1. Untamed Hospitality by Newman
2. Martin Bucer: Unsung Hero of the Reformation by Lawrence
Archives For January 2009
1. Untamed Hospitality by Newman
My son is on his knees in his seat at the dinner table, rocking back and forth, looking at me intently. He motions a little as he explains, “It’s just funny that we worship a King that we can’t see, dad. We don’t really know what he looks like.” I point out that we know he is a man, and probably he looks like a Jewish man. But I also admit that he is right; we can’t see our King.
Where is Jesus? I ask him. “In heaven, and dad? If you went up into space, you would have to go waaay up to get to heaven.” Yeah, I don’t know if you could get there or not, I nod. “What is Jesus doing in heaven?” I ask him. “Fighting sin and bad guys,” he explains. “But dad, we love him better than everything else, dad, better than toys or moms or dads or anything.” I nod my head. “But when Jesus raises us up, dad, where will we be?” Maybe in Idaho, I suggest. “Will there be velociraptors?” Probably, I nod. “But they’ll be good ones, dad. I’ll probably like ride on one.” Our conversation lingers for a minute on how Adam might have done that in the garden.
I proceed to read the passage for the evening. It’s from the gospel of Luke, and it’s about Jesus healing on the sabbath day. This time it was a man with a withered hand. Jesus asks the Pharisees if it is lawful to do good on the sabbath or evil, is it lawful to give life or kill on the sabbath. The Pharisees refuse to explicitly label themselves. Jesus heals the man, and the Pharisees immediately enact their implicit answer to Jesus’ question. They begin plotting what they will do to Jesus. They begin planning to do evil and to kill on the sabbath. But Jesus heals on the sabbath; Jesus gives life on the sabbath.
We celebrate the sabbath every Sunday. We usually begin Saturday night, and the meal begins with “cheers.” The kids have their little wine glasses and we toast our King, our mom, and frequently River offers simple toasts to his sisters. There’s chocolate, mom’s best meal of the week, candles, and probably more sweets after dinner.
It’s Tuesday. My daughter has a lunch box. It was a gift from her cousin. And of course it is pink, and let there be no mistake, there is a cat on the cover of this lunch box. I believe the text above the cat actually reads “Hello Kitty,” but my daughter is much too deft for that. She knows that the inscription is far deeper than something so trifling as that. Try to tell her differently, and she will not be persuaded. Those runes actually say “Happy Sabbath.” And so she proceeds to tell us, repeatedly. “Dad, look my lunch box. Dad, look my lunch box. Happy… Sabbath!” I nod cheerfully. It’s only Tuesday, but I trust her instincts on pink lunch boxes with kittens on them. She certainly knows that field far better than I. “Dad, look my lunch box. My have pink lunch box, dad,” she points with her finger and opens her eyes wide up into mine, “Happy… Sabbath!” She proceeds to pull off the lid of the miniature lunch box and exclaims, “Happy Sabbath!” Inside there is a plastic corn on the cob and matching plastic banana. Yellow food inside the pink lunch box. I express my enthusiasm, and she proceeds to replace the lid and begin the liturgy again. She will tell me about her lunch box and the inscription on its lid and display its contents to me another dozen times or so before she is distracted.
I ask my daughter, “Who made you?” She smiles. It’s exciting when dad asks her questions during family devotions. She keeps smiling until I tell her the answer. “God made you.” “God made me.” How many Gods are there? “Two!” she blurts out excitedly and holds up two fingers. She’s two years old of course, and we obviously haven’t gone over this enough. You can tell which liturgy we have practiced more. River corrects his sister, and there’s a momentary controversy over how many gods there are. We are wavering between monotheism and polytheism. The whistles are blown, and we come down on the side of orthodoxy. Heresy is averted for the time being. We move on to the next question. “What is God’s name?” She smiles. I begin, “Father…” And she picks up “Father, Son, and Spirit!”
