Sermon: Wild Grapes

The Fruits of the Vineyard

A Sermon for Calvary United Methodist Church, Arlington

August 18, 2013

Sermon Video available at this link.



Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

80:8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.

80:9 You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.

80:10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;

80:11 it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.

80:12 Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?

80:13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.

80:14 Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine,

80:15 the stock that your right hand planted.

80:16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.

80:17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Isaiah 5:1-7
5:1 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.

5:2 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.

5:3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.

5:4 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?

5:5 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.

5:6 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.

5:7 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; righteousness, but heard a cry!



Oh, how I love this season, food wise.  You can come home from the farmers market and have an entire meal from raw fruit and vegetables picked that morning.  You can put up pickles from backyard summer squash as big around as your arm. You can stain your whole face red from raspberries and blackberries.  You can have salad every single day from backyard kale and still have too much kale. Your neighbors can give you a five pound bag of plums because they can’t keep up with what their trees are making.

On a recent Wednesday Zac and I came back from the farmers market and ate peaches.  Ridiculous, big fuzzy ripe juicy peaches. He said his favorite food in the whole wide world was a ripe juicy peach.  

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, amen?

In every season of abundance there is sadness, though.  Our downstairs neighbor is famous up and down our street for his tomatoes.  Most years they are prolific and they ripen at the size of softballs and we have to sneak out half of what he insists we take and give them to other people, under cover of darkness.  But last year and this year, about half of the tomatoes have blossom end rot.  The fruit goes bad before it ripens.

“He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.”

Now, here’s where there’s a problem with translation.  Wild grapes sound just fine, don’t they?  Wild grapes, couldn’t you just make a nice jam out of them?  They sound like honeysuckles, beach plums, the shallots that volunteer in your compost.

Wild grapes, the way Isaiah and the vineyard keeper mean it, are not surprise delicacies.  No, what’s translated as ‘wild grapes’ are actually inedible, entirely unusable, and they smell bad.  

God the gardener, fertilized the soil from which ancient Israel would grow.  Planted and watered and tended the garden. Watched the plants reach up toward the sun.  Waited for the fruits of God’s own labor to emerge. God loved the garden. And, according to the prophet’s metaphor, the fruit was bad before it could even be harvested.  The ancient Israelites did wrong in the sight of God, who had chosen them and blessed them, turned the soil and watered the garden.

In this passage, there is some wordplay built into the Hebrew that is not apparent in English…but makes the text even more poignant.

“First, the sweet wine that God desires was justice (mishpat), but instead, the people produced bloodshed (mishpach)….Second, God also anticipates “righteousness” (tsedeqah) but has instead heard only a “cry” (tse‘aqah).”

Isaiah does not hesitate to tell us what ancient Israel did, that they might be labeled smelly and inedible and spoiled.  “they [did] not defend the cause of the widow and orphan (1:23), they coveted and stored up wealth for themselves (1:29), they oppressed the poor (3:14-15), they acquitted the guilty and deprived the innocent of their rights (5:23).

God, by contrast, called the people to act with kindness, mercy, respect, righteousness, justice.

And the people produced bloodshed.  They were violent and greedy. That doesn’t sound familiar at all.

And God said, I’m going to rip out the vines and dry out the vineyard and O mercy.  The people were in trouble. The people are in trouble.


Let’s rewind to the beginning of this passage.  It starts as a love song.  Isaiah loves God, and God the divine gardener loves the vineyard.  Quickly it turns into a sad country ballad, but this chapter is rooted in the idea that God loves the people.  

God loves the garden that has grown up. God’s love is what has nurtured the plants.  God loves the people. You can be angry at those whom you love, but Love endures even anger.  

Thank goodness we have the rest of Isaiah, to remind us that another day is coming, for the people.  “11:11 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people…”

The prophets, even when they are calling the people out for their misbehavior, remind the people of God’s love.  I’m thinking of Hosea 11,

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?…
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath,” (vv. 8-9).

Season after season, the gardener replants.  Offers the people new guidance and love, mercy and second and third and fourth chances.  God’s mercy endures forever. Praise God from whom all mercy and blessing flows.

Remember the psalmist this morning prayed, “Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.”

Are we, the fruit of God’s garden, sweet grapes or wild, stinky ones?  Do we feel the strong hand of God on our shoulders, steadying us, guiding us?  Do we bear fruit worthy of the divine gardener?

80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; God, give us life, and we will call on your name.

80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Think on it: God’s strong right hand, steadying us.  God’s loving voice calling us back from the brink.  The gardener does not just scatter the seed, randomly, and come back at the end of the season.  

And yet.  We are called to bear, and to be, fruit worthy of God’s love.

This image, of fruit worthy of the divine gardener’s efforts, runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian testament.  

Jesus says, we will be able to recognize righteous prophets “by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) and he says, The kingdom will be “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”  Matthew 21: 43

But, God is not just the gardener, separate from the plants.  Think about John 15 in which Jesus gives us his gardening lesson:

1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…5 I am the vine, you are the branches.

When the grapes couldn’t grow on their own, God did even more work in the vineyard.

There is something about being one fruit, on a vine with many others, in a garden full of plants, all connected to a strong vine and rooted in good earth, all tended by the great gardener, that ought to give us comfort.  We are not alone. We live in God’s world. We are part of God’s good garden. Christ is the vine, and we are the branches, and we can bear good fruit. We can be God’s sweet, wonderful grapes.

There are so many ways Calvary church is a sweet harvest for God: as I was writing this sermon, I read of the gun buy back program that this congregation is sponsoring in town.  That’s just one place where you are turning away from a culture of violence and offering a word of mercy in our community. And it is poignant indeed to see churches turning swords into ploughshares and guns into groceries.  Your youth and mission team traveled to (Kentucky and West Virginia) on a mission trip this summer, and your summer vacation bible school is focused on Heifer Project this year. Good grapes and abundant sweet fruit, indeed.

Today I’m wearing a stole made by my sister, for the occasion of my ordination a decade ago.  It is embroidered on one side with a cross, and on the other, with a vine and branches. It reminds me that I – that we – are connected to the strong roots of the vine of Christ.  There is a strong right hand on our shoulders. There is a gardener pruning and fertilizing, watering and tending, guiding our vine up and over the grape arbor. There is a gardener, expecting us to bear fruit.  Good, sweet tasting, healthy fruit. Fruit that looks like justice, mercy, and love.


Friends, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Let us go forth to be God’s good, sweet fruits. Amen.