Monday, October 31, 2005

Sun, Oct 30, 2005 - Reformation Sunday

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Well, Joshua and Trevor are being confirmed today. Who here remembers their own confirmation? How do you feel about it? I know that when I remember my own confirmation, it’s always with a mix of pride and guilt. I’m proud that I was confirmed, but at the same time, I feel a little guilty about the whole thing. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I took my confirmation as seriously as I could have, or even should have. I didn’t really know what the big deal was. My family was excited, and I got presents, and we all went out for a nice lunch afterwards, but the whole faith thing, well, I was a little bit iffy about that. I didn’t know for sure whether or not I believed that God created the world; I didn’t really understand what it meant that Jesus died to free us from our sins. I had a few misgivings about getting up in front of the whole congregation and pretending that I was making some grand choice to follow Christ when in fact I was just doing it to make my family happy. I kind of wish that I had done confirmation a few years later, when I understood more, and when I knew more.

I sometimes feel the same way about being baptized as a baby. Once when I was about 20, I was on a bus and the guy sitting next to me asked me if had been "born again." I knew what he was asking - he was asking if I had "made a personal decision to follow Jesus as my Lord and Saviour" and so I felt a little inadequate when I had to say, "Well, I was baptized as a baby." That answer just didn’t seem as powerful or mean as much as saying, "Yes, I made that personal choice. I chose Jesus." But I couldn’t say that at any point in my life I actually had made that choice, or said those words. Even now, there are times when I kind of wish I had been baptized as an adult, in the river Jordan or something, where I could say, "Yes, I chose to do that. I chose to do something righteous." Sometimes my infant baptism and my half-hearted teenage confirmation seem somewhat inadequate. They seem to somehow fall short of what Christian righteousness is all about. They seem to "fall short of the glory of God."

That shouldn’t be a surprise, though. Of course they do. As Paul reminds us in today’s letter, everything we do falls short of the glory of God. Our baptism as babies or our baptism as adults, whether we’re confirmed knowing exactly what we’re going into or whether we’re just going through the motions, it all falls short. Although we like to think we get credit for trying our best, even our best falls short of what God demands of us: perfection. And don’t we know it? Sure, we go to church, and we attend Bible study, and we pray regularly - when anybody asks us if we’re good Christians, we say, "Well, yes, I think so." We’re the descendants of Abraham, so to speak. Most of us have come from a long heritage of Christians - naturally we expect to get credit for our Christian background. And yet despite all of those efforts, all of those advantages, there’s that nagging feeling that we’re not measuring up. That somehow we’re inadequate. We know, rightfully, that we’re not good enough. As Paul so eloquently puts it, we know that "no human being will be justified in God’s sight."

How lucky we are, then, that Paul follows that up with, "since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." We’re more than lucky, actually. We’re graced, we’re gifted, we’re justified, we’re redeemed. We finally measure up to the law that God "has placed in our hearts," as Jeremiah puts it, not by any of our own sincere efforts or informed choices or well-meaning actions, but solely because of Christ. Only because his efforts were enough, his choices perfect, only because his actions actually measured up is God able to overlook our shortcomings. Only because God sent Jesus Christ to die for us, only because the Holy Spirit brought us to be baptized, as infants or adults, are we able to share in that death, and the resurrection that followed, making us able to claim the righteousness and perfection and forgiveness that belongs to Christ alone.

So, in fact, being confirmed as a teenager when you don’t quite get it, standing up and professing your faith when you’re not sure if you should be, shows a good deal more faith than you would think. Allowing yourself to be content with your baptism as a baby and not claiming personal responsibility for being "born again" shows a good deal more faith than you would think. You see, it takes a good deal of faith to throw yourself on the mercy of God and to trust that it really is Christ who saves you and not the strength of your decisions or the conviction of your promises. That it is, in fact, God who has brought you to be confirmed as unprepared as you are, or to be baptized as immature as you are. That it is the Holy Spirit who stands beside you and makes those confirmation promises with you, who enters you and makes that baptismal commitment for you. It takes a good deal of faith to agree with Paul’s words - "What becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By the law of works? No, but by the law of faith."