My third descendant loves her older siblings. She watches them with admiration, and laughs at them and with them with next to no provocation. Her mother and I are mundane compared to them. We are old and boring. We are practically dead already. We can elicit little squeals and chuckles with great effort, but she looks at her brother and sister and erupts with delight, dancing in her high chair. She’s alive and she’s attracted to the life bursting from her older siblings. Her participation in evening prayers is already noticeable. She’s our charismatic influence in the home, leading us in clapping during our singing of Psalm 47 most nights. Of course that’s just what it says to do, and she at 10 months is what we must become like in order to enter the Kingdom. But she really wants us to clap to all of our songs, and we’re still a little too presbyterian for that.
Felicity is standing in her high chair. She holds very strictly to that little known decree of Nicaea which forbade sitting or kneeling in worship, since that would symbolically deny the resurrection. Christ is risen, and therefore all Christians must worship standing, the fathers declared. So my daughter stands in her chair. Sometimes she stands on the arms of the chair. She wobbles and bounces and gesticulates while standing on the arms of her chair. Of course we’ve seen her fall before. Several times. And sometimes we strap her into the chair, but she’s standing tonight. She’s standing and looking around at the food on the table. We’re having ham tonight. There’s ham and potato salad and cole slaw, that sort of thing. “Dad, my have pink chicken?” she asks. Glancing at the contents of the table, I’m forced to conclude that the ham must be “pink chicken.” This is understandable since she would notice the fact that the meat is pink first before anything else. That scores several points automatically.
“Jesus is God, dad,” my son explains. That’s right, I say. “But how does Jesus obey himself, dad?” He obeys the Father, I explain. “But Jesus is God.” Right, but God is three persons, I remind him. “Oh.” He seems satisfied for the moment. He’s like the early church, getting his trinitarian theology all straight. I fully expect that next year we’ll be working on Christology, and we’ll just make our way through the ecumenical councils, I suppose.
We finish prayers, and the evening routine continues. Usually at least a half an hour of which consists of me on the bottom of a pile of kicking, giggling, squirming little bodies.
Maybe a bath, always books, then blessings, and lights out. And the house quiets down for a few hours.
I realize more and more that the gift of children is the gift of life. Children, my children, are sabbath life to and for the tired and weary. How easy would it be to come home and collapse on the couch and do nothing? How tempting would it be to sit in silence after a long day? But my children teach me to live. They teach me to laugh. They teach me to dance, to move my body, to sing, to pray, to ask questions, to read between the lines, to demand more from the world, more from my time, more from life. They won’t just leave me alone. They won’t let me miss life; they love me too much for that.
We do worship a King that we cannot see, but perhaps that’s so we aren’t distracted from the task he’s given us at present, the task of living well, loving well. And my children lead me. They teach me to focus on them, to focus on their mother, my wife, they tell me the same things again and again. They ask me the same questions again and again. They call my name, “Dad, Dad,” again and again, all as if to keep reminding me that I’m alive and to remind me to live. “Dad, my have pink lunch box. Happy… Sabbath!”
I use google for my homepage, and I have several feeds that I peruse throughout the day. One is the Drudge Report, and several of the headlines this morning are particularly colorful:
Swiss Police Spy Marijuana Field Using Google Earth
Man tries to reclaim breast implants from ex…
Video: Pelosi Defends STD Money
I don’t know why you’d need a tabloid when you have the real world.
In Mark 7, Jesus says that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out. The problem is that we have an Old Testament cleanliness code that appears to say otherwise. Is Jesus just overturning the cleanliness code?
It seems more reasonable to look more closely at what Jesus actually says. He actually says that it’s not was goes into a man that is able to defile a man, but what comes out of the heart. The point that Jesus is making, I think, is not particularly about what does or does not make someone unclean but more directly why certain things do or do not make a man unclean. The reason why people are susceptible to uncleanness is because there is something inside them that is wrong. The heart of man produces all kinds of uncleanness. That’s the fundamental problem. And that’s why making stricter washing rules (e.g. the Pharisees) really misses the point.
