Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This weekend I am preaching at Trinity Church in Milford. Every three years there is just one opportunity to preach on the Book of Esther for those who, like me, preach from the Revised Common Lectionary. I try not to miss the chance to let Christian congregations in on this great story. You can read the appointed text here.

For our Jewish friends, the scroll of Esther is inseparable from the celebration of Purim, which has a carnival-like atmosphere. Esther is a melodrama—a drama that is told with exaggerated characters. There is a hero (or in this case a heroine, Esther) and a villain (the evil Haman.) As with all melodramas, the plot appeals to our emotions and the audience gets involved by booing and hissing and shaking noisemakers whenever the villain’s name is even mentioned. I am told by your rector that you all know this here at Trinity…

Very often melodramas also have some PG-13 parts and this one is no exception: if you were seeing it performed on stage you’d find it pretty tame, especially if you’ve seen A Chorus Line or Avenue Q and the like. But hearing it read in Church, from the Bible, surprises some people and may even make a few blush. Unfortunately, most Christians are not nearly as familiar with this story as Jews. In fact, the reading we heard today is the only opportunity we get every three years to remember it in our common worship and the words we heard come at the end of the play. So if we don’t remember all that preceded it, it makes little sense. Let me begin, then, by sharing a brief summary of what led to this point.

In scene one, the narrator tells us that “all this happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. It’s the third year of his reign.”  What is important to note here is that we aren’t in Israel anymore, Toto, but at the heart of the Persian Empire (what we call modern-day Iran.) The story is about how hard it is for God’s faithful people to live in the midst of a foreign imperial power. 

As it begins, the king is seated on his royal throne surrounded by political advisors, including the evil Haman. (Boo, hiss!) What follows is a wild, unrestrained, party. On the seventh day of this bash, the narrator tells us that the king was “merry with wine.” (This is Biblical code language for “totally wasted.”) He commands his beautiful wife, Vashti, to come in and do a little dance for his guests wearing her royal crown. (It’s pretty clear that what he is asking is that she dance wearing nothing but her crown.) She refuses, and the king is furious. His advisors suggest that this cannot be tolerated because empires rely on compliance: not only is the authority of the emperor supposed to be absolute, but if people learn that the queen doesn’t obey the king, then ordinary women will stop obeying their husbands. And so they convince the king to issue an edict to all the royal provinces that “every man is master of his own house.” They also convince him to get rid of Queen Vashti and hold a beauty pageant to find a new queen.

Meanwhile in a nearby village ...there is this Jew named Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjamite.” (2:5) He has a beautiful cousin whose name is Esther. Mordecai suggests that Esther enter the beauty contest, which she agrees to do. Now part of the plot here is that while a guy named Mordecai will probably not be mistaken for an Irish Catholic, Esther can “pass” as Persian. And so neither she nor Mordecai see any reason to let anybody know of her religious preference. (So she doesn’t check that box on the pageant application.) Only she, Mordecai, and the audience know that she is a Jew.

Are you with me? We have now met all of the key players in those first two scenes, and the story is underway. Let me speed up the plot a bit here: Esther wins the contest and becomes queen. She becomes an “insider,” but only by keeping her identity a secret. Remember that. In the meantime the evil Haman (boo, hiss) is promoted and becomes the chief advisor to the king. Haman loves power and hates the Jews. Whenever he walks out in public, he expects people to bow to him. Mordecai refuses to do that, however, and Haman decides to show Mordecai who is boss by introducing a bill that will basically enact a holocaust and kill all the Jews in the empire.

Esther, however, is now in a position to expose the evil Haman and his plot to kill her people, and she does just that. Her actions save her people, and change the course of history. We heard the end of the story today: as in every good melodrama, good triumphs over evil and Haman gets what is coming to him. Listen, then, once more to the words we heard earlier:
The king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me— that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. 
And that’s what Purim is all about, Charlie Brown! That is the whole megillah.. That’s why it’s a time for feasting and for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. This year Purim will begin at sunset on Wednesday, March 4. If you have an opportunity to attend a Purim celebration with Jewish friends, I urge you to do so.

