Around 587 B.C. the Babylonians brought their vicious campaign against Israel to an end. Jerusalem had fallen, and as part of the spoils of war, they took many of the best and brightest from Israel into captivity in Babylon. For two generations—almost 50 years—they lived in exile. They were strangers in a strange land. Particularly as a people whose theology was so closely aligned with a place—God covenanted with Abraham to give him land and make of him a great nation—this removal from place was both a political and theological crisis. This moment changed everything.
The Babylonian Exile is one of the most crucial events that shape the books of our Old Testament. Reality defines history. Reality influences what we believe to be true about the world. And how we respond to current events not only reflects what we believe about the world but also shapes our worldview going forward.
Around March 2020 what we understood to be true about the world changed too. The Covid-19 pandemic changed how we live. It changed what we do. It changed how we see the world. We all know the gruesome details of the pandemic. Over 6.5 million have died from it. Over 600 million people have contracted it—myself included. Masks are now normal litter on the streets. I sometimes find myself getting anxious watching a pre-Covid TV show and wondering how all these people could be in a room together and not worry about getting sick. Where’s the social distancing, right? Does that happen to you?
While the Babylonian Exile and the Covid-19 pandemic are not identical, I do have to say that both have reshaped how people live and what people believe about God. We talk about a return to normal, but normal is impossible. This virus has fundamentally reshaped how we live, and so our work now is to figure out how to live as Christians in this present reality. I think we’re all still wrestling with our theology—what we believe about God—in the wake of all that has happened to us. I think many have felt it harder to be hopeful. I think some of us are angry at God for how disruptive this has been or for the loss of someone we love.
But do you know what else happens when life gets unsteady and difficult? Art emerges. There is beauty that emerges from the pain. Our artists are often the ones who can distill meaning out of life and point us in the direction of beauty and hope.
Today we’re going to consider two passages from the Bible. Like the best of art, I think both of these continue to speak into our present moments. They help us apply the eternal to the dailyness of our lives.
In fact, that’s something I strive for as your pastor. I don’t want to tell you what to think. I want to train you to apply the eternal to your present, not for escape but so that you can dive even more deeply into your one precious life. I also don’t want to prescribe remedies. That’s too simple for a complex world. I want to give you tools to help you interpret the times.
One of those tools is the gift of God’s word, so let’s dive deeply into today’s texts to see what they have to say about the value of coming home to the community of the church.
Let’s begin with Psalm 126. It’s one of the psalms of ascent, which means it was used as people went to worship. Jerusalem is always pictured as the highest point in Israel, so you always had to ascend to worship, hence a psalm of ascent. But, isn’t it interesting that this song on the way to worship is remembering a painful moment in their own story?
I think many of us find it easy to come to worship when life is going fine but harder to come to worship when things have fallen apart. We don’t like dwelling on the hard parts of our story. I doubt we’ll write a long chapter in our church history about the past couple of years where disease distanced us and where still going on three years later our loving congregation is only two-thirds the size it was before the pandemic.
Yet, the Jews remember their exile and sing about it on the way to worship. That’s a lesson we can all learn.
They sing, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy.” It’s a picture of life after the tragedy, a space where they can see God’s hand at work in the present. It’s lovely, but I wonder if they wondered where God was when they were taken away? Where was God in exile? Why did it take so long to restore their fortunes? Couldn’t they have just skipped the whole exile thing?
Their song proclaims that the nations are saying “The Lord has done great things for them.” Until this week, I read this on its surface—that the nations are looking at the Jews and thinking, “Wow! God restored them to their land. That’s wonderful.”
But, maybe it’s the pandemic that has me reading it with a tinge of sarcasm. “Yeah. Look how great their God is. Stuck for fifty years in exile and now returning to a land destroyed by years of war. The Lord has done great things for them. Right…”
But the psalm doesn’t stay there. Even if my sarcastic reading is right, the people on their way to worship refuse to give in to despair. They move into hope. “The Lord has done great things for us!” They live into hope. Their behavior shapes their belief. They look around and see not everything is as it should be, yet they trust in the Lord who will make things right. They pray, “Restore our fortunes. May those who sow tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
But this beautiful poem gives us a model for how we come home to worship. It’s been a hard couple of years.
