Thursday, May 6, 2010

sermon: Where are the Fallen Grapes?

Leviticus 19:9-10
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 19:9 is an important verse. Unfortunately it’s stuck in a long and boring book, full of shalts and shalt nots, and festivals, and sacrifices... but at its essence what the book of Leviticus is about is negotiating the lease on the land of Israel. You see, back then, the land belonged to God, and the people were renters. And the rules of God’s rental agreement included how you can and cannot harvest “your” produce.
The entire book of Ruth was brought to us by Leviticus 19:9. And because I have such a highly educated congregation before me tonight, and because we heard Ruth’s story preached so well last week, I will assume knowledge of that story as I use it to unpack the full richness of Leviticus 19:9 and 10.
The story of Ruth is a good story. For one, it’s well told. It has character development, crisis and redemption, a rich plot. It starts with Ruth and Naomi in total desolation, moves through bold unexpected action and love interest, and ends triumphant. It’s a good story.
It is a woman’s story. Women who by all tradition in that time and place were insignificant people or sub-people, in THIS masterful story are the actors, the players, the manipulators. We know next to nothing of Boaz, and even less of the other male relatives. Scholars including Irmtraud Fischer have even suggested that a woman was the AUTHOR of Ruth. The world of the Old Testament was entirely a man’s world, but the story of two bold women has slipped into our sacred texts.
The plot of Ruth hinges completely on Leviticus 19:9 and 10. You shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest. This law was salvation for the destitute Ruth. It was her point of entry into Israel. The law was God’s way of creating a generous nation. It’s not that God could legislate generosity into the people’s hearts. But the LAND belonged to God, and the Israelites, being temporary tenants, had to follow God’s rules. Systemic generosity was written into the lease, like it or not. You shall not gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. They are for the poor. The word of the Lord. The law of the land.
The story of Ruth and Naomi is a good story that we don’t hear often enough, in the good land that is the United States of America. Of course there are still some fables floating around, about the rags-to-riches American Dream, but Ruth really didn’t even have bootstraps. The story where a desperate outsider just shows up, opens her hands, and receives, is a story we don’t hear, or see, or encounter enough.
And I wonder why it’s such a rare story. I don’t think that there is any shortage of desperately poor outsiders. I don’t think there’s any real shortage, even, of noble and generous heroes. I do believe that there is more than enough to go around, in terms of food, and resources, and power, in America today. But we don’t hear a story like Ruth’s because the leases on OUR land are written differently. We don’t live in God’s country.
Leviticus 19:9 says you shall not reap to the very edges of your field. The edges are what lie along the road, where people pass by, some of whom are hungry people – and so the edges are basically public property – a living food bank. In America, we don’t really HAVE edges to our fields. Because we have electric fences... and laws against trespassing... and because rich landowners have joined field to field and house to house until you can’t really FIND an edge to a field. The land that once was occupied by several hundred farmers and their families, stretched out across the plains, is now all the property of ConAgra, and there are no edges on this kind of farm. There is no public property, and there are no fallen grapes. They are harvested by machines that are constantly being improved to be sure there are no fallen grapes. We don’t live in God’s country.
Two thirds of agricultural laborers in the US are immigrants. Many not dissimilar to Ruth and Naomi. They come seeking refuge from poverty in another land. 14 percent of them will be able to find full-time employment in our fields and orchards. Only ¼ will earn more than $10,000 annually.* They will break their backs to provide US residents with high volumes of food at low prices, but they themselves will be some of the LEAST food-secure people in our country. They will work in endless fields of food, but they won’t get to eat any of it... They’ll eat packaged junk instead, because they have no money for better, and they will lose their health and strength. They will breathe in pesticides which slowly poison them and their children. And there will be no fallen grain for them to gather up, and take home, and feed their families. This is how we welcome the immigrant. There are no fallen grapes in America.
