Ordinary 20C, August 18, 2013

The Trouble with Gardening

Isaiah 5:1-7
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He 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.
3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What 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?
5And 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. 6I 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. 7For 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; righteousness, but heard a cry!
The longest running show in musical theatre history is not “Cats,” or “Phantom of the Opera,” or even “Les Miserables.”  The longest running show in musical theatre history is a charming off-Broadway piece that opened in 1960 and ran for 42 years and 17,162 performances.   That show is “The Fantasticks.”  And unlike big budget  Broadway productions I’ve mentioned, “The Fantasticks,” has a simple set, only five main characters,  sparse musical accompaniment (a piano, a harp and drums), but a familiar, irresistible story line.  Boy meets girl.  Boy and girl fall in love.  Boy loses girl.  Boy and girl get back together.  “The Fantasticks” also launched the career of Jerry Orbach from “Law and Order” fame, as well as the popular song, “Try to Remember,” which is just about the most beautiful song ever written.  Listen to Jerry Orbach sing “Try to Remember” the original cast album, and you’ll understand why the show lasted for 42 years.     
But there’s a another song in The Fantasticks that came to mind when I read today’s text from Isaiah.  In the second act, when the boy loses the girl, the fathers of the estranged couple try to think up a plan to reconcile the estranged lovers.  As it happens, both fathers are enthusiastic gardeners so they sing a song about how raising vegetables is a far easier task than raising children.  They sing:

Plant a radish.
Get a radish.
Never any doubt.
That’s why I love vegetables;
You know what you’re about!
Plant a turnip.
Get a turnip.
Maybe you’ll get two.
That’s why I love vegetables;
You know that they’ll come through!
They’re dependable!
They’re befriendable!
They’re the best pal a parent’s ever known!
While with children,
It’s bewilderin’.
You don’t know until the seed is nearly grown
Just what you’ve sown.

