Sunday, November 23, 2014

Visible and Invisible (Colossians 1 and Luke 23)


Visible and Invisible
from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


Colossians 1:11-20
11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

Luke 23:33-43
33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus* there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah* of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him,* ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding* him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?* Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

---

The last sunday of the church year, the last sunday before advent, is always dedicated to proclaiming the Reign of Christ. Our resurrected Lord rules all of creation from where he is seated on the right hand of the Father, from thence he shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.

So I set out at the beginning of the week excited for a sermon comparing the reign of Christ to all the things that his rule would replace. It was going to be full of hope for a brighter future, when we left our unjust systems behind. I was ready for a scripture passage all about how The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that is within it. It was going to be very Calvinist in its emphasis on the loving and unyielding sovereignty of God.

There was going to be a parade celebrating the reign of Christ, people were going to cast ticker-tape from the windows of buildings, marching bands would play the great hymns of the faith, and people would wave banners all proclaiming the good news of God!

Then I turned to our Gospel passage this morning.

Instead of banners we have a sign that said “This is the king of the Jews.” Instead of Marching Bands we have jeering crowds. Instead of ticker tape we watch as they cast lots for his clothing.

It looks as if the Roman Empire has found another brigand. They’re going to make a visible example of him so that others will know not to claim the title of “King.” For only Caesar is a son of gods, and only Caesar rules in this empire.

Or so it seems.

Up to this point, everyone who has looked for the coming of the kingdom of God was watching for the same model of visible conquest as earthly rulers had used. But God is not the same kind of generic ruler we have come to expect. The reign of Christ is not defined by champions or armies. The reign of Christ is defined by the cross. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

I think it is certainly within God’s power to sweep any empire right off the map. But I believe God is much more interested in redemptive, creative, reign than a coercive, destructive, rule. Christ’s redemption over all creation comes through the cross so that the world might be forever changed.

Even the parts of the world that had opposed God at every turn.

The reign of Christ is not visible in armies marching forth with religious symbols painted on their shields, it’s shown when at his death, the heir to all authority on heaven and earth intercedes in prayer, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

We really don’t. We don’t know what we’re doing when we step out into this world and proclaim that the powers and principalities that we can see are not the final word, and yet work so hard to serve them. We don’t know what we’re doing when we buy into the stories that our culture tells us about what being blessed looks like. We don’t know what we’re doing when we say we believe, but live in a way that sows doubt. We don’t know what we’re doing, and so out of our own limited understanding of how the world works, we end up opposing God.

The reign of Christ claims even us. Even in our stubbornness, our limitedness, our ignorance, our sin, Christ still claims us. No matter how deeply we are stuck in our wrongness, God measures us according to Christ’s rightness. The reign of Christ doesn’t just upend our unjust systems because even those injustices we would rather stay invisible are subject to the redemptive reign of our Lord who “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

That, friends, is something worthy of gratitude on this Sunday before Thanksgiving. The reign of Christ, in his strange, cross-shaped way of showing it, extends to all of creation, even to the unworthy bits.

Lucky for us. Because I’ve never met anyone who is worthy of the gifts God gives us. And it’s easy, I think, to get caught up in obsessing over all those components in our lives that we wish we could just make invisible and never have to deal with again.

As we approach the holidays and the gathering of families, it is all to easy to see the places where we have been wounded. I know it sure is tempting to compartmentalize the parts of myself that I’m not proud of, especially in a family where there is an unspoken expectation that, let’s be honest, I don’t always meet.

I’ve felt surrounded by my families’s love my whole life, and I certainly hope to make them as proud of me as I am of them. There’s a lot to celebrate in the rich history of Tabers, Potters, Shrewsburys, Barnettes, Barnards, and Boshells. The love shared in those groups, the talents, the triumphs, the traditions, are all part of what defines my family for me. Those parts are easy to identify as belonging to, and extending from, the reign of Christ.

But there are also parts of my history that I would rather sweep under the rug, history of families broken up through divorce, or abuse, or of being ruled by addiction.

The reign of Christ extends to all of that as well. Even the parts of me that I don’t like belong to God. The reign of Christ preserves my whole self, even the parts of me that I would rather not let anybody see, and claims all of me as beloved by God, and wrapped in the righteousness of Christ until even the darkest parts of my soul are set free from the stain of sin. I am convinced, moreover, that this is also true for every person gathered in this community of faith.

All of this is possible through the reign of the Son who, at the place called The Skull, prayed for the forgiveness of those who mocked him, killed him, and dared him to try and save himself.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible”

Christ claims both joy and grief as defining characteristics of his reign. The joy comes in the hymn of praise in our Colossians text, for all people can sing praises to their God, and to Christ who reigns on high. But in claiming the greatness of the hymn, Christ also chooses to define his reign by the whimpering grief of a dying criminal, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Both the visible joy and the grief we would rather make invisible belong to the reign of Christ.

