I’m familiar with vineyards – wine was my drink of choice during my drinking years, but with my sobriety it seems I have forgotten what they are called. A couple of weeks ago Don and I passed a Vineyard on our way to Hammonton. I commented “Look, there’s a wine farm!”
But I can tell you that I also know a little bit about God’s vineyard and our work within it!
In order to comprehend the readings today, we need to understand the Prophet Isaiah and the role of the prophets in the Old Testament.
The book of Isaiah covers a span of over 300 years, which suggests that there was more than one author. The book is divided into three parts.
Our reading today comes from the first part. Isaiah was a Prophet in the Southern Kingdom known as Judah.
The role of a prophet during this time was to express judgement on the moral behavior of the Israelites. In prophetic writings like Isaiah you see threats of punishments as well as the promises of deliverance.
Their writings were hyperbolic and poetic and they addressed a universal morality as well as Israel’s. They always called the people to return to God and God’s laws.
Chapters 1-5 of Isaiah expresses this very call to return to God. “Beloved” in the reading refers to the people of Israel – God’s people. The “vineyard” is God’s Kingdom.
Isaiah is speaking for God asking where the “yield” of this vineyard exists. What have God’s people done to bring about this yield and how have they behaved in and toward the vineyard?
Psalm 80 tells us that God provided the land, planted the vines and protected them.
Matthew gives us another story of a vineyard in a parable presented by Jesus. Jesus tells of how the owner of the vineyard wants to reap the “produce” of his vineyard so he sends his servants to collect it from the tenants who have been charged to care for the vineyard.
The tenants are greedy and unjust so they harm or kill the servants sent by the owner. The owner eventually sends his son who they killed.
Hebraic law stated that if a man died without an heir the tenants would inherit the property. The tenants acted out of their own greed.
Now, some would state that this is really about Jesus’ coming and death. It is, but I would suggest it is larger than this. We lose the teaching in these two scriptures if we immediately go to the Crucifixion.
The vineyard here represents God’s kingdom and the produce is about what we have done to bring that kingdom into fruition. In order to do so we have to go deep and explore what we have done and what we have failed to do. That “we” is the church (the larger church) and each of us personally.
In one of his daily reflections this week, Fr. Richard Rohr remarked that when Jesus began his ministry it was to the marginalized. The Early Church’s ministry continued to be to the marginalized. It wasn’t until Constantine declared Christianity as the religion of the state that it began to serve the dominant culture of its time.
Looking over this vineyard – God’s kingdom that we’re called to serve, we should ask ourselves? Whom do we serve? What are the fruits – the produce of our labors? Would our efforts make Jesus proud?
The Episcopal Church itself has acted in ways that would not always be considered good produce. Actions that weren’t always moral.
Awhile back I shared a story with you about Bishop Curry’s father and how he came to the Episcopal Church after witnessing the church’s willingness to be inclusive with the Chalice during communion. What I learned this summer is that there’s more to the story.
After that experience, Mr. Curry, who was in seminary to become a minister, went to meet with the then Bishop of North Carolina. He presented himself to the Bishop and after doing so, the Bishop responded: “Well, I’m sorry, but I already have one “boy” and I don’t need another.”
Mr. Curry could have walked away after that racist comment and rejection. But he didn’t. He held strong onto his calling and was encouraged by a friend. He moved to another state where they took him under their wing and he was ordained an Episcopal priest.
Churches around the country are currently making reparation for church policies and practices before, during and after the Civil War. Statues of founding fathers whose witness stands against the Gospel message are being removed. Even universities such as the University of the South are apologizing and making changes for their own role in racial injustice.
I heard a woman named Melanie – a different Melanie – speak at a Webinar for the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches toward ending racism. Melanie works for the Anglican Church of Canada on an Indian Reservation. She shared that it was through the indigenous people that God moved the church to rethink its past so the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed.
She shared that the Church of Canada had to admit that they had played a role in the attempt to commit genocide of the indigenous people in the area.
As they did the hard work of uncovering the church’s role, they discovered some lies that they had to confront.
The most important lie that she mentioned; which I think we can learn from, is that “If we “awoke” people were there this never would have happened.” Can we honestly say that we would have been less responsive to our culture and stand for the Gospel by being counter-cultural?