We can name that and claim that.
Nobody wanted a pandemic, but now we are faced with how we, as Christians, respond.
This poem speaks hope even into hard circumstances. These people speak the truth of their pain on their way to worship AND still bravely choose hope. They live into it. It’s an example for us.
We are called to be hopeful, and, I will say to you from the bottom of my heart, it is far easier to be hopeful when we are surrounded by others who are journeying with us. Coming home to church means that we are prioritizing what it means to be a Christ-centered community of faith. It means our presence shoulder-to-shoulder matters. It means we are around people who can carry us when we need help, and that we get the privilege of doing the same for others when we’re stronger.
Let’s turn now to Jesus’ parable. Many publishers give this teaching the heading “The Laborers in the Vineyard,” but I think that heading is misleading. Really, the compassionate employer is the focus of this parable. In fact, this landowner is rather strange. Even though he has a steward, the landowner keeps running back to the marketplace to hire more workers. It’s as though he’s invested in giving anyone meaningful work who wants it. He’s invitational. He’s open. He’ll take any who will join him.
The plot is simple. Day laborers go to the marketplace looking for work. At 6:00 a.m., the landowner hires the workers he needs, agreeing with them on the usual daily wage. He comes back at 9:00 and sees more needing work, so he hires them, offering to pay “whatever is right.” He does the same at noon and again at 3:00. Let’s just stop right there and recognize that this is not good business practice. Surely this landowner knows how many workers he needs to do the job, but he’s compassionate. He keeps coming back for more because he wants all to find meaningful work and make the wage they need to go home at night with dignity.
But the landowner swings through one more time. This time it’s 5:00. It’s only an hour until the work day ends. These workers are still standing, which means they’re eager to work but have not been hired. They work for an hour, and then the landowner has his steward handle payment. Beginning with the most recently hired, he hands out a denarius—a day’s wage. No matter how long they worked, they all got a day’s wage, which is unfair labor practice for sure but which is compassionate and kind towards those who were left out. At the end of the day, everyone had what they needed to go home with dignity.
But I want to look at this text from a different angle—this time from the perspective of those of us who are considering what it means to come home to the church after all the disruption, pain, and questions that the pandemic has raised for us. So, let’s consider this in a new way.
Could we be exceptionally invitational like this landowner, never tiring of inviting those who have not come in yet? In this scenario, I picture each of us modeling our lives after the welcoming love of Jesus. Like the landowner, we actively, day by day, hour by hour, keep inviting others to join in. We leave no one out of the party.
What would it be like to have this radical hospitality that kept calling out to others, “Come home! You are loved. You are missed. You are needed”? Being a part of this church is an exceptional gift, and I’m afraid so many are missing out on it because they gave up on gathering during the pandemic, or because things got hard a few years back, or because life just got filled up with so many other things that they hadn’t even noticed that the gathering of God’s people was missing in their existence.
Could we experience the landowner’s gracious invitation, no matter if we were the first hired, somewhere in the middle, or the last hired? I mean, some of us came back to church the moment we reopened. Others have been cautiously coming in. Still others are nervous about returning, particularly about how they will be received after all this time. What if we all realized that we are all in in the same space of God’s great love and compassion? What if we all recognized that all of us are in this together, which means that we are all welcomed by the same, constant, never-failing love of God?
Christianity is not a spectator sport. Each of us is an active participant. We are less when we do not prioritize sharing our lives together. We are less when the doubts that have crept in over the past few years start overshadowing the gift of life together.
God calls us to worship. We stream to church as one, singing our songs—sometimes joyous, sometimes sad—but always hopeful. God welcomes us with radical hospitality. Let us welcome each other in the same way.
It’s time to come home.