We are approaching Thanksgiving, a time when we celebrate the things we are grateful for, lifting them up and choosing them as our organizing narrative throughout the darker months of the year. As our days grow steadily darker, and less of the day is visible, we celebrate the Reign of Christ at the end of the Christian Calendar. Advent begins next week. It’s a season of waiting, of longing, of preparing. Advent is a time when we look for the invisible, preparing for the easily overlooked birth of a peasant child whom we celebrate at Christmas. The invisible God made flesh, visible at last for those who know to look. Advent is a time of waiting for the invisible to become visible. The Christian calendar begins in Advent because we need to know that we start with waiting.

This week shows us what we are waiting for. The reign of Christ, who is heir among all creation, who’s reign is defined not by a visible sign that reads “This is the King of the Jews,” but by the invisible redemption that is already begun.

All the things we celebrate, and all the things we hide are subject to the lordship of Christ. We can hide them from each other, because some of them cause friction within the community of faith. We cannot, however, hide them from God. The parts of ourselves we would show to the whole world belong to God, the parts of our society we would make visible to all who look also belong to God. But in those moments when we are ashamed, either of part of ourselves or on behalf of our whole community, God claims those as well. God not only claims those parts, but invites them to the table, and declares that every part of us is welcome, because every part of us is redeemed, even the parts that don’t clearly show their redemption. So we come to the Lord’s table, where in visible signs we experience an invisible grace, and a wholeness we can only find in Christ who reigns.

The Reign of Christ is not about discarding the bad and uplifting the good, it’s about the reality that all of creation, both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and invisible, Whether they are thrones or dominions, or rulers or powers, all things were created through Christ and for Christ.


And Christ who reigns loves us.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Daylight Delayed

Matthew 25:14-30
14For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 

19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20The the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you haves over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master. 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 

24Then the one who had received one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25So I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘you wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not cater? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Psalm 90:1-17
1A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.
O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.
2Before the mountains came into being, before you brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity You are God.

3You return man to dust; You decreed, “Return you mortals!”
4For in your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed, like a watch in the night.
5You engulf men in sleep; at daybreak they are like grass that renews itself; 
6at daybreak it flourishes anew; by dusk it withers and dries up.
7So we are consumed by Your anger, terror-struck by Your fury.
8You have set our iniquities before you, our hidden sins in the light of Your face.

9All our days pass away under Your wrath; we spend our years like a sigh.
10The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness.

11Who can know Your furious anger? Your wrath matches the fear of you.
12Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.

13Turn, O LORD! How long? Show mercy to your servants.
14Satisfy us at daybreak with your Steadfast love that we may sing for joy all our days.
15Give us joy for as long as you have afflicted us, for the years we have suffered misfortune.
16Let your deeds be seen by Your servants, Your glory by their children.
17may the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
Saints and angels join in concert, singing the praises of the Lamb. The echoes of his name rebound across the seats of heaven, joining in a triumphal chorus of Hallelujah! We sinners here can only imagine the divine cacophony of joy at the opening dawn of Easter Sunday, and the glimmering beam of the Spirit as the sun crept over the horizon of a creation made new.

Yet we poor and needy sinners are stuck in the darkness, our daybreak is delayed as we wait at the closing of the church year. In the distance we can barely make out “He rules the world…”

We are like Moses at the end of his life, looking out over the promised land, but knowing he will not enter it. We may not see the restoration in our lives, but we know that our people will get there regardless. Our psalm begins, ”A prayer of Moses, the man of God.” We locate ourselves on the edge of promise, proclaiming that our redemption is won in Christ, and the promise is at hand. We make that proclamation through the same voice that asserts in Exodus 2 that “God heard the groans of the people and remembered his covenant…”

The saints and angels join in concert, and we poor and needy sinners groan, In our groaning, however, we read, remember, and rely on the promise of Psalm 90. ”O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.” Amid all the darkness, all the struggles that may try and pull us off course, promising that ”[The LORD] is the speaker's home... affirms that the speaker is not homeless. There is a center to prevent fragmentation. This is a belonging to preclude isolation.” We may not have the voices to sing, but we do have a home amid the hardships of this life that threaten to pull us apart in the night.

We start with home where we are rooted in God. The only way this poem can hold together; is to assert that WE are held together by God, who is eternal. “Before the mountains came into being, before you brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity You are God.” As this prayer of Moses, the man of God, moves forward, acknowledging the struggles of life and the neediness of sinners, we most hold to the starting point: "O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.” This Psalm is speaking in the midst of disorientation so that we can remember that God, and Christ, are at the center not only of our lives, but of all creation.

I think that much of sin is rooted in the idea of human mastery, whether it is the human masters of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, or the myth that we can master our own lives and do not need others to be fulfilled. "Any human attempt to be certain of God's presence and to speak of his eternal being is bound to remain always a mere stammering and necessarily leads once more to the realization of the futility and insignificance of everything that is human.” When we are faced with an eternal truth, such as “O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation,” the myth of human master falls apart in favor of the true master: God.

We, of all people, should know better. “You have set our iniquities before you, our hidden sins in the light of Your face.” We benefit from injustice from buying cheap clothes made in unsafe conditions in Bangladesh to worshipping on land that was taken from Native Americans hundreds of years ago. We may not see the injustice done, but it’s so much easier to look the other way when it makes our life easier.

