Scripture reading: Isaiah 5:1-9, Translation by Rev. Jeff Mansfield
This morning, I want to us to think deeply about what it means for us, as a progressive Christian community, for the “bough to be breaking” in our country. What does it mean for the cradle to fall? For the vineyard to be torn down and the vines dried out by the fire of the sun?
In other words, what new thing is God doing right now, and are we helping it along or holding it back?
The origin of our scripture from the Hebrew Bible this morning is a song of prophecy that God gives to Isaiah at a time when Israel and Judah, the nations to which Isaiah prophesies, are in turmoil. A time of these nations engaging in sin, and destruction, and turning away from working towards the creation of God’s kin-dom. The prophecy gives a clear vision of what is happening and what is to come -- the grapes are sour – unsuitable, undesirable, unusable growth – and so the vineyard itself will be opened up to the wild outside and utterly devoured. Under the metaphor, of course, is the prophet’s message: God will not permit God’s people to continue growing rotten, unchecked, or for the fruits of their lives to be sour.
Isaiah frequently brings forward God’s charges against the people of Israel and Judah, calling for an end to injustice, for repentance, and for a return to God’s covenant. In this text, the prophet calls out the social injustice and inequality among the people of Israel and Judah in a way that would have been familiar to them – it is a poem, a well-known ballad song. They had heard the tune, so to speak. The form was well-known then, but of course not now -- and so we have my colleague Reverend Jeff Mansfield’s imagination to thank for our being able to hear the poem in a way that makes sense to us, in the same way that the original would have made sense to Isaiah’s ancient audience.
Which brings me to our modern testimony today - for what is Gibson’s poem but another way of prophesying some of the same things as Isaiah? Grapes rotting, vines drying, bough breaking, cradle falling.
Our two texts for this morning are just a small glimpse of how art and prophecy have long been intertwined, as artists have worked to convey a vision of how the would should be, could be, compared with how it actually is. Not only is God still speaking, but God has been using some of the same techniques all along. Prophets have been singing to us in our own words and to our own tunes throughout the generations so that we can actually hear and understand what God is saying.
One particular line haunted me as I learned Gibson’s poem. “Cultures built on greed and destruction do not pick and choose who they kill.” “Cultures built on greed and destruction do not pick and choose who they kill.” And then, somewhat suddenly, I heard what God was saying to me through this poet-prophet and this line: a country built on slave labor and the lands of murdered indigenous people will never be a Christian nation.
There are voices within Christianity who proclaim, over and over, that the United States is a Christian country. And there are other voices within and outside Christianity who fight back by saying no, no, the United States is not a Christian nation because it was founded for the sake of religious freedom and pluralism, and in part founded by religious skeptics.
This is not the point! The point is, the US is not a Christian nation not solely because the old, white, and yes, largely at least nominally Christian men who wrote and signed the documents didn’t intend for it to be; the US is not a Christian nation because it has, in every generation, acted in opposition to the Gospel.
Slavery and genocide of Indigenous people are in direct opposition to the Gospel.
The arming of countries around the world and throughout generations is in direct opposition to the Gospel.
Profiting off of the poorest and most marginalized people in order to fund opulence and waste is in direct opposition to the Gospel.
Showing no mercy to those who have done wrong, and persecuting those who work for justice, are in direct opposition to the Gospel.
Withholding food from the hungry, seeking praise and repayment for charity, marginalizing those who are ill in body, mind, or spirit: all of these are in direct opposition to the Gospel.
Denying women autonomy over their own bodies is in direct opposition to the Gospel -- for even the incarnation of God in human form required Mary’s consent.
So where are we all when other Christians talk about the Gospel and this country? Where are we when conservative Christians wield the Bible as a weapon in support of anti-choice laws, racist structures of power, homophobic and transphobic bills? When they wield the Bible as a weapon against feeding the poor, against healing the sick, and against promoting responsibility for not just ourselves but our neighbors? Why don’t we make signs and clever slogans about the Bible proclaiming God’s justice for all people? Why don’t we stand not just in our own authority, but also in Biblical authority, in order to call for Gospel justice, instead of American justice?
There has been a slow movement towards this claiming of moral and Biblical authority within the progressive church in very recent times, but in large part and for a long time, we have been quiet in the face of our conservative siblings. We have allowed our faith to be perceived as the fringe Gospel, the Social Gospel, Gospel-lite, or anti-Gospel.
Here, we can take another lesson from our modern testimony. At the beginning of the poem, Gibson describes being asked if they see people who aren’t really there. From the very beginning we aren’t sure whether the poet is a reliable narrator because they admit to not knowing if they have a grasp on reality.
Until. “Doctor, our insanity is not that we see people who aren’t there; it’s that we ignore the ones who are.” Until they turn the doctor’s authority on its head and claim a voice, a right, a reliability. “Doctor, our insanity is not that we see people who aren’t there; it’s that we ignore the ones who are.”
Let’s do this same thing. Let’s take hold of our Bible and our history and use it to set the world on its ear. Let’s claim the authority that we have loosed our hold on. Church, did you know that we can trace our spiritual heritage, in part, back to the early Christian settlers of New England who dissented so strongly that they had to leave their continent? Now, I’m not proposing that we leave the continent, though at this point I wouldn’t blame you if you did. But I am proposing that we dissent so strongly that we leave behind the idolatry of blind patriotism, of believing we are so particularly blessed that we do not need to look at those who we as a nation have decided simply aren’t there.
We have borne the sour fruit of complacency and of complicity with injustice and inequality, the same sins that Isaiah pronounces on the people of Israel and Judah. I propose that we leave behind our attempts to harvest sour, unsuitable fruit in favor of burning this vineyard with the bright sun of the Gospel, and letting our wild back in. I propose that we leave behind the fruitless vineyard of the American Dream in favor of God’s dream for us.
The American Dream, after all, has led us to a Gospel of Bootstrap Capitalism that allows us to justify denying people healthcare, food, and safe and affordable housing. The American Dream has led us to detaining sick children, to allowing rape culture to pervade and persist, and to continuing to ignore our deadly obsession with guns. The American Dream has led us to take a fruitful land, and to sow it with the sour, rotten seeds of injustice. None of this is new, and none of this is God’s dream for us.
I would even go so far as to say that while I do not believe that God is causing these terrible things to happen, I do believe that God may be using them for good. If we can recognize all of this as a call for us to be awake to the injustice that has been present in our country all along, and to be more prepared to say that by our faith, we know that the fruit of this United States vineyard will never make sweet wine, then we will move closer to God’s dream for us.
This, this readiness and willingness to make something completely new, is what the Gospel calls us to. This is the gospel of not one single stone of the Temple being left on another, not one single vine left unchoked by the wilderness to bear sour grapes. We can claim our authority from this Gospel and use that authority, that moral authority, to stand boldly against injustice in God’s name.
Church, the bough is breaking. The vineyard is unfruitful. No stone will be left upon another.
Will we simply put right the cradle again so it can keep falling, will we plant the same sour grapes, and rebuild the temple, stone by stone, as it continues to fall?
Or, will we listen to the call of God’s poet-prophets from Ancient Israel and today? Will we build something new that actually protects all of God’s children? Will we say, this country is not a Christian nation, but the Gospel calls us to witness to and work for equality and justice here, in this place, at this time?
Will we awaken from this American Dream?