Sunday, August 29, 2010

LIVING IN THE SPIRIT OF JOY

Are We Christian Enough?
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
August 29th, 2010

Late one night, a burglar broke into a house he thought was empty. He tiptoed through the living room but suddenly froze in his tracks when he heard a voice say: "Jesus is watching you!"
Silence returned to the house, so the burglar crept forward again. "Jesus is watching you," the voice boomed again.

The burglar stopped dead again. He was frightened.  Frantically, he looked all around until in a dark corner, he spotted a cage containing a parrot.  The burglar breathed a sigh of relief, then he asked the parrot: "What's your name?"
"Moses," said the bird.
"That's a dumb name for a parrot," sneered the burglar. "What idiot named you Moses?"
The parrot said, "The same idiot who named the Rottweiller standing behind you , Jesus."

Today’s Bible text opens with certain religious people watching Jesus “carefully” to see whether he will break their religious traditions to bring healing to a man suffering from dropsy, but as the text unfolds, an even greater truth emerges that Jesus is also watching them.

FINDING “OUR” OWN HAPPINESS DOES NOT BRING JOY
What does Jesus see when he watches?   Our text tells us that Jesus watched and “noticed how the guests (at a dinner party) picked the places of honor at the table….” (14:7). 

Should this shock us?  Isn’t it quite normal in our world also, to see people pushing each other around in order to gain the best place or position?   Last week as mid-term election primaries continued in parts of our country, we heard the return to “mud-slinging” among politicians and political candidates.   The constant sharp clamor among politicians is that one guy has all the answers while the other guy has none.  We’ve gotten use to this, but it does seem to get worse with each political season.  This obsession of claiming the “best place in the house” also spills over into the business world, as one company promotes their product only by convincing us how bad the other guy’s product is. 

We can even see this unhealthy spirit of competition leaking down into school athletic programs.  School sports is supposed to be about the discipline of the body, building character and bringing out the best in our children, but when a child’s parent jumps down the throat of an umpire or referee who makes a bad call, what do you think that teaches a child?  It seems as if everyone has to have the perfect play or feels they deserve the best spot or have “first place” in everything these days, and anything less seems intolerable.

What is on our "American minds" that makes us so obsessed with what we want?   Could it be our own declaration of Independence that says: “We hold these truths to be self –evident, that all (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS?  These are some of the most revered words in the American experiment.  They were necessary words when they were written and are still very inspiring to us, but they can also be very dangerous when misunderstood to meant that we are to pursue our "happiness" at the expense of others.  This could end up being more like waking up to an American nightmare, which some say we are experiencing these days, than fulfilling the American dream. 
  
Isn’t this part of the problem Jesus saw as he watched at the dinner party?  He saw everyone pursuing ‘the best seat in the house’, so Jesus tells them a parable describing what might happen, when when the host must tell them to take another seat because the “best seat” has been reserved for someone else (14:9).  I don’t think I’m stretching the meaning here at all by pointing out that Jesus realizes that in life, things don’t away end up revolving around us and our own agendas for happiness.  The best way to miss the contentment you long for is to spend all your energy trying to make your own “happiness” happen.  

In the news this week, the mystery concerning the death of rising LPGA golf star, Erika Blasberg started to come out.  When her death happened on May 9th, it just didn’t add up.  At age 25, she was at the prime of her life in the career she loved.  She had the beauty of a model and she had a golf swing that put her in the top ten.  She pursued what should have made her happy, but now the truth has come out, as the coroner’s office in Clark County,Nevada, has ruled her life a suicide.  How could this young girl, who seemed to be at the top of her game, career, and have everything anyone might want in life, end up so unhappy? 1 

Why doesn’t the “happiness” we often seek bring us the joy we desperately need?  Our text today seems to suggest that “the pursuit of happiness” can be just as elusive as keeping the “best seat in the house”.  Even if you get to sit in that seat, Jesus reminds these folks and us, you probably won’t get to stay in it. Before you know it and sooner than you think, somebody will take that seat from you, and then, where will your “happiness” be found?
  
I really don’t know all that was going on with the rising golf star, but I know what often goes in all our minds.  But if “being first” or "having what you want" is your chosen path to happiness in life, you’re bound end with disappointment and discontent.  Happiness in not only practically impossible to define,  it is even harder to maintain and even the attempt to stay on top can drive you into despair.

WE CAN FIND GREAT JOY EVEN IN LIFE’S HURTS AND PAIN
Since finding your own “happiness” can end up being the one of the best ways to lose joy, what is the alternative?   How does Jesus suggest these “position takers” and “happiness seekers” find their rightful place?   Do you see what strange advises he gives when he says: “When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’  Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.” (14: 10)?

Who really wants to take this advice these days?  Meek is weak!  This is what we often say.  Which politician is willing to admit that the other party might have a good idea?  Which company is willing to say that the other company has a good product too?  Which parent is willing to let their child learn about life through the things that don’t always go their way?  Who is willing to learn about the meaning, purpose or joy of life, not just going after the good times, but also doing hard things or enduring through difficult days?   Who would be willing to discover that the secret to finding joy in life might come by “humbling” ourselves now, rather than putting our happiness first and waiting for life to one day humiliate us?

