Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Eighteenth of Pentecost
October 4, 2020
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So, God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
Being United Church people, we don’t often think about the lives of saints. The democratizing impulses of the Protestant reformation more or less wiped out the theological distinction between priests and people, saints and regular folks – the reformers said that each one of us stands in the same relation to God as every other. That each of us can speak to God directly without the intervention of a priest or holy person. So, we don’t have the practice of venerating the saints or praying to them. We don’t wear medals around our necks or place statues in our sanctuaries, or – usually – celebrate their name days. But today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, and it is hard to resist the charm of this 13th century monk who defied the authorities, and spoke to the animals, and loved the poor. Remembering him gives us a chance to join in his delight at the natural world by blessing our pets and singing his words.
Even though they all come from the Old Testament, our readings today encompass and recapitulate the whole story of the Christian faith. We began with verses from Genesis in our Call to Worship – the creation of the world, all the creatures swarming and teeming in the oceans, and in the sky, and on the earth. And not just that they were created, but that God declared them good. We live in a cosmos that is beautiful and good and beloved by the creator, so we are called to appreciate and to give thanks – this is a key element of our faith. Then in the passage from the Book of Isaiah that Anne read, we hear a parable of the way things go wrong. The beautiful vineyard yields sour, wild grapes. And in real life, somehow, relentlessly, through greed and self-interest, human beings just botch it all up. The result is a very poor harvest. God is not just saddened by this but frustrated, angered. Humanity is called to repentance and restitution, a second key element of faith.
Finally, in the second reading, just a few chapters farther along in Isaiah, the prophet makes a promise. There will be new life springing out of the old abandoned roots, and that life will be more abundant and more wonderful than we can now imagine. The one in whom this new life dwells will be the saviour, whom Christians see in Jesus, a third key element. We are called to hope.
These three basic ideas – everything’s gorgeous, everything’s a mess, all will be well – form the dynamic core of Christian faith. And although we sometimes think of them as a sequence in time, first creation, afterwards the fall, finally the redemption, the real challenge for faith is to hold on to them all at the same time. We can certainly see, looking around us at the crimson and golden leaves of October, and the full harvest moon just the other night, and our pets surrounding us this morning, that the world is a lovely place, filled with joy and beauty. That every breath any of us takes is a miracle in itself.
Yet, at the same time, we are caught in the covid pandemic, with numbers rising again, a wobbling world economy, and a terrifying election shaping up to the south. We seem to be stalled in the systemic exclusions of racism and homophobia and misogyny. Efforts to halt climate change have little traction. No one can deny that humanity is grappling with recalcitrant, overwhelming problems.
And yet despite this, as people of faith, as Christians, we also say that somehow there is wholeness and goodness already in operation in the world. That in Christ, death and destruction are not erased but overcome. That the vitality of God’s love is, ultimately, what is driving the universe, and that our task is to find it and come alongside.
The saints are the ones who have been able to hold the three strands of gratitude, dismay and confidence together. Francis loved the birds and animals so much that they flocked around him to chat. At the same time, he was fierce in his condemnation of the rich, including his own family. And he served the poor with every penny and every breath he had. Praise, repentance and hope held together. In this sense we are all invited to live the lives of saints. And actually, very often, our pets can give us an idea of that too (though I am not sure that cats ever repent).
As we join our voices to sing a prayer attributed to Francis, may each of us find our way to the life of a saint, and may we do so, giving thanks that we are not alone.