Texts: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20/Luke 12:32-40
When I was a kid growing up in Wisconsin I took the lawn for granted. It was just there. You mowed it, and you might occasionally water it if it didn’t rain. After I left home, I took on the responsibility of caring for my own yard. I mowed, I watered, pretty much counting on the lawn to do its thing.
I took the lawn for granted, and for that offense I believe the lawn gods decided its pay back time. We owned two homes in New Orleans, and in each case the lawn has turned out to be a major source of frustration.
Our first property was filled with trees. While they enhanced the overall appearance of the property, they so thoroughly blocked the sunlight that grass had virtually no chance. With very little lawn to mow, Linda and I spent the majority of our time raking up pine straw and magnolia leaves, and picking up pinecones. Though we spent hours working in that yard, it remained a continuing source of disappointment.
When we decided to move from that house the lessons learned there carried with us. We did not want the responsibility of a big yard to care for. The townhouse on Vicksburg Street fit the bill. There was a very small yard in the front, a strip along the side of the house, and another small patch in the back. We were out from underneath the burden of a yard, or so I thought.
In the two or three years we lived there we saw the front yard, small as it was, gradually thin out and recede. That failing lawn assaulted my eyes every time I entered or left the house. The nemesis was a large Water Oak tree that dominated the front yard. It was too big to remove, and would have cost a fortune to do so. Hurricane Katrina would eventually take care of the removal, and for free, but that’s a story for another time.
A couple of experts told me that by trimming the tree grass might have sufficient light to restore itself. Quite predictably, another expert said that the strategy wouldn’t work. Unwilling to incur the expense of trimming the tree, we made one failed attempt to sod the barren area, before adopting a last ditch fall back strategy. The “fall back strategy” in this case was dwarf monkey grass.
Suggested to me by one of our lawn experts as a way of dealing with our light situation, I planted three flats of the monkey grass. Though the nursery people told me that the monkey grass would take time to flesh out, that didn’t happen.
The lawn gods have not relented to the present date. That stubborn little piece of grass in front of the house in Healdsburg is my current challenge.
I could put up with a sorry looking lawn, if there wasn’t lodged in my mind a picture of the ideal to which I would like my lawn to conform. So long as I carry that picture around with me I won’t be happy with the present state of my lawn.
The ideal picture we maintain up here gives us a standard against which to measure the circumstances we confront in life. We become impatient and frustrated when some aspiration or project falls short of that ideal. We want things to be just so, and sometimes we will go to extremes to make that happen.
When we take a vacation we do so with an expectation of the experience that vacation will yield. We maintain a picture, and ideal, in mind against which we measure the experience itself.
You raise our children with a certain ideal in mind. You maintain certain expectations about how he or she should be developing at the various stages of his or her life’s journey.
Lodged in our minds are certain ideals against which we compare actually life experiences, be they as inconsequential as a lawn, or something as substantial as a child’s future,
You don’t have to read Scripture very carefully at all to understand that there were ideals to which God was committed when he created the world and invited humanity to inhabit it. In the book of Hosea we discover how thoroughly committed God was invested in Israel’s future. Note how God’s commitment is expressed: “I loved them,” “I called them,” “I took them up in my arms,” “I led them,” “I bent down to them.” Make no mistake, God committed all that love and energy to his people because he was committed to an ideal of what that nation might be.
Yet the people God loved shattered his ideal, so thoroughly shattered the ideal, that we hear Isaiah accuse the people of adopting the ways of their wicked predecessors who forever blackened the reputation of the once great cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The venom of God poured forth in a torrent through his prophet Isaiah, God’s anger intensified for what he perceived to be Israel’s smug indifference to God’s indictment. Surely God had falsely characterized Israel, for the people were fulfilling all their religious obligations to the letter. They were scrupulous in observing the temple calendar where the feast days were recorded. They made their sacrifices as prescribed by the law. They uncomplainingly paid their temple tithe. They did all those things that would win them admission into the kingdom of God.