One of the most misunderstood realities is this very difference between finding “joy” and seeking “happiness”.  Always seeking instant gratification or finding "our" happiness will not result in finding the lasting joy we all need.  If we want to sit at God’s table, or if we want experience the greatest “honors” and joys of life, we must discover or recover this great difference:  Happiness does not result in finding joy.  

Once the apostle Paul said that he had learned in whatever state he was in, to be content (Phil 4:11).  That’s not an easy lesson.  But perhaps one of the greatest truths the Christian life has to offer us is that joy comes more through what we have to endure than getting what we want in life.  This unexpected “truth” is one of the reasons in Paul’s word to the Galatians 5:22ff; is that the Fruit of Joy flows directly out of the Fruit of love.  The spiritual fruit of “joy” only comes when you consider and contemplate what it means to love.

Think for a moment on one of the most powerful passages about the “joy” Jesus went after, when he endured the cross.   Few of us would ever think of Jesus’ crucifixion as the pathway to his own joy, but listen to what the writer of Hebrews wrote, when he said, “2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, WHO FOR THE JOY SET BEFORE HIM ENDURED THE CROSS, SCORNING ITS SHAME, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  (Heb 12:2-3 NIV).

It may really be hard for some of us, especially those of us who are used to ‘doing our own thing’ in life, living according to our own wants and wishes" to have any idea what kind of joy can come from ‘denying yourself” of what you want, by “humbling yourself”, or by even giving up your own happiness for the happiness of others.  In this age of serving me, myself and I, we will struggle to contemplate what kind of joy could come by “enduring pain” for the sake of someone else or with someone else.  I often hear people say, I can’t visit a sick person, or go into a nursing home.   At first it sounds like they are saying that they can’t bear the pain, but the truth is they haven’t ever faced the pain that must bear and that one day we all will bear.  

The table the Christian gospel invites us to, is the table of eternal joy, but it a joy that will not come until you surrender your own wants and desires to God, even accepting and enduring the cross he has called you to bear.   Your joy too, will not come by running from the cross, but it will only come by bearing the cross, as you bear each other’s burdens.  This is hard, but it through the pain, not around the pain, that we find the path to the deepest joy in life. 

So, now before I conclude, let’s review where Jesus’ parable about taking the humble seat has taken us: 
            (1) Jesus says that we should take the humble seek, not the best seat.  He tell us this because he knows having the best seat, or getting what we want does not bring great joy.  We might obtain some temporary happiness, but getting what we want does not bring ultimate, lasting joy.  
            (2) Also, Jesus wants us to know that the greatest joy in life does not come when we avoid the pain, but it only comes when we walk straight through life’s hurts.  If we don’t humble ourselves to learn to accept the second, third or even the worse seat in the house, we will never really find or feel the joy. Joy comes through learning to life with disappointed, not  by avoiding it.  But there is one more truth in the parable we can’t leave without.  

WE WILL NEVER FIND GREAT JOY GOING IT ALONE.
Notice closely the final words of Jesus, when he says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (14:11).  Do you catch the implications of this promise?  Have you noticed that one thing you can't really do, with any meaning, is to "exalt yourself”.  Think of it alsow this way:  you can’t find life’s greatest joy by yourself, but somebody else has to “elevate you” or “exalt you” in order for you to find it. 

You don’t have to imagine how this might work in real life, but just follow what Jesus says to his listeners at the conclusion of his parable.  Jesus tells this host, if he wants to find fulfillment and joy to try something different next time he throws a party.  Since he has invited all the wrong people to this party---that is all these people who are self-seeking, unhappy, and discontented, Jesus makes a suggestion. If he wants the people to appreciate what he has offered and to be the kind of guests who bring joy and not discontent, he should go out and invite a whole different crowd altogether.  Instead of inviting all his friends, relatives, or rich neighbors who can repay the favor, why doesn’t he invite all those people who’d just be thankful to be anywhere or have anything?   By inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, they would be blessed and he will be blessed by their company too.  Because they can't repay him, he will be repaid in a way hardly imaginable.

Do you see what Jesus is saying about the bearing the fruit of joy?  Joy doesn’t come when you get what you want, or when you avoid the hard things in life.  Most of all, joy doesn’t come when you go it alone.  Joy only comes when you share your life with others who need something you can give who can never pay you back.    Joy will never come when you only live for yourself, but joy only comes when you serve God, when you serve others, and when you serve heaven.

A couples of weeks ago, at Zion we had our first “Widows Meal”.  We invited all the widows in our community to a party and served them a meal.  After it was over I’ve heard several people, both those who attended and those who served, say that it was a great experience that brought them some real joy.   Do you know why there was such “joy” in this event?  It was an event when we loved people who could not pay us back.  That’s how God’s pay back comes; when we do something for him that we have no way of benefiting from ourselves.   That is the surprising way gospel works and bring us joy.  Joy does not come when we go looking for it, but it comes when we endure the cross of living with and for others.   This is the kind of joy puts us right at the feet of the Father.   This is the surprising and humbling way God has paved the path to joy.

