The View from the Tower – Rev. Henry Brinton (audio available)
The View from the Tower
August 18, 2013
Imagine for a minute that you are in Paris, climbing the South Tower of the Notre Dame Cathedral. It is pictured on the cover of this morning’s bulletin, and the South Tower is the one on the right.
What do you think you’ll see?
Inside, you’ll observe the 13-ton bell named Emmanuel, which was tolled to announce the liberation of Paris at the end of the Second World War. Outside, you’ll see the flying buttresses that were built very early in the development of Gothic architecture. And if you really use your imagination, you’ll spot Quasimodo — the famous bell-ringer from Victor Hugo’s book The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Quasimodo? Never met the guy. But his face rings a bell.
Have you seen Quasimodo recently? I have a hunch he’s back.
Bad jokes, for sure. Groaners. But Quasimodo’s cathedral is no joke this year. Look around the place, and you’ll see a ton of tourists.
Notre Dame is celebrating its 850th anniversary, and the number of visitors will soar from the normal 14 million to 20 million. Lighting has been improved, the organ has been renovated, and the old bells of the North Tower have been melted down and recast into a new set of bells.
The view from the towers? It’s absolutely glorious.
Notre Dame’s first stone was laid in the year 1163, in the presence of the pope. Construction continued for the next 182 years, and the cathedral stood strong through the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution, and two World Wars.
“For 850 years this cathedral has been a symbol of beauty, truth and goodness,” said Monsignor Patrick Jacquin, the rector of Notre Dame (Reuters news service, December 7, 2012). In a city of breathtaking sights, the towers of Notre Dame are particularly inspiring and beloved.
The prophet Isaiah loves a good tower, but makes it clear that God is interested in more than graceful Gothic architecture. “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard,” says Isaiah (5:1). In this case, “my beloved” is the Lord God, and “his vineyard” is the nation Israel.
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill,” says the prophet. “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; be built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (vv. 1-2).
God’s construction project did not begin in the year 1163. No, this careful and loving work was started much earlier, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. God establishes a vineyard on a fertile hill, by digging, clearing and planting. The Lord hews out a wine vat, and builds a strong watchtower. It’s a glorious scene, full of beauty and goodness.
But what is the view from the tower?
Not what you would expect. God anticipates the vineyard will “yield grapes,” but it yields “wild grapes” (v. 2). The vineyard, despite God’s loving and careful work, ends up producing a bad crop full of rotten grapes.
I have to wonder if the monsignor at Notre Dame has the same concerns in Paris. Church attendance in France is less than 10 percent of the population in some areas. Sixty percent of the French say that they “practically never” attend church, the highest percentage of non-participants in Europe. By comparison, only 16 percent of Americans say they never attend services.
Wild grapes, Isaiah would say.
The love-song of the vineyard now changes to the voice of God. “And now,” says the Lord God, speaking to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the people of Judah, “judge between me and my vineyard” (v. 3). God wants the people themselves to offer judgment on what went wrong. “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (v. 4).
That’s a good question, no doubt about it. What more was there for God to do? He picked a fertile hill, dug it, cleared it, and planted it. He hewed out a wine vat and built a watchtower. The soil was good, the seeds were planted, the wine vat was ready for grapes to be stomped, and a watchtower provided protection from danger.
But still, the crop was wild grapes, bad fruit.
God is not pleased with this outcome, and decides not to preserve the vineyard. “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard,” says the Lord. “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it” (vv. 5-6).
God destroys and abandons the vineyard, on account of the wild grapes. This would be like the monsignor of Notre Dame saying, “Church attendance in Paris has dropped to single digits. Now I will tell you what I will do to my cathedral. I will remove its towers. I will break down its flying buttresses. I will make it a waste; it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns. I will also command that the Emmanuel bell not be rung.”
That would be tragic, wouldn’t it? I cannot imagine the silencing of the bell called “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
The prophet Isaiah wants us to know that God expects us to live faithful and fruitful lives. The vineyard of the Lord will not be preserved if it does not produce good grapes. “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,” concludes Isaiah, “and the people are Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (v. 7).