This poem acknowledges reality is full of suffering. “The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness.” It's not the end that troubles us, it's what the end is going to be like. Are we going to decline for years in a nursing home? Are we going to go peacefully in our sleep? We have a beginning and an end, and we struggle for most of the between.We don't dwell on it because it's better to live in hope and preparation. Even in hope, the question remains: How do we keep moving forward in the face of tragedy and grief?

The Psalm does not let suffering overwrite the foundational truth of the people of God: ”O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.” We are often surrounded by darkness, sin, and death. God is our eternal refuge, but we have to acknowledge that we are refugees. This is not the way we were intended to exist in the world. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, but we live in a world that resists God reign.

One of the Lunch Bunch pointed out that we see and do evil, but we are still assured of God's love. We also know that our trouble and sorrow will come to an end. The psalm speaks of God’s wrath and anger, and how we cannot conceal our sins, but all of that is grounded in "O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.”

God's wrath is a personal, hurt, response to the brokenness of the world.a

A wise heart remains rooted in the LORD. Rooted in the word of God, the law of God, the steadfast loving-kindness of God. "O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation." A wise heart trusts God’s providential grace even in the face of sin and death.

"May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!" We asked for God to prosper the work of our hands, to make our efforts more effective, more lasting. God chose not to act in that way. The favor of The Lord came as an infant, a blessing beyond our imagination. The powerful connection we have with God is not forged with our hands, it is forged in the love of our eternal God. Rather than giving us prosperity and effective action, God gives us himself, as ultimately revealed in Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel - God with us."The thirst for place is resolved in the gift of communion.”

With confidence in God, our refuge in every generation, the work of our hands will prosper in ways of righteousness, rather than profit.


The Gospel of John promises that a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not extinguish the light. Even though daylight may be delayed, and the night extended beyond our coping ability, we know that there is still hope shining in the darkness. “O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation.” We face the powers of darkness knowing that Christ has broken them, and made our peace eternal. Daylight may be delayed, but heavenly light is breaking forth, and ushers in a morning of boundless joy.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hopeful Preparation


Hopeful Preparation
from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14for since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 25:1-13
1”Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10and while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

The church calendar is starting to pick up speed as we lean forward into advent. We’re rushing headlong into a season of waiting, and along the way we pick up some kingdom parables and impressions of our eschatological destination. “The kingdom will be like this…” begins Jesus, introducing a parable that is unique to Matthew’s gospel. We’re looking expectably to the story, hoping for the clue about the kingdom of heaven which is to come.

The characters begin to emerge, as actors preparing themselves for the stage. “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise,” the foolish enter from stage left, the wise from stage right, and we know, as we watch and listen, that this distinction will matter somehow. We prepare ourselves to find grief with the foolish and to take hope with the actions of the wise.

Our whole Christian tradition is built on the intermingling of grief and hope. We rightly grieve at the foot of the cross, but the resurrection establishes a new reality in which all peoples can have hope. In the kingdom parables, Jesus gives us an impression of what that hope looks like. But for Christ, and for his church throughout the centuries, these hopeful impressions are not meaningless set pieces. The kingdom of heaven is an oncoming reality for which we must be prepared. It will jump out and surprise us when we least expect it, and its radical freedom energizes us to be the disciples Christ expects us to be.

Expecting that energizing freedom, the ten bridesmaids carry lamps, beacons of their hope. They prepare for the bridegroom and the accompanying celebration. Their lights are dim and the darkness is vast, but the are prepared and hopeful. But there’s a misstep along the way, “When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”

Commentators have argued about what the oil represents for centuries. Some argue that it’s good works, other argue that it’s faith, others wisdom. I think if it were essential for us to know, Christ would have told us. The foolish bridesmaids probably trusted that there would be enough oil already in the lamp, that it wouldn’t run dry before the bridegroom arrived. After all, the wedding prepared, the director had cued the bridegroom’s entrance, everything would come together as soon as he arrived!

But the players will have to carry the show longer than they thought, as the bridegroom was delayed.

The most trivial delay can still be a magnificent bother in our Veruca-Salt, Don't-Care-How-I-Want-it-Now world. As our days grow shorter and the temperature drops at night, it often takes shower water longer and longer to heat up, because the pipes are colder. So we test the lukewarm water, and crank the "hot" up just a little bit. Then we wait a moment, and test it again. It's still pretty lukewarm, so we crank it up just a little bit more. Wait another moment, still lukewarm, so we crank it up just a little bit more. That seems like about the right temperature, and then by the time we get into the shower we get a moment of perfect temperature water on our backs before it suddenly turns to a river of lava and we try and leap out from under the showerhead before we scald ourselves to death. We flip the hot water down and the cold water up and after a moment the water is so cold that icebergs start forming around the shower drain. The the process starts all over again, all because there's a delay between when we adjust the faucet handle and when the water actually changes.

We've got control over our water temperature, we can fiddle with the handles all morning if we need to. Delays outside our control are more than irritating, they can be downright terrifying. "Thank you for submitting your application, we'll get back to you at some point in the next few weeks." "We have to wait for some project funding to become available before we can do that..." "We've done what we can to get them stable, we'll have to wait until morning to know more..." In times of intense stress, the delay only intensifies things. Waiting is, as they say, the hardest part. We pass the time any way we can: small talk, reading a magazine, or taking a nap "As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept."

