Matthew 21: 33-46

Matthew 21: 33-46
In the days of Jesus the purpose of God's vineyard had been rationalized away. The righteously religious had replaced the intent of God's covenant promises with nationalistic pride, self-interest and self-justifying traditions.
How long does it take to develop such theological blinders? The historian Phyllis Tickle, in her book, "The Great Emergence", observes that it takes around 500 years for religious communities to lose their spiritual way. It's just 500 years since the time of the Reformation. Perhaps we are sitting at the juncture of another moment when the tenants of the vineyard are likely to kill those sent to collect it's valuable produce.
In today's parable Jesus does not suggest God will withdraw the covenant promise, but he does warn his hearers: "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." Does any part of that warning ring true for the congregation of which you are a part of? Does any ring true for the larger church with which you are in association? With whom in your circle of faith can you ask humbly and honestly, "What is our purpose for being here, and how does it relate to the cross and empty tomb of Jesus?"
God of the covenant promise, renew in us a clarity of identity and purpose. Grow in our lives and in our communities a rich harvest of faith, hope and love. Amen.
Matthew 21: 33-46 (NRSV)
33 "Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.
34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.
35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.
37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, "They will respect my son.'
38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.'
39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"
41 They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."
42 Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.
44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.
46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.


by Joni
"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."
2 Corinthians 3:17
Jesus never said to His disciples, "Obey my rules." Instead, He told His followers to "Obey me." And because the Lord did not leave us with a long list of "Thou shalt nots," we have freedom.
Jesus stripped the fear and intimidation away from obedience when He wrapped His life around His Word. What liberty! The Lord made obedience something that you would desire to do because He gave His life that you might be free. What a brilliant motivation for us to trust and obey!
Sometimes I wish that God would give me less freedom and force me to do the right things--make me obey. It would be easier that way. This "freedom stuff" carries with it a heavy weight of responsibility. I am required to discern between white and black, light and dark, good and evil. I am required to make choices. I am required to be free (Swindoll).
But that's the beauty of the freedom of the Lord. And it is His love that makes me want to obey.
This is why Jesus said His commandments were not burdensome. Obeying God was never meant to be a chore or a duty, but a joyous response to His love.
Lord of Liberty, thank You for setting me free from the bondage of sin, death, and the law. Yours is the law of liberty, the law of love. May I never abuse this precious freedom or use it as an excuse to sin. And may I obey You with a joyful spirit, knowing that Your love is all the motivation I need.

Philippians 3: 4b-14

Philippians 3: 4b-14
We've all heard the saying, "You can't take it with you." Yet many of us perhaps live as though we don't quite believe it. Even for those in the church the temptation to accumulate material things plagues our society. But I'm guessing none of us has ever seen an armored car riding low on it's suspension from the weight of the gold inside?
So what does remain? Only our relationships. However even here, the one who spends a life chasing things may on his or her deathbed; find those relationships somewhat "thin", like Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas future from Charles Dickens,"A Christmas Carol".
The Apostle Paul knew that the heart of relationships was love. The bonds of love forged with family and friends remain. The love of God in Christ remains. Those who love us will mourn when we die. Christ who loves us will love us still in death, and through death to life anew. It is that life, that love, that hope that drove the apostle forward, pressing toward that goal which is promised also to you in Christ Jesus. Press on!
Jesus, be my goal. Deepen this day my love for you. Fill my cup with a love that sustains, a love I can share with family, with friends and even with my enemy. Amen.
Philippians 3: 4b-14 (NRSV)
4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:
5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;
6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ
9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,
11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Cisterns and Springs

Cisterns and Springs
by Joni
"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water."
Jeremiah 2:13
Jesus said that rivers of living water would flow out of the lives of those who believe in Him. His living water would brim over from the wellspring of the Spirit within us, quenching our thirst and touching the parched lives of those around us. The life of the Lord Jesus is a constantly flowing stream, a river even, keeping us fresh, filled, and satisfied.
We stop the flow, however, when we try to reservoir God's spring of living water in our lives. We become cisterns--holding tanks for past victories or other people's ideas. At that point, we have forsaken the spring of living water. We have tried to store that which cannot be saved, we have tried to keep that which must keep flowing. The result? Our lives lack freshness and freedom, and we become stagnant pools reflecting old experiences and tired testimonies.
God says that these cisterns of our own making will break. What we try to save, we will lose. The warning is clear: Throw out the broken cisterns and get in the glow of God's spring of living water.
If you know anything about springs and cisterns, this warning in Jeremiah 2:13 should be easy to grasp. A spring is a flow of water from the ground, often a source of a stream. A cistern is a large receptacle for storing water. Don't rely on yesterday's experiences or last month's victories. God wants to give you fresh, thirst-quenching life each new day. So start with this prayer...
Jesus, the Living Water, I thirst after You. May Your life in me not be a trickle, or even a small stream, but a river. I confess my sin, clearing away any obstruction that might hinder Your flow in my life.

