August 19, 2007

"What More Can I Do?"
Scripture: Isaiah 5:1-7
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  The passage I've just read is a traditional song of the wine harvest that Isaiah reinterprets in order to describe God's relationship with the nations of Israel and Judah. It begins with a quote from a traditional wine harvest song sung by a woman. Women were responsible for music-making at ancient Israel's vineyard festival and those songs typically concerned matters of love and fertility. Isaiah reinterprets the vintner as God, the vineyard as Israel and Judah, and these two nations' produce as undesirable wild grapes. Consequently God will give those nations over to destruction. Tucked away in the passage is an important question from God, "What more can I do?" In other words, God has nurtured his chosen people along, leading them to become light to the world. He freed them from slavery in Egypt. He fed them manna, gave them water, and filled them with meat on the journey through the wilderness. He gave them great kings in David and Solomon, and taught them through the prophets. What God finds in spite of his efforts is that they have not lived up to God's expectations for them. Injustice still abounds and the light seems to grow very dim indeed. What more could God have done?

  Recently I have begun to take piano lessons. I had been enjoying the process, thinking I was learning things well. But I hit upon a stumbling block. Counting the notes seemed difficult in one particular song. I played the song as many times as I could, but always seemed to mess up in the middle of it. I would play all the notes right, but the counting got me off track. Or I would count alright and forget what the notes were. It seemed I could not do both at the same time. I tried various techniques to get beyond my block in learning to play. First, I tried one line at a time until I mastered that line, but as soon as I added another, I began to mess up again. Then I broke it down even more simply by trying one bar at a time. I practiced each one until my fingers became fluid in hitting each correct note when they should have been played. But when I put the bars together, I still couldn't get beyond that first line. I became a master of the first line, but frustration set in. I finally asked Joe to show me how it was played and thought it sounded pretty darn good when he did it. But when I tried to imitate him I failed miserably. Next I elicited my daughter's help but again to no avail. Completely frustrated with the song, I considered for a very brief moment of asking the cat and if that didn't work, going on to the dog. Completely frustrated I banged on the piano and yelled, "One, two, three, four!!! How much simpler could that be? What more can I do?" And then the light bulb went on in my head, "Why not try counting out loud? I tried out loud counting and found that I could more easily make it through the first and second lines of the song. I had hit upon a way to make it work for me and accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.

  Well, God had done everything He could to make the music he wanted with the Israelites. He tried to teach them to be in the world as His people, engaging in just and righteous behavior. But they kept failing at it. God must have wondered what more He could do to help them see what He wanted and be what they were intended to be. But the great thing about God is that God doesn't give up! I can just see God thinking, "Well, I'll just have to go there and show them what I want." And that's exactly what God did! God became human and walked among His people to show them what He wanted. In the person of Jesus he taught and demonstrated the way they were expected to live. In Jesus he became the guiding light that would lead them to being righteous people of God. And some of them did see the light, especially after Jesus came back to show them that living in God meant living in righteousness even beyond this life.

  In our time, God does not have to ask, "What more can I do?" when He finds us straying time and time again away from the life he meant us to live. God has given this world a very effective tool to help transform lives of the people he loves. This Jesus who has come into the world can reach deeply into the lives of people. It's a matter of our recognizing that change is needed. We can move along in our lives believing that all is well, that we've got the notes on the piano correct and then it occurs to us that our counting is wrong, that life has taken a turn and we are suddenly off key and unable to play its song well. This sense of imbalance in our lives leads us to seek ways to find balance again. Those are the times we are more likely to be called to refocus our sight on Jesus and follow in his footsteps. Those are the times when Jesus can more readily re enter our hearts and bring about the transformation needed to get us back on track so that we may find blessing and be blessing to others, so that we may seek and do God's ways of love and justice.

  But being transformed does not just mean feeling good about our faith, about our relationship with God. Being transformed means walking the difficult path of Christ, which brings us to the gospel message today. Jesus did not come to earth as a consultant, to make us feel good about ourselves, to tell us what we are doing well and how we might improve ourselves. We can get all that from self help books and any other world religion. Jesus came to call us to follow him, and follow him exclusively, not just when it feels good or right, but all the time. The Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus' time were angry at him-because he challenged them to be holy on the inside and not simply live life as a window dressing. To be holy means to follow Jesus even when it doesn't feel good to do so. To be holy means to be perfectly human. To follow Jesus might just mean going against our friends and even our families to do what is right in the eyes of God. But it is hard to do what is right and needed every moment of our lives, to live according to Jesus' teaching with each blink of our eyes or breath we take. Like those early Israelites, too many distractions feed into our self interests and felt need to do things our way. If you ask me sometimes Jesus doesn't stand a chance.

  But, you know, just when I wonder what more Jesus can do in a life I am particularly concerned about, a window or door is opened, and I stand amazed at Jesus' power of transformation. In that transformation Jesus takes us wayward people and sets us back on course toward being perfectly human. What is being "perfectly" human all about? It's about feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, giving water to the thirsty, and loving all others as we are supposed to love ourselves. It means seeing others through the eyes of Christ, not as those to be shunned or as enemies, but as fellow creatures of God, beloved of God, those who God would love to have drawn in close relationship with Him. Having a relationship with Christ is not just about feeling good about ourselves, but feeling good about those around us as well, even when we don't seem to want to feel good about another. Now how hard is that!? But it is what it's all about! Jesus exemplified loving others in the people he ate with, he healed, and he taught. Jesus was perfectly human and calls us to be so. How are we doing?