One of the greatest preachers of the first half of this century, Theodore Parker Ferris, was noted for his realism about the nature of faith.
I once heard him use an image I have never forgotten.
He said that our experience of God is like standing on the shore at the ocean. Sometimes we are so aware that we are in God’s presence, it is like high tide. The water rushes around and under us, lifts us up, and we easily float in the salt water with little effort. Other times it is like low tide when there are only a few rivulets of water squishing between our toes; God is so remote, perhaps even missing; not to be found anywhere.
Our Old Testament reading, psalm and excerpt from the Gospel according to Matthew, which you have just heard, instruct us on these two questions: Why and how do we sometimes feel close and other times removed from God? Is there a pattern to our feeling close or remote from God?
And here is the painful answer: God pursues us like a lover. God courts, woos and takes the risk of revealing in this relationship his love first. But if we do not respond, God moves on.
For a long time, that passage from Isaiah has been described as God’s “love song” because of the opening line: “Let me sing of my beloved my love song.” Using the delicate language of metaphor, the singer, God, recalls how he spotted his beloved and fell for her immediately. He continues by remembering all the attention he lavished on his beloved, using the image of one who plants and cultivates a vineyard.
But the love song turns bitter. After years of investing in the vineyard, that is, his love affair with his chosen people, God’s advances are not returned. He has been spurned.
What started as a love song now becomes a lament. He is so rejected, he sings, he will tear down the wall around the vineyard and let it go to ruin.
The saying from Jesus in today’s Gospel is even more painful. Knowing that his hearers would know that passage from Isaiah as readily as you do right this minute, having just refreshed our memory, Jesus tells a story. The owner of the vineyard, God, sends his representatives, but they are rejected, stoned and even killed. Then he sends his only son, a reference to himself. He is also killed. The owner then declares that he will give his precious vineyard to others. The precise words of Jesus are: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.”
Before we move to the heart of this sermon, let us pause for a moment to make sure we have grasped what the Bible has told us so far. It has told us that God does pursue us with the vulnerability of a lover. He exposes his love for us sometimes even before we are aware of his existence. He takes the initiative to have a relationship with us. And he will patiently pursue us even when there is no response from us, up to a point. If he does not get the response he expects, he will move on to others, even those considered as the least likely for relationship with God.
This should get our attention because it means that the pattern is that when we respond to God as he expects, we do feel his presence, and when we do not, we know his absence. This should also get the attention of the whole church. God pursues, but if he does not get the response he expects, he moves on.
And what is the response God expects? Now we are at the heart of this sermon.
In his love song, as recorded by Isaiah in the eighth century B.C., we find our answer. After all that God, the lover, had invested in his love affair with his people, after he had shown them unmerited love over and over and over again he expected mishpat but instead he got mispah; to translate the Hebrew, he looked for justice, but instead he got the blood, sweat and tears of the abused. He had loved his people generously, even unfairly, when it was clearly not deserved, but the results were that they took his love and it stopped there. His love did not change their hearts. They continued to live indifferent to those who could have benefited form their generosity. He loved without limits, but we lived with greedy, indifferent, cold hearts. The next line in the song is even more blunt about what God expected in return for his love and what he got instead. He looked for sedeqah and instead he got seqah; he expected us to be changed, shaped by his love, to be more like him because we had been loved by him, and instead he heard the sometimes quiet whimpering and sometimes the loud anger of those who suffer because others live far more above their needs.
We know God and experience God best when we respond to his love for us by having his heart, which means to never loose sight of those who suffer the most and to always act in their behalf. That is when our relationship with God is at high tide. Conversely, we feel most distant from him and he from us–it is low tide–when we are furthermost from his mind and heart, living almost exclusively in a self-contained world of self and family.
Some data released this past week make this a very timely issue, as if these biblical passages were written for this nation in the 1990s. The trends during the last eight boom years for the United States economy indicate that more Americans are living above the “poverty line.” But the same information reported that another trend grows even more sharply. The gap between the poorest and richest Americans grows wider and wider.
Last weekend in this Cathedral, Martin Marty wondered what historians would say was the moral blind spot of those who lived in the last half of the twentieth century, as slavery had been the moral blind spot for the church in the nineteenth century. He wondered if our complacency about a permanent underclass in this country might not be the question which those in the future would shake their heads in amazement at our complacency and indifference.
I looked for justice, God sings to us in his love song, but instead I got the blood, sweat and tears of those on the bottom; in response to my generous love for you I wanted you to see the world as I see it, but instead I heard the pain of those who suffered because of your complacency.
Here is the good news. If our experience of God can grow remote and even fade away, it can also be revived. God will pursue over and over and over, but he will not force himself on us. And he will respond immediately and fully with even the slightest response on our part. Remember his immediate response to the thief on the cross or the immediate response of the loving father when the prodigal came home? The psalmist in today’s psalm sings: “Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted.”
Three Sundays ago, I shared a contemporary story of conversion. A few years ago, Nora Gallagher wandered into Trinity Church, Santa Barbara, California. She is a self-described boomer who left behind her faith sometime in the 1960s. During her recent years in her new community of believes, she heard some interesting sermons, went on some retreats and did some reading. But she says it was living this new faith that brought her into God’s presence. In her story, Things Seen and Unseen, published this summer, she tells about trying to be a friend two dying friends, about serving in the church’s soup kitchen, about her role on the parish’s governing board, the vestry, dealing with issues and personalities, which she described as mostly–”ugh, Republicans.” As she reflected on all these experiences, she reached this conclusion: “I learned about community: that being faithful to God means being faithful to others, in sickness and in health, for better for worse.” That is a powerful insight. If you get nothing else out of this sermon, please hear this. The biblical teaching is clear: intimacy with God is achieved only when we are engaged with the needs of others in the way that he loves us, without reservation, with compassion, willing to take the first step. Nora Gallagher continues on that same page: “I began to understand that the Holy Spirit (who is clearly a scatterbrain women at a very large computer in heaven) may or may not give a damn about result, but cares about the human process of getting there.”
We become more human in precisely the same way we gain intimacy with God (the two are interchangeable really). In response to his love of us, we see the world as he sees it; we love as he loves, we are compassionate as he is compassionate; we seek to relieve the suffering of others. Hear the gospel according to Nora Gallagher: “Being faithful to God means being faithful to others.”