But the people were all wrong about God. Their commitment to the religious life and God’s call to faithful living did in no way align. While they believed that the number of animals they sacrificed in God’s honor, the amount of money they contributed to the temple coffers, and the number of times they prayed each day were sufficient to demonstrate their commitment to the religious life, God upheld another ideal.
God’s ideal is succinctly expressed in a simple formula arising out of God’s encounter with the Israelite nation: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.” We heard that ideal reaffirmed by our Lord Jesus when he cited the love commandment as being “the first, and great commandment.”
None save Christ has proven capable of living up to the ideal. We do not love with the constancy or the commitment that God requires. Our love, compromised as it by sin, diverts our attention to less worthy objects while our attention to God’s just claims on us shrink accordingly. Oh, but we seek to compensate for our failure by justifying ourselves as best we can. If I can’t love God with my whole heart, at least I can show up regularly at synagogue, tithe, and fulfill the other religious obligations placed upon me.
And what is the result? You show up at heaven’s gate prepared to have your admission card punched, only to have the admittance officer close the gate in your face. It turns out the admission standards are much different from those you were prepared to meet. You discover that you have prepared answers to the wrong questions. You were prepared to affirm that you had been a regular at synagogue, a temple tither, a person in good repute relative to all aspect of the law. You were not prepared for other questions: “Did you seek justice?” “Did you aid the oppressed?” “Did you defend the orphan, plead for the widow, advocate for the immigrant?”
It was not what they did in the synagogue, but what they failed to do to secure justice and equity for the least in the kingdom that called down God’s wrath on the people of Israel.
It is easy to become self-congratulatory about coming to worship, pledging money to a ministry, performing some volunteer function. Those activities promote an image about who we are as a person, the values we embrace, the ideals we maintain, an image that in most setting will earn us the respect and admiration of our peers.
When, however, things like regular church attendance, financial giving, and service on church committees are confused with righteousness before God, we run into all sorts of trouble. Though Scripture aggressively targets the self-delusion and hypocrisy to which we are so easily prone, the force of that message can easily be blunted if we believe we are not the party being addressed, as is so often the case.
What is the primary mission of the church? Is it to provide a place for a group of people to gather on Sunday morning to re-enact in some religious rituals, enjoy a bit of fellowship, and depart? That is a view to which many church folk subscribe.
The events of 9/11 saw a dramatic spike in church attendance. The church has a role to play if there is a divorce, a job lost, illness, or the death in the family. The church certainly has a distinct role to play on such occasions, but its mandate from Christ is much broader than that. That is why the church must have the courage to constantly pose the questions, why are we here, what is our mission? By our failure to ask those questions we run the risk of becoming a church unrecognizable to Christ.
High-sounding mission statements aside, the church’s vocation under Jesus Christ, according to Wallace Alston a Presbyterian pastor-theologian who has written extensively about the church, can be summarized under just three headings.
The first obligation of the church is to proclaim the gospel. The gospel is the message, the “good news,” upon which the church was founded. It is the proclamation that the God who created the world so loved the world that he sent his only son to redeem it from the sin into which it had fallen. The church may do many things, but the indispensable heart of what it does is to proclaim the gospel, the good news of salvation, announce abounding grace, and celebrate God’s sovereignty.
Proclamation of the gospel is certainly the primary mandate given the church, but it is also a mandate conferred upon each Christian. By virtue of our baptism, our engrafting into Jesus Christ, and our formation in Christian community, each one of us is being equipped and called to proclaim good news.
The second obligation of the church, according to Alston, is to interpret the gospel. The luster of a precious stone may well inspire awe in those who view it, but the unique properties that cooperate to generate that experience of awe are only fully understood and appreciated by a concentrated effort to see what is there. Likewise, a first reading of the gospel may offer the reader a fresh encounter with himself and herself, but add background into the thought world from which the gospel emerged, and the people through whom it emerged, and the rich texture of the gospel is exposed.
The third obligation of the church is application of the gospel. As churches we may be archivists or we can activists. We can perfect the arts of preservation, making sure that any word about God and his kingdom be dutifully preserved for Sunday worship, or we can be the vital agents of dissemination we are called to be.
