Uprooting Anew

Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” 

Jeremiah 1:9-10; part of lectionary text Jeremiah 1:4-10 for Aug 25, 2019

It is both a discipline and a gift to take what the lectionary offers each week and see what the text says in my context as well as its own.  I’ve set for myself the work of attending to the prophetic texts while they are given:  not reading all the lectionary selections and deciding between but defaulting to the word of the prophet, whichever prophet.  This week, though, the lectionary gives me — again — Jeremiah 1:4-10.  But I had that one already this cycle!, I want to protest.  Let me choose another!  

Except I’ve set myself this task not to choose but to accept.  And I really do love this passage.  So accept the invitation to ponder it again as a gift.  Maybe there’s a narrowness to so (relatively) prompt a return to the same words.  Or maybe there’s a wideness in clinging to the discipline’s constraint.

So.  Jeremiah 1:4-10.

Why do I love this passage?  Start there.  I love the interplay of the words, the relationship exchange:  the LORD gives ‘the boy’ as a prophet (1:5); the LORD gives God’s words to the prophet’s mouth (1:9).  

I love it for the intimacy:  ‘the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth’ (1:9).  The contact is physical:  hand meets mouth.  The words, even, seem palpable:  transferred via touch, taken between the lips, onto the tongue.  God’s word eaten (Jer 15:16).  Was it sweet as honey (Ezek 3:3)?  Did it flame as coal (Isa 6:7; Jer 20:9)?  ‘How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!’ sings the psalmist (Psa 119:103).

Suddenly, my lip cringes.  Honey is too sweet.  My tongue craves chocolate so dark that the depth of its taste rounds my mouth for hours.  

Read on.  The words that follow the given-word are not sweet.  Jeremiah is appointed ‘to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’ (1:10).  Four infinitives of destruction; only two of hope.  The bitterness of the first four verbs are only barely tempered by the concluding two.  The words tell that Jeremiah’s work will be gut-wrenching, pain-filled (20:8-9).  Not sweet.

I know something of the context of Jeremiah’s time:  violent destruction, deportation, and death, a traumatic end to the nation.  I know something of the context of Jeremiah’s scroll: oracles scribed and re-inscribed, edited and redacted and put into varying orders.  I know that the balance of four to two may reflect the trauma of Jeremiah’s context or even a later spirit softening the first bitter draft with the final phrase of possibility.

As I spend the week (again) with the text, it’s these last words — not at all sweet — that stay longest in my mouth, on my mind.  There’s a truth to them wider than the particulars of Jeremiah’s time.  A truth narrower, too, than the breadth of a nation’s existence, or end.  A truth that fits my life.  

Think of gardens or forests.  Or bookshelves or closets.  Or calendars.  Think of anything overgrown with weeds that choke the wanted plants, anything crammed too full of old things to leave space for possible new.  The ground must be cleared.  Of trash.  Of debris.  Of structures that oppress; patterns of practice or attitude that repress.  Even of tangible items and rhythms of living that were good and dear but whose presence crowds out any alternative.  (The curly-leafed ivy from my wedding bouquet which has overtaken the entire planter.)

I don’t mean to de-emphasize the violence of the prophet’s words, nor minimize the pain their proclamation portends.  To pluck up and to pull down.  To destroy and to overthrow.

But more and more I realize their necessity, notwithstanding the pain.  At some point, the garment can no longer be patched.  At some point, the pattern of life can no longer be tweaked and trimmed around the edges (whether ‘trim’ is read as addition or subtraction).  At some point, the only possible way forward requires first an action of relinquishment, an experience of death.

It is exhausting work just to persist.  Continuing on as ever we have because forever we have is so wearying that we can miss the way we are meant to take.  Or even seeing it, feel ourselves too exhausted to make the turn.  After all, we know how to walk this road.  One foot in front of the other.  There may be no great joy in it, but at least it feels familiar underfoot, it can be trodden without extra effort.

To push and push and push against a wall does not necessarily re-create it as a door.  Leave off the fruitless effort.  Step back.  Study again the way and all the weights you are bearing.  Hear the call to pluck up and pull down as invitation and as obligation, as discipline and as gift.  