If being unclean is like being on fire, the Pharisees want to build a big fence around the yard to keep the fire from getting in. But Jesus says the problem is that the Pharisees are already on fire. You can build the fence as high as you like, but you’re just taking the fire with you wherever you go, incinerating everything you touch. You don’t need a bigger fence, you need a swimming pool.
A few other comments based on a conversation I had with my brother the other day:
In the friendly/constructive criticism department, I would point out that in some ways Newman’s book stopped a little short. It was great in everything it covered, but if I had a suggestion, it would be to connect the dots a little more for the average layman. The final chapter dwells on these two church communities that have made decisions to make mercy ministry front and center in their church life. Members make commitments financially as well as with their time to put their energy and resources into serving the outcasts of their community. And that’s all great and wonderful, but a couple of thoughts occurred to me.
First, the thought crossed my mind that these two communities (I have no idea what their denominational affiliation is) seemed reminiscent of the monastic movement in some ways. These communities are made up of people who are dedicating everything to these ministries in an “extreme” way, above and beyond what most Christians normally do. And Newman recognizes this herself, asking what someone in her situation, in a little 25 member church in Virginia can possibly do that compares with those full-time ministry churches. Her conclusion is that she/we need to have faith that even our little efforts at hospitality and community and mercy in our contexts are just as significant and effective as these other communities. But this call to faith seems a little weak given how much time is spent dwelling on these other communities. She doesn’t really develop her thoughts for an average but faithful family in the local church. What about all of the “normal” Christians who are braving the current of of an increasingly post-Christian West?
Our context is in many ways parallel to the beginning of the monastic movement. While there were some rumblings earlier, the real birth of monasticism is at the beginning of the fourth century when Christianity is legalized and goes mainstream. When Constantine comes on the scene, the church struggles to know what to do with the lack of persecution. Catacombs and Roman arenas ask horrific yet simple questions. But out in the broad daylight the antithesis is not so easy. The monastic movement is in part one answer to the difficult questions facing Christians who are trying to sort out where the City of God begins and ends, especially when the City of Man seems to be all wound up with it. Extreme communities like the ones Newman cites are wonderful avenues of service and ministry, and I don’t mean to discredit the individuals involved in the slightest, but if we’re not careful, there can be a subtext that discredits other more ‘average’ attempts at mercy ministry.
As a side note: Our situation on the surface feels a bit like the inversion of 4th century Europe with the mores of Christian civilization crumbling around us. But on second thought, we may actually be in the very same situation as Augustine and Ambrose and Jerome. We struggle with the fact that our City of Man is quickly disengaging the City of God. Our Rome is blaming Christianity and evangelical fundamentalism (of various stripes) for their threat to the peace of the Empire, just as the Polytheistic Romans did as Rome began to crumble. And of course it is important to remember that Rome did not “fall” like a skyscraper collapsing, churning its way down into the ground. Rome’s “fall” was more like a drawn out Autumn, with leaves turning colorful somersaults in a cool breeze for a while until someone looked up and noticed that it was all over. Who knows if what we are seeing is actually something along those lines in our own day.
But the monastic comparison is still there nevertheless. While I’d be fine granting that some men and women may be called to something like monastic vows (the gift of celibacy would probably be included here as well), that’s just not the norm for most Christians. Most Christians are called to marry, raise a family, have a job, and live in the community God has placed them in. And that means that there are certain God-given limitations/opportunities in their lives.
And this leads to my second point (yes, all of that had a point) which is that it is dangerously easy to look at “extreme” mercy ministries as icons of faithfulness and sacrifice and at the same to overlook the strangers in our own midst. And these strangers are frequently members of our own family. Another way of putting this is that however mercy ministry is done, it must include the commitment to not increasing the problem. Caring for widows and orphans includes mercy ministry to our own wives and children so that we do not create new victims of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. It is not a victory for the Kingdom to serve homeless people in a soup kitchen while neglecting your 10 year old son at home, effectively creating a new homelessness in your own family. In other words, the call to hospitality must include serving our own family. Husbands and wive are called to minister mercy and friendship to one another, and they are called to minister grace and peace to their children. And of course it cannot stop with the family, but it can’t forget it either. And of course by “family” I don’t merely mean the biological unit either. Jesus came and redefined the family around himself, and while this doesn’t obliterate the biological family, it reorients how we view each other within the family. We are first of all brothers and sisters in Christ called to serve one another. And that’s “untamed hospitality” too.
