The stone the builders rejected

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Isaiah 5:1-7:
Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard…

Psalm 80:7-15:
“…You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.…”

Matthew 21:33-46:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…”

Proper 22, Lectionary 27, Year A
(and a 70th wedding anniversary celebration)

I thought about taking this occasion to preach about marriage. But, in some ways, that’s a scarier topic to me than to preach those texts where Jesus talks about divorce. It’s like talking about money; it’s a subject in which all of us are deeply invested. Marriage is something that we have hoped for and never found, or something we have found and lost, or something we have found and struggled through – sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so. Marriage is something that begins with radiant hopes and often suffers under the weight of unfulfilled desires. It is dangerous ground for preaching – easy to preach about in a way that is shallow or sentimental or a little too confident that the preacher knows what is good for everyone else.

There is also a problem because marriage in the scripture is a different thing than marriage in the modern west. Our understanding of what marriage is supposed to be has changed a lot since the Adam and Eve story was written down 3,000 years ago. But it is still a remarkable story and I don’t hesitate to call it inspired. It is far more profound than the story told in the cultures around ancient Israel.

The element of the Biblical witness that is remarkable is the notion that marriage is something holy and sacred, not because of its connection to sex and procreation, but because it is a covenant. It is a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise. Marriage is made of the same stuff as faith: a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise.

Marriage is holy not because sex is mystical and primal and crosses into the generative realm of the gods; marriage is holy because it is about promises – trust in and fidelity to those promises. This is why, when the prophets talk about idolatry, they speak of it as adultery: Israel betraying its covenantal relationship with God.

We see this in our first reading, today. But before we go there I want also to say this: 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.

Again this is just like faith and living a Christian 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.

But we are not alone. The Spirit of God is given. God is leading and guiding and teaching and exhorting and challenging and summoning us to lives that are holy and true.

So I want to speak briefly about the passage in Isaiah and then we’ll look at the parable of Jesus and try to hear what’s there.

You saw in the psalm that Israel is compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in the land and tended and cared for it. The psalmist is writing after the nation has been destroyed and crying out for God to see and come to their aid. The protective wall has been torn down, as it were, and the vineyard ravaged by the wild animals. This notion of Israel as God’s vine is important. When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, he is talking about the nation.

The song that the prophet Isaiah sings – the poetry he recites in the public square – is a masterful piece of preaching. He stands up to sing a song about his beloved. And when he begins, the crowd understands that he is singing about his best friend. And as soon as the prophet begins his story about his friend’s vineyard, the crowd knows that this is a song about his friend’s marriage. It has the hint of a scandalous tale. It causes the crowd to lean in just like we lean in to any juicy gossip.

So this friend has done everything he can for his vine, but he has gotten nothing but wild, wanton, bitter grapes. His wife has been unfaithful. And the poet/prophet summons the crowd for their opinion, their judgment. What more could he have done? He declares that he will reject his vineyard, strip away its protection, and let the wild beasts have it.

At this moment when he has won the sympathy and support of the crowd, the prophet says, “You are God’s vineyard.” This is not a story of a friend with an adulterous wife, but of God and God’s faithless people who have gone off to embrace other gods. They have chosen gods of wealth and power, gods of injustice, gods who devour and destroy.

7For 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!

The power of this poetry we can’t begin to capture in the translation. God expected ‘mishpat’ and got ‘mispach’. God looked for justice – faithfulness – and look, only bloodshed and violence. God looked for ‘tsĕdaqah’ and got ‘tsa`aqah’. He looked for righteousness but behold, only the cry of the poor.

The people draw near to hear what they think will be a lascivious story – and there they are met with the voice of God revealing their faithlessness. The people were God’s vine from whom God expected good fruit, and God has gotten bitter deeds.

When Jesus tells his parable, he is standing in the aura of these great prophetic texts. And Jesus does the same thing that Isaiah does. He tells a story that suckers his audience. Jesus is speaking to the wealthy elite in Jerusalem. We are no longer traveling the countryside; Jesus has come to Jerusalem. He has ridden in on a donkey and the crowds have shouted hosanna and waved their palm branches before him. He is standing in the temple square. He has already kicked over the tables and declared that they have turned God’s house into a den of thieves. He has declared that the leadership of the nation is like a good son who says, “Yes, father,” but doesn’t do what his father asks – such a person is regarded as a good son in that culture because he doesn’t shame his father in the eyes of the community. But Jesus has declared that the good son is the one who, though he had shamed his father by saying “no”, changes his mind and does what the father asked. The good sons are the poor and outcast who have embraced the way of justice and mercy, and the Jerusalem leaders are bad sons who give honor to God but don’t do what God asks.

