Sunday, November 17, 2019

Success — a sermon on Isaiah 5 & 11

Rev Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s 
Isaiah 5.1-7, 11.1-9
17 November 2019, NL2-11

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
my loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.
‘Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.’
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him –
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord –
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash round his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.


This week I spent three mornings at primary schools, running a workshop with Primary 7 pupils that is designed to help them begin to transition to high school. We do four of these throughout the year, and each one is about one of the Clydeview school values. This week the workshops were on the theme of Success. Throughout the morning we do activities that invite the kids to think about what success means, how we judge if something or someone is successful, and what it takes to succeed ourselves. Often, when we first ask them about it, they say things like “you know you’ve succeeded if you feel good about something you’ve done.” The conversations also usually include talking about awards, passing exams, and sometimes status symbols like big houses or fancy cars. But almost always the first reactions this week were about feeling more confident, knowing in yourself that you’ve done something well.

It was interesting to be thinking about success all week while also pondering this reading from Isaiah — in which it becomes clear that God’s vineyard has not succeeded. Whether the measure is by how God feels about it or by a more objective standard of fruitfulness, the vineyard is a failure. It’s a shocking idea, that God could fail at something. But through the prophet, God asks: what else could I have done? What more effort could I have put in? I did everything I knew how to do — cleared the ground, planted the best vines, prepared the wine press, pruned and weeded and watered and fertilised and cared. And still the fruit was bad. The vineyard was not a success, it did not produce grapes that could be made into wine and shared to make glad the hearts of others.

Instead of receiving all that care and turning it into an outpouring of goodness and care for others...instead of being blessed to be a turns out that the people had taken the blessing for themselves and refused to share. They were supposed to do justice, to lift up the poor and level the playing field so that all would have enough. They were supposed to live righteously, with their relationships in the right order — God in priority position, and everyone else equal. They were supposed to understand that they were as intertwined as the vines of the vineyard, all in it together, working together to produce fruit that could be shared to enhance God’s kingdom. Instead, they set up systems that oppress. They allowed some to be outcast, and the poor to be trampled. They turned away, choosing not to look at the people who were the collateral damage of their economy, their social norms, and their greed. Instead of justice and righteousness, they produced a crop of bloodshed and cries.

So the vineyard was left in disarray...overgrown with weeds and vines dying, trampled by animals and left without water or care.


Even though it looks like God gave up on the vineyard, we know that is not how God is.

And death never has the last word.

From the stump, the dead tree that had been cut down and was left there to rot in its place....from the dry stump, symbol of lost hope...from the stump will come a new shoot. The deep roots can still nourish new life. God will do a new thing, and bring life out of death.

The shoot that will grow out of the stump will be marked by the very things that the vineyard lacked: justice and righteousness, both of which will favour those who had been oppressed or left out. He won’t judge by what he can see — because remember, God looks at the heart. This new life won’t be about status symbols like fancy cars or holidays or clothes, but about the other measures of success. Even one tiny, fragile, shoot coming out of a deeply rooted stump will bear more fruit...fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control.

The results of this new life, deeply rooted in the truth of God’s love and call, will be just as shocking as the sight of the dead, overgrown vineyard, though. It will at first glance involve just as much disarray. The order that we think is built into the world will be turned on its head. Rather than the strong preying on the weak, they will live together. The wolf and the sheep, the leopard and the goat, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, the lion and the’s a comprehensive list of predators giving up their natural inclinations and choosing a different way. 

In this new vineyard, the powerful treat the powerless as if they matter. 
In this new vineyard, relationships that have been fraught with violence become peaceful and mutual.

Not because the lamb or the calf or the child have changed. They haven’t become more confident, or worked harder, or paid money, or earned their way in by acting in ways the others think are appropriate.