And the last point is just that discussing hospitality is a little like preaching a sermon on sins of the tongue or prayer. It definitely needs to be done, but it can be very easy to give people guilt trips without actually helping them make progress in the work of repentance and sanctification. I don’t think Newman is doing that on purpose, it’s just with all the emphasis on these mercy-communities, she even seems to feel a bit inadequate herself and not exactly sure what that means for her in her context. And that’s why, if I were to ask for anything it would be another chapter or an appendix fleshing out how normal Christians practice hospitality when they eat dinner together every night, how ordinary believers practice hospitality when they befriend their neighbors, take them plates of cookies, and look for opportunities to serve others in their church and community.
Again, all that said, I really liked the book.
“When your son asks you in a time to come, saying, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments which the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” (Dt. 6:20-21)
“Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ So He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with.’ (Mt. 20:22-23)
This passage in Deuteronomy is really very striking. We know that nearly 40 years have elapsed since the Exodus and a new generation has arisen, and yet Moses says that this new generation must own the events of the exodus as their own. They must tell their children, ‘we were slaves in Egypt and God brought us up and commanded us to keep these statutes and commandments.’ Moses says that they are all responsible to live as though they have lived through it all. And the first person plural includes their children. The parents must teach their sons and daughters that they were slaves in Egypt, even though were only born a couple of years ago. And the implication is that this is an ongoing requirement of all subsequent generations. A significant part of the faithfulness of every generation is this act claiming the story of the Exodus as their own and then teaching their children that it belongs to them too. The covenant means that God identifies his people together. And of course this is precisely what God first promised Abraham. Wound through the covenant that God made with Abraham were promises to Abraham’s children, promises of land, of inheritance, of blessing, of rule in the earth. And this is why the covenant is made not only with Abraham but also with his descendents even before there were any (Gen. 17:10).
And so we see covenant identification going in both ways. God can make covenants with people and their descendents who are not yet alive, and God likewise instructs parents to teach their children that their story, their own lives in important ways stretch back before they were born. In other words, God instructs his people to teach their children that they have a past and a future that does not necessarily correspond to the appearances of reality. The righteousness that is credited to Abraham is for faith. He believed God. He didn’t know how it was all going to work, and all the indicators were actually quite the opposite of the promises of God. He was old and his wife was barren, and he was far from home and family. But he believed the promises of God. He trusted and obeyed, despite all the appearances.
But this is what grace always does. God’s grace interrupts our lives; God’s grace changes our stories. God comes to families, to individuals and gives them a new history, a new future. And this is why we baptize our covenant children. We baptize them because God has given them a new past. Most Christians affirm that the past for all people is that they are descended from Adam. We have common ancestry, and that ancestry is fallen. Our common history is one of sin and death. But when claims families, he changes that past. He changes their history, and gives them new stories. They were once slaves in Egypt, but God brought them out with a mighty hand. They were once in darkness, but they have been brought into the light. They were once dead in trespasses and sins, but God has made them alive. The story of salvation is their story, and Moses instructs us to tell them that.
When Jesus asks James and John if they are able to be baptized with the baptism that he will be baptized with, he is of course speaking of his impending death. And that is why Paul associates baptism with death in his letters. “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3) “[B]uried with him in baptism, in which you were raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Col. 2:2) Jesus tells James and John that they will be baptized with his baptism, and he appears to be speaking about how they will literally die, but the point remains true for the baptism of all Christians. Baptism signifies the death of Christ. Baptism makes present for us an event that took place two thousand years ago. In other words, when our children ask us what does baptism mean, Dad? Why was I baptized? You ought to say to them, we were slaves in Egypt, son, and God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. We were all dead, son, we were crucified and buried with the Lord Jesus because of our sins, but God brought us up out of the grave and made us alive. The story of Israel is our story; the story of Christ is also our story.