Now, today, Jesus tells this parable about an absentee landlord to people who are absentee landlords. They own all this land in Galilee that they have taken against God’s command because the people fell under the crushing burden of debt. In this story of an absentee landlord with rebellious tenants who foolishly imagine that they could kill the son and take the vineyard for themselves, he asks what the landlord in the story will do knowing full well what these landlords would do. They are quick to answer: “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.”

Then Jesus says, “You are the tenants.”

It is a parable that is full of poignancy, because Rome will come in less than 40 years and tear down the city wall and put all its rebel residents to death.

It is a parable full of poignancy because these rebel tenants will kill Jesus thinking it will gain them the vineyard; but it is God’s vineyard and their actions ensure they will lose it.

I didn’t choose the bulletin cover because of Ann and Paul’s anniversary. I choose it because of the text this morning:

Have you never read in the scriptures,” says Jesus,
“The stone that the builders rejected
…..has become the cornerstone.”

Jesus, whom they rejected, is the foundation that keeps the whole building true.

Justice and mercy, Love of God and neighbor, faithfulness to our obligations to God and one another, this is the foundation stone the builders reject. But it is the only true and lasting stone. It is the only stone that can ensure that the walls rise square and true.

And so we are back where we began. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – but we are headed there. 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. We must give God the fruit God seeks. We must build on the stone that is steadfast love and faithfulness. We must build on the stone that was rolled away. We must build on him who is the cornerstone – the one who died and rose and will come again.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heart-shaped_stone.JPG By Sylda31 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Fruit

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Watching for the Morning of October 8, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 22 / Lectionary 27

Somewhere along the way we seem to have imagined that Jesus’ parables are sweet little agrarian stories about the love of God and the importance of kindness and mercy. At least that was the impression I gained from Sunday School as a child. It’s hard for us, raised on a piety of the tender good shepherd, to hear Jesus’ blunt and brutal attacks upon the leadership of the nation. But here we are. Chapter 21 has brought Jesus to Jerusalem and he fully stands in the tradition of the prophets and their powerful critiques of those in authority. He drives the moneychangers from the temple. He heals the blind and lame (powerless). He curses the fig tree for bearing no fruit (a symbol of the nation). He rebuffs those who challenge his authority by trapping them in their cynicism and self-preservation. He gets them to condemn themselves with the parable of the two sons. And now, this Sunday, we will hear him again get the leaders of the people to condemn themselves with their own words by the parable of the rebel tenants: “‘When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They 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.’”

The poor and the outcast that Jesus has gathered around him, however, hear a word of grace: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [the leaders] and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom [the poor and outcast who embrace the justice and mercy of God’s reign].”

We are in for a rough and tumble ride these last Sundays of the church year. Fortunately there are some festivals scattered in: Reformation Sunday and All Saints (and last Sunday’s blessing of the animals).

But judgment is always mercy. There is grace for the poor and lame. There is the possibility of repentance (changing our ways and showing allegiance to God’s justice and mercy). And there is the knowledge that though the powers judged Jesus a heretic, God proclaimed him true. We who come to stand before these stories know the crucified one was raised.

Sunday we will hear the prophet Isaiah’s brilliant use of a tawdry tale of infidelity to proclaim judgment on the nation (see “Scandal”). The poet will also use this imagery of Israel as God’s vineyard to plea for God’s aid. And Paul will count all his worldly claims for honor and righteousness to be but rubbish. Christ alone matters: sharing in the resurrection, participating in the life of the age to come, living the realm of God already manifest in Christ, bearing the fruit our master requires.

The Prayer for October 8, 2017

God of mercy, Lord of all,
you have made us to be your vineyard, your field,
your heart and hands and voice in the world.
Govern our hearts and minds by your Holy Spirit,
that our lives might bear forth the fruit of your kingdom;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 8, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” – The prophet sings of his “beloved” who tenderly cared for his vineyard only to have it yield bitter grapes and invites the people of Judah to judge whether he is not justified in tearing it down.

