Listening Twice (Isaiah 5:1-7; Luke 12:49-56)
This was one of those weeks when, after looking at the passages in the Lectionary, I thought, “O no, not again!” These passages are about getting things wrong and being abandoned or destroyed because of it. Even when we get to Jesus in the Gospel it’s about how he has come to bring “fire” to the earth and not to unite people, but to divide, even one family member from another. And these words come into our lives when, in this country, we are under siege to self-centredness, hatred, and just plain nastiness, not the least in the name of forwarding our nation’s choice of leaders. I honestly thought about preaching on some “nice,” “harmless,” “mushy” texts that would make us feel good and contrast with the onslaught. I don’t know exactly why I didn’t. I felt sort of like Jacob who wrestled all night with a “stranger” and would not turn him loose, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me. ” I wanted these apparently nasty texts to bless us rather than curse us. It was not easy!
As I worked away, I remembered that the primary task of preachers is to listen to the text and to do that, we’ve got to listen to it (at least) twice. We listen to it once, trying as best we can to hear the ancient words in their ancient meanings. It’s important to know what the words said and meant, but further, it’s important to hear what the texts were understood to mean culturally, and so, what they implied in that ancient day. Words may mean one thing generally, but another specifically and culturally. For example, the Kalahari is a desert of about 350,000 square miles in Botswana, Africa, but in this part of the world, it’s also a water park in the Wisconsin Dells. Which meaning is right? One is geographical, one is locally cultural. It’s my job as a preacher and teacher to help folk listen to a text in a way that makes clear what the words meant, not only in a “dictionary-sense,” but also in a “local-cultural sense.” That takes hard listening, but it is the work of the preacher.
But, then, we need to listen to the text a second time, not as something “back there” or “out there,” but “right here” and “in here.” Preachers need to listen for what it meant and what it means. It’s also our job to help you to do the same thing, and this is hard for preachers and for listeners, but if we haven’t done the hard work of listening at church, what good is preaching for our life together?
So, we start with the Old Testament Lesson that’s called the Song of the Vineyard. It’s certainly worthy of a study at Thursday Evening Education, and we should do that sometime (I’m surprised we haven’t after 13 years.) We need to put all that off, and be brief. There are two singers of this song: the first in verses 1-2 and, again, at the end in 7. The other speaks in verses 3-6. It becomes clear that this so-called song is a complaint about how Israel and Judah (the particular people of God in that time) had answered their call to be God’s partner in bringing the world into relationship with God, one another, and the natural order. The 7th verse sums it all up:
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting (a synonym for the vineyard). God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry of distress.
Now, the other speaker, in verses 3-6, is probably the prophet who speaks in the name of God about the problem: the owner planted a good, robust, sweet type of grape (in Hebrew called Soreq) and instead, what has grown up is “wild stinky things.” Therefore God has decided to tear out the vineyard and let its ruins decay. This is not a happy picture of the people of God, but it’s what happens when God looks for one kind of thing (justice and righteousness), but discovers a harvest of bloodshed and a cry of distress, the exact opposite. It’s not that God is leaving the vineyard, but the vineyard has already left God to be something else.
There is much more that could be said about this passage, but it is enough to note that the people of God cannot continually be a party to substituting bloodshed and cries of distress in society for that which God intends, justice and righteousness, without serious damage to itself. Yet, even here, I have to say that the end of this “old song” is not final, but reverberates forward to a “new song of the vineyard” that points to a good future when God plants a pleasant vineyard, which is every moment kept and watered by God (see chapter 27), or the “new song” celebrating God’s chosen and kept people (see chapter 42). The new song also passes into the hymns of Israel: “Sing to the LORD a new song (Psalm 95 or 96 or 144, etc.). Even the end of one expression of the people of God, though it be real and tragic, points forward to new forms and expressions, if God’s people will listen and follow. Important words.
