Sunday, August 14, 2016

Abandon Hope?

Isaiah 5:1-7       New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

5 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!


On most Sunday mornings here at First Christian Church in Selma, California we play a game.  It’s called “What on earth does the image on the screen have to do with the sermon?”  I think it started the week that the image was a kitten looking out through the mail slot of a door, or it might even go as far back as the Nativity Scene from Star Wars.  This week, however, the slide depicts exactly what the prophet Isaiah describes: a deserted vineyard, neither planted nor hoed, with weeds growing up in it and no rain falling upon it.  All of us here, anyone who has been in Selma, the Raisin Capitol of the World, for more than a couple of weeks will recognize this picture.  It may not be a specific vineyard we can name, but along the property line are trees we are familiar with.  Those are our mountains in the background.  We recognize this picture as the land of a disappointed, discouraged, farmer - whose grapes when ripe were bitter like wild grapes, who has given up on his vineyard.  He did everything right!  He cleared the land, the fertile land.  He planted the best vines.   He gave them all the water he could.  He watched over his vines day and night, checking to make sure nothing came to damage them.  He did everything he knew how to do to ensure a good harvest.  What more could he have done?  Nothing.  And yet the grapes, when they ripened, were sour - inedible, in fact.  And so, he abandoned it.  He just walked away and let it go.  He gave up on hope, and abandoned it.  

Life gets like that sometimes.  We do everything we are supposed to do, but don’t get the expected results.  We worked hard to do well in school, but we can’t find a job in our field. We can’t even find a job at McDonalds!   We take care of ourselves, use sunscreen, eat right, have regular checkups with the doctor, and everything is going well until some weird disease no one ever heard of suddenly changes our life entirely.  We raise our children the best way we know how, bring them to church, give them every possible benefit, and they wander down a dark path - nothing we do to help seems to work.  We do all the things the experts tell us will bring folks into the church, but we don’t seem to experience the growth that we are supposed to see when we follow their direction.  We preach, Sunday after Sunday, to a chorus of nodding heads, and then hear people saying all the same things we were just preaching against while they have their after worship coffee and cake.   We did everything right!  We did everything we knew how!  And yet, the harvest was disappointing.  The grapes were no better than wild grapes, despite the love and care that was lavished upon the vines as they grew.  We become discouraged, like the farmer in the Scripture reading.  We want to just give up, walk away, and stay in our rooms playing solitaire.  

We know, of course, because we are a Bible reading group of folks, that anything written by a prophet has much more meaning than what we read on the surface.  We know, because we are a Bible reading group of folks, that Isaiah wouldn’t just be talking about any random farmer disappointed in the quality of his grapes.  No, Isaiah tells us that “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.”  God has finally given up.  God chose Abraham and his descendants to be God’s people, and yet over and over again they have disappointed him.  They have chased after false gods - like Solomon, who built altars to the gods his 700 wives brought to the marriage.  They have broken the commandments - like David who slept with Bathsheba even though she was married to the commander of his armies.  They have trusted in the words of the princes of larger nations, instead of trusting in God to protect them, only to find themselves defeated, imprisoned, enslaved. They have oppressed the poor, the widows and orphans, they have enslaved the aliens even though God commanded that the poor be cared for, widows and orphans fed be supported, and alien workers be treated the same as anyone else.  For centuries, the people of the house of Israel have fallen away, gotten in trouble, called out to God for rescue and been rescued.  In Judges we see this pattern repeating itself every generation!  One generation is good, they all die and the next generation forgets God, wanders off doing its own thing, and when the inevitable happens cries out saying, “God, help us!  We are your people.  We love you!  We promise if you get us out of this one we will never ever do that again!”  And God sends a deliverer and a generation passes . . .  rinse and repeat.   And now, God has given up.  This vineyard simply is not going to produce good fruit, so God will just leave it to grow wild, with no one to care for it, no one to weed it, no one to irrigate, no one to chase away the birds and pests.  God will let the people of Judah, descendants of the amazingly faithful Abraham, be removed from their homes, taken into exile far away, in a foreign land.  God will remove his hand of protection from over his people, and let whatever happens, happen.

