Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Readings for (Proper 15) Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost 19th August 2007 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 15C / Ordinary 20C / Pentecost +12 Textweek

One of the difficulties in reading and even listening to readings from scripture in our present age is that we’re not conditioned to do it. If we listen to the readings this morning without really attending, what we end up doing is we engage the same process as when we watch TV, and there’s a more ancient process that we have, it means switching on things like imagination, it means instead of sitting back on the sofa and letting yourself just be soaked with what comes at you; it means going into, into the text and finding oneself in there; it means not listening to just what is said, but finding within the feeling or the place that’s being addressed, and listening from there. None of these things do we do as we watch TV, we’re conditioned out of it. It means that it’s very, very hard to hear the readings as we get them. As the first reading was being read this morning I thought how many are picturing a vineyard on a hill, with stone walls like in Tuscany or that Andreas would build at Bauwerk, and the tower, what did you have it made of? The place to listen to that reading - it might be worthwhile when you get home to read it again - the place to hear that reading is from where you have been deeply loved or where you have deeply loved, then listen to the reading again. It’s a completely different reading; it’s got nothing to do with beautiful vineyards.

The reading from Isaiah sets the whole context for today’s readings. ‘Let me sing for my beloved my love-song’ – just imagine that: the Divine, the creator of life, is to sing for us a love-song. It’s an allegorical love song therefore, about a vineyard on a fertile hill. Hear the word ‘fertile’, feel the rise that lifts us from the everyday. It’s a song filled with expectation and the giving of all: verse 4, ‘what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not before?’ We begin to connect with the place in which I gave all. Like so many love songs it becomes a lament, it echoes the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. ‘He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry’: Isaiah is sort of an early Shakespeare.

The psalm is another song of love and again as we were responding to the psalm, the response almost captures the dynamic of love. ‘May your face shine upon us, that we may be a light to the world’ – that exchange that occurs in love, that when we receive the shining face of another, we too are able to shine. The psalm is a love-song that holds together all three readings: it acknowledges the vineyard that was birthed in love, it acknowledges the journey into freedom that is the promise of love and that we will see is recalled in the second reading from Hebrews; it also contains the consuming fire of love that confronts us in the Gospel. The cry of love in the psalm is a call for restoration, a calling back into wholeness that which was birthed in love. And if the psalm sings of the process of love, then perhaps as we look at the other readings we’ll see the substance that makes up the voices or the verses of that love song: what is it that gives flesh to the song of love?

The reading from Hebrews speaks of perseverance, perseverance in love and the reflection or conclusion that arrives at perseverance follows the litany that we began with last week. It’s a litany to underline and emphasise acts that are undertaken by faith. ‘By faith the people passed through the Red Sea, by faith the walls of Jericho fell….’ Faith and love are as intimately connected as doubt and fear. Perseverance by faith in love is not a simple ‘hang in there’, rather it’s set in a context that more fully realises the powerful energies of love. We don’t find Paul writing in Hebrews of a little glitch in the program, ‘hang in there and it’ll be all right’, that’s not what the reading’s about. It’s a powerful reading and the power of love is captured through a number of quite diverse illustrations: some pass though the sea or were drowned, walls fell down, the prostitute did not perish, kingdoms conquered, justice administered, promises obtained, the mouths of lions were shut, raging fires quenched, escape the edge of the sword, strength won out of weakness, dead received resurrection, the tortured refused release; mocking, flogging, stoning, chains, imprisonment and more and more and more. At the end of such a list when you read through the catalogue, we’re left wondering at the power of love and the very process of love. Our Hollywood appreciation of the theology of love speaks of binding together and being happy ever after. The readings today suggest that our expectations of love and their associated desired outcomes almost deny the very process of love and so the very power of love.

Adam and Eve provide us with an entry point to the power of love, in the same way that Barbie and Ken dolls provide our children with an entry point into playing and so understanding relationships. But the power of love, the passion and the pain of love is the force of creative shaping and movement. When all is said and done about love, love is the activity of God, is the divine activity. To ascribe it anywhere else other than that, I believe is to diminish it. To experience it is a glimpse of something more; to have and to hold is to leave the very process of love unrealised. Perseverance in love is not about holding on and hanging in, it’s about maintaining a faith, such that as it says towards the end of the reading, 12 verse 2, ‘we can endure the cross that leads to the throne of Glory’. We can endure the cross that leads to the throne of glory, just as the psalmist cries out, love is the power of restoration, the arrow that points forever to life, in, through and beyond death.

Luke in the Gospel reading also employs a powerful and confronting image. Fire is quite often employed as a symbol of passion, the flame of love and its all-consuming nature. But Luke uses fire in the context of a refining force, a making perfect, which is another way of looking at restoring to wholeness. Again, in our modern worldview we might wince at the divisions within family that Luke introduces. ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, rather division!’ And then he goes on to list some of the divisions that we hold sacred. Luke also seems to, across all those centuries, he seems to anticipate that wince, that we go ‘Oh, divisions within the family’.. But if you look at 54-56, ‘’When you see a cloud you say, 'It is going to rain'; when you see the wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat’, the easterlies. Gosh, how did Luke know back then that we would be culturally patterned to talk about the weather? I wonder how many this morning have already engaged in a conversation about the weather. Gosh, that’s eighty percent have already spoken about the weather this morning. And the process and the power of love? Nah, we don’t go there, we leave it contained and constrained within the family context; we clutch our Barbies and Kens and we hold on to our desire for happy ever after. That in turn becomes a fear, a fear of anything that might change or interrupt the status quo. Today and every day we’re invited to accept Christ, the revelation of the divine as a consuming fire, to open ourselves to the power of love that refines and so restores, restores us to fullness of life. For those who wish to hang on to their Barbie and Ken and wait for the end times when all will be revealed and judged in glory, verse 57 asks, ‘Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?’ To persevere in faith assumes that we participate in faith. Each and every one of us is called to make real the power of love. ‘I came to bring fire to the earth’: if one uses one’s imagination to picture that coming of the divine, you can hear Metallica playing in the background words of one of their songs, ‘Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire’.

Let us be aware that the desires that we have and that we hold, be aware of the refining, the being made perfect that we invite with open hands. Be aware of the possibility that we and no one else are the vineyard: we are the Body of Christ.

Peter Humphris