So it’s an interesting twist, isn’t it, that those who seem to be weakest in their faith, because they didn’t fully believe in their confirmation or because the decision to be baptized was made for them, should end up being the ones who are actually strongest in their faith. That’s not to say that those who were baptized as adults have weak faith - the Holy Spirit brought them to make that decision just as the Holy Spirit brought the baby’s parents to bring their baby to baptism. But it’s interesting that those who end up being the strongest in their faith have done the least to deserve it. But that’s the point - because the ones who deserve it the least are the ones who need most to rely on Christ. "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law." And that’s what God wants. God wants us to rely on - to put our faith in Christ - not in ourselves. That, in a nutshell, is what Luther struggled to remind the Christians around him of. That’s why we baptize people when they’re incapable infants. That’s why we ask uncertain teenagers to go through confirmation.

So, please, have no regrets if you were baptized as a baby, or if you went through - or are about to go through - confirmation without really getting it. Have no regrets about having made decisions that turned out to be imperfect. These things serve to drive you to Christ, who achieves your perfection, who secures your righteousness, and who brings you all measured up before God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Cat Bag Out

The announcement on Sunday:
Some of you may have noticed that I haven't been my usual energetic self that past while. I've seen the doctors, and not to worry, they assure me that it's a completely normal side effect of being pregnant.

Some reactions:
It took you long enough!
Good for you! (My personal favourite - after all, we set goals, tried hard, and achieved what we set out to.)

Sun, Oct 23, 2005 - Holy Neighbours

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thess 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

So, we’ve got a couple of things going on in our readings today and there’s two of them that I particularly want to look at. The first is the great commandment as given to us by Jesus, "Love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself," and the second is the whole idea of God telling God’s people, "You shall be holy." Although it’s not obvious, the two are connected, and we have a visible reminder of how connected they are every time we celebrate Communion.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, the great commandment. Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, faithful Jews who know their Torah, their law from God, backwards and forwards, what is the greatest commandment in the law. Now, this is a bit of a trick question, because according to the strictest Jewish understanding of the law, no one law is greater than any other. There’s no hierarchy of law - you shall not murder is not a greater law than you shall not eat pork. So how it is possible that there can be one law greater than all the others? The Pharisees, like the Sadducees before them, are trying to trip Jesus up.

But Jesus is not about to be tricked. So he says that the greatest and first commandment is, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." Sounds good, makes sense. Even if all laws are equal, some are more equal than others, to quote George Orwell, and obviously, the law about loving God is the greatest. But then Jesus plays a trick of his own, he says that there is a second commandment and that it’s like the first. "You shall love your neighbour as yourself."

Now wait a minute here, what’s going on? How can the second commandment be like the first if it’s the second and not the first? How can loving your neighbour as yourself be like loving God with every fibre of your being? My neighbour isn’t God. I’m not God. What is Jesus getting at? Isn’t just loving God enough?

Well, no, it’s not. It’s not enough to follow only the first commandment - to love only God - for two reasons. The first is because none of us are hermits living out in the desert all by ourselves. None of us here, and none of the people Jesus was addressing, were recluses. We’re not like St. Jerome, a Catholic from the 4th century who lived in the desert and in monasteries while he translated the Old Testament into Latin. We don’t live in such a way that our only conversation partner is God. We live in community. Which means that we live in the midst of neighbours. We’re surround by people at work, at home, on the bus. Even if you live alone, you know that it’s impossible to step out your front door and get down the street without seeing somebody. Without encountering a neighbour. And that means that we can’t possibly live as if we need love only God, as if God is the only one in our lives. There’s also our neighbour, the living, breathing human being who we come across in our day. And so we have to love them, too. That’s one reason.

The second reason that it’s not enough to follow only the first commandment is more compelling. It has to do with what I talked about last week about everything, and in particular everyone, being made in the image of God. You see, we are told to love God, which is the greatest thing we can do, but how are we to love the one we cannot see or touch or physically hear? Yes, the people of the first century had the Son of God to see and touch and hear, but Jesus is no longer physically present with us. Right? Well, not exactly. After all, we do have Jesus promise that he would be with us always, and more importantly, we have Jesus’ words that when we visit the sick, or give water to the thirsty, or food to the hungry, or when we clothe the naked and visit those in prison, we are doing all those things to and for him, for Christ.

You see, the Son of God, and by extension God, is present to us in our neighbour. Christ comes to us in the people around us - in our family members, in our co-workers, in the stranger we pass on the street. I know that’s not how we usually view those people, but maybe that’s why Jesus is so emphatic that the second commandment, the one that is so like the first, is that we love our neighbour. When we come to see that Christ is present to us in our neighbour, only then can we love them, following the second commandment, and only then can we truly love God, and follow the first.