Recently, a pastor friend of mine shared a “burden” he had for someone who ended up going to jail for having an inappropriate relationship.   The man ended up in one of the most difficult, dark prisons in the State of Maryland.   He was put in a cell with the biggest guy on the cell block; a guy named Moose.   At first he had great fear, as would we all, but then the most amazing thing happened.  He discovered that Moose was a Christian and wanted to be his friend.   What good fortune, because now nobody would mess with him because nobody wanted to mess with “Moose”.  But this was not all.  Within 7 hours of being in that terrible place, Moose invited him to a Bible Study.  The man said, who had even led church Bible studies for most of his life, that this was the most wonderful Bible groups he had ever been involved with his whole life.   Who would have ever thought that one the greatest moments of joy could have come in such dark and difficult place?  Jesus wants us to know that the fruit of the Spirit of Joy can come anywhere there is true deeds of love.  Right in the middle of acts and deeds of love---the kind of love that loves and humbles itself with people who can’t pay you back---right in the middle of selflessly giving and sharing with others who can't pay you back, this is always where greatest joy is found. 

Once, the great theologian, Paul Tillich, raised one final question for all of us to consider.   In his book, The New Being, Tillich surveyed the American landscape and asked, “Is our lack of joy due to the fact that we are Christians, or to the fact that we are not Christian enough?”  He then asks another question:  “Is not the decision to be a Christian, a decision for the joy in God instead of for the [happiness] of the world?” 2

Could our lack of joy and contentment, which seems to be reflected in current financial downfall, be because we have gone after our “joy” in the wrong way?    Jesus offers us another way, when he says, “ I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” (John 15: 11).  Amen.


2. See, The New Being, by Paul Tillich, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950 ) p. 42) as quoted in The Ripe Life: Sermons on the Fruit of the Spirit, by C. Thomas Hilton, Abingdon Press, 1993) pp. 21-25.   


© 2010 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min

Sunday, August 22, 2010

LIVING IN THE SPIRIT OF LOVE

Straighten Up!
Luke 13: 10-17
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Partnership
August 22, 2010


Way back in cold February, fourth grader Patrick Timoney came face-to-face with what “zero degrees” really mean.  Not “zero degrees” Fahrenheit, but “zero degrees” of tolerance.

It seems Patrick had taken some of his favorite Lego toys to school to show off to his buddies. Any parent of young children can tell you those little, tiny Lego guys are natural born killers.   They hide in the couch to poke you when you sit down.
They stab you in the foot as you cross the floor.   They can single-handedly destroy expensive vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, and washing machines.

Patrick’s favorite Lego toy was an inch-and-a-half tall policeman figure. The Lego policeman came armed with his own teeny-tiny gun. That minuscule piece of plastic succeeded in getting Patrick kicked out of school. It seems the “zero tolerance” policy about bringing “weapons” on school grounds extended to include that Lego ornament, that toothpick-sized armament.

Sorry, but sometimes “zero tolerance” makes “zero sense.” At least zero common sense.  (From as sermon by Len Sweet… Mulligans, All.)

Len Sweet says:   “A “zero tolerance” policy is what the synagogue leader was advocating in today’s gospel lesson. Charged with keeping the reading and reflection of the Torah on the straight and narrow, this officious official couldn’t see beyond the letter of the law, beyond the jot and tittle of his title. No “work” on the Sabbath meant strict adherence to every stated restriction. No “work” on the Sabbath mean avoiding every rabbinically-vetoed activity.

In other words, the synagogue official had come to see the Sabbath as one great big “thou shalt not.” Instead of being a celebration of the divine presence, Shabbat became a cell to quarantine human activities and confine the Spirit. He had lost sight of what the Sabbath was FOR. In his effort to keep the Sabbath wholly separate, he had lost sight of what made the Sabbath truly holy.”


HOLINESS IS ABOUT LOVE NOT LAWS

What makes us “holy”?  To give the Jewish religious leaders credit, they wanted to be “holy” and “keep Sabbath.”    The problem was, they did not realize that “holiness” is not about following the law but it is about doing and becoming love.   God says, “Be holy as I am holy”, not “do holy as I do holy”.   We become holy as we become loving because, God is love.

Holiness is about love.   This is what the religious of Jesus’ day were missing.  Do we get it?

This week I read a story about an episode that a minister witnessed in a hospital emergency room. He was waiting his turn to see the doctor when a young mother came through the door with a crying child of about three or four years old. The woman was holding a bloody handkerchief over the little girl’s mouth and looking around frantically for help. She hurried to the desk and started to say, "My daughter’s been hurt and I need to see…"   The receptionist cut the mother off in mid sentence. "You need to take a seat and wait for one of the clerks to sign you in."   "But my little girl was hit in the mouth by a…" The receptionist interrupted again. "Please take a seat ma’am. Someone will be with you shortly."

