Back to Index

Listen to sermon by clicking here:

When the Grapes Sour
October 4, 1981

First United Methodist Church of Modesto


One of the advantages of growing up in Minnesota is Snow Day. When you wake up in the morning and it's snowing, you immediately rush and turn on the radio. All the time you're dressing and eating breakfast, you have an ear glued to the radio hoping that they will announce that your school is closed. And when you hear the name of St. Francis, an uproar of joy goes through the house! One day when I was 11 years old, we had such a Snow Day. It was my mother's birthday. She worked and didn't get home until about three or four in the afternoon so I decided I would bake her a birthday cake. This was in the days before boxes. You kids have never heard of a cake that wasn't made with a box but in the old days we made cakes from scratch, not chicken scratch either. I made a layer cake with the frosting nicely laid out on the top. I was industriously working on the side with a knife to get the frosting around the cake, not realizing it was moving closer and closer to the edge of the table until kerplunk over it went. It hit the chair, fell on the floor, and the dish broke, shattering glass all through the cake. What do you do when your best plans fail? As an 11 year old, I left it for my mother to clean up. 

There are other options when your plans fail, when the cake breaks, when the grapes sour. Our scripture lessons today give us several options of what to do. First, when the grapes sour, when the cake breaks, press on. Paul was writing to his favorite church, the church in Philippi. He had a love relationship, a joy relationship with that congregation. He was now in prison and probably had a good idea that he was going to be executed. He wrote his last letter back to the church at Philippi. It's filled with warmth, joy and love as he remembers, as he reflects on his llfe. In the passage that was read from chapter three, he looks at his life and says, “I have not made it to perfection but I press on. I am still running.” When there is defeat, when the grapes sour, press on, pick up the pieces and continue toward the goal. 

Neil Postman writes of a student who dealt creatively with a college rejection letter. He wrote this letter to the college. “Dear Admissions Officer, I am in receipt of your rejection of my application. As much as I would like to accommodate you, I find I cannot accept it. I have already received four rejections from other colleges and this number is in fact over my limit. Therefore, I must reject your rejection and as much as this might inconvenience you, I expect to appear for classes on September 18.” I don't know what happened but what a great attitude! I press on, undaunted, undefeated, I press on. 

Secondly, when the grapes sour, there do come times to forget the past. Paul wrote, “Forgetting what lies behind, I press on.” There may come times when a decision must be made to let it be, let it lie there, wash your hands of it and go on. Our Old Testament lesson very graphically illustrated this principle. Isaiah told the story of the rancher who planted a vineyard. He built a hedge to keep off the animals. He cleared away the stones. He planted the best vines. He made the wine vat and he waited for the harvest. But, when the harvest came, the grapes were sour. What do you do when the grapes are sour? Isaiah said that this rancher tore down the hedge so the animals could get in and trample the vineyard. He ceased to hoe. He ceased to prune. He let the weeds and the briars take over the patch. He said, “I will make it a waste.” 

Then Isaiah applied this lesson to history. He said the vineyard is likened to the nations of Israel and Judah. The Lord is the rancher. And when Israel and Judah produced sour grapes, when Israel and Judah failed to produce fruit, when they ceased to do God's will, when they became obsessed with their riches and exploited and oppressed the poor people, when they took advantage of the poor people, when they did not seek justice, kindness and mercy, when as a nation, they contaminated the worship of the Lord with the worship of the god Baal, then God will make you a waste. And Isaiah’s predictions came true. Israel and Judah were both conquered by foreign powers. They ceased to be nations. They ceased to be instruments of God's will. They became wastelands. 

Sometimes the decision must be made to give up, and to go on because God gives up. We call that judgment. God gave up on those nations. And God gives up on churches and nations who cease to do his will, who cease to be his people. God doesn't ultimately give up his mercy and his grace. God always loves us, pleads with us and calls us. But God does give up on us as instruments of his word. When his people fail to do what he's called them to do and to be, he gives up and goes on to seek and create new ways and new plans. There comes a time when the grapes sour to forget the past. 

Thirdly, when the grapes sour, focus on the prize, the goal. Paul wrote, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God.” A momentary defeat can be accepted and assimilated when the focus is on the goal, on the prize, That gives certainty and confidence to attain the prize and to accept whatever defeat may happen, especially as Paul goes on and points out something very interesting. Paul says he was able to focus on that prize which sustained him even through his death. He could focus on the prize because that prize had first of all captured him. He wrote, “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” The Jerusalem Bible’s translation says, “I am trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured me.” The Good News translation says, “That I may grasp inasmuch as I was grasped.” He was first of all grasped, captured, and the prize called him and pulled him forward. He was sustained and nurtured. Christ Jesus reached out and captured him. And then his life was spent attaining that goal. It was not just all his own energy because God had first claimed him. 

As you live your life, may your relationship with Jesus Christ be strong. May Christ be the center of your life that calls you, pulls you and gives you sustenance, courage and ability to persist, to press on, to forget what doesn't work and to press on to the goal, which first of all, grasped you by Jesus Christ. 

Fourthly and last, when the grapes sour, remember your brothers and sisters in the Lord. This is a beautiful letter that Paul wrote to the Philippians. Throughout this letter, and especially just preceding this passage and ending this passage, he talks about “my dear friends, my dear people.” The love that he experienced with those people was sustaining him as he faced his death. And when he came to that ultimate defeat—his execution—he could endure it and face it, because he called upon, he reached into the supportive loving community called the church at Philippi. That love helped him meet his need. 

Today is World Communion Sunday. When you come forward to receive the body and the blood, you are not alone. You do not come as an individual person. You come as part of God's family. All of us here are your brothers and sisters. We all care about you, and will support you in your journey, in your pursuit. 

Praise God as we gather and kneel here today, we are not alone. Christians around the world are communing. When I went to Japan as a missionary, the first Sunday I was there was World Communion Sunday. I didn't understand a word and it didn't matter for I was part of that community. And I knew you were communing back here. When we were in Australia two years ago, the first Sunday of October was World Communion Sunday and all Christians of Australia are gathered today. 

We are linked through Jesus Christ to people all across this world. May that link give us courage to live our lives. May that company of hosts cause us to do God's will, to speak to this world, bring it to peace, justice and righteousness for all people. What a glorious opportunity we have! What a grand people we are a part of! 

When the grapes sour, when the cake breaks, press on, sometimes forgetting the past, but focusing on that goal which has first grasped you, remember you are not alone. We are all in this together.

© 1981 Douglas I. Norris