Proper 15C: Learning a New Song

Vineyard
Indian Valley Vineyards, San Miguel, CA

FIRST LESSON:  Isaiah 5: 1-7

Read the passage from Isaiah

This passage is one of the best-known oracles of the eighth century prophet and summons its Judean audience to judge the legal complaint of a would-be vintner who lavishes care upon his vineyard but only harvests bitter and useless grapes.  It begins with a song and the writer takes up the role of a minstrel.  It sets the stage for what we think is going to be a wonderful feel-good love song that that brings visions of beauty and love and goodwill, a rich ritual celebration, because this is normal for Biblical literature.

But that is not the song we hear; because, unlike most of the Hebrew love poetry, this song quickly loses its beauty and sensuality and gives way to a sort of judicial oracle.  The “Song of the Vineyard” becomes a parable of judgment against the Hebrew people for their continued disobedience of God.  The words of this song remind us that God did not merely create humanity and then set down Creation with everything that was needed for our enjoyment.  The passage tells us that God expects something from us.  God invites us to a new vision of the world around us.  That is the song that we are about to hear.

Remember that this part of Isaiah is generally assumed to be set in the 8th century, probably sometimes between the death of King Uzziah of Judah and the final fall of Judah in 701 BCE.  During this time, Judah became a vassal of Assyria and fell into practices that were not in accordance with what we would call a right relationship with God, practicing social oppression and allowing social injustices to pervade their society in what the prophet saw as an out and out rejection of God.

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.  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 wines.

The song continues as the owner builds a watchtower in the vineyard, which housed a wine vat.  Think about it.  This image of the watchtower is one of a permanent, immovable point that is higher than everything surrounding it.  The whole vineyard can see this watchtower and from this tower, then, it is possible to view the entire vineyard.  But it is more than a place of mere observation.  It includes a wine vat, or winepress.  This watchtower, then, is the place to which the harvest is brought, peeled, and aged.  It is the place where the harvest is converted to a finely aged wine.  It is the central point, the place where all come to be “aged”, changed into God’s people.  For the Old Testament Hebrews, this was the temple, the center of society.  It was for them that highest holy place where all came to worship God and to be formed into right relationship with their Creator.

God had done everything necessary and expected it to yield the choicest of fruits.  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.  This is probably the key to the passage, for 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 for our response.  God expects something of us.

And then the song changes key.  And now we begin to get a little uncomfortable.  “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah…”  “And now inhabitants of the vineyard that God has created…”  It is at this point that it becomes apparent that the parable is no longer just a nice little entertaining story but is rather an indictment and denouncement of the injustices that had overtaken this society.  You know, for me, this sudden change in person and structure of the passage almost implies that those hearing it just weren’t getting it.  They had gotten so wrapped up in the story that they hadn’t yet realized that it was about them.

And then at the end for those who are apparently really slow on the uptake, the prophet explains it all: the vineyard is indeed Israel and its people are the Lord’s “pleasant planting”.    The implication is that the inhabitants and laborers of the vineyard are no longer even listening to God.  They have treated others badly, even being guilty of the act of oppression or the passive act of closing their eyes or turning their backs while social oppression happens around them.  They have allowed the vineyard to be swallowed up and overtaken by their own greed, self-centeredness, and perhaps even fear.  They have taken what God has provided but have not responded to God’s call to action in faith.  So what began as a glorious love song is now waiting for a harmonious chord once again from the people of God.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • Where do we see ourselves in this passage?
  • What more was there to do that God has not done?
  • Why has it turned out like this?
  • Why is it hard for us to listen to condemnation like this?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Hebrews 11: 29-12:2

Read the passage from Hebrews

This week’s Lectionary passage continues with our so-called “roll call” of the faithful.  Think of it as our family photo album, as the writer of Hebrews (we don’t really know who that is) brings into our memories the snapshots of the faithful that came before us.  Remember that Hebrews was probably written to a small band of new Christians who were suffering persecution and feeling isolated.  So as we look at this remarkable family the writer of Hebrews sketches, we discover two portraits of faith. One portrait is full of images of triumph: conquering enemies, obtaining promises, shutting the mouths of lions, even gaining victory over death. But the other portrait is filled with images of suffering: public mocking, imprisonment, beating, stoning, homelessness, violence, and death. Our lives are always a mixture of successes and failures, of ups and downs.  But the writer of Hebrews mixes the categories because our lot in life is not a measure of our faithfulness.