My friends, we do not live in God’s country. We live in a land of illusion – where we believe that we own the land, and that by owning it we have the right to treat people however we want. We believe we HAVE to pick up every last grape, squeeze every last dollar, and cut every possible corner, in order to have a good life – and let the pieces fall where they may.
And recently there have been some people saying that in the pursuit of picking up every last grape, we need to keep certain people out of “Our” Country. I could talk about Arizona’s insane new immigration law, but let’s not pretend it is only happening “over there.” In San Rafael, just over the Richmond bridge, this week, kids are staying home from school because the ICE is patrolling around schools at 3:30 every afternoon, waiting to grab some “illegal” schoolchildren as soon as they exit the property. I don’t need to say anything more about the injustice here. You know as well as I do that God calls us to care for the stranger, the alien, and especially the poor. I don’t need to tell YOU about the many outsiders, immigrants, and “illegals” like Ruth the Moabite - who are represented in the Jewish ancestry of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
You’re preachers... you’re pastors... you speak out about injustice. And you are as shocked as I at the lengths some people will go to, trying to keep “their land” to themselves, and to fence off the very edges of their fields.
But if you’re like me, you’re getting tired of this nonsense. What do we DO?
Well, friends, we speak out, and we write letters to our senators, and we march in San Rafael, and we tell our friends who live in Arizona what we think about their disaster of a law, and we vote – we vote – we vote – these things are important and we must not get discouraged. But sometimes we need to stop fighting and just start planting. As much as we should and will fight for justice here, the kingdom of God is not going to wait for Arizona to come to its senses. Jesus said the kingdom is AMONG YOU, and we’d better start living as if that were true. Just like the book of Ruth – a tiny book, written by women, slips into this male-dominated volume. She doesn’t fight, she doesn’t tear the others down, she just gets an elbow in and says “I’m here too.” The kingdom of God is here too, even when we can’t see it.
We can start living as if the kingdom of God were our primary reality, even in the midst of this world. For us to start living as if the kingdom IS among us, we’re going to go back to Leviticus 19:9, which tells us that the edges of our land are public property. And we can live that way.
Five words.
Grow Food And Share It.
If you live in Oakland there’s a new group called Forage Oakland, which makes neighborhood maps of where the fruit trees are, and goes around knocking on doors, asking “can I have some fruit?”and going forth to share it. Forage Oakland.
Grow Food and Share It.
Plant a fruit tree! And tell your neighbors they can pick.
Some of you will gladly think you’re excused because you don’t have a backyard, but think again, because I grew up in New York City and all we had was a fire escape, and we grew tomatoes. Therefore, you can do it too.
Grow Food and Share It.
Buy one heirloom tomato at the grocery store, scoop out the seeds, plant them in big yogurt tubs. It’s not rocket science. We can do it. And then share it! We’re going to have to TELL people that they can have some of this food, because they don’t know that the edges of OUR land are different, that OUR land is public property, because the fruit of the earth belongs to GOD and not to us.
We can do this.
We can leave the world of insane scarcity where every fallen grape must be gathered, and we can start living under the power of God’s abundance. If there are no fallen grapes in the fields, we can start throwing grapes all around the side of the road for the people who need them.
Go forth – grow food and share it – and live as if God DID write the lease on your land, your money, your life. Live in the kingdom of God, now. Amen.

*some sources available at:


  1. Awesome! For reformed worship we used Psalm 87 and Leviticus 19:33-34 to talk about the insider/outsider dynamics created by citizenship.
    Where did you give this sermon? Thanks for posting it.

  2. I gave it at ABSW preaching class with J Alfred Smith Sr, with whom, by the way, you should take every available class with no hesitation.
    thanks matthias!
    i hadn't thought of ps 87 but that's a good reference to universiality. thanks! Lev 19:33, but of course =)

  3. Preach it, sister! Thanks for sharing.

  4. It's so depressing to think of all of those people that live in the midst of California's farmland that have no healthy food to eat because all of the produce is shipped out and all the locals have is McDonald's.

  5. you bet =(
    imagine.... what if we didn't practice massive monoculture? but planted a wide variety of useful edible foods? WOW