Sunday, July 29, 2007

Wild Grapes in God's Vineyard

Prayer of Hope:
Lord of All,
You remain faithful when all others have fallen away. Your steadfast love for us all is a daily miracle. We give you thanks, for your love and your patience with our shortcomings. Lead us to show this same love to those with whom we have built our lives. Amen

Lesson: Isaiah 5:1-7
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;
righteousness, but heard a cry!

This reading is typically called “The Love Song of the Vineyard.” One might expect from that title that the song would be something light, something akin to The Carpenters’ “Close to You,” or one of the wonderful love ballads crooned by Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis.
Not so much. This song is an intentionally thinly-veiled allegory about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God’s commands, and the wrath which arises in God when God discovers that they are growing “wild grapes,” instead of good ones. God threatens to allow the vineyard to be “trampled down,” laid to waste, since it will not produce the fruit for which it was planted.
These are harsh words. This is a picture of God which those of us who also claim the New Testament or Christian Scriptures don’t tend to like very much. We see a mean and punishing God, who visits wrath upon those who disobey.
Make no mistake, though: this is a love song. It is the song of a love so deep that the loved one’s betrayal cuts the lover to the core. God’s anger is a righteous anger—the anger of one who has created, tended and nurtured human beings, and been forced to watch as they start wars with one another and oppress those who are without power (the ones whose cry is raised to God in the last line of the lesson). God is angry, true enough, but it happens that when you love someone deeply and want the best for that person, you become angry when the object of your love does things which are dumb, like starting wars and oppressing others. This isn’t a sign of lack of love; it is a sign of the depth of love. While the lover threatens to give up the loved one, to turn the vineyard into a “waste,” we know that this never happened. God never abandoned Israel, though Israel was sometimes overrun by conquerors like the Assyrians and Babylonians.
Lessons like this one are meant to explain why Israel couldn’t simply remain dominant throughout her history. But they do more than that, because underneath this picture of God’s wrath is a reminder to those of us who know the whole story: that God never did remove the vineyard’s hedge, that God never did give up on the people of God. God continues to love us, even when we stray far from God’s intention for our lives.
It’s a different sort of love song to be sure—one more akin to Shakespeare’s surprising Sonnet, number 130:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

This is probably the most delightful of the love sonnets; a portrait of love so real that it looks beyond blemish and remains steadfast. Such is the love which we receive from God.

Prayer of Joy:
God of Love,
We rejoice that you have tended us and helped us to grow. You never leave us, even when we stray far from your commandments. We thank you for your constancy, and for teaching us the love which sees all, yet loves always. Amen

Saturday, February 03, 2007


Prayer of Hope:

All-knowing God,
Your wisdom is great. You created the world and all that is in it. You created human beings and blessed us with many gifts. We want to trust in your wisdom, but sometimes we are weighed down with grief and despair. Sometimes the difficulties of life feel like too much for us. Help us to find you in those times, and to know that you are ready to hear our lament as well as our praise. Amen

Reading: Lamentations 5:15-22
1The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us, for we have sinned!
Because of this our hearts are sick,
because of these things our eyes have grown dim:
because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate;
jackals prowl over it.

But you, O Lord, reign for ever;
your throne endures to all generations.
Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us,
and are angry with us beyond measure.

Meditation: Go ahead and cry

The book of Lamentations is ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah; its full title in Greek and English is “The Lamentations of Jeremiah.” Tradition allows that Jeremiah withdrew to a cave after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and carried off its king and many of its subjects. There he wrote this series of poems, which lament God’s forsaking of God’s people, which has resulted in their terrible fortunes. The prophet knows the people are to blame for this misfortune—he tells them that repeatedly in both the book of Jeremiah, and in Lamentations.
It doesn’t matter whether this book was actually written by Jeremiah. It doesn’t matter when it was written. What is important to us, as “consumers” of the Holy Word, is that scripture allows for wailing and gnashing of teeth. A whole book is devoted to a people feeling bad about what has happened to them, and describing their ordeals in great juicy detail.
There are lamentations throughout scripture. Many of the Psalms are songs of lament. Jesus laments twice. The first is a mini-lament—in the Garden of Gethsemane, he lets God know that it would be okay if the cup of his destiny passed from his hands. On the cross he offers a full blown lament: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Paul laments his work, his suffering, the time he has to spend in jail.
God’s Word gives us permission to complain. We’re often told that we shouldn’t complain. It’s true that we shouldn’t complain all the time. It’s equally true that we shouldn’t complain about minor inconveniences. But when lousy things happen to us, scripture has taught us that we are allowed to wail, to moan, to cry, and to complain. Bitterly even. Right to God, who is listening to all that we say, even the things which start “Hey God, I don’t like…”

