About Me

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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Lord, Please. Make It Stop.

Lord, Please. Make It Stop.

Isaiah 5:1-7

Matthew 21:33-46

Lord, Please. Make It Stop.

Monday mornings, right after I drink coffee, and check Twitter, and drink coffee -- right after -- well, not long after that, I read the scripture for the coming Sunday. And I've started a habit where right after that, I write the coming Sunday's Prayer of Confession. Because when you set your news feed beside your Bible feed, you become inspired, to pray, and to confess, a lot, of sin.

The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, said, "We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other." And in the 21st century, we say, "What's a newspaper?"

When the news comes into contact with scripture, it produces a reaction. Not a chemical reaction, like when you mix baking soda and vinegar, which all science classes must do because it's always super cool. Or a physical reaction, like Mentos and Diet Coke. Mixing news and scripture produces a spiritual reaction.

Spiritual reactions aren't nearly as much fun to watch. Or to feel. Spiritual reactions can be pretty humbling. Because spiritual reactions teach us that people are people and God is God. They teach us that we are the people and God is God. Here are the people. And here is God. And there's a lot of space in between.

When the news of our sinful humanity meets the divine truth of the Bible, it produces a spiritual reaction within us and that spiritual reaction is confession. Confession. You mix the news and the Bible and confession begins to bubble up. Like soap bubbles. Like reflux. Confession isn't cool. Confession isn't fun. It can produce heartburn. But confession is where we start to make things right in a world that's so often just flat-out wrong.


Watch out for the tenants.

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...

God loves vineyards. In scripture, as we read also in Isaiah, in scripture, whenever there is a vineyard, it's a place of joy. A place of love. Because vineyards produce vines. And vines produce grapes. And grapes produce -- Welch's 100% Grape Juice. Because we're in church, in the Bible Belt. No. Jesus would taste grape juice and spit it out. Grapes produce wine. And wine produces happy. And joy. And sometimes even love, or something like it. A vineyard is a great big, Biblical sign of hope. Hope that one day, there will be joy sprouting up from the dirt.

Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, just like Isaiah did. Jesus tells his parable so the listeners are the tenants. The listeners are the stewards.

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...

We're the tenants.

Are we good tenants of God's vineyard? Or are we bad tenants? Will God's vineyard produce the rich, red wine of hope? Or will the earth be stained with the red of blood?

Every morning, while I'm drinking that coffee, I hope. I pull up Twitter. Facebook. Google News. And every morning, I hope. I hope that the news will roll down, scroll down, like a clear, mountain stream. Cool and refreshing. Alive with bubbling joy. I hope that the news will be my vineyard. I hope -- that the news will be good. I hope -- that God's kingdom has come and Mark Zuckerberg is proclaiming that the earth is now as it is in heaven. "Oh, Lord. Let there be GOOD news, today." That's my morning prayer of hope.

O, Internet. Destroyer of Hope, Messenger of Misery, Ringtone of Revelation. Thou doest mock my delusion.

In Frank Pettway's house, not far from the kegerator, is a framed print of a William Steig line drawing. It's a cartoon of a man drawn up in a fetal position, inside a box, not much bigger than he. And the caption reads, "People are no damn good."

In the week which began with the most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history - and I can't say that without wanting to add, "so far" - in a week that began with the horror of that night in Las Vegas… in week upon week of hurricanes, earthquakes, investigations, lies, ceaseless partisan arguing… feeling awash in the filth of cruelty, I find myself tempted. Tempted to put aside childish hope and to pick up the pessimism of Steig.

Every day, I hope things will be better. And every day, it just gets worse.

We are trampling out the vineyard where the grapes of hope are stored.

And so is Jesus.

Jesus's parable is brutal. Brutal. It's filled with violence. It's filled with murder. It could be ripped from today's headlines. I think we gloss over this. We don't read it like Jesus preached it. Maybe we think we're the innocent messengers of the landowner, sent to warn the tenants. "Y'all repent, now. For the end is nigh." Maybe we think we're the landowner himself. Putting up fences. Building watchtowers. Protecting the borders. But that's not how Jesus preached it.

Jesus preached the parable not for the sinless but for the sinful. He preached it not for the owners but for the renters. He preached it for the comfortable religious, who drink themselves blind, on the cheap wine of borrowed privilege.

Individually, we're not bad people. We do our best. We're not so bad once you get to know us. But collectively, corporately, we have gotten mixed up with a bad crowd. We are bad tenants. Whatever news feeds us, also feeds a kind of sick addiction. We want things to be better. We pray for things to be better. "Please, Lord. Make it stop." Because we can't.


