Sermon 12 Pentecost Yr C

12 Pentecost Yr C, 15/08/2010

Isa 5:1-7

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Isaiah’s song of the vineyard”

Some years ago, a high school young people’s group in [a] church held a fundraising dinner. It was billed as a “Hunger Feast.” Tickets were $5.00 each and the proceeds were to go toward the fight against world hunger. (It was 1976, so figure $5.00!) As the sixty or seventy people arrived for the dinner they were assigned seats at tables according to the color of the tickets the guests brought. The “blue” 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 happy campers! 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!”1

   Like the unpleasant surprise in this story, which underscores the lack of justice in the world; the first lesson from Isaiah today also communicates an unpleasant surprise. The prophet Isaiah begins by singing a love-song concerning his beloved’s—i.e. God’s—vineyard. Now everyone appreciates a love-song, don’t they? I know I do. What about you? Well, I think Isaiah gained the attention of his listening audience when he began to sing his love-song. The people who listened to Isaiah’s song likely expected to hear of a ballad with a happy ending. However, they were in for a big surprise!

   Isaiah sings of how God, his beloved did everything possible to set up a healthy, thriving vineyard. The soil was fertile and cultivated; the stones were removed; only the finest quality vines were planted; a watchtower was built in the middle of the vineyard; and a wine vat was built in preparation for the harvesting and processing of the grapes. So far, so good. The love-song is most pleasant to the ears, and listeners’ heartstrings are touched by the nurturing care of the beloved. What a wonderful love-song this prophet Isaiah is serenading us with.

   But wait, before you fall asleep with these tender words; listen to what follows. Surprise, surprise! Isaiah’s love-song is transformed into song of hard-hitting judgement and lament. Maybe we can gain the sense of such an unpleasant surprise by thinking of the love-song as a gentle, bedtime lullaby which is transformed into a condemning, raunchy, deafening heavy-metal rock-and-roll song.

   In any case, the irony of the song comes to the forefront when Isaiah, speaking for God, asks the people of Jerusalem and Judah to “judge between me—i.e. God—and my vineyard—i.e. the people of Jerusalem and Judah.” In an agonising song of judgement and lament, God tells his people that there was nothing more he could do to guarantee the success of his vineyard. He had done everything that he could do. Implied here in the song is the human freedom that God gives us. In the song, God the beloved expects the best from his people: “he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” So, the consequences of freedom being misused or abused is that a well cared for vineyard becomes neglected and turns into a dried-out wasteland of briers and thorns.

   The concluding verse of the song makes it abundantly clear that the vineyard represents God’s chosen people. God expected and hoped that his people would ensure that there was justice for everyone in the nation. Instead of justice, the wealthy class of politicians and business people were killing society’s weakest and most vulnerable citizens. Blood was on the hands of the rich and powerful members of society, since their wealth was gained by cheating and robbing society’s poorest class. God expected and hoped for righteousness from his people. Instead he heard a cry from the poor and oppressed. God expected his people to look after the poor and oppressed; after all, those who were now blessed with wealth and the good life—had they and their ancestors not cried out to the LORD when they were poor and oppressed as slaves in Egypt? Had God not heard their cries and delivered them from their Egyptian slavery? Why now had they abused their freedom and become selfish and greedy? They, with their blood-money and ill-gotten riches were no better than their enemy oppressors—the Egyptians.

   In our day and age, has anything really changed? We hear stories of injustice and ill-gotten gain today too? Our planet is moaning and groaning due to the selfishness and greed of a minority of the world’s population. The story that we began with of the youth group’s Hunger Feast is a parable of what actually is happening with the unequal distribution of the world’s resources today. Two thirds of the world’s population is deprived of even what we would call the basic necessities of life. Do we hear their cries of suffering? Closer to home, many Canadians have been hit hard by the downturn in the economy—while we pay healthcare CEOs astronomical salaries and benefits.

   A pressing question facing us today is this: Are we really a caring society? In answering the question, I do not think it is helpful to employ labels, namely, socialism versus free enterprise. In a caring society it is the social contract that guarantees a right to adequate food, shelter, clothing, education and health care, and a system that provides these equal services to all without any feeling of guilt on the part of the recipients.

   To quote a contemporary Isaiah, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel: We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. How can we not be sensitive to their plight? Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere. There is so much to be done, there is so much that can be done. One person—a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, a Martin Luther King, Jr.—one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.2

   As members of Christ the Vine, we are his branches. May his gifts of grace mobilize us to bear fruit by caring for the lost, the least and the last among us and in every land. Amen.     

1 Cited from: John Jewell, “Love Songs,” Sunday, August 16, 1998 at: <;.

2 Cited from: Elie Wiesel, From The Kingdom Of Memory: Reminiscences (New York: Summit Books, 1990), pp. 233-235.