Well, what do we do with this story that is over 2500 years old and set in a culture very different from our own? Why did we say “the word of the Lord/ thanks be to God” when we heard this reading? Out of habit? Is there in fact a word of the Lord here for us or not? And if so, what might it be?

Because this is the Bible, we claim that this scroll tells us something about God, although interestingly enough the name of God doesn’t appear; not even once. Except for Mordecai, none of the characters are particularly religious, including Esther. Yet in another sense, God permeates the story. “Perhaps you are in this position for a reason,” Mordecai tells his cousin, Esther, at a key point in the play. Esther speaks up not because of some big mystical experience, but simply because she’s in a place where she can make a difference. In a very dangerous world she does the right thing by acting bravely and compassionately, at great risk to herself.

There’s another vignette that I didn’t share today in my rush to outline the plot: early on in the story the king has one of those sleepless nights where he is tossing and turning until he can’t take it anymore. He finally gets up to read a book, which turns out to be some old police reports: “The Book of Memorable Deeds.” (Sounds like something out of The Princess Bride, doesn’t it?) In it he discovers that Mordecai had reported two eunuchs who were plotting to assassinate the king. No proclamations were made and no royal medals were awarded, but Mordecai can’t easily be “disappeared” because he’s now on the king’s radar. The rabbis suggest that God is the one behind that sleepless night; that this is precisely the kind of subtle way that God influences this world.

The narrator may be suggesting that God is at work in our lives—behind the scenes—even when we don’t know it. And that we are put into certain situations for a reason; that there are no coincidences. As Christians we might ascribe all of these things to the work of the Holy Spirit, who has a knack of getting us where we need to be and sometimes even causes us sleepless nights that stir us to action. I wonder if some of us might even say that the God we encounter in Esther is closer to our own experience: discerned through hints and guesses more often than speaking in a clear voice at a burning bush or blinding us on the road to Damascus or Milford.

Because this is the Bible, this story also suggests something about the human condition. The Book of Esther knows that it’s a dangerous world out there, especially for those without power: women, religious minorities, the poor. So this Purim play is about the challenges of trying to be faithful in the midst of imperial power; about obedience to God rather than the rulers of this age. It’s about the cosmic struggle against the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. It’s easy to put all of the evil on a villain like Haman (or Satan or Hitler or Osama bin Laden) –but only very rarely does real life unfold like a melodrama. The most insidious evil usually involves some shades of gray.

Some of you have perhaps read Three Cups of Tea or The Kite Runner. If so, you know that, melodrama or not, the world of King Ahasuerus is very real. The whole idea that Vashti is put away because she had the audacity to disobey her husband’s obscene request is pretty repulsive, but unfortunately not so farfetched even today in Iran. As for us in the west, it is true that we have come a long way, baby. But even so, we still deal with sexism that treats women unfairly and in the process dehumanizes both women and men.

Walter Brueggemann has noted that we Christians like to give closure to our readings and interpretations, but that “it is recurringly Jewish to recognize that our readings are always provisional, because there is always another text, always another commentary, always another rabbinic midrash…” So, it is, I think with Esther. We are invited to live more fully into these questions. Perhaps when we finish reading Esther, one of the big questions worth asking is, “is this really the kind of world we want our daughters and granddaughters to grow up in?” There is a fair amount of feminist criticism out there on this text, both Jewish and Christian. And there is some debate about whether Vashti should be considered the true heroine here rather than Esther. Maybe it is better to stand up against “the man” even if it gets you killed. Maybe. At the very least the Vashtis of this world must not be forgotten. For her own part, Esther compromises—maybe even in some way she has to compromise some of her own integrity in a world that is far from ideal—in order to act for the greater good.

So let me end with a question: aren’t these often the kind of ambiguous moral choices you and I face as well, both as women and men, in our own daily lives? Often when I leave the theater I spend some time with my wife and those I’ve been with reviewing it – and asking questions about the issues raised – sometimes provocative ones. Too often we come to the Bible wanting it to offer us easy answers or moralisms. 