Pitman has a history of racism. What role did Good Shepherd play in this history? Did it stand openly against the racism or was it complicit by its failure to act?
Can we, as Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, look at our own past and determine if our church played any role in taking away the dignity of any person?
Are we willing as a parish to do the hard work of determining our role?
We have to ask ourselves too – what role do I play in this Kingdom work. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is within us. The Kingdom is here and now – not when I die. God calls us to work for the human rights of all persons. We vow this every time we renew our Baptism Promises.
Can we each find the courage to look closely at our own lives – our actions and our hearts?
Are there people whose dignity we fail to respect? Are we in some way tribal, taking sides and seeing people as “other” and not one of us?
This Vineyard is God’s created order. How do we care for the vineyard? Do we abuse it? Are we doing everything we can to care for it to ensure it will be there for the future?
How would my life change if I examined my use of natural resources, my shopping patterns and my waste patterns? Do I view the other living creatures in this vineyard with love and respect?
Are we willing to study with an open mind and heart to learn the effects of our choices on the environment and then make changes to repair it?
On October 15 the Thursday Study Group will begin a new series called Pro Future Faith with Michael Dowd. This series is based on scientific findings as well as Christian teachings.
Its focus is on what we can expect to happen in coming years for our vineyard, the earth. You can check him out on YouTube, but you’re welcome to join us on Thursday mornings at 9:30 on Zoom.
Vineyards require a lot of care. There’s a lot of work for us to do in this vineyard. Perhaps more now than ever before in our lifetimes.
You see, my brothers and sisters, the Gospel is challenging us to rethink who we are and what we’re called to be and do. How will you work in God’s vineyard? Amen.
Sermon 9 27 20
Aaack! My last sermon! But I can’t think of this like my last sermon. Because then I’ll set myself up for disaster and it will be reeeally baad! No! I have to treat this like every other sermon, so at least I have some chance of success.
Today, I will preach from our readings and then end with some important final words (at least I think they’re important) for all of you.
But first I have to say this, packing to move is depressing. There’s no getting past it – it’s depressing. And this time we’re really reducing our load, believe it or not. (Our kids don’t believe it.) So – lots of decisions were made – lots of memories – lots of angst – and hopefully a lot less stuff. Not fun, but necessary.
Our collect for today notes that God declares his power by showing mercy and pity. What if we did that? There are those who think that mercy and pity belong to “losers.” Is God a loser? No! Mercy and pity show power. What will we be, what will we have turned into when we reject mercy? How much of our humanity do we lose when we lose the ability to feel pity? God teaches us that there is power in mercy and pity.
We don’t often have readings from the prophet Ezekiel. He is another prophet who wrote from the Babylonian exile. What is interesting about today’s reading from him is that he establishes pretty quickly that children are not to be punished for their parents’ sins. For centuries the Jews and others believed that they could continue to be punished for their ancestors’ sins — into perpetuity! Ezekiel establishes that we are to be punished for our own sins, not for the sins of our ancestors. Because, as Ezekiel says, our own sins will be enough to answer for. It’s like cleaning out the basement – which can give you a new heart and a new spirit. [You wanna feel fresh and clean? Get a dumpster and fill it up!]
Paul probably wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was in prison, around 62 CE. Considering that he was in prison, it’s actually lovable and charming to read his words of encouragement. They remind us to be encouraging. And indeed Paul finds, even in prison, encouragement from Christ. He begs the people of this little congregation to look first to Christ for love and consolation, for sharing in the Spirit, for compassion and sympathy. He is asking them to keep Christ as their focus and to love as Christ loves. He advises them to behave with humility. That way they can never be found to be wallowing in self interest, but can then focus on each other and each other’s needs.
What if everybody did that? What if our humility and our obedience to God always came first? Sounds really hard, doesn’t it? But what if we could actually do that – even just once in a while? What a difference it could make! In our lives – in the world! What great advice for a congregation! These are good ways for a congregation to live.
And at the end Paul challenges these folks with a surprise. He doesn’t tell them to just do as he says. He challenges them to work out their own salvation, for themselves, with fear and trembling. This means truly believing that God is with us and at work in us, that we can be God’s presence in the world, that we can trust ourselves and God can trust us to work for God. Fear and trembling? Sure! But that only reminds us how real God is.
