Our first reading this morning from Isaiah is known as the song of the vineyard:
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines;
He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
What more could I have done? If this was country music you’d call this a hurtin’ song. But these are our scriptures, and we so call this a lament.
I heard this song on the radio this week. On my way home one afternoon there was an interview on As It Happens with the father of Aaron Driver, the would-be terrorist who was killed by the RCMP this week after he set off an explosive device. His father spoke of how he had called Aaron that week, but Aaron had hung up on him. He talked about his son’s childhood, of the death of his mother, of how he’d gotten counselling for his son, of all the things he’d tried to do to pull him back from radicalization. Mr. Driver wasn’t singing, but it was the same song: what more could I have done for my son that I have not done?
Today’s scriptures speak to a universal human experience, the experience of hurt and sorrow. When we experience suffering, pain beyond measure, how do we respond?
Mr. Driver, for the most part, responded stoically in the interview I heard, keeping a stiff upper lip, and that I suppose is an appropriate way to respond when you’re being interviewed on the radio.
But there is another response, and we hear it over and over again in our scriptures, and that is to lament.
Lament is a prayer, but it’s very different from the way we usually pray. Lament is raw. Lament is unrefined and unpolished. It is the cry of pain that we hear from a hurt animal. It is a prayer that exposes our fear and our anger, that lays bare our ugliest thoughts. And our scriptures are full of it. Just take a look at the psalms. Again and again, when faced with the suffering and injustice of this world, when hurting and even on the verge of death, the psalmist cries out to God in distress, in despair, in pain, in anger, with a desire for vengeance. One example is Psalm 35:
“my soul is full of despair”
“O Lord how long will you look on? Rescue me from the roaring beasts”
“You saw it Lord; do not be silent”
“fight those who fight me O Lord”
Another example is today’s psalm, as the psalmist contemplates the destruction of his people, using the image of the vineyard, he cries out:
“why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?”
There is sorrow, and there is anger in these laments. It is almost as if we are hanging on to God for dear life with one hand, while at the same time we raise the other fist to strike.
When we are in sorrow, when we suffer, there is a theological issue at stake: Is God responsible for our pain, for whatever is causing us to suffer? Or has God simply abandoned us?
These questions give rise to lament, and when we lament, when we use psalms of darkness, when we sing songs like psalm 35 that openly acknowledge our pain, that give expression to our blood-thirsty anger, that chastise God for doing nothing in the face of our suffering, that accuse God of remaining silent, that call on God to wake up and act, that call for God to attack our enemies, is this a failure of faith on our part?
No, I would say that it’s the exact opposite. Lament is a bold act of faith.
Nothing is off-limits in our relationship with God.
What we are saying is raw and scandalous – but we still bring it to God.
And we bring it to God in the hope and confidence that God cares and that God will act. We say to God there’s no f-ing way you’re going to abandon me now.
And so what looks like it could be an act of unfaithfulness is actually an act of bold faith. But even more, lament is a bold act that transforms our faith. Lament is an act of honesty, and it helps us learn the truth about ourselves and God.
Lament enables us to speak the truth about the darkness of our lives. We don’t have to pretend to be happy all the time. Lament pierces through our denial and our complacency. But it also teaches us that darkness is not failure. Our lives will pass through darkness. And in this darkness we will meet God. And it is here, in the darkness and even in death that God will give us new life.
And so our faith in God is transformed. No longer do we imagine God as omnipotent and unchanging, watching from above. Instead, we call on God to act, to change his mind, to end his waiting, to do something different in response to our pain. The most important thing about God to us becomes our faith that God will be faithful to his promises, and that God is capable of entering into our darkness and saving us. In this moment, faith becomes not so much the belief that God has created a good and well-ordered world, but rather the conviction that God will hear our cry, enter our darkness and redeem us.
We get a glimpse of that transformation, of that moment of faith in today’s psalm. The psalmist witnesses destruction all around him, but he will not let go of God. And so he cries out,
“Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine.”
And then something happens. In the midst of his despair, in the midst of his pain, something clicks. The psalmist somehow knows that his cry has been heard and in a complete 180, he concludes his prayer with hope and confidence, saying:
“And so will we never turn away from you;
Give us life, that we may call upon your name;
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts,
Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”
We don’t always lament in church. Usually, our gatherings here are pretty upbeat and joyful. That’s good, because often we do have things to celebrate. Today, for example, we’re celebrating the expected arrival tomorrow of the family of four from Iraq that we are sponsoring. It is good to celebrate.
But we also need to make room for lament in our churches because that too is our reality. Sometimes, church can get a bit too happy, and that can make us feel disconnected from some of the rougher edges of our lives. So we need to make room for lament in our churches, and each one of us needs to be able to offer prayers of lament in our own lives when the time comes.
One of the reasons that I believe that lament is important is that I see Jesus doing it. Today’s gospel is one of those times. The gospel reading today is not a happy reading:
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No I tell you but rather division!”
Fire. Death as baptism. Stress. Division. This is not a happy time. This is a time of pain and sorrow, and so Jesus’ words are raw and edgy. This is a lament. Jesus has set out on his journey towards Jerusalem and he knows that when he gets there, he will be put to death. The signs are there to be seen. The division has already started. News has just reached Jesus’ traveling party that another group of Galileans who traveled to Jerusalem had been murdered by Pilate, the Roman Governor. The Jewish religious leaders have already rejected Jesus. And this must come as a bitter irony. For the whole purpose of religion is to draw us closer to God; and yet when God himself draws close to us in the person of Jesus, he is rejected and will be put to death. For they do not know how to interpret the present time.
And so Jesus sees clearly that the peace that he longs to bring to the earth is just not happening. There is division, and there will be more division. And so Jesus laments. And he will lament again, and weep, a few weeks later when Jerusalem finally comes into sight:
“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes . . . you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
There is a time for everything under the sun, a time to weep and a time to laugh. May we learn to pray and to turn to God in prayer, with thanksgiving and with lament, in good times and in bad.
Homily: Yr C Proper 20, August 14 2016, St. Albans Church
Readings: Isaiah 5.1-7, Ps 80.1-2,8-18; Heb 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56