8-11-22 - Wild Grapes

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's reading from the Hebrew Bible is here

We have yards and yards of wild raspberries growing by one of my churches (actually, they’re wine berries, I’ve learned, an invasive but delicious cousin to the raspberry). It’s always a delight to come upon fruits or vegetables growing wild. Often they seem all the sweeter for being unexpected. So why would God have a problem with wild grapes?

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 wild grapes?

The prophet Isaiah is speaking for God – that’s what prophets do, deliver a message they believe God has entrusted them to carry. He was writing in a time of impending crisis for Israel, as attempts to play off competing empires against each other were failing and yet another foreign occupation loomed. Jerusalem was threatened; Israel’s way of life and faith was in peril. Many of the prophetic writings attempt to explain how these dire times had come to pass. The prophets usually located the cause in Israel’s unfaithfulness to the One God; the charges most commonly cited were failure to honor the Law, failure to exercise economic justice and care for the poor and vulnerable, and diluting the religious tradition by mingling with people of other religions.

This is what is meant by “wild grapes,” not simply free-spirited non-conformists, but people and communities who have turned from God’s way. Isaiah asserts that the community has now turned so fully away, it stands in opposition to God – “Judge between me and my vineyard.” The God he poetically reveals is having a moment of frustration – “What more was there to do that I have not done?” and lament - “Why did it yield wild grapes?”

This is certainly a very human depiction of God, yet it invites us to imagine a process by which the incarnation of the Son came to be. Was it the plan from the “beginning of the ages,” as some scriptures say, or was it a response by a loving vine-grower unwilling to walk away when his crop came up wild? “What more was there to do?” We can imagine the next thought, “I will send my son…”

Jesus later told a parable, a midrash, or new version, of this passage, about a vineyard rented to tenants who abused their relationship with the owner, beat his representatives and finally killed his son. The grapes were still wild in his earthly sojourn. But he knew that was not the way the story ended, that the death of the son was not the last word, that Life would triumph over death, over sin, over despair.

In that Life, which we receive in baptism and renew in holy communion and prayer, we have the capacity to lose our mouth-puckering wildness, to become sweet and juicy, wine to gladden the hearts of those we meet. We can grow on the sides of paths where people will come upon us, maybe even think we’re wild. But we are God’s grapes, bearers of Life.

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8-10-22 - The Vineyard

You can listen to this reflection here.

There are few images more evocative of life and fruitfulness, mystery and joy than vineyards. All over the bible we can find vineyards, literal and figurative. For the rest of this week, let’s go to the vineyard depicted in Isaiah – a place of cultivation and care, which yielded a surprising crop:

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;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

In the gospel passage set for this week, we find Jesus in “scorched earth” mode, literally. He speaks of the fire he has come to bring upon the earth, wishing it were already kindled. We can find precedent for his righteous rage in this prophetic poetry of Isaiah’s, which tells in a few short lines the whole history of God and God’s people. It speaks of this world as a vineyard carefully cultivated by God in a fertile place, cleared and planted, with provisions for protection and wine-processing.

This is how we might see the creation – a beautiful world prepared for us, a place of fertility, with everything provided so that we could thrive and produce good fruit. It even has a watch-tower – an image of God’s vigilant protection from evil of God’s beloved. And this creator is also named as beloved. It’s all set up to enable humankind to produce vats of wonderful, life-giving, joy-inducing wine.

But – there’s always a 'but' in a good story – the choice vines (chosen people?) did not yield cultivated grapes. What grew were not smooth, sweet wine grapes, but wild grapes. Wild grapes might have some virtues, but they’re not reliable. What a great metaphor for what early theologians called original sin – a proclivity toward self-gratification that results in thoughts and actions that do not honor God, neighbor or even our truest selves. God expects us to be sweet grapes, and often we can be wild, destructive.

This is the wrong Jesus came to right, the condition he came to heal, the conversion he came to empower. Because of Jesus, we are not stuck in “wild grape” mode; we can become fruit-bearing, life-bringing grapes. And as we actively participate in God’s mission to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation to wholeness in Christ, we attach ourselves to vines that carry that mission into every place and person in pain and need.

Our story of salvation is the story of God’s restoration of that vineyard. God invites us to be a part of bringing that work to completion, until the Creator’s full intention is reflected in our world. That is work worth raising a glass to.