But Esther shows us another way to come at all of this – with inquiring and discerning hearts. Perhaps we need to be asking ourselves, from time to time: why am I here and what can I do? Perhaps I have been put here for a reason?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Celebration of New Ministry - The Rev. Greg Lisby and All Saints Church, Worcester

What an honor to preach at Greg Lisby's Celebration of New Ministry this afternoon at All Saints Church in Worcester.

Did you happen to see the Facebook post that shows a pastoral search committee gathered around a table? The caption reads: “Basically we are looking for an innovative pastor with a fresh vision who will inspire our church to remain exactly the same.” Ask anyone who served on the profile or search or transition committees in this parish: they didn’t work as hard as they did so that things could remain exactly the same here.

Or how about this one, also from Facebook? There’s an envelope and the return address says “Paul.” The caption below the envelope says “How St. Paul’s Letters Were Really Addressed.” And where the address goes, it says, “To the stupid, foolish, idiotic, Galatians who probably won’t even read this because they never listen to me anyway.

Now that’s both funny and really sad for lots of reasons that I am not going to dwell on tonight. The point, as I hope you all understand, is that none of Paul’s letters actually do begin that way. In fact, all of Paul’s letters begin with him reminding them that they are all saints. 
      
      To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints…I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world...
  
      To the Church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – grace and peace, etc…I give thanks to my God always for you…

      To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons – grace to you and peace…I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…

Admittedly the greeting to the Galatians is more curt than these others. But the reminder is there, too – of who they are and whose they are and of the ministry they are called to share together. Paul is adamant in those letters that it’s not about him or Apollos or anyone else: it’s about the Jesus movement.

Now many of you in this parish know me and you know my roots and early formation is in the United Methodist Church and I remain a kind of Wesleyan Anglican in many ways. Among other things this means that it is highly unlikely that I am about to preach a short homily and sit down. So in case your mind drifts let me make sure that if you hear nothing else that I say tonight, I pray that your hearts will be strangely warmed in hearing this: while we have gathered here tonight in the context of this Evensong to celebrate Greg’s call as rector to this great, historic parish in the second largest city in New England, this night is not all about Greg and Tim and their family – as wonderful as they all are. It’s about the ministry all you saints share in Christ’s name and the new chapter you now embark on. It’s about the work that lies ahead, guided by the Holy Spirit. Greg didn’t come here so that everything could stay the same.

The work that lies ahead is too big for even a young energetic rector, however; and too important for anyone to be a passive bystander. The temptation to sit back and evaluate a new rector as if our calling were to be Olympic judges and hold up a scorecard after every sermon is real, but it must be resisted. What this congregation needs – what every congregation needs—are not fans or critics of the rector, but witnesses. Disciples. Followers of Jesus, who are working together on God’s Mission. 

As you begin to live more fully into God’s dream for the new All Saints that the Holy Spirit is blowing you toward, there will be resistance. Count on it. Some will prefer their memories of yesterday to God’s dream for tomorrow. So keep your eyes on the prize. And do not lose heart.

I told the Search and Transition Committees over the past year and a half but I will say it now that a new rector is in place and we are here tonight: the transition didn’t end once the moving truck pulled in from New Jersey, or when Leah and Miriam started school. It takes a while. We have a Prayerbook that got published thirty-six years ago that some people still insist on calling the new Prayerbook. Greg, you are going to be the new rector for a while. It’s just the way it is. And there will be some growing pains for all of you.

But trust me: the day will come when you’ll be the old rector. Don’t blink; it can happen fast. It happens in the same way that our kids grow up fast. Sometimes, along the way, there are challenges to get through and fights that must be had. That’s just part of the deal. Just try to fight fair when it happens, so that there is room for forgiveness and for new beginnings. And don’t take it too personally. If there is one magical power I could give you and every priest in this diocese it would be Teflon skin.

Again our old friend Paul is an enormous help here. All Saints: be patient and kind and gentle with each other and with your new rector and with your newly ordained associate rector too. Keep faith, hope and love at the core – but especially love. This is what Paul discovered time and again in his relationship with those first-century Christians in Corinth and Galatia and Rome and around the Mediterranean Sea. Love isn’t a synonym for being nice all the time. But be kind all the time out of love for one another, and to build up the Body of Christ. Love shows us a way that is very different from conflict averse or passive aggressive behaviors, two very popular options in too many congregations.

