Sermon on Isaiah 5:1-7 and Luke 12:49-56 for Pentecost +13C, August 14, 2016
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he 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.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 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?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. 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.
For 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!
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Wikipedia says that there is no real Chinese source for it, but in popular culture, most people believe that there is a Chinese curse that goes:
“May you live in interesting times.”
We are living in interesting times! Is it all bad news? How do we interpret the present time? What in the world is God doing?
We are going to start with our wisdom tradition, our sacred texts, and then use them to look at our own present time. What we are going to see is that the subject of the legitimacy of hierarchies is now on the table in a new and powerful way.
First we are going to start with the text from the prophet Isaiah. As we do, think about the word “desire.” This text is about desire. It is about God’s desire. God has a longing, perhaps we could say a need. Recognizing that all human language about God is metaphorical, we could say that this poem in Isaiah is about God’s desire.
Apparently, God wants some nice wine. So he plants a vineyard on a fertile hill. Isaiah says,
“He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines”
Our version of the text says that God “expected” good grapes. Literally the word means God “waited for” good grapes, the way someone lingers, wanting something to happen. In other words, God had a desire.
The vineyard poem is about God’s desire to be in relationship with his people, Israel. Like a person looking forward to nice wine after months of preparing the land, planting the seed, tending the vines, harvesting and vinting the grapes.
Think about this: we are a community that makes some pretty bold claims. After making the claim that there is a God, we follow it with the even bolder claim that God has a desire that includes us. God longs to be in communion with us. This is what some theologians call the “One Story” that drives the whole biblical narrative. (specifically, Jay E. Johnson in “Divine Communion”)
What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, plenty can go wrong. What does Isaiah say went wrong?
[God] “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
God “expected” – waited for, longed for, desired the fine wine of justice; a community without poverty, discrimination, oppression or violence. It was not only that God had a desire for us to be in communion with Godself, but that we would be in communion with each other.
This is one of the radically new innovations that Israel gave us: a conception of a Divinity that was actually concerned with morality. Not just personal private morality, but public, social morality.
Hierarchy and Spirituality
In Isaiah’s day, there was a rigid hierarchy; a few were at the top, living well, but the majority were poor and oppressed. If anyone is being oppressed, if there is injustice, if there are people crying out, suffering violence, God is not getting what God desires. The vine God planted is producing sour grapes.
How could God be happy with that condition? How could a father or a mother be happy if one of their children was cared for, secure, and well, while another was being discriminated against, targeted for neglect or abuse, treated violently?
Spirituality begins with the understanding that God desires you; God longs to be in communion with you. You are the object of God’s desire. You are God’s fine wine.
And then, genuine spirituality opens our hearts to the other, the stranger, the one who is different. And we become aware that his neighborhood is not safe, like ours is; that she has been the victim of abuse; that he is being discriminated against, that their children grow up suffering violence. And just like God, I am not okay with that.
God’s desire, as the prophet-poet imagines it, in the end, that this wine is shared at a table; a banquet, where people from East and West and North and South come together. A common meal shared among equals, with no hierarchy is the opposite of a community of injustice and violence.
Isaiah interpreted his times as dangerous times, headed for calamity. He was persecuted for saying so, but he was right.
Jesus Interprets the times
Were things any better in Jesus’ times? No, they were not.
Jesus’ analysis of his day was that, again, calamity was coming.
Jesus’ words are shocking. We hear Jesus called the Prince of Peace. What does he mean that he came not to bring peace, but a sword? We think of Jesus teaching us to love, not to cause all these family divisions. What could he have meant:
“they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law”?
Let us note that this is not the only time Jesus said things that sounded anti-family. What was he getting at? First, notice that the “axis of separation” is located “precisely between generations” – as John Crossan has written.
He goes on to observe that:
“The family is society in miniature, the place where we first and most deeply learn how to love and be loved, hate and be hated, help and be helped, abuse and be abused. It is not just a center of domestic serenity; since it involves power, it invites the abuse of power, and it is at that precise point that Jesus attacks it.”
— Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus (p. 67). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
It was the hierarchy that defined power relationships that was the problem. In that rigid structure, into which you were born, patriarchal chauvinism was the way things worked. The older generation had power over the younger generation.
Time and again, hierarchies exist to keep those with the power in power, at the expense of those who are on the lower rungs. Power corrupts, as the saying goes.
The Kingdom Alternative
Jesus’ alternative vision was what he called the “kingdom of God.” Unlike hierarchical families, the kingdom was open to all on an equal basis. The kingdom, just like Isaiah had imagined, was like a wedding banquet in Jesus’ parable. It was open to everyone who would come in and sit at table together.
Reading our Times
So how do we read the times today? It is tragic that today we are aware that the family is the location for abuse in so many cases. The number of abused children, and battered spouses is staggering. Just a couple of examples selected from a huge data base:
“Many LGBT youth are at high risk of homelessness, often as a result of family rejection and abuse. LGBT youth make up no more than 10% of that population segment, yet total 40% of homeless youth.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 1998 and 2002:
“Of the almost 3.5 million violent crimes committed against family members, nearly half were crimes against spouses.”
As scholars tell us, the family is society in miniature. It is where we learn to internalize the hierarchies that we then take for granted as simply “the way things work.”
But there is an alternative. Jesus’ vision, which he called the kingdom of God, is a vision of a radically egalitarian and radically open community. As the church, we are called to respond to Jesus’ vision in at least three ways.
First, we are called to model that egalitarian, non-hierarchical and radically open community. Among us there is supposed to be no significance attached to any hierarchies including of race, status, or gender.
As Paul said, in this community:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Gal. 3:28)
We are called to model that community. As our Presbyterian Constitution says, one of the six great ends, or purposes of the church is “The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” We are called to be the one place where power hierarchies are deconstructed, and everyone is valued; where no one is shut out, and where there is no discrimination.
Not only are we called to model the non-hierarchical kingdom, we are called to be a place of refuge for those who have been abused. We are to be the one place where people from dysfunctional families can find an alternative family who will love unconditionally. We are the place where healing can begin; a safe place where instead of fear and shame, people find safe welcome and acceptance.
Third, we are to be the advocates who call our society to justice. We are the ones who lift up our voices and our votes to advocate for policies and practices that protect the powerless.
We seek to hold accountable everyone with power to use their authority to do justice and protect the vulnerable. We are called to be the allies of the ones who are discriminated against: for women, for children, for gay people, for black lives, for the poor, for immigrants, for all the people that are the subjects of God’s desire for humanity.
A Sword? Division?
Sometimes the nature of this egalitarian and open community that we are called to be is not what everybody wants. Sometimes the hierarchies react to calls to end oppression and to do justice. Sometimes, in other words, there is push-back from the ones benefiting from the hierarchies that put them at the top.
This is exactly what Jesus expected. This is why there may be the division that Jesus spoke of. We are okay with that. If our embrace and support for those who are suffering makes us suffer, so be it.
We began today by reflecting on God’s great desire for communion with us. We are God’s vineyard from which he desires us to be his fine wine. And that desire in God’s heart for us, we saw, immediately entails God’s desire for our communion with each other – expressed in just and safe relationships with each other; justice and non-violence.
Both Isaiah and Jesus knew that calamity and division follow, when justice is denied and when violence is condoned.
How do we interpret the present time? We interpret it as a time in which there is a lot of progress that has been made, but still a long way to go. At least we can be glad that the lights are on, and we are now aware of what used to go on in the dark. There are video cameras that reveal what happens on our city streets. There is solid research that reveals the extent of the problems we face.
How do we interpret the present time? We interpret it as time to be the community God calls us to be. This means we fully embrace the fact that personally, we are the subjects of God’s desire for communion. We nurture that communion by our daily spiritual practices.
It means that we respond to the call to be the healing refuge to people who have been hurt by unjust hierarchies of power.
It means that we embrace our role as allies and advocates, even in the face of opposition.
It means we live into that vision of the kingdom, the open table, the banquet, the community of welcome to everyone and justice for all.