Which brings me to the second idea in our readings, God telling God’s people that "you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." Now, it’s interesting, this grammatical choice we have going on here - you shall be holy. It’s not, you should be holy, for God is holy. Or you better be holy, for God is holy, kind of like "you better clean your room for I’m the parent and I say so." No, it’s not like that. "Shall" in this case is more like "will." You will be holy, because I’m holy. It’s like saying to a baby, "you will walk and talk when you’re older, because I walked and talked when I got older." The people of God don’t really have a choice about whether or not they’re going to be holy. They’re going to be, because their God is. You shall be holy, because your God is holy.

But how can that be? I know that I never feel particularly holy, no matter how holy my God might be. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a person can go through their entire life and not once feel holy. Our inner monologue tends not to tell us stuff like that. Our inner monologue tends to say things more like, "You’re such an idiot." Or, if we’re having a good day, "You’re pretty good." But "You’re holy"? How many of you hear that?

Well, you should. You should hear that you’re holy, because you are. And you are holy, not only because your God is holy, but also because of one very important thing. I said earlier that Christ is present in our neighbours. Which means that Christ is present in you. You are, after all, somebody’s neighbour, right? You’re all my neighbour - Christ is present to me in all of you. When I look at you, and talk to you, and pray with and for you, I am looking at and talking to and praying with Christ, the Son of God. Christ is there, present in you. Which means that you are holy. I know, I know, it’s not something you’re used to hearing, thinking that you’re holy is not a customary thing for most people. But you have to agree, we all profess that we carry Christ in our hearts, we all profess that the Holy Spirit comes to live in us when we are baptized, and so we must all confess that God is present in us. You have to admit that you are holy, because the Lord your God is holy.

So - what does all this have to do with Communion that I mentioned at the beginning? Well, some of you may remember a time when Communion was celebrated with the altar against the front wall of the church, and with the pastor’s back to the congregation. In fact, in some churches, Communion is still done this way. The pastor would stand in front of the altar, with his - because at that time it was almost always a he - with his back to the people, and then would mutter some mysterious words and do some mysterious things with his hands that nobody could see because he was in the way. Now, obviously, he didn’t turn his back to the congregation so they couldn’t see what he was doing. He did it because he had to turn his face to where God was, to what was holy.

But you’ll notice now that it’s different. Pastors no longer face the front wall. Instead, we face the congregation. And it’s not because we want you to see what we’re doing - that’s just a nice side effect. It’s because we’re learning that God is in the people, in our neighbours, that what’s holy is you. And so we face you. You’re not God, I’m not saying that at all. But God is there with you, Christ is present in you, the Holy Spirit is moving in you. And so when I face what’s holy during the celebration of Communion, when I face where God is, I face my neighbour. I face you.

So, how will you live this week as a holy person? Well, I don’t have any specific recommendations to you. I’m thinking that this is more of a change to your way of thinking, which takes time, than an immediate go out and to do this or that. It would be great if you walked out these doors and immediately started seeing Christ in everybody you met. But change goes deeper than superficial actions, and you have to see yourself as holy before you can see your neighbour that way. Love your neighbour as yourself, it says. So maybe you’ll have to start with "the man in the mirror" as the Michael Jackson song goes - or the woman. When you get up in the morning and look in the mirror, try reminding yourself to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and your neighbour as yourself, and remember that you and your neighbour are holy, as the Lord your God is holy. Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Sun, Oct 16, 2005 - What Belongs to God

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-13
1 Thess 1:1-10
Matt 22:15-22

"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Well, that's our famous verse for today. Even people who aren't Christian or have never read the Bible have probably heard this verse, or its more popular variation - "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." It has been at the basis of countless arguments over the question of separation between church and state, it has been used by people in favour of paying taxes, and by people who are against paying taxes. Oddly enough - and this is just an aside - it is rarely used by people to figure out how much money to give to the church.