The wise bridesmaids are not more diligent than the foolish ones. As the night marches on with no word from the bridegroom, all ten of them fall asleep. "The wise bridesmaids are distinctive not because they were ready for the groom but because they were ready for the groom’s delay." All of the bridesmaids held lamps, ready for the groom’s arrival. The foolish ones trim their lamps alongside the wise, but their hope was immediate and their preparation short-term.

A short-term action assumes that God will show up when we expect, as though we were the director, casting whatever image we fancy in God’s role and demanding cues be met are marks be hit. We know, however, that’s not the way things really are. Even though we struggle to live by it, we know God is the both the playwright and the director, and we are enacting his hope-filled story. Preparation for the delay acknowledges God's freedom, and shows faith that God will show up even if it's not on our calendar.

While it is possible, and often healthy, to schedule time for our relationship with God, we've got to recognize that God is not bound to a minute moment when we decide we are ready. God will show up and break up our carefully constructed days and nights, inviting all who are watchful to participate in the work of the kingdom. "Being watchful means being ready at all times, whether waking or sleeping.” We can be faithful, and hopeful at all times. Even dormant faith can shine in a dark enough world. God can use those dim, flickering lamps to light up the whole stage as the theater wakes up to a  magnificent final act.

Jesus finishes his parable, and the play comes to a close, and the audience is left with their impressions, wondering at the meaning behind his words as they move back out into the world. We work to understand and enact Christ’s words of hope, delay and preparation. "It cannot be that we are all supposed to bring with us the resources necessary for the celebration: while not all of them get in, all ten [bridesmaids] bring only lamps with oil in them. The text's theological claim about anticipating the bridegroom's great banquet does not negate the grace-shaped joy of a feast in which the host brings and shares all that we will actually need.” The focus of this passage is not that we should grab on to every possible provision and hoard it for ourselves. "The point is living expectantly and hopefully. Christian hope rests on trust that the God who created the world will continue to live the world with gentle providence." As church-type-people, we have the privilege and responsibility of hopeful preparation.

Each disciple may be a bridesmaid in this allegory, called to hopeful preparation for the day of the LORD. Perhaps, in this passage, the Church is not the bridesmaids. Perhaps we are the oil merchants, tasked with equipping disciples for the journey ahead, even though we do not know how long the journey will take. The Church is a place where we can fill our lamps together with the hope all will be prepared and none will be left out when the doors are shut. The foolish bridesmaids were not present to join the procession when the bridegroom arrived, and so they missed the party. Remaining unrecognized was the judgement on their foolishness. But the wise bridesmaids are under God's judgment too. They were unwilling to share either the oil or their wisdom to take an extra flask. The wedding party, therefore, was only half the size it could have been. Maybe the incompleteness is God's judgment on them for their failings too?

As the foolish bridesmaids found out, you can't fill your lamp at the last minute. As disciples, we have to grab the extra flask of lamp-oil, we have to take the risk that we will wait a while, because there is an abundance for all who are willing to keep their lamps filled. "The wise ones in the church are those who are prepared for the delay; who hold onto the faith deep into the night."


Prepare for the future, not a future where we're on our own and have to scramble to hold on to what is ours, but a future where Christ is returned, and returns us to the messianic banquet where joy and amazement will be without end. God gives us hope so that we can act, not just for our own benefit, but so that God may be glorified and we will enjoy God forever. The stage is set for the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, as we rush headlong into the season of Advent waiting. So we maintain our hopeful preparation, so that we may act in hope when the bridegroom at last arrives.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Looking Good


Looking Good
from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


Micah 3:5-12
5Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry "Peace" when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.

6Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; 7the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God. 8But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.

9Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! 11Its rulers give judgement for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, "Surely the LORD is with us! No harm shall come upon us."

12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountains of the house a wooded height.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 23:1-12
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens; hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to movie them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for their make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues. 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.Leah's favorite novel when she was in high school was George Orwell's 1984. It tells the story of one couple's attempt to escape a culture that monitors and controls every action and thought of its people, and its author gives us a powerful observation that describes every human culture and group I've encountered: "If you kept the small rules, you could break the big ones.”

I don’t think any of us would have to try very hard to find an example of Orwell’s observation: someone uses a loophole in the rules to gain an advantage in a game, another person uses a procedural technicality to get their way in a vote, someone else masks their contempt thinly through perfect etiquette. It’s not a great way to make friends, but it seems to get people ahead, at least in the short term.

This is not a new phenomenon. We have been breaking big rules and keeping small ones as long as we have had rules. Micah unmasks this hypocrisy in the professional prophets and priests of his day, those who spoke words that comforted the ones who signed their paychecks, and condemned those who did not contribute to their salaries. “Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.” By providing excellent customer service to their employer, they are keeping the small rules. By ignoring God’s call to righteousness and love, they are breaking the big ones.

