SERMON: 10 Pentecost C 8 18 19
Our readings this day rather unanimously and brilliantly point to the presence of God in all our doings. It also points out the presence of all God's faithful followers. Most significantly, I think, our Epistle reading describes many of those witnesses we may not think of every day. The letter offers this image: we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
This is a cloud unlike the newly-formed data-filled cloud of today's computer society. It is even different from the atmospheric clouds that have attracted the attention of humans forever. The great cloud includes the spirits of those who did well and those who chose poorly; those who were successful and those who failed; those who were valiant and surmounted all difficulties and those who were also valiant but died for their faith in a God that was with them always.
God's relationship with people is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible reading, with God delighting in a vineyard which ultimately does not produce grapes. Then we see God's wrath is both extreme and understandable. Isaiah relates that God intends to remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down; make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; the wasted vineyard will also be deprived of rain. This tells us God is with us when things are working out and that God is with us when the wheels fall off and we're in trouble.
We have no difficulty accepting that this is how Isaiah described God feeling about the uncooperative vineyard thousands of years ago. We also don't worry about it being related to the house of Israel and the people of Judah. But when we stop and consider that perhaps this message is intended for us as well, we have to stop and think: what kind of grapes are we? Are we fruit of God's vine that brings God joy? Or are we the bitter and useless wild grapes that generated so much of God's displeasure?
When I try to imagine in what way we might seem like useless wild grapes to God, the notion of gratitude occurs to me. We have much to be grateful for: gratitude for our every breath, gratitude for the life we've been given, gratitude for each other, gratitude even for the challenges we face, gratitude as it says in the Great Thanksgiving, for those disappointments and failures which cause us to remember we rely on God alone.
I don't know if God gets ticked off when we are ungrateful. I don't think when I'm ungrateful God is about to ruin my life like Isaiah reports God ruined the vineyard. But I suspect God is aware that I am missing the opportunity to be in harmony with God and to be appreciative. I want to be aware of it, too.
I have a friend who is generally quite a joy but who cannot accept that everything is not perfect. This friend is just peeved at things that are actually quite lovely and fine. And I think that God objects when we start to think we have better ideas about how things should be than God does. Or, for that matter, how the people who actually made them did their part. They may have done the best they could or they may have done the best that could have been done at the time. The point is what they left behind does not need to be criticized or critiqued; it needs to be accepted as what is. If it needs to be changed, well, that's a different matter.
When I observe that God is with us all the time I do not intend to make the Almighty a kind of attitude monitor of each of us, expecting gratitude and punishing the ungrateful. Rather I believe that God delights in us and in response we are called --invited might even be a better term--to delight in the gifts of creation and the life we've been given. Sure, we can imagine how it might be easier, better, sunnier, friendlier, and so on. But let's remember what truly is, what the reality is, and deal with that, not imagine something that isn't real and get worked up about why not.
This focus on gratitude points directly at today's Gospel. Jesus is warning his followers of the coming end time, of Judgment Day. He is telling his followers that they have to decide if they are going to accept Jesus and follow his teaching or not. It will cause strain in families, it will cause division. Anybody who has discussed faith matters with others knows that belief does not always lend itself to cheerful comparison. A friend who was raised a Christian Scientist told me recently that he met someone when he was younger who informed him, "I don't think I could be friends with someone who didn't believe in the Doctrine of Transubstantiation," the belief that the elements of Communion are the actual body and blood of Christ. My friend admitted it was a conversation stopper. He not only didn't believe in it; he had no idea what it was.
But also in our Gospel Jesus really works his followers over for their ability to understand all kinds of natural things but miss the signals Jesus is giving them that can save their souls. "You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"
In that time and place the present time included the presence of Jesus, the man we believe was the son of God, who was thereby the co-creator of the entire creation. If people believed him and believed in him, why weren't they taking his words to heart? We could ask the same question today.
Today's psalm reminds us of the historic reliance on God that brings us our faith. It concludes with the marvelous line, "Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved." Indeed, the light of God's countenance is around us all the time, whether in sunlight or starlight, moon glow or fog. We know it's there, we depend on it, and it assures us we are in God's presence perpetually, even when we act like we think we're not.
But it's today's Epistle, the Letter to the Hebrews, I particularly want to talk about today. Bible scholars have determined that this epistle not only was not written by Paul but it was also written a generation later, considering some of the historical references made in it. Efforts were made treat it as a letter of Paul which had been translated, but that argument doesn't work because elsewhere in the epistle there are instances of plays on words which make the translation excuse implausible.
Already you can see that this must have been a pretty significant letter, considering the efforts made to connect it to Paul rather than let it simply stand on its own. But it does stand on its own for a few excellent reasons. Since I'm preaching to the converted here these explanations may not exactly light your soul on fire. But consider a generation of new Christians a couple or a few decades after Jesus' resurrection. They are besieged by Roman authorities who dislike intensely the idea that anyone other than the emperor is being worshiped. That's problem 1.
Then there are the competing views of those who consider Jesus but a prophet and secondary to the major prophets. That argument is fully put to rest in this letter. The letter also rejects claims that the Jewish priesthood is superior to Jesus' priesthood. Finally, it points out that Jesus' giving of his life was a demonstrably greater sacrifice than the animal sacrifices offered by Jewish religious leaders.
We live in such a secularized post-Christian era that the idea that competing faiths were struggling for a foothold, not for relative prominence, strikes us as unusual. We take for granted that Christianity is the majority religion in our nation and we don't think about times and places where that wasn't the case. But here is a letter to a community of new Christians who needed reminders, who were probably begging for reinforcement, of their belief in Jesus.
So I think this is a wonderful and beautiful song of our faith. It reminds us of times when God famously guided our people in faith; it reminds us of the many, many Christians who suffered death for their faith rather than publicly deny it; and it points out to us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, all these faithful people who have gone before us, who do the same thing for us that the Letter to the Hebrews did for its recipients: it lifts up our faith and reminds us of the power of faith.
This notion of a great cloud of witnesses brings to mind for me a phrase from the prayer we pray as we conclude our Wednesday healing service:
"You have united us with Christ and one another and all your people on heaven and earth."
This phrase may not rise to the level of doctrinaire Christian orthodoxy, but it expresses something that Jesus pointed toward that we need today more than ever: that we are all one. We are to love our neighbor even the neighbor across or at border; on the other side of the world; in the hospital bed; perhaps behind bars. That is our calling: to help. This is our calling and our faith in action is needed more today than ever.
I sense the cloud of witnesses around me in this church, the people of faith at St. Paul's we see no longer, both those we knew when they were with us on earth and whom we've heard about and those who simply lived their faith in this fine old church. It thrills me to be in their company, if only rhetorically and in my imagination. I honor them, I delight in them, and I thank them for their fine examples and the strength they give me in my faith journey.
A sermon preached on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector