The Vineyard of Righteousness – Isaiah 5.1-7 / Psalm 80

August 18, 2013 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost

   Psalm 80 is the cry of God’s people. They are experiencing God’s absence and they raise their voices to protest. “We are the vine you planted and cared for. Why have you torn down the walls of the vineyard so that we are destroyed? Why are you ignoring our cry for help?” The people are so bold as to call on God to repent. “Turn again” they say. “Don’t turn your face away from us any more. Save us.”

    The lectionary situates Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5 side by side. We might imagine in response to the cry of Psalm 80, Isaiah says, “Let me tell you a story.”
[Read Isaiah 5.1-7]

    God expected justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! The divine gardener made all the provisions for the vineyard expecting that the vines should produce beautiful, sweet grapes but instead only wild, bitter, useless grapes grew up. More literally, the Hebrew in verse two says the wild grapes were “stinkers.” In other places where that same Hebrew word is used it describes “decayed fish.”1 All the conditions were set for good grapes but what came up were bad grapes. Tilling the soil for justice and righteousness turned up a harvest of bloodshed and cries.
    The word “righteousness” translates from the Hebrew word tzedakah and is a hard word for which to find an English equivalent. The Chief Rabbi in Britain, Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference says tezdekah mashes together in a single word two ideas that we think of as opposites: charity and justice.2 Sacks relates the example of giving someone $100. If that person is entitled to the money, say it’s their wages for time worked, then giving it is an act of justice. It would be wrong not to give it. If the person is not entitled to the money, say it’s a gift for school clothes for a child whose family cannot afford them, then giving the money is an act of charity. In our English vocabulary, “a gesture of charity cannot be an act of justice, nor can an act of justice be described as charity. Tzedakah is…an unusual term, because it means both.”3
    In the theology of Judaism, we are not owners of our property because all things belong to God. We are stewards or trustees on God’s behalf. One of the conditions of stewardship is that we “share part of what we have with others in need.”4 In Deuteronomy 15 we hear this instruction: If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land…do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be….Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you…Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you,‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”5
    What is “lending enough to meet the need” which Deuteronomy directs? Tzedakah, or righteousness, means no one should be without the essentials of human existence: food, shelter, clothing. It’s not optional charity as we think of it today. It was part of Torah; the Jewish law, that could even be enforced by the courts.6 Today we could add dignity, freedom  and equality as essentials of human existence. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights7, adopted shortly after the end of World War II, has 30 sections articulating particular human rights. But even these six: food, shelter, clothing, dignity, freedom and equality are hard enough for us to manage. Righteousness means no one should be without the essentials of human existence and those “who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less.” Again, this is not a charitable suggestion. This is the way God’s people are to live. Jonathan Sacks writes, “This is absolutely fundamental to the kind of society the Israelites were charged with creating, namely one in which everyone has a basic right to a dignified life and to be equal citizens in the covenantal community under the sovereignty of God…The society the Israelites were to construct would stand as a living contrast to what they experienced in Egypt: poverty, persecution and enslavement. Their release from bondage was only the first stage on their journey to freedom. The second–their covenant with God–involved collective responsibility to ensure that no one would be excluded from the shared graciousness of the community and its life.”8
    This the tradition in which Jesus lived his life. It is the tradition from which Christianity was born.
    So God has set this up for the people, provided freedom and a covenant of life together–the metaphorical vineyard with good soil and choice vines, a watchtower and rain. And what happens? Wild grapes sprout up. There is bloodshed instead of justice. Cries instead of righteousness.
    This month marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In that speech in 1963 the country heard a collective cry for righteousness–tzedekah–the righteousness that ensures everyone has what they need to live a dignified, free and equal life. A righteousness where all the resources of the community are shared for the common good.
    Earlier, in April of 1963, while sitting in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, serving a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations, Dr. King penned a long letter to eight white clergymen in Birmingham who publicly criticized the nonviolent action taken by civil rights activists, calling on Dr. King to wait until the time was right and let the courts decide on civil rights. The letter, titled “Why We Can’t Wait” in its published form, articulated the violence done to the humanity of African Americans who saw mobs lynch their family members, who were brutalized by policemen, who had to explain to their children why they couldn’t go to the amusement park or shop in the stores with all the pretty dresses, who drove non-stop when they took a vacation across the country because there weren’t motels where they could stop and rest.9 Dr. King’s letter was an articulation of generations of bloodshed and cries because there was no righteousness and no justice. All around were stinking, bitter grapes even though the vineyard had been created to cultivate sweet, nourishing fruit.

    We don’t have to travel back fifty years to hear people crying for justice and righteousness. Looking back is a good practice to remember our history and to know that the cries of our day are not isolated from those of sisters and brother who have come before us. Today we can easily think of the stop and frisk practices in New York City; the deaths of far too many black boys and men just like Trayvon Martin but with much less press coverage; our own city with its neighborhoods segregated by race or economics or both; the enormous gap in wealth distribution in our country; the lack of access to affordable health care for millions of Americans.

