Hard to Hear
Text: Isaiah 5:3: “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.”
We have some hard sayings to hear this morning. We know we are fit for it because we are the ones who show up for Sunday morning services in the middle of August. Our dear friends who are on vacation in these sultry weeks, or who believe that the school year and the church year are somehow mystically connected—well, they are not the church olympians that we are. And that is fine, of course. The world needs all sorts of athletes, just like it needs all sorts of church folks.
But among ourselves, there is a virtue in honesty, isn’t there? We are the ones who are here, and the wise architects of the Lectionary reserved for these moments of the summer some of the harder lessons to hear. It’s up to us to hear them, and to sort out what they mean for everyone in our parishes in our prayer and reflection over the next year.
The inescapable theme of the lectionary this morning is the unyielding, implacable reality of judgment. Not our judgment; God’s judgment. In fact you might even say it’s about who really has the authority to judge, and who usually exercises that authority without having it. In three different voices, through three different lenses, we get that message this morning.
The question is not whether can somehow escape this reality by something we can say, or buy, or build—because we cannot escape it.
Instead the question is whether we can hear this language and align our thinking and doing in accord with what it is trying to teach us. And in extremely compressed form, that message is: God is God, and we are not.
This is the most difficult of the messages we receive from scripture, and that we in turn have to offer to the rest of the world. It makes it hard to get people to listen to us any further. Because ultimately it is a message about humility.
Over many centuries, the church itself has fallen into the trap of mistaking the proclamation of God’s judgment with the exercise of it. We have made that mistake because too often we have considered ourselves to be earthly stand-ins for God’s righteousness and authority. We are now paying a heavy price for that mistake, in the form of the reputation we have created for ourselves among the increasing numbers of people who for pretty good reasons want nothing to do with us.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The first question to take up is, what exactly is this judgment about? Judge between me and my vineyard. What does that mean?
More specifically, what’s the difference between grapes and wild grapes? It might be more to the point to ask, from God’s perspective, what’s the difference between grapes and sour grapes?
The vineyard Isaiah is speaking of course is the land of Israel, promised to the people of the covenant—the people God brought there in safety out of bondage and through the wilderness. God kept covenant with them, and got them to the place promised to them all along; God set them up as well as could possibly have been done.
The problem is, they haven’t kept their end of the deal.
Their end of the deal was to worship the God who made this promise with them. It was to behave as the God who made the covenant with them directed them to act—with reverence toward God and with compassion toward each other.
Instead, over the years since arriving in Israel they have preferred to worship their own idea of God rather than the God of their covenant. And now, Isaiah says, they will be judged.
None of this is really all that surprising. At least it should not be. We are fallen people. We make mistakes. The greatest mistake we make is the mistake that comes from our strong aversion to having to be humble in remembering how often we set up false gods to worship.
Doesn’t have to be a golden calf. Doesn’t have to be the more popular god, or the god that the people with the strongest army worship, whether that’s the Baal of the Caananites or the Emperor of Rome.
It can be just about any structure we create for handing out privileges and punishments—economic structures, political structures, legal structures, church structures. We spend so much time on them, we give so much of ourselves to them, that we have a pronounced tendency to end up worshiping our own creation, rather than our own creator. And then we get into trouble.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is talking about a different kind of judgment. What’s in view here is the judgment that separates those who manage to live faithful to God’s call. The fact that they are distinguished by their faithfulness, and not by the rewards of this world, makes another truth uncomfortably apparent—which is, not everyone meets that standard, the standard that matters to God.
What’s interesting is what the author of this text has to say about what that standard is. It isn’t piety; it isn’t extreme acts of generosity; it isn’t even a perfect Sunday morning attendance record. It’s faith—holding on to, living by, always working to deepen and to commend, the faith that God has planted in them.
That faith is planted in all of us at our baptism. But what we do with it from then on is up to us. And here is where I verge toward saying something near to scandal. The Christian faith is something different and distinguishable from the Christian religion. It is something different from denominational structures. It is something different from the life of shared sacrament. All of those things are means. Faith is the end. They are the path; faith is not just the goal, but it is supposed to be the character of the journey.
It’s for this reason that near the end of his life, seeing how completely and utterly the Christian church had failed its fundamental call to faith in a covenant God in the face of Naziism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer began writing about the possibility of a “religionless Christianity.” In doing this he questions whether any of the structures we build, built as they are on the foundation of our own inescapable fallenness, can ever escape becoming the god we would prefer to worship.
We have a very natural and very understandable desire to be affirmed in our thinking, in our values, in our beliefs, in our cultural preferences. That is why we have created traditions, and communities, and practices. They reinforce our estimate of ourselves, because that is what we have designed them to do. And of course the God we end up worshiping is a God who affirms us and agrees with us on all important matters.
The problem is, that is probably not much of a God. And it surely not the God we’re supposed to have. Christ himself tells us this morning that he has not come to live among us as the very presence of the holy God simply to affirm our self-actualization. The division, the discord, the disagreement between people in the very closest human relationships—that is the God we have.
We want peace. We want assurance. We want affirmation and approval. We want our superior taste to be acknowledged and validated. But what we have is a restless God. What we have is a God of disruption. What we have in Christ is a God who is relentlessly both loving us and expecting more of us, both forgiving us and calling on us to reach higher. This is not a God only of acceptance. This is a demanding God.
This past week the diocese of Massachusetts published in draft form a new Mission Strategy document. It is a remarkable and commendable document, and I encourage all of you to read it prayerfully. What is perhaps most striking, at least to me, is the expression of willingness, even determination, to confront uncomfortable and troubling realities about the trends in church membership and attendance. Specifically the document calls on us to “address the fact of numerical decline boldly, creatively, and successfully.”
That is a good start—and it is a faithful start. What I hope the final form of the Mission Strategy will also encompass is a willingness to ask questions about the very structures we have created, and how well aligned they are with the faith that is supposed to be at the center of our relationship with God.
We are still living within what is very largely a nineteenth-century creation—not the theological, but the economic ideas we have about how the ministry of the church is carried out, what it means to be a person in ordained ministry, even what the purpose of a church and a diocese is and should be.
To be on the side of a restless God, to give up our longing for comfort and assurance in the midst of change and be willing to bring faithful questions to every one of our assumptions—that is the invitation of these hard sayings.
The reality of it is, the judgment will come. We will be judged on whether we followed our Creator faithfully, or clung instead to our own creations. When they all come back from their summer absences, that is the prospect we must confront, together. Amen.