Making wine


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Making wine
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!

Matthew 21:33-46
21:33 "Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.
21:34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.
21:35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
21:36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.
21:37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.'
21:38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance."
21:39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
21:40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"
21:41 They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."
21:42 Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'?
21:43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.
21:44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."
21:45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.
21:46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.


When we read scripture, we have not only the wall of language to scale, but the hedge of culture to push through. Though our roots are in the culture of the Bible, we are far removed from it. We no longer live in a peasant culture like the one described in our readings today.

Both the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading are set in the reality landlord/peasant agriculture. The idea was a rich man owned the land and the tenant farmed it. The tenant gave a share to the landlord for rent and take the rest for himself.

The tenant-landlord relationship is one which I am sure all of us have taken part in from one side or the other. No doubt some here have seen it from both sides.

The landlord makes an investment. In the case of the vineyard owner in each of today’s passages, there is an investment in the infrastructure of the vineyard. Apparently you have to build walls, make winepresses, plant hedges and so forth. In return for this investment, the landlord wants a bit of the profit.

I am just guessing in all of this, because I’ve never been a landlord. On the other hand, my grandfather was a sharecropper and so I know something that point of view. The tenant depends to a certain degree on the mercy of the landlord. There are some years in which the crop is small and not enough for to by the rent. During those years, the tenant must have a patient landlord if he is to survive.

A neighbor of mine told me a story about some tenants his father had back in the old days. His father had rented out a house to a family. Winter began to come one, and his father told the tenant he’d better cut some firewood. The days passed and no firewood was cut, yet nevertheless there was smoke coming out of the chimney. At the end of the winter, after the tenants had been evicted, the awful truth was discovered. The tenants had been pulling up the floorboards and using them as firewood.

The tenants in Jesus’ parable are even worse. They kill the slaves and kill the landlord’s son.

I think most of us are canny enough to make the analogy that God is the landlord and Jesus is the landlord’s son. While we might honestly disagree, it is my opinion that Jesus is foretelling his death and the destruction of Jerusalem which follows within a generation.

The question I have is why a vineyard? This story could have been done with grain. This story could have been done with olives. Why a vineyard?
This must be what little there is left of that Southern Baptist down inside me. You use grapes to make wine. At my home church at least, we were all in denial about wine. It was unfermented grape juice because Jesus would never, ever drink wine. We thought all that the wine the Bible mentioned Jesus drinking was grape juice.

Probably Welch’s.

Yet there is no escape. It was wine.

Wine was basic to the social fabric of the Biblical society. In the story of the Wedding at Cana, written in the Gospel of John, Jesus makes about 180 gallons of top grade wine to save the newlyweds from the embarrassment of running out of wine. At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus is given sour wine on the cross.

Given the sacramental nature of wine even within the early church, it is difficult for me to believe that choice of a vineyard as a setting for this parable is an accident. The wine itself means something.

We know that Jesus drank wine instead of grape juice because wine was the means of preserving grape juice in the ancient world. Through a means they didn’t understand, the perishable grape juice was converted to something that not only would last but was of greater value.

The vineyard was a place with a purpose and that purpose was to make wine and to give the appropriate portion of that wine to the landlord.

This would be an easy place to segue to a sermon on stewardship, but that’s been done before, so I am not going to do it.

What I am going to do is to talk about making wine.

The first thing I am going to say is that it is incredibly easy to make really bad wine. All it takes is sugar, yeast, and 26 days. Such wine is incredibly sweet, and at first I thought that was good, because I’ve always associated sweetness with tasting good, but I’ve discovered that I like something with just a little more nuance.

I am not the first person to make this observation. As I look out on faces, I see a good deal more understanding of this matter than many of you might want to be made known in church. You are welcome to share your preferences by whispering them to me on the way out.

One person who voiced the same preference was Jesus. We’ve all heard the parable about putting new wine into old wine skins. In Luke there is another sentence that doesn’t appear in Matthew or Mark and it says, “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, “The old is better.’”

Jesus was attempting a renewal movement of first century Judaism by wooing the poor peasants and Samaritans who had been disaffected by Temple Judaism. It is my belief he was approaching them with his message in an accessible fashion so that they might from there grow to appreciate the rich traditions of classical Temple Judaism.

An ancient tradition with rich, nuanced practice of Temple worship was the aim, but the people would never appreciate it if they didn’t come through the door.

I like the parallel between religion and wine. Some religion is really sweet. Everything always happens for the best. God always protects his children. It is so sweet because it is in complete denial of reality. As I said, it is very easy to make incredibly bad wine.

On the other hand, there is the drier religion. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we’d like them too, and they are not the best for anybody. Sometimes good people suffer. But in the midst of bitter reality, it is our job to offer Christ.

Our position now is the same as Jesus’ was. We wish to offer this better Way to those we meet. In the beginning we offer new, sweet wine, but we hope to lead them to the best wine, aged and ancient, full of wisdom. However, they will never get a chance to even taste that old wine if they don’t come through the door.

Winemaking is a continuous process. You are always making new wine and then letting it age. The wine must be drunk or it will turn into vinegar. It is not to be hoarded. It must be shared or it will be lost.

Our Father, you have planted us a vineyard. You cleared it and planted choice vines. Help us to be worthy tenants so that we may give you your due and bring others to the appreciation of the old wine.