Prayer of Thanksgiving

God of Light,
I give you thanks for being with me in my joy and in my sadness. Thank you for the gift of lamentation, for allowing your people to come to you with our deepest pain, and to cry out to you when we feel despair. We know that you are with us in the light and in the darkness, and we promise to turn to you in both. Amen

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Prayer of Yearning:

Come into our hearts, Emmanuel. Fill us with joy at your very presence in our lives. Allow us to gaze upon you with wonder, as you appear to us again, a baby in a manger. May we hear the angels sing their most holy song: Peace on earth. Amen.

Reading: Luke 2:8-14

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”


I usually change that last line. It’s probably wrong on some level, but I am far from alone. I usually make it “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace.” So it’s not so much changed, really, as truncated.
The Christmas songs change it too. “Peace on earth; goodwill to men”—you’ll hear that. You’ll hear a lot of “peace on earth,” but not so much that last part: “…among those whom God favors.”
I’d like to say it’s a mistranslation, but the Greek really says “among men in whom God is pleased.”
No matter. That last part is redundant anyway. If we are at peace with one another, then God is pleased. If we’re pleasing God, by living in harmony with our neighbors far and near, then there will be goodwill among human beings.
The promise of peace has been lifted up before every generation. And every generation has found ways to fulfill the promise, and to break it. As we celebrate the joy of Christ’s birth, let us dedicate ourselves wholly to bring the promise to fruition: “Peace on earth; goodwill to all.”

A Prayer of Hope:

God of all love,
The promise of peace is possible through your divine will. Teach us to live out the promise in all that we do—to work for peace between the nations, and to strive for constant peace within our hearts. We long to please you, and know that it is a simple task. We lean on the love and teaching of our Messiah, Jesus Christ, who is for us the one of peace. Amen

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Searching for Hope in a Time of Tragedy

Searching for Hope in a Time of Tragedy

Prayer of Hope:

God of all the nations,
Sometimes it seems that hope is too far away from us. We reach for it, but cannot pull it in. In those moments, lend us your spirit, that your strength and wisdom might become ours, leading us from death to life, from despair to hope. Amen

Reading: From Psalm 42

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
‘Where is your God?’

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise God,
my help and my God.


Senseless. What other word can there be for the shooting of little girls? It is senseless.
We find it difficult, in the face of unmitigated tragedy, to wrap our minds around the totality of the violence. Eleven little girls, kept safe from the world in a tight-knit Amish community, are shot and wounded, at least five mortally.
It is harder still to wrap our hearts around such an event. It is tempting, surely, to ask the question asked of the Psalmist: “Where is your God?”
The only answer we can give is the one that the Psalmist gives. God is in our hope, and our hope is in God. There is no sense to be made of such a horrific act. We can only do what that Amish community will do—pray to God for continued hope in the face of violence and tragedy, and pray for all of those who have been touched by this senseless act.
Sometimes our only hope is borrowed, from the God who is above all.

Prayer of Solace:

Loving God,
Surround those who are grieving with your love and comfort. Bring healing to those who have been deeply hurt, in body, mind and spirit. Lead us to new hope, which reaches out to those in need with hands that are gentle and hearts that are open. We turn to you now, our rock and our redeemer. Amen

Friday, September 29, 2006

God Yearns

Prayer of Love:

Creator God,
You made the world and called it good. Help me to remember that in your eyes I am good. Help me to see the goodness in myself, to love myself just as you love me. I pledge my love to you, a fitting response to the boundless love you heap upon me. Amen

Reading: Walter Brueggmann, “The God who yearns and waits for us”

We are strange conundrums of faithfulness and fickleness.
We cleave to you in all the ways that we are able.
We count on you and intend our lives to be lived for you,
and then we find ourselves among your people
who are always seeking elsewhere and otherwise.
So we give thanks that you are the God
Who yearns and waits for us,
and that our connection to you is always from your side,
and that it is because of your goodness
that neither life nor death
nor angels nor principalities
nor heights nor depths
nor anything in creation
can separate us from you.
We give you thanks for your faithfulness,
so much more durable than ours. Amen.