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8-9-22 - Reading the Weather

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here

When I need to know how to dress for the day, or whether or not to close my windows, I check a weather app. I can get a detailed forecast 48 hours ahead, or a more general one ten days out. In former times people had other ways of predicting the weather:

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Jesus has just spoken of an impending crisis: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” He does not clarify the exact nature of this crisis, but he’s furious that his followers seem unable to discern what is happening. From where we stand, it appears he is referring to his spiritual battle with the forces of evil, and the human structures and systems that allow evil to have its sway. He is on a mission to burn away the chaff of sin, and to release the captives who are bound to it. And the way he will do that, this “baptism with which I am to be baptized,” is his upcoming passion and death.

Jesus did accomplish the redemption of the world on the cross, and confirmed that in his rising to new life on Easter morning. If he has already won our liberation, is there more discernment for us? Do we need to scan signs to predict what is to come? How are we to read this troubling passage?

We live in the “already/not-yet. His work is accomplished yet still being brought to completion. The devil’s days are numbered yet, as we can see, sin and evil are still having a pretty good run. And the means by which God seems to have chosen to engage these final skirmishes is through us. We don’t need to battle evil – but we do need to see it, name it, and call in the spiritual forces of God to overwhelm it.

Paul writes that one of the gifts given to Christ-followers is the ability to discern spirits – to know when evil is present, to know when God is present. We are to pay attention to the clouds darkening our land, the prevailing winds blowing in the world, and to pray all the more when the signs indicate bad weather ahead. We don’t need to shrivel up in a heap when things look bad, or tuck our heads into the sands of our many modes of distraction and avoidance – we can stand firm on the promises of God, the saving work of Christ, our identity as redeemed sinners and saints of the Realm of God.

Evil cannot stand against the name of Jesus. It is our work to invoke his name and his power, early and often.

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8-8-22 - Division

You can listen to this reflection here.

Reading the prophets of Israel can feel like witnessing an abusive relationship. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” “Wham! You’ll get what you deserve.” “Oh, but I love you and one day it’ll all be wonderful…” These writings tell the story of a broken relationship between God and God’s chosen people, who seemed incapable of fidelity despite God’s gracious provision and forgiveness. And the way the prophets rendered the words of God (and the way those who later wrote down those words conveyed them) often make God sound like a petty tyrant as well as a thwarted lover.

We get a sense of danger as well as deep disappointment, “Here is what I wanted for you, what I did everything to ensure for you – but you could not stay with me, and now I can’t protect you from the consequences of your choices.” It’s often a bitter message, and I confess as I read both the gospel appointed for this Sunday and the passage from Isaiah, it’s hard not to see these texts through the lens of the deep divisions in our country and world.

Let’s start with the Gospel, which shows Jesus in a dire mood, speaking of fire and division. He has just been telling a parable about being prepared for God’s appearing, and he seems pretty ticked off: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

If division is what Jesus was after, he’d be happy in America at this moment in our history. We are defined by many things other than our divisions, but our fault lines keep getting more pronounced, our positions dug in, fissures widening. This cannot possibly be God’s will for us, can it?

Jesus is the Prince of Peace, as the angel foretold at his conception. He is the source of peace for us, and the power for us to be peacemakers. But let’s not forget: Jesus did come into this world to do battle with the powers of evil – that is the fight he was itching to engage, the fight he wants his followers to join him in. Each time those who might be his disciples capitulate to injustice, tolerate intolerance, benefit from systems rigged in favor of the white and wealthy, fail to love our neighbor as ourselves, we recede from that fight. And every time we make a different choice, an inconvenient or even sacrificial choice, we help usher in the reign of true peace Jesus brought into this world.

How does this scripture sit with you? Where are you being called to draw the line, to pray for the conversion of those who seek only their own good to the harm of others? We are called to stand with Jesus against evil and hate-mongering. That’s a division, if you will, one that can lead us to unity.

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8-5-22 - Almost Home

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's epistle reading is here

Those who follow Christ as Lord, who seek to receive and share his life with the world, are not called to settle. We are to be people on the move; the original name for Christ-followers was “People of the Way.” As a person who has never owned a home, always living in church-owned housing or rentals, I sometimes have to remind myself, “This is not yours. Some day you will have to leave this house.”

