October 4, 2020

Imagined Scarcity Abundant Reality, V:Sing Me a Love Song

Passage: Isaiah 5:1–8

On this World Communion Sunday, we continue the sermon series Bill began of Imagined Scarcity, Abundant Reality.

World Communion Sunday commemorates the common table all followers of Jesus share regardless of denominational affiliation. Before anything else, the church belongs to Christ as does the table to which he invites us. Today we remember this abundant reality in a world where faith seems scarce and divisions too prevalent.

In solidarity with other churches, our scripture lesson for today comes from the Revised Common Lectionary, a series of readings prescribed for each Sunday from the Bible and followed by many of the largest denominations.  Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists and many others will hear this passage today reminding us we are one in word and sacrament.

Early in Christian history, St. Jerome began a tradition of calling the Book of Isaiah the fifth gospel in that Christians often interpret the prophecy as foretelling the arrival of our messiah, Christ, and we hear echoes of Isaiah’s prophecy in our gospels.

To only consider those passages we read in advent or hear in Handel’s Messiah ignores the breadth of what Isaiah uttered on behalf of God more than three thousand years ago.

In the 8th century BCE, an import/export trade fueled economic growth in the ancient Near East, particularly for those who already possessed land and wealth. An ability to export olive oil, wine, and wheat lured producers to acquire more lands for their production and consequent sale. Basic economics.

These commercial farms acquired adjacent lands from peasants who existed by working a small plot to sustain their families. When I say “acquired,” they were taken as a result of the government levying onerous taxes, which the yield from these family plots could not fund. Homelessness rose as families became displaced. Economic injustice grew. Was it legal to obtain lands this way? The government allowed it.[1]

This is when Isaiah writes, asking, “But, what about in God’s eyes?”

Before we hear Isaiah’s parable, please pray with me.
God, quiet in us the noise of today, the news, the debates, the infection rates, the market, the zooms, so that we can turn our complete attention to your word. Startle us again with the truth contained in this parable, just as our ancestors were, so we too learn to lift our voices and our lives to be love songs to you. Bless this reading and the meditations of all our hearts.  Amen.

Listen for God’s word as I read Isaiah chapter five, verses one to eight.

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.

He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a winepress in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.

What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.

I will make it a wild field;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he hoped for justice,
but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but look, wretchedness!

Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!

Jesus told obscure parables that even the disciples did not understand at the time, and we still wrestle with them today.

Parables in Hebrew Scriptures rarely exist. They also bite with clarity, with rhetorical traps masterfully set in which the hearers unwittingly convict themselves.

The parable we heard today begins as a serenade to a beloved. Imagine a lovely ballade that suddenly dissolves into a minor-key discord. Can you hear the angry tones if played on piano or organ?

Israel had made a mockery of the covenant established by God and Abraham. In that covenant, God’s love for the people cultivated over time a lush vineyard with all the safety and substance for God’s people to flourish in this earthly realm.

To that end, Isaiah creates an image of God in personal terms, not high upon a lofty hill, but one who had labored, got their fingers dirty in the ground. And yet, rather than the vineyard producing grapes, wild grapes emerged.

The translation of “wild” grapes from Hebrew could more correctly be “sour” or “rotten” grapes, inedible for humans.

The word-play within Isaiah’s explanation of the parable stings. In the ancient Hebrew language, by merely changing one consonant, God’s desire for “justice” becomes “bloodshed.” Rather than be obedient to God’s call for “righteousness” they return “wretchedness.”

Although these accusations may sound as though coming from a judicial lawyer, Isaiah’s prophecy functions as a marriage counselor.

Condemnation is not the goal, God wants a loving, mutual relationship. As biblical scholar reminds us, “This picture of God in love with an entire people is unique among world religions. It testifies to the importance of passion for God and it critiques ultimate attachment to anything else.”

Thriving vineyards, no less than marriages, rely not so much, upon rules as compared to tender cultivations and the patient though passionate wooing of a lover.[2]

Isaiah wants the people to know that God sees what they are doing; taking lands for themselves, displacing peasants through corrupt means, turning away from loving God to instead love their profits.

The consequences of the wealthy’s injustice toward their peasant neighbors will result in the downfall of their entire community, including them.

They behave as if it is a zero-sum game in which blessings are scarce and the only way for one person to thrive is at the expense of the other.

We live in a world in which so many aspects of our lives appear to be played as zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, whatever is at stake exists in a fixed amount. The only way for you to have more means I have less.

Three thousand years ago the Israelites lived as such were the case and we can fall prey to such fears.

Last month marked the fifty-year anniversary of Milton Friedman’s iconic New York Times essay, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” in which he stated “the business of business is business” fueling a laser focus on shareholder value. Full stop.

Generating profits reigns superior over and against the cultivation of employees, the community, competitors, suppliers. You only justify investing in other constituents if it accelerates profits.

