New Old Parables: The Love Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard

Welcome to this post of parts of our August 2nd worship service. Video will be included on Sunday afternoon, after the 11 am service in our church building. Welcome! This is our first Sunday with masks mandated, though, thankfully, those speaking can remove them to offer their ministry.

SERMON Perhaps you could say it was ‘bait and switch’ when young Isaiah declared he would share a love song, but used the ballad to speak a severe warning from Almighty God to the people of power. ‘The Love Song of the Fruitless Vineyard.’ Let’s hear it. Isaiah 5:1-10

Too many stories can be told of people given a certain responsibility, yet then they abuse their power. The national and provincial news is filled with this. 

Isaiah’s early message to the people is this song of his dear friend’s vineyard. His beloved friend is God. In the ballad, the well-tended grape vines surprisingly produce a nasty crop – sour, wild grapes. 

As I look at a social media page about gardening, I see people all the time asking “what is this plant?” One person says: “Found some old seed in a drawer  planted it  anybody have any idea what this is    thanks”. It looks to me like ragweed! Another wrote:

Anyone know what these giant plants are amongst my beans? A friend gave me the seeds so not 100% sure other vegetables might have been mixed in. She is very knowlesge I have a feeling the seeds and possible flower that appears to be forming on top is a sign of a weed.  The plant looks like pigweed to me!

So in the fruitless vineyard. The only grapes were inedible. What we are calling the Parable of the Fruitless Vineyard speaks to the failures of the people of God in every age. The best response to such a word, such a warning, is to rise up in forgiveness and make right the wrongs.

Let me tell you a story from our history. It may not sound like ‘our’ story, but it is. The story of Huatajata, a rural place in Bolivia, South America.

When I am at my little cottage, I think of Bolivia, because of a painting on the wall. The painting of a sunset – or is it a sunrise? No matter. It was painted by Rev. Earl C. Merrick, who served as a missionary in Bolivia. He showed amazing leadership in Bolivia, in the farmland of Huatajata, in the 1930s.

Canadian Baptist work in Bolivia goes back more than 120 years, now. In the north west, on the shores of the grand lake Titicaca, some visionary people of faith invested their lives in a mission there, among peasant farmers. I’ve been there; visited ten years ago. 

Just over a hundred years ago, a thousand acre farm was bought, and named Peniel Hall: Peniel meaning ‘the face of God,’ from Genesis 32. On this land, about fifty heads of households and 275 serfs lived and worked. The Baptists believed in helping the people be educated, and be introduced to the protestant Christian faith. 

After some ups and downs in the work there, by 1920 the full administration of the farm came under Canadian Baptist leadership. The first administrator there, and one of the teachers, was a Miss Lavinia Wilson, who was from where? Digby, NS!

Other Canadian Baptists went to serve there, and to lead that work, high in the thin air of the Andes Altiplano. Modernization of the farm and education of children developed. Preaching in other communities was extended. It was in 1935 that Earl Merrick was sent to Huatajata, to be administrator. Arturo Nacho writes, in his brief history:

This illustrious missionary perceived ethical problems in the project because, on one hand, the missionaries were preaching about the love of God, and on the other hand, the tenants continued as slaves. In the Annual Reports of the Mission, 1929-1930, this situation was referred to as “a conspiracy against the gospel.”

…Merrick proposed a five-year plan for the liberation of the serfs. 

  • wage pay to the laborers, and no free labor
  • construction of decent housing
  • planting of eucalyptus trees
  • adherence to behavioural morals

The project began in 1937, and the day came when the laborers received their property title-deeds. One after another, they walked by in line to receive the property documents, and they heard the significant words, “I declare you the legitimate owner of this property.” It was the year 1942…

One old gentleman, Martin Chura, said through his tears, “Thirty years ago, when I was crossing the top of the mountain, I begged God for liberty. Today, God has answered by prayer.”

This work had universal consequences. It was the first agrarian reform in Bolivia, which the Bolivian government subsequently took as a model for the 1953 Decree of Agrarian Reform in Bolivia.

(Atruro Nacho L., ‘Agrarian Reform in Huatajata, in Bridging Culture and Hemispheres, William H. Brackney, Ed., 1997, pp. 61-62)

Appreciation and accolades for Earl Merrick, and this Baptist work, came from around the world. This is our story. A story of the reversal of the rich ones who ‘join house to house and field to field,’ as Isaiah put it. And it is the story of growing Faith in people. The vineyard of Bolivia has borne fruit for Christ.

