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“What more could have been done for My vineyard?”
Columbus Mennonite Church - August 14, 2022
Benjamin Rudeen Kreider
Country music’s twang has been in my ears and on my mind this week. I love the kind of country music full of love found and lost, full of sadness and unfulfilled hopes; songs that tell stories with gritty details and end in twists heartbreaking or heartwarming alike.
I’m not speaking of “bro-country” as it’s sometimes called, which boasts of big trucks and red Solo cups. Rather I’m thinking about the prison songs of Johnny Cash, the timelessness of Dolly Parton, the nasally ballads of Willie Nelson, the fierce spirit of the Highwomen, and the storytelling chops of John Prine. I love the songs that draw you in and then end and you aren’t quite sure what to make of them, but their melodies and questions and unresolved chords still linger your ears.
If our text from Isaiah is a country song, it is first a country song in an earthy, grounded sense. It is a love-song about a vineyard. It uses agriculture imagery to get its point across - drawing out a metaphor about a farm and a farmer, a vineyard and a vineyard tender, and the hoped-for harvest of grapes and wine to follow.
This song begins so beautifully, with the tenderness of lovers. We aren’t quite sure who is speaking. We can imagine that it is the prophet Isaiah, as our text opens “Let me sing for my beloved, a song for my lover about his vineyard.” But by end of the song, the language has become harsh and what was hinted at is now forebodingly clear. God has been the loving farmer, God’s people are the vineyard but the harvest so longed for, is the bloodshed of injustice.
We don’t know that’s where the song is heading as we hear its opening lines. Action verbs describe the beloved farmer’s work, he “dug and broke the ground, cleared it, planted, built, and hewed.” These verbs reveal the deep care, the sweat and toil, all of the work that the beloved has put in on behalf of his vineyard, a vineyard planted with intention, not just with any discount seedlings but with “choice” vines, on not just any patch of ground but on a “fruitful hill.”
If a gardener’s shadow is the best fertilizer, then this vineyard is filled with fertile soil, because of the active presence, the caring choices, and the skillful labor of its tender.
You too, I imagine, know what it feels like to care for something in this way. Perhaps your hands wriggle in delight while working the soil of a backyard garden or tending a flower bed. Maybe you or your family have farmed for your livelihood. Maybe your back has known the ache of what it is to break ground or clear heavy rocks or hew rough wood and stone.
When I was in high school, I had a job mowing the lawn of a dear older neighbor. The first time I mowed his lawn, he moved from window to window around his house, watching me from airconditioned comfort, for the entirety of the hour it took me to finish mowing outside. His watchful eye also extended to his beloved rows of sweetcorn and tomatoes, surrounded by a taught electric fence protecting it from damage by marauding racoons.
Here in Columbus, you all know keenly the difficulty of keeping the local deer population from munching and grazing down a beloved vegetable patch or flowers or newly planted fruit trees. You take precautions and build fences and do the best you can and then lament if destruction occurs.
A love song about a vineyard is not an original genre. The vineyard is a well-worn metaphor, a trope in the Hebrew Bible. For example, in the Song of Songs, a lover describes his beloved as grapes and her kisses as sweeter than wine. There is a large biblical tradition which genders God’s people and the land in which they dwell as female, and then describes God in the masculine language of caretaker or faithful lover.
We can rightly push back at accepting wholesale these gendered tropes just as we might cringe and criticize how a lot of modern country music has reinforced sexist and misogynist ways of relating. In our text we may be uncomfortable with the demanding, perhaps possessive, and even violent language of abandonment we encounter. Let’s bring that discomfort with us as we keep listening to Isaiah’s love song.
Like so many good country songs, our Isaiah passage is not about love working out, but love gone awry, astray, horribly wrong; about the tragedy that the singer experiences or even worse a loss the singer themselves caused and wrestles to take responsibility for.
God sings out of heartbreak. After clearing soil and planting and building and tending …. God hopes, God expects. God longs for justice and right-relationship, for an abundance of equity and shalom overflowing. Yet the very purpose for which God put in all God’s work is not yielding, at all, the hoped-for outcome of justice.
Later in chapter 5, Isaiah describes the rampant injustice that so pains God. The leaders and wealthy landowners of Judah have “joined house to house, added field to field, until there is room” for no one but themselves. Gobbling up land and property, their abuse of the poor only matched by their disregard for God. Isaiah describes the people as “heroes at drinking wine, and valiant at mixing drink.” They inebriate themselves to distract from their own injustice.
Isaiah exclaims, “Ah, you who rise early in the morning in pursuit of strong drink, who linger in the evening to be inflamed by wine, whose feasts consist of lyre and harp, tambourine and flute [maybe we should add fiddle, and slide guitar] and wine, but who do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of God’s hands!” Isaiah is a prophet for fierce times – when evil and good, darkness and light, justice and injustice are confused.
Although God had hoped for no other outcome but justice, God now speaks through Isaiah, on behalf of the poor. Although God had hoped for the grapes of justice and wine to gladden the hearts of all, it has instead been the poor who have been trampled. God now stands in judgment of the powerful who have neglected them. To these leaders God says through Isaiah, “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?”
