Sunday, August 15, 2010

“The Han of God”

“The Han of God”
Isaiah 5: 1-7 and Psalm 80: 1-2, 8-19
August 15, 2010
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

When M was first born, I quickly discovered the challenges of nursing a baby and holding a book at the same time. My typical quiet-time pastime – reading – suddenly became more challenging and I’m a bit embarrassed to say that, like many mothers before me, I started watching more TV. I decided if I was going to be watching TV, I could at least be watching something worthwhile, so I began ordering the DVDs of The West Wing from Netflix. M and I have been working our way through and we’re now on Season 5. David and I have a joke that someday M will be 45 years old, hear the theme song for The West Wing and suddenly have a Pavlovian thirst for milk.

Anyway, I apologize to those of you who watched The West Wing back in the early part of the century when it was still new – but I’m just catching on to how wonderful it is. Last week I watched an episode featuring a visiting pianist from North Korea.[1] He had come to the United States to give a concert in Washington, D.C. as a way of improving relations between the two nations. When the pianist first arrives in the U.S. he meets with President Bartlet for a photo op. Near the end of the conversation, he offers to autograph a CD for the President. After he and his translators leave the room, President Bartlet looks down at the CD and discovers that instead of an autograph, the visitor has written, “I wish to defect.”
Of course, things in the White House are never as simple as they should be and it’s not as easy as just telling the visiting pianist he can stay in the U.S.. The Bartlet administration is in the midst of important talks with North Korea about arms reductions and they fear that if they grant the artist asylum they will ruin the chances of reaching a much-needed political agreement.
C.J. Cregg is one of my favorite characters on the show. She is the White House Press Secretary and is increasingly disturbed when she discovers the President is considering sending the pianist back to North Korea. She makes a strong argument that the United States is a country founded upon freedom, above all else, and that the President must give the man asylum.
President Bartlet ultimately decides he cannot grant the pianist the asylum he seeks and he explains to her, “C.J., these negotiations are the real thing. I can't allow this defection. I know you disagree, but that's my decision.” Before leaving the room, C.J. responds, “Thank you, Mr. President. It's not that I disagree, sir; I'm disappointed.”
I’m disappointed.
Are there two words in the English language that are more painful when they are said by someone we respect, love, and admire? I’m not sure. I can remember, as a child, when I would do something really awful, my parents would say those words, “I’m disappointed,” and my world would come crashing down around me.
When we love someone, we don’t want to disappoint them. We want to please them, to make them feel good, to make them proud that they are ours and we are theirs. We don’t want to disappoint them.
The passage in today’s lectionary from Isaiah speaks volumes about disappointment.
Here we hear the story of a God who tends a vineyard. The Holy One has picked a fertile hill on which to grow grapes. Like a mother caring for a young child – or a shepherd keeping watch over his flocks by night – so our God cards for the vineyard.
Starting from scratch, she digs out the land, clears away all the stones – one by one, carrying them away – back-breaking labor. He carefully plants grapes – not just any grapes, mind you, but the best grapes. Choice grapes. And having planted a lovely crop, the cultivator goes even further. God builds a tall, strong tower to keep an eye on the vineyard. Anticipating a delicious harvest, she builds a wine vat and looks forward to the day when she can taste the fruit of her labors.
But instead of lovely, plump grapes, God is in for a surprise. He has done everything he can for this vineyard – in fact, he has gone above and beyond what we would expect. But instead of lovely, plump grapes, wild grapes are all that grow in this vineyard. It seems that no amount of love or attention can create the fruit God has dreamed of.
And so this farmer – Yahweh – sits down, exhausted in the hot sun and sighs, “I’m disappointed.”
Disappointed and frustrated and angry and sad and perplexed and just generally unhappy.
And, like a parent at their wit’s end, God unleashes some pretty angry words on the people Israel through the prophet Isaiah. God says that he will no longer take care of the vineyard, but will tear down the hedge, break apart the wall, refuse to take care of the land, and let it all rot into a giant wasteland.
God is disappointed.
This passage of scripture was written for a particular place and time. Isaiah was writing to the people of Judah in the 8th century BCE. And yet – can there be any doubt that we can identify a bit with what God is going through?
It’s easy to see how God might be disappointed at some of the things happening in our world today. The creation groans under the weight of our actions. We, who have been trusted by our God to care for this vineyard called Earth, haven’t done a great job.
The oil spill in the Gulf has (knock on wood) been capped, but how long will it be until we can even begin to guess at the long-term impact of its devastation. And how long will it be until our oil-addicted world sees another similar disaster?
Despite the fact that some people claim “climate change” is a myth, the scientists know better and they are carefully tracking 2010 as the hottest summer on record. We still don’t know if this is a direct result of climate change, but it sure seems likely given that 10 of the hottest years since the 19th century have all occurred in the past 15 years.[2] It’s impossible to know, at this point, if the 700+ people dying each day in Moscow because of record-breaking temperatures and forest-fire smog, are the direct result of climate change, but it sure is frightening to think this may be a sign of things to come.
