A Different Song
Lectionary Texts: Isaiah 5: 1-7 (Luke 12: 49-56)
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, August 14, 2016
- Let Me Sing You a Love Song
When we started reading the passage from Isaiah a while ago, all of us probably sat back just a little bit, ready to hear soothing and uplifting chords of a love song wafting through our lives, ready to settle in from our busy and somewhat chaotic week and hear the promises that God, our lover and creator, has in store for us. Admit it, that’s why most of us come here every Sunday morning, to regroup, to re-center, to get a better perspective on our lives, and to feel better. “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song…”
But then the love song goes awry, changing into a key with which we are unfamiliar and one to which listening is somewhat painful. We hear melodies of judgment and destruction, of waste and thirst, of blood and tears. Suddenly the song is one of unresolved dissonance. What happened? We actually like those things with which we’re comfortable, those songs that are in the key that better suits our voice and our hearing. Why did God change the key so abruptly? Perhaps it was to shake us out of our slumber and make us sit up and take notice. Or perhaps this is God’s way of forcing us out of our comfort zones and out of those keys in which we’ve written all of our music and forcing us to hear the song in a different way.
I learned to read music by learning to play the piano. Those of you who ever took piano lessons know the way you started. You started on middle C and moved to D and then to E and then back to D and then back to C. For the rest of you, if you ever saw “The Sound of Music”, it’s “Do-Re-Mi”. It really is the very foundation of music. And yet, I doubt there’s a tune anywhere in our hymnal that could be played using only those three notes. In other words, if we only stayed with what we know, the tune is easy to hear, but it really doesn’t mean anything. There is a whole bevy of other notes and other songs on the keyboard. In fact, there are whole traditions of music that are composed using only 5 notes on the keyboard and, interestingly enough, they are often all of the black keys, which were the last keys that I learned to play on the piano. These are not the notes that draw us in. They are sort of a pain when you’re playing. You have to pay a little bit more attention and think a little bit faster. And when they are played next to the main white notes, they are dissonant sounding. They sound like they don’t belong. These five notes per octave and their variations are called the pentatonic scale and out of them come Celtic music, Jazz, African-American spirituals, and others. They provide a richness and a diversity to our lives that we will not find if limit our lives to “Do-Re-Mi”.
The “Song of the Vineyard” uses the same notes. It takes us beyond what we know and becomes a parable of judgment against the Hebrew people for their continued disobedience of God, for their closed-mindedness, for their inability to hear the notes beyond what they knew. The words of this song remind us that God did not merely create humanity and then lay out Creation with everything that was needed for our gratification and enjoyment. Creation is not merely something to be consumed. The passage tells us that something is expected of us. God paints a new vision of the world around us and then invites us to become co-creators of that new vision, to become part of bring the Kingdom of God into its fullness of being. That is the words of the song that we heard read today.
- What Happened?
And yet, most of us are still sitting there wondering what happened. Isn’t this the God who loves us, who wants us to be happy and secure and fulfilled? What happened to that love song we were promised?
So, a little background…The setting of this first part of Isaiah, which includes this passage, is generally assumed to be set in the 8th century before the Common Era, probably sometime between the death of King Uzziah of Judah and the final fall of Judah in 701 BCE. During this time, Judah became a vassal with sworn loyalty to Assyria and so fell into practices that were not in accordance with a right relationship with God, falling into the traps of accepting social oppression and allowing social injustices to pervade their society in what the prophet saw as an out and out rejection of God and what God calls them to be. Essentially, they had allowed the culture—a culture to which they did not belong—to take over their lives and make them someone they were not.
So the parable begins with a portrayal of a vineyard nestled on a lush and fertile hill. The image of the fertile soil depicts an image of growing, ongoing life. There is nothing stagnant about God’s gift of Creation. According to the passage, the owner has “dug it and cleared it of stones.” This implies that God has worked for this—this is not just some “haphazard” act of Creation that God has plunked down without any thought to what would happen. The people have been given all that is required; God only expects that they yield the fruits of faith in response to God’s gift of Creation. God has planted this lush, green vineyard with choice vines, those deep red vines, capable of producing the best and sweetest of fruits and the finest of wines. And God has a vision of what the vineyard will become.
We’ve actually heard this before. It starts with “In the beginning…in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God created all there was, laid it out, breathed life into it, and gave it everything that it needed for that life to prosper, for that life to grow into that fully-producing vineyard that it could become.
