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Monday, September 26, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 AND Psalm 19:1-14 OR Isaiah 5:1-7 AND Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

Progressive people of faith have a difficult time thinking of God as the ultimate lawgiver who stands on the mountains shouting orders, or of God as one who peers over our shoulders waiting to catch us in a misstep. It doesn’t sit well with us when Moses says that God’s commandments were given “to put fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” (Exodus 20:20—Is that verse supposed to give us 20/20 vision?)

Still—we tend to agree that the ten commandments presented in Exodus 20 are a pretty good framework for civilized living. We see them as a worthy description of what it takes, at the most basic level, to keep human society functioning. Whatever overtones of divine authority accompany them, I like to think of them a body of wisdom distilled from human experience. In fact, I believe that God is more likely to work through such realities than God is to expect pronouncements from on high to do the job.

At our best, and when our eyes and others senses observe clearly, we know that killing is not an effective way to solve human problems. (Exodus 20:13—“You shall not murder.”) We know that coveting what our neighbors have attacks our sense of self-worth and often leads to battles over who gets how much of what. (Exodus 20:17—“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”) We even know that a life which does not find a focus (whether we call it “god” or not) is generally not as effective as one that does. (Exodus 20:3—“You shall have no other gods before me.”) We know that some values become addictive and destructive (false gods, “idols”?—Exodus 20:4—“You shall not make for yourself an idol . . .”)

It is as if the consequences are simply built into the ways things work—or don’t work. If we try to defy the laws of nature, there are consequences. With gravity it may be more obvious that with adultery, but thousands suffer daily from relationships ruptured by abuse of trust and failure of commitment. (Exodus 20:14) When we refuse to get adequate rest or to allow time to process (reflect upon, think about) all that happens in a week’s time, we may eventually have to acknowledge that a day of Sabbath rest (whatever day or time it is observed) is important to human survival. (Exodus 20:8-9)

Right now we seem to be suffering from a congressional failure to acknowledge how things work. It’s written into the fiber of democracy, which won’t work without compromise. It won’t work when blame (bearing “false witness”—Exodus 20:16) is the primary currency. It is true that any human attempt to codify the way things work is bound to fall short of perfection. My stance has been that, in this less than perfect democracy, our “laws” represent an agreed upon way of doing things. Part of the way we get along together is to obey (and work for modification where needed) such “laws,” unless they involve a fundamental violation of “conscience” (which gets us into a subject for another time). When we willfully violate even the most minor of laws, we erode the strands of social thread that bind us one to another.

Ultimately, creation and effective functioning in our social existence define what works and what doesn’t. Psalm 19 declares that it is all written there in nature. “Day to day” it “pours forth speech.” (Psalm 19:2) But it is speech without words (vs. 3), revealing that “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simply; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart . . .,” etc. (vss. 7-9)

Three of the other lectionary readings for this week also draw from the way nature functions. They use the image of the vineyard to teach the lesson that nature intends that life bear fruit. In Isaiah, chapter five, the vineyard is God’s people. They have failed to yield the expected fruit. (Isaiah 5:1-3) God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (vs. 7) We don’t much like the image of the vineyard being destroyed (vss. 5-6), but it is a law of life that failure to bear fruit is usually a sign of death. We can tell if something is alive by observing whether or not it bears fruit. Are we alive? Are we bearing fruit?

In Psalm 80, the people are accused of failure to take care of the flourishing vineyard. (vs. 8-9 & 13-13).

The Gospel lesson has Jesus telling a parable about a vineyard that was leased to tenants. (Matthew 21:33) At harvest time the owner sent his slaves “to collect his produce.” (vs. 34) The tenants beat and stoned the slaves, killing one of them. (vs. 35) Another delegation went and was treated the same way (vs. 36) until the owner finally sent his son. He faired no better than the slaves. (vss. 37-38) The church has, over the years, used this parable to condemn “the Jews” for rejection of Jesus as “God’s Son.” That doesn’t seem to be the primary way in which Jesus is using it. Jesus frequently addressed the Jewish leadership of his day because he saw corruption in their handling of the affairs of religion. Some were productive; others were not. The point he makes is the same as the other teachings about fruitful vineyards. “The kingdom of God,” he says to those who are not bearing fruit, “will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (vs. 43) The chief priests and the Pharisees, we are told, “realized that he was speaking about them.” (vs. 45) Sounds a little bit like what some are saying about congress in recent months. Let them produce or throw them out.

These teachings about the vineyards call us to examine ourselves. What does it mean to bear fruit? Are we bearing fruit? The reading from Isaiah specifically mentions justice and righteousness as important fruit. The familiar words of Galatians 5:22 tells us that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” In the botanical world, bearing fruit is a way of producing a new generation of life, making sure that what has nourished the present and past generations is carried on into the future. Ultimately, we are producing fruit anytime we offer something that is life-giving to those around us.

The epistle reading connects with the theme in a couple of ways. First, it is easy to try to live on past achievements. I can speak from experience that it is a temptation to those who are “retired.” “I’ve done my fruit-bearing. I’m done with all that.” Paul implies that his achievements in the past have been quite impressive. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more . . . as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Philippians 3:4b-6) Those Ten Commandments have been a foundation for his life. Nevertheless, he says, the past is not enough. We are called to “press on, . . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” (vss. 12-14) Botanically speaking, plants often produce their most abundant “harvest” when their life is threatened, putting out an abundance of seed to carry life forward. In nature, bearing fruit is always about looking ahead.

The epistle reading also implies that if we are to understand the way things work we have to go deeper than a surface knowledge of and obedience to a set of laws. Other readings in recent weeks have reminded us that things work only if they are written on our hearts, arising from a mysterious spiritual center within. For Paul the power to be fruitful “comes through faith in Christ” (vs. 9) and the self-giving love seen and experienced in him. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” (vs. 10) Bearing fruit has something to do with being willing to die. In another place (although the context is quite different), Paul says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” (I Corinthians 15:36)

Whatever interpretations we give them, these readings invite us to look at life and death and see that things only work when we bear fruit.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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