God be in my mouth and in my speaking – God be in our heads and in our understanding – AMEN.
When we heard the scriptures read today, there is a danger that we were disappointed. We were promised a love song - but it all went a bit Pete Tong. Isaiah 5 may be the oddest love song you will listen to this year.
It’s a passage we need to listen closely to, because the voices we hear in the passage switch around – the first voice we hear, the one that claims to be singing a love song – we can call the voice of the prophet – he is singing for his beloved, a song about his beloved’s vineyard – his beloved had a vineyard, set on a fertile hill, open to the sun and rain – the location was perfect – it just needed some work - and setting to work the beloved one dug the vineyard, cleared the fertile soil of the stones which would blunt the plough and choke the vines – he planted it with carefully chosen varieties – cab sab or merlot and sauvignon blanc if you ask me – when the work on the soil was done, he built the infrastructure – a watchtower and a wine vat – and he expected great things of it, he expected it to yield grapes – succulent, juicy fruits which were ripe for pressing and fermenting – but it didn’t work out like that - the fruit it produced was unsettling – was unexpected, was unruly and disappointing – wild grapes – this vineyard, it turned out, was not fit for purpose.
End of lovesong. It’s not exactly Barry White – or Beyonce – it’s a song of unfulfilled love – and to press this home – the voice changes – now we hear the Beloved speak for himself.
And I think we should mark this, because we are going to find something very like it in our gospel reading from Matthew 21 – the Lord of hosts, the owner of the vineyard – the God of Israel – turns to the people – to the inhabitants of Judah and the people of Jerusalem – God turns to them and says something which we might not have been ready for – now you be the judge – you be the judges – judge between me and my vineyard.
This is the voice of a God who refuses to be simply an ethical overlord issuing commands to dumb subjects – this is the word of the Lord which summons the people of God to be an ethical community – you cannot simply sit back and be passive spectators here – you are the judge and jury of this case – what more was there to be done which was not done – and given the outcome, given the bitter harvest, given the strange fruit which has grown here – what do you have to say about it?
I looked for justice, says the LORD, but I saw violence – I looked for righteousness, but I heard the crying of the victims. You be the judge.
And suddenly we feel confused and accused – because the ones who are called by God to be the judges – in whose place we might put ourselves as we read this scripture - they and we are the vineyard – they and we are the ones who have so disappointed and dismayed our beloved.
If this has been a strange love song, we may also reckon our gospel reading to be strange good news. After that lovesong, this parable has a familiar ring – landowner, vineyard, watchtower, wine vat – only this time the vineyard contains workers, tenants – ungrateful tenants who refuse the stewardship they have been called to – violent tenants who try to maximise their own gains by sacrificing the lives of others - murderous tenants who kill the landowner’s son in an attempt to secure their own future.
And what’s striking here as in Isaiah – is that there is the same pause – the same turning towards those who are listening – the same insistence that they, that we must be involved in passing judgment – the same word from God which shows that we are expected to know and to feel something - when Jesus turns and looks us in the eye and says – what now? what happens now?
We who have already heard this one time in Isaiah, we may or may not blurt out our own indignation as the religious folk did then, or we may already sense the open wine vat we are falling into – might it be us who are the stewards who thought we could have it all – might we be the tenants with blood on our hands – could it be we are the ones who tried to run the vineyard with no thought for its owner?
So Jesus says, quoting Psalm 118 - This stone you refuse to build with – this stone will make you stumble – it will be your downfall.
And they realized that he was speaking about them…
One of you isn’t here today because they are at the (online) Festival of Preaching, in Oxford – when I was a speaker there I was struck by Nadia Bolz Weber’s firm (and very Lutheran) insistence that the work of the preacher is to bring a Word which ministers the grace of God.
Sometimes we come to the scriptures, even on a joyful occasion like Harvest thanksgiving - we open the bible and it seems to speak a hard word - the scriptures seem to bring judgment rather than grace. The danger is that we come to think of God as always asking more of us, always asking us to try harder - that we feel even worse about ourselves -
I want to think with you today about how we might face up to these uncompromising passages, and feel their hard edges, face up to the ways in which they speak truth into our lives - how we might realise the ways in which they are speaking about us - how we might do that while believing and perceiving that they come from grace and they move us towards grace!
To say that they come from grace, I want to go back to the image of the love song - I want to suggest that these two scriptures, the song of the vineyard and the parable of the vineyard, like Harvest itself - these are rooted in the love of God for creation.
At the beginning of Lent, on the day we call Ash Wednesday - a day when we hear hard words, words of judgment and challenge - there is beautiful Collect prayer which we often use, which comes from the Church of England: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…
I remember being kind of taken aback the first time I heard it and was asked to pray it - but over the years it has come to be a prayer I really treasure. To live in the world of today’s politics, especially on social media - Facebook and Twitter - is to live in an environment where you are seldom very far from encountering hate - hate speech - vicious and violent and intolerant language - racist and sexist and homophobic language - where folk on the Left and the Right let fly with how much they despise one another -
But we are here to worship the Maker who is also the Lover - O God you hate nothing you have made - we talk sometimes about the need for tough love in our own lives, in our own families, in our parenting, in our friendships - we can hear a lot, when we can take a lot, we can hear tough and hard things said to us - if we believe they are said by someone who loves us, by someone who has our interests at heart - someone who longs for us to flourish, to do well, to thrive, to be more and better than we are - who loves us as we are - but who longs for there to be a harvest from our lives - who longs for us to be fruitful.
So today, in this service where we mark harvest thanksgiving - it is the God who loves us who comes to us - who asks us to look at ourselves - who says - you be the judge, who says what now.
We have a rich harvest in our world - enough for all of us - and yet some have more than enough, and some struggle to survive - you be the judge God says - is this how its meant to be in the world I love.
We live in the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world and yet we have people reliant on foodbanks - young people who can’t buy houses, who can hardly rent houses - you be the judge God says - is this the harvest I wanted from your economy?
We are a congregation of a national church - we have millions of pounds of resources, a national staff, beautiful historic buildings in great locations - and yet we are struggling to stay afloat, to cope with decline, to reach out to our parishes - you be the judge God says - is this the harvest I wanted from the Kirk?
Or maybe some of us are meant to hear this way more personally - we have been given so much, so many opportunities, so many advantages, so much grace - and yet our lives may leave a bitter taste for those who live with us, who live near us - you be the judge God says - is this the harvest God wants from my life?
These are not easy things to hear - its tempting to react by either being despairing or defensive - but what if these come to us as words of love? Tough love perhaps but love all the same. Because if we are loved by God, if God’s love is alive and active in our world and in our lives, then maybe you and I can change. Maybe tough love prunes us like a gardener prunes a vine - maybe through facing the truth, we can find new ways to be fruitful.
We might find ourselves saying, certainly I often do, does God know how hard it is to love, and to grow and to change - we might find ourselves thinking if only the son of the vineyard owner were to come – if he were to come in humility, if he were to come with wisdom, if he were to come sit with us, come eat with us, if he were to show us how to wash one another’s feet and share the peace and share our bread and wine – if that could somehow happen, then we would listen..
We have heard hard words today in our scriptures - like those in the parable, we have realised that Jesus is speaking about us - but perhaps, by the grace of God, we have also been able to hear over again, something which sounds like a love song - perhaps, we have sensed that when God calls us to change, it is so that we can be more, not less, more fruitful, more alive, more just, more joyful, more generous, more at peace -
And if so, perhaps we are ready to end with this prayer - a prayer for when God’s voice says hard things to us, for when God’s love is tough love:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.