August 18, 2019

Pentecost 10 C August 18, 2019   (Ps 80, Isaiah 5:1-7, Hebrews 11:23-31, 12:1-2)

Luke 12:49-56      Stormy weather ****************************************************************

Jesus seems to be in a stormy mood today – telling us he’s come to bring fire on earth and division in families – asking ‘how is it we can tell what the weather’s going to be – looking at the signs of earth and sky – but we don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times?’

We may not have as good a “weather-eye” as people in Jesus’ day – who mostly worked outside, observed nature closely, and could tell with a quick look at clouds and sky – what kind of weather was coming. Now weather-watching’s become an industry, with entire tv channels and websites dedicated to nothing but weather.  And though many people claim to understand the signs of the times… Whether any really do – God knows…  And…

We’re in the middle of Luke’s gospel now and the mood is very different from our opening chapters – where, before Christmas, in Luke’s first chapter, we heard Zechariah, daddy of John the Baptist, prophesying of Jesus leading us into paths of peace. Then in Luke’s second chapter, angels we have heard on high tell shepherds tending their flocks by night – (that) baby Jesus, born this night, represents God’s promise of peace on earth, mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.  And as it is in the beginning, so again it will be in the end – as Jesus, risen from the dead, greets disciples saying Peace be with you.

But here in the middle of the story, Jesus is telling us – be ready for division – before we get to multiplication. Be prepared for family feuds… and stormy weather…

Over the years I’ve often tried to avoid difficult scripture readings when they come up in our lectionary bible reading schedule. But difficult readings come up rather frequently, since scripture comments on life, and life is good, but difficult. And Jesus tells us he hasn’t come to make life less difficult. More interestingly and healthily difficult – but not less difficult. So – our lectionary bible reading schedule often clusters difficult bible readings together thematically to make it harder for pastors like me to wimp out and cherry-pick only the sweetest scriptures while avoiding the more difficult parts of the bible. Parts of the word of God we do need to hear and consider. If it were otherwise, why does Jesus give us so many difficult sayings to ponder?

But over time I’ve been slowly learning – there’s nearly always good news somewhere even in the hardest parts of scripture… If we’re patient enough to listen and hear. What’s been helping me see and hear more of the good news that’s nearly always there, mixed-in with what’s otherwise harder-to-hear-news… has been learning more about the bible’s many ways of communicating indirectly – through analogies, parables, poetry and allusions to other parts of the bible. Parts of scripture are labeled as songs, and in Judaism nearly all scripture has at times been sung in worship settings…

So, following the lead of bible scholars, I hear God and Israel singing to each other today – each using vineyard as a familiar and affectionate nick-name for Israel. And since Jesus has us talking today about weather as a spiritual metaphor, I’ve been thinking of Lena Horne singing Stormy Weather, in the movie of the same name – where weather works as metaphor for the state of the world, as Lena sings:  Don’t know why – There’s no sun up in the sky – Stormy weather – Since my love and I ain’t together. Keeps raining all the time…

The mood is wistful, sad, yet oddly romantic…Rainfall in the movie lends support to the mood of the song…

That could be Israel in Psalm 80, singing to God, portraying herself, Israel, as the vineyard of the Lord – singing of tears of pain and loss over the perceived absence of God in the life of the nation… and… We picture gentle rain. And feel hope… for the romance to be rekindled.

But then here comes God using the same vineyard imagery, in our reading from Isaiah – starting with the same kind of wistful romantic tone of voice Israel employs in the psalm. Except now as God sings through the voice of the prophet Isaiah, the mood changes abruptly from gentle rain to a much wilder, turbulent, tempestuous kind of stormy weather – like the tornadoes that blew through the Cape earlier this summer… As now we hear God’s side of the story – as God tells Israel – the stormy relationship is crashing and burning because of Israel’s flagrant infidelity–forsaking God for worship of idols. And God’s sings of God’s beloved vineyard yielding only wild sour grapes… instead of the cultivated sweet fruit of justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Reminding me of those systematic theologians of old with a Baptist-sounding name – Creedence Clearwater Revival – making weather again a metaphor for the state of the world as they sing: I hear hurricanes a blowing – I know the end is coming soon. I fear rivers overflowing – I hear the voice of rage and ruin… Don’t go around tonight – Well, it’s bound to take your life – There’s a bad moon on the rise

The song is apocalyptic – meaning about end times… Though admittedly it can be easy to miss the message of the words – thanks to the intensely rhythmic and almost-cheerful-sound of the band. Song writer John Fogerty (who, the radio says is or was singing on the Vineyard this month – is still singing the song fifty years after Bad Moon was a hit on AM radio – and he says the song was meant to suggest An end – not The End.)

