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A Love Song?

Sunday, August 18, 2019. Rev. Jen Dunfee, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 12:49-56

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The passage from Isaiah begins, “let me sing for my beloved, my love song, concerning his vineyard.” Like a love song these seven verses are poetic,

With word repetition, rhyme and wordplay in the Hebrew, verses shifting perspective, from the singer of the song, to the beloved who owns the vineyard,  and an extended metaphor with a big reveal at the end.

With love songs on my mind one night at dinner this week we decided to ask Alexa a question: for any not familiar Alexa is like Siri, virtual assistants on phones and in homes that respond to voice commands.  We took turns asking “Alexa, play me a love song. And these are the five we heard:

  1. A Love Story, by Taylor Swift- Pastor Annamarie is a fan
  2. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
  3. The Way You Look Tonight by Frank Sinatra
  4. Keep on Lovin’ You by REO Speedwagon,
  5. Can’t Help Falling in Love by Elvis Presley

Quite a variety of decades represented. 

In some of these love songs there is tension – In Ain’t No Mountain High Enough there’s distance to overcome, in A Love Story – family conflict and miscommunication, but none of these songs have anything like the ending of Isaiah 5:1-7 where the hope and expectation of the beginning ends in heartbreak and ruin and it doesn’t get better than that.  The set-up in Isaiah is intriguing, Someone – the prophet – sings a love song for a beloved about a vineyard.  We learn that it isn’t actually a vineyard but a metaphor for the owner of the vineyard as the Lord and the vineyard itself as the house of Israel, the people of Judah.  We noted at bible study that although Jesus rarely, not never, explains his parables, this is explained clearly in verse 7. 

Throughout the song the prophet and God are describing the love and care put into the vineyard and upon the disappointing outcome of the fruit,  God’s voice takes over and it ends in judgment and woe.  “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard.”  Toni Morrison, author of the book Beloved, who died just about two weeks ago, maintained that every story she wrote was a love story.   I have read as many books by Toni Morrison as I have read of any author, and her love stories are like this love song.  She writes in Paradise, “love is divine only and difficult always” and that it is not easy or natural, but from God whose very being is love, such that God can do no other.  If God can do no other than love, then God’s justice is connected to God’s love, and is a part of it. Toni Morrison might understand better than the rest of us that hard love stories need to be written with exceptional attention to getting the words right and should be as full of beauty as any other, if not more so.   

If God needs to call me to account for missing expectations,  put it in a song, and remind me at the start that it begins in love. 

If God needs to call us to account – for this is about the whole vineyard and not just one vine – put it in a song, and remind us at the start that it begins in love. 

Words carefully chosen to convey how God feels about what the Israelites have not gotten right: The Hebrew word chosen for what goes wrong with the Israelites – is that they stink.  There should be good grapes but instead the Hebrew says that they stink – a better definition than that they are “wild” – and it has the same connotation today as we would use to describe a sports team.

With apologies to any from Michigan, but this year, the Detroit Tigers stink.  The Tigers stink at baseball right now, the Israelites however, stink when it comes to

The expectations of verse 7:  God expected justice and got bloodshed, righteousness, but heard a cry.    In the Hebrew each of these pairings of words are nearly identical, justice and bloodshed – one letter apart, as are righteousness, and a cry for help.   Hard words beautifully written. 

Israelites are not meeting God’s expectations for justice, for those of you here last week, what was laid out in Isaiah 1 and preached about by Scott: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  God is distraught over their stinking because God gave them what they needed to be better.  Go back to the beginning of the metaphor of the vineyard. 

The owner of the vineyard, who we will discover to be God, does everything necessary to prepare vines to bear the fruit of justice:

1st – context, on a fertile hill, in a location where growth is possible

2nd – preparation – the land is dug and cleared,

 3rd – resources – vines strong and healthy

 4th – support – the watchtower for someone to help maintain the vines growth and as we learn from the later verses, a hedge and a wall to guide the direction of growth. 

God didn’t drop some dried out vine seeds on hard soil in barren land and walk away, then return and expect to see good fruit.   If God had done that, the ending would seem unreasonable.   But as verse 4 says, there was nothing more God could do to encourage good grapes, and yet they stunk.  God was looking for a specific outcome under specific circumstances, and provided the context, preparation, resources and support for what God wanted to see the people do.  This particularity is at the heart of our consideration of this passage.   

My systematic theology professor Miroslav Volf now studies the theology of joy and what detracts from it.  He describes two “bad infinities” that will take away our joy – one is to have infinite desires that can never be fulfilled outside of God – no relationships, nothing we can own, nothing we can achieve or accomplish, can do this and he says “those whose desires are infinite never have enough and what they have is never good enough.”  The other bad infinity relates to our scripture, that those who feel infinite moral responsibility become paralyzed by, “a low intensity inarticulate guilt that bleaches color from how we experience the world.  Those who feel infinitely responsible never do enough, and what they have done is never good enough.”  (Christian Century article, 7/1/16 “What is good?  Joy and the well-lived life.”)

