Once, as a child, something didn’t go my way. I was upset and angry. So my father told me a story. He and a friend, they were teenagers at the time, decided to go on a cycling holiday. For months they planned their journey, discussed provisions, chose youth hostels to stay in. At last the long awaited day arrived. His friend was to call for him at six o-clock in the morning. My father and his bike were ready by five. Six came, and then seven and eight. By midmorning it was clear that something had gone wrong. My father cycled round to his friend. He opened the front door in his slippers, surprised to see him. ‘But what about our cycling trip?’ my father asked. ‘O that’ said his friend, ‘I thought it was just make-believe.’ That experience of disappointment was indelibly burned on his memory. I knew I would never forget it either. A penny dropped.
The cynic philosopher Diogenes knew a thing or two about it. He would go around Athens in day time with a lighted lamp saying ‘I am looking for an honest man’. He would prostrate himself in front of a statue with a begging bowl and ask for alms. When asked why, he replied ‘I am practising disappointment’. Sooner or later in life, it dawns on us that the bitterest disappointments are when friendship fails, or trust is abused, or a promise is reneged on. Paul Theroux in his book Sir Vidia’s Shadow tells of his long friendship with the writer V.S. Naipaul, and how, one day, when they met in the street, Sir Vidia cut him dead just like that. ‘Take it on the chin’ he said and walked on. More classically, it is Julius Caesar’s last gasp Et tu, Brute?; it is Jesus ‘do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?’. ‘It is not an open enemy that hath done me this dishonour, for then I could have borne it…. But it was even thou, my companion: my guide and mine own familiar friend’ says one of the psalms.
There is an undertow of disappointment in today’s readings. A vineyard is the focus of unrealised, perhaps unrealistic, hope. Isaiah tells of how the owner of the vineyard looked for it to produce grapes, but it yielded only wild or sour grapes – no good as fruit, no good for wine. God looked to Israel his vineyard to produce the good fruits of justice and mercy, but in vain. In Jesus’ parable, the problem is not the vineyard but its tenants, whom the absent landowner has left in charge of his property. At harvest, he sends his slaves to collect his produce; but the tenants beat, stone and murder his emissaries. The owner’s son fares no better. In both stories the theme is God’s disappointment in his people, the God who looks for the friendship of human beings only to find that they have hidden away from him, responded not with loyalty and love as he invited them to do, but with hatred, injustice and indifference. God’s disappointment has a long history. From Adam hiding himself in the garden to the waywardness of ancient Israel and the conflicts and crises of our own time – how we have grieved his heart of love, tried his patience! No wonder he calls out to humanity in the words of the Good Friday Reproaches, ‘O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!’
But disappointment is a two-way street. Human beings also have a long history of being disappointed in God or feel let down by religion. Every priest hears stories from people who turned away from the church because it (and they often implicate God in this) failed them at some crucial time in their lives, or religion didn’t live up to its promise. The Bible is eloquent on the subject of unrealised hopes and expectations. The Psalms of lament like the one sung this morning beseech God to be true to himself and cannot make out why he does not rush to vindicate himself, judge the heathen and save his people: ‘how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? Turn again, O God of hosts, look down from heaven and see!’. In one of the bitterest yet bravest utterances of the Bible, Jeremiah cries out against God: ‘O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived’. In the gospels, there are those who no longer accompany Jesus, or like Judas, feel let down by him. And – dare we say this? - when, at his crucifixion, Jesus cries out in anguish, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’, is it as if the Father has turned his face away from him and like Jeremiah he faces the awful agony of being God’s deceived lost son?
The vineyard parable points to the cross, for it is set within the last week of Jesus’ life. It seems to suggest that Golgotha is at one level a huge disappointment, an inexplicable tragedy. Jesus came to proclaim a kingdom and invite us into it; more than that indeed, to usher in God’s reign. Was this God’s deepest hope? The way Jesus tells his parable makes me think so. ‘He sent his son to them saying, “They will respect my son”.’ Matthew points out that the story is addressed specifically to the ‘chief priests and elders’, the religious establishment for whom Jesus always reserved his harshest words. Their refusal to listen, like the tenants who held the stewardship of the vineyard, is what makes his crucifixion inevitable. But perhaps he clung to the hope that this death would wrench the wheel of history out of human hands and deliver the kingdom to God even if it crushed him in the process. Which, in the profoundest sense, it did. And when the meaning of the cross and resurrection dawned, they found their hearts stirred once more by their memories of a man whose words had burned like fire and whose deeds had astonished even kings. They had thought he was the one who would redeem Israel. Now they knew that he was the one who had given himself out of infinite love and mercy for the life of nothing less than the whole world.
What is the antidote to disappointment? How do we stop it gnawing away at our souls like a cancer? What's the answer to that quartet of poisonous weeds that disappointment can sow: envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness? The answer is: thankfulness, eucharistia, gratitude for the goodness of things, the loveliness of life, the generosity of God. And this is the gift of Easter. It is why we are gathered here on this first day of the week, to remember the resurrection of Jesus. For looking back from this far side of Easter everything is transfigured: tragedy into comedy, tears into laughter, disappointment into the upsurge of hope because of a strange yet wonderful work begun, a brighter dawn that is breaking over the world. Easter changes everything. The rejected One has ‘become the cornerstone; it is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes’. The vineyard is given to a people who will produce the fruits of the kingdom. It is the liberation of all that we have been and are. We are forgiven, found and free.
It doesn’t happen at once; it may take years for it to dawn on us that thankfulness changes everything because it gives us a new perspective on things. When I went to be a parish priest, I met the widow of the last incumbent who had died suddenly of a brain tumour after just 8 months as vicar. I asked her how she was in the aftermath of this terrible bereavement. ‘John always spoke about how thankfulness transforms our view of life, even when the worst happens’ she said. ‘I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. I am trying to practise that now.’ Something else I knew I would never forget. Somewhere inside me, I recognised a deep truth about Christianity, and what it means to follow Jesus faithfully and joyfully.
So we bring to the cross and the empty tomb our disappointments, our failed hopes, our unfilled hungers and unmet longings. We unburden our souls of their bitterness and regret at this place of healing. We turn back to him, and find that the simple word ‘yes’ said with heartfelt thankfulness is the bridge across that gulf between disappointment and hope: God’s yes to us in his Son; our yes to him as we receive the gift of love without end, and learn to be his people once again.
Durham Cathedral, 5 October 2014
Isaiah 5: 1-7; Matthew 21: 33-46