How can we create space so that even our conflicts—large and small, real and imagined—become occasions for grace to be made manifest and for all of us to remember who we are and whose we are? Notice that was in the form of a question by the way. I don’t have an easy answer for you on that one. I can only suggest that finding ways to do so is the path to fuller and more abundant life and to healthier, more mission-focused congregations.  

All Saints: you didn’t call Greg all the way from New Jersey to drive a parked car. The stakes are too high. I read your profile very carefully, as I know Greg did. There is a mission, a job, a shared calling that will continue to emerge that is rooted in your rich heritage, but not limited by it. As you move into the streets to love your neighbors in this great city, that work that God has given you to do will continue to beckon. Where will you meet Christ? Not just here in this holy place when two or three gather together and there is great music, and the bread is broken – but out in the neighborhood where the face of Jesus is seen in the poor, and the sick, and those in prison.

Now I’m about halfway through; are you still with me? When I do finally sit down, one of the prayers that will be offered will go like this:

Everliving God, strengthen and sustain Greg, that with patience and understanding he may love and care for your people; and grant that together they may follow Jesus Christ, offering to you their gifts and talents; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The Rev. Greg Lisby being presented to the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher
Do you believe that? If you believe what you say with your lips tonight then I want to challenge you to something much harder: to live it in vestry meetings and staff meetings and in worship and in mission to this great city. Embody these words: we ask God to strengthen and sustain Greg, but God’s people can help answer that prayer by being agents of that strength, and people who help sustain your new rector – rather than working to weaken him or drain his energy.

Greg: may God give you patience and understanding and love and care for this people, God’s people. Your people, some days a people after God’s own heart and some days a little stiff-necked.

All of you: may you be followers of Jesus Christ, all saints, all ready to serve, all ready to offer your time and talent and treasure for the work that God has given you to do.

This is not some radical new idea that we thought up in the Bishop’s office last Tuesday. Which brings me to our Old Testament reading for this night: Greg, try this on – I think your job is to try to be something like Joshua, the son of Nun. Now I realize it will be tempting for you and maybe for some of us to want you to be Moses. It’s a cool gig, taking on Pharaoh, and parting the waters, and meeting with God up on Sinai amid all the thunder and lightning. But I urge you to resist the temptation to be Moses. First of all, you probably don’t have forty years.

Second: you aren’t the founding pastor here. You come here in the middle of something – following a whole bunch of other rectors. And by God’s grace you will be followed by a whole bunch more. Decisions you make today may well be graces your successor will one day thank you for, or messes that she will have to clean up. No pressure, though. So you don’t have to be Moses and in fact I advise against it.

But try to be something like Joshua, the son of Nun – whom I am certain had to listen at coffee hour from time to time to people saying, “We knew Moses. Moses was a friend of ours. You’re no Moses, Joshua.”

Three times in nine verses, God says to Joshua: be strong and courageous. Be strong and courageous. No, really – be strong and courageous. Our reading tonight included only two of those three imperatives but trust me, if you go back and look it up you’ll see that in the verse immediately before tonight’s reading it’s there as well.

I wonder if ministry might require of us that we be strong and courageous? Do not to be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord our God will be with you wherever you go. This is what we get, so far as I can tell, from this God of the Bible, this living God who refuses to be our pet. Sometimes we want God to be like our Google Map App and say “turn left” or “turn right” or “re-routing.” But from the first pages of Genesis to the end of the Revelation of John on Patmos – the God we get says, “I’ve seen the pain and suffering of this world, I’ve heard the cries of my people – and now I send you. Be strong and courageous.” The creative, redemptive and sanctifying Holy Trinity just says things like “Go, and remember I’ll be with you wherever you go, to the end of the age.