Psalm 80: 7-15

Psalm 80: 7-15
In our neighborhood an apartment building is going up intended for a mix of young "getting started" adults and empty nesters. Right now it's just four walls with holes for doors and windows, but when finished the foundation and walls will have to stand against the winds, here off Lake Erie just as on the northern Great Plains of my childhood. The walls will support their own weight, and the weight of everything we humans will put inside those walls. Even if well built, if left untended those walls will one day fall to the forces of nature.
The psalmist reminds us that God provided a well-built community. Brought out of Egypt, planted in good soil, protected and nourished. But the community did not attend to itself. It was distracted by lesser priorities. Eventually the irresistible forces of time and sin worked for its destruction. Some might see the church in this metaphor today. It too might seem broken, as if it's been moved off its foundation by neglect and spiritual inattention. Like the psalmist our prayer also might be, "Restore us O God of hosts; let your face shine that we might be saved!"
Restore us O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we might be saved! Amen.
Psalm 80: 7-15 (NRSV)
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.

Stop and Listen

Stop and Listen
by Joni
"A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered."
Proverbs 17:27
It happens all the time. You get together with a friend, or someone you haven't seen in a while, and before you know it, you've filled the air with a lot of talk about ... you. You realize in embarrassment that you're rambling on about yourself and have nearly forgotten to include your friend or even God in the conversation. Oh, to be able to use words with restraint.
That's why I love traveling with my husband or my best friends. We are able to relax and be silent in each other's presence. No forced conversations. No filling the air with empty words. What a blessing it is to be able to sit with someone you love, smile at each other occasionally, and enjoy the quiet together. Friendships, whether with others or with God, are deepened in silence.
When you stop talking long enough to listen, you learn something--only in silence can what you hear filter from your head into your heart. Only in silence can you hear the heartbeat of God and His still, small voice. In quiet, you realize spiritual insights that reach far beyond words.
If you meet with a friend today, make a concerted effort to talk less and listen more. It may do wonders for your friendship. And this evening when you retire, say less in your prayer time and devote more moments to simply listening to God.
Father, I desire to be a person of knowledge and understanding. That means I must use words with restraint. Forgive me when I fail to even think about what I say to You, and to others, as well. I don't want to fill my prayers with petitions so much as with wordless worship today. Thank You for what You will teach me in silence.

Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5:1-7
Isaiah speaks of a vineyard not well tended. That vineyard--the house of Judah, the community, the people of God--had become overgrown with weeds, its plants stressed and the wall and well damaged. This hadn't happened overnight; but whenever the community is not well tended, it becomes stressed and what one expects to discover, is disappointedly absent.
For most of us the Lord's vineyard is our local congregation. How well is your congregation being tended? I don't mean is your pastor well tending you, I mean is the community using the gifts of grace planted in your midst to be a fruitful vineyard? What would I find if I visited your community of faith? If I looked for justice, would I find bloodshed? If I looked for righteousness would I find a despairing cry? If I looked for compassion would I find contention? If I looked for hope would I find gossip and backbiting? If I looked for love, would I find indifference born of personal agendas?
That sort of thing doesn't happen to a congregation overnight. Tending a vineyard, garden or a congregation is a never ending task. Is it time for you to give some attention once again to what has been planted in you by the Lord of the church? Attention to the Lord's gifts to you of faith, hope and love?
Lord of the church, don't let us grow weary of the work required to be fruitful. Rain upon us grace and mercy so that we might bear fruit of love and forgiveness. Amen.
Isaiah 5:1-7 (NRSV)
1 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
4 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?
5 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.
6 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.
7 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!

