongoing call for climate justice. A community that supports refugee families. A community that responds to the issues of hunger, poverty, violence, and the addiction crisis.
We must continue to acknowledge the realities of the world around us. We see the ripple effects of the pandemic in our society. There aren’t any easy solutions to these issues that we face. There are compound issues to be addressed and many in our region are trying to figure out ways to help deal with the increase of violence and poverty and effects on mental health. We must continue to pay attention to issues that cause violence, poverty, joblessness, anger and despair.
Despair, we say, is a part of our life these days. In some ways, we’ve learned to accept it and live with it. But I can’t help but remember the sorrow of the song of the vineyard; I have loved you, but you have produced only rotten grapes. We express the desire to live in communities that promote flourishing ways of being, but it can be tempting in times like this, to retreat to our own small gardens, leaving others to care for theirs and ignoring the need for better care and our covenant to practice justice and righteousness right where we are.
Jesus reminds us that we are connected in ways that mean we cannot be extracted from each other. In John’s gospel, chapter 15, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me and I in you.” We belong to each other and the well-being of one has a relationship to the well-being of another. And we belong to God. All of us. Picture an image of the grape vines and imagine the connections they represent. The seeds come from the earth, which must be watered and tended into healthy plants, the plants yield beautiful grapes, or wild grapes, depending on the attention and care given. Grapes are pressed into wine and juice and shared by all.
Just as we here at Parkminster are connected to each other, we are also connected to those whom we have never met who are at risk and in danger, not because The United Church of Canada has social justice at its core, but because we are the workers in the vineyard of God. We are called upon to tend the grapes, tend our connections and bring forth a crop of justice in our community, our neighbourhood and the world.
The author E. B. White put it this way, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning, torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savour) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
On World Communion Sunday, a day when we are called upon to honour our connections with the rest of the world, we need to savour the vineyard and also work to save it. One without the other will not do. We need to dream the day when the world will be able to celebrate the advent of peace and the end of violence. We dream of the day when God’s vineyard yields the fullness of the abundant harvest, justice and righteousness, compassion and love. We feel these connections in our bones, whether it is sewing masks for Mary’s Place or signing up to take part in one of the upcoming White Privilege workshops or working to ensure that everyone in the region has enough to eat. As those who follow Jesus, we remember that the table of grape and grain calls upon us to be that connection of grace and justice with others. Christ has no hands, but ours, no feet but ours, no life but the one we live, no heart, but the heart in us.
May it be so. Amen.