In any case, we hear these words of Jesus, and our initial reaction is to look at our things and start dividing them up into piles. Okay, this part belongs to the government, and this part belongs to God, and this part belongs to me. And then the trouble begins. How much of a part belongs to the government? They would say anywhere from 30-50%, and they claim it in taxes. And how much belongs to God? Well, the Bible says we should tithe 10% - that our offering on Sundays should be one tenth of our income. But is that before or after the government takes its share? The Bible doesn't tell us that. And then there's the part that belongs to us - between 40- 60% - and we all know that most of that money doesn't really belong to us - it belongs to the credit card companies, and the utility companies, and the grocery store, and the mechanic's, and the insurance companies, and the dentist. The piles get smaller and smaller, and sometimes we end up taking from one pile to put in another pile, and it seems like there isn't enough for all the piles.

But that's not what Jesus intended for us to do when he spoke his famous line. Because Jesus, as we all know, was a clever guy, and the things he said were never as obvious or as simple as they first appear. You see, if you'll remember, Jesus introduced his "give to people the things that are their's" line by asking the onlookers whose image - whose head and title - were on the coin. And when the people said, "oh well, the emperor's," then Jesus made his point. But you'll notice, he didn't actually say, "pay your taxes to the emperor," which would have enraged the Jews around him. And he didn't actually say, "don't pay God's money to the emperor in taxes," which would have enraged the Roman authorities around him. He basically just told the people to see whose image, whose stamp, appeared on the things around them, and to put those things in their proper piles. And that was why people were so amazed at him.

You see, good Jews are brought up to believe, as are we, that everything around us bears the image of God, our Creator. We do, obviously, being made in the image of God, but so does all of creation - animals, trees, mountains, oceans, fields of wheat, ranges of cattle, mines of metals, reserves of oil and natural gas. Everything that exists, even those things we make ourselves, like cars and houses, bears the stamp of God - belongs to God. Even our money, which, yes, bears the image of the Queen, is really the property of our Creator, God.

Which is bad news for us here today, living in North America at the beginning of the 21stcentury. Because we're all about ownership, we're all about entitlement. We've worked hard for the things we have, they're ours. Nobody's going to tell me what to do with my things, or how to live my life, or how to spend my money. I have the right to do what I want, to live how I want, to spend how I want. How dare anybody tell me that I should be giving x amount of dollars to the church? How dare anybody tell me that I should quit smoking, or quit eating cheeseburgers, or quit drinking so much pop? How dare anybody tell me how to drive my car or heat my home? There are all my things, and I decide what to do with them.

Except that they're not. They're not mine. They're not yours. They're not even ours. They're God's. That car you've worked so hard for - it's God's. That house you've sacrificed to pay the mortgage for - it's God's. That body that you have a right to decide what to do with - it's God's. Which of course, makes it kind of ludicrous that we sit dividing up our belongings into piles for the government, piles for God, and piles for ourselves. When everything belongs to God, who of course graciously directs us to share it with others in the form of taxes and to even spend some on ourselves so we can live, but when everything belongs to God, that means that our sense of ownership, our sense of entitlement over our things is misplaced. When it comes to God, we are neither entitled nor do we have the right to anything. Sorry tp be the one to tell you the bad news - but that's how it is.

This is good news, though, for people who have had everything taken away from them. People like the ones living in El Salvador, where their land has been stolen from them by developers or the government, where their houses have been torn down to make way for shopping malls and highways. This is good new for people living in the countries of Africa, where the farmland that used to sustain them has been replaced by coffee plantations, where the food that they used to put on the dinner table has been taken away and replaced by coffee beans that they are forced to sell at cut-rate prices, so that we can have our morning cappucino while they starve. This is good news for the people in China whose lands and homes have been swept away by rising lakes formed by hydro-electric dams. This is good news because the land that has been taken away from them, the livelihood that has been sacrificed for the convenience of others actually belongs to God. That is God's land that is being bulldozed for malls, God's land that is being used for luxury coffee, God's land that is flooded to provide energy for televisions and microwaves and energy-sucking conveniences. And God, who loaned that land to the poor for their survival, who gave us what we have with the expectation that we would share it generously with those in need, well, God is not happy.

But God leaves it to us to make things right. We are the ones, after all, who are charged with taking care of the things that God has graciously given us. And that means that it's up to us to take all of God's things that we have and return them to God - by sharing them with the poor and needy, by being responsible in the ways we buy and consume, by returning God's money to the church where it can be used, by living our lives in ways that bring God's abundance to others. We are called to follow the example of Jesus, the Son of God, who renounced his claim on land and home, who shared his power with the sick and poor who needed it most, who shared his food with the hungry, who shared his life with those dying from sin. That is how we give to God the things that are God's - by sharing our power, our food, our life, our home, our money, everything that God has first given us.