Rarely is this work glamorous. It can be beautiful, but it’s not glamorous to sit at the bedside of a longtime parishioner who is dying. Vestry meetings are rarely glamorous either, but sometimes they can be beautiful. This summer I traveled with a group of pilgrims from Episcopal Divinity School that included our bishop and his wife and some others from our diocese. One of the people I sat with at lunch one day served on the vestry at St. Paul’s Church in Selma over fifty years ago – he’s now in his nineties – at the time when that parish was voting to integrate racially. Well, it came to a vote because he forced the issue. It was tedious and contentious and he lost some friends in the process and the vote the first time around was 2-13. But he and his sole partner at that point didn’t let up. They didn’t lose hope. They were strong and courageous, until four votes later they got to an 8-7 vote for, and Jonathan Daniels came into church with a little black girl and sat in the very back. And then the biggest pledger promptly left the congregation and took his pledge with him.  (You can’t make this stuff up!)

The God we get is Emmanuel. Whatever comes your way as a congregation this is the promise that goes to the very heart of our faith: God is with us. So do not be afraid – all saints, you beloved of God. Be strong and be courageous.

This is not an easy time to be the Church. But you know what? I don’t think there has ever been an easy time to be the Church. One of Greg’s predecessors was born in Lowell and educated at Harvard. He served here during and after the Civil War. Now we may in fact live in a nation divided between red and blue states, a nation that is still trying to deal with the sin of racism, a nation tired of war and yearning for peace. But is there anyone here tonight who thinks that the 1860s were the good old days and an easier time to be the Church?  

William Reed Huntington
During William Reed Huntington’s tenure here (from 1861-1882) it may surprise you to know that with all that stuff going on in the world, the Episcopal Church was busy fighting about the liturgy. High church, low church, you know, the usual. Fr. Huntington tried, in the midst of all of that, to identify the essentials. In so doing he found it necessary to try to figure out what Anglicanism was really all about at its core. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, he was asking, what is “Mere Anglicanism?”  And this is what he said about that: 
The word [Anglicanism] brings up before the eyes of some a flutter of surplices, a vision of village spires and cathedral towers, a somewhat stiff and stately company of deans, prebendaries, and choristers…  But we greatly mistake if we imagine that the Anglican principle has no substantial existence apart from these accessories.
The fruit of Father Huntington’s labors can be found on page 876 of The Book of Common Prayer. Don’t look it up now; I’m almost finished and you can check it out later. Read it sometime when you are in the hall named to honor him, where we will gather for some refreshments after this liturgy. But here in short order is what he discovered: the essence of Anglicanism is about four things: (1) a commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God; (2) a commitment to the Creeds as the rule of faith; (3) the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist, and there is a fourth one. What is it again? Oh yeah (4) bishops, the keystone of our governmental unity.

Now William Reed Huntington is no longer the rector of this parish. Gregory Charles Lisby – you are. And just as Joshua didn’t have to try to be Moses, you don’t have to be Huntington or Vinton or Davies or Cox or Beckwith or Bean or anybody else. Just be yourself. But it may be good counsel to stick with the essentials and not get too bogged down in the small stuff. And a lot of it, in the greater scheme of things, is small stuff. Don’t get stuck on the flutter of surplices and other modern equivalents. Keep first things first so that when you do fight you fight about the big stuff, the stuff that matters. 

All Saints: you don’t need to be a nineteenth-century church or a twentieth-century church. You need to living members of a living Body in this time and place, loving God and loving your neighbors – many of whom seem to speak Spanish, by the way. Be strong and be courageous.

You were looking for an innovative pastor with a fresh vision to inspire your church, not to remain exactly the same but to do this work with you. And you got him. Double down on your commitment to be all saints for this generation, this chapter in the life of this great congregation. Greatness for a people who worship a man who took a towel on the last night of his life to wash his disciples feet will not come by power or a larger endowment, but in the call to all the saints in this city by doing the work that God has given you to do. Be strong and courageous, and all will be well. God will continue to do great things through you.