What in my life must I carry on?  What in my life must I lay down?  What in my life must I let die?  What in my life must I uproot?  What cost of loss and grief must I risk, allow, even try to welcome?

What in my life may then be planted and built?  What of me may bloom new?

God’s Planting

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 built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;

he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

Isa 5:1-2; full passage, Isa 5:1-7, for Aug. 18, 2019 linked at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+5%3A1-7&version=NRSV

It feels a bit awkward trying to appropriate for my own life texts so obviously addressed to a community.  The prophet speaks of and to ‘the house of Israel’ and ‘the people of Judah’ (5:7) — the nation planted for justice and righteousness (Isa 5:7), yet yielding only ‘wild grapes’ (Isa 5:2), ‘bloodshed’ and ‘a cry’ (Isa 5:7).  I can read the text and recall the sound-play that in Hebrew joins and opposes ‘justice’ and ‘bloodshed,’ ‘righteousness’ and ‘a cry.’   I can review the context of eighth century Judah, the inequity of its affluence, the iniquity of its structures, and I can posit convicting connections to my own context. But that reading alone does not carry me through.  I do not need to read the text to see my own world.  I know it already as broken and ill.  Reading the text as a lens on my context — find the parallels, connect the dots — is important and necessary work. Yet doing just this week after week feels reductionist, redundant.  It becomes a short cut that takes me quickly to a blank wall, a dead end.  I stand there staring at graffitied bricks.  There’s no way forward.

But what if I turn the lens the other way?  Instead of treating the text as God’s revelation meant to show me my world and myself, receive the text as a revelation of God’s self.  Read the text and look for God.  What then do I see?  Who is the LORD revealed in this given word?

God as lover.  The singer, the LORD, and the vineyard are conjoined in this title, not just ‘beloved’ but ‘my beloved’ — relationship claimed.

God as gardener.  There’s love in that image as well, and a suggestion of physical exertion and intimate contact.  God breaks up and turns over the soil — heavy, sweaty, dirty work.  God hauls out the stones, sets them aside for the watchtower to be built.  God plants choice vines:  soaks the roots, digs holes and sets the tender plants in, bends to press the dirt around, stakes the tiny vines.  Does God’s back ache?  Are God’s fingers filthy?  Does God pause to wipe sweat from the divine forehead with a forearm?  Does God gaze with pardonable pride at the work, seeing already and gloating with joy over the sure growth coming?  God builds a watchtower and hews out a wine vat and looks forward to the harvest, the processing, the wine given to ‘gladden the heart’ (Psa 104:15), mixed and poured and set on a table for all to partake (Prov 9:1-6).

God as generous, as ultimately invested.  Having given all that could possibly be given:  ‘What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?’ (Isa 5:4).  God as hurt and puzzled:  ‘Why did it yield wild grapes?’ (Isa 5:4).  God allowing that emotion, acknowledging the cost of the investment in naming the disappointment of its failure.

God as inviting the vineyard to be invested as well.  The inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah are called to judge between the LORD and the vineyard (Isa 5:3).  Such judgment is only possible when both sides are fully seen.  To ‘judge between’ means to see the vineyard truly, which the text defines as seeing the vineyard in relation to God. So, and again: read the text to see God.   The glance turning back and forth between, from one to the other; looking deliberately, carefully; widening the gaze; acknowledging the identity-with as well as the vast distance between.  

The LORD planted a vineyard.  I — we — are the LORD’s ‘pleasant planting’ (Isa 5:7).  

Harvest will come.  The LORD makes that plain.  God’s plan may be resisted but will not be gainsaid.  God commands creation itself to further God’s aim (Isa 5:6).  Harvest will come.  Yet God wants all of this — planting and nurture and growth and harvest — not done to us but with us.  God calls the vineyard itself to ‘judge between,’ and so that we can see enough to judge, God lights the way with words that shine to reveal God’s self. 

The writing is no graffitied dead-end but an open door.  Through it I glimpse the gardener — if only from behind — bent over and working to till and plant and nurture the growth.   Persistently willing a tableful of joy.

Please, LORD:  Let me see the world with your sight, by your light.  Give me enough heart and courage to walk out into it bearing your image.  Lover, gardener, risking the gift, persistently working to bring the harvest to full and joyful fruit.  As I myself am brought.