We will go forth in hope

File:Religión en Isla Margarita, Valle del Espíritu Santo.jpg

Watching for the Morning of November 19, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

There will be thanksgiving in the service on Sunday, but it will not be enough to set our hearts at ease. We do not feel like the world is safe. We see divisions and threats. We are uncertain about the future. We are not confident that a turkey on every table is the truth of the country. We don’t see bounty and peace.

The first thanksgiving was not the meal of bounty and peace we have rehearsed in grade school plays, but we want that myth, the truth embodied in that story. It seemed inevitable, once, our manifest destiny: prosperity for all. We appear to have replaced it with uncertainty for all.

So it will be an act of faith when we offer prayers of thanksgiving on Sunday. We will dare to assert that God is good, that God is generous, that God is rich with mercy and love. We will dare to believe in generosity. We will dare to act on the notion that a table is to be shared, that kindness is to be shown, that truth is to be spoken – and can be spoken in love.

And we will do this even as we listen to texts of terrifying judgment. The prophet is so carried away with the ferocity of God’s coming wrath he sees the whole earth consumed “in the fire of his passion.” The poet ponders the brevity and frailty of life and declares: “Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” And Jesus will use the image of a ruthless and vindictive rich man casting his worthless slave into the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” to tell us about God and the living of God’s reign.

In this season of harvest, when days grow short, darkness grows long, and leaves fall to the ground, when we draw near to the end of the church year and ponder the end of all things, there is a certain dread in the air. But we will cling to the promise in our reading from Paul, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and with courage remember all for which we give thanks. And we will go forth in hope.

The Prayer for November 19, 2017

Almighty God, Lord of all,
you summon us to lives of faith and love
and stand as judge over all things.
Renew us in your mercy that, clothed in Christ,
we may live as children of the day
that is dawning in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 19, 2017

First Reading: Zephaniah 1 (appointed: 1:7, 12-18)
“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand.” – During the reign of Josiah, in as era that seems like a period of great national revival (though not far in time from the Babylonian conquest), the prophet exposes the underlying faithlessness of that generation. His portrait of the coming cataclysm is cosmic in scope.

Psalmody: Psalm 90:1-12
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” – This opening prayer of the fourth ‘book’ (section) of Psalms, reflects on the brief and fragile nature of human life, and the ever present threat of God’s “wrath” – God’s opposition to our ‘sin’, our rebellion from and resistance to the fidelity to God and one another for which God fashioned us.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.” –
Having assured the community in Thessalonica that those who have died will share in the coming transformation of the world, he urges them to be awake and aware of God’s dawning reign of grace, living as faithful children of the light.

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
“It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” – Jesus uses a salacious example of a greedy and ruthless man entrusting his affairs to his underlings in a parable summoning us to understand the nature of God and God’s dawning reign.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AReligi%C3%B3n_en_Isla_Margarita%2C_Valle_del_Esp%C3%ADritu_Santo.jpg By The Photographer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

70 years

Sunday Evening

Sunday was delightful. A couple in the congregation were celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary (yes, 70, it’s not a typo). Her dress decorated the fellowship hall along with photos from the day. The tables for our usual coffee hour now had linens and flowers in colors keeping with their day. A tree of cupcakes and wedding type goodies added to the simple but festive celebration.

We presented them with corsages to wear at the beginning of the service and escorted them out to a wedding recessional while the congregation filled the air with those little wedding bubbles. It was sweet and wonderful.

When I began to write the sermon, I started by explaining why I didn’t want to preach about marriage. Nevertheless, by the time I had finished drafting the message, a full third of it concerned marriage. It surprised me how the topic fit with Isaiah’s searing indictment of a nation that yielded bitter grapes, and Jesus excoriating the leaders of Jerusalem with a parable about tenants who refused the fruit due to their lord.

It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple. Love and forgiveness must be practiced.

And what it is true of marriage is true also of faith and life: “We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.”

