When God’s love keeps distance

14Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
15behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted. (Psalm 80)

Despite the fervent prayer and hopeful faith demonstrated in this psalm, God did not answer the Psalmist’s prayer. God did not restore the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel to their glory.

In a plea for help, this psalm[1]tells the story of a vine (Israel) whom God saved from Egypt and placed it in the land of promise (the vineyard). Yet, the vineyard has come on hard times, being raided and devasted by thieves.

Scholars generally think that Psalm 80 was written during the Assyrian attacks on the northern kingdom of Israel.[2]Aware of this history, we may find the psalm disturbing, to say the least. Because Assyria took them captive around 722 BCE and sent them into various parts of the Assyrian Kingdom. The hope of the psalmist remained devastatingly unfulfilled.

Why did God not act to save Israel at the time? How could God be so un-caring to ignore the pleas of the people? 

Jesus tells a different story, which can also leave us scratching our heads about God’s apparent lack of concern. In the Gospel from Matthew today[3], Jesus tells the story about a landowner of a vineyard whose son is murdered by the tenants of the vineyard. 

Are our prayers of hope for restoration misguided? We come up with all kinds of explanations, for sure. From the perspective of history, and some distance, we may say that eventually the promises are fulfilled and the people are saved. However, in the lives of those directly affected by the Assyrian conquest and immediate aftermath such statements of belief provide little traction. “Just hang in there for 700 years; then, everything will be ok.”

But the nature of God’s love is such that God maintains sufficient distance to free us to determine our own response, whether that response yields fruitfulness or mistakes. The vineyard of God’s reign is about relationships that are non-possessive; that is, we care for one another while leaving each other free – thus mirroring the nature of God’s love. Caring, but not possessing. 

We may think of this kind of detachment as a lack of warmth and caring. Yet at certain times of our lives – especially through some suffering and loss, when changing circumstances lead to job or relationship loss, ill health or a major transition in life – God’s loving distance recognizes and allows that going through grief /loss /suffering is more necessary than going around it.

We never want to be in this in-between state: leaving what was and not sure about was is becoming. In this space we undergo a unique kind of waiting before the new thing is entered. Some have suggested it will take the rest of our lives to recognize what is truly happening to our world and our lives at this time of the COVID 19 pandemic. We are thrown unwittingly into a place that we would rather not go. 

Now we have no choice but to surrender and learn whatever good lessons are to be learned. On this journey in the in-between time and space, we must not force ourselves through until we learn what it has to teach us. We have to watch our tendency to be attached to outcome, not open to outcome.[4]

I agree with those who say that nothing less than a pandemic could begin to re-educate a cold, divided world. We needed a new ‘doorway’ and we are being pushed through it.[5]

Having faith means trusting God by accepting the new reality we are encountering at this time. Having faith means appealing to God’s help even and especially when God seems absent. It is in the messy moment of suffering and love, where God will make sense to us, somehow, and through which we will grow in God’s love for all.

How do we start? We begin by recognizing the importance of other abilities and capacities we have to access reality and truth. Our mind and its capacity for rational, analytical thought is not enough to appreciate and comprehend the fullness of what God is doing in present circumstances. Sometimes we need to rely on other faculties that allow us to receive the truth and grace of God.  

My mom told me the story she heard about a deaf man who attended worship services every week. He came late, usually as the first hymn was concluding. But he stayed to the very end of each service. His eyes were glued to the activity around font, pulpit and altar, week after week.

After several weeks of noticing the deaf man in attendance, someone in the congregation who knew sign language stopped him at the door as they were leaving. “Why do you come to worship when you can’t hear any words that are being said?” she asked, genuinely curious.

Without hesitation, the deaf man responded: “I come to see the sign of the final blessing, to watch the pastor make the sign of the cross, and to feel the positive energy coming from that sign into my heart. That’s all. That’s what I need now.”

What are the signs of God’s goodness and love, small though they may be, in your life? May the risen Christ live through our wounded lives to bring into the world the new, good thing God is doing.

[1]Psalm 80:7-15, Pentecost 18A (RCL)

[2]Stephanie Mar Smith in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.128

[3]Matthew 21:36-45, Pentecost 18A (Revised Common Lectionary)

[4]Alan D. Wolfelt, “Walking in the Wilderness Together” in Frontline (Summer 2020).

[5]Richard Rohr, “A Liminal Time” in The Mendicant Vol 10, No 2 (New Mexico: Center for Action & Contemplation, Spring/Summer 2020)

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