The Gospel Lesson also seems to be negative. Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth…do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you, but division.” Some Christian groups revel in this apparent scriptural warrant for being narrow-minded and just plain cussed. But we need to read the words at least twice. For example, the first line, “I came to bring fire to the earth” has, naturally enough been interpreted that Jesus words would not go down well with everybody, but would cause problems. And they have and do and will. But what he was saying here was probably not heard in the way we have been taught or might naturally understand it. I was reading an archaeological report about typical Israelite houses in Jesus’ day when I discovered that each courtyard had in it an outdoor oven made of hard-baked earth, simply called “the earth.” The fire was fueled by animal dung, made into patties. The little passage I read to you from Luke 14 about salt being good is probably to be interpreted as about the same reality. You see these “earths” were lined with salt plates that helped the dung burn. But, when the salt wore out, it not only didn’t help the fire burn, it inhibited it. So that such salt was good neither for the soil (the earth, the oven) or for the manure pile (the fuel stock), but is discarded. The same may be said of what it means to be the “salt of the earth,” the catalyst in the oven, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
What Luke’s Jesus was saying about bringing fire to the earth, would have been heard in his culture that his job was to build a fire in the oven, and he wished it were already cooking. He went on with another figure of speech: He had a baptism with which to be baptised (his death), which would free his work up in the world as it would be continued by the salt in the oven (his disciples). He was anxious that all this get underway. Have you ever been anxious just to get on with things? That, in basic terms, is, I think, what Jesus meant here. “I’ve come to build a fire, and I wish it were already burning, I wish my death were accomplished so that the mission into the world could also get off the ground.” What is the “fire” that Jesus came to bring. The hymn we sang this morning used three passages to suggest it was the presence of God. One passage is the presence of God at the Burning Bush from Exodus. One is the presence of God in Jesus’ person and teaching from this passage in Luke. One is the presence of God in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost from Acts.
That presence would be unleashed with Jesus’ death (his baptism) and resurrection in a whole new way. But what would God’s presence do? What was Jesus anxious to “get cooking”?
To move on with the passage to answer that question, it seems that the presence of God does not bring unity but division. And that is deeply troubling to me. What can it mean that Jesus came to bring division and even split families apart? Many have been satisfied simply to say, as I did earlier, that Jesus’ words don’t always go down well. But I think we can do better. I would conclude that, as we have seen other places in the Bible (dare I say everyplace), that the words do not tell us as much about the time of the story as the time of the writer of the story. So here, the words apply more to Luke and his congregation some 50 or 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
For example, we saw a several weeks ago that Jesus used the family as a model for his new community of faith, but it was family with great differences from the culturally accepted pattern. It was a family where a woman like Martha could own a house and a woman like Mary could be a student who sat and listened to rabbi Jesus. Women didn’t do these things in Jesus’ day.
The culture of Jesus’ time had highly stratified families, where each category (like father, son, mother, daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, servants, slaves, hired workers, etc.) related in very rigid ways. The family that Jesus was building did not have to do with bloodlines so much as discipleship. People were challenged to take care of people outside of their human families, and that was radical, even revolutionary. To care for people outside of one’s family, no matter who, openly and inclusively, would almost surely have led to being cut off from one’s family. This would leave people without any network for support and could have been a matter of life and death. The Jesus-community was that surrogate family. Jesus was teaching inclusion and acceptance across status-categories (father, mother, brother, sister, etc.) in the alternate family-community he was building. Acceptance of people of different status might very well lead to the very kind of alienation spoken of here by the time of Luke. Such teaching was surely building a fire within society’s oven, but that’s what Jesus’ family was like.
How do we listen to these texts? It seems that it’s a disciple’s role to keep the fire that Jesus came to build in the oven going. If we understand that fire to be the presence of God, disciples like us are the salt, the catalyst, that keeps the oven hot enough to bake the bread of peoples’ lives and make them beautiful and useful. We also need to understand that Jesus’ way is still the way of inclusion, not exclusion, the way of justice and righteousness, not bloodshed, hatred, and cries of violence. If disciples of Jesus are doing these things, some folks inside and outside the church will have difficulty with it. Some have become comfortable in the same status-categories our culture has given us. These status-categories may be different from those of Bible times, but it is a disciple’s duty to be the catalyst for the inclusive, door-opening presence of God in our world. That’s been the role of disciples since Jesus’ time and before.
It is when disciples fail to be the salt, the catalyst, in the oven, and are satisfied with the way things are, that they discover that their saltiness has been lost. And, then, they not only don’t catalyze the fuel, they inhibit anything happening at all. That’s when the old vineyard comes down and God looks for a new vision, a new fire, a new song. May the vision be seen clearly, may the fire burn brightly, and may the new song be sung joyfully in this place today and into the future.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.