In those first formative years of the Christian experiment the disciples didn’t sit around waiting for people to stop in wherever they happened to be to hear the gospel, they took the gospel to the streets, doing so, need I say, at the risk of their lives. Because they valued the transformative power of the message so greatly, they couldn’t wait to share it.
There is an ideal lodged in God’s heart concerning the world and we who inhabit it. While we have often given lip service to that ideal, we have continually found ourselves estranged from it. Where resides the passion to proclaim the gospel, to explain it, to apply it? Pious respectability in our churches has by and large supplanted ardor in making disciples for Jesus Christ.
I fear the verdict God’s prophets would render on us. Called to be joy filled, justice loving, and love bestowing, the church too often has proved to be an insular body content to make self-perpetuation of itself and its traditions first priority, rather than fulfilling the Christ’s mandate to be a servant community.
The good news is that God has not given up on the church. Christ’s vision for the church is still intact. The Holy Spirit continues to arouse our passions for the work he has assigned us. Great things continue to be accomplished in God’s name.
I can go on the website of my denomination any day, and you can do the same for the denomination of your previous affiliation, and I can read about God’s people in action, be it stocking food banks, maintaining prison ministries, sponsoring after-school tutoring sessions, facilitating immigrant resettlement, or providing disaster assistance.
Things are getting done, but God needs more laborers in the vineyard, not to bleed the energies of those he calls, but to reveal to us the joy and satisfaction that comes when we serve others in his name.
Friends, there is an ideal lodged in God’s heart concerning the world and we who inhabit it. That ideal was so important to God that he came to us in Jesus Christ to reveal specifically what it would take to have that ideal achieved. Jesus, the bearer of the gospel, who came to us as good news in the flesh, revealed and continues to reveal, what can happen when people like you and I take seriously his vision for the world. Yes, incredible things happen, things thought improbable, even thought impossible.
Thanks be to God values such as justice, peace, equality, and compassion are being planted, and unlike the grass over which I have so futilely labored, those values are being tended and cared for by no lesser hands than those of God Almighty himself working through people like you and me.
How secure a foundation you have given the church in Jesus Christ, O God. We pray for the faithful who have built on that foundation from year to year. We pause now in silence to given thanks for that person or persons who introduced Christ to us, who by their example helped us understand what it means to follow him.
You challenge us, O Christ, to identify what we hold dear, the treasure to which we cling. You put us to a stern test, challenging us to sell our possessions and give alms that we might accumulate treasure in heaven. Lord, we struggle under the burden of such a high calling, knowing that it is unattainable without your help. Brace our wills that our faith in you may in all instances direct the hopes and aspirations we maintain about life.
We continue to pray for our President and his administration, the Congress, and the Judiciary that in these divisive times the task of governing not be neglected in favor of partisan wrangling. May the actions undertake by those who serve conform to the high standards established in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Comforting and sustaining us, O God, no tear we shed, no heartache we experience, passes your notice. May that assurance brace those who have special needs today, the grieving, the sick, and the emotionally stressed. In the communion of your Spirit with their spirits may their hope be renewed, their burden lifted.
O Christ, the vast dimensions of your kingdom encompass all who dwell on this earth. Be with the peacemakers who are attempting to build bridges between nations in conflict. We give thanks for the women and men who serve in government agencies and the numerous non-government agencies whose missions focus on preaching tolerance, teaching important life skills, and attending to the health care needs of neglected populations.
Abide, Heavenly Father, with those who live under the tyranny of temptation or addiction. Grant onto those who may be waiving in their commitment to sobriety the strength they need to withstand the challenge they are facing.
We pray for those who teach and those who learn that the partnerships they establish may thrive so that each partner to the relationship may experience the satisfaction that comes with a job well done. May all of, O God, come to appreciate the importance, even the necessity of life time learning.
O Christ, founder of the church, brother in our daily walk, we give you thanks for your spirit present with us in this hour, even as we pray the prayer you taught us.