In a day both delightful and overshadowed by the terrible events of this last week in Las Vegas, celebrating enduring faithfulness was refreshing and important.

(The sermon was posted in this blog as “The stone the builders rejected”)

Boundless mercy

File:Messenger of Milky Way.jpg

Watching for the Morning of September 17, 2017

Year A

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

164,383 years and 205 days – that’s how long it would take the servant in Sunday’s gospel to pay back his debt if he received the standard daily wage, worked 7 days a week and never spent a penny. Since this would include something like 41,095 leap years, but also 411 leap centuries, he would have this debt worked off sometime around August 3rd, in the year 166,286. It’s hard to think of that as an actual date. It’s 164,269 years from now. All of human recorded history is a mere 5,000 years.

It’s an unpayable debt.

If we tried to convert 10,000 talents to an 8-hour day at $15.00/hour, it would amount to some $7.2 billion. The hundred denarii debt he is owed, by contrast, would be a mere $12,000. $12,000 is a lot of money to people working for $15 an hour, but these are not common laborers. This is a story about a king and his agents plundering the colonies for taxes and tribute – and to be short $7.2 billion means we are probably talking about friends placed in power who live too large and pay too little attention to the running of a province.

There is hyperbole here, of course, but it’s closer to reality than we might expect. Ancient empires were talented at bleeding their dominions. Modern ones, too. And the wealthy houses were talented at spending.

What is disturbing in the parable is the hypocrisy or callousness of receiving great mercy and giving none. It makes a mockery of the faithfulness of the king who does not treat the servant as he deserves, but as a friend. It brings shame upon the king. It makes him look as though he has been played. He is made the fool. Honor requires mercy – but honor also requires that he throw the merciless servant into prison.

As a parable it works brilliantly, drawing the crowd along in mockery of the corruption and folly of the powerful. But then, suddenly, the light shines on our own lives and the dire warning about making mockery of a generous and merciful God.

So we should shift in our seats, a little this Sunday, as we hear Joseph forgive the brothers who sold him into slavery, as we sing the psalm of praise to God who “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” as we hear Paul remind us of the practical realities that must flow from our “continuing debt to love one another,” and as we hear Jesus tell us to live boundless mercy.

The Prayer for September 17, 2017

Holy and Gracious God,
you choose to deal with a fallen world by your Word of Grace.
Wrap us in your mercy
that, abiding in your Grace,
we may live the forgiveness we have received;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 17, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 50:15-21
“Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’” – Doubting the sincerity of Joseph’s forgiveness, his brothers concoct a scheme invoking their father’s name. But Joseph reassures them and declares, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”

Psalmody: Psalm 103:1-13
“[The Lord] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” – A hymn of praise for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Second Reading: Romans 14:1-12
“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” – Paul speaks of life in the community.

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
“Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” –
The parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMessenger_of_Milky_Way.jpg By Q-lieb-in (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Hell’s gate

File:Simon Pierre Rouen jnl.jpg

Watching for the Morning of August 27, 2017

Year A

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 16 / Lectionary 21

Sunday brings us to Peter’s confession when Jesus asks the question “But who do you say that I am?” It is the passage that contains the remarkable declaration: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

It is a play on the name ‘Peter’ (in Greek, ‘petros’) and ‘rock’ (in Greek, ‘petra’), but the words of Jesus have been swallowed up by arguments about the form of the church as an institution in the world rather than as a community of student/disciples comprising a beachhead of God’s reign in the world.

So we argue about precisely what is ‘the rock’ upon which Jesus builds. Is it Peter’s faith, his confession, his show of allegiance, his person or his office? But the punch line is not that Jesus is building a ‘church’ (the Greek word ‘ecclesia’ refers to an association of people) but that the gates of ‘hell’ (literally ‘hades’, the realm of the dead) cannot hold against this motley crew who hold the ‘keys of the kingdom’.

