Weekly Seeds: Song for the Vineyard

Sunday, August 14, 2022
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost | Year C

Focus Theme:
Song for the Vineyard

Focus Prayer:
Love, let us hear the beauty of your song, the promise and the challenge. May we sing a new song back to you, full of commitment, thanksgiving, love and hope. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Isaiah 5:1–7
5 Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 5:1–7 and Psalm 80:1–2, 8–19
Jeremiah 23:23–29 and Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29–12:2
Luke 12:49–56

Focus Questions:
1. What is your favorite song? How do the lyrics speak to you?
2. How does it make you feel?
3. What song do you hear God singing to you now?
4. What song would you sing back?
5. What song would you like to co-create with God?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Has anyone ever written a song for you…about you? I’ve been introduced to songs titled with my name, written for or about some other “Cheryl.” I’ve heard their melody or listened to their lyrics and attempted to imagine the person who inspired them. Once, I was at a poetry reading, and one of the featured poets (whom I had just met minutes before) dedicated a poem to me. It was quite the experience. He looked at me most of the time while he recited the words. I felt like everyone was looking at me. My heart beat faster and it felt as if all the blood in my body rushed to my face. At the same time, I kept perfectly still as if I was trapped–or maybe held–in the moment. That poem wasn’t written with me in mind, but it came to his mind during our conversation. I have never felt more exposed, and this happened by a stranger who had only gotten a glimpse of me.

Imagine how the people of the covenant felt when they first heard the words of this song. How excited the words of the first first made them. “Let me sing for my beloved…” the prophet begins. It’s clear that this love song comes as a message through Isaiah from their God. Who wouldn’t want to hear of the Holy One’s love? I imagine their hearts began to race, smiles transformed their faces, and even their posture improved.

Only the prophet keeps singing.

Isaiah 5:1–7 begins innocently enough. The prophet appears at a public gathering and begins to sing like he’s some sort of minstrel. On the surface, the song seems to be about the singer’s friend and his vineyard. Anyone, however, who had been listening to Jerusalem’s Top 40 in the eighth century B.C.E. knew that it was really a love song. The vineyard metaphor for the bride is found in Song of Songs 8:11–12. Assyrian and Egyptian songs are known to have similar themes of making an orchard or field fruitful. Isaiah sings of preparing the vineyard, and everyone smiles because they know the code. They understand that it is not about a vineyard and owner at all; it is about a bride and groom. They let their guard down because there is a certain comradery that comes from sharing secret meanings. (Gary W. Light)

This love song takes a turn. So many of the great ones do. They evoke tears as they articulate the aches that love can bring when it is unrequited, unappreciated, and unwanted. When the ballad bemoans love lost, we grief the memories we will not make and the moments that will never come. I haven’t accessed any quantifiable research on this, but it seems like most songs about love are cloaked in sadness, pain, and even despair. There are plentiful exceptions, of course, and they get sung at weddings and other celebrations of love. But, the great love songs speak more of heartbreak than blossoming and more pain than joy. This song Isaiah sings for the vineyard fits that category.

The amount of effort and the expectation of fulfillment in this relationship were incredible. Then the tune suddenly turns sour. The select vines so lovingly cared for produce putrid, rotten grapes!….As soon as the love song breaks down into an accusation, the singer changes from the “best man” to the bridegroom/farmer himself. He calls to the listeners, “Judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (5:3–4). Perhaps the people were thinking of what to do with that kind of a vineyard….The people were involved in the story line and they knew that the bridegroom/farmer was not the one at fault. Isaiah himself does not pause to consider the various responses of his audience. He delivers the message of what the bridegroom/farmer has already decided to do. The protective hedge will be removed, and the grapes will be eaten by anyone who would want them. The stone wall will be broken down, and the vines will be trampled down by people taking shortcuts across the hillside (a more likely fate for bitter grapes than that of being eaten). No more energy will be wasted in the cultivation of the vineyard, and it will quickly be overgrown with choking briars and weeds. Finally, and with this we know that Bridegroom is spelled with a capital B, the speaker will “command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it” (5:6). The minstrel is a prophet and YHWH is his “beloved” Bridegroom/Farmer. Who else but God can command drought as punishment? (Gary W. Light)

In some ways, the Holy One asserts themselves as sovereign to a people who have been and will continue to be subjected to the earthly rule of a more powerful adversary. In Isaiah, the people are not encouraged to fight or to flee. Rather, they have been called to remember and affirm that their God is sovereign of all. Despite occupation or captivity…displacement or exile…conquering or capitulation, the Holy One will provide and sustain them through it all. Their survival and flourishing depends upon trusting in the One who has proven to be trustworthy. The reign of God and the realm of God function like the love of God…they endure forever.

That is the promise of the covenant, which stands as a solemn pledge and agreement no matter the human condition. Even sad love songs remind us that the emotions and commitment of the faithful one do not abate because of the infidelity of the other party. Even as the Divine Lover accounts the wrongs, God still refers to her people as “my beloved.”

The actions to come are consequences not vengeance. Part of loving their people entails holding them accountable for their decisions. It’s interesting that even their dreaded enemy, the Assyrians, had a tradition of love ballads from the deities they worshipped. I suspect they also had songs of judgment. It would be even more interesting to compare the differences. What I find most fascinating, particularly considering the vine-branch imagery Jesus introduces during the New Testament era, is that this was not a song for the vine or for the branches. Not even the grapes were the direct subject or object of this ballad.

The vineyard was the place they gathered. At the time, the people of Israel and Judah represented both a national identity and a religious community. There was no separation. The vineyard, by extension, represented the territory of the nations and the sacred spaces of the community. The people won’t be overcome, but those places will become wasteland. Afterall, the only point of a vineyard is to produce fruit. Sometimes, the land has to turned over in order for new plantings to flourish. This is not a judgment for all time, but a correction for a season in order for God’s beloved–God’s “pleasant planting”–yield fruit again.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Pray You Catch Me”
You can taste the dishonesty
It’s all over your breath
As you pass it off so cavalier
But even that’s a test
Constantly aware of it all
My lonely ear
Pressed against the walls of your world
Pray to catch you whispering
I pray you catch me listening
I’m praying to catch you whispering
I pray you catch me
I’m praying to catch you whispering
I pray you catch me listening
I pray you catch me
Nothing else ever seems to hurt
Like the smile on your face
When it’s only in my memory
It don’t hit me quite the same
Maybe it’s a cause for concern
But I’m not at ease
Keeping my head to the curb
Pray to catch you whispering
I pray you catch me listening
I pray to catch you whispering (whisper, whisper)
I pray you catch me (whisper, whisper)
I pray you catch me
I pray you catch me (praying)
I’m praying you catch me
What are you doin’ my love?
— Beyonce Giselle Knowles / James Blake Litherland / Kevin Garrett

For further reflection:
“There are basically three types of songs: loved songs, unloved songs, and transitional songs written by tired people in between the two. Love songs are cheesy, unloved songs are depressing, and transitional songs are poetry. Transitions catch the world on fire, touching on relevant topics while speaking with giddiness and despair of the lover between.” ― Ace Boggess
“Listen closely. Even the trees exhale sweet love songs that roll off their boughs and echo out to all of creation. Love is always in the air.” ― Cristen Rodgers
“Mine was the twilight and the morning. Mine was a world of rooftops and love songs.” ― Roman Payne

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.