And then we see a little baby, a child who is descended from Adam. And we don’t see much evidence of faith. He can’t articulate very clearly his thoughts on the matter, and he may even give us a squawk of disapproval before it’s all said and done. But the bottom line is always the word of God, the promises of God, and what will we do with them. The Lord comes to us, and he says you are mine, and I want all of you. I claim your past, I claim your future, I claim your family, I claim your job, I claim your children. I claim everything. And I am going to tell a new story. Patrick is no longer descended from Adam, he is now a child and heir of the Lord Jesus. And because this is true, I promise to make Patrick an heir of the world. I promise Patrick life and forgiveness; I promise him an inheritance that is too good to be true. I promise joy and gladness that will never fade. And the only question remaining for us is: how will we respond. Will we believe? Will we trust?
Daniel and Amy, you have already made a significant step of faith coming to this point. But the exhortation to you is this: believe the promises of God. Believe the Word of God. God comes to you today and declares that he has brought Patrick out of Egypt with a mighty hand. He has delivered him from slavery and bondage and brought him into the land of promise. God renews his covenant with you in Christ and says that this covenant is not only with you but with your descendents. And the charge is to keep believing this, and to teach your son with this faith. Teach your son that God brought him out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Teach Patrick that he was once a slave in Egypt, but he has been delivered. He was once dead, and God has made him alive. He once had a different story, but God is retelling it for good.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!
“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the LORD will reward you.” (Pr. 25:22, Rom. 12:20)
Frequently, we consider this exhortation only in terms of our dealings with other people. Paul in Romans applies this in a passage which is all concerned with our relationships and interaction with others. But the basis for our love and grace toward others is always the love and grace that God has first shown toward us. This passage says that we should be hospitable toward our enemies. Literally, it says that we should give bread and water to the one who hates us. The proverb says that the result of this sort of hospitality will be burning coals on the head of your enemy and that Yahweh will reward you. Literally, the text actually says that Yahweh will make peace for you or make a covenant of peace with you.
Of course Paul says earlier in Romans 5 that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. He says that when we were enemies of God, he reconciled us to himself through the death of his Son (Rom. 5:8-10). That is the cup of wrath and judgment that Christ drank for us. In the cross, Jesus took into himself, into his sufferings our hatred, our violence, our enmity so that he might bring peace. This means that on a foundational level it is God who has first bestowed this hospitality on us. He has fed us, who were once his enemies, with bread and given us living water. And he has done this in order to create peace, in order that a covenant of peace might prevail.
Are you able to drink the cup that Christ drank? Of course of ourselves, we cannot, but in the cross, Jesus has transformed suffering and death. And he offers us this cup, and says, ‘You will indeed drink my cup.’ And so we drink the suffering and death of Christ, and in that suffering, in that serving, in this great act of hospitality, God gives us His life. He turns enemies into friends. This is what the body and blood of Christ are all about. It’s all about giving bread to enemies, giving life to the dead.
As we grow as a congregation one of the things we have to work on is growing as a community, as a body, as a family. Paul says in Romans 12 that we who are many are “one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” We are already at a size which allows you to slip in and out without everyone noticing. You may even miss a week or two, and many of us may not realize it. And of course this doesn’t mean that we want to take attendance and send Gestapo-deacons out to check on where you were and what you were doing. But we are called to be members of one another. Paul says that there should be no schism in the body, but “members should have the same care for one another, and if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” If we are not involving ourselves in one another’s lives, if we are not acting as though we are “members of one another” then we will not be able to suffer when one us suffers, we will not be able to rejoice when one of us is honored. In the coming weeks and months and years, that is what we are working toward. We want to do that as neighborhoods and parishes, as families and friends, and broadly as a church and in community with the city we’ve been called to. This is what it means to be in Christ; you are in Christ with a pile of other people. You have been baptized into a new family, a new kingdom, a new world, and believing this means living like this is true. In your own homes, you don’t just show up for dinner and leave. Being a family, being a body, means cultivating life together, becoming members of one another so that we can rejoice together and so that we can suffer together. Some of you are already working at this and this is not meant to overlook that; well done and keep up the good work. Others of you would like more community life and aren’t sure what to do. Well here’s your encouragement to get started. Jesus invites us to his house, to his table week after week, and he sends you out into the world and says go and do likewise. You have houses, you have tables, you have food and fellowship to share. Don’t hold back; get busy. And some of you don’t practice hospitality and are not cultivating community, but God has invited you in. He saw you in all your misery, all your sin, all your failures, and he said, come in and welcome. Jesus serves you at his table, and Jesus calls you to greatness. And he says that greatness in the kingdom is serving. Greatness is serving at a table.