The passage becomes a word of encouragement for struggling Christians. If we are struggling, and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is suffering, we might despair. Must our suffering continue forever? If we are struggling and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is triumph and victory, what hope is there for us? But the mixing of suffering and triumph gives us a word of hope: faithfulness shines both in suffering and in triumph, both in sorrow and in joy.  Faith trusts God and God’s promises even when it doesn’t make much sense.  We are in good company.  We are never alone.

We are reminded that there is work to do, a race to run, so to speak.  Think of it as a marathon—sometimes invigorating, sometimes grueling, sometimes crowded, sometimes lonely, but always fixed on what is to come.   So we are exhorted to lay aside those things that might trip us up or weigh us down.  And before us, as laid out by the writer of Hebrews is Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  Pioneer, here, is the Greek word archegos, which means author, beginner, instigator.  In the context of a race, the archegos is the team captain, the trailblazer. The writer also depicts Jesus as the perfecter—the one who fills in what is lacking in our faithfulness or our work.  He takes our incomplete faith and makes it whole.  And, for us Christians, there is also the awareness that Jesus, too, has traveled this road.

This passage is read a lot in conjunction with funerals.  You can see why.  But it is also a reminder of our connection through Christ to all those past, present, and future and the fact that we are expected to actually do something, to actually participate in the life we’ve been given, to join in this long list of saints and become part of them.  In remembrance, we find our calling to go forward and be who God calls us to be.

Some of you may remember the movie “Dead Poets Society.”  The movie stars the amazingly talented Robin Williams.  Williams plays John Keating, a high school English teacher at an all-boys private academy, who is committed to helping his students take advantage of life’s opportunities.

There is a compelling scene in the movie when Keating leads his class out into the foyer of the building where old photographs of graduating classes from decades past cover the walls.  As the boys study the portraits of the classes who had graduated generations before them, Keating remarks that the men in those pictures were just like them, full of hope and ambition.  Then Keating asks his class, “Did they wait till it was too late to realize their full potential?”  

Then he tells the class that if they lean in close they can hear a message from the men in these pictures.  So they lean in and Keating whispers, “Carpe Diem.  Carpe Diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.” (From “Postcard from Heaven”, a sermon by Rev. Dr. Charles Reeb, August 15, 2010, available at http://day1.org/2111-postcard_from_heaven, accessed 11 August, 2010.)

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does comfort does this give you?
  • What discomfort does this give you?
  • We Protestants don’t have a lot of “saints” or “heroes” that we’ve publicly recognized. We try to be a bit more inclusive.  So who are the “saints” in your faith story?  Who are your heroes?  Why are they on that list?
  • What would that look like to make your life extraordinary?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 12:49-56

Read the passage from the Gospel According to Luke

Needless to say, this is a hard passage.  We’d rather read of unity and harmony and Jesus instead says that apparently we’re just going to have to live with divisions and disharmony.  Here, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem towards his demise.  So it is apparent here that Jesus is weighing two types of peace—one secular, the other sacred.  The truth is, Jesus did NOT come to bring peace to those in power or to bring comfort to the comfortable.  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 an empathetic God, a God who is nice to everyone.  But how in the world, then, would the earth truly get redeemed?  Jesus is combating forms of authority and power that do not fit in with that vision of a wholly-redeemed earth.  The passage begins with the words, “I came to bring fire to the earth.”  That does not sound good.  It sounds much more like confrontation and conflict.  So 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.