Psalmody: Psalm 80:7-15
“You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it… Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” – The psalm uses the image of Israel as a vine, brought out of Egypt and planted in a good land, and laments that the vineyard has been breached and ravaged by the wild beasts – a metaphor for the destruction of the nation.

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14
“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
– Paul declares that he considers all his righteousness under the law as worthless compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus and his righteousness.

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46
“There 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.” – Taking up the conventional imagery of Israel as God’s vineyard from Isaiah and the psalms, Jesus tells a story of an absentee landlord whose tenants refused to give to their master the fruit they owed him. The tenants rebel and kill the son in order to claim the vineyard for themselves, but are ultimately destroyed and the vineyard given to others.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGrenache_grapes_on_the_vine.jpg By Josh McFadden (originally posted to Flickr as IMG_3272) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Prisoners of hope

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Saturday

Zechariah 9:9-12

12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

We can take apart the grammar and poetry of this sentence. We can discuss the cultural context from which these words derive their meaning. But I want first to simply relish them. I love the unexpectedness of the phrase “prisoners of hope.”

Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The parables, so familiar to us now, are masterful at the sudden twist, the startling comparison, the shocking example. The prophets, too, are brilliant at this: Jeremiah’s underwear. Walking around the temple court wearing a yoke. Ezekiel telling a lurid tale of sexual betrayal. The scriptures are full of the shocking. And they need to be. We are such complacent, rutted people. It is not easy to make us see ourselves differently. Not easy to make us see others differently. Not easy to make us see God differently. And how hard it is to make us behave any differently!

The scriptures need to catch us up side the head. There’s no other way to get through to us.

So how many of us are prisoners of hope? How many of us are bond-servants of a wondrous promise? How many of us are truly captives to the vision of a world made whole as if it were a conquering hero returning from the battlefield with prisoner/slaves in tow?

How many of us wake up each morning and run to serve the promise of a world where peace reigns? We go to bed in despair. We wake up in fear. Hurry to work. Hurry to school. Hurry to coffee and traffic. The alarm clock makes us groan. Dinner is a chore farmed out to whatever I can pick up on the way home. We eat on the run……or we eat alone. Something frozen. Maybe cereal from a box after too much wine. There is no family at the table, no prayer of blessing, no song of joy.

We are, most of us, I suspect, captives to the pressures of daily life rather than prisoners of hope.

And the people of Judea were captives to the daily struggle and shame of a once glorious city still littered with rubble and now under Persian rule.

So the prophet points to the horizon and promises a king – a king no one believes is coming. But he will come. Hidden in a Galilean peasant. Speaking words of grace and challenge. Touching the world with healing and freeing it from evil. Enduring the shame and degradation of the cross, but leaving behind an empty tomb and a hundred and twenty prisoners of hope. They will become millions.

And shall we break off the shackles of hope for the shackles of mammon? Will we break off the ties of mercy, compassion and kindness for the sour belief that these shall not prevail? Shall we surrender to the thump of weapons as our true hope? Is it only death and taxes that are certain, not grace and life? Shall we forfeit joy?

No. I will come to the table that promises a world gathered to speak the blessing. I will sing the song, and feast the feast. And I will willingly extend my hands to the thongs of hope.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AName-Keftiu-at-Abydos-Ramses-Temple.jpg By HoremWeb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A vine out of Egypt

Tomb_of_Nakht_(12).vines - Version 2

Tomb of Nakht, 15th Century BC

Wednesday

John 15:1-8

“I am the true vine.”

We should not miss the audacity of this claim.

For many years I have heard the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel as rich and wonderful words of comfort and assurance: “I am the bread of life; I am the water of life; I am the way, the truth and the life.” But the more I ponder how these words sounded in first century Judea, I hear their audacity.

Israel is God’s vine. Psalm 80 says it clearly:

8 You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.

The psalmist cries out that God’s vineyard has been trampled by the empires of the world and begs for God to come to its vindication,

Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

The poet asks the painful question

How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears…

And the poet’s prayer is not without bitterness.

14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire,
they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.

What is missing from this prayer for God to come to the defense of Israel and Jerusalem is the message we hear in the prophets:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2He 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.