Relationships of love come with expectation. With God’s hopes dashed, what will God do? Our text seems to suggest that God is giving up on the vineyard. That patience has run out. God is removing support – no more careful pruning and hoeing, the protective hedge and wall are to be taken down. This withdrawal, so it seems, will invite destruction from animals and weeds alike. Those listening to Isaiah’s prophecy know the allusions to destruction in this passage. In their 8th century context, the northern kingdom of Israel has recently fallen to the Assyrians. And although Jerusalem and Judah’s destruction will come a century later, the disaster Isaiah speaks of is not far off.
God, beloved caretaker of the vineyard, is heartbroken and at wits end about the unexpected injustice among God’s people. God calls them to account for this injustice and through questions, back into a relationship of love.
The question God asks, “What more could I have done for My vineyard that I failed to do in it? – is not simply a rhetorical question designed to trap those listening to realize their own participation in injustice.
This question - “What more could I have done?” - gives us a window into God’s own confusion. God is confounded at injustice and has done everything divinely possible to make this relationship of love go right.
Such questions – “Why did this vineyard born of love yield bloodshed, why?”
“What more could I have done? What more?” – are divine laments … genuine open-ended questions that God is asking not only of God’s people but also of God’s self.
I believe deep down that God does all she can do for God’s people, for God’s beloved, for this earth. God cultivates and cares with love and resists and works against oppression. God loves you, God loves me, and God so, so loves this green, vining, fertile and rocky and mysterious creation.
I don’t need to hammer you all, or hammer myself, with the recognition of the immensity and pervasiveness of injustice and iniquity in our world, in our lives. Isaiah can do that really well himself. Your phones do that really well themselves.
When I face those vast sadnesses - the countless victims trampled beneath the greed and violence of fellow humanity, the myriad forms of loneliness and separation and sin -- I wonder if God actually has done all can do for God’s people. I don’t want a God who forsakes God’s people, to be a vineyard ravaged, a desolation.
And because we believe that God is love, and love will do everything, above and beyond, for that which it loves, I hear all the more painfully, the discordance between God’s hopes for justice and belonging, our hopes for justice and belonging, and those instances when reality seems so far removed from that.
To listen to the song of God, to learn to sing along with the song of God, is to find ourselves swept up in a love song. And it is to hope, and to expect justice in our world. In so doing we enter into great sorrow when the unexpected happens. We carry that ache in our singing, the weight of questions that know no easy answers yet are borne by a great love. We hear God singing a love song, carrying our pain, doing all God can do to make things right in our midst, in our world.
I worked at a restorative justice organization in Kansas before coming to seminary, leading visitation and creative arts programs at a state prison. My own frustrations in leadership and the injustice of the prison system often confounded me. The prison was ringed by walls and guard towers of hewn Kansas limestone.
We could not bring food or drink from the outside for our visits, so we would buy pop and chips and candy from vending machines to share. Each year we would celebrate at a big holiday banquet, gathering men who were incarcerated and outside volunteers together.
For all of my own planning, it seemed that the logistics were mired in injustice. The only option to buy food was from the notorious prison contractor Aramark. Our meager nonprofit funds went to a billion dollar giant. Our meal would generate piles of styrofoam, and I knew that the salty and sugary, preservative-laden food piled on health concerns for those men without other options. One year, inadvertently, pork got put in the green beans, excluding Jews and Muslims and vegetarians from enjoying them.
Yet it was a love feast. Yet Christ was there. Even there amidst security cameras and metal doors, and the grinding hopelessness faced by those whose futures would unfold behind those walls, even there, where injustice seemed only to constrain and confound our planning and hopes, even there, especially there, an abundance of gratitude and generosity and love was poured out. Communion can be our resistance to the injustice of the world and a hope that clings to the possibility that God is still working things out in love.
One of the miracles of communion is the transformation of soil and sun and rain into grape and grain. From vineyards and fields of wheat through pressing and grinding comes flour and juice. With care and heat and yeast and time comes bread and wine.
Out of circumstances of deep injustice, out of vineyards that appear ravaged or require total transformation, may come an outpouring of unexpected goodness.
When Christians lean in and give thanks for what God has done in our lives and in this world, we can glimpse Christ in our midst. In the breaking of bread, we remember that God has not forgotten or abandoned us to be trampled, but we are able to touch and taste that God is with us and among us in Jesus Christ.
Though the love songs of our God carry in them sorrow and heartbreak, they also carry a profound hope for righteousness and justice.
Thanks be to God for this sorrowful and persistent Love.
God of the Fertile Fields - Voices Together #750. Text: Georgia Harkness (USA), Fourteen New Rural Hymns, 1955, alt., © 1955, renewed 1983 The Hymn Society (admin. Hope Publishing Co.). All rights reserved. Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved. Music: Felice de Giardini (England), Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, 1769. Public domain.
Who Will Speak a Word of Warning - Voices Together #758. Text: Richard Leach (USA), © 2000 Selah Publishing Co., Inc.; Music: CHURCH UNITED, Alfred V. Fedak (USA), 1988, © 1989 Selah Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved. Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved.
Taste and See - Voices Together #467. Text: based on Psalm 34:1-10; James E. Moore (USA); Music: James E. Moore © 1983 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, license #A-727859. All rights reserved.
The Lord Bless You and Keep You - Voices Together #846. Text: based on Numbers 6:24-26, Peter C. Lutkin (USA), 1900; alternate text Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, 2019. Music: Peter C. Lutkin, 1900. Public domain.