One of my favorite quotes is from the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, most of whose writing I don’t understand (he’s pretty dense), but this I love: “When I behold my possibilities, I experience that dread which is the dizziness of freedom, and my choice is made in fear and trembling.” We are all faced with choices. And we all face the dizziness of freedom every day. God gives us the gifts of choice with guidance – IF we are paying attention! We can work out our own salvation, letting God work in us.
Our gospel presents an interesting problem. The chief priests and the elders of the temple came to Jesus as he was teaching and asked him “by what authority” he was teaching. What were they looking for? A diploma? A certificate? I’ve got a certificate for my ordination, signed by my Bishop, that hung on my wall in my office. Does that give me “authority”? I doubt it. I think of the Wizard of Oz who handed out certificates and awards to the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man before he and Dorothy left, and those meaningless, silly gifts only told them what whey were already gifted with!
But Jesus put a question to these chief priests and elders – did John the Baptist’s baptisms come from God or did John just take it upon himself to be a baptizer? And here’s the telling thing about their inability to answer his question. All of these so-called authorities didn’t use their own discerning intelligence. They didn’t consider their own relationships with God. They didn’t consider their faith. They didn’t ask themselves what they really believed in! They just thought about what they were afraid of! Ultimately, when they said they didn’t know where John the Baptist’s baptisms came from, that was the truth – they really didn’t know. They couldn’t comprehend. They were too afraid to know. They had cast knowledge and understanding aside — out of fear.
We need to look within ourselves and ask ourselves if we are doing and living the will of God. We can talk a good game, like the son who said he would work in the field but didn’t, or we can be honest with God and say, “Sometimes I’m going to mess up, but I’m going to try. And I will work in your vineyard, God for the good of your world.” What Paul’s little congregations were discovering is that THEY WERE THE CHURCH. They birthed us all.
And that’s my message to all of you. Never forget – YOU Are The Church! No bishop, no diocese, no priest – YOU!
Priests come and go. Bishops come and go. And it’s all very impressive, but it really all comes down to you. The church is most alive and well on the parish level. That is where you are most deeply connected to God and to each other. Whenever you begin to have doubts, just stop everything and pray to God for guidance and then turn to each other and repeat out loud – loudly – WE ARE THE CHURCH!
Sermon 9 20 20
The author Garry Wills once referred to St. Jerome as the Grump of Bethlehem. Well, if Jerome was the Grump of Bethlehem, Jonah was the Crank of Nineveh. They were both so sure of their rightness and their opinions… they argued with God! They sneered at God! They were the Archie Bunker’s of the ancient world.
And yet I love the story of Jonah! It’s not about a whale… It’s about a very successful prophet who saved an entire city, even though he thought they didn’t deserve it. Jonah made a difference in spite of himself! He did what God wanted him to do and got the Ninivans to repent. But that wasn’t good enough for him. Oh-noooo! He didn’t want the Ninivans to be delivered from the hell-fire and damnation of God! He wanted God’s righteous anger to rain down on them. How dare they repent! How dare they do what God asked! How dare God grant them forgiveness!
What a grump!
Jonah is the perfect example of someone who would cheerfully cut off his own nose to spite his face. He actually begged God to take his life if God wasn’t going to punish the people of Nineveh.
And wouldn’t you know it? Jonah just knew that God would be merciful to the people of Nineveh. Gahhhh! How dare God be merciful! They deserved to be punished! And so — here’s Jonah’s logic — He showed them! And he showed God! Jonah punished himself! By sitting outside in the beating sun! “If those people are going to be allowed to live, well – well – I’d rather be dead!” Yep! All the logic of a three year old’s tantrum.
When we’re kids in Sunday School, we hear about Jonah being swallowed by a whale, but what is God really teaching there? Not just “Don’t run away from God. We can’t avoid God.” No, God is teaching that God has many ways to teach us all lessons. And some of those ways we might not agree with. But God is God, and we’re not. We may not agree with God’s generosity with others, but I bet we’re pretty willing to accept that generosity for ourselves.
We can count on God. No matter how bull-headed we are, God will always decide in favor of love. Whether we approve or not. It’s shocking, I know, but God does not require our approval.