Of course, yes, we don't do a very good job of sharing. But God isn't going to punish us by taking away our things, by starving us or by making our lives miserable. God created the heavens and the earth and all the things we need to live whether we are good caretakers of it or not. But God wants us to get it right, so God is going to keep on giving us these things until we do.

So, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." And as it turns out, we know now that Jesus means for us to think of everything as God's, including ourselves. And when we think about it that way, things like how much belongs to the government and how much belongs to us seem kind of inconsequential. We share it out as God shows us need and in doing so, find that we have more than enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sun, Oct 9, 2005 - From Worry to Thanksgiving

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 23:1-13

"Do not worry, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." Apparently, this verse has great meaning to me, although I’m not sure why. As I was sitting at my computer early this week, getting ready to work on this sermon, I realized that I had written "Philippians 4:6" - the verse that I just read to you - on a post-it note and stuck it to my computer screen a while ago. Now, I have a lot of post-it notes on surrounding my computer screen, with all kinds of cryptic messages on them - important phone numbers, email addresses, that kind of thing. But why I have Philippians 4:6 up there, I have no idea. I don’t remember writing it down, or even having read the phrase before, but there it is.

It is appropriate, though, because I’m a big worrier. I inherited it from my mother, I think. She was a big worrier when we were kids - so much so that one year my dad gave her a plaque that said "Worrying is about as useful as sawing sawdust" and another year I remember giving her worry dolls, those tiny little handmade yarn dolls that you tell your worries to before you go to bed, and they supposedly worry for you so you can go to sleep. So, I definitely inherited some kind of worrying gene from my mother.

But then again, pretty much everybody today worries about something or another. It pervades our culture. We all have moments when we can’t sleep at night, or can’t focus at work, because we’re too anxious about something or another. We worry about the ill health of our parents, or about what kind of lives our kids are leading. We worry about having enough money to pay the bills, or whether there’s going to be a fight at the family Thanksgiving meal this weekend. We worry about school, our jobs, not having enough time to do the chores at home. We worry about our health, about the environment, about the government, some people even worry about whether or not the Leafs are going to have a good season, given their loss last night. Some of these worries aren’t so serious, but some of them gnaw at our stomachs and weigh on our minds until we walk around like zombies, obsessed and exhausted.

But every once in a while, immersed in our worries as we are, we run across somebody who doesn’t worry the way we do. Somebody who, despite all the hardships and difficulties facing them, nevertheless manages to maintain a positive outlook on life, who sleeps well at night, and who is constantly giving thanks to God. We look at them and wonder if they’re all there, if maybe they’re too positive, when things are falling down around their ears and they’re saying hallelujahs, but that doesn’t stop them. They live out the verse, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving..." I remember meeting people like that in rural Carolina, where people were so poor they lived literally hand-to-mouth, surviving off the shrimp and fish they got in the nearby river. They had nothing, people looked down on them like they were nothing, and yet every Sunday morning, there they were in church, praising God and giving thanks for the mere fact that they woke up that morning. When you asked them how they were doing, they didn’t respond with a litany about how all their bones ached, which they did, or about how their house was falling apart, which it really was, or about how they were victims of societal racism, which they were. Instead, they would tell you how wonderful they felt, praise the Lord, how good God was to them, thanks be to God, and about how, glory hallelujah, they were blessed with a fine day. And they meant it. Now, don’t get me wrong - they weren’t all like that, some of them would complain instead for hours, but there were some of them who lived lives of joy and thanksgiving despite all the problems in their lives.

So how can we do that? How can we be people who are legitimately concerned about the problems in our lives but at the same time rejoice and give thanks as Paul advices us to, and indeed, as Paul did himself? Don’t forget that Paul was someone who had been beaten, whipped, imprisoned, and almost drowned for his faith - his days were torture and yet he was constantly rejoicing and giving thanks. How can we "not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be made known to God?"
Well, the first thing is to remember that "the Lord is near." If you’ll look at the reading for today, you’ll notice that right before Paul says, "Do not worry" in verse six, he says, "The Lord is near." "The Lord is near. Do not worry." It is crucially important to Paul that not worrying is connected with Christ Jesus being at hand. When the Lord, who died and was raised to new life, who brought light to the deepest darkness, who eased the suffering of the sick around him is near, our reasons for worrying seem to lose their power.

