October 2, 2011 – Sermon on Isaiah 5:1-11and Matthew 21:33-46

Isaiah 5:1-7

Matthew 21:33-46

For those of you who have ever been on or sent a loved one along on a trip with a school or a church, then you know the typical rules that go along with such a trip: no drinking or drugs, no weapons, and no sex.  If any of the rules are broken, then those involved are sent home at their family’s expense.

For those of you who have ever been on or sent a loved one along on a trip with a school or a church, then you know the typical rules that go along with such a trip: no drinking or drugs, no weapons, and no sex.  If any of the rules are broken, then those involved are sent home at their family’s expense.

Years ago, a pastor told me a story about when she was on a youth mission trip with her church.  They were hundreds of miles from home and they were just nearing the end of a fantastic week when, in a matter of moments, all of the joy and connection that filled everyone’s hearts came to a screeching halt.  One of these rules was broken.  The guilty party was a teenage boy.  The offense: smoking marijuana.  It almost sounds like the game of Clue: Mrs. Peacock – in the library – with the revolver.  Only this time it was a16 year-old named Joel – behind the church – with a joint.

Joel was the one on the trip who consistently pushed the boundaries and bent the rules and now he had put this pastor in a hard situation.  Not only is it hard because it has the potential to ruin such a fantastic trip.  But it is also hard because you’ve come to love Joel over the course of the week, even though he pushes your buttons everyday.  He’s funny and he worked really hard at the soup kitchen.  But now he has put her in a difficult position and she has a terribly hard decision to make.

So what do you do?  It’s the last day of the trip.  You are heading home tomorrow morning, bright and early.  And you find Joel behind the church smoking marijuana.  Do you offer up forgiveness to Joel and let him stay with the group for the remainder of the trip?  Or do you let the consequences of Joel’s actions play out?  Do you send him home immediately at his family’s expense, like the rules say?

This pastor chose the latter.  Joel had pushed and stretched too many boundaries that week.  She had already tried forgiveness and second chances.  And nothing worked with this young man.  What else could she do?  So she packed Joel up into the church van, drove him to the nearest Greyhound station, where she picked up the $150 bus ticket that his parents had purchased over the phone and she put him on a bus headed home.  She cried all the way back to the mission site, she said, wondering if she had made the right decision.  After every got home, she looked for him at church the next Sunday and the Sunday after that…and the Sunday after that… all to no avail until eventually she gave up and tried to let the sour memory simply fade away.  This pastor had to make a judgment call when confronted with a situation in which rules were broken.  She decided to let the consequences play out because as painful as it was, she thought it was in Joel’s best interest.  And it broke her heart to do it.

Judgment is hard.  It is hard on those who give it out.  And it is hard on those who receive it.  Our texts today from Isaiah and Matthew both focus on judgment too.  But for them, it isn’t the judgment of a pastor, but the judgment of God.  A tough topic indeed.

In Isaiah, we hear a love song that goes painfully awry.  Isaiah sings a song of love about a vineyard owner and his vineyard.  God is the vineyard owner; God’s people the vineyard.  It is a song of poetic imagery for the intimate relationship between God and God’s people.  Listen to the care that God gives to God’s vineyard, God’s own people: Isaiah verse 2 reads “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines (the best for God’s beloved!); he built a watchtower in the midst of it (to protect it from danger!), and hewed out a wine vat in it (a place for this vineyard to live out it’s purpose!).”  The vineyard, God’s beloved people, is given God’s very best care in order to be a fruitful vineyard.  God’s gives God’s very best efforts to God’s people in hopes for the best possible future.  And yet…what God hoped would happen with this vineyard didn’t.  What does it mean to say that God expected something to happen and it didn’t?  What kind of a god is this?  God expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  Even after God’s best divine efforts, things can still go wrong for God’s beloved people.

