From our Psalm this morning, the 14th verse – Turn again, oh God of hosts. Look down from heaven and see, have regard for this vine, the stock your right hand planted.
I ask your prayers this morning and the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
If the Cathedral had a billboard outside on Wisconsin Avenue advertising the title of my sermon, I doubt the Grapes of Wrath would make passersby want to come inside and listen. And for you who receive our email blasts about upcoming Sunday preachers, I’m certain you couldn’t press delete fast enough. Perhaps if I were offering a lecture on John Steinbeck’s great American novel of the same name, but certainly not on the parable of the wicked tenants. On its face, the parable is a horror story. At least two people are beaten two stoned, three murdered, including the vineyard owners heir. And it is assumed that the landowner will seek a blood bath of revenge. This is ugly stuff. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was in a mood when he told it. You see, the day before, Jesus entered Jerusalem for the final time. Hosannas rained down on him as he paraded through the streets on a donkey. But the mood soured as soon as Jesus headed to the temple to confront the money changers. The next morning, the religious authorities accost him. Who did he think he was on? Whose authority was he teaching healing, forgiving, judging, and cursing? But instead of backing down, Jesus called out their greed and inhumanity, telling them that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God before they ever would. Of course, the parable of the wicked tenants is a thinly veiled allegory of the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, and it is shot through with judgment and wrath.
Israel is Yahweh’s vineyard. The prophet Isaiah had warned that there would be consequences when Yahweh went to harvest the fruits of his labor only to have the vineyards of Jerusalem and Judea yield sour, wild grapes. Scripture often uses the trampling of grapes as a metaphor for judgment and destruction. Listen to the violent language Isaiah uses to describe God’s anger. In the 63rd chapter, “I have trodden the wine press alone and from the peoples, no one was with me. I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath, their juice spattered on my garments and stained all my robes for the day of vengeance was in my heart in the year for my redeeming work had come.”
The goriness of grapes is most famously evoked in the book of Revelation, where an angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth and threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city. Scripture says, “and blood flowed from the wine press as high as a horse’s bridal for a distance of about 200 miles.” A Lake of blood is deep as a horse’s bridle and 200 miles long. Wow. That is something. This passage, with its apocalyptic reversal of oppression, inspired Julia Ward Howe’s famous pro-union anti-slavery Anthem of 1861, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible Swift sword, His truth is marching on.”
John Steinbeck used the lyrics of Howe’s Anthem to title his 1939 novel about the exploitation of depression era tenants. It tells the story of the Joad family, poor folk from Oklahoma trapped in the economic miseries of the dust bowl, who set their hopes on the promised land of California’s breadbasket. Upon arriving, they find the state oversaturated with migrant laborers like themselves, low wages and workers exploited by corporate farmers to the point of starvation. In the book, the “grapes of wrath” refers to the purposeful destruction of food to keep prices high. Steinbeck wrote, “In the eyes of the hungry, there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
My friends, what is it? What is it about avarice and power? What is the unmet need in us that leads us to exploit and oppress another human being for profit? Are we hardwired this way? Was Paul right when he wrote in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans. “So they are without excuse, for though they knew God, they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”
Now amidst other national calamities, we are being forced to reckon with our country’s original sin, the exploitation and enslavement of and genocide against Brown and Black bodies. There is no getting around it. My naming it does not mean that I am rewriting our history, much less than I’m unpatriotic. No, quite the opposite. It means that I love this nation of my birth, but for it to reflect the divine spark that lies within each and every American, it and the white Christian Church, including my church, the Episcopal Church, has sins to acknowledge and atone for. In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. David P. Gushee, distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University explicates this very notion in his book After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity. He says our nation’s fate was set in motion. When the 15th century conquerors from Spain, Portugal, Britain, and others began colonizing the world in the name of Christ, the rationalized heresies about the lower worth of people with darker skin and convinced themselves that God’s laws against murder, adultery, and theft did not apply to them. Gushee, who was white, writes, “we were white and Christian and European and better. They were red and Brown and Black and heathen and native and worse. While we were entitled to rule, they were slated to suffer, serve, and die.” This same narrative was used to justify antisemitism and the persecution and subjugation of Jews. And this grand delusion was the American soil in which white supremacy grew over the course of centuries. Despite the historical probability that the Aramaic speaking Jesus was a dark-skinned Semite, white men inevitably envisioned a God made in their image. As a result, God and Jesus’s whiteness has been reflected in all mediums of art through the centuries, especially stained glass and paintings. Jesus as the best and highest of human beings has remained a white man in the white imagination.
And of course, as a result, white Christians, contorted aspects of their faith, practice and the Bible to justify and accommodate themselves to the profitable institution of slavery. We’ve come a long way since, but there is still work and repentance to be done. We cannot preach that we are all made in the image of God and then muzzle ourselves when our civic leaders maneuver to secure white patriarchy, subjugate the Black and Brown vote and obfuscate our nation’s history. When we reject some of God’s people, we are rejecting the God who made them and sowing the sourest of grapes. No, the love God has for you and for me and the aforementioned politicians is so vast and merciful that we too can be free from our self-inflicted bondage. We do not have to bear the brunt of our nation’s original sin or be shamed by the color of our white-skinned or enslaved by the power that comes with it.
Sin does not own us. God does. To acknowledge the privileges of white skin does not indict us as racist, but it does mean, my brothers and sisters, that we have the responsibility to advocate for the vulnerable – widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor, and anyone considered other to ensure that they can flourish just as we have flourished. You know, I have never understood why those who call themselves Christian cannot accept the fact that in God’s sphere, there is enough to go around. There is enough to go around. From the terrible wine presses, the vestiges of white supremacy and systemic racism comes a terrible wrath. It is up to us to disavow the hubris that makes us vulnerable to the violence in judgment that we have too often brought down upon others. The mystical wine press of Christ delivers us and nourishes us with the sacrificial image that Jesus offered himself as their true vine into God’s wine press. Despair has branches – you and me from God’s wrath.
Mine eyes, mine eyes have seen the glory, the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He had to loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on glory, glory, glory, hallelujah. Amen.