The ER doctor walked by and witnessed this. "Shame on you!," the doctor said to the receptionist. "This little girl needs help right now!" The doctor himself led the girl and her mother into an exam room. The receptionist was focusing on the hospital’s procedure, but the doctor was focusing on the child’s pain.
(www.lectionarysermons.com/a2398.html.)

WITHOUT LOVE EVEN “RIGHT” CAN BE WRONG

Shame on the president of the synagogue. By the rulebook a person can be right, but by the law of love still be dead wrong. Without love, even being right can end up going woefully wrong.

This same kind of attitude and behavior showed up in the church at Corinth. Quarrelsome factions, groups, had developed in the congregation. For example, people were saying things like this to one another: "My tradition is better than yours. I belong to Apollos. Or I’m in line with Peter." Church members had also taken to sizing themselves and each other up according to perceived spiritual gifts.     Some asserted, "My gifts are higher than yours. I know better than you do. Therefore I have, and deserve to have, more authority in the church than you. What I say should carry more weight."  The most highly coveted gift in that congregation was speaking in tongues, and anybody with that gift was considered, and thought him or herself to be, on a higher plane than ordinary church members.

While Paul recognized and appreciated the gifts he saw in the church at Corinth, he saw the same problem there that Jesus saw in the president of the synagogue. There was something lacking in the congregation’s love for one another. It doesn’t matter how right you are and how gifted you are and how much you do if you don’t do it with love.  Or, as Paul put it in First Corinthians 13, that great love text, we can have all these gifts and do all these self-sacrificing things, but without love it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.  To put it another way, without love good works turn self-serving. Without love, gifts turn into idols. Without love, even the sacred law can turn into an idol, more important than the God behind the law, and more important than the people God loves.   Without love, even when we’re right, we’re in danger of going wrong. It can happen like this.   (From a sermon by Mary Harris Todd, www.goodpreacher.com, 2010.  Her great stories and illustrations provided the structure for this sermon).

In a book entitled Humble Leadership (Alban 2007), Graham Standish describes the sad case of a pastor he knew. This pastor confused his own ambitions with God’s will, speaking of blind spots. This man was a good preacher, a person of vision, had plenty of drive, and he really did want to lead people to serve Christ. He was a good man. But there was a problem. He assumed that he was the only person in the church who understood what God wanted. After all, he had special gifts and special training. Like the super-Christians in Corinth, he was sure he knew best. But the congregation resisted his vision, plans and programs, and he grew angry and bitter. When the congregation didn’t follow immediately, he thought they were deliberately undercutting him. Eventually he left the church and left the ministry altogether.

Maybe this pastor did have good ideas. He could have been right on many things. Certainly he had gifts and skills to offer. But as Paul says, what is that without love? Something was lacking in love for the flock. The pastor didn’t respect the people and their gifts and their faith (Standish, Humble Leadership, p. 10). Being right and being in charge was more important than loving the people. He needed to be straightened out.

Once a young minister came to me complaining that his deacons were trying to tell him how long he could preach.  He continually preached long sermons, sometimes up to 45 minutes to an hour going way passed 12 o’clock.  He told them they had no right to tell him how long he could preach.  He was arrogant, rude, selfish and uncompromising.  Finally, the deacons taught the young preacher a lesson, but it was difficult.   They let him know that he could preach as long as he wanted, but not in their pulpit.  He was fired.   He just couldn’t see the value of being caring and compassionate in his preaching, as much as he cared about being “right.”

Also, the president of the synagogue was more concerned about being right and being in charge than he was about a suffering woman. Sometimes being right does seem to be the most important thing, but it never is.


ONLY LOVE CAN “STRAIGHTEN US UP”

Do you know why this is true?   Do you know why “being right” is not as important as being kind, compassionate and loving?   Do you know why the first Fruit of the Spirit is love?  Do you know why the gospel is not about rules, but about developing loving relationships?   Do you know why it is just as important to love the neighbor we do see as it is to love the God we can’t?
It is important because “love” is the only real power that can heal and help straighten up the world.

In her book Strength for the Journey1 (Jossey-Bass 2002) Diana Butler Bass tells the stories of several congregations that she has been a part of. Some were quarrelsome, including the one she was a member of while she was a student in seminary.  Many studious people were a part of this congregation. Many were quite articulate, able to express matters of faith really well in words. There were several subgroups in this church: some were generational in nature, while others centered on differences with each other over various issues of faith and practice.
Whatever camp people were in, being right, being correct was very important to them. Indeed, at that time it was very important to Diana herself.  She wanted matters of faith and practice to be black and white. One pastor remarked to Diana much later that he had never served another congregation where so many people were obsessed with being certain. Folks felt that if they were right, then others must certainly be wrong.