The next piece of the puzzle comes from knowing that in the original Greek that Paul wrote in, the word "rejoice" and the word "joy" have at their root the word "chara." And this word "chara" is also at the root of the Greek word for thanksgiving - a word you’ll recognize - "eucharist." But that’s not all. "Chara" is also at the root of the word for grace - "charis." "Chara," "eucharist" and "charis," - joy, thanksgiving, and grace - are all deeply connected in Paul’s mind. "In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."

In using these words so often, and in reminding us that the Lord is near, Paul is pointing us to a larger context for our concerns, to the bigger picture that helps us to turn our worries over to God and yet still give thanks.

And that bigger context is that by the grace of God, because God has made an eternal covenant with God’s people, God takes care of us and, even in times of loss, provides us with what we need in order to live and to love one another. No matter what the troubles in our lives, God is never far away - the Lord is near. When Abraham was living with Sarah, almost 100 years old, worrying about how the family line would carry on, God gave him Isaac and made him the father of nations. When the Israelites were in slavery in Egypt, concerned for their very existence, God sent them Moses, to bring them out of Egypt and into Canaan. When Assyria and Babylon had invaded Israel and carted the population off into exile, God sent King Cyrus of Persia to restore the people to their land. And when the poor and marginalized of the world were crying under the weight of oppression, God sent Jesus Christ to share his power with them and to restore them to God. We have seen, over and over again, that God takes care of God’s people, and simply for that, we can be joyful and give thanks.

But worrying isn’t just about the past - it’s also about the future. After all, we worry about what might happen, or what could happen - we worry about what is to come. But even then we have God’s promises, based on God’s past deeds, given to us by the grace of God that God will continue to take care of us, to remain true to the covenant God made with us, to be near us. We hear it in our reading from Isaiah - "the Lord God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.. . . This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation." The day is coming when God will take all the things we are worried about and they will disappear and we will be left with only joy. We hear about it in the psalm for today - "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." With those promises lying ahead of us, even in the midst of our concerns for tomorrow, we can be joyful and give thanks.

So, "Do not worry, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." Paul isn’t saying don’t care about things, or don’t be concerned about the people in our lives. Paul is just reminding us of what we already know, that God is taking care of things, and as often as we remember what God has done for us in the past, and what God has promised to do for us in the future, our worries will be eased by the joy we receive in remembering. We really do have so much to give thanks for, not the least of which is a gracious God who is always near. So, as you lift your requests to God with thanksgiving this day and this week, carry Paul’s reassuring words with you, and "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sun, Oct 2, 2005 - God the Gardener

Isaiah 5:1-5
Psalm 80:7-14
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

It can be dangerous to ascribe human characteristics to God - to describe God as compassionate, or judging, or kind, or angry. It's dangerous because when we give human attributes to God, we risk limiting God with our definitions. We end up turning God into a glorified human, and we fail to recognize that God is so completely different from us that there is no comparison, no point of reference.

On the other hand, it is absolutely impossible to relate to a God who is so different. If God is just "God," with no defining characteristics - if God is just "God," not loving or angry or caring or judging or anything - than how can we love such a God? Or even hate such a God? How can we feel anything whatsoever towards that God? Or, most importantly, know that that God feels anything towards us?

Well, the writer of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah decided to risk the former rather than the latter. That is, the writer of our portion from Isaiah decided that it was better to over-personalize God than to under-personalize, because the writer wanted us to understand how much of a relationship God has with us, and how much of what we do affects God in deeply personal ways.

And so the writer invites us to imagine God as a gardener, as a farmer in love with his vineyard, with us. "Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;" So there we have the very beginning images of what God is doing for the vineyard, for God's chosen people. First the gardener selects the site for the vineyard and then begins the back-breaking work of breaking ground and clearing out the stones. Now, remember, this was before diesel-powered roto-tillers or yard-sized back-hoes. The gardener had only a plow, and a team of oxen to help him pull it, and every couple of feet there would be another huge stone to drag out of the way. Israel is, after all, a very rocky country, and clearing land there is a lot of work. But, after what was probably months of labour-intensive work, finally the gardener could begin to plant.