The sublime wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous says that the first step is admitting you have a problem.

On one hand, we've got God over here. And on the other hand, we've got the world and all those other people with us. And between us, between God and us, as John Calvin used to say, is an "unbridgeable gulf." God's over there, and you can't get there from here. Not on your own.

Because we're Calvinists at our core, Presbyterian fighting Scots of the Reformed Tradition who used to (and occasionally still do) drink a lot and then fight each other - while wearing kilts, no less - because that's our heritage, AA has more in common with us than we know.

The Methodists make fun of us for not being able to have worship without our beloved Prayer of Confession. We start every service of worship admitting we have a problem. We all have problems, but Presbyterians start worship admitting, as accomplices in the crimes of humanity, we have a problem. And the problem's way bigger than us.

The problem is sin. We're addicted to sin. We all are addicted to sin. Sin is the shovel that digs that unbridgeable gulf between us and God.

So we start our worship - week in and week out - we start our worship admitting we've got a problem. We admit it. We confess it. As we approach the Word of God, as we pull up alongside it, as we set scripture beside our news feeds, our starting point every week, is confession. Because when we're faced with problems that are way bigger than we are, when we stare into the darkness of that abyss, that gulf between us and God, the spiritual reaction, is confession. Not mindless, dismissive "thoughts and prayers." The spiritual reaction bubbling up in our souls when we really, truly, honestly confess our complicity in human sin, is confession.

Anne Lamott, writer, Presbyterian and recovering addict, has a special prayer of confession. And it goes like this:

Help, help, help!

(You need me to repeat that?)

There's more to it, but that's the gist.

She writes:

Help, help, help! Help us O God in our grief and our fear and our utter confusion. Help us to find a better way to live in community. Help us to find tranquility in our hearts, peace on our streets, and love of our neighbor. Give repose to the dead, healing to the wounded, and comfort to the sorrowful.

As prayers of confession go that's a pretty good one. It's a start. It's a first step. It's admitting, confessing that despite all the tragedy and chaos of the world, we want, we want to have hope. We want to believe that the landowner will return. We want to believe that somehow God - and we as God's tenants - together - will make things right.

We would love to be good tenants. We would love to tap on the news and be uplifted, pulled up from our holes. We don't want rainbows and unicorns. We just want to believe that things are getting better. That things will get better. That our higher power is in control. And that the world will have a new kind of spiritual reaction, one that produces hope.


More than one person has told me they just want to turn off the news. They want to delete all their social media. They want to live offline, off the grid. In a Tiny House. They say this because they're tired. They're just worn out from bad news.

Any of you feel like that? Wondering what's happened overnight? Worrying what's gonna happen today? Any of you tired of seeing bloodshed? Worn out from cries for justice?

God's felt that way, too.

Scripture says:

...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!

The vineyard was supposed to produce joy and love. Instead it produced sorrow in the heart of its maker.

In Isaiah, God tramples out the vineyard completely. Lays waste to it. In Jesus's parable, the landowner doesn't pull up the vineyard, he just pulls up the tenant farmers who have sprayed a hail of violence on the messengers, and even murdered the landowner's son. And for what? For real estate. For money. For themselves. The landowner knows there are replacements. There are other tenants from other lands who will come and work the fields. So he throws out the bad tenants and brings in the new.

We might be able to turn off the news. We might be able to hide from the world. But we can't turn off God's justice. We can't hide from God's love for this vineyard, for this world, and for all the people in it, both good and no good. God doesn't give up. God finds a way.

I want to work for God's way. I want to hope for God's mercy. I want to pray for God's justice, knowing that, as the saying goes, "You gotta be careful what you pray for." I want to be part of making things right. I have no idea how. But I know that's where I stand.

I'm pretty confident you feel the same. We may not be the smartest people in the world. Or the most powerful. But we can be, we can be among the most hopeful. Not pie-in-the-sky, not living in a bubble, not addicted to the drug of denial. But we can be people who take the world for what it is. As seriously, as honestly, as realistically as Jesus did. We can be people who see the world for what it is -- and see ourselves for who we are. Confessing our sin. Admitting we're powerless. Taking that first step, of hope.

As the great prayer goes, "Help, help, help!" We pray that we need, we desperately need God's help. And we pray that we - you and I - we pray that we will hear people, hear a world crying, "Help, help, help!"

That we will find a way to help.

That we will find a way to hope.