Now this was an Episcopal church. Episcopalians are organized into regions called dioceses; and each diocese has a bishop, who is the shepherd of the whole diocese.   People in this particular church tended to be suspicious of bishops, wondering whether the leadership of the denomination was truly Christian or not.
When a new bishop was elected in that diocese and he started making the rounds getting to know the congregations, a number of folks in this congregation got ready to challenge him. When he arrived to visit them, these people were primed with questions, which on the surface is fine. Christians should be able to approach their leaders and raise questions. But they came with an adversarial stance. The truth was they wanted to catch the bishop making a mistake. Like the religious leaders trying to catch Jesus making a mistake, they wanted to be able to say, "See! We told you he doesn’t believe the right things!"

The bishop got a hostile reception, but he held his own fielding the questions. Then Diana’s husband raised his hand and said, "Bishop Johnson, it says in the book of Timothy that the bishop is to guard the gospel. Sir, listening to you, I cannot discern what you are guarding. Can you tell us, please, exactly what you think the gospel is?"

Silence. Nobody moved. The bishop didn’t rush to answer. He looked at the questioner, and looked around the room. Then, Diana writes, "he unfolded his arms—which he had held across his chest—and stretched them out so widely that he almost looked like Jesus hanging on the cross. ‘God,’ [the bishop] said deliberately. ‘God loves everybody.’
"’Well, yes,’ [Diana’s husband] started to protest, ‘but…’
‘God loves everybody,’ [the bishop] replied. ‘That’s it.’
‘But…’
‘God loves everybody.’"
It was clear that this answer did not please most of the audience. It sounded wishy-washy. It sounded like "anything goes."
But Diana herself was put to shame. She wrote, "Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I knew that [the bishop] was right, and I was wrong. God’s only boundary is love...and there, on that day in [the church] parish hall, I began to understand that orderliness is not faith, and certainty is no substitute for grace."

Mary Harris Todd says something we must say to ourselves:  “We need Jesus to point out our blind spots and correct them. We need him to show us where we need to grow in love. We need him to straighten us out.
When I find myself growing impatient and itching to be unkind to somebody, Lord, straighten me out.
When I find myself enjoying blaming the victim, Lord, straighten me out.
When I find myself growing arrogant, Lord, straighten me out.
When jealousy and pride come creeping in, Lord, straighten me out.
 When I find myself keeping a record of someone else’s wrongs, and rejoicing in someone else’s mistakes, Lord, straighten me out.
When I start thinking I can see more clearly than others can, Lord, straighten me out.
When I think I already know it all, Lord, straighten me out. When my need to be in control is more important than the person that is before me, Lord, straighten me out.
When I think I’ve arrived, that I’m perfected in love, Lord, have mercy. Lord, straighten me out.
Lord, straighten us all out.”  Amen!

At the end of this text we have a “healed woman” and a “unhealed” religion.  Do you know what the difference was?  It wasn’t the lack of power of Jesus to heal or to help.  But it was the unwillingness of religion to let God heal and help them.  Even Jesus doesn’t have the power to help the kind of “crippled” and “crooked” religion that doesn’t want to love.

Only when we want can God’s grace to “straighten us” our and up do we receive the necessary power to “heal” crippled hearts”.  Love is the foundation a healing and helpful Christian, a healing and helpful church and a healing and helpful religion.  Do you see it?  Do you feel the love?  It might sound wishy-washy, but the hardest and most rewarding thing you’ll ever do, is allow God’s Spirit to transform your heart with the power of love.   Let it be so, Amen!


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Heartbreak Hotel

Isaiah 5: 1-7
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Partnership
August 15, 2010


Heartbreak songs fill the airways.  Know a few?  Maybe you could write your own.
One most of us know was Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel”:
 “Well since my baby left me.  I’ve found a new place to dwell. 
It’s down at the end of lonely street, they call heartbreak hotel. 
You make me so lonely baby.  I get so lonely.  I get so lonely, I could die!”

Most all of us know some form of lonely and “Heartbreak”.   But no one knows heartbreak like the Lord God knows heartbreak!  God poured heart and soul into a people who were to bring freedom, justice and goodness into a broken world.  Instead, they went astray, chasing after other gods.   Besides leaving the God who loved them, they did as is always the case when people wander away from God: They began to mistreat their brothers and sisters and participated in the kinds of behavior and deeds that kept hope from coming into the world.   But that’s getting ahead of the story.  We’ll get to those in a moment.


Today's scripture is a love song about God’s own vulnerability to heartbreak!   And no one could have seen it, realized it, or recorded this heartbreak like Isaiah the prophet did .   John Jewell writes:  “Isaiah takes up the role of a minstrel in this passage. Nowhere else in the Old Testament is such intimate language used of the relationship between a person and God. (Isaiah calls God "my beloved") And the resulting love song is a genuine, honest-to-goodness, "Somebody done somebody wrong song." Elton John in his ,"Sad Songs" and Kenny Rogers with his, "You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille" don't hold a candle to Isaiah's, "My Beloved had a Vineyard on a Very Fertile Hill!"   (http://www.lectionarysermons.com/a1698.html.)