The Apostle Paul also had a healthy capacity for crankiness. I think I’ve mentioned before that it is interesting to note that on his major journeys across the Roman world, nobody ever went with Paul twice. I get the distinct impression that Paul wasn’t the easiest person to live with. He was clearly brilliant, with an almost fevered brain that couldn’t stopworking. An interesting guy to be sure. But as a companion, I get the impression he could be exhausting. Probably never stopped talking. Probably had opinions on everything – and shared them with everyone! Oh, I have a feeling it took a lot of energy just to be with Paul!
In the first part of our reading from Phillippians, he gives the impression that the only reason he puts up with living among human beings is because they need him so much. Otherwise, he’d be only too happy to depart and join up with Jesus in heaven. He’s only sticking around for their sakes. (Well, that’s a bit much, don’t you think? Paul is able to think pretty highly of himself.) I’ll bet there were one or two members of the church at Phillippi who were willing to let him move on – however grateful they were for him.
But let’s not get wrapped up in Paul’s pride. Let’s think about what is really hard for us to understand. And that is the upside down economics of Jesus Christ. What is he teaching us here in our gospel? Can we understand it? He is so counter cultural and counter to everything we think of as logical. We work, we get paid. We work more, we get paid more. We work less, and we don’t get paid as much. That makes sense, doesn’t it? We have systems for determining these things fairly. We have pay scales.
God apparently doesn’t work with a pay scale. Apparently everyone gets paid the same – no matter their training – no matter how hard they work – no matter how much work they do. Wait a minute! That’s not right! God’s economy works in a whole different way! The person who was saved early on and the person who is saved just before the last trumpet sounds get the same salvation. Now wait a minute! That’s not fair!
What is fair is what is up to Jesus Christ. Salvation is God’s gift to give. Do any of us actually deserve it? Jesus gets to hand out salvation however he sees fit. Jesus gives and we choose or don’t choose to accept. It’s not up to us to judge who is worthy and who is not. Think of it this way. That’s not our problem! What a relief! One less thing to worry about. And that was the source of Jonah’s angst, wasn’t it? He was so busy judging – doing God’s job for him, that he didn’t take the time to appreciate his own salvation.
I’ll never forget… I was called up for jury duty when we lived in California. And as they called out our names at the courthouse, one man stood up and explained to the judge that his faith forbade him to judge others. The judge sent him off. He got out of it! I think he was honestly telling the truth. And good for him! (Actually, I consider jury duty a civic responsibility, so I was happy to sit on the jury. It wasn’t an exciting case, but it was interesting.)
Jesus makes his and God’s roles clear. And our role clear as well. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Hmmmmm?)
The bottom line is that it is not for us to judge what God is doing and why. God’s logic is God’s logic. God’s value system is God’s value system and yes, God’s value system is apparently different from ours. Maybe we should pay attention to that.
Those who are esteemed and respected in this world (like the rich young ruler) may be frowned upon by God. The opposite is also true: those who are despised and rejected in this world may be more valued by God. Don’t get caught up in the world’s way of ranking things; pay attention to what God values. That has lasting value.
However God decides to work in the world, we need to trust that God works in the world with love. We can’t see the whole grand picture. That’s not our responsibility. It is our responsibility to love God and to love each other as much as we love ourselves. That should be enough. That’ll keep us busy.
Prayer for the Anniversary of 9/11
O God, our hope and refuge,
in our distress we come to you.
Shock and horror of the tragic day have subsided,
replaced now with an emptiness,
a longing for an innocence lost.
We come remembering those who lost their lives
In New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
We are mindful of the sacrifice of public servants
who demonstrated the greatest love of all
by laying down their lives for others, most of whom they didn’t even know.
We commit their souls to your eternal care
and celebrate their gifts to a fallen humanity.
We come remembering
and we come in hope,
not in ourselves, but in you.
As foundations we once thought secure have been shaken and are shaken again
we are reminded of the illusion of security.
In commemorating this tragedy,
we give thanks for your presence among us
in our times of need and always.
We seek to worship you in Spirit and in truth,
you, our guide and our guardian.
Sermon for Sunday September 13
Forgiveness. The theme of our readings this Sunday is forgiveness – or coping with the inability to forgive. Ohhh, it sounds so simple, but it’s so hard to do.
Peter was really asking for it wasn’t he? “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” He might end up spending a whole day forgiving somebody! Well, he walked right into that one! Jesus answered him: “Not seven times, but I tell you, Seventy-seven times.” Well! I guess he told him! And us.
