I've just returned from a long overdue retreat, spending 3 nights doing my best to be attentive to God in the hermitage at Launde. In case you thought of asking, on the whole I didn't do too badly thank you. It always takes me at least half a day to disengage from all the stuff that fills my head, to silence the well nigh ceaseless chatter and to listen...but almost always, I do reach that place when the egocentric fog clears and I return to my primary identity as a child of God. That's such a good place to be.
But why I wanted to share my recent experience was not so much to encourage you to take a retreat, though I certainly do, but to share with you what happened when I went through a green painted door in a long brick wall. It was a beautiful afternoon, filled with birdsong, and I had been wandering the grounds, enjoying the last snowdrops and the first bluebells and listening to that silence that we never really find in the city, where the low growl of traffic is a ceaseless ostinato, so familiar that we no longer notice it until it stops. And in that silence I came to the door...There was a sign, but it read not, as I'd expected "Staff only" but simply, "Please close the door". So I opened it, and went through. Through into a huge expanse of walled kitchen garden, with beds for herbs and vegetables, a deep well,a greenhouse filled with enormous improbable cacti, alien visitors from another place, who were clearly thriving where they'd landed. It was the sort of garden Mr McGregor could only have dreamed of, its beds laid out in orderly ranks, ready for the summer crops that would feed guests in the house. And that protective wall stood to contain it, giving shelter, keeping out rabbits and deer...making sure that whatever was planted had the BEST chance to flourish, fruit and grow. Everything was just as it should be. All we needed was a crop.
That was Isaiah's problem too.
My beloved had a vineyard, prepared the ground, tended the soil, planted the choicest Vine, the Vine he had brought specially from Egypt...a people to be God's own, and to model God's way of living for all the world to see. Yet this hand - picked people had let God down. For all the care lavished on them, they could not, would not be fruitful. Instead of an abundant harvest of fine grapes to share, they were producing only the tiny, bitter inedible wild grapes..fruit to pucker your mouth and set your teeth on edge.
What more was there to do?..an question taken up across the centuries by the prophet Micah , before finding its place in the agonising grief of the Good Friday reproaches. How could God love us more? Give us more of God's self?
"O my people. What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me..."
For Isaiah, here and now is the moment of truth. Looking at the vineyard, God finds no fruit, no justice, no righteousness on this Vine that is God's people, Israel. To be this Vine means to receive God's special care, God's loving nurture...but it means, too, to come under God's judgement.
And there is nothing to show him. No harvest at all.
"He expected justice but saw bloodshed, righteousness but heard a cry."
A well tended vineyard, with not a single grape. It was a theme that was to become heartbreakingly familiar.
So God spoke through the prophets again and again..the story of God's care and our neglect, God's cherishing and our indifference. As Jesus spoke to that mixed crowd in the Temple, where priests,scribes and elders mingled with disciples and the curious bystanders, everyone present knew that the vineyard parable was about them, about God's people, the Jewish nation. They knew too that the rejected messengers were those prophets who had tried, again and again, to call God's people back to themselves...and to their core relationship with God. Had tried to no avail.
But what next? A Son and heir. Now we are onto unfamiliar ground...we enter a new chapter. A Son???.
Who knows if the tenants in the parable actually had anything worth offering their landlord. Maybe, rather than cheating him of his profits, they were simply trying to hide their own fruitlessness. They knew his hopes and expectations, but knew too their own complete failure.They had nothing to offer, no matter how many messengers, prophets, sons were sent. Israel, called to be a light to the nations, a people shaped each moment by God's law of love, had become instead a people bound and defined by other laws, a people intent on protecting themselves not for the sake of the fruit they might give to the world but for their own security, hanging on for dear life to an identity that had lost its purpose.
This is not just bad discipleship but bad viniculture too. An American nun, Sr Judith Sutera OSB, who is also a master Vine dresser, writes thus
"Good vines require cutting and more cutting. A mile of runners won't give you one more grape, so get rid of the branches that don't bear fruit. Do you want to keep everything? Then expect nothing. Cut and then cut some more."
It seems that this is the point we have reached, that even God has run out of patience, that the guardians of fruitless tradition have signed their own death warrant. We have reached the end of the story of Israel the Vine, but now God begins a new project, replacing the Temple whose core purpose has been lost with one where the rejected Jesus becomes the missing piece, the corner stone to comlete the whole building. Now he becomes the template, against which we will all be measured...
Does that sound terrifying...something beyond our highest dearest aspiration? Are you, like me, left scrabbling for good news in the dirt of a vineyard that seems to be so much less fruitful than you'd hoped?
Then remember that Jesus also said I AM the Vine...not simply the one in whom God's fullest intention for Israel is made good, but the one whose runners stretch even into those places of least fruitfulness, the one who is inextricably involved with our barren hopes, our wasted efforts, our inertia, greed and fear. Jesus the Vine is connected with us in those places where we are furthest from God's will and God's pleasure...Indeed he is here scrabbling with us in the dirt as we look desperately for some harvest worthy of the name.
Today Holy Week begins and as we walk again the way of the Cross, it is to discover for ourselves that the whole story of humanity, of God's love and our intransigence is focussed on the person of Christ as he moves towards Calvary. If we follow closely, the sorrow and love that drops from the crucified one will transform our barren vineyards, softening our hard ground and harder hearts til we are fully human once more. A shoot shall spring up from the stump of Jesse...the Vine shall be renewed, its branches reaching everywhere, to bear fruits of righteousness for there is nowhere beyond the reach of that self giving love.