    It’s enough to make us despondent and numb.

    But I keep thinking about prophetic imagination that Scott Clark peached about two weeks ago. He was drawing on the work of Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann and his book The Prophetic Imagination. Brueggemann says the task of prophetic ministry (whether it is Isaiah’s or ours) is to “evoke an alternative community” that knows the world is not limited to the way things currently are right now.
    Do you remember that line from the movie “The Mission”? It’s near the end of the movie after there is a massacre at the mission and priests and the indigenous people are murdered. Hearing the report of the massacre, the governor of the area shrugs and says to the Catholic Cardinal, “The world is thus.” The Cardinal replies, “No, thus have we made the world.”10
    The prophetic imagination says, “This is the way we have made the world but it is not the only way the world can be made.”
    Prophetic imagination also asks us to hear and feel the cries of pain in the world. We cannot let ourselves grow numb or indifferent or we will succumb to the dominant, oppressive systems of power that want us to accept that the bloodshed and cries around us are just the way the world is and there’s nothing to be done about it. We must hear it and feel it and lament the lack of justice and the absence of righteousness.
    Alongside the cries of the world, prophetic imagination invites us into a different reality. It invites us into the vineyard that God has so carefully tended and prepared for good grapes to grow and it invites us to make a place for others so they too can share in the abundance of what God intends for the world.

* * *

1 Texts for Preaching, Year C, eds., Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, Jr., James D. Newsome, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994) p470.
2 Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference – How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, (London, Continuum, 2002) p113.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
, p114.
5 Deuteronomy 15.7-8, 10-11. Cited at, accessed 15 August 2013.
6 Sacks, p114.
7, accessed 15 August 2013.
8 Sacks, pp114-115.
9 A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr
., ed. James M. Washington, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986), pp292-293.
10, accessed 17 August 2013.


I Hate Your Worship – Isaiah 1.1, 10-20 / Psalm 50. 1-8, 22-23

August 11, 2013 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

“Among both Christians and Jews, Isaiah is one of Scripture’s most well-loved and often-quoted books” says biblical scholar and our friend, retired from Louisville Seminary, Tricia Tull. “No other prophetic book is more often quoted in the Christian New Testament…no other book appears more frequently in the Jewish annual lectionary and no other Old Testament book [appears] more often in contemporary Catholic and Protestant lectionaries.”1
Isaiah, the prophet, lived in Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah. His prophetic ministry took place in the time when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria and the southern kingdom was near the brink of disaster from Assyrian invaders. Isaiah interpreted, in ethical and theological terms, “the disasters witnessed in his generation…[warning] Jerusalem that the same fate could well befall them if they remained [indifferent] to the just demands of their God.”2
While Isaiah is one of the most loved books in the Bible, it is probably not because of chapter 1, which is our text for this morning.

[ Read Isaiah 1.1, 10-20]

