Somehow I found my way this week to the website Bored Panda[i], which, by the way, I love just for the title. But what I really loved were the pictures under the heading “photos of nature winning the battle against civilization.”
What followed were a host of pictures that demonstrate the power of nature to fill any crack in the concrete, to take down what we think is solid—an old tree that grew up through a discarded piano. A tree scaling a skyscraper like an out-of-control vine. An abandoned Paris railway that’s become a field of flowers. An old bicycle on Vashon Island that’s been engulfed by a tree. An abandoned shopping mall in Bangkok taken over by fish. An old mill that is barely visible beneath the deep green foliage. An abandoned Ferris wheel that’s become a trellis for a massive vine. A ruined cathedral that’s become a sacred space.
The vineyard in Isaiah is the house of Israel, and even though God whose vineyard it is has done everything right in the preparation and tending, the vines produce sour grape—violence and injustice, when there should be life for all people.
What should be done?
Jesus’ parable in Matthew is similar, drawing on these same themes, but he aims his criticism at the church leaders who have allowed religion to serve the privileged rather than produce fruits of life for all people.
This is a theme that runs through this section of Matthew. Jesus cleanses the temple of those who have turned it into a place for profits rather than prayer. He curses the fig tree for not producing fruit as a sign of the future of temple Judaism. Jesus then criticizes the church leaders for giving a safe answer rather than giving one that is true. The message is clear: authority doesn’t come by position or title; it comes by living in the truth. It comes by doing what gives life. And so, like the brother last week who said he wouldn’t go work in the vineyard, but then did it anyway, Jesus tells them the tax collectors and prostitutes are the real leaders, the truly religious because they are responding to the call of God rather than just giving lip service.
And today the stakes are raised even higher as Jesus calls out the extent to which these so-called church leaders will go to protect their own skin. They are willing to get rid of God’s own while cynically claiming to be faithful.
But they are fooling no one—or at least not this one. And, you see, Matthew knows the score. We know the gospel was written when the temple that Jesus just cleansed is in ruins. The religion that seemed so powerful, so indestructible, so timeless just a few decades before is an unhappy memory, and nature is already at work reclaiming it.
And the same could be said for the church in our own time. We are all too aware that we are once again at the hinge of history when it comes to religious life. We are all too aware that the future will be different from the past, and that the church as we know it will either adapt as it recovers the heart of religion that is for the life of all people—love of God, love of neighbor—or it will die.
The thing about this is that the answers aren’t always that obvious. Let me give you an example.
As you know we’ve been asking questions about our future for some years now. This has included considering what to do with our financial and building resources as we consider how they relate to the work we are called to do, to our values and to our best sense of our mission in this time and place.
Last year you helped us to decide that it is time to do something with the money we have in the bank, to put it toward improvements in our building that will help us to worship and work in ways that proclaim God’s shalom. Your discernment team is now meeting with an architect to consider what to do.
Do we put our resources toward a sanctuary, a second large flexible space that enables us to spread out? That will give our Center of Hope families who we host for three months and our sister congregation Manantial a little more breathing room. Yet we also know we’d like to build showers so the men of ARISE might be able to clean up before a job interview. And we know we want a space that invites rest, that evokes our imagination, that engages all of our senses and welcomes the sacred as we consider the mystery of God. And yet, we don’t want to saddle a generation that may or may not value all these things with a debt they don’t want and cannot afford, so we have to consider what kind of a budget we want to work with.
Don’t get me wrong. The fact that we have come this far is an exciting thing; it is a gift. And the conversation is good, drawing on wisdom across the generations. But clarity is not easy as we consider the shape of our life—especially since we have made the choice to be a community that gathers together with all ages. Perhaps that commitment is all the more poignant on a morning like this when a big group of our youth and young adults are away on retreat. I don’t know about you, but I miss them as glad as I am for the ways they are being shaped.
It is important, I think, to remember that while there is warning in these scriptures, there is an even bigger promise. It is captured in one of my favorite words: fecundity. Write it down if you don’t know it. Fecundity. It is similar to fertility, and connotes the idea that the capacity for growth and new life is simply astonishing and beyond our expectations—especially when God is in the mix.
The vines are going to grow, and they will produce fruit. If these don’t, the master will find others that do. God’s nature simply takes over. Life will have its way, even if it has to create new forms, new institutions, new locations for ministry.
I think the other arm of our recent work—the work of REACH—is a perfect example of this. Last Thursday 250 people from around the community gathered for a meal, and to celebrate and support the work that REACH is doing to bring together the partners that we need so that God’s people—especially those on the street and living in their cars, especially those who have been forgotten—can have what they need.
And to me, the ways we are growing together is astonishing. I was raised in a church that regarded Mormons with distrust and distaste. And now I get to call Howard, who is one of the biggest and brightest supporters of REACH, and who also happens to be Mormon, a friend. In fact, I have come to discover that I just love that guy. He was in the office several times last week, one day bringing a volunteer to help move things, another bringing yet another $1000 check he’d squeezed out of someone, yet another collecting donations for the silent auction that was a part of the Thursday REACH Gala.
I may not have the same theology as Howard, but I love him, and I trust him, and I count him as a friend and a brother. And to me, that is a priceless gift, and another example of the fecundity of God’s life.
There’s no question we have big questions, and we have work to do that we’re going to get wrong as often as we get it right. But we are simply the vines. God is the branches and the source of our common life. As we come to the table, may we remember again this Good News.