This is a call to fragmentation for the sake of ultimate wholeness.  It is a call to tear down in order to build up.  It is a call, once again, to “die to self”, to let go of what we know and what we have created and what walls we have constructed, and put our faith wholly in the wholly-redeeming God that we know.  It is a call to give your life for the mission of Christ in the world.

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What makes this so difficult for us to hear?
  • What does “redemption” mean to you?
  • What does “peace” mean to you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

We all desperately want peace…that is why “Shalom” is such an oft-repeated word.  For, even as a simple greeting, it embodies deep yearning and solemn promise.  So the ancient sage Hillel insisted that it is not enough to simply want peace, to hope for peace, even to pray for peace; he taught us to “love peace and actively pursue peace.”  (Wayne Dosick, in Dancing with God)

If the poor, the women, and the dispossessed sat at the tables where theological decisions are made, there would be a different set of sins. (Joan Chittister, Called to Question)

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.  (Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century)

 

Closing

…The world has become so strange, and our place in it so tenuous, where gray seems clearer than the white purity of our hopes, or the darkness of our deathly passions.  There is so little agreement among us, perhaps so little truth among us, so little, good Lord, that we scarcely know how to pray, or for what to pray.  We do know, however, to whom to pray!

We pray to you, Creator God, who wills the world good; We pray to you Redeemer God, who makes all things new.  We pray to you, stirring Spirit, healer of the nations.  We pray for guidance, And before that, we pray in repentance, for too much wanting the world on our own terms.  We pray for your powerful mercy, to put the world—and us—in a new way, a way after Jesus who gave himself, a way after Jesus who confounded the authorities and who lived more excellently.

Whelm us by your newness, by peace on your terms—the newness you have promised, of which we have seen glimpses in your Son who is our Lord.  Amen. (Walter Brueggemann, from Prayers for a Privileged People, p. 65-66)                      

 

Proper 25B: See Life Begin Again

Mist and LightOLD TESTAMENT: Job 42: 1-6, 10-17

Read from the Book of Job

We come to the end of the Book of Job. Job has suffered. He has lost everything. He has questioned God and expected God to give him reasons for why all these horrible things have happened to him. But the actions of God are not centered in conventional responses to wickedness and righteousness. The universe is, instead, filled to the brim with mystery and surprise and wonder. God’s answer to Job is: “Think again, Job. Open your eyes wider to the whole of the cosmos. Redirect your attentions away from what you have done to what I am doing.” This is the turning point—Job now has received a new vision of God as YHWH, creator and sustainer as well as struggler with a complex and mysterious order. It is that new vision of YHWH to which Job responds here.

Walter Brueggemann has said that he sees Job “as a recognition of a world that is falling apart and in which the pain of such displacement is acute.” Yet the pain eventually leads to “an incredible leap beyond Israel’s known world.” (42:5) Job inhabited a rather myopic world of retribution and distributive justice, where people get what they deserve, where there is a just God to see that all get what they deserve. But then Job is invited out to a new world, a world not based upon simple, distributive justice. And Job sees now that he is not the center of the world—that his relationship with God is found in his interconnectedness to all of the cosmos—that he is but a part of the wisdom of God.

No one could tell me where my soul might be; I sought for God, but God eluded me. I sought my brother out and found all three—my soul, my God, and all humanity. (From Sometimes I Hurt: Reflections on The Book of Job, Mildred Tengbom, 200) Some would like the drama to end here. After all, hasn’t Job gotten the point? But if Job has become new, we must see him act out of his newness to discover if that newness is genuine. We need to see Job back in the world again.