More often than one would expect, I find myself in conversation with someone who thinks that he or she is not doing as good a job at being a Christian as he or she could be. The person usually believes that his knowledge of the Bible isn’t sufficient, or that she could be doing more for the world, or that, God forbid, he sometimes has doubts about God.

The most honest response is probably “you’re right on all counts.” We could all know the Bible better; we could all be doing more for the world, and we all--at least those of us whose faith is mature enough to allow it--have doubts. It is probably fair to say that God desires more from each of us. God desires the best from us, and knows we have it in us.

It is more than fair to say—in fact it is the plain truth—that these moments are actually part of the work of a Christian. We are called to strive to do better. We are called to yearn for God, and to yearn to do God’s will, just as God yearns for us, and draws us toward the divine will.

And the rest of the truth is that God loves us to pieces, even when we fail miserably--which is seldom the case, though we often think it is. God is nuts about us, and rather pleased with us, for we were, after all, made in God’s image.

Prayer of Thanksgiving:

God of all grace and mercy,
You yearn for me even when I am far from you. You love me even when I fail to do your will. You are always there to help me improve, to set me back on the path of righteousness. Thank you for that. Amen

This Little Light of Mine

Prayer of Joy:

What a wonderful world you have made! I thank you for the beauty of the earth, and the many surprises that await me each day. Help me to continue to see opportunity, even in challenge. I receive this day with joy. Amen

Reading: Mark 4:21-23

Jesus said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’


This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine…

This simple song is surely in a close race with “Jesus Loves Me,” for the distinction of first song learned in Sunday School. People who have grown up in church tend to know “This Little Light of Mine”. Because it is a Sunday School song, it may be considered sweet, but not too weighty. This isn’t “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word,” after all.

But what a wonderful message this is! In a Lutheran baptismal service, a representative of the congregation lights a candle and gives it to the one baptized (or the parents, if the baptized is a small child). As the candle is given, the representative says, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.” The congregation, as the embodiment of the Body of Christ, calls upon the newly baptized person to shine, shine, shine, so that God may be glorified.

God has “lit us up.” We all have a light within us, and we’re called to illuminate the world with it. Jesus reminds us that just as we wouldn’t put a lamp under a bushel basket, neither should we hide our light from the world.

--How can you “let your light shine before others?” What special light has God given to you?

Prayer of promise:

Holy One,
Thank you for filling me up with the light which comes from you. I promise to let my light shine, to illuminate the world with works of justice and charity. I will not hide my light, but will make it a blessing for all to behold. Amen

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Seeing the Flower

A Prayer of Single-mindedness:

Gracious God,
As I prepare myself for meditation, I open my heart and my mind to you. Give me vision which sees the path you would have me walk. Give me knowledge which understands your commands. And give me understanding which places your Word upon my soul. Amen

Reading: "Flower Insights" Thich Nhat Hahn

There is a story about a flower which is well known in the Zen circles. On day the Buddha held up a flower in front of an audience of 1,250 monks and nuns. He did not say anything for quite a long time. The audience was perfectly silent. Everyone seemed to be thinking hard, trying to see the meaning behind the Buddha’s gesture. Then, suddenly, the Buddha smiled. He smiled because someone in the audience smiled at him and at the flower. The name of that monk was Mahakashyapa. He was the only person who smiled, and the Buddha smiled back and said, “I have a treasure of insight, and I have transmitted it to Mahakashyapa.” That story has been discussed by many generations of Zen students, and people continue to look for its meaning. To me the meaning is quite simple. When someone holds up a flower and shows it to you, he wants you to see it. If you keep thinking, you miss the flower. The person who was not thinking, who was just himself, was able to encounter the flower in depth, and he smiled.


