Pastor Karen Karpow
A Love Song
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Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. Ephesians 6.19
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Most of you know that I got back from vacation last weekend. I was away for two weeks, and got home last Saturday night, in time to be here on Sunday morning. I have found this week to be quite a contrast to the week before.
Ten days ago, I was sitting on the deck of our little rented cottage in upstate New York, under the shade of a huge maple tree, looking out over the lake just a few yards away, sparkling in the sun. I considered opening the book in my lap, but instead I just sat. I felt a gentle breeze on my face, a breeze that carried the scents of fresh water and honeysuckle and mown grass and cornfields. I listened to two doves singing a duet, call-and-response, and to the endless cyclic rasping of crickets. I ate a few more of the blueberries that came from the farm at the top of the hill. For once, I’d had enough sleep—I wasn’t tired. What a feeling! I thought, “Ahhh…this is the way it’s supposed to be.”
But is it supposed to be that way? This week wasn’t very much like that. It included 14-hour days, a couple of sleepless nights, early meetings and late meetings and extra meetings and days I didn’t get to my email until after 11 at night. Vacation Bible School starts tomorrow, and some people have been working really hard to get ready. I tried to be a channel of God’s love and grace and comfort to people who got bad news, who had a death in the family, who are sick, in the hospital, lonely, afraid. I ran around with Anna, trying to get her ready for soccer and school. And did anyone remember to feed the cat?
Maybe that is actually the way life is supposed to be. I’m beginning to think that solving problems is the essential work of our lives. Anybody here have any problems? It seems that we are always either in the middle of one, or just recovering from one and waiting for the next one to surface.
If I look at today’s passage from Hebrews, I see that we are not alone. The lives of the saints weren’t easy. The reading today is the end of a long passage about the heroes of the faith—the things they accomplished—and endured—by living out their faith in God. The list includes some names that might be familiar, like Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and King David, and some others that are more obscure—Rahab the prostitute, Gideon the warrior, Barak who led the Israelites into war under the guidance of the prophet Deborah. Here are the things they experienced:
… through faith [they] conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
I’ve had some tough times, but I’ve never been flogged or sawn in two, or had to cover up in a goat skin or live in a hole in the ground. Life could be worse. Perhaps we make it worse when we expect life to be easy. It’s just not. And today’s scriptures offer us two ways of coping with that reality.
The way of the unfruitful vineyard is laid out for us by Isaiah. This beautiful piece of land, up on the most fertile hill, receives everything it needs, but inexplicably bears no useful fruit. “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song,” the prophet begins. The music will soon surprise and dismay us, but it’s still a love song, a song of passion and desire and hope. Every single thing the gardener does is love’s eager work. Every hole dug, every rock removed, every selection made, every planting, every protection.
The rage that follows the vineyard’s inexplicable refusal to bear good fruit is love’s other voice. Even the abandonment may be seen as the sad work of love. The gardener gets disgusted, and decides to let the vineyard have its own way. He’s done. He will do no more for this vineyard. If it wants to be wild, the gardener will let it be. And even more: he will command no rain to fall upon it. With that, the gardener’s identity is revealed—and the identity of the vineyard as well. Only God can withhold the rain. God is the gardener—and God’s people are the garden. If provision and protection are meaningless to the people, then God will let them have the wildness they crave. God knows how it will end, but grants them the autonomy they have asserted.
That is one way we can deal with the problems and disappointments that life brings us. We can do things our own way. Another way is laid out for us in Hebrews. After recounting what the lives of the saints were like, the author continues.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Inspired by the faithful example of our heroes, we too can run the race. We don’t get to choose the racecourse, and maybe some days we run better and faster than others. We run more swiftly and easily when we are able to put down everything that’s not essential—when we lay aside our stuff and distractions. But whether it’s a fast day or a slow day, every day we put one foot in front of the other, keeping those footsteps on the path as much as we can, so that we don’t have to spend a bunch of time and energy getting back to it again after we wander off. We try to focus. We keep on the racecourse not by watching our feet, but by looking up and ahead—to Jesus. He’s out there ahead of us.
Can you see him? Knowing how to look is important. To see Jesus, we may have to stop looking at some other things. (Insipid TV shows come to mind, but you probably know whatever it is that’s blocking your view of Jesus.) We have to look in the places where Jesus hangs out—in scripture, with marginalized people, in small groups studying and working together. It does help a lot to be running in a pack of people. Everyone sees a little differently. We can help each other find the way. We can encourage each other to keep going. When burdens get too heavy—and when joy is too sweet to keep to ourselves—we can share them.
So we have two models here, of ways to cope with trouble—the way of Isaiah’s unfruitful vineyard, and the way of the cloud of witnesses—our own way, and God’s way. The song of the vineyard raises a troubling possibility, though: is it possible that God can give up on us? I don’t think so—but it is possible for us to give up on God.
But even if or when we do, God continues to sing. God has not stopped planting vineyards or restoring ruined ones or singing love songs. There is a happier vineyard song in Isaiah 27, a song sung years later from the ashes of the destruction that came when the people turned away from God.
2 On that day:
A pleasant vineyard, sing about it!
3 I, the Lord, am its keeper;
every moment I water it.
I guard it night and day
so that no one can harm it;
4 I have no wrath.
If it gives me thorns and briers,
I will march to battle against it.
I will burn it up.
5 Or else let it cling to me for protection,
let it make peace with me,
let it make peace with me.
We can be God’s pleasant vineyard, the object of God’s love and care. Instead of putting our energy into beating out our own path, having things our way, let us cling to God and make peace with God.
We can do it our way or God’s way.
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient,k because she had received the spies in peace.
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,l they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,a and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake ofb the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
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.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
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 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.
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.
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;
but heard a cry!