Jesus’ story of the slave whose debt was forgiven is telling, isn’t it? The forgiven slave couldn’t see himself in his fellow slave who owed him money in turn. He had no empathy for his fellow slave. He only saw as far as himself. That great source of knowledge, Wikipedia, defines empathy as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. The ability to place oneself in another’s position.”
But it wasn’t just his lack of empathy that landed the slave in trouble. No, it was what it led to – his inability to forgive. We don’t actually need to have empathy to forgive. But it helps to make our act of forgiveness real – a teaching moment. Directly after the lesson he had been taught by his king, this slave failed to apply the lesson he had learned to himself. He couldn’t find it within himself to forgive as he had been forgiven. He was so puffed up and self-assured from his experience with his lord, (his last minute “save!) that he couldn’t offer the gift he had received to others. No. He lashed out, giving in to his worst instincts. And he suffered for that.
God’s love is freely given. We can never hope to earn it. No bartering with God. That isn’t how God’s love works.
And now, today, consider that this is the weekend following September 11, one of the darkest days in our country’s history. Let us ask ourselves: can we even consider forgiveness of those who attacked us? It’s almost too much to comprehend. How can God ask it of us?
And yet, the harrowing possibility of being asked to forgive what we consider unforgivable leads me to ask us to consider the other side of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is healthy – literally. Forgiveness means letting go. Forgiveness is good for you! To forgive is to unburden ourselves – it removes the weight, the lingering heaviness of anger. When we are advised to forgive and forget, that’s not just empty advice. It’s useful! It’s helpful! Forgiving and forgetting allows us to cast off the weight of a painful memory that holds us back and prevents us from moving on. Forgiving is freedom.
How many years did Joseph’s brothers live in fear and regret and self-loathing, waiting for their father to die and for Joseph to carry out his revenge on them? And all for nothing. Joseph knew. Joseph knew that as painful as it had been, God had worked through everything that had happened to him – for good, for the survival of the tribe of Abraham. Even more important, he knew that judging his brothers meant that he would be taking on the role of god, a role he was never meant to have. He knew: God is God and we’re not. God didn’t want him to judge his brothers. That wasn’t his place. They had clearly judged and punished themselves. Joseph found it in himself to trust God and to forgive his brothers. The apostle Paul is pretty clear on how people can get wrapped up in rules and regulations. I have a feeling he was well-trained in the rules and regulations of the temple. Our reading from his letter to the Romans make his opinion clear. We don’t need to waste our time indulging in criticism of each other. He advises church members to welcome those whose faith is weak, but not so they can all get involved with each other in quarrels over opinions over theology – or vegetarianism, for that matter. (How like seminary!) He reminds them that God has welcomed them all.
Something else that I’ve never thought of before: Paul advises us not to be critical of a fellow church member’s servant. Good advice, I’m sure, but I doubt we’re likely to run into that problem here at Good Shepherd.
Paul acknowledges that different people are going to have different opinions about things, even down to what time of day they prefer. And that’s OK! It’s more important to get along than to establish how right we are. It’s better to be flexible. But Jesus points that it is most important, whatever we do, whenever we do it, that we do all things in honor of Jesus.
In Paul’s time, people were used to the fact that there were slaves and servants and masters – very few independent people. We’re not used to that. We’re not used to hearing that it is God’s intent that we belong to God – as if we are God’s slaves or servants. Because that is who we are. God expects each one of us to understand that we are his.
What is important is that we live as if we are not our own person, but as if we belong to God, to Jesus. For when we die, we shall all stand before Jesus as equals with each other, and as his possessions. Equals who are always and only accountable to God.
And where our accountability to God serves us best is in our relationship with God, because he cares for us and loves us. When we fall short he is able and willing to forgive us. But most important, he is able and willing to help us forgive ourselves. And sometimes, that is the most difficult thing, isn’t it?
How do we forgive ourselves? By trusting in Jesus Christ to grant us forgiveness and hope and to help us, even in the face of our guilt, to help us move on. If you have ever felt truly and painfully guilty about something, you know how important this is. To be able to move on. To face your guilt and move beyond it, to face yourself and learn from whatever you have done and move on to a better version of yourself, to the new and improved you! That cannot happen without honestly forgiving ourselves.
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.
Lewis B. Smedes, author and theologian in the reform tradition