A sermon by Jennifer Davidson preached on August 19, 2007
Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7 and Hebrews 11:29–12:2
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:” begins the Prophet Isaiah in our first text this morning. Immediately we are swept into the poetic: awash in imagery of vineyards, a fertile hill. We see the Beloved working in the vineyard, back bent, digging in to the deep, aromatic soil. We watch as the field is cleared of stones, cleared of anything that will impede the growth of healthy plants. The Beloved, we see, plants the field with the best vines, with red grapes. The Beloved pours himself out into this fertile field, his heart is in his work, his sweat falls into the soil and waters it.
Occasionally he straightens up from his bent posture and gazes across the land, drinking in the sun, the distant hills, the very landscape itself. He is not merely a man standing in a field, he is now a part of the field, his work—even as it transformed the field, also transformed him. He is not the same as when he began. The aches in his back, across his shoulders, the deepening brown of his skin are inseparable from the turned soil, the pile of stones on the edge of the vineyard, the tender, planted vines. He is in all of them now.
The Beloved’s hope for a rich and abundant harvest is what hews out the vat for the wine. As he waits for the grapes to ripen, he smoothes the inside of the vat. Watch him as he does his work. He is full of expectation.
But this love song is one of heartache, not fulfillment. This love song, like so many, has loss at its center: disappointment, unmet expectations. The voice, in Isaiah’s poem, at verse 3, shifts from that of Isaiah to the voice of the Beloved–now the Lover–himself. He cries out when he sees the yield of the choice vines he planted, the vines he had loved, the vines that are a part of him now: They are not red, succulent grapes but wild grapes. He moves through the vineyard, disbelieving what he sees, “What more could I have done?” he asks, with his fingers trailing along the leaves of these unfamiliar grapes. All is lost.
We see him gaze out across the field again, out toward the distant hills, and his vision now cannot distinguish between the once-cultivated field and it’s wild surroundings.
He pours out his anguish in the remaining verses of the love song. His grief is real because his love for the vineyard was real. He falls to his knees, grasps a handful of soil in his hand, and lets the soil run through his fingers. His tears fall into the soil and water it.
Where does the vineyard end and the Lover begin? Where does the Lover end and the vineyard begin? Can you say for certain?
There is no one quite like Isaiah who can lay bare the heart of God in such a way as this: God, the Beloved; God, the Lover; whose heart breaks for God’s people; whose heart breaks for God’s cosmos.
God, the Beloved, God, the Lover, who pours out God’s very self in the sweat of grace in the tears of mercy.
This glimpse that Isaiah gives us into the heart of God is a passionate God: a God who suffers, whose heart breaks for creation, a God who deeply cares. One who is moved by the cries of the people.
Many of the images surrounding God throughout both the Old and New Testaments are of God’s passionate concern for creation. Despite this, a strong tradition rose up in early Christianity which depicted God as passionless. In fact, the Jesuit Philip Sheldrake points out in his book Befriending Our Desires, that God’s perfection was perceived to be precisely in the absence of passion.
Likewise, human passions became deeply suspect. So that some people came to believe that the more we can divest ourselves of our passions, the more closely we will draw to the heart of God.
Perhaps it is the remnants of these beliefs that cause us to recoil when we read passages like we did this morning. God’s passionate disappointment in the vineyard is all too easily cast as “that Old Testament God”—as if God’s rough edges get smoothed out in the transition from Hebrew to Greek. We squirm in our seats when God cries out a lament over God’s people, like the one we heard in Isaiah’s love song. God’s anguish is too raw, too close for comfort.
I think this is because we sense that if God is passionate, then God must also be vulnerable. It is evident in the tears we imagine seeing on the Lover’s face as he fingers the leaves of the wild grapes.
All love comes with risk— we know this to different degrees through out our lives. One of the most profound ways I’ve experienced this risk was when Doug and I became parents. The presence of our infant son and the love we felt for him made us suddenly and powerfully aware that we had opened ourselves up to the possibility of the greatest pain we could imagine: the possibility of losing this one we loved so deeply.
To love passionately is to open ourselves – to become vulnerable to – the possibility of loss. We cannot love without also being vulnerable.
The more we pour ourselves out into love, the greater our risk and vulnerability And so God’s vulnerability is evident in the Isaiah love song not only in the experience of grief which closes out the song, but perhaps even more so in the image of the one who was digging in the soil and clearing stones: for it is the one who dares to hope, who is the vulnerable one.
The 11th chapter of Hebrews begins, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is the Lover working in the vineyard, tilling the soil, removing the stones, hewing a vat for the wine.