I have always heard that phrase about the gates of hell used in a way that suggests the church is the community under siege, that Satan is set to attack and destroy whatever is good. A wise, elderly black woman in a particularly poor section of Detroit warned us young, bright, optimistic (and white) pastors that the devil would try to destroy whatever goodness we tried to accomplish in the city. And we did eventually learn to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. But this is not what Jesus is saying. In this metaphor, it is the realm of the dead that is under attack, that is on the defensive, that is encircled by hostile armies determined to force it to give up its victims.

People worry about the fabled “War on Christmas” – and while churches are facing many obstacles in our modern world, Jesus is declaring that it is death that is under assault by those who have been given the “keys of the kingdom.” We hold in our hands the keys to the storehouses of heaven. We hold in our hands the authority to dispense the gifts of God. We have been given the privilege of serving as God’s agents. Grace and mercy and healing and life are ours to dispense. The realm of shadows cannot defend itself against the kingdom of light.

We live in a time of such dispiritedness. So many feel helpless against the evils of the world. Hate and violence seem to be on the rise. Ruthless greed seems ascendant. Ignorance flourishes. Love, mercy, compassion, generosity seem frail responses to the virulent infections to the human spirit. But here is Jesus, with a simple word to a ragtag band from Galilee of all places – they have the keys to set people free and nothing death might do can stop it.

Love wins.

And so this Sunday we will hear the prophet proclaim God’s message: “my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” And we will join with the ancient community that sang: “ The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” And Paul will remind us that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ,” and urge us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice” – not one that is burned upon the altar but one that lives in and from the fire of God’s love. Finally, we will hear the promise that death’s dark realm cannot defend itself against the followers of Jesus who have at their disposal the boundless generosity of God. It’s what gives this image of Peter such a crazy little smile.

The Prayer for August 27, 2017

Eternal Father,
creator and redeemer of the world,
who shatters every bar and chain that binds;
grant us faith to see and courage to confess Jesus as your beloved Son,
and to be faithful stewards of your grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 27, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6
“A teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.”
In the years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rises to declare that the relationship of God and this people is not at an end. From Abraham and Sarah God brought forth a great nation, so God’s purpose in Israel to bring God’s law to the nations shall not fail.

Psalmody: Psalm 138
“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” – a song of praise at God’s deliverance, extolling the certainty of God’s mercy.

Second Reading: Romans 12:1-8
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” – Paul’s begins the third portion of his letter, exhorting the community to faithfulness in their life together as a people gathered by the grace of God.

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” – Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God, and the disciples receive the promise and commission to serve as God’s agents in the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASimon_Pierre_Rouen_jnl.jpg By Jean-noël Lafargue (Own work (Own photography)) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons.

Blessings

File:Harvest (13429504924).jpg

Saturday

Psalm 67

1May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
2that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.

We all want God to bless us. We want God to bless our homes and our children. We want God to bless our tables and our jobs. We want God to grant us prosperity and peace. We want God to protect us from all evil.

And when we are generous, we want God to bless every table – though the truth is we are more concerned with our own than those neighbors far away.

We think blessing is an end in itself, that it is good to be blessed, that it is good to have safety and security and abundance. We have a much harder time thinking of blessing as a means to an end. God intends to accomplish something through it. God is not just giving us an overflowing pantry. God is giving such a pantry that others might know God’s grace and power.

And it’s not this strange American perversion: “Look at me. I’m rich because of God. You can be rich, too.”   It’s rather, “Look at the abundance of God that there is plenty to share.”

There are two types of wealth in scripture. There is the wealth that comes from rich fields and timely rains. And there is the wealth that comes from profiting at the expense of others. The first is regarded as God’s blessing; the second as “unrighteous mammon”. But the wealth that comes from the fortune of good weather and land – wealth that is gift from God – is meant to be shared. If my fields prosper, I have the obligation to aid those whose fields did not. This is the failure of man in the parable of the rich fool. When his barns overflowed, he thought only of himself and not his obligation to his neighbors. He was at ease, but no one else. This is also the problem of the rich man with Lazarus at his gate.