And we, who have been trusted by our God to care for our neighbors as ourselves, don’t seem to have figured that out, either. I watched a report on PBS Newshour earlier this week about “the 99ers.”[3] These are folks that, having been unemployed for over 99 weeks, are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. Given the state of our economy and the lack of job creation, there are people out there – some 1.4 million of them – who have been job-seeking for almost 2 years. Some of these folks used to make six-figure salaries and are now adjusting to the reality that even their small unemployment check will no longer be available. People who tended the vineyards of their careers and homes carefully - earning graduate degrees, advancing in their fields – now see their carefully pruned crops laid waste by the recession.
And here, close to home, we have watched the deterioration of our schools. Teachers – some 7,000 in Indiana alone[4] – have lost their jobs. Our community has had to struggle to ensure that extracurricular activities will happen in our schools year next because the government funding didn’t allow for this important educational opportunity. And all the while, we continue funding wars overseas, though we can’t find enough money to teach our children.
When I was growing up in an Army town, I remember seeing a bumper sticker that said, “Wouldn’t it be great if our schools had all the money they needed and the Army had to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?” I don’t know what brave sole in an Army town had the audacity to put that on their car, but I know that God must surely be disappointed when our society chooses time-and-time-again to prioritize military spending over carefully cultivating and caring for our children.
Disappointment. Fear. Anger. Distress. Disbelief. Sadness.
These are all normal reactions we have when we see the world around us. And I believe they are all emotions God has about our world, too.
So are we to think that God is somehow punishing us for our misdeeds? Isaiah and the Psalmist certainly operate in a worldview that allows for God’s righteous anger to overflow and cause destruction in the world. My worldview does not. I don’t know about yours.
But I tend to think that some things, like record-high temperatures, oil spills that wreak havoc, and economic woes that make the hungry hungrier and the rich a little more wary are not the result of divine intervention. Instead, I think they are the natural result of our actions.
God is, I think, mostly disappointed.
And perhaps some of that disappointment comes from the realization that, even though God is God and we are us, there are some things that God can’t do much about. If we choose to consume oil like crazy and continue living our lives the way we do, God cannot somehow magically intervene and make climate change stop. It just doesn’t work that way.
So what is it that God can do? Well, I think that one of the things God can do is walk alongside us in our disappointment.
When I look at the world, I often become disappointed. I am disappointed in myself – that I don’t choose to do more about helping our Earth. I am disappointed in our government – that we don’t prioritize taking care of our children. I am disappointed in our people – that we don’t take the time to hold our elected officials accountable. I am no stranger to disappointment and I’d be willing to guess many of you aren’t either.
And what I hear in the scripture from Isaiah is that God is no stranger to disappointment. God knows what it feels like to look out on creation, feel a little out-of-control, wish so badly to be able to fix things, and sign deeply, saying, “I’m disappointed.”
But I think that God’s disappointment differs from mine in one important way.
My disappointment is often tinged with a sense of hopelessness. A sense that my hands are tied and there is nothing I can do. It is that sense of hopelessness that makes me inactive.
God’s disappointment, however, is never without hope. Even in the darkest of days, God hopes. Even in the latest of hours, God dreams.
God is never without a vision for restoration, a plan for a beautiful future, an understanding that things can become whole once again. The Psalmist prays, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts, let your face shine that we may be saved.” With God, there is always a way to restoration.
I believe that God’s sense of disappointment is closest to the Korean concept of Han. In that same episode of The West Wing that I was telling you about earlier, President Bartlet eventually pulls the young North Korean pianist aside to tell him he will be unable to offer him asylum. The visitor explains his sense of disappointment to the President by asking Bartlet if he knows about Han. They are interrupted before the visitor has the chance to explain Han to the President. At the end of the episode, President Bartlet says to C.J., “There's a Korean word, Han, I looked it up. There is no literal English translation; it's a state of mind; of soul, really. A sadness; a sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still, there's hope.”
I believe God disappointment exists in the realm of Han. When God considers what we could be and sees that we often squander that vision, God understands what is means to have Han. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still, there’s hope.
There is a sense that creation is broken beyond repair, but there is also a sense that a more whole creation is on the cusp of being born. Christ understood this paradox of disappointment and hope, too. I think he felt it when he prayed to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane.
Even in moments of deepest despair, even when we screw up so badly it seems impossible to find redemption, even when the world appears to be utterly broken, God’s disappointment is always Han. It is always filled with hope because God is a dreamer and God never stops dreaming dreams about what creation can become.
God is disappointed, yes. But God is also filled with hope for wholeness and restoration.
And it is through that hope – through the Han of God – that we, too, can find hope in a broken world. The world will always be broken – but it will also always be making itself whole.
And so, with the Psalmist, we, too, pray, “Restore us, Or Lord God of hosts; through your Han let your face shine, that we might be saved.”