Expenditures to eliminate pollution should only be to the minimum requirement of the law and no more, regardless of what else might be done.

This Milton doctrine, as it became known, cautioned leaders away from leveraging their time and presence to personal causes, which for some, justifies the erosion of moral character and generosity from public companies. “The business of business is only business.”

The culture in some institutions, seems to rest on the practice that not only do I need to perform well, but my career is served if you don’t do well. Ouch. As if even professional growth is a zero-sum game.

That is not true of all enterprises, but in enough companies that I imagine some of you are shaking your heads from personal experience.

The mentality of a zero-sum game has also led significant swaths in our country’s population to believe that broadening access to fair trials, equity before the law, freedom of movement from one area to another, access to education will diminish their lives. If justice and freedom expand, too many think they will lose. Justice and freedom only became scarce by our actions and fears.

This past week, we began a class, Exploring Isaiah, during which one person questioned why Isaiah received such prominence over other prophetic texts?

One answer might be that when the prophesied destruction of Israel sent the people into Babylonian exile, they remembered his truth. When Israel fell, the exile included everyone, rich and poor, righteous and unjust. Over the long years of exile, they realized injustice tears not only at the lives who are denied justice but into the lives of those who ignored injustice or hoarded their share.

In contrast to such a narrowly conceived mission for business, we need only read the Wall Street Journal’s profile Maggie Lena Walker, who became the first black woman to ever run a bank.

Walker’s mother was an illiterate, enslaved teenager when she was born, who mostly like conceived Walker while raped by a white Confederate soldier. After graduating from high school, Walker helped her mother as a washerwoman and soon joined the Order of St, Luke in Richmond, VA, that provided financial services to Black people after the civil war.

Walker called for St. Luke to create a department store and newspaper as well as a bank, all to uplift Black women. Her vision became, “Let us put our moneys together: let us use our moneys; let us put our money out…. Let us have a bank that will take in nickels and turn them into dollars.”

Few companies launched into more hostile seas. Following the war, white banks refused to lend to Black borrowers, so Congress created the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Co to serve formerly enslaved people. I quote the Journal’s essay, “the corrupt and incompetent white managers ran it into the ground.”

Most depositors claimed no more than 60% and many lost everything. For decades, Black people in areas where Freedman’s had operated distrusted all banks, making Walker’s cause even more challenging.

White opposition—what Walker called “the lion of prejudice”—threw obstacle after obstacle. When she moved the department store into Richmond’s business district, white storeowners boycotted any merchant that sold to them. A landlord of an adjacent property converted it into a saloon, attracting dangerous clientele.

As the Journal wrote, “nothing stopped her.”

At the time most mortgages required a 40% down payment and full repayment in five years. She accepted as little as 10% and allowed borrowers to refinance as needed. Due to St. Luke’s effective management, Black ownership of homes in Richmond was the highest in the country at 40%.

The accolades go on of employing Black women, treating employees with generosity, and serving with respect.

On Walker’s deathbed in 1934, her last words were “Have faith, have hope, have courage, and carry on.”

The Journal adorned this article with Walker’s portrait in which the large, simple cross she wore around her neck draws your eyes to it and shines amidst her somber attire.[3]

Jesus continues to sing the love song begun by God so long ago. In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims,

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (John 15)

To talk only of God’s love and the grace revealed in Jesus Christ, the nice parts of Jesus’s gift, without acknowledging the fellowship he created among rivals, including those on the margins, and his passion for justice… to speak only of love and grace, without embracing our responsibility to pursue justice for everyone, as he modeled, makes a mockery of this table, his death, and resurrection.

A question before us remains, are we living with generosity towards everyone, ensuring our industry is above reproach, the way we move in the world respects the vulnerable, and our legacy will be one of striving for a goal not always measured in earnings per share.

A question before us, do we approach the table to which Jesus invites us knowing full well that it is crowded by those with whom we do not like or are of common mind about masks, presidential candidates, or racism. And yet, everyone is there.[4]

On the cross of Christ, once and for all, and for all eyes to see, the heart of God is laid bare, teaching us that we are called to obey God’s love.

God does not play a zero-sum game with covenants, as if divine blessings were a scarce commodity.

By hearing the love song God sings we are invited to join our voice, singing loudly, in harmony, and for all to hear.

[1] Marvin Chaney, “Whose Sour Grapes?  The addresses of Isaiah 5:1–7 in the Light of Political Economy,” Semeia, no. 87 (March 1999), 105.  http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=6539668&site=ehost-live.

[2] Jay Emerson Johnson, “Theological Perspective of Isaiah 5:1-7,” Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), pg. 126.

[3] Jason Zweg, “The Daughter of a Slave, She Built a Bank, The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, September 26–27, 2020, B2.

[4] Inspired by commentaries from WorkingPreacher.org.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=162