The strange thing in this “love song” is not only that God’s heart is broken because his love has been rejected, but God knows the terrible consequences for those who reject love as the song of their lives.  God suffers because his people Israel are like a runaway child, who will not only suffer the loss of the nurturing love they need, but they have also to suffer the consequences of losing the protection and promise of having a loving home they can come home to.  But before we get to this part of the “heart break”, let’s start at the beginning:


THIS ‘LOVE SONG’ BEGINS WITH GREAT EXPECTATIONS
 2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
As a parent, can you remember when you first wrapped up that bundle of innocence and joy and brought your baby home? It was the most incredible day filled with hope and great expectations.  In Scripture, we read that God was in a similar place biblical drama.   In Genesis 2:7 it says: "...Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.Try to imagine. Do you think God was less filled with joy at the life of Adam than we are at the birth of a child?  But as the years go by and our children grow and mature, and begin to make their own decisions in life, many of us have gone through the anguish of seeing a child make bad decisions and poor choices. How it grieves our hearts to see them wounded by their own actions. The thought may even enter our minds... "Was it worth it? Bringing this child into this world?"

God is with us parents in this pain.   All you have to do is a turn a couple of pages in the Bible and read that it is not long when the Garden of God’s paradise, called Eden is lost . Only a couple of pages in the Bible later in Genesis 6:6, "And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart."  The biblical story from Genesis to Revelation revolves around a loving God reaching out to rebellious children with compassion and love.   God has invested so much in sharing and proving his love to humanity, but unfortunately the response to that love is not always favorable.

Most all of us have said to our children, "How many times do I have to warn you?"  So also, through the prophets, Israel is warned over and over that life without God leads to devastation and hopelessness. The prospect of such consequences brings agony to the heart of God.   As we heard a couple of weeks ago, the prophet Hosea of God having to give Israel up like a defiant child, saying: "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? ... My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender."[Hosea 11:8]

Perhaps the clearest picture of the God's heart is that of Jesus coming to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He stops at the crest of the Mount of Olives, looks across the Kidron Valley, and as Luke reports: "As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, {Jerusalem} had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes..." [Lk.19:41-42).

The "Love Songs" of the Lord throughout scripture have too often been sad songs. Songs of God's children going astray, leaving home and visiting injustice upon their brothers and sisters.  God had so many great expectations for his people, but too often, God’s people who had so much potential, so much possibility and so much love, went astray, and more often than not, did not even know what they had lost, until it was too late.
A story is told about a couple who loved nothing better in life than a good game of golf. In their working years, they played the game every chance they got, and on the eve of their retirement, they looked forward to many happy hours hitting that little white ball all over the links.    Yet, just as this couple was on the verge of realizing their lifelong dream, tragedy struck. The two were in a terrible car accident on the way to their favorite course. They died instantly.

There was no pain. They had the sensation of traveling together through a long tunnel of light, and when they emerged they found themselves — where else? — on a golf course. And what a course! It was more beautiful than any golf course in the land of the living.    The man looked off to his side, and there he saw a gleaming white golf cart, with two sets of clubs in the back. He picked out a driver from the bag labeled “His,” set a ball on the tee and swung for all he was worth. A hole in one! The man was ecstatic. Never had he come close to such an experience on earth.

Then his wife stepped up to the tee. Bang! A hole in one. And that’s the way it went for both of them, as they progressed from hole to hole. When they reached the end of the course, their scores were tied at 18.
These two couldn’t believe their good fortune. They smiled at one another as if to say, “Isn’t this wonderful?”

Just then, they glanced at the sand trap next to the 18th hole. There they saw an old man slowly raking the sand — the groundskeeper, no doubt.   The husband caught the man’s eye and called out with a grin, “I never dreamed heaven could be so beautiful!”

Said the groundskeeper, “I hate to disappoint you folks, but this isn’t heaven.”

What they thought was a great gain, turned out to be a great loss; and this is exactly what happen to God’s vineyard.   It started out as if all was “great”.  As the prophet says,  God did all he could do to make the vineyard productive, but instead of growing good grapes, it grew wild, sour, worthless grapes.  The great expectations became a great loss.


THE SONG IS ABOUT GREAT  LOSS  
4 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 wild grapes?
5 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.
 6 I 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.

A dramatic shift takes place as the song continues.  The Jilted Lover is revealed as the Just Lord! The listeners are caught off guard as they are called to Jury duty to hear a song that moves from love to judgment.  It’s a strange way to sing of love.

Some years ago,  our church in Greensboro wanted to learn about missions.   My wife decided to teach them about World Hunger.   As the guest arrived expecting a meal, some 70 people, they were assigned different tables, according to their tickets.   One table, seating five people was served first. They received a wonderful 5 course dinner.  A wonderful meal , which included meat.

