“Sour Grapes, and Other Disappointments”
Isaiah 5:1-7 ~ Rev. Gabrielle Suedfeld ~ Northwood UC ~ August 14, 2022
I have a confession to make. As a child, I was disobedient. In order to keep peace in my family, I usually agreed to the rules, and then went off and did what I thought was best. I didn’t do it on a regular basis as a matter of principle; only when I determined that the rules were too strict, or when all my friends assured me that they were: staying up until 9 o’clock, crossing the street in the middle because no cars were coming, eating chocolates on the way home from school, applying lipstick and face powder in the washroom of the movie theatre or pizza place and rubbing it off before they got home. Stuff like that. We all do it.
Every summer we went to visit friends who lived in a lovely little town nestled in the mountains of upper New York State. Their three children had a lot more freedom than my sister and I did, because their community was safer. I was able to be very rebellious there! One day, our parents bought three huge jugs of fresh apple juice, straight from an orchard. Everyone loved it. Those of you who buy local apple products know that it bears no resemblance to the stuff on the store shelves in cans and boxes, which has to be kept refrigerated when opened. Fresh apple juice is dark and thick and drunk at room temperature.
It is an experience not to be missed. The first jug was wonderful. With four adults and five children imbibing, it lasted just one day. Pure essence of apple. Two days later, when we opened the second jug, it had a different taste; tangy, slightly fizzy, a bit lighter. Also very delicious. It was finished in a hurry. We children were told to leave the third jug alone, on the back porch. I was consumed with curiosity: would it be like the first juice, or the second? I snuck downstairs one morning very early, before anyone was awake, and opened the last jug. I took a glass very quietly from the kitchen, and poured carefully. And drank it, all at once.
I was almost knocked against the wall. My eyes were streaming, my ears were ringing, and I was convinced that my throat had dried up completely, and I would never speak again. God had punished me for my sin. Well, not exactly. The juice had turned to vinegar. I think the adults were hoping for hard cider, but nature didn’t cooperate with that jug. I stand here as a living witness to the benefits of apple cider vinegar: it will clear your sinuses, and just about everything else, in seconds. It will keep children from speaking, for at least ten minutes, and may even quell their curiosity and disobedience for as much as...three days. A wonderful, all round remedy to keep children in line. And very nice in salad dressing, too. I’m not so sure about the other health benefits.
Just last week there was an article about Hollywood notables who swear by this remedy, but I don’t think it has much medical backup. That’s up to you. Today, the prophet Isaiah offers us a wonderful poem, not about apple cider, but about the disappointment of the owner of a grape vineyard, whose vines yield wild fruit. After all the care taken, the grapes are small, and sour, and useless. Not even good for vinegar or medicinal purposes. Think of it: waiting a whole season, nurturing the crop, doing everything right, and getting sour, gritty fruits instead of the expected juicy, healthy product. In one moment, the anticipation turns to sorrow, disappointment and anger. The song of the vineyard begins as a love poem, maybe set to a popular tune, a ballad for the wine festival. But then the tone changes, as the beloved friend betrays the lover. God has been deceived by the people, who offer disobedience and selfishness in place of love, faithfulness and concern for one another.
Hebrew poetry is magical. It uses imagery, puns, anagrams and two liners which reinforce one another, to get the point across. In a splendid play on words, Isaiah says: Instead of justice, bloodshed, instead of righteousness, a cry. This doesn’t have the same impact in English as it does in Hebrew, where the words read: instead of mishpat, mispah; instead of tzedekah, se’akah. To help us appreciate this better in English, the Jewish Publication Society translates the couplet: God hoped for justice, and instead, injustice, God hoped for equity and instead, inequity.
What we have here is a courtroom drama: a neutral third party begins the testimony: “my friend had a vineyard and took care of it.” Then suddenly, the congregation, who are listening to the song, become both jury and accused, facing God who indicts everyone in the room, and pronounces a harsh judgement. God has expected a sweet crop, and tasted only gritty sour fruit. But God’s voice has not been silenced. God’s people have refused to be fruitful, and have allowed their faith and compassion to dry up and shrivel. They are a failed crop, in spite of all God’s loving care. Christopher B. Hays describes the situation in the Kingdom of Judah as a time of unjust treatment of others, “characterised by violence, deceit and greed… The perpetrators are not foreign enemies, but the very countrymen of the oppressed.” The following verses “leave behind the agricultural metaphor and expand the sins of the condemned people:… “Having been given everything they needed to flourish, the Judahite elite instead hoarded more than they need, forcing their neighbours out of their houses and off their land. Driven by unholy appetites, they overconsume and fall into debauchery.” V.11-12 .(Workingpreacher.org/commentaries/ordinary-27, Oct. 8, 2017)
Last Monday, when I began to develop this reflection, I thought I knew where I was going, but by Tuesday, things had taken an interesting turn. I had planned to include examples of some of the many problems we are facing: the effects of climate change, the heatwaves, the wildfires, the latest covid information, the frustrations of travel. Then there was the startling news from the U. S. about secured documents being kept at the former president’s personal home. But I’m not going to talk about any of that today. Because something else touched my heart, and continues to trouble me, so I changed everything around. It was the images of people on East Hastings Street in Vancouver, being told to literally fold up their tents and go away.
