This week’s Bible passages and the commentaries I’ve read in preparation really stretch our comfort boundaries. There’s Isaiah’s so-called “Love Song of the Vineyard” which brings a parabolic indictment of Israel’s behavior (and thus ours as well) and then there’s Jesus’ stark challenge to his would-be followers/disciples in the making.
First to Isaiah and the “love song”. It is hard to miss the love of
the vineyard owner for his ‘garden’. Carefully nurtured and then given over to his stewards to continue the care, the owner comes to see that those stewards have not behaved like ‘farmers’ caring for the gift of the land and it’s abundant produce. So all care and protection are removed. If you don’t care enough to do the work of stewardship; if you will not share the abundance given to you with all your neighbors, even the aliens and enemies in your midst, then you have forsaken my love and dealt faithlessly with my providence.
The lesson on love is that it is more than a one-way relationship. Parents bringing their children sometimes find their love taken for granted as license to do whatever the child wants to do and arrogance in believing that the parent will always rescue the child no matter how far out of bounds the child steps. The vineyard was given so that the people of God could live faithfully and share in the work of love, caring for all of creation. They chose another path, an easier and lazier one. It invoked God’s anger. C. S. Lewis said, “Anger is the fluid love bleeds when you cut it.” But God’s anger also shows the depth of God’s love. Tough love, from parents whose children disobey and thereby disrespect them, is the discipline often needed to set the relationship right again. It is the deeper love that is sometimes missed or ignored.
For Israel this deeper love shown in God’s anger was meant to reset the covenant relationship back to it’s original foundation. The Church today may be floundering on the same kind of path, especially here in the United States. Lewis, again, talking more to us, says, “we are lounging in the easiest of all the world’s religions, leaning back into the entitlements of grace and an arrogance of heritage.” Between our view of the world today and the assessment of Isaiah’s/God’s indictment, we are called to read the signs of the times and respond accordingly.
Jesus spoke to his followers even more plainly, using more charged language and imagery, but challenging them to be clear about his mission and theirs, if they chose to take it on. Remembering the words of John the Baptist set beside the words of the angels at Jesus’ birth, we hear both “peace on earth, good will to all” and “I baptize with water, but He will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire.” It is like the ‘love song of the vineyard’, wrapping together the love of God and of Jesus Christ with the full knowledge and commitment to being the body of Christ in the world, living into the image of God in which we are all created.
Fire can be one of the most frightening things in our lives, and it can be the source of warmth and comfort, depending on how we encounter it. Baptismal fire, the seeming flames of the Holy Spirit which seemed to hover above the heads of those disciples gathered in the Upper Room on Pentecost, that’s the fire that cleanses. But that said, it is the fire that also sets one apart from the world, that may indeed cause division within a family, between friends, because it means one has chosen to be the body of Christ in the world. Jesus was asking his followers to make that serious choice with the full knowledge of what it meant and might mean in terms of sacrifice.
God’s family, the whole human family, the whole of creation’s family, is wider than we have yet been able to embrace, but the hope is there. It is alive and growing, despite the signs of division, anger and fear all around us. There are so many stories, mostly unshared, that give life to those who continue to strive for justice and true peace. If we only look at the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, we see faces from a variety of cultures among 5 young women. They are mirrored by U.S. athletes in other sports like fencing and swimming and basketball, etc. where there are no limits on participation except excellence in the sport.
In this August heat, with fires out west and other places, with global warming and glaciers melting, with violence escalating around the world and this election campaign growing evermore divisive, one might wonder if we’re reading the signs of the times well. Indeed the Church worldwide is engaged in breaking down any and every wall as we seek to live as followers of the Prince of Peace. It takes letting go of the categories defining who we are and what we owe allegiance to in favor of committing ourselves to one Lord, one God of us all, one Creator whose dream is that we be one creation. Schlafer ends with these words, “Until we get beyond tribal understandings of ‘peace in our time’ (and on our terms), the peace on earth proclaimed by angels will remain a peace that ‘surpasses all understanding.’