A Love Song

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on August 18, 2013, in St. Luke’s Church, San Francisco.

Your Rector had some kind of excuse for asking me to preach today – something about being busy yesterday with an ordination – but I’m sure she doesn’t write her sermons on Saturday so I thought about it and I think I know what the real reason was: I think she didn’t want to have to preach about these readings. Better to get a guest preacher and let him take the blame. And I think I know why these readings come up in the middle of August anyway. It’s vacation time; lots of people away; lots of clergy on vacation. I think the committee that created this schedule of readings looked at these readings and said, Wow! If someone takes these seriously we’re all in trouble Let’s assign them to mid-August.  Maybe most people won’t hear them.

But sooner or later the Bible catches up with you and you’re gonna have trouble anyway. It’s a trouble-making book and it astounds me that so many people read it on Sunday and go home unchanged. There are even people who read it at home for the comfort it gives them! Comfort? How do they do it?

Open it anywhere.  But especially today’s readings. Look at any one of today’s readings. Look at the first verses we heard this morning from the prophet Isaiah: It’s a love song, but what a love song.  Love makes demands; if you’re married, you know that or you won’t be married long. So here’s a love song that makes demands.

Listen to this:  My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill and he lavished every care on that vineyard and looked for good grapes – and got sour grapes. And then it ends up: 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!  There’s a nice little play on words there in the Hebrew – sort of like: he looked for right and got riot. Yes. A very fruitful hill.

Isaiah is talking about Israel and what it could have been, what it should have been. God was in love with Israel and what a disappointment. Like a bad marriage where you had these high hopes and were singing happy songs and it didn’t work out. Thinking about it, I remembered John Winslow’s sermon as the Mayflower approached New England and he told his congregation that “we shal be as a city set upon a hill; the eyes of all will be upon us.”  Ronald Reagan used to misquote it and make it a shining city on a hill. But that’s alright; sure; a shining city.  A very fruitful and blessed hill with the eyes of all upon it. The eyes of the world are on ths country for better or worse.

Well, why not?  What more could God have done for the vineyard? How could God have done more?  Isn’t God entitled to ask? Do we live up to our claims of freedom and justice?  When the owner of the vineyard comes looking for grapes, for an abundant harvest, where is it?

“America the beautiful.”  I love to sing that hymn; even Mitt Romney misquoting it again and again couldn’t spoil it for me.

O beautiful for spacious skies for amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties above the fruitful plain
America, America what is it we now see?
Polluted skies and fire-swept hills and pain and poverty.

In this God-blessed Christian land, what has the fruitful vineyard produced? Why do some of the people who go to church most often deny there’s a problem?  But why isn’t there a national priority on dealing with all the ways we impact the environment, the vieyard?  And what about concern for the people God placed here?  We spend almost twice as much on health care as any other developed country yet the World Health Organization lists the United States as 33rd in life expectancy just after Bahrain and one notch above Cuba. So we have enacted a brand new affordable care act that lets states opt out if they want and you know who has opted out? Those that have opted out by and large are the states with the most poverty and the worst health care – and the highest percentage of church goers!

Several weeks ago your Rector preached about the Supreme Court decision to allow same sex marriage in California Last week I came across a quotation that seemed relevant: “What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage?—what must be the condition of that people?” Now that was said by Frederick Douglass in 1842 and he was talking about the states where black slaves were not allowed to marry.  But isn’t it interesting that it’s pretty much the same states that have laws today preventing same sex marriage – and the highest percentage of church members. Douglass stopped going to church after awhile when he saw churches relegating black members to the galleries and offering them communion after everyone else and not taking a stand against slavery for fear of alienating southern members.

We hear about declining church membership and we wonder why. Well, I think I know: if you read in the paper that the largest Christian church in the world is having to defend itself in the courts for protecting sexual predators and trying its best to prevent people who love each other from getting married or if you noticed that the nation with the highest percentage of church members in the world except for Poland also has the largest percentage of its population in prison  – do you know that we have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners?

Well, if you were not a church member and wondered what Christianity is all about and read the newspapers or watched television, what would you think? And wouldn’t you maybe be inclined to wonder what difference church membership makes and why on earth you should go?

