Salem United Methodist Church, Wexford, PA
August 18, 2019
What do you expect? Hollywood movies and romance novels focus so much on star-crossed lovers and how they get together, then tell us “The lived happily ever after.” How many divorces have taken place because the couples expected a simple “happily ever after.”
What do you expect when you plant a garden? You dig the soil, remove stones, add fertilizer, sow the seeds, weed and water faithfully? What if the crops come out puny, or taste bitter do you feel angry or disappointed because you expected something better? Isaiah 5 describes a farmer who expected his vineyard to yield grapes. The Hebrew says what he got was be-oshim – yuck! Pee-yew! In Revelation 14 angles refer to Isaiah saying “the hour has come to reap…the grapes are ripe” and they throw them into the great winepress of the wrath of God, and blood flows out. This is where the phrase “grapes of wrath” comes from.
The early days of America were full of hope and expectation. The men descended from Europe were excited about doing this new thing called democracy. Some of the early colonists like the Pilgrims and William Penn had lofty goals based on what life could become in this “New World.” Deeply religious Americans believed they were heading toward the time when Christ would return. In 1831 a Baptist layman named William Miller started touring the country giving lectures on his calculations that Christ would return during or before 1843.
This millennial vision motivated many to join the abolition movement – ending slavery became an urgent task best accomplished before Christ returned to judge the sheep from the goats. These deep divisions in our country, in part caused by a northern expectation that God’s kingdom has no slaves, pitted against a Southern expectation that God had ordained some people to be slaves, led to the Civil War.
It was more bloody and devastating than anyone expected. One of my ancestors marched with Sherman; stealing from civilians, destroying railroad tracks, burning cities. A century later my mother warned me not to mention this to my new friends at Duke. A recent count shows that there are currently more African American men in prison now than there were male slaves. The battle scars of our nation have still not healed. Those fighting for liberty and justice did not expect such widespread and lasting damage. A violent world trains us to expect that restoration can come through punishment and destruction. But that way only turns into a never ending cycle of violence.
Two big splits in our denomination went hand in hand with these deep divisions in our country. Methodists embraced and promoted the millennial expectations of the day. The growth of Methodism along with the growth of our country both seemed to be of God. In 1824 a Methodist preacher wrote, “Let God be praised for what he has wrought; and may the work spread, until the millennial day shall rise, and the glorious triumphs of the cross shall universally prevail.” Methodists held on to and spread this vision through our method of circuit riders, class meetings and congregations. In 1838 a prominent camp meeting on Cape Cod was named Millennial Grove.
But while the Northern Methodists grew in supporting abolition, more and more southern Methodists had slaves. The bishops, trying to keep the peace, demanded that preachers just shut up about it. The Methodist Episcopal Church split twice over this issue. First in 1842 when many joined Rev. Orange Scott to form the Wesleyan church. A greater split happened between North and South in 1844. The Methodist movement and this nation had become, and remain today, more intertwined than many people expect.
Our expectations have so much to do with the quality of our relationships. When we expect God to be the kind of judge that punishes sinners it will break our relationship with God. For when we are honest, we all know we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If we expect that the person or group on the other side of the conflict is to blame it will break our relationship with our neighbor. We will stay stuck in sin and death.
Today heard Jesus say that we can expect times of unrest, conflict, even violence. He advises that we study the patterns, just like meteorologists study the weather. If you know the signs of change enough to say “storm’s coming” or “this’ll be a hot one” then you can better decided how to dress. When you live in Kansas and expect tornados you build a storm cellar. When we own land next to Pine Creek and expect seasonal flooding we can avoid putting up buildings like Trader Horn and the Rave movie theater in the flood plane.
When you don’t get what you are expecting, it’s time to be curious, and figure out what went wrong. Farmers on the great plains saw all that land with no trees and got excited, anticipating how much easier it would be to grow big crops – no trees to chop! They didn’t understand the ecosystem of the prairie so they didn’t expect that their actions would create the dust bowl disaster. But now we’ve studied, learned from that mistake and steps have been taken to restore the prairies.
When we expect obstacles we can make plans to deal with them. When we expect that the person or group on the other side of a conflict is trying to meet a need, we can choose compassion and seek a way for all needs to be met. When we expect marriage to be challenging and choose to learn and grow with humor, grace, and patience through the hard parts, we become gems in a tumbler, polishing one another.
Hebrews 12 suggests that we expect the life of faith to be challenging, like a race. When we take on the identity of athletes of the Spirit, we expect that the course will not be easy. So we can prepare, train, loose the extra weight of sin, exchange habits that don’t serve us for healthy habits, adopt disciplines that will make us fit to live in the Kingdom of God.
But it’s not up to us to do it. When we stand with the Psalmist and Isaiah, surveying the stinking grapes we cry, “God to restore us!” And then God works in ways we don’t expect!
For when we grow in faith through prayer, meditation, worship, studying scripture and learning about the work of God we are surprised! God is patient and kind, forgiving, steadfast – never giving up on us. Every time we mess up God offers us the means of grace to save us. God can and will restore us if we but take his yoke and learn from him. And God equips us to participate in the work of salvation. Hebrews reminds us that Christ is with us in all the suffering of this world so that we might not loose heart.
It might seem terrible that Israel’s walls have been broken down and the Gentiles are plucking the fruit, while wild animals ravage it. We might see it as a punishment when God lets the land grow fallow and be burned with fire.
But then we remember that when God blessed Abraham and Sarah it was meant to extend to the world. In Revelation we see that the gates of God’s Kingdom will always be open, by day or night they will never be shut. God’s Kingdom grows precisely because the boundaries are permeable. Nations will stream to Christ’s light and receive hospitality. We have learned from ecology that all life is part of a web of connection. Perhaps the boars will provide just the right fertilizer to help the grapes grow sweet. We have also learned that fire can stimulate germination for some trees, and sequoia trees require heat from fire to open their cones and disperse seeds.
Likewise the great unrest and upheavals in our church, our nation, our world may seem hopeless. We yearn with God for the violence to end. We strive to be the blessed peacemakers – turning swords into plowshares. And we know God is right there with us, leading us, and doing the unexpected. The troubling decline of church membership - is serving to break down the walls between denominations. Look at what good comes when we join together – even at the Olive Branch! Noting the deep connection between the US and Methodists, I see in this time a great opportunity – if we Methodists could only find our way to true healing and restoration among ourselves, in each congregation and in each denomination, we could lead the way from our present darkness to the glorious light of God.
That’s a tall order. But Hebrews reminds us not to lose heart. There is a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. The Saints of God who experienced other trying times. In that same stadium are our living friends, people of peace teachers, mentors together with our living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who will encourage, support and cheer us on until we win the race!
Sarah Mount Elewononi is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. A member of the New England Annual Conference for over 20 years, Sarah now resides with her family in greater Pittsburgh. Sarah completed the requirements for her doctorate from Boston University on Christmas Eve 2014. She worked with Dr. Karen Westerfield Tucker and Dr. Nancy Ammerman to better understand worship and change - both how repeated acts of worship change us, and how and why worship changes whether we want it too or not, and why we can be resistant to that change. Her dissertation was focused on Methodist worship at New England camp meetings in the 19th Century. Sarah is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, the Order of St. Luke and the Girl Scouts. Currently she leads her daughters' Girl Scout troop and serves as a substitute teacher. She also teaches a variety of United Methodist Course of Study offerings in worship, theology and Biblical studies.