It’s the wolf, the leopard, the lion, and the bear that change. They choose to change their diet—to eat straw rather than each other. They choose to change their way of relating to others, lying down rather than chasing and attacking. They choose to give up some of their power in order to raise up others, making a system of equals who can work together. They choose to use their resources to create opportunities for those who had none, for both meaningful work and for rest. 

It feels wrong, because our human society is so used to the idea that it is right for some people to have more than others. But here we have a picture of the top of the food chain choosing to share meals with the bottom...where neither of them is on the menu. We have a vision of the powerful and powerless living side by side in the same house, and of neighbourhoods where those who are deemed dangerous and those who we think deserve protecting live side by side. 

God says this is what the world will be like when the earth is filled with knowledge of the Lord. They will not hurt or destroy...because why would we need to? Why would we want to? It may seem at first glance like everything is in disarray, with the powerful and powerless living together and valuing each other as equals — meaning neither has power over the other any longer. But then we would truly be living in right relationship, with God and one another. There would be no oppression or bloodshed or cries of brokenness. We would live as we are meant to — blessed to be a blessing.

Given the contrast of these two visions — of the failed vineyard and the peaceable kingdom — why do we continue to choose the one that failed?

This is a question for us as individuals, of course, but it is also a question for us as a society, and as a church....and as nations heading into elections on both sides of the Atlantic, with a daily news cycle that highlights every moment the choices we have made along the way.

I don’t have an answer as to why, other than our sinfulness, our brokenness, that leads us to think that imbalance of power and inequality of wealth is somehow a mark of success. But I do have a hope, that one day soon we will choose a different way. That when we recognise the effects of choosing to be the failed vineyard, we will want to choose the way of new life instead. Surely we would rather go through the upheaval of learning to give up our position at the top of the food chain, if it meant we could have a world of peace and opposed to the continuous cycle of destruction that comes with bearing bad fruit. I want to believe that we can dig deep, and find ourselves rooted in God’s grace, however hidden it sometimes appears to be...and then from that grace, find the capacity to do a new thing, to try a new way of sharing the blessing, and perhaps find the success God is calling us toward: a world marked by fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Still You Called — a sermon on Hosea 11

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Still You Called
Hosea 11.1-9 CEB
10 November 2019, NL2-10

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
        and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
        the further they went from me;
    they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
        and they burned incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
        I took them up in my arms,
        but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them
        with bands of human kindness,
        with cords of love.
    I treated them like those
        who lift infants to their cheeks;
        I bent down to them and fed them.
They will return to the land of Egypt,
        and Assyria will be their king,
        because they have refused to return to me.
The sword will strike wildly in their cities;
        it will consume the bars of their gates
        and will take everything because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me;
        and though they cry out to the Most High,
        he will not raise them up.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
        How can I hand you over, Israel?
    How can I make you like Admah?
        How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
    My heart winces within me;
        my compassion grows warm and tender.
I won’t act on the heat of my anger;
        I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
    for I am God and not a human being,
        the holy one in your midst;
    I won’t come in harsh judgment.


During my holidays the last few weeks, I spent five days at the board meeting of RevGals, an international organisation supporting women in ministry. During the day, we worked for hours on discerning a vision, undoing some bad habits, and considering how we might lead an organisation of over 7000 people around the world. And then every evening, we ended with worship. My night to lead worship was a communion service, and the other board member I was paired up with was Episcopalian. We decided that I would be the one in charge of the communion liturgy because, as she put it, she had to follow more rules about what is included in communion prayers. She noted that she would be required to recap the entire story of creation, the fall, God’s continuous call to the people, the life and ministry and death of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Whereas we Presbyterians have fewer rules about that so I could write something that would be...well...shorter. 

I pointed out to her that we Presbyterians also cover all of those things in our communion liturgy, though we might do it in more poetic language that conveys a lot of different aspects at once, for example in one of my favourite lines of the great prayer of thanksgiving: “when we lost our way, or turned away, still you called us home.” 

It seems to sum up so much of human history — when we lost our way, or turned away.

