October 8, 2017
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46
Hurricane! Wildfire! Earthquake! War! Genocide! Mass murder! Random deportation! Species extinction! And that’s just the last week’s news. Add in the threats to affordable health insurance, protections for the Dreamers, discrimination against transgender persons, and innumerable other threats to basic human decency, and it’s enough to make me want to—well, what? Read scripture?
Today’s reading from Isaiah is what is often called the Song of the Vineyard. Here, God is portrayed as a farmer who has a vineyard, planting the best vines in fertile soil and lovingly caring for them. Somehow, though, instead of the big, juicy grapes that the farmer had every reason to expect, what showed up at the harvest were hard, bitter, wild grapes; or, as some translators suggest, maybe even poisonous berries. The farmer is understandably frustrated, ready to abandon the vineyard to briers and thorns and break down the fences that had proved useless in distinguishing it from the surrounding desert.
Isaiah doesn’t keep us guessing what he means. The farmer stands for God, and the vineyard stands for God’s people, who have not produced good fruit but rather poisoned the land with injustice and violence. As end of the reading tells us, God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard an outcry!”
And lest we wonder what this justice and righteousness looks like, Isaiah continues a few lines later, “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room” [Isaiah 5:8] and “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil… who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! … who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their rights!” [Isaiah 20-23]
Therefore, Isaiah continues, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them, and the mountains quaked; and their corpses were as refuse in the midst of the streets.” [Isaiah 25]
Oh, dear. This is beginning to sound like the headlines. And this God who wants to uproot the vineyard and send the people into exile must be the angry, Old Testament one that so many Christians want to compare with the loving, New Testament version found in the Gospels. The word “gospel” means “good news,” and I really need some good news right about now, so let’s turn to today’s reading.
As we just heard, it’s the parable of the vineyard from Matthew 21:33-46. In Matthew’s telling, Jesus seems to have borrowed the landowner/vineyard metaphor for God and God’s people from Isaiah. Here, it’s not that the vineyard is producing bad fruit, but that the tenants aren’t paying the landowner, who has gone off to do something else. When the rent comes due, the tenants not only refuse to pay, but kill the rent-collectors. Finally, the landowner’s son comes to call the tenants to account, and they kill him, too, thinking that somehow they will inherit the land when the current owner dies.
Is it just me, or does this story sound like a dark comedy about really clueless criminals? Of course they’re gonna get caught! Indeed, the chief priests and Pharisees who heard Jesus tell this story understand him perfectly. When Jesus asks them what the landowner will do, they answer without hesitation, saying, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
To which Jesus replies, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…? Therefore I tell you, the realm of heaven will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the realm. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” After that not-so-veiled threat, Matthew tells us, the chief priests and Pharisees start to get really worried about Jesus and the crowds that follow him around.
Yikes! What happened to gentle Jesus, meek and mild? Where did that loving, New Testament God go? This God seems just as stern as the one in Isaiah’s story. And where’s that good news I was looking for?
Before I try to answer that question about God, let me tell you a little about the good news that I have found in my years at Seekers. I’ll start with the epistle for this week, in which Paul describes his credentials as a faithful Jew and his gratitude for Christ’s call on his life. As I have said many times, I like Paul a lot. Although many people like to argue with him over one or another thing that he says, especially about women, I feel a certain kinship with him.
Like Paul, I spent a significant portion of my life as a practicing Jew, living to the best of my ability and understanding according to rules of my community. I studied scripture, history, and doctrine; I strove to be a good person; I went to synagogue, prayed, and celebrated the holidays; I even lived in the Holy Land for a number of years, learning Hebrew, having babies, and believing that I had found my true home. And even though I returned to the US after a few years, I continued to see myself as a Jew.
For me, as for Paul, all that changed I had an overpowering experience of Christ calling me to follow him. With Paul, I can say with absolute certainty,
whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. [Philippians 3:4b-8 NIV]
Ok, maybe I didn’t suffer the loss of everything because of my decision to follow Jesus, but I did lose a lot. This season of recommitment here at Seekers always underscores my estrangement from the Jewish community in which I lived for so many years. And I have been literally homeless in my life as well, but that’s a story for another time.
Last week, as he lit the Peace and Justice candle at Circle Time, Ron prayed for all who have no homes. As he noted, there are many ways to become homeless. Some have been driven from their homes by fire or flood, some by the violence of war or the violence of parents or partners. Some lose homes and possessions to mental illness or addiction or divorce. Some have been thrown out and shunned by families that cannot accept their gender identity, their sexuality, or even their choice of career. And some simply leave, searching for something that home couldn’t offer, yearning for something that home did not provide. I left home long before I came to Seekers. And, like all exiles, sometimes I still yearn for what I left behind. I’m guessing that sometimes Paul did, too, because he writes about his sense of loss.
For me, as for Paul, I count that loss as gain because I was nurtured into a deeper understanding of what it means to be called to Christian love and service by this community. After nearly half a lifetime among you, the rhythms of the Christian year are just as deep in my heart as the Jewish feasts and festivals that shaped my early life. I have learned to love the songs and ceremonies, the special foods, the holy days, and the weeks of ordinary time. I have been shaped by many years of celebrating Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter and Pentecost, and countless Sunday mornings together with you all.