And so the Lord restores Job’s life. Some of us struggle with this. It gives it a sense of some sort of fairy tale ending and we all know that that type of ending is seldom realistic. But think about it in the context of the larger vision to which Job and we as readers have been invited. God does not just put Job back together again. It is better. If we read it literally, it is better because Job is given more. But, again, step back and look at the larger picture. Perhaps it is a metaphor of what is to come. It says that Job’s days were blessed but it doesn’t say that others were not. Perhaps it is a vision of what the world can be when we allow ourselves to look at it through the lenses of God. It is a world of plenty in which all of Creation prospers. It is a world where we recognize family and our interconnectedness. It is a world where all receive the inheritance of the world. It is a world where we all die, old and full of days of a life to come. “And they all lived happily ever after…”

God has allowed Job to be the hero. God lets us struggle and win and when we lose our life, God gives it back to us. The point is that Job actually encountered God and his life changed. Catherine Marshall once said that “Those who have never rebelled against God or at some point in their lives shaken their fists in the face of heaven, have never encountered God at all.”

God remains Job’s God. There can no longer be any talk of “reward” here—we have dispensed with that way of thinking. God has blessed Job because God loves and wants to bless Job. There is no other reason. It is not for us to ask why. Restoration is a feature of life; restoration is what God can do and does. At the end, I don’t get answers. I get a deepened relationship with God. God doesn’t come with easy answers; God comes offering presence. THAT is the Wisdom of God.

The story of Job is the story of life—our story. It does not travel in a straight, easy-to-follow line. It is not level or soft or easy. It means much, much more than that. If someone tries to present it in some other way, they just don’t get it. Sometimes life is chaotic; sometimes it’s just hard; and sometimes, through no fault of our own, it’s downright unbearable. Answers are not what we need. That’s why I like Job. It DOESN’T give you answers; it teaches you how to journey through life. So, here are my top ten lessons from Job:

 

  1. Life happens ( but we are never alone).
  2. Some things just don’t make sense. (Perhaps we are reading them through a clouded lens, or even too MUCH correction—try wearing your contacts AND your glasses)
  3. We need to make sure that our images of God do not stand in the way of God’s presence in our lives or in the lives of those around us.
  4. God desires to be in relationship with us more than God desires for us to figure God out.
  5. Sometimes we need to just shut up and listen.
  6. Sometimes we need to just give up and let it be.
  7. Everything come from God.  God breathed life and it was so.
  8. The future is an enigma.  Our road is covered in mist.  There will be times when the journey seems perilous and filled with despair.  But when we fling ourselves into what seems an impossible abyss, it is then that we will finally meet God.
  9. God is God.  We are not.
  10. And then we will die old and full of days, and realize that life has only just begun.
  •  
  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this say about God?
  3. Where do you find yourself in this story?
  4. What stands in the way of our seeing what Job finally saw?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 7: 23-28

Read from The Letter to the Hebrews

The central statement for this passage is the implication that Christ’s priesthood, as compared to the traditional Levitical priesthood, is permanent. For this reason, we can rely on it to be with us as we face life. Some of the statements could be construed as almost anti-Semitic, because the author almost seems to be presenting the new covenant as a replacement of the old. But you have to understand that when this was written, there was a sort of resurgence of the old Judaism and the author would have felt the need to counter some of their claims.

The author speaks of Christ’s priesthood as a different order—a permanent order that, unlike the Levites, did not have to continually purify itself over and over again. But for us, the concept of Christ as a permanent part of our lives, one who keeps speaking on our behalf, one is engaged with humanity and not just exercising authority over us. The main contrast focuses on the sacrifice that Christ enacted in relation to permanence and impermanence. Christ’s sacrifice is for all time, whereas the Levitical priests have to sacrifice over and over again in obedience to God, will die and must be replaced. But Christ offers forgiveness and the offering itself is permanent.

The point is that the world is God’s. The world is called to reflect the vision that God has for it. And yet, the world does not yet reflect that image. There is almost an underlying theme in Hebrews of wandering, of us as a wandering people. But God through Christ offers permanence, offers home. God has promised us faithfulness. That, too, echoes throughout Hebrews. The promise of Sabbath rest has not yet been completely fulfilled. And, yet, even we wanderers are part of it. We are pilgrims who have not yet arrived at home. But home is always there.