And so he travelled the area, buying and trading with people for their vine shoots, carefully building up a selection of the perfect vines. And then he planted them, spacing them out carefully, marking out the rows where they would grow, giving them all just a little bit of water and nourishment, clearing out the weeds that would choke them.

And then the gardener with the vineyard waited. Did you know that it takes anywhere from three to eight years for vines to produce grapes that are good enough to press into wine? It doesn't happen right away. This is no instant-gratification project. It takes a long time. But, while the gardener waited, he built a hedge on one side to stop foraging animals from chewing up the vines, and he built a wall on the other, probably from the stones he'd picked out of the ground, to stop the sheep from walking through the rows. And then, he built a watchtower in the middle, so he could climb it and survey his vineyard. And lastly, remember, he still has a couple of years, he built a wine vat, a big tub where he could press the grapes and make wine, where he could reap the rewards of all his work. And he kept weeding and watering and waiting.

Now, after all these years of hard work, of single-minded care and tending of his vineyard, how do you think the gardener felt towards his vines? If you've ever taken care of a garden, or even just a single plant, and nurtured it from a small seedling to a flourishing plant, then you know that a person can get attached to what they're growing. You're proud when you spot a new shoot, you worry when you have to go away and leave it for a while. You attack the weeds with vigour and fret when there's not enough rain. And, like the vineyard grower, like God, you expect to see results for all your hard work.

"He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes." Rotten grapes, actually, is the better Hebrew translation. God expected the vineyard that he had carefully cultivated to produce grapes that were worthy of wine, but instead, the vines put forth grapes that were rotten, that mocked God's hard work, that turned to nothing all the time he had spent on them.

Of course, we know, since the prophet who wrote this told us so, that the vineyard is not just any vineyard, and the vines are not just vines. After all, who can blame plain old vines for the kind of grapes they produce? We know that the vineyard is actually God's chosen people, and that the production of rotten grapes is personal betrayal of the worst kind. After being cared for and nurtured, after being set in the perfect place and protected by walls and watchtowers, the people of God turn their backs on the one who cares for them. Rather than trying to produce fruit in thanks for such care, we produce rot. We put forth words of hate, rather than love. We produce actions that put down others, rather than lift them up. You know what kind of rot we produce on a daily basis. I don't need to tell you.

"And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What 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 rotten grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thrown; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it."

God's reaction is devastating, and can we blame him? We have betrayed God, turned our back on the relationship that God would have with us, scorned the care and protection God offer us. And God reacts by leaving us to ourselves - by removing the protective hedges and walls so that we can fend for ourselves among the wild animals, by abandoning us to the weeds that choke our lives and stop us from seeing the sun, by leaving us to survive without the nourishment and sustenance that God provides. It's not really punishment so much as it is God saying, "Well, if you think you don't need me, then I can't help you. I won't force myself on you - try it on your own for a while."

But leaving a vineyard to itself leads to the death of the vineyard, and that's where our reading from Isaiah ends for today. The vineyard is destroyed, the people of God torn down, and God's heart is broken over the whole matter. We know, after all, what happens when we are left to our own devices, when we are place in a situation with no boundaries at all. We flounder, and fail, and even die. We end up in desperate need of rescuing and the psalm that we sang today says it perfectly, "Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted."

And God does. Death is not the final end of the vineyard or of us. God does not let things end with our destruction, in part because our death is so painful to God. After all, who can abandon a garden they have worked so hard to keep alive? Even when things appear completely dead, there is always hope that something might come back next spring. And so God brings new life out of death and new vines out of the destroyed vineyard. Later in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 27, actually, we read, "On that day: A pleasant vineyard, sing about it! I, the Lord, am its keeper, every moment I water it. I guard it night and day so that no one can harm it; I have no wrath. If it gives me thorns and briers, I will march to battle against it. I will burn it up. Or else let it cling to me for protection, let it make peace with me. . . . In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit." God restores us to what we were meant to be, and in doing so, we become the people God intended. We bear fruit worthy of God.

Now don't think for a minute that this is an easy thing for God to do - giving us new life and restoring us to what we are meant to be. In doing this, God risks being betrayed again, God risks that we will once again bear rotten fruit, God risks that we will crucify his son all over again. But God takes that risk nonetheless, because of a love for us that is great, passionate, and never-ending. And all that we can do in return is to grow good fruit, to reach for the sunlight, to appreciate and give thanks to the gardener who keeps us growing. Thanks be to God. Amen.