I want to do something different this week: I want you to turn to the text of our hymn of the day, The Church of Christ, in Every Age, by Fred Pratt Green, #729 in ELW, and I want to look at the text of this hymn together in the light of our readings today – to use it as a sort of outline. We Lutherans talk a lot about how the Hymn of the Day, and any hymn for that matter, is an opportunity to put the proclamation of God’s Word on the lips of the whole assembly, so I think I’m on fairly solid ground using the hymn in this way.
So, let’s turn to it and let’s read verse 1 together
1 The church of Christ, in ev’ry age beset by change, but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead.
Every age calls for the Church to consider anew what it means to live as God’s faithful people in the world.
In Isaiah’s day, the people were living under the covenant God gave through Moses. And God expected God’s people to be a witness – in other words, to live in such a way that those around them would see how they lived and understand through the witness of their lives who God is and what God’s like.
Only, and we really shouldn’t be surprised by this, the people didn’t live faithfully, just as we don’t always live faithfully. And Isaiah, sums it all up in verse 7: God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! And, sadly, I fear God’s word would be the same to us in our context today. We’ve gotten so hung up on thinking about the faith in terms of individual morality, as if what I do and don’t do from day to day, the decisions I make about things like gambling, and alcohol, and sex, and smoking and such are going to determine, in the end, whether or not God will save me, when, trust me, there are way bigger things going on in the world that God cares way more about!
Like bloodshed –
This cycle of seemingly unending war in which we’ve lived now for over a decade. And the gun violence plaguing our streets, not just in cities like Camden and Chicago, but in our own neighborhoods right down the road in Long Branch. And the militarization of our police forces – putting surplus military hardware in the hands of often undertrained individuals, ending in tragic results. And the increasing madness of open carry laws spreading around our nation, leading to such tragedies as the killing of a Walmart shopper for carrying a bb gun that he had picked up to purchase in that very store.
Such changing realities can be hard to face in the world, but as God’s Spirit-led people, people of the resurrection, we stand firm in our heritage, established by women and men of faith who have come and gone before us. And we claim that heritage and we stand firm in it whatever changes come from age to age.
Let’s read verse two together:
2 Across the world, across the street, the victims of injustice cry
for shelter and for bread to eat, and never live before they die.
The Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministries sent a communication this week. Some of you might have seen it on our Facebook page or web site – I posted it on Thursday – about the ballot initiative coming up in this November’s election calling for changes in the way the bail system functions.
The communication included a story of a man from Newark, NJ, named Mustafa Willis, who has been arrested twice only to have the charges dropped both times once he was proven innocent. After these two improper arrests he lost his job. The boss, I guess, didn’t care that he was innocent of the crimes, only that he was arrested twice. Mustafa is in debt, having had to borrow thousands of dollars to make bail – money he didn’t have, but that he still has to pay back.
Now, some of you joined in the study of the ELCA’s latest social statement on criminal justice last year, and I’m so pleased to share, if you didn’t see it in the news this week, that there is some good news. For the first time ever the number of people incarcerated in our nation has gone down – there are nearly 5000 less individuals incarcerated this year than last. Of course, there are still gross injustices involved in the system in terms of racial imbalances and such, but at least we can celebrate this one bit of good news!
Still, too many of our neighbors find themselves trapped – trapped in injustices, like Mustafa, or trapped in systems that should help those living in poverty, but are structured in such a way that they come up short, not quite doing enough to get people back on their feet, and then cutting them off too quickly if they do start moving toward a better, more sustainable life.
The cries of injustice are still going up, and God hears those cries! The question is, as it was in Isaiah’s day, are we, God’s people, hearing the cries of injustice and bloodshed?
3 Then let the servant church arise, a caring church that longs to be
a partner in Christ’s sacrifice, and clothed in Christ’s humanity.
God in Christ came in human flesh – we read this in Philippians chapter 2, last week – and he humbled himself and took the form of a slave, obediently accepting death, even death on a bloody Roman cross.
God in Christ accepted death at the hands of his own creatures. He accepted death at our own hands. That’s how far God was willing to go in order to associate himself with us – with sinful humanity.
How far are we willing to go for the sake of our neighbor?
Theologian Douglas John Hall teaches in his book: “The Cross in our Context” that when we confess that God is love, as we read in 1 John, that doesn’t mean that our understanding of love explains who God is. God is love means that we understand what love truly looks like through God in Christ – through the crucified God.
Love means death.
Paul got it.
In verse 14 of Philippians 3 we read that Paul is pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus, and this isn’t some promise to us as individuals of some pie in the sky in the great by and by where we’ll get wings and float around on clouds and play harps or any such nonsense. No! Paul has already, in verse 10, explained what the heavenly call of God in Christ is: I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. That’s what it means to be a partner in Christ’s sacrifice, and to be clothed in Christ’s humanity. It means death – dying to the self so that the other might live.
And who is “the other?” but those who experience hunger and need and poverty while living in this land of abundance!
And those unjustly imprisoned, living in a system that is stacked against minorities, people of color, especially young male people of color! These are the ones whose cries go up to God, and for whom we need to be laying our lives down, if we’re going to say with Paul: I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus!
4 For he alone, whose blood was shed, can cure the fever in our blood,
and teach us how to share our bread and feed the starving multitude.
In and through the cross of Christ – God in human flesh coming to lay down his life for us – we see what a life of loving witness really looks like. Christ not only takes up the cross and dies so that we might live, but calls us to take up the cross as well – to lay down our lives so that others might live. Again, as Hall teaches: Love doesn’t define God. God defines love! And God calls us to live our lives in such a way that those who see how we live together, faithfully following in the way of Christ – the way of the cross – will know who God in Christ is. And this involves taking up the cross – living the life of death that leads to true life.
In our Gospel today, Jesus uses not only the vineyard metaphor, but also that of the scandalon – the rock of offense, or the stumbling stone. Jesus is this scandalon – this stone that, though it was rejected by the builders, as Christ was rejected and put to death, becomes the chief cornerstone. And, extending the metaphor, Jesus says that those who fall on the stone will be broken, but those on whom the stone falls will be crushed.
Obedience to the call of Christ, the life of one who is a faithful follower of Jesus, involves falling on the scandalon and being broken, even as Jesus was broken. Obedience to a Christ who is broken on the cross means that we, too, must be broken as we take up the cross, and follow in his way.
5 We have no mission but to serve in full obedience to our Lord;
to care for all, without reserve, and spread his liberating word.
There is no greater witness – There is no more faithful manner of proclamation – than a life of caring for all without reserve. This is our mission. This is the fruit God seeks from his pleasant planting. This is the life of fearless faith, fearless generosity, fearless discipleship.
This is the work of God in Christ in and through God’s people – we who are the Church of Christ, in this age.