Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Okay, how are you going to go wrong preaching the Decalogue? Actually, it’s quite a task. Our listeners have such a “been there, done that” attitude when it comes to the Ten Commandments.
Truth be told, maybe we do, too.
The thing is, for most of us, we may have been there — we’ve heard these statements all of our lives — but perhaps we haven’t quite done that — kept the commandments, wholly (holy) that is.
I love the anecdote from Henry Blackaby (Google the name if you’re not a Baptist or have never heard of the guy) — during the days of Dr. Blackaby’s pastorate, a gentleman came to him concerned with how to know the “will of God” for his life. The gentle pastor’s question, in return: “Well, God has given you Ten Commandments; how are you doing with those?”
Well, while we’re on the Bible’s greatest hits, we might as well add Psalm 19!
I love these familiar verses because they always remind me that the glory of God is on display — all the time! Day to day, the handiwork of God may be heard everywhere — if you can stop and listen. Night to night, you can come to know God just by opening your eyes and seeing what’s around you.
The written word of the Lord is beautiful and powerful, as well; we do well to keep it around us by the by, just like the heavens.
My good friend and colleague, Bubba #1, never preaches a sermon (I don’t believe) without praying the prayer of v.14. Good idea.
The text begins with a song — a “love song,” no less! But it ends with a dirge of destruction. The Lord is both angry and sorrowful over the results of God’s “planting” in the vineyard of God’s people.
A sobering question in the midst of our worship: what does God expect of us? What has God built and planted in our lives that should be producing a vintage crop?
“Restore us, O Lord….”
Indeed, the plaintive cry of the psalm is a poignant response when we consider that our growth has not always been what it should have been.
Pruning and “cutting back” are natural rhythms of the vineyard; sometimes, so too is uprooting and replanting.
Pardon me for another Baptist reference — any of ya’ll ever get a Sunday School pin?
Once upon a time, Baptists gave them out for “perfect attendance” in the Bible study program of the church. They were exciting mostly for the children, but adults were known to strive for them, as well. One gentleman I know of had 17 of them, all connected together and pinned to his chest like the “fruit salad” of a decorated military commander. Seventeen years of perfect attendance — now that’s some record!
Paul puts the Pharisaical equivalent of his Sunday School pins on display in this text; “if anybody has done a good job and ought to boast about it, it’s me!” No matter your denominational heritage, I’m sure there must be comparative activities. We think we’ve done a lot in the service of Christ!
Skubala, Paul calls such efforts. One of those wonderful biblical onomatopoeias that sounds like what it is. Rubbish. Garbage. Trash. (all polite translations) Dung. Doo-doo. Shit.
Well, you won’t really be able to use that last rendering in the pulpit, I don’t suppose. But you get the idea. Our best, which is definitely what we should strive to give the Lord, is still far, far short of God’s glory. If not for Christ, we’re all in deep skubala!
I admit I’m a fan; when it’s football time on Saturday, I’m tuning in to College Gameday. Lee Corso has made his catchphrase famous: “Not so fast, my friend!” He pulls his sidekicks Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler up short when he thinks they’re wrong.
Jesus give the Pharisees a big, “Not so fast, my friends!” with this harsh story of the vineyard. They know he is upstaging them, and that they can’t go against the crowds to put an end to his difficult message. Guess they’ll just have to listen one more time and wait for a better moment to get at him.
I hope we’re not guilty of the same ploy when we hear the tougher side of the gospel. We’ll just bide our time, listen to one more sermon, and find a way to get out of the gospel’s demands later.
Not so fast, my friend!
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
The Southern Appalachian Mountains in the fall: a great time and place to go out and participate in nature, even if your level of participation is simply to gaze at the mountains and rivers, the lakes and leaves from the comfort of your car. As one drives the narrow, winding roads around “Hanging Dog” and “Squirrel Ridge” and “Vengeance Creek” communities, one occasionally comes upon an old farm house, perhaps with an out building or two. The porch may be fallen in, the glass in the windows broken or missing, the tin roof of the barn mostly blown off; with a long, rusty piece of tin flapping up and down in the wind above rotting timbers. Weeds grow tall in the yard, saplings have pushed their way through the decaying floor of the house and branches poke out of doors and windows. It is a sad sight for someone like me who grew up in such a house. One is left to wonder: what happened? Did the parents die and the children move away, having no interest? Did they go bankrupt and the farm was taken over by people with no interest in the farm but only in the land?
The prophet Isaiah uses the image of a neglected farm, a neglected vineyard, in our first lesson today. “The Beloved” is the LORD and the vineyard is Israel. The LORD created Israel, plucked them up from Egypt and carried them to the Promised Land, where they were planted as a people. The LORD established them there, set them up to flourish; the way a vintner clears the land and plants the vines and builds a watchtower and a hedge to protect it. And the Owner, the Beloved, the LORD, left the vineyard in the care of the people. But the people have not produced good fruits, they have not taken care of the vineyard, wild grapes are growing, and so the Owner, the Beloved, the LORD, says that he is removing his protection, tearing down the hedge, letting it go to ruin.
Why? In the last verse Isaiah drops the analogy and speaks plainly “. . . he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:7)
Now it would be easy, too easy, for us to hear this text and start pointing the finger backwards. “Those ancient Israelites! They sure messed up, didn’t they! They failed to be just, they failed to bear good fruit, they ran after other Gods, etc. etc. and look what happened to them.” It would be easy but it would be wrong. Church is not primarily a history lesson. We read those words here today because they still apply not simply to those people way back then, but to us, us in this room, right here, right now. What is the vineyard God has given us and what have we done with it? As the man says in the Wizard of OZ; that’s a horse of a different color, isn’t it?
The Vineyard the LORD, our Beloved, has given us is not the Promised Land but the Church of Christ. And by that I don’t mean this building on Peachtree Street in Murphy, North Carolina, nor do I mean the Constitution and By-laws that make us an organization. Those things aren’t the vineyard, they are watchtowers and hedgerows – there to protect the vineyard. No, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word and Sacraments, the promise of forgiveness and healing, the washing away of our sins, the dying and rising with Christ, the transforming food for our journey – these are the vineyard, these are what we are called to take care of so that they may yield good fruit for our LORD.
Sometimes I think that rather than be about the business of tending to the vineyard, we modern Christians are more likely to be like the tenants in our Gospel lesson. Instead of being grateful to God and responding to God’s grace with generosity – we find ourselves trying to keep everything for ourselves, afraid that we won’t have enough – whatever enough is. WE don’t kill the messengers, but we find a way to fend them off.
But the one thing none of us can ultimately resist is the love of God shown to us in the death of Jesus Christ upon the Cross. When we finally realize that – Christ is there, there hanging in humiliation and death, dying because of a love too great to hate, dying because of a mercy so strong, that instead of punishing us for our rebellion and ingratitude, he showed us the way to live by giving up everything and being willing to die. When we finally see that, the scales fall from our eyes and we understand what it is we are called to do and be in the world. We are the people who tend the vineyard, making sure that every person in the world feels the love of God in their life.
Amen and amen.