These people were the "lucky" ones! Those remaining were in for a shock. The next two tables of about 8 people each received a half cup of rice, a tablespoon of peas and a half cup of tea.  Nevertheless, they were still counted among the "lucky ones!"  (You can see where this is going - right?) The next entree was a teaspoon of rice, no peas and a cup of water.   Finally, at the last table, some received a quarter cup of water and the remaining "guests" received nothing.  My wife then proceeded to speak about world hunger and how the evening's "Hunger Feast" represented the various degrees of hunger and poverty in the world.

I can tell you the majority of the people were not happy campers!  If we had not been new to the church, I think we’d been in deep trouble.   We heard someone says, "It just wasn't right that some people didn't get anything to eat!" (That person only got water!)   My wife’s response was: "I agree, and it also is not right that thousands of children will face tomorrow and the rest of their tomorrows until they die without anything to eat!"

When you read this “love song” you are also in for a shock.  Can you imagine Isaiah's listeners having a similar sense of being "had" when the love song turned into a trial? "Hey, we thought this was going to be a song!" Instead, it is a trial. The jury must "judge" between the owner and the vineyard. "What more could I have done?" the owner says, "Why did my vineyard not produce grapes instead of worthless fruit?"

Now the jury is dismissed.   The sentence is already decided: "This is what I am going to do!"   The owner pronounces four "I wills" as the sentence to follow. The vineyard will be turned into a barren place where nothing grows. Then, the last "I will" brings a chill. There will be no more complaining or whining as the hearers discover a startling reality!  "I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it!"

Do you see who is speaking here? WHO is it that can command the clouds not to rain!  This calls to mind the terrified response of the disciples when Jesus calmed the storm, "Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?"   God commands the rain. God is the one who passes judgment on his own vineyard.  It’s bad yield reaps a bad consequence.  The promise of the vineyard will become the tragedy of a barren wasteland. 

Last week a family suffered a great tragedy in Arizona as their unattended 2 year old followed the family dog out of the back yard into the desert.  An hour later the dog returned, but the child was missing.  After a search of several days, the child’s body was found.  The parents were not blamed, but the consequences still came hard.  Only a brief moment of not watching the child ended with the child being lost.   Who could bear the pain of such a loss?
I’ll never forget coming home from church one evening.   People were all over the neighborhood calling out a child’s name.   I pulled over and asked what was happening.  A little child, about the same age, around 2, was lost and everyone was searching.  The family lived with a lake in the back yard.  When the Rescue workers arrived, that is where they concentrated their search.  And sure enough, the child was found in 5 feet water right near the family’s pier.   It was heart breaking.  It was tragic.  But the consequence was real, no matter that it was an accident.
Great loss can happen, when we least expect it.  We don’t have to do great wrong to encounter great loss.  The world is that dangerous.  The risks of life are that great.   One false step can be fatal.  One step in the wrong direction can lead to a journey of no return, not just for the guilty but also for the innocent.  
 
GOD’S DESIRE FOR WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS
 In the final verse of this song about the “loss of love” and the ‘pronouncement of judgment’, we are told by the prophet exactly why the sentence came down as it did.  It is disturbing enough to learn what God does to the Vineyard that yielded “wild” or “sour” grapes.   Now, we are told in verse 7 both who the Vineyard represents and why it is judged so severely.   7 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! (Isa 5:7 NRS).

As this song comes to a close, we hear what none of us wants to hear:  WE ARE THE VINEYARD!!"
The vineyard is God's people.  In Isaiah’s day the Vineyard was Israel and Judah.  In our day, the Vineyard is the Church of Jesus Christ.   As the Scripture says, “Judgment begins at the house of the Lord” and today, the judgment in this parable might come home to us.  Is God finding what God needs to find in us?  Are we the Vineyard bearing good fruit in this world?  Are we the Vineyard bearing the harvest of what God has planted and expected?   What does God see in what he has invested in us?

What was most eye-opening to me, as I studied this song, is what comes next, after the song moves into the next few verses, which described specifically what kind of “injustice” or what kind of “unrighteousness” God found in his vineyard.  What strikes me is not so much what I saw of them, but how much I saw of our own society; a society we once called or thought to be, at least in name, a “Christian” nation.  Do you see what kind of sour grapes were growing in God’s vineyard?
  • A building boom and expansion without reservation or limit---now busted with desolation (8-10) and most everything being devalued.
  • ·        People living just to go from one party to another, having nothing be the desire the “eat, to drink, and to be merry” and losing all energy to work, let alone losing all desire for the “work of the Lord” ending up at the edge of an early grave due  to over indulgence and pleasure seeking (11-17).
  • ·         People living in sin without knowing it, either denying the truth or twisting it by bragging that they  God is doing exactly what they want , calling evil good and good evil (18-22)
  • ·         And perhaps worst if all, they have become a society who acquit the guilty…. But deprive the innocent of their rights….they not only reject the instruction and ways of God, but they don’t not even have time for, want or have any real training or understanding of it.  (23-24).