There’s the same sort of parental bewilderment and disappointment in the song we hear today in Isaiah.  This is a love song sung by gardener who has put his heart and soul into his fledgling vineyard.  He sings about how he painstakingly dug up the soil to make it rich and fertile.  He sings about how he carefully picked out every rock.  Once the ground was prepared, he planted the choicest vines.  He put in hedges and walls to protect the vineyard from every kind of intruder and built a high tower so he could keep constant watch over the vines as they grew. Anticipating a generous yield of wonderful fruit, the gardener even prepared a big vat for the wine the grapes would produce.  All of this pleasant planting and careful tending would surely yield exceptionally delicious fruit.  How could this vineyard possibly fail?.  The gardener did everything right.
But like all those country songs about love gone wrong, this song from Isaiah takes a sad, sorry turn.  The beautiful grapes the gardener anticipated never grow.  For his trouble and toil, all the gardener gets is a few wild grapes that are gross and bitter and utterly useless. 
At this point in the song, the gardener turns to his audience and asks that sad, sad question, “What more could I have done?”  We all know the answer – nothing.  Nothing.  There’s nothing more the gardener could have done to get the good grapes.   
And indeed, that’s how it goes sometimes.  In gardening.  In raising children.  In careers and relationships.  Sometimes, you do everything right and despite your very best effort, you wake up one day to find yourself with a bunch of bad grapes on your hands. 
This was supposed to be a love song, but it is a love song without a happy ending.  But the love song quickly changes into something quite different because the gardener doesn’t just walk away, but gets really ticked off.   Angry.  Furious.  He will rip down the protective walls and hedges, plow the whole thing under and let the plot go back to seed and weeds.  That’s what the gardener will do.  It’s what the vineyard deserves for letting him down. 
The gardener finally commands the clouds to hold back rain and it becomes clear this isn’t just a story about a good vineyard gone bad.  We know what Isaiah is getting at in this text.  Duh.  This is not a song about an ordinary gardener, but a song about YHWH.  And this is no ordinary vineyard but the beloved children of the LORD of hosts, which is the house of Israel, and its vines are the people of Judah.
And YHWH expected more from them.  YHWH had always expected more from these people.  These were YHWH’s chosen ones, the people YHWH had loved and tended for generations.  YHWH expected mishpat (justice), but instead the people produced mishpach (bloodshed).  YHWH sought expected a harvest of tsedaqah (righteousness) but the people created tse’aqah (cries). 
Anyone who has ever poured his or her heart and soul into a relationship only to have it crumble into dust knows that punch in the gut feeling .  And sometimes it is a healthy thing to do what the gardener is doing here — just step back and let things be, let the relationship lie fallow for a season or two, and try to resist the temptation to try to change a situation that has yielded nothing but bitterness. 
But stepping away does not mean the end of love.  I think God does sometimes leave us to our own devices, to stew in our own juices a bit, as my grandmother used to say.  But God’s love does not abandon us, nor does God’s love ever end.  It is always there, beckoning us back to life.  God’s love is as steadfast as God’s longing to see us yield the kind of fruit we were meant to yield.  Even in the darkest shadows of Isaiah, there is always a time of soothing healing.   After a time of  desolation, there is always tender and gentle consolation.  And after the deepest loss and darkest grief comes the light of hope. One small flicker at a time.  The light always comes.  God’s love does not end even in exile.
It always helps me to remember to whom Isaiah is speaking.  These are the people of Israel, more specifically the people in the south of the country, of the tribe of Judah.  And the history of Israel is all about a God of possibilities who somehow saw great promise in a group of people.  That God would choose the Hebrew people certainly proves Paul’s point that God loves to use the weak, the lowly and the foolish things of this world. 
Only God could see the possibilities in a rag tag group of people who began as a group of runaway slaves wandering around the desert, led by a stuttering shepherd.  Only God would continue raining down manna and quail on a group of people who never stopped whining and seldom said thank you for not being left on their own to starve to death.  Only God would bring the Israelites back from the brink of  what was often their self-inflicted disaster.  Again and again and again.
Even after they reached the Promised Land, this group of refugees never did become much of a super power.   Instead, they often found themselves kicked around and beaten up by a seemingly endless series of regional bullies.  Oh they had their moments of triumph, to be sure, and somehow these foreign nations never quite managed to absorb Israel into their empires.  The story of God’s people is that they survived against all odds.  In fact, I have Jewish friends who begin every holiday dinner with this somewhat flip but wholly accurate saying:  “They tried to kill us.  It didn’t work.  Let’s eat.”
In fact, it is safe to say that this little group of chosen people had only one thing going for them — that God saw something in them that wasn’t at all apparent to anyone else.  God saw their potential – and sees our potential — to become a people of justice, of righteousness, a light to the world, a people of peace.  In fact, God never has abandoned the vineyard.  In fact, God doubled down and entered into our overgrown, weedy garden in the human form of Jesus Christ.  And with that stroke of divine optimism, we have been cut down and set free to blossom.
See, I believe that every person who is born holds holy potential.  You, me, all of us.  Each one of us comes into the world as God’s choice vines, planted in the rich and loomy soil of love.  We need to stay connected to the nurturing power of God’s care and attention to grow into something more than our puny minds can imagine,  We need the nourishment that comes from our relationship to God and to one another.  We need to be fed with the living bread that does not perish and the font of living water, which never goes dry. 
I can’t help but picture God as this wildly optimistic gardener who goes overboard in lavishing care upon each one of us, fretting over us, hoping for the best of us but never really knowing what might grow.  And when we mess up – and yes, we do mess up — Jesus and the prophets tell us that there will be pruning and fire and all sorts of trials that will be painful and all too real. God doesn’t abandon us in those moments, but suffers with us.  And when the smoke clears, God sees that there is always more potential in us to keep growing.    
This isn’t rosy, pie-in-the- sky optimism about suffering.  This is the stuff of life.  If you’re a gardener, you know the cycle of creative joy and misery.  You plant.  You prune.  You dig up and move a plant that’s failing in the hot sun and try it in a spot with a little more shade.  You trim when a plant is overgrown.  Sometimes you let a plot lay fallow to give it a chance to recover.  God does the same with us…God keeps coaxing and challenging and moving us forward.   
I was reading this week about the wildfires that have plagued the western states over the past several summers. On Colorado’s Front Range, near Colorado Springs, a wildfire last year burned more than 116,000 acres of forest, destroyed more than 600 homes and killed six people.  It was a terrible, devastating event that has, unfortunately, been repeated this summer in Colorado and other areas of the country.[1]
But two months later, on the scorched forest floors of Colorado’s Front Range, new aspen trees began sprouting up like crazy.  This is extremely good news as aspen trees in Colorado had been dying rapidly over the past ten years due to severe drought which was at least partially responsible for uptick in forest fires.  Aspens are an important part of healthy forest because they are not as dense as pine trees and firs, and tend to open up forests to light.  And when forests are more open, they are less likely to produce the sort of super fires are difficult to control. 
The cool thing about aspen trees is that their roots are incredibly deep.  Really, really deep.  So deep that even after a super fire when the soil becomes too damaged to support other kinds of trees, aspens are able to grow naturally once the fire is gone.  Even in the midst of a totally burned out forest of ashes and soot, brand new little aspen shoots just take off and grow like crazy.   All those dormant aspen roots needed was a little space, a little light.  It sounds terrible to us that it took a crazy, awful wildfire to give those new trees what they needed to grow.  But once they begin growing, those little aspen trees will be the basis of a healthy, beautiful forest into the future.
I think that is what we are to be as people and as a church.  Every life has dormant times in which we lay low, waiting for the light to lead us into something better.  In those times, we are to remain so deeply rooted in the love of God that we can withstand even the worst wildfires of life that hurt like hell, yet somehow hold deep within the potential for new beginning. 
Toward the end of “The Fantasticks.” the narrator, played by Jerry Orbach, steps into the center of the stage.  As a spotlight shines on him, he says simply:
“There is a curious paradox that no one can explain.
Who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain?
Who understands why spring is born from winter’s laboring pain?
Or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?
I do not know the answer
I merely know it’s true”
We do not know why bad things happen.  We do not know why the fire comes or why the harvest fails.  We do not know why our hard labors sometime result in precious little, or why we suddenly find ourselves with blessings that seem to effortlessly fall into our laps. 
But we do know that death is not the last word and never will be.  Resurrection is good news for gardeners everywhere.  Resurrection is good news for parents and friends and lovers and children.  The reality of God’s love is good news for all of us unlikely, ornery people that God has planted in this time and this place, for the restoration of God’s whole garden, which is the whole world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] “Sunlit Sprouts Emerging from Colorado Burn Areas,” The Denver Post, accessed August 15, 2013.  http://www.denverpost.com/environment/ci_21469126/sunlit-sprouts-emerging-from-colorado-burn-areas#