“Spiritual” Activities

"Spiritual" Activities
by Joni
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: "Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.'""
Leviticus 19:1-2
Have you noticed how some activities seem more spiritual, more sacred than others? Singing hymns, teaching church school, or preparing a care basket for a sick friend--all of these seem exalted.
But what about when you drive to the gas station for a fill-up? Or when you count up coupons to the clerk at the supermarket? Or while you're waiting for the salesperson to wrap what you've bought?
We do it all the time--separate "religious" activities into one group and "regular" into another. But Leviticus 19 addresses that problem. In one verse Moses says, "Do not steal," yet the next verse states, "Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen" (Leviticus 19:10). Again he says in one verse, "Love your neighbor as yourself" and the verse following, "Do not mate different kinds of animals" (Leviticus 19:18-19).
Why didn't Moses group together all the spiritual activities and leave those nonessential things for another chapter? It's no mistake that God spoke these commands in one breath, mingling "spiritual" and "nonspiritual." In God's eyes, all of life's activities are sacred.
God wants you to understand that all life is spiritual; all of life's activities come under His domain. How you "tend your vineyard" and how you talk to the shop assistant. How you "mate animals" and how you treat your neighbor. Everything you do can be a way of worshiping the Lord. Remember that, the next time you wash dishes.
Dear God, I want to view everything I do as a way of worshiping You. Remind me that every activity is spiritual in Your eyes, no matter how small or insignificant it seems.

“I Received the Living God”,

"I Received the Living God", ELW 477

I received the living God,
and my heart is full of joy.
I received the living God,
and my heart is full of joy.

Jesus said: I am the bread,
kneaded long to give you life;
you who will partake of me
need not ever fear to die.  Refrain

Jesus said: I am the way,
and my Father longs for you;
so I come to bring you home
to be one with us anew.  Refrain

Jesus said: I am the truth;
come and follow close to me.
You will know me in your heart,
and my word shall make you free.  Refrain

Jesus said: I am the life,
far from whom no thing can grow,
but receive this living bread,
and my Spirit you shall know.  Refrain

In a number of denominations this first Sunday of October is observed as "World Communion Sunday." Currently, I serve in a United Church of Christ congregation, one of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's (ELCA) ecumenical partners. For them, this Sunday has been an annual celebration for many years. I love the reminder that all Christians, despite our differences in denominations and traditions, are one in Christ. The table at which we gather is God's table, not our own. On this day, our communion practices may vary, but we all come in need of forgiveness. Some will receive cubes of bread, others a wafer and some will tear from a common loaf. Some will drink from a chalice, others will have individual glasses. Some will use wine, others juice. Some congregations will offer both. But we all come hungry for grace and thirsty for new life.

This week our readings have all pointed to our need for repentance and our call to be servants. This meal is what changes us from the inside out so we can answer that call. German mystic Meister Ekhart put it this way, "Our bodily food is changed into us, but our spiritual food changes us into it." When we share in this meal, we take Christ into us and it changes us--we become more like Christ.

Almighty God, we give thanks for this meal that forgives and renews, unites and empowers us all as your people. As we receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, conform our lives to him. Amen.


When All Else Fails

When All Else Fails
by Joni
"Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Philippians 1:2
With our quarrel still hanging heavily in the air, Ken and I sat in stubborn silence. Finally he spoke, "So we don't measure up to each other's expectations...maybe the only thing to do is pray." I knew he was right but at that moment I didn't feel like praying for him.
I listened as Ken mechanically prayed things about God, asking for His grace and peace. By the end of his prayer, I thought I heard his heart begin to soften through his words. After a long moment, I started praying, too, sounding just as hollow. But then my heart also began to melt. Feeling broken, I asked for mercy for me, a sinner, and for Ken, who is just trying to do his best. Ken prayed one more time and I wondered at the way he exposed his naked and bleeding heart. Tears began to well, and I had an overwhelming desire to embrace him. Grace and peace hung heavily in the air.
As a married couple, our problems are not all that extraordinary, and most likely our problems won't go away. But prayer, heartfelt and honest, opens up the floodgates of God's grace and peace.
Are you caught in a vise of crushing circumstances, thinking that you have nowhere to turn? Sometimes we are driven to prayer by the overwhelming conviction that it is the only place of refuge, the only place to turn. At that point, prayer becomes an anguished cry, a laying bare of the heart, and it is the key to accessing God's most abundant grace. John Bunyan said, "In prayer it is better to have a heart without words, than words without a heart."
I praise You, Lord Jesus, that grace and peace are Your abundant gifts to us. My heart kneels before You today as I receive these precious gifts.