Yet having food and a room over our heads, warm clothes and strong wall, or even a bell tower a well-furnished worship space are not crimes. “[Micah] perceptively indicts the tendency of elites of various types to form a self-confirming, self-enriching power structure.” For Micah, the big broken rules is that these leaders, both religious and civil, and seeking their own comfort. “Follow the money, Micah says, and sooner or later you will find yourself standing in front of some well-fed leader telling satisfied customers, 'Surely the LORD is with us.’" The have exchanged the living God for a self-congratulatory fairy tale.

Ultimately these teachers, priests, prophets, and leaders have turned from truth to comfort because they are afraid of losing a room over our heads, warm clothes and strong wall, or even a bell tower a well-furnished worship space. They have become so accustomed to sitting in privilege that they are afraid of losing their place at the table. We all face that temptation, and can fall into it just by not paying attention. “It is so easy to confuse our interests with God’s purposes, our power with God’s sovereignty, our standing with God’s glory.” We lose sight that God is the focus, not our own edification. It is so tempting to use the assurance of God’s grace to avoid looking at the difficult issues. We see our Micah text all over the place, but we struggle to see ourselves in it. We don’t want to face our complicity in justice issues. “Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, ‘Surely the LORD is with us! No harm shall come upon us.’” We’d rather just pretend they weren’t there.

I was on a mission trip, it was my first year at the Tri-Cities Workcamp where I went last summer, where I'll take our high schoolers next summer. We went into an inner-city home where the homeowner could not afford to make repairs, and one of our tasks was to take down some wallpaper and paint the walls. We went at the wallpaper, which had been haphazardly thrown up a few years previously, and began removing it.

I wish I could say that we uncovered beautiful wood paneling, and that once we scraped the surface we found a blessing beyond what we could imagine. I wish I could say that when the homeowner saw what was just beneath that ugly wallpaper, she saw that her home, and she herself, had value beyond what was easily visible. I wish I could say that what we uncovered inspired the whole neighborhood and many repented and were baptized, but not all stories have that kind of twist.

Underneath that haphazardly put up wallpaper was ordinary sheetrock. The only thing special about the walls in that room were the half dozen holes we found just underneath the wallpaper. The largest one was eighteen inches across.

In her haste to make that room look good, she had papered over the damage until she forgot about it. Or maybe she was afraid to tell us about it in her shame over knowing what was underneath.  Holes do not repair themselves. Neither do injustices right themselves. We cannot pretend that all is well just so we look good in front of others.

The problem is not in saying "all is well." The problem is when we forget that sometimes, all is not well. The problem is when we profess the faith of the comfortable when so many of us do not have that comfort, and we use empty pronouncements to cover up their suffering, or our own. "Surely the LORD is with us! No harm shall come upon us." We use empty words as an excuse to hold on to what we can grab for ourselves, rather than faithfully living God’s justice.

In our Matthew passage, Jesus gives us a picture of what a world full of God’s justice looks like. “And call no one father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

We are tempted to use empty words to salt ourselves, lying to ourselves about our comfort, so we don’t have to give up what small rules we have kept, and the supposed benefits that accompany them. Yet those fringe benefits are not true blessings, and those comforts will fade and prove false. They may look good, but unless our focus is on God, we will stumble over them.

God is our truth and comfort. We may stumble across many blessings in pursuit of that truth, but our comfort is that each person is given the fullness of God’s grace, because we all desperately need it. “Equality before God insists not only that the proud humble themselves but that the marginalized take their place among God’s children.” As Christians, we have the freedom to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and the responsibility to do justice. To tell those who suffer injustice that “All is well” is as nonsensical as saying that two and two make five.

The leaders, priests, and prophets of Micah have been preaching nonsense. Their prophetic words promised hope and comfort, but only delivered profits for their own comfort. Micah's world is troubled, but these prophets, priests, and leaders have said time and time again that all is well. They have traded the truth for comfort, and have focused on looking good, rather than being good. They have papered over the holes in their lives and bragged about how strong their house was. They use God’s grace to shield their eyes from the injustice of their culture.

So God removes the shield, tears down the wallpaper, and exposes the hypocritical holes. “Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.” Those who use their connection with God as insulation from their own sinfulness will find themselves suddenly in the cold, forced to examine what’s really going on in the world.

But that’s the only way to heal. We must confront our brokenness, and the way that we fit into the brokenness of this world. The wounds must breathe, because they cannot heal if they are covered up. The wallpaper must be torn down so that the holes can be repaired and the house restored. We must give up the self-congratulatory fairy tale that our lives are perfect and that we somehow are deserving of the comforts and honors that are in fact underserved gifts.

The Pharisees were obvious examples of this arrogance. Jesus describes to us how “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for their make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues.” They want to look good, preserving their position rather than serving God. The prophets, priests, and leaders of Micah’s time would be proud. Yet we may also stand shoulder to shoulder with them. “Whenever Christians, especially those in positions of leadership, begin to develop a hierarchal, “reserved parking space” mentality, lording their alleged rank over others in the church…then then have like the scribes and Pharisees of old presumed for themselves the honor that belongs to God alone.”

