The truth is that all too often what we experience can take a seriously negative toll on our hopes and dreams. Feeling let down by our faith community may turn us away from God’s vision for our own lives. Reality is that the consequences of institutional injustice, racism, and the personal and social sins that harm us can’t be avoided, not by us or interestingly enough, by God. Even when we are doing our best to follow God there are no guarantees that our path will be productive or easy. The wisdom that Bruce Epperly gleaned from four passages of scripture is that if we remain awake to sacredness of this present moment we discover hope beyond conflict and failure.
Our passage from Isaiah describes a love story gone wrong. The lover has given the beloved everything possible to flourish, but the beloved turns away from the love that gives life and fecundity. Saddened by the beloved’s wildness, the lover has no choice but to let the beloved suffer the consequences of turning away from love. Love never compels. It seeks to heal and transform. Even love has its limits. It must contend with the freedom of the beloved.
Isaiah 5: 1-7 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He 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. 3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What 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? 5And 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. 6I 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. 7For 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!
God cannot compel the world to reflect God’s vision. When we turn away, God’s vision gets distorted; limited God’s possibilities can even appear negative to those who have turned away from divine love. Our actions have consequences for ourselves and for God. The good news is that love never gives up in its quest for life abundant for us and others.
Psalm 80: 1-2, 8-19 continues the image of a vineyard to describe God’s relationship with Israel, the world and us. The vineyard has been ravaged and may become a wasteland. The Psalmist cries out for divine deliverance. The Psalmist asks God to return again, for apart from God the vineyard is lost. Regardless of the source of the vineyard’s current condition, the Psalmist cries out to God to bless the nation once more. But, will blessing restore a people who refuse to repent?
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River. Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted. They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance. But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
The author of Hebrews 11:29-12:2 goes to great lengths to tell us that persons of faith are not guaranteed success or safety in this lifetime. The author takes faith seriously, but there is always an “in spite of” element to faith. Hebrews critiques prosperity gospels that promise to provide a slick road to success along with “how to” messages for turning your faith into riches and power. Our hopes are never complete in this world. We must trust that God’s ultimate intent for creation will be realized in the future, even if we do not experience it ourselves in our lifetimes.
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
On the pilgrim way, our salvation and hope is found in looking to Jesus, the model of faith and source of healing and transformation. We are surrounded and sustained by a cloud of witnesses, whose lives and intercessions shape our lives. We cannot predict or insure the success of our endeavors but we can trust God with the final word for our lives, and that word is grace. In the meantime, Christ’s spirit guides us through dark valleys and challenging situations, promising a horizon of hope and healing.
Luke 12:49-56 asserts that our responses in obedience to Jesus’ message will lead to polarization and conflict. In this passage Jesus is a provocateur not a peacemaker. Jesus’ vision of the world as it should be is so radical, and so threatening, that will many turn against his followers. By living with integrity Jesus sees the possibility of martyrdom emerging from the violent actions of fearful and self-interested people.
49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they 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.”
54He 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. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
We are not alone as we struggle with diversity of opinion, lifestyle, worship, and politics in our Meeting. We need to ask ourselves what radical visions lead to polarization in our Meeting. Dare we pursue potentially polarizing courses – perhaps related to global climate change, racism, economic injustice, inequalities in education, health care, and due process in the legal system? Can our meeting be both brazenly prophetic and empatheticaly pastoral? This Gospel passage is clear. A cost will be demanded regardless of whether we pursue a prophetic spirituality that challenges or a pastoral ministry that aligns itself with institutional injustice. Similarly there will be a price to pay for embracing destructive cultural norms or challenging destructive personal and interpersonal behaviors.
Jesus’ words suggest that the source of conflict will be found in the various ways we interpret our present time. What do we notice as we view the “signs of the times?” What is amiss in our culture, our economics, and our politics? In our congregational lives what are the things to which we are oblivious? Do radically different visions need always to lead to schism and conflict?
From the recent focus on Paul’s letter to the Romans we are called to live with our own integrity which may call us to prophetic obedience to Christ’s call on our lives. But it also requires of us that we acknowledge that though different from ours’ the course another is called to follow requires of them the same level of integrity and obedience we expect of ourselves. The source of unity, rather than schism and conflict, is grasping Paul’s notion that each one of us has to be faithful to the call of our own master who alone is in the position of evaluating the rightness or wrongness of our service.
Yes, we need to be aware of the many factors that create each moment of experience for ourselves and others. Faithfulness requires us to keep our heart, soul and mind open to see God at work in own life and in the lives of those with whom we worship. Are we attending to the highest divine possibilities for our own lives and the communities around us? God’s vision is always both local and global, and corporate and personal. God’s intentions are for the highest possibilities for this moment. Stay awake then. Strain your eyes toward God’s messages hidden within the unfolding of history and our personal and corporate lives.