Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O God so we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
So our first reading this morning from the Hebrew scripture, often referred to as God’s Divine Love Song, can give us whiplash: vacillating, from one voice to another voice with emotions swerving around delight, guilt, fear, confusion, rage and hope – all in 7 short verses………Isaiah was not messing around in the telling of this parable!
“Let me sing a song for my beloved.” What an amazing beginning – one that can conjure up profound images and beautiful feelings of great love for the one who is beloved. But we soon learn as we read on that all is not sweetness and light in this love story.
Isaiah, the prophet, lets us know that God is the one singing this song. He tells us, using God’s voice, that God has done all of the work required to create and then protect the environment so that a vineyard would flourish and yield plentiful grapes. But instead of a harvest heavy with succulent fruit,…..wild grapes, good for nothing but feeding scavenging birds are the result of all of God’s care and love.
Then we hear the plaintive voice of God essentially asking, “Why???? ….Why wild grapes?” And quickly God’s voice changes from that plaintive voice I hear as full of pain, sadness, and sorrow to one full of disappointment and frustration asking, “What else could I have done for there to have been grapes full of sweetness?”
The song goes on, rapidly shifting to a song filled with expressions of anger, painting a picture of judgment and vengeance and it becomes a song of terrifying, furious punishment…..ending in promises of destruction and abandonment.
And then Isaiah comes back in – in his own voice!!! summing it all up for us (in case we miss the point) by telling us that in this parable the House of Israel — the Northern Kingdom, is the vineyard of our Lord, while the people of Judah — the Southern Kingdom, constitute the planting of the vine by God. And the parable goes on to show us that the covenant between God and the people is being betrayed…….The covenant that was created when God told Moses, way-back in the day as we read in Deuteronomy, that God would bless them with many blessings and Moses said that the people would keep God’s commandments. Isaiah, tells us that with that covenant God expected righteousness and justice from the people and now, instead, God was receiving the fruits of a broken promise.
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t like stories like this of a vengeful God — a God who metes out punishment in return for bad behavior. But isn’t that what we read here in Isaiah?
Some love song!
While I was in school, a number of us would sit about in the evenings talking, trying to understand, with each other’s help, some of those theological or spiritual issues we inevitably had to grapple with, trying to make sense of them. One of the concepts we often grappled with was this idea of a vengeful God, a God who punished and exacted retribution. One of the things we discussed was that the Hebrew prophets’ use of parables was very different from how Jesus used parables — the parables we are probably a little more familiar with. Jesus’ parables were usually about furthering the understanding about God’s Kingdom – of spreading the Good News……but, the Hebrew prophets’ parables served a different purpose.
The prophets were great at using parables that did not evoke good feelings…..Their parables usually caused the people of their time to unwittingly condemn themselves and their own behavior…..so that they would finally see the devastating consequences that would occur if they did not change. The prophets in the Hebrew scripture were not fortune tellers or soothsayers as we so often think when we hear the word prophet; rather, they were messengers of and from God who explained, clarified or reframed situations. They used parables to paint pictures that said, “This is what will happen if you keep doing what you are doing – so wake up and change — so it won’t happen that way!” So, just because this lesson reads as if God was causing catastrophic, revengeful events to overcome God’s people, G’sod beloved, it doesn’t mean that those outcomes were inevitable.
And let’s step back a bit and look at what was going on at this time in history……Before we come upon Isaiah in this morning’s reading, we have 4 chapters that tell us all about the sinful, corrupt ways of the people of Israel and now we learn that Judah is headed the same sinful direction. And Isaiah, being a messenger using God’s voice, is saying to the vineyard and grapes, “Stop this or things won’t be good – this is not how you promised me, your God, you would behave”. Isaiah’s prophetic voice is giving the warning that the love of God and love of neighbor are no longer the center of the people’s lives, that the people have forgotten the covenant they made with God during Moses’ time — and that they had better shape up!!
During one of those evenings sitting around at school trying to figure this all out, a colleague said that she always thought of these types of passages as God’s way of showing us that there was a reset button available to us — that God was metaphorically cleaning the slate, thereby letting people start over when they had messed up.