Enjoy the ride. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Vine-Ripe Tomatoes

These tomatoes are NOT from my garden!
Years ago I remember reading in Barbara Brown Taylor's When God Is Silent her "riff" on vine-ripe tomatoes - or more accurately what it was like to bite into a mealy, pale pink tomato in January that claims to be "vine-ripe" and clearly is not. At this time of year when I so enjoy an heirloom tomato I think of those words and vow never to eat another tomato again until next summer. Tomatoes at this time of year are truly a kairotic experience.

I confess here, however, to all of you that are my faithful readers, that I've had a very tough summer when it comes to growing my own. I began late, first of all - through no fault of my own. We have one of those boxes that my son successfully grew beautiful tomatoes in last summer, but when I ordered the "refill" materials from Amazon.com and some heirloom plants from another place on-line they turned out to be out of stock. But they didn't tell me this until early June. So then I went out looking for what I could find locally and found a couple of scrawny looking tomato plants - not heirloom - and some potting soil I was told would work fine. I had to improvise, but I was confident all would be well.

It's September and my two tomato plants, while not dead, look like they could play the part of the sad Christmas tree in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" if it came to the stage. In fact they each have three or four tiny little ornament-sized tomatoes on them; that's it. No ripe fruit, not yet. I'm wondering if they will grow to full size and ripen before the first New England frost. I'm not hopeful.

This is embarrassing, among other things - made far worse when people tell me what a great summer it's been for tomatoes. I smile and nod, too humiliated to share my story. Thankfully we have many Farmer's Market opportunities nearby and I know it has been and I've had some wonderful fruit over the past few weeks, and I hope for a couple more at least. Even so, it would be nice to be able to have at least one or two tomatoes that are the result of my own labors. But I worry that I am going to end up like the guy in this story from The Onion - which I used to think was a satirical on-line journal but now realize that like the National Enquirer it might all be true, since this article was clearly written about me. And there is nothing funny about it.

I may be in denial but I don't think it's all my fault. I think that a couple of things happened here - starting late was just one factor. Being away and not watering them for some time this summer might also have played a role. Hathy swears she watered them when I was away for work and I think I believe her, but we were also away a lot together. I may just have a brown thumb.

Jesus said to "consider the lilies of the field" and he told all kinds of parables about seeds, including mustard seeds. Nothing is recorded of him saying "consider the tomatoes in your backyard" or "a man went out one day to plant tomatoes..." but it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to imagine one of his teachings heading in that direction. At the risk of sounding like Chance the Gardener in Being There I am tempted to say something really profound like 
Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
But here goes anyway: congregations are a lot like our gardens. Congregations are not like bridges; they are organic realities. The work is the work - and there are daily lessons to be learned by paying attention. But God gives the growth - or not as the case might be.

Sometimes people work really hard and do all the right things - clergy and lay people together. But the harvest is not plentiful, for any number of reasons. Sometimes someone else will reap what we have sown because the "growing seasons" in congregations are way longer than from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Sometimes entire ministries are about planting seeds and people retire wondering if they made a difference; and then someone else comes in and things take off. Or - to be honest this might be more common - someone else comes in and find the garden needs a lot of weeding and tending and pruning because it's way overgrown. (I do seem to recall some imagery like this in the Old Testament about vineyards and grapes but perhaps the Hebrew is ambiguous and the prophet was speaking of grape-tomatoes?)

I don't pretend to understand all of this anymore than I can understand why my neighbors are eating vine-ripe tomatoes while I need to keep heading off to the Farmer's Market. It doesn't seem fair. It's not fair. Whether it's about not enough sunlight, or too much water - or the deer or some smaller pest.
I need to do some things differently next spring - I'm back to tomatoes again. I have learned from some of my mistakes and I can adjust. I am already imagining the harvest next August and September, that I pray will look more like the photo shown above.

But even though I will try again and I will make those changes, I am also aware at some deep level that there are factors beyond my control - and truly all is gift. The fruit of this vine (and others) is sheer grace, grace that can be tasted and seen. Every once in a while this happens in congregations too and in all the other work God has given us to do. We need to find ways to tell these harvest stories because they remind us why we do this work in the first place, and why it matters. But there needs also to be room for us to share the stories of what we're learning when the harvest is not so plentiful too.