The prophet Hosea was speaking to people from the northern tribes of Israel, in the 8th century BCE, who had separated from the southern kingdom, and they had a long string of terrible kings and they made a lot of awful choices, including worshiping other gods and treating their neighbours badly. Just a few years after Hosea’s life, they would be overrun by the Assyrian empire and scattered. But in this moment, they are still holding on to a tenuous place between the Egyptian empire and the Assyrians and their former siblings to the south. 

Throughout his book, Hosea calls to the people, telling them they have lost their way...or turned away. Or both. Sometimes they were lost and then they chose to remain that way. Sometimes they turned their back on the way they knew they were supposed to go. Both resulted in the people and their leaders being unable to discern what God wanted for them, and also unable to see what God was still doing in their midst. They felt alone, abandoned...and so they turned even farther, to different gods, idols of fertility or money or productivity or violence. 

But the line of the prayer doesn’t stop there. When we lost our way, or turned away, STILL you called us home.

Despite the terrible choices and the bad behaviour, God still loves these people. God remembers: it was I who taught them to walk. I took them up in my arms, and they didn’t even realise it was me. I was like one who lifted a child to her cheek...taking in all that sweet baby skin and smell, rubbing our noses together and looking into their eyes...I fed them with my own hand. They may be bent on turning away, but I can’t give them up. I just can’t let go, can’t turn away myself.

It’s unusual to get such an intimate glimpse into the tenderness of God’s heart in the midst of a prophet’s proclamations. But here we have it: our God is one who remembers teaching us to walk, who still holds on to that moment when we were cheek to cheek, who picks us up and feeds us. And however tempting it might be, now that we’re unruly teenagers who reject everything, God can’t bring himself to let us go. 

God never gives up on us. Even when we lose our way or turn away, still God calls us home. Still God picks us up and teaches us again and again, brushing away tears and smoothing our hair and healing us with the truth: that before we existed, God loved us, and whatever we do, God loves us still. This is not to say that we can do whatever we want, or that God turns a blind eye when we participate in injustice or hurt each other or do wrong things. There are consequences for those actions, but those consequences never include God withdrawing love from us. We may make choices that are disappointing or even angering, but God’s love is never in doubt. It is perhaps the only thing we can truly say is unchanging.

After all the descriptions of the ways humans have devised to hurt each other — war, economic systems that cause poverty, scheming, oppression, inequality, hatred, betrayal, and so on — the prophet ends by giving us these words straight from the mouth of God:
I won’t act on the heat of my anger;
        I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
    for I am God and not a human being,
        the holy one in your midst;
    I won’t come in harsh judgment.

God may indeed feel anger, hurt, frustration, and disappointment. But God does not act on that heat...instead, it is God’s compassion that grows warm, God’s justice and grace that leads the way. Because God is God, not a human being. Humans are the ones who struggle to respond with grace and compassion and justice....but God always chooses to act on love. 

When we claim that God’s judgment on someone else will be harsh, or that God excludes people because of their behaviour, or that God gives up and abandons us to absence, we are directly contradicting the Bible, making God in our own image. Hosea, as well as many other parts of scripture, is clear that God is not like us, our ways are not God’s ways. Indeed, if God intended to banish us to the hell of our own making, why be incarnate in Jesus? Why send the Holy Spirit? Why have the psalmist say “there is nowhere I can go away from your presence”? The prophet speaks of a God who loves, calls, heals, teaches, feeds, carries, leads, lifts up, won’t give up, has compassion, and withholds judgment.

And in response to this amazing grace, we are called to live into the truth of how God made us: in God’s image. Just as God always chooses love, we too are called to choose love. To remember how we have been picked up, taught to walk, held in God’s arms, fed by God’s hand, healed of our brokenness .... and then to extend that same grace to others. To be people who work for a world where all know the truth: that God’s love is unchanging, and even when we have lost our way or turned away, still God calls us home.

May it be so. Amen.