What I see in this song of judgment is a people who have lost all concept of what is just, what is right, and what is true.   Without reservation they march headlong into the desolation and wasteland of the wrong choices they’ve made, as well as, the lack of right choices they should have made.   Isaiah’s indictment remind me of Gandhi’s “Seven Deadly Social Sins”: Politics without principle, Wealth without work Commerce without morality, Pleasure without conscience, Education without character, Science without humanity, and Worship without sacrifice.”

What is most worrisome, however, is that this is not the “way of the world”, which is normal, but it is the way of the vineyard too.  The problem and disappointment of God are that his people allow the culture of the world to dictate what they do and who they become instead of being ‘salt’ and “light’ for the culture.  Instead of being the “Vineyard” where God raises up fruit to bring nourishment and life to the world, they become just as sour, just as wild, and just as blind to the truth, as the world itself.  

What happens next, is not so much that God brings judgment, but God removes his protection, and the people, Israel, the vineyard, or the church tself, ends up going its own way, and thereby, suffering the same consequence of the world that goes it own way.
What we can see missing most disturbing:
• God made them for justice, but they practiced injustice.

• God made them to be fruitful, but they were barren.

• God made them for righteousness, but they practiced wickedness.

• God made them for service, but they preferred strong drink (5:11).

• God made them for good, but they practiced evil (5:20).

• God made them for truth, but they uttered falsehoods.

• God made them to dwell in light, but they live in darkness

 Whatever we take from this parable or song for our own faith development, we must take this warning that we dare not miss.   God has great expectations for his Vineyard.  When these expectations are not realized, God must tear up the unproductive vines and prune the fruitless branches go elsewhere.   God is looking for the fruit.  And the major “fruit” is not what we might think:  It is not church, prayer or Bible reading, but it is fairness, justice and righteousness which would include all three, but  makes them real in the world.  Can we ever understand “justice”, “fairness” or “righteousness” as the theme of God’s song?

Last, while taking a little vacation time, I picked up a book that caught my attention.  It’s title fit right into the theme of Isaiah’s song.   The book was entitled, “When Christians get it Wrong”.   I have several books like that in my study and I keep seeing them more and more.  Another book is entitled, “Saving Jesus from the Church” or “The Hole in the Gospel” we preach, or the newest book, “Why Character matters?”   Can you imagine a book being written to remind Christians what it means to be Christian?

One other major event in the last week or so was when the novelist, Anne Rice official quit Christianity.  Anne hasn’t been a Christian long, perhaps a year, but now she’s quite.  Here are her own reason for quitting.   I don’t want to accept her resignation, but here is what she said and we should listen:  “For those who care, and I understand if you don’t:  Today I quit being a Christian.  I’m out.  I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being a part of Christianity.  It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.  For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed.  I’m an outsider.  My conscience will allow nothing else.”

Why is everybody picking on the “church” these days?  Why does it seem that the “judgment” is coming down harder on the people in the church than the people in the world?   What I want to tell is that it is because God is not ready to give up on his Vineyard and that he ready to call his prophet (as he does in the next chapter) to “go” for him and to call his people back home.   God still calls them his ‘beloved” even when he is giving them this warning.   What I want you to do is read on a few chapters, to chapter 27 of the book of Isaiah, and read how the Prophet is commanded to sing another song of hope:    2 On that day: A pleasant vineyard, sing about it!
 3 I, the LORD, am its keeper; every moment I water it. I guard it night and day so that no one can harm it;
 4 I have no wrath. If it gives me thorns and briers, I will march to battle against it. I will burn it up.
 5 Or else let it cling to me for protection, let it make peace with me, let it make peace with me.
 6 In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit. (Isa 27:2-6 NRS).

While we see a lot of desolation in the Vineyard today, we must look one to what God is seeing and dreaming about.  He wants us to let go of the desolation of what we think we have to hold on to that is gone, and he wants us to take hold of the “pleasant vineyard” that will “fill the whole world with fruit.”

Isn’t this what Jesus said:  “I am the Vine, you are the branches”   If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit?  The  fruit he was talking about was the Fruit of the Spirit which is, Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.   This is the kind of fruit that makes justice happen in the world.  

So, how are we doing in our attempts to grow good grapes?    In Holland recently, a spoof of the Bible has been created — one that has cut out all the passages that have to do with caring for the poor and practicing sacrificial giving.  A sarcastic commentary on this version reads, “Bible passages about money, materialism, poverty, injustice and righteousness are old-fashioned.” So the editors have cut them out, with scissors.   It’s a very Hole-ey Bible. One that is literally full of holes.

Our Christian faith is also full of holes if we do not focus on what God focuses on.   Amen.


A Prayer of Confession
As we stand before you O Lord, our hearts unfold in the sunshine of your love. How difficult it is sometimes, to see how far short we fall of your design for our lives. You have given so much to us -- invested so much in us. We confess that we can not reach out unless you reach through us, nor give except you give through us. We offer our imperfect lives and wayward hearts to the transforming power of your love. Free us, O God, from the bondage of self and let the miracle of your love be expressed through these broken hearts. For Jesus' sake we pray. Amen.