Reset…… It became a code word for us used in conjunction with this action – reset (do it) as if we were pushing a button. Whenever we came upon this type of passage, one of us would say, “Reset”…. and after a while we would just make the motion (Do it) knowing what it meant to us. Our instructors were very confused one class when a number of us simultaneously suddenly pushed an imaginary button. It spread into our daily lives as well…frequently one of us would say to another, “Reset”, or just make the motion, and we’d stop and examine what was happening that might not have been what God expected or desired of us. To this day, I find myself often telling myself, “Reset.”
At the end of the parable Isaiah tells us that God desired and expected justice and righteousness – God expected the people would love one another and would love God and would carry out God’s work and uphold justice. But we know from those first 4 chapters that the people of our parable’s day weren’t in right relationship with each other or with God. They weren’t being just or righteous. And In order to do God’s work, they needed to be in right relationship, or at least trying to be.
And what about us in our day? What about us and our right relationship with God and with each other? Are we in right relationship? What about our social, political, economic and legal systems? – the systems we are all a part of creating?
Let’s ask those questions in the light of our most recent national tragedy — Is it righteous that there are 323 million people in the US and there are 283 million guns in the hands of civilians? Is it righteous that 4.5 million more guns are purchased each year? Is it just that approximately 30,000 people die from gun violence, including suicides, in the United States a year? 30,000 people…..that is close to double the population of Newburyport. How righteous is it that we have a legal system where a semi-automatic gun can be purchased —- and then modified into a fully automatic weapon of mass murder using a kit purchased from the internet for just $99? How just is it that ammunition is created and used, not only to kill, but to cause maximum pain and suffering through unbelievable damage to the human body? How do we fare when we ask ourselves those questions? How do we fare when we look at other systems in our world or in our personal lives? Sometimes pretty good…sometimes mediocre and sometimes pretty awful? ………. Have we really examined our own individual and collective fruit lately?
And if we find it to be pretty awful, what then? What do we do then? Do we explain away the shortcomings in our personal interactions? Do we turn the radio down or the TV off because we have become resigned or numb to the horrors of our systems? I suspect we sometimes come to church to escape harsh realities of our lives…..and that’s OK…….but sometimes as Christians, we must reflect on the regularity those unjust tragedies like mass murder….of how we as a people fail. Do we listen for a prophetic voice to point out areas we need to change…to guide us to action that changes what is not righteous, not just? Who are our prophets? Who in our lives do we listen to who will tell us when we need to hit the reset button? An old friend, a spiritual advisor, a family member, the Bishops against gun violence? Do we take the time during our noisy day to listen for God’s voice? In today’s world taking the opportunities around us for things like contemplative prayer, quiet reflection or long walks, can be so necessary for us to allow those voices to enter into our awareness and help us know how to change.
This lesson is a story about God creating, tending and nurturing us. So yes, this is a story about God’s overwhelming love for all of us as individuals and as a community. And it is a story of that love being spurned by the beloved. But no matter how badly we behave, how often we spurn God’s love, we have Jesus to embrace us. God gave us the ultimate reset button. Jesus. As Br. James Koester, one of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist brothers wrote, “No matter how many times we reject God’s love, no matter how many times we as individuals turn our backs on God’s love, no matter how many times we as a community spurn God’s love, no matter how many times we as a church scorn God’s love, God always, in the person of Jesus stretches out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross longing to embrace us and bring us home.”
Yes, this parable is a love song from God to God’s people, from God who delights in God’s vineyard. A god who doesn’t just write off those who don’t live up to his expectations and desires. What a gift from God Isaiah was delivering…..to be able to see that a change needed to happen and that the reset button could still be hit… It is a love song from God to God’s Beloved, to us, God’s cherished.
And it is a gift that is just as available for us to unwrap today as it was for the people of Isaiah’s day………………… if only we listen for the prophetic voice, accept the gift and hit the reset button.
Please God. Amen