Sermon, Holy Trinity, Lakefield, August 13th, 2016

Today’s sermon is about what happens when we don’t take care of our society and ourselves. It is about working towards social justice by doing what we can individually to promote it. The metaphor that is used throughout today’s readings, is the vineyard and the vine and I am going to continue that metaphor.

The reading that Daniele read in French is often called the “Song of the Vineyard.” It is a song, a poem, sung on behalf of the writer’s beloved. who turns out to be God. Israel is frequently called the vine in the Old Testament. So, this song about a vineyard is a poem about God’s relationship with Israel.  The song suggests that the establishment of a just society was the desired outcome of God’s relationship with Israel and that by failing to achieve a just society, the Israelites grieved God.

Very quickly, we see the parallel between Israel at the time of the Old Testament and our own society. I think I remember the phrase Just Society from our time. It was, if you remember, Pierre-Elliot Trudeau’s watchword; what he wanted to achieve.

By just society, the Song of the Vineyard is talking about social justice and individual morality. For a current example in our country, we could see how the indigenous peoples are treated by society (social justice) and how individuals behave towards the First Nations or Inuit individuals (individual morality). In the time of the writing of Isiah, the vulnerable particularly susceptible to exploitation were the widows, the orphans and the poor.

The vineyard owner, God, spares no effort or expense to ensure the productivity of his vineyard. Despite his efforts, it produced inedible, wild grapes - feral grapes. The farmer argues that he bears no responsibility for the vineyard’s poor production because he has done everything he can and is within his rights to destroy it. The harvest which God hoped for from his vineyard was a just society; the inedible grapes that God received instead were violence and oppression. It is not that different today; we live in relative peace in Canada but also in a violent and warlike world.

In the poem, the vintner’s careful cultivation of his vineyard is a metaphor for God’s care of his people. We see God’s disappointment over our inability to create a just society when, after all the care, the vineyard produces only feral grapes. “What more could I have done for it?”  God asks.

The methodical determination with which the farmer destroys the vineyard is surprising. He takes away the hedge around the vineyard and lets it go to waste, be trampled underfoot by people and animals; he refuses to prune or hoe it, and even prevents rain from falling on it.

Isaiah comparison of God to a vintner, a farmer, suggest solidarity with basic work. Concern is expressed for the plight of oppressed workers, particularly agricultural workers. We may say that we don’t have oppressed agricultural workers here in Canada but just think of the many migrant workers from Mexico and Central America who have told of working conditions which can easily be described as oppressive. And although unions do an awful lot for their members, there are many people not covered by unions and not all unions are exactly wonderful either. We don’t often use the word oppressed in Canada, but we certainly have many people working in miserable conditions. If other countries are doing worse, that does not give us an excuse for how we are doing.

Psalm 80, which Bernadine lead, is also about a vine, this one brought out of Egypt.  What happened to that vine? It certainly was protected by God. He moved the people who were occupying the land where it was to be planted, and then prepared the land. As a result it flourished, took root, filled the land, covered the mountains, grew bigger than cedars, and stretched from sea to shining sea.  

Psalm 80 is very similar to the reading from Isaiah as it describes God’s vine – Israel – that was planted and cared for so lovingly, and that became nothing but a fruitless weed. So the vineyard’s wall was broken, passing people ate the grapes like wild raspberries and wild boars ravaged the plants. Feral vines are not only useless, but also destructive. In Queensland, Australia, the feral rubber vine destroys deciduous vines, which leads to the loss of ecosystems and to the extinction of many native plants and animal species. The Dutchman's pipe feral vine is an ornamental vine that has become a weed, capable of destroying wildlife habitat. So too a feral society can destroy its habitat.

The Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea wrote of Israel as a vigorous, fruit-bearing vine gone feral. God’s plan for the prolific vine of Israel was derailed because the Jewish people failed to remain true to their covenant relationship, their contract, with God.

It’s amazing how quickly a once well-tended gardens can become a rampant wilderness through apathy and neglect - within a few weeks, as I am sure any keen gardeners here will know. Like all gardens, weeding, pruning and watering, are important aspects of gardening— together with the gardener retaining the “big picture” of what the garden should ideally look like. Even the healthiest plant will fail when neglected.

The Psalmist described the destructive powers of a boar’s attack, resulting in the devastation of the once prolific vine. Boars overturn and destroy all vegetation in their path as they search for roots and fungi, insects and nuts; through their foraging, boars change the eco-system. After a boar, plants have little hope of developing a healthy root system. We eat many root vegetables like carrots, beets and turnips and with the destruction of roots, we lose one of our sources of nutrition. Literally and metaphorically.

And lastly, Jesus describes himself as the vine.

"I am the true vine, and My Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. …  Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, …”

Turning to the gospel, it seems like the last thing we need is a gospel text that seemingly encourages more division, given the divisiveness present in our society. On the face of it, Jesus predicts exactly that - division. Yet, as we delve into the text, there are other interpretations available.

In the middle of the reading, Jesus lets those gathered know that following him will not be easy, particularly because the gospel will not always bring peace. Families were being torn apart when the gospel spread after the resurrection, because it changed everything. To continue the parallels between Israel and contemporary Canada, it is absolutely true today that declaring yourself a Christian can lead to argument and criticism.  Whether it be to attend church or engage in social justice issues, the gospel’s effects can create division. In my own family, discussion of the treatment of First Nations in Canada  leads to vehement arguments. Social justice issues are often not popular.

Within the Anglican Church, many have experienced division over another social justice issue, gay marriage, gay priests and bishops. The treatment of gay people causes huge discussions. I have to admit that discovering what I think about the position of gay people in society has taken me many years to figure out. It is easy to ignore the injustices around us, racial and otherwise. We prefer not to see what’s really happening or to take stock of our own roles in the injustices of the world.

So, in summary, what happens when we don’t take care of social justice in our society, and work individually towards it, is injustice for the marginalised, division amongst ourselves and finally discrimination and violence. We must individually do what we can to promote it. If we don’t take care of our vineyard, the vines will go feral.