I’m new in town and I have an outsider’s perspective.  I also don’t have a car so I walk a lot and I walk by churches that are locked most of the time. I found one one day that was open so I walked in – well, the church itself was locked but there was an open courtyard and through an open door in the parish hall I saw some people sitting around a table at a meeting and they saw me but they made no effort to ask how they could help and there was nothing to inform me about the place or invite me back.

I was serving a small congregation in Connecticut the last four years and a year and a half ago we elected a new church treasurer. Those are usually the people who nag you about your pledge and worry about balancing the budget but in real life this was a man with a small company that does what Mitt Romney did when he wasn’t doing politics: they buy up companies and turn them around; they look at the bottom line and ask, “What are you doing wrong?” So this new treasurer who’d been kind of on the periphery – well, his first question was about publicity and his second question was about parking. We had parking behind the church for maybe fifteen cars and the choir members always got there first because they had to rehearse and that took at least half the spaces before I got there and took another. Then we had two marked for handicapped parking and they were always used, so suppose someone took it into their head to join us – where would they park? The new treasurer showed up at a Vestry meeting a few months ago with maps he had gotten from the town office showing the church property and the adjacent property and the status of the ownership of the adjacent property on both sides and in back – like, which ones might be for sale and maybe available to us to expand our parking. We all knew we had a problem – but no one had acted until an outsider came along with a new perspective and began asking questions.

We get so comfortable with things as they are it sometimes takes a newcomer to see what’s needed – and some old timers willing to listen and respond. I mean, even if you happen to be producing good grapes you have to make them available. I love that first reading: let me sing you a love song – sure, happy to listen. Let me sing of rejected love and pain. Let me sing of self-centeredness and indifference to others – oh, that’s different!  But that was our first reading.

So would you rather pay attention to the psalm? It’s the same story in different words: I brought a vine out of Egypt and planted it so why have you broken down the walls and let the wild beasts tear it apart? Restore us, Lord God of hosts.  There’s an alternative Old Testament reading for today that talks about the prophets who prophesy lies, the preachers who tell people what they want to hear: same subject – better put it down for August.  Well, then there’s the epistle that talks about the witness made by God’s faithful people who were “stoned to death, . . . sawn in two, . . . killed by the sword; who were . . . .destitute, persecuted, tormented.  With the current mood in this country it might be just that hard to be faithful. And then we have Jesus in the Gospel saying: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asked; “No, I tell you, but rather division!” That’s another mid-August text.  You don’t want that in September with more people around.

But we need to hear the whole gospel at least in August if not more often and ask ourselves where we are lining up.  Jesus said, “I came to bring division,” and Jesus is here and there is division.  On the one hand are people who think of themselves as Christians who are building walls across our southern border and on the other hand there are others out in the desert with jugs of water looking for the people who are dying of thirst.  Jesus said “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was homeless and hungry and you took me in and gave me food.” Jesus said, “I came to bring division.”  Which side are you on? The Bible says to welcome the stranger and there ought to be more Christians making themselves heard on the issue of immigration. Which side are you on?

Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich now,” and maybe it’s in response to that that fewer and fewer people In this country are getting richer and richer and there are more and more who can’t make ends meet, more and more in this rich country who need food stamps to get by, and Congress is trying to cut the food stamp program. I’m not surprised the churches aren’t growing.  I am surprised that they can’t make more of a difference when the issues seem so clear.

So what should we do?  Well, I’m out of time so its over to Dana to tell you next Sunday. But we know already, don’t we?  Pray. Daily.  Regularly.  Read your Bible.  Daily. Regularly. Listen to it.  Act.  Make a difference.  And when August is over and your friends come back tell them what they missed and challenge them to help transform the vineyard, the shining city, the land and the people of God.

1 Comment

Velma DoughertyAugust 18th, 2013 at 8:45 pm

What a terrific sermon! Naturally we had the same texts this morning, and our Rector is also on vacation, but the Assistant Priest who is in charge right now asked one of our parishioners if he would like to preach in her place! He’s training to be a preacher – I’m not sure what his status or goals are, but he has preached several times (no notes) and does a very good job. But when he agreed to preach this morning he was under the impression that he was preaching on John 12! He got something together pretty fast and said he knew why Jennifer had asked him to fill in on this Sunday and why this preaching slot was open! (Much laughter.) As always, your sermon is deeply moving and very challenging!

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