These are hard words. Confrontive, challenging words. In fact, both the Psalm reading and Isaiah are hard to hear.
Isaiah was talking to people who came to worship, carried out the rituals, gave their offering and then went home and lived their lives as if they had never heard of the ten commandments. And God was sick of it. Sick of the rituals, the prayers, the offerings carried as if they were a lucky charm to keep God working on their behalf. Only God didn’t play that game.
We probably all know people like this. They go to church, they profess to be a Christian but they conduct their lives and treat other people like they slept through every worship service and didn’t hear a word that was said. I know people who say they have a relationship with God but when I look at their lives I don’t know what Bible they have been reading.
As much as I would like to make this passage about other people, it’s not only an indictment about others. It’s an indictment of all of us.
Isaiah talks about incense and burnt offerings, fat and blood. We might hear that and think it’s not our worship practices which are a problem. There’s no blood here. No lambs and goats are wandering our aisles.
But in our day we could as easily be hearing these words:
“I hate your worship. Your prayers make me sick. I loathe your music. Your sermons are a sacrilege. Who asked for your offerings? Your Holy Communion stinks. I want none of it.”3 Now that hits home. That’s preaching gone to meddling, if you ask me!
Eugene Peterson in The Message translates it this way:
“I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.”
There are books that have come out in the past number of years by leading atheists and other opposers of religion, such as Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Well, the Bible has them beat by a few thousand years. God is the first and most scathing critic of religion4 and we hear that front and center in the very first chapter of Isaiah which, in the arrangement of the Bible is the very first chapter of all of the prophetic books. A sharp critique of worship leads off the entire collection of prophetic writing.
Scholar and pastor Stacey Simpson Duke says, “This is always a core problem for God’s people–the gap between our practice and our praise.”5 The religious ceremony, the showing up, the singing the words, praying the prayers, giving our money, listening to the sermons, in some ways that’s the easier part. It’s what happens when we walk out of these doors that is when the gap begins. Really, it’s when we stand up and start to interact with one another and then walk out the doors to interact with more people, that the gap begins to grow. Sometimes it’s because we’re mean, cranky, obstinate people. Sometimes it’s because we’re ordinary human beings living in a world with all manner of injustice and inequity and all kinds of pressures to meet deadlines, balance the budget, look the other way, close the deal, compromise, make the problem go away, get along and go along, don’t rock the boat, be reasonable.
And we slowly let the pearls we have held in worship slip through our fingers.
Worship, Isaiah says, has no value if it doesn’t transform us to live lives of justice and compassion. That’s what God’s complaint is–against the Israelites and against us. This isn’t a call for no worship, it’s a call for worship that moves us to pursue goodness and righteousness; that translates in our lives into “[Saying] no to wrong. [Learning] to do good. [Working] for justice. [Helping] the down-and-out. [Standing] up for the homeless. [Going] to bat for the defenseless.”6
Worship is essential for us. Worship that “requires of us an awed and candid engagement with God that is life giving, community transforming, and world altering.”7 Worship is not the only place that kind of engagement with God takes place but it certainly one of the places and it’s definitely the place where a community can be transformed to change the world.
The irony of this passage from Isaiah is that it is precisely in worship where we hear this text, critiquing our worship. And it’s in worship where we learn how God wants us to live in the world. It’s in worship that we draw strength and courage for that kind of life. And it’s from worship that we are sent to be the life-giving, transforming body of Christ in the world.
Now lest that sound too grandiose, let me tell you a story.
In 2004, a group of Presbyterians left the Presbyterian Center downtown to walk to the Taco Bell at 2nd and Broadway. They were promoting a boycott of Taco Bell until the fast food company would agree to an increase of one penny per pound to be paid to farm workers in Florida who pick tomatoes and at the time were earning about $7500 per year. The group of Presbyterians walked on to YUM! headquarters. The cause, led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, was on behalf of some of the poorest of the poor in our country.
I remember thinking at the time, “This is such a huge corporation. How is our action, that seems so small, going to make any difference?”
And yet, with continued boycotts and negotiations, the next year Taco Bell signed on with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Partnership.
A week and a half ago, during the Big Tent Conference of the Presbyterian Church, there was another protest. This time at Wendy’s at Bardstown Road and Grinstead. And in the intervening decade eleven corporations  are now participating in the Fair Food Partnership: Yum!, Burger King, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and 4 food service groups including Aramark and Sodexo. Ninety percent of Florida tomato growers also participate in the Fair Food Partnership, “a direct result of those corporate buyers saying they would only purchase from growers within the Fair Food Program.”8
For Presbyterians, that decade of work comes directly out of worship and the demand we hear in the Bible from God to seek justice and rescue the oppressed. The Reverend Noelle Damico, the Associate for Fair Food in the Presbyterian Hunger Program, said because of these actions, “there has been a structural change in the Florida tomato industry which…supplies 90% of the US domestic winter tomatoes between October and June and the improvements are affecting 100,000 workers every season!”9

Pastor and priest Henri Nouwen, wrote many books on the spiritual life. Even as a deeply spiritual person himself, he knew how easy it is to get distracted and listen to voices other than the voice of God–to let the gap widen between our praise and our practice. He wrote a lot about creating space in our lives for God to act and speak–ways we diminish that gap between our worship and the rest of our lives. He identified  three essential disciplines–or practices–for disciples of Jesus: solitude, community and compassionate service. “It is through solitude and prayer that we can stay in touch with our truest identity as [beloved] children of God. This leads into relationships with others in community where we learn to celebrate and forgive.” We can think of those relationships and celebrating and forgiving as part of the experience of worship. “Then, it is these relationships[–and our worship–] that sustains us as we reach out to serve others through compassionate ministry.”10
It’s another way of saying what we hear in Isaiah and throughout the bible and see in the life of Jesus. Solitude, community and compassionate service. None are enough in and of themselves. All are essential. Each one nourishes and sustains us for the other two. Solitude, community, and compassionate service. Marks of a faithful life. God’s way for us to live.

* * *
1 Patricia K. Tull, “Isaiah” Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd ed., eds. CArol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), p255.
2 Ibid., p256.
3 Paul Simpson Duke, “Homiletical Perspective – Isaiah 1.1, 10-20” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) p319.
4 Ibid.
5 Stacey Simpson Duke, “Pastoral Perspective – Isaiah 1.1, 10-20” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) p318.
6 The Message, Isaiah 1.16d-17.
7 Paul Simpson Duke, p321.
8 Personnel correspondence with Noelle Damico, Associate for Fair Food, Presbyterian Hunger Program, August 8, 2013.
9 Ibid.
10 Henri J. Nouwen, A Spirituality of Living, (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2011), p