A Sermon for Covenant
“My Word, Like Fire”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
August 18, 2013
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
When I read this text, I hear the pain and the agony of a disgruntled lover, or maybe just a disgruntled gardener, but either way it is a text ripe with disappointment and fallow with reward. Here is One whose heart is torn asunder and is ready for the barren vineyard to reflect his ravaged heart. He envisions the vineyard devoured, unprotected, vulnerable to the elements, void of rainfall, overgrown with thorns, trampled upon, broken, chunks of it removed completely—because, I imagine, this is how it feels inside his heart—like the love he’s poured into the vineyard has been devoured, that by giving so freely it left him unprotected and vulnerable to storm, yet void of rainfall, penetrated by thorns, trampled upon, broken, like chunks of his heart completely removed. Who among us can’t relate to a devastated heart?
On Tuesday I was at my very first open mic night, where poets read their poetry aloud when one reader approaches the podium. He stands, bright-eyed and confident, and begins a poem about his many love affairs. He’s a married man, but he just can’t help himself and he begins an animated description of his numerous flings—number two, number seven, number ten, we hear details about them all. Late at night, he meets them for a rendezvous on his couch. His wife catches him in the act, but somewhat surprisingly, she doesn’t object. He is smiling down at us as he reads, and as the poem continues, you start to catch on: he isn’t talking about other women at all, he’s talking about episodes of Dr. Who, his favorite TV show.
That’s the thing about poetry—you play with words. Often you describe in rich and vivid detail one thing, when all the while you are really describing something else. Poems might use larger-than-life imagery or mix metaphors in an illogical way or make real the unrealistic, sometimes getting at something too true and too real to be captured in any other way.
It is incredible to me to find poetry woven so freely and so profusely in and out of the lines of Scripture. Why would God choose a mode of communication so effusive, so emotive, and yet so elusive? Wouldn’t it be easier to attract and maintain followers with a clear-cut plan of salvation, for example? Simple steps or systematic theology or a creed or a definition of terms—all the things we’ve created to try and get a handle on faith and God are things you do not find when you open your Bible. Scripture defies neatly packaged explanations and depictions of God. It is full of stories (messy stories for that matter), parables, sayings, personal letters, and poetry.
Of all the things, our holy and sacred text is plum full of poetry. Even when the words in your Bible are not visually broken up line by line, if you listen, you’ll hear the cadence. That’s how I memorize most Scripture—by listening for its poetic pulse and keeping tempo.
Poetry can be a terrifying way to communicate your heart with the world, because the ground is so ripe for misunderstanding. That man at open mic night was trusting us to hear his allusions to a television show, even though his literal words were suggesting something more sinister. In his case, it was all good fun, but often poetry is getting at something far more elemental, like the human condition, the human heart, the mind of God, or the complexity of love, and the poets take great risks with language, hoping with words to reach out and touch that which cannot be touched.
Poetry demands to be read slowly. Poetry requires you to ask it questions. Poetry assures that you won’t be able to walk away with clear-cut answers. Poetry invites engagement with its reader. For poetry to work, it is necessary for its readers to interpret, to read between the lines, to absorb and to digest. Poets risks what all writers risk—misunderstanding and misappropriation—but for poets the risk is greater because the words themselves are riskier words, their arrangement often strange to the ear, their images startling and sometimes intrusive. Poetry is meant to split you open, with its vulnerability to make you vulnerable, and so you can sort of see why God would choose this way of communicating with the people whom he longs to engage.
Take today’s text. A straightforward reading will hardly do. Taken at face value, we have an abusive, punishing gardener: devouring, plundering, destroying, raging. But we are told in the beginning this is a love-song, a poem. If you hear the poetry, then you begin to hear the passion and love and longing of an unrequited lover. You hear a God so moved by the human condition that only poetry will do, and the image God chooses is a ravished vineyard. You can hear the aching inside of God, who so tenderly and so patiently tended, tilled, planted, built, only to be given a crop of crying and bloodshed.
Oh the agony!
Let it all go to waste!
Can you hear the divine
We do not often think of God as someone with disappointed dreams or unfulfilled wishes, and yet that is exactly what this poetry describes—a God who did not get what God wanted, a God who loved deeply and was not loved in return, a God who longed and yearned and hoped and was let down and disillusioned.
We tend to talk of our own emotions as so human, when in fact, they may just be quite divine. We get frustrated by the pain emotions can cause or the way emotions interfere with our reasoning, and so we view our emotions as a weakness and therefore distinctly human. But what if emotions are not limitations at all, but gateways into the eternal? What if it is the grief and passion and longing and joy and heartache we feel, deeply feel, that provides a peak into the heart of God, that connects us most acutely with God? When we express or explore the emotions, we are exploring the spark of the divine that resides in our souls.
