The vineyard blues

I have never been a big fan of country music, so I apologize to those of you who are.  But when it comes to bemoaning a broken relationship, nothing else can tell and retell it quite like country music can.  Take these lyrics to a song called “Winner of a Losing Game,” sung by Rascal Flatts.  (And if you really want to listen to it, you can go here.)

Baby, look here at me
Have you ever seen me this way?
I’ve been fumblin’ for words
Through the tears and the hurt and the pain

I’m gonna lay it all out
On the line tonight
And I think that its time
To tell this uphill fight goodbye

Have you ever had to love someone
That just don’t feel the same?
Trying to make somebody care for you
The way I do is like trying to catch the rain
And if love is really forever
I’m a winner at a losing game.

Now the music does help the lyrics, but you get the idea.  The lover is not being loved back and is giving it up.

Last week in worship one of our readings was a love song found here.  Of course, we don’t know what the music sounded like any more, but if you’re creative and want to put a music spin on these lyrics, it could be worth a try.

Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard.
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.

It’s figuring out who is saying what in this love song that is confusing.  The prophet Isaiah is singing the love song, but he is not singing it for himself.  He’s singing it on behalf of God, and the prophet calls God an unusual name—Beloved.  We are told the Beloved (God) has been tenderly caring for a special vineyard (God’s nickname for the people of ancient Israel).  The Beloved (God) has done everything in his power to make a wonderful vineyard: chosen a fertile, well-drained piece of land;  dug and cleared it of rocks; built a watch tower in it to keep out critters that sneak in to get the fruit; even built a wine vat right there on the premises.

The Beloved anticipated the finest quality of  grapes, but the tragedy in this love song is that the vines went wild in spite of the Beloved’s care.  The Beloved, who is passionate about justice, expected to discover justice among the vines of his people…..but found violence instead. Expected to find neighbors caring for the poor and vulnerable, but found the poor and vulnerable being taken advantage of by neighbors.

“Wild grapes! What went wrong?” laments the Beloved God.  “What more could I have done? ”

If you listen to country music you know that love spurned can get angry, and this one in Isaiah heats up.  It’s pack-up-my-bags time. The Beloved decides to give up, tear the vineyard down…every blasted vine and wall, forget about watering it, and let it turn into a weed pit.  End of song. End of Vineyard.

But I got hooked on this love song, Isaiah’s not Flatt’s (sorry, country fans).  Here’s a few reasons why:

Calling God “Beloved,” like Isaiah was doing—well, that is powerful language.  Let’s face it, it’s not often we call anyone “beloved,”at least not as a noun, not as our name for them.  Maybe a spouse or lover; maybe a child or grandchild.  But truth be told, calling God “Beloved” feels risky. Intimate. Maybe almost embarrassing.  Quite presumptuous.  To call God “Beloved” sounds like God has gained our utmost devotion, our cherishing passion— body , soul and mind.

I have found musicians, poets and contemplatives,when so moved, to be more fearless about calling God “Beloved.”  Why? Perhaps because the artists are not afraid to stretch boundaries.  Perhaps because the contemplatives are content to silently sit in loving awe of God rather than asking God for things or talking about God.  I wonder, how would we change, how would our faith change, if we were to call God “Beloved”?

I got hooked on this love song because I was curious about wild grapes.  In Pennsylvania wild grape plants are common, especially in low lying woods.  They are thick vines that climb the trees way up into the canopy.  Wild grapes are edible, but most of us have never tasted them because they are impossible to reach, unless you are a bird.  They are small too, which makes harvesting a lot of work for not much return.

In this love song I can imagine the wild grape vines escaping out of the Beloved’s vineyard, doing their own thing, climbing where they want, not interested in what the vineyard has to offer, a little crazy, a little meager on the fruit side.   There are certainly parts of me that tend to do my own thing, follow what I personally make important without checking in with the Beloved of the vineyard, wasting a lot of energy on what is not really important.  And I suspect that some of the wild grapes in all of us could drive the Beloved crazy.

So why hasn’t the Beloved given up on us, refused to water us and turned us over to the weed eaters as this love song indicates?After all, I don’t imagine that we are much different than the people of Israel whom Isaiah was calling God’s vineyard gone wild.

The reality of a love-song, whether Isaiah’s song or Flatt’s country song, is that it is a snapshot in time, a cry of pain, but rarely the whole story.  After the outburst of lament, what happens next?  Sometimes broken relationships are mended, people go to counseling, forgiveness is shared, the lonely one finds a better soul-mate, or the one who is hurt becomes wise.  Sometimes faith is found, the lost come home, grace is extended.  Anger and retribution don’t have to last, even if for awhile that is what the heart initially cries out for.

So, I got hooked on this love song because we know a surprise ending.  The Beloved didn’t stop where Isaiah left it.  The Beloved never really gave up on people of Israel. They were scattered in exile for awhile under foreign rulers, but the Beloved brought them home again.  In fact, the Beloved’s next plan was to actually become a vine in the vineyard.  It happened when Jesus, the Beloved in the flesh, came to earth among us.

In Christ the Beloved,  all of us straying vines are welcomed back home, grafted on as branches, so that we remain connected.  That connection helps us bear the kind of justice and compassion the Beloved intended for us all along.  God knew we couldn’t become unwild vines by ourselves, so the Beloved has done it for us through the death and resurrection of Christ.

I am the vine, says Jesus. You are the branches.
Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
As the father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.

So in the end, the Beloved, not only tends the vineyard, but becomes the vineyard’s main vine, joining us to himself to keep us from going wild.  The Beloved makes us beloved in Christ.  In some mysterious way, we are the love-song’s new ending.