We will all fall into the traps that ensnared the prophets, priests, leaders, scribes and Pharisees. We will all spend time as hypocrites. But there is still good news.“The antidote for hypocrisy is grace…Matthew’s God forgives infinitely. His Jesus will forgive Peter’s denials and the disciples cowardice…This Jesus keeps loving and loving, despite failings and blemishes.” One of the lunch bunch crowd pointed out that these passages remind us that we’re not there yet. God’s not through with us yet.

We have the assurance of God’s Grace and Presence. It is tempting to use it to shield us from our fears. Instead, let us take it as motivation to respond in faith, serving God and neighbor instead of only ourselves. It may be tempting to think we can only keep the small rules and break the big ones, but we know that our true comfort is not based on rules or advantages, it’s based on the love of God, a free gift beyond our imagination. Let’s not hide from it, let’s go into the world and live our faith, assured that even if we fail, if some harm does come to us, we are still God’s beloved children. We cannot hide from the injustice of the world, and perhaps we cannot prevail against them.

But God does establish justice without end, and we can live in faith that God is our truth and our comfort.


And thanks be to God for that.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

In the Presence of?




Matthew 22:1-14 (29)

1Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 23 (KJV)

1The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil;
My cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

The stores have already started selling Christmas. One can walk past aisle after aisle of costumes: princesses, pirates, warriors, and witches and begin to see the elves and evergreens that have come to characterize the season leading up to December 25th.

Two months out, and already the powers of advertisement and commerce are working to grab out attention, to ask us to choose sides, telling us that if we want to be the special ones who have exactly the right stuff, we have to come to them. As we approach Thanksgiving, their voices will intensify, urging us to trade sleep and time with family for a discount on whatever device the marketing firms have decided to lead us to this season.

Even more prevalent this time of year, as we approach Election Day, are voices of spokespeople and politicians. Asking for us to support their campaigns, to buy their rhetoric, to put our name on their list, because they will be the ones to guide us into a new age of right values and responsible action.

The commercial jingles and the political soundbites whirl dizzyingly around our minds, leaving us disoriented and numb, waiting for the flashiest or the loudest voice to carry us to the only place we can see to go.

Perhaps it was always this way, or perhaps something has changed in our lifetime and things will be this way forever. After all, this is the way the world is, we are separated into our economic brackets, organized into our political parties, divided into our denominational loyalties. It's not practical to try and shift too far from that reality.

We are bound up in affiliations and categories and manufactured wants.

But what if...

What if instead of letting party lines and brand loyalty guide us...

"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want."

The dominant culture may be pulling us apart. We may find shouting voices use fear to control our perception of the world. The tiny, flickering, differences between us might be stoked into sources of infernal conflict.

In a culture that prefers to be ruled by fear and division, "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want," brings us together and surrounds us with the comfort of centuries of faith and tradition. Rather than focusing on everything that could go wrong, every reason to be afraid, both trivial and substantial, we are invited to imagine how God will bring us together. Instead of the scarcity we have learned throughout our lives, we are given permission to trust in God's abundance: "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters."

Green pastures and still waters feed us in a very different way than the calls to action to which we have grown so accustomed. With the LORD as our shepherd, we don't have to scrounge for weeds in the wilderness or hoard every drop of water. We do not even have to seek them for ourselves, because God guides us to where we need to be, providing for us and the rest of his flock at each stage in the journey.

So why is this reality one we experience through metaphor and faith when we can imagine a world where we experience it through our senses? Would not the Psalm 23 life free us to live faithfully, justly, and lovingly? What hold does the dominant reality have on us that we only turn to this Psalm in trouble?

We've turned to this Psalm for comfort for more than four hundred years, going back the the scholars and poets of the King James Version. Before that we sought the same poem in different translations for thousands of years going back to David's lyre and the breath of the Holy Spirit. We need it's comfort most when our world is spinning out of our control, when a loved one is in surgery, when we are wracked with fear in a dark parking lot, when we confront our own mortality at a graveside. We turn to this Psalm when we need the comfort that God is control, and that God loves us faithfully.

That's the cost of a Psalm 23 life: we must abandon the illusion that we are in control and submit to the LORD. Our broken souls struggle to make that leap, and we seek to serve ourselves, and the dominant image of the world becomes skewed toward fear. 

Perhaps that’s why, in our Gospel lesson this morning, those who had been invited to the King’s Wedding banquet reacted the way they did to the slaves call to come to the feast. I think our tendency, when we hear someone talk about the kingdom of heaven or about submitted to the sovereignty of God, is to ignore them in favor of  - quote - more important things - unquote. We can control our farms and businesses, or at least we think we can. We certainly have more of an impact on them than we do on the joyful feast of the kingdom of God.

Sometimes, though, our resistance is more severe. The history of Israel is full of prophets who were killed for telling the truth, for imagining a different world than the one earthly kings tried to rule. As God’s people expanded to include the church, the violent response to the servants of God also grew. Christians have made more martyrs of each other than all the foreign persecutions we could imagine. All because we wanted to hold on to the illusion that this world and our lives are ours to control. Our culture is dominated by Christianity, and yet our control-hungry souls have taken us away from the justice and freedom that is imaginatively tangible in “The LORD is my shepherd.”