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does the idea of Jesus being engaged with humanity mean for you?
  3. What does this idea of Christ’s permanent priesthood mean for us?
  4. What stands in the way of us entering that permanence?
  5. What does the image of wandering and pilgrimage mean for you?

GOSPEL: Mark 10: 46-52

Read the Gospel Passage

First, we need to remember that blindness was much more prevalent in the world in which this passage was written than even today.  Much of it was caused by a sort of parasitic virus that could be easily spread (almost like pink-eye can be today.)  There was a strong belief among Judaism of that day that when the Messiah came, blindness would be cured.

In the passage for this week, the story of blind Bartimaeus is immediately preceded by the story of James and John who asked Jesus to chose the two of them to be seated at his right hand and left hand in glory. Jesus asked both James and John the IDENTICAL question he asked blind Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” James and John were spiritually blind; and when their story was over, they were still spiritually blind. Bartemaeus was physically blind; but when his story was over, Bartimaeus could see.

You have to admire Bartimaeus.  He found out that Jesus was approaching and without any hesitation whatsoever, pled for mercy.  Well, of course, people dismissed him, wanting him to shut up.  So he got louder.  I admire his persistence.  Can you imagine what must have gone through his mind when Jesus called him forth?  And with vigor, he threw his cloak down.  Other translations use the world “mantle” (implying something more authoritative, more having to do with identity, that a mere “cloak”).  His answer to Jesus’ question was that he wanted to see AND he believed that Jesus could and would do it.  His faith made him well.

It’s a good metaphor for faith.  The story of faith begins in darkness and ends in light.  The name Bartimaeus means “son of honor”.  He was eager, he was needy, he was a little impetuous, he was hopeful, he was expectant…all those things that faith is.  He is willing to beg, to shout, to shout louder, to strip, to do whatever it takes to encounter Christ.  It’s a good lesson to us Christians who tend to act properly.  Bartimaeus was saying to Jesus, “Give me whatever it takes for me to see the way to follow you.”

And there is another level of this story.  This story ends a section of Jesus’ life in the Scriptures.  The first section could be named “Galilee”; the second “The Journey to Jerusalem”.  This story is the last story in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus is now ready to enter the last chapter:  “Jerusalem”.  He now will enter the town and face what is to come.  It sheds a whole new light on truly “seeing”.

Another aspect of this story is a metaphorical one.  We can take it literally and assume that Bartimaeus could not physically see.  But maybe it’s meant to be taken metaphorically.  What if Bartimaeus’ faith enabled him to see what Jesus was showing him, to follow Jesus on The Way, whether or not this involves physical healing? What if it is more a story of someone who, as opposed to Job having to have everything important to him taken away in order to see differently, openly and willingly shed his very identity, that which was of some significance to him in order to bare himself for Jesus to give him new vision?

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does this say about faith?
  3. What stands in our way of having this kind of faith?
  4. How would you answer Jesus question: “What do you want me to do for you?”

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Faith transforms the earth into a paradise.  By it our hearts are raised with the joy of our nearness to heaven.  Every moment reveals God to us.  Faith is our light in this life. (Jean Pierre de Caussade)

When you have come to the edge of all light that you know and are about to drop off into the darkness of the unknown, Faith is knowing one of two things will happen:  There will be something solid to stand on or you will be taught how to fly. (Patrick Overton)

Fidelity is the fine art of remaining faithful to a vision that must come but is, for whatever reason, delayed. (Joan Chittister, Becoming Fully Human, 90)

 

Closing

Healer of every ill, light of each tomorrow, give us peace beyond our fear, and hope beyond our sorrow.

 

You who know our fears and sadness, grace us with your peace and gladness; Spirit of all comfort, fill our hearts.

 

In the pain and joy beholding how your grace is still unfolding, give us all your vision, God of love.

 

You who know each thought and feeling, teach us all your way of healing; Spirit of compassion, fill each heart.   Amen

Marty Haugen, “Healer of Every Ill”, The Faith We Sing, # 2213