Like the house of Israel and the people of Judah, we are God’s “pleasant planting.” When God looks down on us from the top of his watchtower, he expects to see justice, not bloodshed, and to hear words of righteousness, not a cry. Only then will the Emmanuel bell be heard, assuring us that God is with us.
The 850th birthday of Notre Dame is an anniversary worth celebrating, but not if we neglect the view from the tower. Isaiah says that God will tear down the vineyard walls and watchtower — exposing the vineyard to pests, animals, and thieves — unless he sees justice and righteousness. Our Christian structures are basically worthless unless we use them to do the Lord’s work in the world.
So what would it mean for us to be God’s “pleasant planting” today? That’s the question I want us to focus on in this morning’s service. God has planted us here in this vineyard called Fairfax Presbyterian Church, and has challenged us to be both faithful and fruitful. We have a responsibility to do what we can to restore the church walls that are crumbling and support the watchtowers that are in danger of toppling.
One of the ways best ways to be faithful is to participate regularly in worship that is creative and inspiring. We have a tradition of this here at FPC, with recent examples being the flash mob singing of the Hallelujah Chorus in April, the Youth Sunday service in May, the bluegrass music of the School Street Ramblers in June, and the dialogue sermon I offered last Sunday. But we can always do better. And we will.
One of Yena’s responsibilities is to provide staff support and resources for alternative worship experiences. To accomplish this, she is gathering a group of enthusiastic church members, and is beginning to plan worship services that will be participatory, intergenerational, and creative. We are getting a taste of such worship this morning, with the musical contributions of our GRACE praise band. But there is more to come, and it will focused on helping us all to grow in faith through active participation in worship.
We are faithful when we worship, and fruitful when we take God’s love and grace into the world. According to the prophet Isaiah, we do this by focusing on justice instead of bloodshed, on righteousness instead of violence. And there is no better teacher for us than God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.
For many years, justice meant “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also …. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42). The justice of Jesus does not include the bloody gouging of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Instead, it is the way of nonviolence — the refusal to hit back when a person strikes you on the cheek, hurting them in the same way that they hurt you. In addition, Jesus asks us to create a more just and fair society by the practice of generosity — sharing our coats, cloaks and other resources with those in need.
Justice is being practiced by the teams that are going out from FPC to visit our neighbors in the Oak Knolls Apartments. As part of VOICE — Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement — these teams are polling residents as part of our fight to preserve affordable housing in the City of Fairfax. We believe that these neighbors deserve a safe and affordable place to live, even as the cost of housing is rising.
When Angie Ninde and I made our visits, we met a number of young immigrants, working hard in service professions. No surprise there. But we also met a 91-year-old retiree, a beautiful woman who had been living at Oak Knolls for years on a fixed income. She is threatened by rising rents, and we believe that it is unfair for her to lose her apartment and have to move! So we are working hard to make sure that the city requires that there always be a certain amount of affordable housing.
We begin with justice and move on to righteousness, which means being in a right relationship with God and the people around us. Now righteousness used to mean, “love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). Being a fruitful Christian means pursuing a right relationship with both friends and enemies, and doing this through offers of love instead of hatred. We attempt this not because we are particularly loving, graceful or wonderful people, but because we want to be children of our Father in heaven — children of the one who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (v. 45).
Turn the other cheek. Practice generosity. Love your enemies. I want you each to think of an enemy you have — and we’ve all got them. Make a serious effort to love them, instead of hate them. See what happens. These are difficult spiritual practices, truly challenging approaches to justice and righteousness. But as we follow Jesus along this path, we will restore the Christian walls that are crumbling and the towers that are in danger of toppling.
If there were more people in France who focused on the justice of Jesus, there would be greater attendance in church. And if there were more Christians who worked on a right relationship with God and the people around them, Notre Dame would be packed.
The same is true right here at FPC. By being faithful and fruitful followers of Jesus, we can change our lives, change our world, and change the view from the tower as well. Amen.
Sage, Alexandria. “Notre Dame Cathedral brushes up for 850th Birthday,” Reuters, December 7, 2012, www.reuters.com.
Knox, Noelle, “Religion takes a back seat in Western Europe,” USA TODAY, August 11, 2005, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com.