Today the Narrative Lectionary gives us two scriptures from the prophet Isaiah, and thank goodness we get both. Can you imagine if all we got was the first one?
It means something that the Song of the Delinquent Vineyard does not get the last word on our Sunday morning. Even if this story is true and significantly true, there’s still another story. And what if there’s always another story. And what if there is something shimmering in your faith and in mine that gets us to the second story, and the one after that…
In the first scripture Katherine read, it starts out like it’s going to be a love song sung by God to her people, then hold on! Two verses in, the song takes a terrible turn. Where God had planted grapes, now wild grapes sprung up instead. The people of Judah were not being faithful to God. Despite everything she had done for them, they answered God’s loving kindness with sin and more sin. So in the song, God goes and completely loses it! She removes the hedge of protection around the people and makes their nation a wasteland. God orders the clouds to issue rain down upon them.
“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting. God expected justice, but instead saw bloodshed. God expected righteousness, but instead heard a cry!”
In the next verses, it becomes clear why the LORD is outraged. What’s happening is the rich are getting richer, and they’re doing this by exploiting the poor. “Ah,” says the prophet. “You who are heroes in drinking wine… you acquit the guilty for a bribe and deprive the innocent of their rights!”
All through the eighth century poetry, the Holy Spirit unleashes outrage at those whose currency is corruption and greed. When these prophets speak of justice and righteousness, what they’re naming is God’s concern for those who are poor, for widows, and orphans, and immigrants, for prisoners and children.
We can understand why the prophets were in the business of delivering oracles of judgement. We can understand why the people listened to them and believed them —they were telling the truth. It is an act of power to stand inside the horror then name it out loud with fearless accuracy. If that’s all these eighth century prophets did, that would be amazing all on its own.
What I can’t explain to you —and I wish I could— is how these prophets do both things: They tell the truth of their present circumstances no matter how awful. And. They announce a vision for a day it seems dangerous to believe in. And what I want to know is how they do both! It’s like reading a financial report and a fantasy poem at the same time. Where do the prophets have to stand to see both come true?
In the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, the prophet tells us that God will cut down the forest with an ax. On that day, the tallest trees will fall. But don’t leave just yet! A shoot will sprout out of the stump of Jesse. Up out of the dead will emerge those tiny green leaves. The Messiah will come. The spirit of the LORD will rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. With righteousness he will judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
Just imagine the day! If you’re rich now, well, you won’t be forever. If you’re poor now, you won’t be forever. God knows the whole world is at war, but here the Holy Spirit is imagining what peacemaking will look like. And what I want to know is how could the prophet see this too? Where did he have to stand to see the second story? How did the people hear and believe both stories…
Now I know we are a people who know something of the world’s brokenness. So of course, it would make so much sense if our church nurtured a faith that promised: God will see you through. God will get you home safely at the end of the day. I mean it’s right there in the mural. It would make so much sense if this were the fullness of our faith. If that’s all we had to give to each other, that would be amazing all on its own.
What I can’t explain to you —and I wish I could— is that our faith has something more. In your faith and in mine, there’s a shimmering impulse to go out and see what could be possible. Come stand in the right spot and see the place where God’s dreaming grabs hold of your dreaming. Something in our faith whispers God will get you home alive at the end, but that’s just the first story! There’s something more to hope for than surviving. There’s a whole story of a peacemaking world. Where do we have to stand to see it?
Maybe here. Maybe this is exactly what we are doing here.
A few weeks ago, I sent out a letter describing two stories of Church of Peace. Both stories are true. In the first story, we remember the highlights of our history. Ninety-six years ago, we had twelve hundred members. We remember the days of the Sunday School bursting at the seams, of the famous chicken dinners prepared in the kitchen that is now a closet downstairs. We value our history and honor our ancestors who built this church, and with this comes our worry. What if we fail to fulfill their vision?
These days, our membership numbers are declining. Our costs are rising, and if we do our job well, they will continue to rise. This means we have fewer people who are giving more. And while your generosity is incredible, we can see where the first story is headed. Every year we pass a deficit budget. At some point, this will become unsustainable.
You can see where the first story is headed, so you understand why we had to close down the Food Pantry; it was costing too much money. Of course, we had to stop serving the neighborhood, we have our own needs to consider. Of course, we stopped having a paid staff and sold the building. Pretty soon, you remember, Church of Peace came to an end just like the first story predicted, except, wait a minute! That’s not what happened!
The beginning of the first story is absolutely true, but get this, its ending is not our destiny.
The people of Church of Peace looked at the numbers; we know that the number of people giving is decreasing while our costs are increasing. Nobody is fooled. But instead of deciding that this portends our demise, something shimmering in our soul made us ask, what if there’s another story?
I remember the meeting when we talked about closing the Food Pantry. Today it serves an increasing number of families. Volunteers come from other churches, from St. Ambrose, from the SAI Community. We have a church Food Pantry garden; we began a Food Pantry library. This is the second story, and it’s not close to being over.
Since I came here in two thousand thirteen, Chris and I have given money to Church of Peace. If you asked me why, six years ago, I would have told you it’s because giving money is an expression of our faith. We believe in giving money to the church, and certainly the church needs the money. What I would not have been able to tell you six years ago is how giving to Church of Peace has shaped my faith.
This church keeps teaching me that God dreams of more than our safety and survival. The Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Author of Life, looks at our world and wants something for us. God wants something from us. God looks at us and sees his kingdom come on Glenhurst Court.
If you have a dream for your own life, you can stand here at the corner of Twelfth and Twelfth, and you’ll see how your dream is part of God’s dream for the world. And if you don’t have any dream for your own life, come right into this place and get ready to be astonished. We will help you see it.
I give money to this church because I believe God wants Church of Peace to help bring about her promise of peacemaking, and I want to be part of that.
Sometimes I am filled with the possibility of what God could do and that inspires me to give, and that’s awesome! But it goes the other way too. Sometimes it’s the practice of giving that opens me up to this possibility. Please understand, this is not a transaction. It’s not like we’re purchasing inspiration. It’s just, when I give money then a little more, when I give time then a little more, I find myself becoming more deeply connected to a story that is so much more exhilarating than my own safety or comfort. I learned this from you.
In a few minutes, we will be filling these offering plates with pledge sheets. Every dollar amount written down will absolutely help us pay the utility bills and salaries, and thank you. More than that, every dollar written on a pledge sheet is a statement of someone’s faith that God has a dream for our church. These pledge forms are daring all of us not to give into the ending of the first story and shut it all down; instead we will get to the second story.
Your giving demands that this church take seriously what God imagines for our future. Your giving means that when a person who hasn’t slept in two nights calls the church asking for diapers, Karen doesn’t have to say, No; go somewhere else. Your generosity is how Church of Peace says Yes; we can help. That’s amazing.
May God pour out blessing on all our dreaming that leads to giving and all our giving that leads to dreaming. May you see the place where your dream meets up with the dreaming of God and a new story begins. And when you can’t see this, we can help. We are your church. Amen.