Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Jesus-Fruit Harvest - Justice and Grace

Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 1, 2016

Scripture readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Luke 20:9-18

When my youngest sister, Nanci, was little, my parents subscribed to a book series for her. It was the Dr. Seuss series. There was “Yertle the Turtle”. There was the “Cat in the Hat”.  There was “Green Eggs and Ham”. “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-Am. Would you eat them in a box? Would you eat them with a fox? I would not eat green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-Am.”
Pictures along Lower Crab Creek
North of Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
April 2016
My sister knew every line by heart. My Uncle Eddie had a knack for making up Dr. Seuss rhymes off the top of his head, and he would try to slip them in, when he was at our house and Nancy would ask him to read one of those books.
But you couldn’t fool Nanci. The words formed a pattern in her head, and she could recognize any deviation from the pattern.
This is just one example of how, even at the age of four, we get many patterns laid down in our head and we become creatures of patterns and habits.
The Bible teaches us important things about the patterns of God’s judgment and God’s grace. The “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah and Jesus’ parable of vineyard tenants are, both, about patterns of judgment and grace.
We need to know about both God’s judgment and God’s grace, even as Christians. Christians are correct when they talk about being under God’s grace and not his judgment. But this is how it is.
Grace is God’s unconditional love. That love is always unconditional, but Christians may build poorly on that foundation of unconditional love. Unconditional love is only fruitful for the givers when the givers see their graciousness bear the fruit of graciousness in the receivers. Grace givers always want to see more grace grow out of their grace.
We are receivers of God’s grace and yet we can build ungracious patterns into our lives. We turn the grace of God into ungraciousness, and nothing that is ungracious will last.
We will live forever in the grace of God, but we cannot keep anything we build ungraciously, unlovingly, or unfaithfully. Those things will be taken away and lost. Paul says that the ungracious, unloving, unfaithful work of our lives will be consumed as if by fire, even though we will be safe in the graciousness of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15 & 4:1-5; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10)
We need to know about both the judgment of God and the grace of God. Jesus, the way he elaborates on Isaiah’s song of the vineyard, shows us that things such as God’s judgment and God’s grace are not arbitrary. They are not shallow, or petty, or picky, or mean-spirited, or narrow-minded. There is no trick or loophole about them. And judgement and grace rightly go hand in hand. They are consistent with each other.
The grace and the judgment of God both come from God’s love. Grace and judgment are both bold and clear patterns of how God’s wise and perfect love will respond to ungracious patterns in our lives.
Jesus tells the story in such a way that we see the patterns in God and in ourselves. The patterns show up in the repetition of behavior.
God’s pattern is to show himself to be more and more gracious and forgiving. God is the owner of the vineyard, in Jesus’ story, who sends messengers over and over again, saving the very best messenger (his own son) for last.
The pattern of the tenants is to show themselves more and more resistant and rebellious. They show themselves to be basically ungracious and unthankful in the core of their being. The pattern of the tenants is a warning to us, just as much as God’s pattern is an assurance to us.
The murderous tenants were the religious authorities who had Jesus killed. Even on the cross, Jesus (the son of the vineyard owner) prayed for their forgiveness. There Jesus shows us the grace of God that the tenants wanted to put to an end.
I remember once that, when I was about fifteen, my Uncle Eddie (again) was playing catch with me and trying to give me some pointers on how to throw well. The only thing wrong with this was that I was in a deviant mood that day, and I deliberately messed up more and more, because (for some strange reason, at the time) I thought it was funny, and I suppose I was testing him.
I guess I beat my Uncle Eddie in the test. I mean that I got what I deserved. After a while, my uncle gave up on me. Our game of catch had stopped being fun for him. It had stopped being promising and hopeful for either one of us.
Like I said, I got what I deserved. In that game of catch, my uncle was very gracious, but I was not. Grace lost the test.
That was only a game of catch. Life is much more serious than that. The grace of God in our lives, and our playing around with ungracious living, is much, much more serious.
The fruit of the vineyard, that the Lord came to find in Isaiah, was justice and righteousness. (Isaiah 5:7) The Lord, “Looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”
Now the vineyard stands for God’s people. God’s vineyard consists of the people who have heard his call; who have received his love, and learned about the depth of that love.
No one gets into that vineyard by performing at a certain level of justice and righteousness. We are simply planted there by love, in the first place. We are planted in God’s vineyard, in God’s fellowship, by his gracious love, but God’s love bears fruit only when it is thankfully and graciously received and shared.
Justice and righteousness are the fruit of our relations with others. They have to do with how we live in this world. Justice and righteousness have to do with how we live with our families, and with our neighbors, but they don’t stop there. They have to do with the part we play in the big, wide world around us.