But something went wrong and the harvest was one of wild, sour grapes which, though edible, are not fit for the making of fine wines. At this point, the people start squirming a bit uncomfortably, perhaps beginning to realize that this story is about them. It is here that it is evident that the vineyard is useless without the harvest—it is just land; it is here that we are reminded that God’s Creation is meant not for our use, not for our enjoyment, but for our response. God expects something of us. The song is nothing if we do not listen to it.
The truth is, this passage is God’s way of asking what happened. God gave us all that we needed to build a life and, instead, we walled it off and built an empire that is a reflection of us and our desires rather than God.
III. Well, It’s a Good Thing We Have Jesus!
Well, it’s a good thing we have Jesus, right? We like hanging out with him—the storyteller, the teacher, the healer, the comforter, the mentor, the one who will get us out of this jam of a world that we have and bring us all together. Isn’t that right? And then we begin today’s Gospel with “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!…Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to bring division!” Well that doesn’t sound like the Jesus we’ve come to know.
I will be honest—this is one of those weeks that when it’s all said and done is the REASON that I like preaching the lectionary. Because, I will tell you, I would NEVER have chosen to preach on either of these Scriptures. It would have been a whole lot easier and whole lot more comfortable to just pull out a sermon on love and grace that I really liked instead of coming up with something to say about these Scriptures. You can see why. I don’t know, maybe Jesus was having a bad day or needed some more coffee or something. What is that about? What happened to that great guy who welcomed all the children and made the disciples breakfast on the beach?
Yeah, we’d rather read of unity and harmony but in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus says instead that we should expect divisions and disharmony. The truth is, Jesus did NOT come to affirm what was in place or bring peace to those in power or to bring comfort to the comfortable. His purpose was to show us what God had created it to be. Jesus came to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, to loosely quote a journalist of 100 years ago or so. Remember that Jesus had in mind a completely new vision, not a “peaceful” earth such that we know.
This is hard for us. We tend to want a nice, well-behaved, empathetic God, a God who affirms everything that we do and tells us that it’s all going to be alright. We want a Messiah that makes us feel safe. But how in the world, then, would the earth truly get redeemed? Why in the world would we have needed the cross? If we could save ourselves, then the crucifixion would have been a massive overreaction by an angry God. But it’s not. The cross is not a depiction of God giving up on us or something that God necessarily planned for effect; the cross is the beginning of God’s greatest act of creation yet, the act of taking something so horrible, so seemingly irreversible, something that we humans had done, and recreating it into life.
And yet, in this passage, Jesus sounds really angry at us. What do we do with that? How can this be good news? Our answer depends on the way we view the world and the way we view God. If the world was exactly the way it should be, then this passage would make no sense. But if the world is marred by oppression and social injustices and killing and war, what would that say about a God who would just let that be? Jesus is not coming to disturb and bring havoc to a “nice” world; he came to redeem the one we have. So, yes, Jesus is angry—REALLY angry. But think about it, anger that comes from hatred results in destruction and death; but anger that is motivated by deep and abiding love—the love that God has for us, brings about change, growth, and new life. Pastor and author Adam Hamilton said that leaders create chaos and change. That’s the whole idea. God loves us so much that the things that are NOT us, not who God envisions that we could be, those things that are harming the very image of God in which we were created, are being burned away. Fire is not just a sign of anger; it is a sign of transformation.
- The Pain of Transformation
It doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable. It may even mean that it’s painful sometimes. There is a story of an amateur naturalist who saw a cocoon. And he watched as a butterfly began to struggle to get out of the cocoon. It was amazing. He watched as this miracle unfolded. Then he did a very dumb thing. He took out a knife and slit the cocoon just a little so that the butterfly did not have to struggle. The butterfly emerged and began to fly a little. But it was a very weak butterfly and really couldn’t go very far because it had never had to struggle in its own birth, its own becoming.
We are no different. God did not come into this world as Jesus to protect us or to make this faith thing easier. God never intended to get rid of the things that make this a hard journey. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that “true disciples are always few in number.” (You have to think about that one. That’s hard for us who measure success in large numbers to swallow.) See, our faith walk always involves a struggle. It is only through struggle that we are strengthened. It is through crisis that we find opportunity to change and to grow and to be transformed in the faith.