Beginning with various distortions of hospitality, she points out various modern attempts to push hospitality into sentimental, individualistic, and even market driven categories. She goes on to insist that hospitality has its roots and real identity in the hospitality of God, in the Triune Fellowship which is shared in Christian Worship, in the sacrament of communion. She points out that if God’s presence and communion is the basis of all true hospitality then hospitality is not merely a matter of being nice, but ultimately a matter of being good to one another.
One of the great passages toward the beginning of the book was the illustration drawn from O’Conner’s famous story A Good Man is Hard to Find. There, she lifts the grandmother up as a symbol of the stark difference between being nice and being good, between superficial friendliness and hospitality committed to seeking the good and bestowing goodness. The grandmother is famously a polite, genteel woman who ultimately watches the Misfit murder her family. Her manners, her niceties all finally vanish in a moment when she reaches out and touches the shoulder of the murderer and says that he is one of her own children. At this, the Misfit jumps back and shoots the old woman in the chest three times. O’Conner’s narrative explains that “She would have been a good woman… if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.” (25) Goodness is an act of hospitality that includes some level of threat to the status quo. It also includes identification and it tells the truth in love.
Beginning with Christian worship, Newman insists that hospitality is not merely a private and relatively insignificant act of love and kindness. Rather, hospitality is the embodiment of a specific politics, economics, and ethics. Newman insightfully points out that the Darwinian narrative is perhaps most insidious in its underlying principles of scarcity and competition. Whereas the narrative of the gospel is one of abundance and overflow and provision. These dramatically different assumptions drive certain economic visions of life.
Douglas Wilson makes a premiere in Newman’s discussion of The McDonaldization of Society for his discussion of the American Empire in its devotion to godmoney.
A significant part of Newman’s point has to do with the role-playing of true hospitality. In the communion of God, God becomes and acts as Giver (Host), Gift, and Receiver (Guest), and in all true forms of hospitality these roles should be revolving. Hosts give to guests, but guests ought also to be givers and therefore hosts in a certain sense. And thus hosts learn to be guests in their own homes. This doesn’t relieve anyone of certain duties or manners, but rather heightens the calling of all human interaction.
Newman also stresses the element of the “strange” in hospitality. If God comes to us as in a burning bush evoking fear and trembling, and if entertaining strangers is sometimes communion with angels, there ought to be some level of expectation that God is frequently found under unusual guises and circumstances. Newman says that this should create in us an “openness” to the good in the people and places we might not first consider. And far from this being a call to pluralism, Newman dismantles modern liberal notions of diversity and pluralism, showing clearly how hallow these attempts are and how ideologically driven they are.
There is a great chapter on “The Politics of Higher Education” that should make any educator’s reading list, if only for the footnotes and bibliography that she accumulates. Her point is ultimately that love is the foundation of education, and that anything less than the love of the Triune God pushes educational pursuits toward the voids of skepticism, deception, and apathy.