This is a quintessential Zen Buddhist story. Among the things to be learned from the Buddhist way is the necessity of just being in a moment. Sometimes not thinking is the way to go.

--How can you turn off your mind once in a while and just see the flower?

--Can you practice, this week, such moments of “mere experience?” Find an object that pleases you, and just enjoy it. Do something you enjoy, and just enjoy it. Don’t worry about other things you could or should be doing. Just be.

A Prayer of Joy:

Creator God,
Your world is beautiful! Help me to see the flowers, the hills, the other beauty which surrounds me. Give me moments of peace, and moments of tranquility, so that I may appreciate the earth which you made. I thank you for it all. Amen

Prayer of Hope:

God of Compassion,
Sometimes life is really hard on us. Help me to remember that you are with me in difficult times, and that you are working with me to heal my pain and brokenness. Give me patience in the present, and hope for the future, for you are the creator of life, and the source of all hope. Amen

Reading: An Iroquois Prayer

We wait in the darkness!
Come, all ye who listen,
Help in our night journey:
Now no sun is shining;
Now no start is glowing;
Come show us the pathway;
The night is not friendly;
The moon has forgotten us,
We wait in the darkness!


Sometimes it feels like we’re “waiting in the darkness,” doesn’t it? When we’re having trouble in our lives—problems with relationships, physical difficulties, job stress, and other things which weigh us down—it can feel like we’ll never emerge. This prayer emphasizes that sense of darkness which can feel endless, into which no light seems to break. “The moon has forgotten us,” the people declare.

Underneath the prayer, though, is a sense of great hope. We know that even though the night can seem very dark, the moon has not forgotten us. The light will reappear in the morning. The moonlight will return on the next night, or the night after that.

We are not alone in our darkness, either. Even when we cannot see others, in that “dark night of our soul,” they are there with us. Even when we lose hope and faith, God is with us. God never loses us.

--Who walks with you when you wait in the darkness?

--How can you reach out to God in hope, when you feel lost in darkness?

Prayer for Healing:

God of Light,
Stir me to hope and healing. Comfort me, for I feel pain, and sometimes the pain is overwhelming. Come to me even when I do not turn to you, and I will return. I will seek you in the darkness, while I wait. Amen

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Who Is My Neighbor?

Prayer of hope:

God of All,
I pray this day in hope for the world. I pray for the people of the nations, all of the people of the world. I pray that we would learn peace, tolerance, and justice. I pray that we would hold one another to your command, to love you and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Amen

Reading: Luke 10:25-37

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’


Chances are, you’ve heard this story before. Even if you haven’t heard the story, you’ve heard the phrase “Good Samaritan.” It has become shorthand for the stranger who does a good deed. Preachers like to point out that this understanding does some disservice to the original story, because the identification of the Samaritan is oversimplified by it. Samaritans weren’t strangers to the folks listening to Jesus; they were the despised “other.” Generations of enmity had poisoned the relationship between Samaritans and Jews, who shared the same contested land which modern day Jews, Muslims and Christians share today—that troubled stretch on the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean.

Although our understanding of the phrase “Good Samaritan” does do away with the racial and ethnic undertones of this story, it does keep the emphasis squarely where Jesus seems to intend it. The lawyer wants to know how he can identify his “neighbor.” From the parable, it is clear that Jesus isn’t so much interested in how to identify the neighbor. He’s interested in how to be a neighbor. The neighbor is the one who shows mercy. And neighbor-ness is a two way street. We become neighbors by showing mercy to one another.

-->Can you imagine a world in which we all try to be neighbors to one another, by Jesus’ definition? How might the world change if we tried to “outdo one another in showing mercy?”

-->Spend some time meditating on the two sides of being a neighbor. How can you show mercy? And how can you receive the mercy of others?

Prayer of healing:

Comforting Spirit,
You know the places in my life in which there is pain. You know my deepest fears, and my greatest joys. Lay your presence upon me like a blanket. Help me to know that you are with me. Help me to turn to you in moments of pain and fear. I give you thanks for the wholeness which is possible in knowing you. Amen