Left to our own ideas, we sheep would be truly lost. We are not, however, left to the devising of our broken souls. God lovingly, faithfully, brings us back into the fold. "He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” God rescues us and renews our spirits, and we know that we are not lost. Commercials may tell us that we are lost without a particular product, political ads may tell us that we are lost if the election goes the wrong way, but as people of the book we know that those are manufactured crises, they may pull at us for a moment, but God holds us closer, leading us in the paths of righteousness not for our own sake, but for the sake of God’s holy name.

Lest we believe that this psalm is just some naive fairy tale, we are shown that "Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of new orientation." "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." There are things in this world that will cause us to struggle, and we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death. One paraphrase of this psalm wrote this line as "when I crawl through valley of the shadow of cancer." That makes it hit home for a lot of us for whom cancer and the stale air of hospitals are the image we have of loss and grief.

Yet we have comfort even in those dark places that God is with us and guides our steps. God brings us from the green pastures and still waters to the valley of the shadow of death, and from there we are gathered in to the table. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over.”

Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet from the second half today’s Matthew reading does not specify if the wedding feast was a table or a buffet. it only tells us that the slaves were sent out into the main streets to gather and invite everyone they could find, the good and the bad.

That almost certainly means that enemies were both invited. If those same slaves were sent out today in the city of Lowell, they’re probably invite republicans and democrats, duke fans and carolina fans, feuding families whose stories have been lost in memory and only the fight remains, and every kind of division that contemporary culture can thrust upon us.

Perhaps one of them knew that his enemies would be there, and therefore did not dress appropriately for the occasion, accepting the invitation, but not the overwhelmingly inclusive grace that accompanied it.

I’m not satisfied with that interpretation though. One of the lunch bunch folks pointed out that going from the radical invitation to throwing the guy out just for not meeting the dress code seemed uncharacteristically cruel of God. Where’s the grace we have come to know and need from God? Where is the assurance of Psalm 23? When I walk through the valley of the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing to teeth, do we still fear no evil? Is God still with us?

One of the ways to get new richness out of a familiar parable is to change the cast. The obvious interpretation of this parable is that God is the king, the feast is in honor of the Son, Jesus, and the feast is the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus doesn’t say that the kingdom of heaven is like a feast, he said it’s like a king who gave a wedding feast. Perhaps then, we can recast the friend who lacked a wedding robe. Perhaps in the hurry to invite the good and the bad, one person was not told about the dress code, or didn’t have time to go home and get their own.

Perhaps the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ saw someone who was not properly dressed and loved him enough that he gave him his own cloak, and then he was cast out from the party. when I walk through the valley of the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, perhaps Jesus has been there too, and so we still need fear no evil. For thou art with me. comforting us, like a good shepherd, with thy rod and thy staff. bringing us back into table fellowship with both the good and the bad, setting a table before us in the presence of our enemies.

Because the enemies are seated at the table too, and a place is prepared for them as well as for us. God loves us faithfully enough to seek us and protect us in the valley of the shadow of death. God also loves them enough to offer his own wedding robe to them when they are unprepared. God loves us faithfully, but not exclusively. 

One of the reasons that we love this Psalm so much, and one of the reasons we read it from King James today instead of the New Revised Standard Version, which is the pew bible, is the NRSV translates the line, “my cup runneth over” as “my cup is filled to the brim.” I like the NRSV, i grew up with it, it’s a scholarly and faithful translation. But my cup is not filled to the brim, my cup runneth over.

We are given an overwhelming abundance of grace, an overwhelming invitation to the table. So are they. Their cup also runneth over. But we’re not paying attention to who is served what, or when, or why. For our cup runneth over, and we are seated at table with God.

So it’s an opportunity to step out into the world. With all the whirling voices of commercialism and politics and say “Yeah, there’s this stuff, and yeah, there’s this other stuff. But the LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want”

We don’t have to be divided into any camp for long. For we all come together around cups that runneth over, around a table that is prepare before us in the presence of mine enemies, and in the presence of theirs. For the table is big enough for all, and Christ gives us a wedding robe when we’re not prepared for the feast.

Because we’re not going to be well enough prepared. There’s always something new. But when we break free of the bonds of the dominant culture fo commercialism and conflict tells us…

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.




Sunday, October 5, 2014

Vineyards

Vineyards from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Isaiah 5:1-7 (776)

1Let me sing for my beloved
My love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines:
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yield wild grapes.

3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

5And now I will tell you
what to do with my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

7For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 21:33-46 (29)

33”Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, skilled another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “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.”

42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes?’ 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parable, they realized he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.


Isaiah and God have a very different relationship than the discipleship we normally imagine. In a world where we often keep God at arms length by talking about the god of all heaven and earth, who spins the whirling planets, whose majesty is without end, there's something scandalous about beginning a prophetic passage with "Let me sing for my beloved." I have not found that level of divine intimacy in many of the churches in which I have worshipped.

The divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were accustomed to the grand language of Temple worship, where God was enthroned in the heavens, and the earth was his footstool. God was always accessible for the divided kingdoms, but as also kept distant by the pomp and ritual of the temple. It was the kind of difference between shaking hands and holding hands.