It feels like that sometimes.  Like God has simply abandoned us.  “I’ve done everything right!  Why is this happening?  Why is the fruit of my labor going sour?   Why doesn’t anyone want to hire me?  Why is my problem child the way she is? Why do I have this weird sickness?  Why can’t the doctors figure out how to fix me?  Why isn’t our congregation growing?  Why won’t anyone listen?  I may as well just give up. We may as well abandon hope.”  Certainly the people felt that way in Babylon.  

But the thing is . . . that vineyard, that desolate, deserted vineyard isn’t the end of the story.  It’s just sort of an intermission. Like crop rotation, kind of.  In the book of Leviticus, along with all the other six hundred whatever laws, is a concept known as Jubilee, which is related to Sabbath.  “You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. . . That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the after growth, or harvest the unpruned vines.  For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.”  (Leviticus 25:8, 11-12)  Sometimes you just have to let the fields go for a while.  Sometimes we just have to find acceptance for the place where we are right this minute.  It might be a difficult, terrible place to be, but we just have to go through what we are going through.    

And maybe that field isn't supposed to produce grapes, after all.  Maybe it would make a much better almond orchard.  Last year, right after I arrived in Selma, I saw lots of vineyards being torn up and burned.  I saw lots of nut orchards being planted.  I really didn’t understand, but I enjoy going to restaurants alone, and while I am eating I eavesdrop shamelessly.   I listened to farmers talking, and so I learned that there was a lot of crop change going on.  And maybe that was more a function of what is the best use of the little bit of water available than any problem with the grape harvest. But the thing is, sometimes we have to just let go of whatever.  Sometimes we just have to accept that what we are doing isn’t working right now, and try something else.  Sometimes we just have do the best we can with what we have and accept that we don’t have any control over the outcome, and let God take care of the final result.  

I titled this message “Abandon Hope?”  because this passage is so depressing, so discouraging.  God is abandoning his people.  God, whose steadfast love is celebrated by the psalmists and whose forgiveness is something we count on, and whose constant presence in our lives is a given . . . is abandoning his people?  No.  No.  God is waiting, again.  God is letting the vineyard rest, letting the soil in which it is rooted regain its life-giving strength, allowing the birds and pests to forage freely, leaving room and time for the possibility of a new idea, a new direction, maybe even a whole new crop.  We know for a fact that God’s people were delivered from Babylon.  They did return to Judah.  They did rebuild the Temple.  They were not deserted.   But first, they had to go through what they had to go through.  First, they had to accept that they really had no control over what happens in life.  They had to learn that, even though God might not be in rescuer mode every moment, God is with them, always, in every circumstance.  If it seems otherwise, it’s usually because we aren’t paying attention, not because God isn’t there with us, every moment.  Not because God abandoned us.  

Last year, when the fires were burning in the vineyards and the vines were being torn out, it was kind of ugly and depressing, and confusing for a newcomer. But now I get it.  Maybe this deserted vineyard was one of those whose vines got uprooted and burned.  And maybe today this deserted vineyard is a beautiful almond orchard, filled with baby trees bursting with the potential for new life.  
Never abandon hope.  Because the Good News, my sisters and brothers, is that God never ever deserts us, not really.  No matter what is going on in our lives, in our world, in our church, God never ever abandons us.  Maybe we are getting an opportunity to grow.  Maybe we are getting an opportunity to seek new paths, new ways to thinking and being and doing things.  Maybe we are being prepared to burn off old growth to make room for something new and wonderful.  But we are not being abandoned, because God is eternally faithful.  God’s forgiveness is unquestioning.  God’s presence in our lives is constant.  God’s love is unconditional, steadfast and everlasting.   God is always and forever with us, no matter what.  

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