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Isaiah 5:1-7

Two years ago, I walked into the doors of Park Avenue United Methodist as a brand new ministry intern. At that time, I was a student over at Union Seminary who was seeking to discern the call that God was placing on my life and to experience firsthand what it means to be serving a Christian community here in New York City. On one hand, it seems as though this time has flown by; my first time speaking in this pulpit on that Laity Sunday feels like it was just yesterday, and I can still feel the nerves that I felt when I walked into my first staff meeting with Pastor Cathy and the rest of our team up in the office.

When I take a step back and reflect on all that has happened, however, I realize that these two years have been filled to the brim with so much life and joy. I’ve been a part of so many inspiring services, and I’ve celebrated with all of you as infants have been baptized into our community and new members have been received. I’ve marched with many of you in the New York City Pride March, I’ve had hard discussions about our world in various classes and meetings, and I’ve had the incredible opportunity to gather with this church in prayer. Two years ago, I could not have conceived that I would join you by finally becoming a Methodist and a member of this congregation. My time here has been more than I could have even imagined, and I am so incredibly excited for what the future holds for me and for us in this very church.

At the very same time, however, we as a church have faced some tough seasons in these two years, and we know that we have some challenges ahead of us in the weeks and months to come.  Those of you who joined the discussion at last week’s Town Hall Meeting know that the life of a church in New York City in 2017 is fraught with tough questions about ministries, administrative decisions, and finances. What kind of church are we? What kind of church do we feel called to be? How do we collectively make sure that this church continues in its mission that first began 180 years ago? They’re hard questions to answer, but they’re questions that we have to always be asking ourselves as a community.

But even as we are asking ourselves these questions, it seems as though we can lose sight of the meaning of it all. We can get so caught up in the trees that we’re not able to see the forest around us, if you will; we get so caught in the how and the what of our life together that we forget to remind ourselves of why we’re here.

“Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning his vineyard,” the prophet Isaiah says in our reading this morning.[1] Now the prophet’s beloved had a vineyard in a fertile area, and he did all of the work to ensure that this vineyard would bring forth the best grapes that it could produce. He dug out the vineyard, clearing away any stones in the soil and planting the best vines that he could find. He built a watchtower in it and dug out a wine vat so that good wine could be made from what came of these vines. And after all of this work, Isaiah’s beloved patiently waited for those good grapes that he was expecting.[2]

It’s a beautiful song up to this point, as we can feel the care and nurturing that the owner put into ensuring that this vineyard had the best chance at bringing forth the best fruit that it could. It was a vineyard that the owner truly loved; it is a love song, after all. But like too many of the love stories that we hear, this one does not end with “and they lived happily ever after.”

A vineyard like would have taken at least two years to bear any kind of fruit.[3] It would have been at least two whole years of cultivating the vines and tending to the soil without any kind of yield, all in the anticipation and expectation that all of the work would be worth it in the end; there would be some kind of payoff that made the blood, sweat, and tears invested in this work worth it. And when the time for harvest finally came, I can picture this owner making his way to the vineyard to pluck off that first grape, popping it into his mouth expecting the sweetness of a fresh grape yet instead tasting a sourness that made his face contort in disgust.

What he found were grapes that were good for nothing.

And so the owner does what you’re supposed to do with a vineyard that produces wild grapes: he decides to tear it down. After all, the roots of these vines are obviously bad, and the only way to bring forth good fruit is to start again somewhere new.

Imagine the disappointment and the heartbreak; all of the work that in the end was meaningless and futile. Imagine all of the questions the owner was asking himself: “Did I do something wrong? Was there a step that I missed? Is there something else that I could have done for these vines?”