Now, I worked at First United for one summer, in an upstairs office, as registrar for Camp Fircom. I walked along Hastings Street every day, I talked to the people on the soup line in the morning at the church. I got whistled at, sometimes there was inappropriate verbal communication, but it was a community of people who supported one another in their basic needs. I never felt threatened or in danger, even at night.
I hadn’t been down in that area for many years, because my ministry took me to other parts of the city or the province. Last year, I drove through with my daughter, and she said “be prepared, things have changed”. And they certainly had. Now, there were boarded up buildings, graffiti all over, young people in the streets, others lying down blocking the sidewalks. But they are not the wild grapes!
The unfruitful vineyard is the attitude, not just of the government, which always seems to move too slowly, but of everyone in this province who thinks that the situation of the homeless is their own fault, Or that someone, somewhere - but never me- should do something about this. A few years ago, when I used this passage, I mentioned something about the situation in Victoria: “Victoria has closed down the last of its “tent city on the lawn”, but the news doesn’t say yet where these people will go” and left it at that, because I was concentrating on other issues.
It still hasn’t been dealt with. Anywhere! We seem to have the idea that if we push people away from our doorways, they will just evaporate, disappear to a place where we don’t have to look at them anymore, and we can get on with our comfortable lives. This is not a problem, it is an offense in the eyes of God. We need to get people off the streets and into shelter that is appropriate for their various social and medical conditions, but the reaction is always the same, in Vancouver, in Langley, in Surrey, in Charlottetown, in Halifax: we want them someplace else, just go away, but we don’t make plans for where to place them. Last week, people in Vancouver were offered storage space for their meagre belongings. But you can’t live in a storage locker.
We can look at our local communities, and know that we could do better. But instead of compassion, so many write in the letters to the editor complaining about what a nuisance it is, “it’s a blot on the landscape, it’s bad for business”. Three years ago there was a proposal that an unused motel in the Langley Meadows area (where I live) might be refurbished to offer supportive housing for people in the Langley area. There would be staff 24 hours a day, and other services to help people find permanent housing.
The community information meeting that ensued was a difficult one. People voiced concerns about safety of children, needles in schoolyards, violence, drug use - all the standard NIMBY complaints, mostly unreasonable in that particular proposal. There was hooting, stamping feet, angry voices, rude language.
There were a lot of us there who just shook our heads: “these are our neighbours!” It went through anyway, with support from many community organizations, and there have been very few problems, while many singles and small family groups have received safe housing and social support. We need more of this, and less misinformation.
The Pacific Mountain Regional District, supporting First United Church in its protests about treatment of the homeless in the DTES earlier in the month said: “We stand with DTES residents, organizers and community activists. Residents of the Hastings Street tent city and all unhoused individuals facing extreme poverty need and deserve safe, affordable and appropriate housing now. Violence against and displacement of people who live in poverty is pervasive in Vancouver and throughout the province. It is inexcusable that community members continue to be displaced by government bodies without being provided realistic alternatives to safe and secure shelter…The DTES and our neighbours within it deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. Systemic change is needed now to decriminalize and end cycles of poverty. Affordable housing is desperately needed and displacement is inhumane without safe alternatives provided…”
We need experienced people to listen, and to develop an infrastructure before we push people out of the way as though they were litter on the streets. Sometimes I think we take better care of stray animals than we do people looking for shelter and support. Here is the passage from Isaiah, right in our faces! We are destroying God’s beautiful vineyard with our fears and prejudices. All God’s people deserve food, clothing and shelter. Here is the good news: we can rebuild, replant, regrow and become a blessing to others.
We are agents of healing, proclaiming truth and justice and living in right relationship with God and the world. It may take a major paradigm shift – a whole change in attitude and priorities, in our expectations of how we should live, what we deserve, in the western world, before change can come. In so many ways, we are much like the people Isaiah was addressing. We have too much, and we forget how blessed we are. We see corruption in government, misuse of funds, empty promises, and there’s so much going on that we can’t possibly keep up with it to protest. After a while, we lose heart. And no single one of us can solve all these problems, so sometimes we just turn off the TV, or recycle the newspaper after reading the sports page.
The Good news is that God has placed before us in this prophetic message the pattern for our own healing. With God’s help, it is within our power to change, to reform, to repent, and to flourish. God has not given up on us; let’s not give up on ourselves. The prophets continued to speak out even when things looked hopeless. This week, find an issue in the news that’s close to your heart. Follow it for a few days, look at the responses in letters to the editor or comments from google news. Pray for the people involved.
As we remember the call to justice and righteousness, as we look for signs to guide us, as we reach out to one another, may we keep these passages in mind. To alert us, to warn us, to offer us, not an easy peace, but the challenges of living together and forming a faithful community which answers God’s call and shows the world what can be done when we are just, and righteous and kind.