So the psalm is a harvest song, calling upon all creation to recognize God’s goodness, God’s abundant generosity. The harvest is meant to bring joy to all – and give rise to praise from all. God’s blessing has a purpose: “that your way [God’s generosity and goodness and care for all] may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.”

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHarvest_(13429504924).jpg By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Harvest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Amazing grace

Thursday

Mark 10:32-45

File:Francisco de Zurbarán 020.jpg43Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Again and again Jesus keeps coming back to this theme. The realm of God is not about power, honor and glory; it is about service, suffering and love. It is about showing honor. It is about taking the lowest place at the banquet. It is about sharing one’s goods not amassing them. It is about forgiveness not revenge. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not “Blessed are the victorious.” Our teacher and lord has bent to wash our feet. The anointed of God bears our sins. The Messiah suffers rather than strikes down. Jesus eats with sinners; he doesn’t parade with the righteous – though he eats with the righteous, too, and seeks no revenge when they treat him without respect.

Mary is welcome at his feet as a disciple. Mary Magdalene is the first to see him risen. He does not shame the woman at the well, or the woman who weeps over his feet, or the woman who reaches through the crowd to touch the hem of his robe. He does not shame the family that lacks sufficient wine, but blesses the wedding with wonder. He touches the leper. He gathers the children in his arms. He lays down his life for the world.

It is shocking to hear Jesus say: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him.” And if it weren’t so familiar to us, we would be shocked, too.

And this declaration doesn’t end by Jesus saying “But I will get my revenge!” It doesn’t end with the threat of hell fire. It ends simply: “and after three days he will rise again.”

God’s answer to human evil is not to punish it, but to give life. God’s answer to hate is love. God’s answer to offense is forgiveness. God’s answer to greed is generosity. God’s answer to pride is humility. God’s answer to his squabbling disciples’ quest for honor is a towel, a basin and a job for only the lowliest foreign-born slave. Our central act as a church is to break bread and hear Jesus say, “my body is broken for you.”

We are like James and John. We have a long ways to go before we inhabit this realm of grace.

But it is an amazing realm.

 

Image: Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A life worthy

Thursday

Ephesians 4:1-16

File:105mm Light Artillery Guns at Military Pageant MOD 45156133.jpg1I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.

We set such low standards for ourselves. “I’m only human…” “Well if you had heard what she said…” “Why should I give when no one else is contributing…?”

And yet we seem to lack such charity with others.

We surrender easily to prejudices. We yield to the tantalizing delight of gossip (dismissing what we are doing as gossip). We see the sliver in our neighbor’s eye without ever seeing the mote in our own. We are not far different than those who chant “Death to America” – just replacing the object our hostility. We celebrate the death of “terrorists” without wondering who these people are and whether killing is good or the government is telling us the truth or just naming them all the dead as “terrorists”. We have been made uncomfortable this last year with images of the police being frail and sometimes vengeful human beings rather than the noble officers we want to believe them to be. The haves need very much to believe the system is just and fair; it blesses our privilege as our just reward.

“A life worthy of the calling.”

At the heart of Christian faith is a model of heroic sacrifice. At the heart of Christian faith is a good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. We have been content to receive the blessings of his self-offering without following in his footsteps.

Christ gave everything, but we are parsimonious. Christ welcomed the outcasts, but we are comfortable casting them out. Christ received the foreigner and healed the Syro-Phoenician’s daughter, but we build walls – or want to build walls. We who cheered the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, how do we preach the building of walls in Israel or along our border? And what about the unseen walls that preserve our neighborhoods?

“A life worthy of the calling.”

We bear an honorable name. We bear the name of the Father of all and Redeemer of all. How is it that we permit ourselves to be vain, petty and selfish? We are inheritors of the Kingdom, partakers of the Spirit of God. How is it that we live the vainglories of this world?