And it is the Israelites passing through the Red Sea. It is Rahab providing hospitality to the spies. It is the Great Cloud of Witnesses we surrounded ourselves with this morning—grandmothers and grandfathers, poets and public figures, prophets and midwives—who dared to make themselves vulnerable, who were passionate enough to hope for a world that would heal rather than break hearts.
Emboldened by those who have gone before us, the writer of Hebrews invites us to lay aside every weight and the Sin that clings so close so that we might be able to move unencumbered in our life of faith, indeed, into the very heart of God.
Therein lies the invitation for us this morning: Are we willing to open ourselves up to the Passionate, Vulnerable God? And are we willing to allow ourselves to be passionate and vulnerable as well? These questions are ever before us: can we lay aside every weight—even the ones which seem to define us—Can we open our hands and let go of every weight?
These questions are ultimately about our posture before the Living God.
It is no small thing to open ourselves to the presence of God in our lives. Learning to trust God, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to God’s presence, is not a once-in-a-lifetime lesson—rather it is something that must be learned and re-learned throughout our lives.
With every invitation to deeper intimacy with God, no matter how many times we have accepted that invitation before, we become frightfully aware of the risks involved in letting God in. But what a beautiful thing to consider that God is risking all for us as well!
There is perhaps no better way to allow our intimacy to deepen with the Passionate, Vulnerable Divine than through the practice of prayer.
Henri Nouwen, in his book With Open Hands writes:
Praying is no easy matter. …The resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists. This image shows the tension, the desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which betrays fear.
Nouwen goes on to share the story of a woman who was brought to a psychiatric facility. She was very agitated, “swinging at everything in sight, and scaring everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up,” Nouwen writes. “It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more, and be nothing more. That was her fear.”
We are often like the woman clinging desperately to her coin, thinking it has something to do with who we are. Frightened, perhaps, that God will force us to give up what feels most central to who we are. Afraid that if we open our hands, then God will see every last little thing we’ve ever held on to for dear life. Perhaps afraid, through and through, of God’s judgment.
But Philip Bennett, in his book Let Yourself Be Loved, assures us that “The judgment of love never injures our true self; it only releases it from constriction so that we may be the person we were created to be.”
The diary of Etty Hillesum, leading up to her departure for Auschwitz in 1943, records her painful yet joyful struggle toward spiritual wholeness. She describes the process this way:
There is a really deep well inside us. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then [God] must be dug out again. (44)
Are we able to bring ourselves to trust in the presence of God? Are we able to allow the stones and grit that block the well to be carried away? Are we able to open our hands?
After all, we will need to open our hands in order to lay aside every weight; in order to be passionate; in order to be vulnerable.
“When you dare to let go and surrender your many fears,” writes Henri Nouwen, “your hand relaxes and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving.”’
I misspoke a little while ago when I said there is no one like Isaiah who can lay bare the heart of God. In fact there is another. And the writer of Hebrews reminds us of him: “Look to Jesus [who] endured the cross.”
Likewise, Philip Sheldrake writes:
“It seems that we desperately need to recover a sense of God who is not so much ‘power and might’ as vulnerable. Jesus, the image of the unseen God, “did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” as it says in the hymn of Philippians (2:6-7).
“If we accept that both the incarnation and the cross reveal the very heart of God, then we are bound to say that the nature of God is not to cling but to be self-emptying and to be nonpossessive. God continually risks a pouring out into the cosmos.”
God meets us in our vulnerability with God’s own vulnerability. God is tilling the vineyard even now, laying aside every stone, even as God invites us to lay aside every weight.
God never stops risking God’s self in relationship with us. This is the promise of the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection. And it is God’s invitation, a gentle invitation, not one of force or demand.
We started with the poetry of Isaiah of the Beloved, the Lover, in the vineyard. Because some things of love can only be said adequately in poetry.
So let’s close with poetry as well. This poem is by someone who peoples my Great Cloud of Witnesses: May Sarton.
The poem is called, “Of Molluscs,” and it takes us from the soil of the vineyard to the undulating waters of the ocean. As you listen to the poem, hear God’s invitation to you to surrender, to be passionate, to be vulnerable, to open yourself to the presence of God who loves you, to lay aside every weight, to be nourished on the tide of love:
As the tide rises, the closed mollusc
Opens a fraction to the ocean’s food,
Bathed in its riches. Do not ask
What force would do, or if force could.
A knife is of no use against a fortress.
You might break it to pieces as gulls do.
No, only the rising tide and its slow progress
Opens the shell. Lovers, I tell you true.
You who have held yourselves closed hard
Against warm sun and wind, shelled up in fears
And hostile to a touch or tender word—
The ocean rises, salt as unshed tears.
Now you are floated on this gentle flood
That cannot force or be forced, welcome food
Salt as your tears, the rich ocean’s blood,
Eat, rest, be nourished on the tide of love.