Although the bible does say that all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God, the passages where the prophets and Jesus are at their most direct is where we have not met expectations that are specific and particular.  Hanging our heads and feeling like we can never do better or more or enough actual robs us from moving closer to what God expects of us.  Robs our energy, our hope, and our sense of future fruitfulness.  This vineyard is in trouble because God gave it context, preparation, resources and support, guiding it to a particular outcome and it did not happen.  Isaiah spends no time telling us why not, but this passage makes is clear that the house of Israel and the people of Judah knew what was expected of them, what justice looks like in their community.  Do we know what it looks like in ours?

Fall is Cross Country season, and as some of you know I live on the campus of The Madeira School.  The cross country course is immediately behind our house, and I always look forward to the day that the seniors and facilities team come out with spray paint to mark the course.  They will paint big rocks and large roots bright pink, draw yellow arrows at branches on the path to show which way to go, write “this way” in white letters, and even one year when a tree had fallen over the course, written the word “duck.”   I often think about how nice it would be if this was how God led me, or how God leads us as a church – that God would make it real clear which way I was to go, or not go, what I might stumble over, when I need to turn back, or jump or duck.   For us as we consider this passage, we need to imagine the spray painted words – Listen!   The ending of verse 7 is as haunting as a Toni Morrison novel, an unnamed voice in distress.  God hearing a cry of help is the distance between what God expected and what happened. 

Identifying where we can hear a particular cry of help today, in the context of our life and our church, is our work.  Each of you has been planted on a fertile hill, God has located you where you are in some aspect in your life, and prepared you and given you resources and support for you to bear God’s justice – the easing of suffering – of someone.  Cries my family often hears are those of children –

Children separated from families in detention centers, children who find it hard to sleep at night because their bellies are hungry, children whose parents can’t provide them with a home. We hear those cries because God gave us the context, preparation, resources and support to hear and learn to help.  God directed this path, and we can’t pretend to not hear what we have heard, and so we are on a journey for how this grows us as a family, and it is our own kind of a love story. 

When God needs to call us to account for missing expectations, when we stink at this, Lord, put it in a song, and remind us at the start that it begins in love. 

And this is a love song for a vineyard, and so Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, here we are on this fertile hill, with the preparation of so many saints who have gone before us, and the faith experiences of sorrow and joy which have made each of us which makes us as a whole who we are, and we are well resourced thanks be to God, and we have the support of God through Jesus and the Spirit who guides and hedges us and never takes an eye away. 

It is this combination of things that led our church leaders to hear particular cries and see “THIS WAY: pointing our congregation on the path of the building renovation, that our outreach and our welcome and our accessibility and our facility may provide more for our community, and invite more to our common life of worship, mission and service. That is fruit that does not stink.

That is using particular gifts for specific outcomes.  In the process, may we hear the cries of those in our neighborhoods as we prepare to serve the suffering more fully in the name of Jesus.

The Gospel passage matched with Isaiah 5 isn’t there just because it is equally troubling and complicated.  It is there because there is an expectation that what we are called to do in the name of Jesus matters so much that it might at times set us apart.  If we are really looking at where God has planted us and what fruit we can grow for justice and for others, we will likely make a decision about our time, our priorities, our viewpoints, our money,  that cannot be understood outside of our love for Jesus.

This line from an article got stuck in my mind “if Christianity is rendered reasonable, it is no longer helpful.”  (Christian Century, 5/1/19 “New Books in Theology”)  Jesus talks to us about a level of forgiveness, stewardship, generosity, service, and humility that is likely not understood without explaining our reasons, but it is the way and the truth and the life.  If it has been a long time since you have been odd, awkward, foolish, challenging or even divisive because of a way you follow Jesus Christ in your life, then these passages might be what you and I need to hear today.  Something about how we follow Jesus should make a notable difference in how we live our lives.  Not necessarily a rift among family, but the kind of fruit that only one who has been in the vineyard planted and tended by God will bear. 

What do you do when you hear a song you like?  If you are like me, you play it again, over and over.  The best and truest songs never get old.  The end comes, and even, or especially, if it ends in a tougher place than it began, we just hit play.  Go back to verse 1, and know that it begins in love,  “Let me sing for my beloved, a love song concerning his vineyard.” A vine well equipped to hear the cries of the oppressed, a vineyard well equipped to bear the fruit of justice.  Let us not forsake all that we were created to be, all that we are called to do, What more is there for God to do, than what God has already done for us?