And perhaps when we share our emotional vulnerability with one another, we are finally getting around to being authentically religious. Just think how God consistently God offers God’s self up to us to be misunderstood. How often God bares God’s soul. How much and how often God risks relationship. It takes great courage to initiate relationships and to mend fractured ones and this is the venture God has undertaken, again and again with relentless devotion. And thus, when we enter the fray of relationship and feeling, we enter the world with the Christlike courage of God.
I’ve been writing my own poetry prolifically these days as my primary way of living through pain. I wrote one just this week on vulnerability, my own vulnerability and the challenging task of exchanging vulnerability with others, and I’d like to read the last half of it to you:
Won’t I be repulsive
to the world’s potential love
with my open wound
and its oozing pus—
I can smell its stench,
D. told me once
that having bad breath
gives others the chance
to practice forgiveness,
which made me laugh
and think of her as a safe person
to expose one’s secrets,
but, still, I’d rather not
I’d rather be adored
for all my good smells,
my character, the gleam
in my eye, the spark
of brilliance, the caring
with which I like to use my words.
It is the odorous
shadowy unexplainable limp
which I do not even know
how to expose, much less
how to ask for your acceptance.
I am not hiding her from you—
just protecting her and still unclear
how it is we go about
binding each other’s wounds
when not a one of us
is ready to rip off the crusted Band-Aid.
Is isn’t just me, right?
Please say yes, that you’re unclear too,
how to let sores show.
I’d like to promise you
I will not flinch
if you let me see,
that I won’t automatically
reach up and pinch my nose
at your stench,
but I’ve been cringing at myself
so long it has become
a muscle memory response
I can’t always control,
this repulsion from pain.
But I would try, my friend,
for you, I would try. I would try
to unwrap your gauze
with tenderness and compassion.
I would look into your eyes
and I would let you bleed
into my shaking hands
and I would warm some water
and be oh so gentle
with the cloth on your
and not get not angry
if you bleed for years.
I would say to you,
“You don’t have to perfect,
not with me.
I find you amazing,
incredible, and its funny to say so,
but I like the way you smell.”
And if you tried to be gentle
in return, I think we
would limp-skip our way
into the sun-soak afternoon
of life, sweating with abandon.
It’s terrifying to be vulnerable with other people, but God goes ahead of us, wearing his heart outside his chest, fully exposed, leading the way in passionate, uninhibited affection. We can hear the words in today’s text as finger-pointing accusation—we are the ones who delivered bloodshed instead of justice, cries of distress instead of righteousness, and in so many ways that is exactly what we have done. We are guilty. We are the ones who did not love back, did not bear fruit for the tender gardener, who have wildly ignored or perpetuated injustice. And yet, the tone of the text, while raging, is also a tone of longing. This is a God, whom we know from the rest of Scripture, who would give anything, even his own life, for the hope of restoration with his pleasant planting. If we miss God’s emotion present in this text, I fear we’ve missed the whole thing. Our injustices matter, matter deeply, but the love of God matters more, and the love of God endures. If God’s love had grown cold, God’s emotions wouldn’t be raging. God’s love is the heartbeat of this text, and God’s love is the motivation for our repentance.
My little sister shared with me an image that came to her recently in a moment of real pain, and the intimacy of her imagery was so moving to me that I asked her permission to share it with you:
“I am on my knees sobbing. My heart is breaking into pieces and falling into my hands. I am cupping my hands trying to catch all the pieces as they flow over my tiny hands and slip between my fingers. I am crying violently and snot is running down my face and I am crying even harder as I realize I can’t catch all the pieces of my heart. My hands are too small.
But I see Jesus is sitting across from me. We are both kneeling and he is gazing intently into my eyes with expectancy and inquiry. Then I see his hands are cupped like mine, but they are so much bigger than my own. He extends his arms and waits. I can see what will happen if I dump the shattered pieces of my heart into his hands. He will gently take the shards, lean back on his heels, and shield the pieces from my gaze as he hands twist and turn like they are shaping clay. I will stop crying because I am so mesmerized by his hands. He will look up and see my fixed gaze, while whispering, “This is going to be more beautiful than before, okay, Kelsey?”
Now I feel the corners of my lips twitching into a smile.”
May images, words, poetry, and silence fill your heart with the goodness of God and the fire of God’s love and the rock-splitting power of God’s Word. May you allow God’s voice to split you open. May you repent, repent, repent and turn from all your unjust ways. May run back to God. May you run full speed. Don’t stop running. May you bear fruit, sweet fruit, like the well-watered garden that you are. Amen.
“Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”