God held Isaiah's hand. God wanted to hold Israel's hand, and Judah's, as he had when they wandered in the wilderness together. But the divided kingdoms kept God at a distance.

Perhaps God's covenant peoples kept God at a distance because an intimate relationship with God means living a transformed life. Reformed and always being reformed, as the saying goes.

Yet God is not satisfied with a handshake and an unchanged life. Isaiah's love-song on God's behalf portrays a vineyard owner who tirelessly and diligently does everything right. "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," The land is ready, the best vines are selected, a watchtower is built to defend it from any pest that might threaten the vineyard. This is not the act of a creator who can be held at a distance, this kind of loving cultivation shows that God cares deeply about our response in faith.

God carefully collects us and prepares a place for us as a long-term investment, even hewing a wine vat which would not pay for itself for many harvests. Truly no vine could hope for better circumstances in which to grow. "However, it is not our self-interest that God is cultivating...God's love, care, and protection come with an expectation: justice and righteousness. These are the fruits God longs to see flourish in us.”

When those fruits do not flourish, things take a darker turn. Isaiah’s love-song changes voice, and we find ourselves feasting on the bitterness of wild or rotten grapes. God is deeply hurt by the failure of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

For all the work God has done establishing a covenant people, guiding them from slavery to the promised land, preserving them through the centuries, one would expect unfettered faithfulness. Yet the chosen people cannot keep the covenant, and the consequences for their crimes are vivid.

”The threat of judgment may be thunderous here, but the parable also invites us to glimpse the potential for abundant fruitfulness in the lives of those who are faithful." Everything is set up for our success as servants of the living God, who redeems with a strong arm and who holds our hand throughout all our struggles. God’s reaction to Israel and Judah’s failure is not that of a distant God, but of the intimate beloved on whose behalf Isaiah sings.

God cares about us so much that God cares how we respond to the intimate intervention in our lives. God longs to see us live righteously, to Do Justice when we interact with one another. Justice and Righteousness in scripture are more than just finding what is fair or living according to some expansive ruleset.

In scripture, Justice tears down oppression and liberates both the prisoner and the jailer. Justice and righteousness reach beyond the boundaries we draw between people and show hospitality to the ones we might consider “other.” Justice and righteousness always point to God as the source of all authority and reject and subversion of God’s sovereign love. Justice and righteousness shine through loving your neighbor as yourself, as commanded in Leviticus 19:18, and through loving the LORD our God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength as commanded in Deuteronomy 6:5.

We all know the passage where Jesus quotes those two laws as the greatest commandments. They were nothing new, and yet the people of God then, as now, struggled to live the covenant fully. When God expected the fruit of his vineyard, he instead found violence.

When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, skilled another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’”

"This is the heir, let us kill him and get his inheritance!" I don’t have much experience with estate planning, but I don’t imagine most people write their wills to include leaving something to the one who murders their heirs. But it's exactly how God worked at the cross. We killed the heir of heaven and earth, and through the resurrection we were also made heirs! None of the chief priests and elders of the people to whom Jesus was speaking had this radical grace in mind when they were asked to predict what happened next:

Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “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.”

“Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes?’ Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom. 

Where we expect, and deserve, a miserable death for our failure to produce justice and righteousness, God instead responds with unyielding grace. There is still kingdom work to be done, and God cares about creation enough to see it done, even if it means having to find new hands with which to do it. "[The kingdom of God] refers not to the age to come but to a special relationship to God's sovereignty.” When we fail to be faithful, God’s work will still be done, we just lose the joy of having God work through us. God plants new vineyards, God hires new workers.

And yet neither of these texts are hopeless. There is judgment to be sure, but God’s judgment, like God’s justice, restores and invites us back into relationship with the Holy One. “The transfer of stewardship to a ‘people that produces the fruits of the kingdom’ is a restorative act, not a punitive act.”  God is intimately involved in creation, will not wait for us to figure it out on our own, because we’ve shown we can’t get there by ourselves. So at the same moment he is pronouncing judgment, God is already working in both of these passages to bring God’s people back into the joyful relationship which God intends for them. For the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, that meant prophets and catastrophe, and eventually restoration. For the people to whom Jesus was speaking in the temple when he told his parable, that meant that he would be led to the cross, and that the cross would lead to the resurrection, where the power of sin and death would be forever broken.

We believe that in Communion, by the power of the Holy Spirit we are elevated to dine with Christ at God's table. Our whole selves are nourished by Christ's real presence among us, and we are reminded of how far God went to restore us to the intimate relationship where we can share a meal with God and with one another. Every time we break bread or drink of the fruit of the vine, we proclaim Christ's saving death until he comes again.


Until then, we have the responsibility to bear the fruits of the kingdom of God: justice and righteousness. God cares deeply about us, and holds our hand throughout the whole of human history, and cares about how we respond in faith to what God has already done. We can try and hold God at arms length, like the divided kingdoms did, like the chief priests and the elder of the people did, like the church still sometimes does. But it is better to embrace the transformation God has already accomplished in us, and sing the songs of our beloved, and to bear the fruits from this table, where we are fed, out into the vineyard of all of the peoples of God.