Newman reminds us that the Lord’s Supper not only symbolizes existent unity, but argues that the Eucharist is also one of the ways unity is constituted. She points out that Anabaptist and Roman Catholic Eucharistic Theologies agree at least in their opposition to this fact. While we generally put them on different ends of the spectrum, the fact that both insist upon prior unity before partaking makes them bedfellows on this point. Whereas a more fully biblical understanding of the Eucharist would at least leave some room for allowing unity to be established. And she does not deny the validity of church discipline and excommunication, she merely points out that each in their own way do not leave room for the sacrament to be part of the action of creating unity.
Her concluding chapter is a challenging consideration of how the Christian Church ought to more conscientiously live out the hospitality of God. She cites two church communities who have made a certain communal living and mercy ministry the core of their membership requirements. She chronicles some of their challenges, triumphs, and evolution along the way, but ultimately wonders how we can take seriously the call to hospitality and caring for the strangers, widows, and orphans, if we do not make it front and center. She dwells particularly on how strangers, and particularly those individuals who are in some ways permanent strangers in human society, those with significant mental and physical disabilities, how these strangers impact us, how they minister and give to the “normal.” Newman points out that our calling as Christians is holiness not normality. Our calling is to love one another and seek to love God more, and the thrust of the biblical teaching is that God expects us to be ministered to as we minister to those around us. And in particular, Christ says that we will find him in those people around us and frequently in the strangers around us, in the outcasts, in the disabled, in the elderly, in the weak, in the widows and orphans in our midst.
And if that is the case, if Christ is to be found, if his love and grace is to ministered most potently to us through the strangers, the fatherless, and the widows, this makes our call to serve them more serious. The call is always to follow Jesus, and the his call seems to direct us more and more toward the weak, the helpless, the insignificant, the broken, the disabled. Jesus said that if you knew there was a field with a great treasure in it, you would sell everything in order to buy the field and find the treasure. Likewise, if Christ has said that clothing the naked, befriending the lonely, offering food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, if in doing these things, we minister to him, doesn’t that impress the call all the more? Shouldn’t we be seeking these weak people, seeking the broken, the maimed, the lame, the disabled, just as we would seek after Christ?
In the sermon text today, Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who hired laborers for his vineyard. This isn’t just a detail added for color or to make the parables more realistic or concrete. The word first shows up in the Septuagint after the Flood when Noah plants a vineyard. It’s not only Noah’s vocation, but it becomes a symbol for renewed humanity. Noah and his family have come through the flood and are God’s new covenant people. And that symbolism carries through Scripture. Moses points out repeatedly that the Israelites are going into the Promised Land, and it is full of vineyards that they did not plant. The blessings of God are pictured in terms of vineyards, and remember it was enormous clusters of grapes that the spies had brought back from the land of Canaan. Vineyards are full of vines that grow grapes, and usually a significant portion of those grapes are used for making wine. Vineyards are not merely a culturally unique part of middle eastern life. Vineyards are the birthplace of wine, and wine is universally received as a drink of joy, relaxation, rest, and celebration. For Noah to plant a vineyard and drink wine is for him to rest in the provision of God. For Israel to be ushered into a land full of vineyards, is to be ushered into a land of wine. A land flowing with God’s rest, refreshment, and joy. Later, when the prophets come to preach against Israel’s idolatries, they proclaim judgments on Israel and her vines, her vineyards. The judgment of God will mean no more vineyards, no more wine, nor more rest and joy. In Isaiah 5, God sings a song of his beloved Israel who is pictured as a vineyard with a tower in its midst with a winepress in it. And of course this meal continues this theme. The Lord invites us to his table to taste the fruit of the vineyard. And yet in an important sense, we find ourselves still laboring in the vineyard. We are still looking forward to the resurrection, to the fullness of the kingdom, to the restoration of all things. And that makes us a good bit like the Israelites in the wilderness tasting the grapes from the promised land. Here we do participate in the new life, in the kingdom of heaven, and we are called to work towards this peace and joy in our lives. But this is the call of faith. Here are the grapes, here is proof that you are workers in the vineyard, and that fruit is good. Here is proof that you have a good landowner. He is not stingy; he is good. So come and taste the fruit of the vineyard. Come rest and rejoice in the goodness of God.