One of the most profound insights which Seekers inherited from the Church of the Saviour is the discipline, or practice, of regular self-examination and reflection. According to Seekers tradition, many of us spend a silent hour alone in this room, or some other appropriate place, as Recommitment Sunday approaches, searching our hearts and listening for that silent prompting that lets us know if committing to another year of living as a Member or a Steward of this congregation is right for us. This year, as in most other years, recommitment as a Steward was part of my meditation while I was on Silent Retreat at Dayspring a couple of weeks ago. The answer, I am happy to report, is “yes.”
This year, Recommitment is particularly special for me, because after 27 years of attending Seekers, Glen will be reading his spiritual autobiography at the Stewards meeting tonight. Next week he will make the Stewards commitment statement for the first time as he stands with those of us who are re-committing to that circle, and sometime soon will receive the Seekers plant as a token of his commitment. As Cynthia mentioned in her sermon last week, Stewards is open to anyone who has been a Member long enough to take certain classes in the School for Christian Growth; been a member of a mission group for at least six months; and is willing to commit to responsibility for the well-being of Seekers as a whole, as well as to spiritual practices like prayer, regular scripture reading, and giving proportionally of your income (which we hope you are doing anyway). There are no other qualifications, no one has to choose you or invite you, and no one that I know of has ever been turned away.
You will have to ask Glen why it took him so long to become a Steward, or what made him finally decide to do it. As for me, I am a Steward because I am just as much in love with this congregation as I was on the day I was baptized on Palm Sunday in 1990. For me, Seekers Church has been the embodiment of Christ on earth in more ways than I can count. It is here that I learned what it means to be part of the Body of Christ, to serve one another at Communion, to sing the old hymns that some of you learned by heart so long ago that you can’t remember not knowing them, as well as the new ones that we have learned together. You have heard me into speech when struggled to find words for what I felt, held me as I wept more times than I can count, and encouraged me on my journey through seminary and doctoral studies as I sought to deepen my understanding of the wider Christian family into which I have been adopted. I’ve lost track of how many times I have stood at this lectern, either to preach or to lead worship; called us into prayer in our Circle Time gatherings downstairs; or taught a class in the School for Christian Growth. And I am grateful for the trust that you have put in me when I take on these leadership roles, as I trust you when you take the lead at other times and in other ways. I am grateful that I can call Seekers Church home, and hope that it feels like home for you, too, whether you have been part of this church longer than I have been or if today is your first day among us.
Still, there are days when I am overcome with sadness, remembering what it feels like to be a stranger, a sojourner, a person without a home. And this brings me back to Isaiah, who warns his people that they are set on a dangerous path because they have forgotten God’s instruction to welcome strangers, to provide for those who have little material wealth, to care for the land and its creatures, to apply the law justly and without favoritism. In Isaiah’s vision, God promises —not threatens, promises—to send the people into exile, where they themselves will become the oppressed and homeless ones, and learn to change their ways.
In a time when certain Christians proclaim that destructive hurricanes are evidence of God’s wrath for legalizing gay marriage; or insist on their right to own semi-automatic weapons and carry them into public places; or vote self-seeking, self-righteous, uncaring bigots into public office, I find myself reading passages like this in an equally partisan way. As I read these verses, it seems to me that what God is really trying to get us to notice is our abuse of the planet, our propensity to use violence to solve every problem, and the casual cruelty of those who ignore the common good while enriching themselves and their already-wealthy friends, not to mention the systemic violence, sexism, and racism in which we are all complicit.
Now, I don’t believe in a wrathful God who swoops in and creates havoc and destruction for thousands of people over hundreds of square miles because of the excesses and selfishness of a relative few. But what if God is not wrathful, but logical, visiting not punishment, but natural consequences upon a world that is heedlessly racing towards its own destruction? The ecological logic, at the very least, is almost irresistible: if using fossil fuels causes global warming, and global warming results in bigger, stronger hurricanes, then what we have been seeing this season is the natural consequence of our culture’s profligate, self-absorbed, privileged over-consumption.
I’m still not sure that this is a theological position that I really want to take, and I hope that some of you who think about these things can help me sort it out. In the meanwhile, what is the good news?
For me, the good news is that death and destruction is not the last word. What makes it possible, not only to get up in the morning, but to do something other than lament whatever horrible news I read in the morning paper, is that there is always good news, too. Eli takes his first steps and laughs. Emily smiles and kisses the hand of a friend, even though she can no longer talk. The soft sunset lingers into pink and purple and colors that I cannot name. A robin stops on a fence just a few inches away, and stares at me as I stop and stare back. There are countless, unrecorded acts of kindness and generosity on every city block. As Paul reminds us a few verses after today’s reading,
Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. …Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. …Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. … And the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:4-9]
The good news is that when each of us chooses to rejoice in the gifts God gives us, rather than living in fear and torment about the daily news, the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ. And with the God of peace guiding our hearts and our lives, we become good news to the world. Amen.