So God cries out in verse 4, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done it?  When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”  So often we want to ask God why bad things happen and now God is turning the question on us, “After all of the care and love that I have given you, I expected grapes but you gave me spoiled grapes.  Why?  I expect justice out of you and instead you just kill each other.  I expect righteousness and love for your neighbor and yet your neighbor stills cries out in neglect.  Why, O my people?  After all my love for you, why the rotten grapes?”  And so as the song in Isaiah continues, what else was there for God, the beloved vineyard owner, to do with his beloved vineyard but to tearfully take down the fence, pull out the vines, and let it be over grown.  A hard and heartbreaking act of judgment on God’s part.  But what else was there for God to do?

And now after hearing that hard word of judgment from God in Isaiah, there is no rest for us in Matthew either.  “Listen to another parable.  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard put a fence around it, dug a wine press, and built a watchtower.”  Could this be the same vineyard, the same image for God’s beloved people that we heard in Isaiah?  But this time the vineyard, God’s beloved people are held captive by the tenants of the land.  These tenants thwart all of the vineyard owner’s best efforts to collect his harvest from his beloved vineyard.  Once again, God, the vineyard owner’s, expectations do not play out.  What God expects to happen doesn’t.  Slaves are sent to collect the harvest and they end up beaten and killed.  More slaves are sent and their fate is the same.  Finally, the vineyard owner sends his son to collect the harvest, thinking “surely they will respect my son,” and he is beaten and killed. Even after God’s best efforts to preserve the well-being of all parties, things go wrong.  So, as the parable implies, God will bring judgment o these wicked tenants and they will face an ugly future.  For what else was there to do?  Despite God’s best efforts of care, things went wrong.  Why did the tenants kill the slaves and son, keeping the vineyard, God’s beloved, for themselves?  Why, O my people?  Why the rotten grapes?

I’ll say it again, judgment is hard and what makes it even harder is when it is the judgment of God.  At first glance these texts, paint an image of God that is violent and angry, when in fact these tough texts do not portray an angry and cold-hearted god, but instead a god who has fallen in love with God’s own people.  And that’s the thing about love.  It isn’t easy because the one’s we love and how they act have an affect on us.  And that’s how it is with God and God’s beloved people.  God’s people have an affect on God.

Our God is a lover.  One who never stops being in love.  As we see in Isaiah, God cares for you, God’s beloved vineyard, as a lover cares for a spouse – giving choice vines and a watchtower to protect you.  And so when, despite this care, we produce rotten grapes of injustice and neglect for our neighbors – well, God has a hard word to say about that.  And as we see in Matthew, God cares about how you, God’s beloved vineyard, are treated.  When people hold you captive through injustice and neglect – well, God has a hard word to say about that too.  Our God is so in love with you that what you do in your life matters to God.  It has an effect on God.  God loves you so deeply that God is affected by what you do.  And so because of that, God has something to say to you about your life.  Sometimes it is a word of hope and encouragement.  A word of praise and celebration.  And sometimes it is a harsh word of judgment.  A word of tough love.  A word that says, “Stop what you are doing.  It is not good for you or for the world.”  Sometimes, God drives us to the bus station, God puts us on a bus for a long journey home, and then cries, as the bus pulls out of sight, wondering if it was the right decision.

God will not remain unaffected by how we treat one another.  What you do matters to God because what is done to you matters to God.

God wants for you, God’s beloved vineyard, God’s beloved people, the best possible future.  And when things begin to go south, despite God’s greatest divine efforts, what else can God do but speak a hard word of judgment? The only reason God judges is because God loves.  God is not an icy-cold and angry judge.  But God is at times a heart-broken lover who has run out of options.

I don’t fully understand God’s judgment or how it works.  But I do know this: as Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim once said – “How tragic it would be for you and for the world if God did not care enough to judge you and me for the sake of the best possible future.”[1]

Oh, and as for Joel.  That youth who got sent home on the Greyhound bus.  I don’t know if he ever fully returned to church, but he did stop by one day.  About four years later, he showed up in the pastor’s office.  In his Navy uniform.  And he told her, ‘Thanks.”  “Thanks for putting me on that bus. No one had ever showed me tough love and held me accountable for my actions before.  It changed my life.”

Indeed, “how tragic it would be for you and for the world if God did not care enough to judge you and me for the sake of the best possible future.”

Amen.


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