The same is true of our life in this world. As we learn to live this way, settling in for the day yet ready to move tomorrow, we’re much more open to the Life with which God wants to fill and surround us. This is a quality the writer of Hebrews ascribes to the heroes of faith he lists – people who are moving toward their promised future in God, aware that they are not yet Home:

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

When I baptize people, I remind them that they now have dual citizenship, passports in this world and in that realm we will enjoy for eternity with God. We already gain access to that land in this life. Choosing to live there intentionally can help us avoid getting too settled in the loves and joys with which we are blessed in this world. The goal of the spiritual life is to learn to hold those people and things and jobs we love, yet hold them lightly, ready to move when called.

Few of us want to consider ourselves strangers and foreigners on the earth, as the magnitude of our global refugee crisis acutely reminds us. But strangers we are to be, on the move, accepting hospitality where offered, getting by where it is not, expecting blessing in the famines as in the feasts. We do not go back to the places – or people – we think of as home; we move forward by faith into the future God has prepared for us.

Whenever I’ve had to leave one beloved house, I’ve found God has prepared an equally delightful home in the next place. But even these charming homes are as nothing compared to the city God has prepared for us. I intend to enjoy every moment of my life here, always remembering it is not mine to keep.

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8-4-22 - Greeting God's Promises

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's epistle reading is here

The writer of Hebrews defines faith for us in a particular way: the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. To illustrate his view he cites various parts of Abraham’s story, as well as a list of other biblical heroines and heroes of faith (read the whole chapter) What makes these people exemplars of faith is not their “victories” – it is that they believed even though they never saw the full fruit of their longing manifest in their lifetimes. "All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them."

What a beautiful way of conceiving faith: seeing the promises of God in our mind and heart and spirit, and greeting those promises ahead on the road. I'm put in mind of the father of the prodigal son, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” What if we personified the promises of God? Would that help us anticipate them with more hope and faith?

We do get to see and taste the goodness of God right here and now, in many ways. I am struck by how, in every place I move to, God provides a house for me with blessings I could not have anticipated, at a price I can afford. That is a small example that also exemplifies my social privilege, but it is a consistent form of blessing and a huge reminder to me that God is faithful in greater things too.

Our invitation is to believe in God’s promise of Life, here and now and then and later; in God’s promise of peace and provision and presence and power; to believe that God’s reign of justice will emerge, and more quickly as we engage in God’s work of bringing it into being; to believe that refugees will find homes and wars will cease and evildoers be converted and everyone will “sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:1-5) That is God’s great promise.

Just as God regards us from a distance as already fully righteous in Christ, so we are invited to pray and work and believe in God’s promises in the conviction that they are approaching, close enough to call out to on the road: “Hello there! I see you coming, and I can’t wait to see you up close!” These promises are moving toward us all the time – and we can run to them and embrace them and live them.

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8-3-22 - All That We Cannot See

You can listen to this reflection here.

The last line of our reading from Genesis and the first in our passage from Hebrews flow so naturally into each other, it is as though they were one text. From “And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” we go right into:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

The writer of Hebrews even uses Abraham as Exhibit A of his thesis. He cites Abraham's faithfulness in leaving his homeland and family and setting out with Sarai into the land God had promised him, despite the derision of his clan (“You think there is only one God, and he talks to you?!?”), and he cites Abraham’s believing the preposterous promise of heirs more numerous than the stars in the heavens. Abraham is a pretty mixed bag when it comes to character and choices, but in his fidelity to the One God and the intimacy of that relationship as it is conveyed in Genesis, he is a shining star.

Why is it so hard for us to feel sure about things we only hope for – for, once we receive what we hope for, we no longer need to hope. Why do we waver in our conviction about things we cannot see, cannot prove? We trust in engineers we don’t know, elected officials we hope have our interests at heart, online security, relationships, a whole web of systems and networks we hope will continue to work for us… Why not extend that degree of faith to the God whose Spirit is so often clearly discernible, if never visible?

What often makes it so difficult to trust in what we cannot see is what we do see – evidence of pain and sorrow and the persistence of evil in this world. In the moments when those “realities” overwhelm us, the content of our faith can look like a fairy story told to calm anxious children. That’s why faith is a muscle that must be exercised and practiced and tested. We never know what is around the next corner; we do know that God has been faithful and good throughout our lives, even in the times that were painful.

It comes down to this: our faith in what we cannot see needs to be stronger than our doubt in what we can. We believe, until faith gives way to sight.

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