Tough Love

Linda Mackie-Grigg’s sermon for 13 Pentecost Year C (Proper 15)   14 August 2016  

Isaiah 5:1-7; Luke 12: 49-56

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard…”

It has been said that when a preacher first approaches a Scripture passage, she should “look for trouble.” Well, today it looks like trouble found the preacher. We have been gifted with an array of images that, even if it weren’t the middle of August, it would have us sweating in our seats. And it should. Sometimes trouble is the best path to growth.

Isaiah wrote his “love song” in the 8th century B.C. from the ashes of the Syro-Ephraimite war, during which the southern kingdom of Judah (where Jerusalem was located) was invaded by the kingdoms of Israel and Syria. Isaiah was Prophet to King Ahaz of Judah, and believed, as prophets tended to do, that the disaster that was befalling the kingdom was God’s punishment for society’s sins. This passage is a very clever amalgam of rhetorical styles—a love-song, woven with a legal complaint, which morphs into a parable, which concludes as a blistering indictment of the Kingdom of Judah. It’s rhetorically brilliant, and it’s painful. As we listen to the transformation from love-song to declaration of guilt we hear the voice of the prophet change, from that of lover (“Let me sing for my beloved”), to grief-stricken disillusioned vineyard-owner (“and now…judge between me and my vineyard), to God’s self (“I will command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it”), to God’s silence; only the lonely voice of the prophet himself articulates God’s anger in the end: “He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

Has Isaiah cleverly, surgically, offered us a portrait of a God who has given up on his people? We can’t help but wonder; what happened to God’s steadfast and unfailing love?The only way God can be seen as giving up is if this is the end of the story. And of course it’s not, but for now we are called to rest uncomfortably in this place—in this place of God’s grief and judgment.

“What more was there to do for my vineyard?”, the Grower asks. I planted it, I tended it, I protected it. I loved it. And all I got was a field of sour, seedy, rotten grapes. The Grower’s painstaking care is the freely offered grace of God, and the prophet here declares that God the Grower desires, no, expects a response—expects the sweet harvest of righteousness and justice, not the bitter fruit of cries and bloodshed.

The image of grapes is particularly appropriate here: This isn’t an ornamental crop—it’s a staple, whose purpose is to nourish and refresh. And when the peoples’ response to God’s gracious love was to reject it by showing contempt for the outsider, the poor, the sick, the marginalized—that was rotten fruit indeed. And God’s love song turned into a bitter lament.

God’s judgment, then, is to take down the wall and let the chips fall where they may with his wayward beloved ones. Destruction shall come as a consequence of their own actions—they have made their choice. If that is how they want it, so be it.

This is a hard place of God’s lament and judgment, and it is tempting to take from this a simplistic worldview that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. Perhaps this is a fair criticism of Isaiah and most of the prophets—a point magnificently argued in the book of Job, in which we wrestle with theodicy–why bad things happen to good people. And it is absolutely worthwhile to wrestle with this issue. But not now. Because if we’re not careful we will let this distract us from Isaiah’s clarion call to repentance and renewal–A call to justice, righteousness, peace, and compassion in a world where all of these were in painfully short supply. And they still are.

Jesus was definitely channeling his inner prophet in his anguished declaration to his followers in our gospel from Luke. As we have said in recent weeks this discourse takes place after Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross—which is the ‘baptism’ of which he speaks. He is invoking fire, but not the violent destruction that we heard of with Elijah and the prophets of Baal; rather Jesus is talking about the fire of judgment. Even so, it’s difficult to hear—God’s judgment isn’t the topic most people flock to when pondering their spiritual well-being. However, it helps to see God’s judgment as cleansing, not destructive; to have everything that keeps us from our ultimate union with the Divine burned away as if by a metal refiner—that–the cleansing fire of judgment– is what Jesus yearns to ignite in this passage.

Because you see, Jesus sees something. He sees the cracks. He sees the Kingdom breaking in. He knows that God is still tending and painfully pruning his vineyard and that those who accept the invitation to be part of that work are taking the risk of running afoul of the principalities and powers—challenging the social, political and economic structures that heretofore had undergirded an unjust society.

In the first century world, the fundamental social unit was the family; that was the basic building block—a household governed by firm social rules under an authoritative paterfamilias. So what Jesus alludes to here is a radical institutional redefinition– father against son, mother against daughter. Things are changing, he says. There are cracks in the system, and the kingdom is breaking in—right now. And the work of the vineyard, just as in Isaiah’s time, continues to be justice, righteousness, and compassion.

Jesus’ passionate discourse, like Isaiah’s, is a call to open our eyes and see the signs, and to be willing to take the risk of speaking truth—to ourselves and others–regarding entrenched and oppressive social and economic structures; to hear and respond to the cries of the refugees, the victims of discrimination, the poor, the lost and hurting—all of God’s beloved for whom we pray every week. God’s vineyard is expansive and inclusive, and God has never, never, given up—has never stopped singing a love song and yearning for a bountiful harvest. Jesus plays a demanding and compelling refrain, and it’s to us to write the next verse.


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