G.K. Chesterton once said that “the whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.” That is the whole idea. God loves us just as God is creating and recreating us into what God imagines we can be.
But the good news is that Jesus is not just a flame-thrower. The fire that Jesus brings is not one of destruction, but one that refines and changes. And the clincher is that God is IN the fire. God is IN the change. God IS the transformation in our lives. And the fire is followed by resurrection.
- Seeing What God Sees
So how do we get past it all? How do we begin to see what God sees? How do we look at things that are hard for us, that scare us and prompt to fold ourselves up to protect ourselves, at the fire and the darkness that our faith sometimes brings about and see what it could become? In her book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom”, Rachel Remen writes about how in her childhood her family loved to put together those giant jigsaw puzzles. And her father would always hide the boxtop to make it just a little bit more challenging. (Truthfully, that would really make me mad!) They would leave it out on a table and different people would drop by and work a little on it. When she was about three or four, she wanted so badly to participate, so she climbed upon a chair and looked at all the different puzzle pieces laid out on the table. She loved the ones that were bright colors and happy pictures. But she thought that the dark ones looked like spiders and they scared her. So she gathered all the dark ones up and hid them under the sofa cushion. Well, of course, the puzzle didn’t make sense. And the family tried for weeks to put it together without any success. See the picture needed even the dark and foreboding pieces to be complete, to be the beautiful picture it was meant to be.[i]
We have to learn to see the way God sees. We have to learn to imagine what the world around us, what our community, what our church, even what we can become. And God’s vision for that is the hope to which we hold. Do you know the song “The Church in the Wildwood”? William S. Pitts wrote it in 1857 and most of always assume that it was a song about his childhood church. But the truth is that he first set foot in Bradford, Iowa in June of 1857. And he saw a spot of land that was what he described as one of “rare beauty”. It had no church on it. But he imagined that it was waiting for a church—a little brown church. He wrote the song and put the manuscript away. And within the next five or so years, the people of Bradford imagined and built a church in that very spot. When Pitts returned for a visit, the building was ready for dedication. He had never sang the song to anyone before. But he sang it there for the first time. The church was later painted brown because they couldn’t really afford any other paint and it became nicknamed the “little brown church in the vale”. And it’s still there. (It’s held more than 70,000 weddings since 1918.) But it was imagined before it came to be.
- Paul Stevens talks about salvation as both a rescue operation and a completion project. He says this: “The last thing we do is the first thing we think about. If we want to have a party with a cake, we first think about the party, then the cake. Then we buy the ingredients and turn the oven on. We do not first turn the oven on, go out to buy the ingredients, and then plan a party. God envisioned the final party…and then “thought up” creation.”[ii]
- A Different Song
That’s the vineyard that God imagined. That’s the Kingdom that Jesus brought. But we have to let go of what we have created, what walls we have constructed, and open ourselves to God’s transforming fire. See, Jesus was not chastising the disciples for their inability to do something; he was frustrated that they were so unwilling to try, so unwilling to open themselves to the new life that God brings even into what we think is dark and foreboding. He was angry that they were content to just stay where they were.
In the beginning, God wrote this most incredible symphony of which we have only heard a small part, of which we have only opened ourselves to a few notes. There are still chords that sound odd to our way of hearing, some that even scare us. But we have to be open to listening and learning the part that we are called to play.
I talked about those 5 black keys on a keyboard that are sometimes not given the same respect that the other keys are. Together, they compose the 5-note pentatonic scale. It’s not a part of many of our mainstream types of music. The first time this country heard it, it was probably coming from the bowels of the slave-ships, remnants of old Africa, notes of sorrow and change. But listen to this:
(Pentatonic Scale “Amazing Grace”)
That sort of sounds like God envisioned it all along. So where are those moments of grace that slip through the spaces that we don’t expect? Rather than walling ourselves off to what we know, what would happen if we opened ourselves up to change, to transformation, to that lush and fruitful vineyard that God already has in mind? What would it mean to open ourselves to those flames of fire that God’s Spirit brings into our lives so that we can be refined, so that we can be changed, so that we can become exactly who God envisions we can be? What would it be like to open ourselves to a completely different song and hear what God is trying to say?
In the Name of the One who is the composer, conductor, and accompanist for every song we hear. Amen.
[i] From “Kitchen Table Wisdom”, by Rachel Naomi Remen, (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1996), 169.
[ii] R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days, (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdman’s Publishing, 1999), 90.