In true prophetic fashion, Isaiah in this song sets up his audience to empathize with the owner of this vineyard; in their agrarian world, they all had likely had the experience of planting crops that in the end didn’t yield what they were expecting. And when they are faced with the task of judging between the owner and the vineyard, they of course side with the owner; there was no more that he could do except take down the protections of the vineyard and start again somewhere new.[4] And in that moment of empathy, the prophet turns the story on its head and sends his listeners for a loop; the owner of this vineyard was their God, and they were the vineyard.[5]

What a strange love song this has turned out to be. Some commentators argue that Isaiah calls it a love song ironically, as if the shift that we encounter halfway through is the end of a love song and the beginning of a vengeful indictment.[6] I don’t know that I can say that, however. Instead, I read a song of someone who is deeply and profoundly hurt by the actions of their beloved. After all, the prophet Jeremiah, even in the middle of his own judgements, prophecies that God has “loved you with an everlasting love.”[7] And the book immediately before Isaiah is the Song of Solomon, which for many is one that speaks of God’s love for God’s people, and in that book we read examples of love language being linked with a vineyard like a two engaged lovers.[8] I have to believe that all of the book of Isaiah is in some ways a work of love, the work of one who has been so scorned and betrayed by a lover but is still deeply in love.

But what I think is key to this passage is this love is a love that comes with some kind of expectation. Let me be clear: the love of God has no stipulations and no prerequisites. There is nothing that we can do to remove ourselves from this love, and there is nowhere that we can be that is out of reach of God’s love. As it says in the Song of Solomon, “many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”[9]

At the very same time, however, this is a love that is always pushing us to mirror love into the world; as we have been loved by God, so too are we called to love those around us. There’s an expectation in this passage. The Hebrew word for expect is qawah, and in only three texts in the whole of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament do we find that God is the one who expect; and all three are in our passage today. God expected the vineyard “to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.”[10] And in the prophet’s explanation, “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.”[11]

For justice and righteousness are the good fruit that God was expecting from the vineyard that is Israel and Judah. It’s a play on words in some way in the Hebrew, for God expected mishpat (meaning justice) but found mishpah (bloodshed); sedaqa (righteousness) but instead heard se’aqa (a cry). This in many ways is the thrust of this first section of the book of Isaiah; indeed, it’s the thrust of all the prophets — where God has expected and commanded Israel to live in peace and justice with one another, Israel instead chooses to live in violence and injustice, oppressing the poor, the neighbor, and and the alien alike. This was their calling as the chosen people of God, but, time and time again, they disappoint God.

We today find ourselves in a different context, for we are a Christian church in 2017 New York City, not the people of Israel and Judah in the 8th Century B.C. But nevertheless, I think that this song can teach us something about the love of God; it can teach us something about why we are here.

Because these challenging conversations and questions that we are having as a church body are crucial. We need to be considering our ministries, our administrative needs, and our finances together as a community. These are vital issues, and there at times may seem like there are no easy answers. But if we for one second think that our mission as a church is simply to ensure that there is a community called Park Avenue United Methodist Church for the future — if we exist only for the sake of ensuring that we will exist in the future — I’m afraid that we are producing some sour grapes.

Rather, our mission as a church extends far beyond our own existence. We rather exist to fulfill the calling that God has placed on the people of God from the very beginning of time.

I think that the prophet Micah perhaps says it best:

“And what does the Lord require [and expect] of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”[12]

Friends, this is why we are here. This is our purpose here at the corner of East 86th and Park, the aspiration of all of these conversations that we are having, and the fruit that God is expecting from us. In the coming weeks and months, may we never lose this vision.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Isaiah 5:1

[2] Isaiah 5:2

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1943

[4] Isaiah 5:4-6

[5] Isaiah 5:7

[6] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, 47.

[7] Jeremiah 31:3

[8] Terence Fretheim, “What kind of God is portrayed in Isaiah 5:1-7?” in Lutheran Theological Journal; August 2016; 50:2; p.109. See also Song of Solomon 2:15 and 8:11-12

[9] Song of Solomon 8:7

[10] Isaiah 5:2, 4

[11] Isaiah 5:7

[12] Micah 6:8