When you read the rest of Isaiah chapter 5, you discover it is not just the greedy land grabbers who are warned. There are six woes upon those who have done wrong: the land-grabbers, the heavy drinkers, the God-mocking sinners, those who’ve lost their moral discretion, those wise in their own eyes, and the drinkers again (wine-drinking heroes, they’re called). 

As it was, almost three thousand years ago, so it is today. God expects justice from those walking with God; God expects right-living, not bloodshed and loud cries for justice!

This takes us to Jesus, and his words from Matthew 21 today. Another parable. Another vineyard. More bloodshed! Another warning. And another hope for those who will receive the Kingdom. 

To modern Christians, Jesus’ story of the Vineyard and the Wicked Tenants clearly seems to foreshadow His own rejection and violent death. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 

As if that would allow them to get the property! And yet, when Jesus dies his own death, and comes back to life, it is those whose sin He bears that do inherit the Kingdom! Think of all the evangelical Christian music that points out how Christ is crucified by all of us, and yet the heavenly inheritance is for us. Amazing, gracious, powerful, humbling, loving, incomprehensible! One modern worship song says:

Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

(Stuart Townend, 1995)

And there are many songs that speak of how “I drove the nails” when Jesus was executed. This personal expression of piety is a form of confession, I’d say. Confession that the harm and hurt inside us is what separates us from God, and is what led to Jesus’ death, and also is what is healed and cleared away by His sacrifice. 

We heard the classic rock song, “Spirit in the Sky,” composed by a secular Jew, using basic Christian teaching. For fifty years one line has caught the attention of church folk, and upset them. 

Never been a sinner I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky

(Norman Greenbaum)

Whether Norman Greenbaum knows it or not, I think he did catch the spirit of 2 Corinthians 5. For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2C5:21) I think the key to making the claim of the song is ‘I got a friend in Jesus.’ It all depends upon the Saviour. 

We hear the common teaching that what Christ does for us cleanses us, makes us to be counted as ‘not guilty,’ and sets us free from the power of sin. We become ‘right with God,’ and as if we are not sinners and had never sinned. Jesus’ righteousness gets put upon us. 

I think the tension remains. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) To sing ‘Never been a sinner; I never sinned,’ is saying something about Jesus more than about me. I rely upon God for forgiveness and freedom of spirit. It is saying something about my status now, thanks to Jesus, not about my past. 

For, as Isaiah and Jesus both preached, my story and yours is filled with the problems we heard about today. Greed. Treating other people like lesser beings. Moral failures. Paying no attention to God. Being overly confident in our own smidgen of wisdom. 

We fail, but with Jesus Christ we are not counted as failures. We are successes! And the success is shown when we bear the good fruit of the Kindom. The Bible’s story of God tells us, over and over, God will accomplish the mission – with or without us! Others will be found to join in, if we do not.

 You may remember, in other pages of the Bible, Jesus speaking of being the great vine, and we are the branches. It is we, the little branches, who bear the beautiful fruit. It is not wild, sour grapes that we bear, when we are grafted into Christ. 

And, turning our lives over, we, little twigs, get grafted in, and are part of the beautiful vineyard, for eternity. Praise God! This is worth celebrating. This is worth sharing. This is why we worship, in pew and at home. This is why we remember Jesus with bits of bread and sips of grape juice. Amen!

PRAYERS Let us   pray.

At the table of the Saviour – Christ crucified and risen – we lift our hearts in prayer. As the wheat covered the hills, and was gathered to become one bread for us today, so let Your church be gathered, no matter how separated we are for safety’s sake. As the grapes came to harvest and make one drink for us all, so let goodness flow from all your people, in the name of Jesus.

Let there be goodness for our own fellowship, especially those we are asked to pray for today… (in the bulletin)

Let there be goodness for those who do research to combat COVID-19. Do healing work through them, O God.

Let there be goodness for those who are oppressed or disrespected, abused or alone. Strengthen them, and those who support them.

Let there be goodness for people seeking guidance right now, or wisdom in the face of decisions. Come, Holy Spirit.

Let there be goodness for our province and our nation in a time of crisis, when leadership is hard and imperfect, and people working and struggling to do well are worn out.

And let there be goodness in the day-to-day things we do, the words we share, the attention we give to other people. Through the masks, may our eyes and our voices tell the story, the story of Your love and Your way, and Your purpose.

‘God of grace, you invite the despised,
you touch the unclean,
you lift the head
of those who are brought low:
give us that hope against all hope
for a world transformed
by your healing touch;
through Jesus Christ,
the mercy of God. Amen.’
(Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church)

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