“A life worthy of the calling.”

A life worthy of the calling to be children of the kingdom. A life worthy of the calling to be the voice of God in the world. A life worthy of the calling to be agents of reconciliation. A life worthy of the calling to be healers and peacemakers. A life worthy of the calling to seek and do justice, to be mindful of the weak, to life up the poor, to be grace to the burdened and hope for the despairing. A life worthy of the calling to be a city set on a hill, a light shining in the darkness. A life worthy of the calling that none should go hungry and he that has two coats should share with him who has none. A life worthy of the calling of him who is perfect love.

“A life worthy of the calling.”

For a calling it is.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A105mm_Light_Artillery_Guns_at_Military_Pageant_MOD_45156133.jpg. Photo credit: 103 Regt (V) RA/MOD [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A sweet little verse

Thursday

2 Kings 4:42-44

File:Roti-obaid.jpg42A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to Elisha, the man of God

This is one of those sweet little verses in the scriptures pregnant with meaning easily overlooked. First, it is a time of famine, but this unnamed man still gives away the first fruits of what little harvest he has. There is not enough in the harvest for himself or his family, but that first portion still belongs to God and he will not dishonor himself or God by keeping it for himself. His allegiance to God and God’s commands trumps even his hunger.

Second, he gives an offering of first fruits. However small his drought stricken harvest, he will give thanks to God for what he receives from the ground. Everything that grows, even when it is not enough, he sees as gift from God.

Third, he is from a town with the word ‘baal’ in the title. None of my study Bibles explains the meaning of this name. The word ‘baal’ can mean husband, lord or master, but it is also the name of the god of the thunderstorm, the god of fertility and abundance worshipped by the wealthy city-states of Tyre and Sidon. King Ahab built for Queen Jezebel a temple to Baal. It was the official royal cult for a period, the progressive modern faith of the time, a worship of prosperity and power. Jezebel worked to extinguish the culturally backward faith in the LORD. So while the allegiance of the larger culture has turned towards mammon, this man from Baal-shalishah is bringing his offering to a prophet of the LORD. Fidelity against the cultural tide. Allegiance to God over allegiance to the times. Generosity over acquisitiveness. Taking care of others rather than possessing for oneself. As I said, a sweet little verse.

A nameless faithfulness, a nameless generosity, a nameless courage, remembered forever.

And then there is Elisha, who trusts that what could not feed ten will feed a hundred.

And finally there are leftovers. This does not mean they were stuffing things into plastic containers and stashing them in the refrigerator for a late night snack or tomorrow’s dinner. What the men do not eat is given to the women and children. What the women and children do not eat is given to the poor. That there are leftovers means that everyone along the way remembered the needs of others, just like the man from Baal-shalishah.

As I said, a sweet, sweet verse full of meaning easily overlooked – and a faithfulness that ought not be.

Photo: By Obaid Raza (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wicked tenants

Friday

Matthew 21

File:Hubacker mit Turm.JPG

photo credit: Symposiarch

33There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

It’s interesting to me that this story is often referred to as the parable of the wicked tenants. The tenants are certainly wicked in the eyes of the landlord, but I suspect that the peasants in the crowd, reduced to poverty through tenancy, are cheering for these daring rebels.

Some have suggested that the story is a warning by Jesus about the need for land reform. I don’t doubt that Jesus had things to say about land reform – but this is an argument about scripture rather than politics. What did God require of Israel? What fruit did God seek? What is the harvest God expects? The Torah was clear about land: it was a gift from God to a people rescued from slavery, a people without land. It was God’s land entrusted to them. It was not to be sold and acquired, but protected and preserved – and occasionally redistributed – that all might have access to life’s necessities.

Misfortunes leading to debts were not to drag a family down forever. “There will be no poor among you.”

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. I say “of course” only because of the reality of our resistance to the way of God in favor of the way of self.

The zealot answer was resistance and rebellion. It was the seizing of the temple and the burning of the debt records. (How profound is that symbolism that the temple served as the bank and kept record of debts?! Religion wedded to wealth and power rather than sharing and service.) And Rome’s answer to resistance and rebellion was crucifixion and destruction. A cycle of violence we continue to witness.

Jesus talked about forgiveness of debts, love of enemies, living the way of God. This is not land reform for the sake of land reform. This is land reform for the sake of our essential humanity, for being the reconciled and renewed sons and daughters of God. Faithful. Giving to God the fruit for which he looks.

So, like the prophet Isaiah, Jesus tells a vineyard story. Like the prophet, Jesus draws the crowd of listeners into his tale. Rebel tenants. The high priestly families that hold precisely such tenant vineyards are outraged by the behavior of these tenants. They cannot help declare that the owner will come with an army to destroy such rebels! And it’s only then, when they are fully engaged in the narrative – perhaps ready to do battle, expecting Jesus to defend the tenants – that Jesus let’s their own words condemn themselves: 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

To which Jesus answers, after quoting Psalm 118 about the stone the builders rejected:

43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom

The leaders of Jerusalem are the tenants. The ones in bed with Roman wealth and power. The ones who have neglected justice and mercy. The ones who built, in the name of God, a system God said they should never build.

This parable becomes dark with memory after the son, the crucified, is laid into a tomb. It morphs from parable into allegory: God is the landowner; the prophets are the servants sent to gather the “fruit”, the obedience owed to God; the rebel tenants are faithless Israel; the new tenants are the sinners and tax collectors and ultimately the gentiles who will give to God God’s due.  And the dark, dark memory of Jerusalem destroyed.

But it is not a tale of how we have gotten the vineyard. It is a tale about the consequences of not giving God what God has required of us: our love, our compassion, our generosity, our mercy, our fidelity – God’s way of sharing and service.

“Have you never read in the scripture?” Jesus asks. And it is much more than a question about that one verse where God takes the rejected stone to build his true temple.

Glad and generous hearts

Thursday

Acts 2

File:Hayat-02.JPG

Friendship in Uzbekistan

46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,

Every now and then I find myself struggling to understand a translator’s choice. It happens especially with unusual words – like the one translated here as ‘generous’. It’s the only time this Greek word is used in the New Testament – or, for that matter, in the Greek version of the Old Testament.

Various translations have it as singleness of heart, simplicity of heart, sincerity of heart. The brilliant scholar Jerome chose ‘simplicitas’ (simplicity, honesty) for his Latin translation at the end of the 4th century.

The root word is apparently the negative of rocky land. If this root is correct, I love the idea that these first believers formed a community whose hearts were like a rich, beautiful farmland free of stones. Digging and plowing stony ground is exhausting and frustrating work. And to be honest most my congregations have had their fair share of stones. My own heart is not easy plowing.

Or maybe the image is a smooth path rather than a stony one – and from this idea of smooth you get plain, simple, honest. The English translation of Ernst Haenchen’s old commentary on Acts translates the two words ‘glad and generous’ together: “they shared their meals with unaffected joy.”

Certainly such hearts, whether ‘smooth’ and unaffected or rich farmland free of stones, would be generous. But how did the translators get there? Does it come from the fact of shared bread? Does it come from the fact that they provided for everyone in the fellowship “as any had need”?

Are we just guessing about the use of this rare word? Has some scholar written a monograph of which I am unaware to explain this word? I don’t know. But for me I’m going to hold on to this vision of a moment in time File:Field margin, Leaston - geograph.org.uk - 156217.jpgwhen God’s people were good soil, eager for the seed of the word, bearing fruit in every good deed. I know such moments come. I have seen them. In parishes. In myself. A sudden springtime of the soul when I cannot get enough of the word or worship, when I am filled with the wonder and joy, when faith is simple and joyful. Such springtimes do come. Even after long and hard winters. Good Friday always yields to Easter.