The truth is, this starts as a salacious song. The prophet stands in the public square and begins to air the dirty laundry of his beloved friend whose ‘vineyard’ (wife) he has loved and cared for – but she has betrayed him. The song gives vent to his friend’s vengeance upon this wife who returned his love and fidelity with “wild (bitter) grapes.” Then, as the crowd in the marketplace is drawn into this tale of love, betrayal and revenge, suddenly the prophet is looking them all in the eye and declaring:

“The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the House of Israel….

This nation has betrayed its heritage as God’s vineyard. It has not born the fruit of justice and mercy that God expected from a people delivered from bondage and planted in an abundant land. With a clever play from similar sounding words that is lost in translation, the prophet declares:

He expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!

Israel is God’s vineyard. And now Jesus is standing in the public square declaring that he is the true vine. Not the nation. Not the people. Not the glorious and world famous temple. Not the priesthood. Not the leadership of the land. Jesus is the true vine.

Audacious.

Jesus is the true vine. Jesus is the true source of life. Not wealth. Not power. Not beauty. Not fame. Not family. Not intellect. Jesus. Jesus is the faithful son, the true Israel.

And we can be grafted into him.

We are branches, branches that can be rooted into the vine. We can bear good and abundant fruit. We can be, in him, faithful Israel.

Wicked tenants

Friday

Matthew 21

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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.

Scandal

Thursday

Isaiah 5

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By Franco di filippo

1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:

This portion of Isaiah is referred to as the “Song of the Vineyard.” It is a brilliant piece of street preaching. It starts as a love song – perhaps, more accurately, a bawdy song – about an unfaithful wife (the “vineyard” of his friend) that is sure to grab the crowd’s attention and elicit their sympathy. Then, halfway through, the pronouns change from the third to the first person. Now it is not “he,” my friend’s wife, but “I,” my wife. And so the crowd is even more engaged, drawn into the scandal of a betrayed husband. This is the same as Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood. This is TMZ showing video of Ray Rice knocking out his wife in the elevator. This is the candidate trying to explain why he texted salacious pictures. The crowd presses in to hear more.

And then, suddenly, the prophet declares that God is the spurned husband and this people the unfaithful wife.

I wish I could preach like this.

The poetry is wonderful, unforgettable – and brutal.

We domesticate the prophet’s words by putting them in a holy book and labeling the lines with numbers, but the numbers are helpful. The second half of verse 7 is a brutal seven-word indictment that the translation can’t fully convey. Our translation has: “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” The seven words break out like this:

  1. He looked
  2. for justice –
  3. And behold!
  4. Violence! (Probably ‘bloodshed’ an ‘outpouring’ of blood)
  5. For righteousness –
  6. And behold!
  7. Outcry! (The cry of the victimized)

Adding to the power of this strophe, the words ‘justice’ and ‘violence’ sound nearly identical – as do the words ‘outcry’ and ‘righteousness’. To capture this, the JPS Tanakh translates the verse as

“And He hoped for justice,
But behold, injustice;
For equity,
But behold iniquity.

So what starts as a guilty pleasure, a scandalous song, becomes a piercing, memorable, inescapable judgment.

God looked for justice from his people, and what he found was the cry of the oppressed. This is the outcry against the tyranny of Sodom and Gomorrah that leads to their destruction. This is the bitter cry of Esau when his brother’s deception is discovered. This is the cry of Israel in bondage in Egypt – a cry God heard, a cry God answered with deliverance. God brought them out from Egypt. God guided a landless people to a land. God looked for a just community – and behold, a cry!

God looked for sweet fruit and got only a bitter harvest.

And what would God say of the church?

  • I looked for fidelity, and look! Infidelity!
  • I looked for compassion, and look! Indifference!
  • I looked for generosity, and look! Hardness of heart!
  • I looked for unity, and look! Division!
  • I looked for heralds of Grace, and look! Silence!

And what would God say of the nations of the earth?

  • I looked for justice, and look! Injustice!
  • I looked for peace, and look! War!
  • I looked for equality, and look! Inequality!
  • I looked for sufficiency, and look! Poverty!
  • I looked for charity, and look! Avarice!
  • I looked for humanity, and look! Brutality!
  • I looked for liberty, and look! Bondage!
  • I looked for care of strangers, and look! Bigotry!
  • I looked for truth, and look! Falsehood!
  • I looked for Life, and look! Death!

And I suppose, given the blessing of the animals this Sunday, we should add one more:

  • I looked for care of my creation, and look! Devastation!

I can’t preach like Isaiah, but I can point to his words and hope we hear them.