Which, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, is a bit like how I’m hearing Jesus, as he speaks of the baptism-of-fire he yearns to see finished, completed, accomplished as-if-retroactively. He’s not talking about literal fire that kills…or ends the world. I’m all the more sure, because, I’m remembering – how when his disciples James and John ask if they can call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village and scorch it when the village refuses hospitality, Jesus rebukes them sternly. And I’m remembering fire and baptism go together way back in Luke chapter 3, where John the Baptist says “after me comes one more powerful than me. I baptize with water, but he’ll baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Fire is a powerful biblical symbol of judgement – and purification. And if we can’t always tell which is which – probably that’s because God knows we need the suspense and tension of not knowing in advance what God is going to do…

We need to know judgement is part of God’s plan. We also need to know –  how God works judgement – what that will be like… is something only God knows. But…

When Jesus says  I’ve come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it was already burningI’ve got a baptism of fire to go through… that’s burning inside me… til it’s completed… Most bible commentaries confirm Jesus is talking about his journey to the cross…Soon to be accomplished… And he’s using fiery language to keep his followers alert on the journey.

Jesus may also be seeing further on… ahead to the day of Pentecost, fifty days after his crucifixion (Acts 2), when tongues of fire will be dancing on the heads of disciples as the Holy Spirit’s poured out, and the purifying fire of the Spirit transforms the world as we used to know it…as the fire John the Baptist and some disciples of Jesus expected to be fatal – turns out to be the cleansing, healing, and purifying fire of the Holy Spirit…

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So also…When Jesus is talking about division and disruption in the family I’m sure he’s not saying – this is a good thing – not saying we shouldn’t love our families. But Jesus is telling us up-front, so it won’t come as a big surprise – following him will put us out of sync with those who want to preserve the status quo – including often our own families. Following Jesus isn’t going to make us popular. If we’re doing what Jesus says, we’re going to be living our lives very differently from what most of the world considers “normal behavior.”

When I stopped partying hearty and started trying to walk with Jesus some of my old friends let me know I wasn’t much fun to hang out with any more. I was sorry to miss some of their company… but… That was a very small price to pay –  compared with the struggles and sufferings our ancestors in faith experienced, as described in the letter to the Hebrews… I did have to step back and step away from much of what I used to do… and some who I used to do it with… Sometimes including a family member… But in retrospect it was only in this stepping back and stepping aside that I began to realize…

Family is part of God’s plan. God creates us in God’s image as members of families, and by God’s design family is a good thing. Yet families, being human, are universally, without exception, broken. All families have issues – some more obvious than others – but all family relationships need to be made secondary to God… Otherwise we drift away from God… and repeat, generation to generation, the same-old-self-defeating patterns…that we see in scripture… that are already old by the end of Genesis. So –

Jesus warns us today against even the very normal human temptation to make family an idol –  meaning anything that ranks ahead of God in our life. He warns especially of the danger of socially-approved forms of idolatry – which are usually harder to detect and harder to give up. It’s virtually always considered socially acceptable,  even praise-worthy to worship idols – if our idols are basically good things – like family – nation – church – civic activity – or (God forbid!) even fishing – rather than something more obviously problematic –  like booze, drugs, lust, predatory behavior, greed for money and power. (Which, come to think of it, are considered socially-acceptable in certain social circles – especially for those who have enough money and power to maintain plausible deniability…)

But anything we love more than God – even good things – becomes an idol.

And idols always fail us – when the storms of life are raging – and life’s foundations are shaken to the core…

So as Jesus continues heading for the cross – he’s trying to make sure we, his new family, are ready for his kingdom. As Jesus calls us to recognize and understand the signs of the times. And be ready. A word of Jesus should be sufficient….

As one of the poets of old has sung – “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows…” We don’t have to be bible scholars, theologians, or Mother Teresa to know…

Now is the only time there is – or ever will be – to make any and all changes we need to make… to be ready for Jesus and his kingdom…

We’re not all called to be apostles, prophets, and martyrs who stand before rulers of nations and call them on the carpet for violating God’s law of love. But we are all called to build on the rock of Jesus – living lives committed to the justice, mercy, good faith, and love… Jesus tells us are the signs of his kingdom.

So let’s pray for each other always.

Pray for the healing, cleansing power of God’s Spirit to prevail for us… and for all…

Thanks be to God.  Amen.