Expected Justice

This sermon was originally preached at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on August 18, 2019. To watch the full recording, visit Mission Hills’ Facebook Page.

Isaiah 5:1-7 (NRSV)

Let me sing for my beloved

    my love-song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard

    on a very fertile hill.

He 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.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem

    and people of Judah,

judge between me

    and my vineyard.

What more was there to do for my vineyard

    that I have not done in it?

When I expected it to yield grapes,

    why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you

    what I will do to my vineyard.

I will remove its hedge,

    and it shall be devoured;

I will break down its wall,

    and it shall be trampled down.

I will make it a waste;

    it shall not be pruned or hoed,

    and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;

I will also command the clouds

    that they rain no rain upon it.

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!

Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV)

 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

So both of our passages today are pretty heavy. We read this first story from Isaiah, which is titled “Song of the Vineyard”. With that title, we might expect something lighthearted, talking about flowers and trees and vines. Instead, the prophet Isaiah goes into this encounter of a terrible farmer who destroys their crops when he doesn’t get what he thought he signed up for.

This man in the song had a vineyard, and his intent was to produce grapes. So he worked really hard and he gave it his all. But then, he realized that the fruit of his labor was actually wild grapes, which he had no interest in. And so, he destroyed the entire vineyard and ruined all semblances of future growth.

We maybe can liken this incident to us going to the grocery store and really wanting some Honeycrisp apples. And then when we get there, there are apples, but not Honeycrisp. If we were like this person in the story, we wouldn’t be sensible about it, and choose a different kind of apple to take home. We instead would knock all the other apples out of their bins, completely destroying the granny smith apples and red delicious apples and all the other kinds. Because we came for a certain thing, and we got something completely different than was expected.

Now, maybe this apple example is dramatic. I’d like to believe none of us would react that way. But Isaiah is writing in parables for a reason. Using a parable is a writing tool that we use to help the hearer understand a tough problem. Often, it’s easier for us to be a little removed from problems, in order for us to see our relationship to it. Like the saying of putting yourself into someone else’s shoes, the removal and retreat gives us perspective, without it becoming a blame game or shameful callout.

This parable is pointing at the idea of expectation. We like structure to some extent, and we don’t like uncontrollable change. Those are human characteristics. They stand the test of time, as we see here in the Isaiah passage. The man from the vineyard had a tantrum because something unexpected was growing out of his labor. A new thing was in his midst and he didn’t like it, because the element of change is scary, even changing our own thinking and assumptions.

Our gospel passage, from Luke, goes right along with the first one. The title of this passage is “Jesus the Cause of Division”, so again, we have conflict. This time, it’s not over grapes, but people. Jesus is coming in strong here, and again, it’s a Jesus many of us don’t imagine Jesus to be. It’s uncomfortable, perhaps, for you to see Jesus acting like this. It is for me. That’s okay.

Jesus is coming on the scene at a pretty stressful time. He came to bring fire to the earth, a kindled flame, a baptism, and none of that is done. It’s stressing Jesus out to see his time on earth running low, and his vision not yet being carried out. We have all operated under a deadline, and that’s where Jesus is coming from right now. A big deadline.

It also goes further than just having a lot to do. It comes from the people he’s trusting to help him. They are not seeing the vision he’s trying to make a reality. But instead of listening to Jesus, the people are turning an eye to what he’s asking them to do in their discipleship.

There’s something profoundly telling about our tendency to like a side of Jesus that is loving and heals the sick and talks to children, but our distaste for a Jesus who challenges us to do better and be better. It says a lot more about our love of comfort than anything about him.

But the great thing about Jesus, and one of the key reasons people have followed him for all this time, is that Jesus reveals to us things we can’t see. Sometimes we can’t see them because we’re not open to change. Sometimes it’s because of our social location or our privilege. Sometimes we can’t see it because it hasn’t happened yet.

In this passage, Jesus is telling the crowds, ‘listen to me. You’re not getting it. In order for us to survive, we need to die. We need to let go of what was, and be willing to let a new thing come from it’. And this new thing, Jesus says, it’s going to be new and different and probably confusing. But this new thing is what will sustain us and grow us and teach us more about God and humanity than watching this old thing die will.

Our first passage from Isaiah has shown us what happens when we only allow ourselves to focus on the thing we’ve wanted in the past. It showed us that we will get disappointed when we see something new growing or sprouting up, and then we will go against the flow of newness, holding tight to what has been, but destroying the good fruit in the process.

Instead, Jesus is asking us to trust him, to trust that the fruit sprouting, the directions we are being called to go will be worth it. I’ve grown up in church my whole life, so I know as well as the rest of you that change is scary. We love comfort zones. We love tradition. And the difference between us and Jesus is that we are not the ones who get to determine the vision for our future ‘big C’ Church.

The passage in Luke is urging us to loosen up that tight grasp we have on our existing structures, and instead, look for life in other places. If you follow United Methodist news, you will have seen this week that newness is already starting to grow. More and more places are seeing that we may just have to let this idea of staying together go, and instead, divert our attention to what is next.

Our Bishop has called us to take seriously that question of what is next for our church. In September, we will be holding visioning sessions in our congregation, to draft a visioning statement that responds to the statement: I See A New Church. In the coming weeks, we will explore that together, as we are in a time where the soil is ready for new seeds to be planted, for attention to be given to the vision Jesus has for our church.

Where is new growth sprouting that we aren’t looking at, because we are spending time tending dying plants?

What might we need to loosen our grip on, to give attention to something else?

How will you dream and vision and carry out this ‘new church’ in your commitment to make disciples for the transformation of the world.

We have been given a call, Church. It’s a very specific call and an extremely timely one. Times are changing, and we are given the opportunity to continue the work in this new time we are living in. Let’s think about where we will be working.

As we leave this place, may we be looking for Jesus’ vision in the places that we cannot yet see. May we see our role as planters and growers as a role that changes, not one that is constant forever. And may we learn and see the goodness of holy adjustment, our intentional shift that turns our gaze always towards the love of God here and now.

Let us pray:

 Gracious God, who creates in us good fruit, we thank you for your vision, the ways you see what we do not, and your patience in us looking to see it too. Create in us a spirit of generosity, of curiosity, and of freedom, that we might see sprouts and turn towards them and you to see our new church more fully. In your humble and growth-filled name we pray, Amen.

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