Choral Evensong 14th April 2019
Christ of the Cosmos
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tonight, as light fades and stars begin to wink in the April sky, we walk the poetic bridge between the realms of life and death.
Our readings find us in a metaphorical vineyard. In Isaiah’s text, the grapes – an image of the people planted and tended with care by a loving God – are rotten. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus takes up this familiar image of God’s people as a vineyard and intensifies its meaning. No need for the metaphor of people’s attitudes as so much putrid fruit; instead, Jesus’ parable is stark. The state of the grapes is directly connected to the tenants of the vineyard themselves. The tenants are the religious leaders Jesus confronts, who have distorted the truth of God’s tenderness and love, preferring their own greed and oppressive power. The fate of the grapes, the fruit of God’s own earth, is bound up with the quality of the delegated leadership. And the leadership choose: they choose cruelty, violence, and murder.
In the prophesy of Isaiah, God sings to his people. The song of the energy sustaining universe, the Creator of all life, the ground of our being, is a love song. It is a heartbreaking love-song. ‘Let me sing of my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard; My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill….he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’ Our English translation of the Hebrew in this passage loses the richness and wit of Isaiah’s poetry.
In Hebrew, God looks for ‘mispat’ (justice) but finds ‘mispah’ (bloodshed). God longs for ‘sedaqa’ (righteousness) but hears ‘sa’aqa’ (a cry).
That poetic ploy, to get the hearer to be attentive to the deep canyon between what God himself expects of his chosen people and what they actually choose, sinks deep into the minds and hearts of those who listen to Isaiah’s words.
Those who listen, and indeed those who teach, are listening to Jesus rework that prophet’s imagery, as Christ crafts a parable for those with ears to hear. They hear it, and they are enraged. Ironically, inevitably, to the point of murder. The rejection of Jesus, like the vineyard’s tenants’ rejection of God’s messengers who were sent to them, is anticipated, and is total. Jesus will die. The fruit he will bear is no less than the fruit of the resurrection. His Body and Blood become the nourishment of his people. Jesus becomes the true vine, the new vineyard, the flowing, abundant, best wine. But not yet. First, there is suffering, cruelty, and humiliation.
Christ, the one who comes to set us free, is the incarnation of the eternal God, creator of time, space, solar system, constellations. As the Roman Catholic poet and influential suffragist Alice Meynell puts it in this evening’s anthem, the ‘earth-visiting feet’ of Jesus Christ herald the Lord of the planets and the Milky Way: ‘He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.’ Light pollution makes it hard to see the stars in London. The next time you look heavenward on a clear night, let the glittering array of vast skies be a fresh wonder, and a reminder of the truth of God’s humble Lordship. Jesus is the bridge between heaven and earth. The Lord of all is the Lord of the stable, the Upper Room, and the cross. The God who washes feet is the God of Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper.
The medieval mystic, theologian, and the first woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church, St Catherine of Siena, wrote the Divine Dialogues at the end of the fourteenth century. The Dialogues were dictated to her companions while she was in a state of spiritual ecstasy. In this passage, she envisages God’s love, receiving spiritual insight from God the Father himself:
‘Open your mind’s eye and look at the bridge of my only-begotten Son, and notice its greatness. Look! It stretches from heaven to earth, joining the earth of your humanity with the greatness of the Godhead…
This was necessary if I wanted to remake the road that had been broken up, so that you might pass over the bitterness of the world and reach life. From earth alone I could not have made it great enough to cross the river and bring you to eternal life…So the height stooped to the earth of your humanity, bridging the chasm between us and rebuilding the road. And why should he have made of himself a roadway? So that you might in truth come to the same joy as the angels. But although my Son has made himself a bridge for you, he cannot bring you to life unless you make your way across that bridge.
O immeasurably tender love! Who would not be set afire with such love? What heart could keep from breaking!’
This Holy Week, allow your heart to be broken for the one who sings a love-song to his fragile and wounded people. The God who washes feet; the God who is closer to us than our own bones, our own breath; the same Jesus who dwells in us, and we dwell in him….that Jesus, the Son of God the Father, is truly the God of the universe. Because of Jesus, we dare to call he who fashioned and formed black holes and constellations our friend. Breathe into that wild paradox, and fill your lungs with the fresh air of God’s bountiful intimacy. Breathe in, and choose to walk with the one who is, now, in Holy Week, traveling towards the cross, confronting the darkest truths of human pain and cruelty. Jesus does this, his own heart and body broken for his people, so that the vineyard of Isaiah’s prophecy and Mark’s Gospel can flourish with better fruit. So that we can stargaze, knowing that our breath – in, and out – is the Spirit of God within us.
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