Justice and righteousness include how we commit ourselves to the issues that get in the news. Justice and righteousness have to do with how we relate to issues in our society. They have to do with how we live with the issues in our community and with the people who are part of our community.
Justice has to do with fairness as a standard for making things right with other people but also between other people. Justice has to do with making good things happen between others, or with stopping certain things from happening between others so that everything is fair. God’s sense of justice requires his people to never say, “It’s not my concern. It’s none of my business.”
Righteousness is related to justice. It has to do with the rightness of the way we live toward others and toward God. I think righteousness is more than fairness. The fairness of justice seems like the least that we can do.
And yet God’s justice is not the least that God can do. God’s justice (we believe) is to die for his enemies. God’s justice is to come down in Jesus and sacrifice himself for us on the cross. God’s justice is infinitely more than the least that God can do. If we love God’s justice, won’t we be guided by that same measure of justice in our lives and in the stands we take in this world?
Righteousness goes at least an extra mile beyond fairness. And yet God’s justice goes far beyond our justice. Both righteousness and justice, by God’s standards, never exist outside of his unconditional love, and neither should ours.
When you walk through a vineyard, as the grapes grow close to harvest, and the bunches are hot in the late summer, or the early autumn, sun. Then the very air in the vineyard is sweet. That is a righteous aroma. There is joy and pleasure in bearing fruit. There is sweetness for everyone to enjoy in it.
But we form unjust and unrighteous patterns. There was a mother driving her kindergarten aged child in a crowded city. As the mother struggled with the traffic her child asked, “Mommy, how come it’s only when daddy drives that the idiots come out?” The father and mother had different patterns of dealing with traffic.
We form ungracious patterns.
The tenants of the vineyard wouldn’t turn over the owner’s share of the harvest because they didn’t accept his ownership of the vineyard: his ownership of their world and their lives. They didn’t accept their own promises and their commitments to the owner.
We form patterns that deny God’s ownership of us. We form patterns of anger and grudges. We act out old conflicts that have nothing to do with the present. We act out negativity. We don’t see each other as beloved children of God. We think about what others owe us, instead of owing others a debt of love.
As Christians, and as a church, we may stop living as if we had confidence in God to care for us. We may put our desire to protect ourselves, or justify ourselves above God’s call to forgive, and to reach out to others in humble, self-forgetting ways.
The problem, or the blessing, of patterns and habits is that they tend to build on themselves. The good patterns get stronger and the bad patterns get harder.
The repetitions in the story tell us that God speaks to us over, and over, and over again, in many ways (just as he sent many prophets to the people of Israel). God speaks through the repetitions; the patterns that happen to us over and over again in different ways.
God speaks and works, over and over, in an effort to remind us of the claim his love has over us. God does this to establish his good patterns and to break our bad patterns. God speaks and works in order to break our struggle to own ourselves.
God speaks in his word, and in prayer, and in our worship and fellowship together. God speaks his word to us in the look in someone’s eyes, and in the patience of a Christian who really is Christian through and through.
Our owner asks the question, “What shall I do?” and then God reaches into the strength of his pattern of grace; and God shows us his Son, Jesus. God claims us with Jesus.
There are Christians, there are people who belong to God, who will not be owned by God; except on their own conditions, or on their own reservations. Each of us has issues like this. There are Christians who can look at Christ on the cross and say, “Yes, but I will not forgive so-and-so. Yes, but I will not show I am wrong by showing signs of change. Yes, but I will not confess. I will not admit. Yes, but I will not say I am sorry.”
The Lord’s pattern of grace is strong and he is absolutely committed to us. But the Lord, because he is love and grace, will not let a contrary pattern come into his work. He will not let anything unloving or ungracious stand.
Here comes Jesus, up the road to that piece of ground we will not yield. God comes in his Son to humble our resistance and to claim our love, more deeply than we’ve ever let him before. He comes with no weapon but the nails in his hands and feet, and a wound in his side. He comes with no weapon but the cross.
When we truly see him, just as he is, coming down that road to us, we judge ourselves. The pattern in his cross reveals the pattern in our own lives, for good or for bad. It is nothing but his grace that has done this.
It is nothing but his grace that requires us to see whether his grace truly owns us, or not. Our life depends on this and God wants us to see, and respond, and live. The contrast between what he is and what we are judges us.
But he does this in grace. This is our opportunity. This is what he offers when he asks himself what he will do.” He says, “I will send them my son.”
He offers us Jesus. When we really see Jesus, it is for us to ask, “What will we do?”
God’s grace has claimed us as his children. What will we do with that? Will we choose God’s choice? Will we choose to be God’s children of grace?
There are two possible answers, but only one of those answers has any life in it. There is life with God only in Jesus; and only in receiving and giving grace. There is life nowhere else.

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