The first thing that catches my attention in the reading from Isaiah is that this story of a vineyard gone wrong is a love song. It is a love song to the people of Israel from a God with a broken heart. And this sounds so much like a Country & Western premise that I went and looked for some Country & Western songs that God might want to sing for the occasion. I found a few that seemed to fit the vengeful flavor toward the end of this reading:
I Flushed You from the Toilets of My Heart
I Gave Her My Heart and a Diamond and She Clubbed Me with a Spade
I Still Miss You Baby, but My Aim’s Gettin’ Better
I’m So Miserable without You, It’s Like Having You Here
If The Phone Don’t Ring, Baby, You’ll Know It’s Me
But really I’m hearing how broken-hearted God is, how painful it is to make everything just right for a people to flourish, to pour out love on a people, and not have it returned.
Don’t Believe My Heart Can Stand Another You
You Done Tore out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat
The second thing I hear in this reading is that the people of Israel were given everything they needed to live in community, to live in harmony, to practice love and justice and peace. Instead, people got greedy, joined houses together to create mansions, joined fields together to create bigger land holdings for the few, pushed poor people out with no recourse. Word play is at work here in the Hebrew: God expected justice but saw bloodshed—mishpat and mispah. God expected righteousness but hear a cry: tsedaqah, tse’aqah.
Does this message still preach today? Do some people have more than others? Are people being pushed out with nowhere to go? Are people still crying out for justice?
Mothers of all the young black men shot down, including mother and father of Michael Brown, killed 5 years ago this month.
Children crying out from their concentration camps at the border, where they are separated from their parents, where they are not given basic necessities such as food, soap, toothbrushes. And they have committed no crime, done nothing wrong except flee from gang violence and other atrocities back home and ask for refugee status and asylum in this country. And a few weeks ago a man in Texas traveled to El Paso and gunned people down in a WalMart and specifically targeted people who looked Mexican. This man was like a sour grape—all poison. No justice, no righteousness, but bloodshed and grief. People crying out.
People pushed out of housing in Seattle to make way for new developments for wealthier people.
College students and graduates crying out under the burden of enormous student loans because our public funding system is failing.
People crying out because they are sick and can’t afford health care.
Other species crying out as they are pushed to extinction. A year ago the orca whale Tahlequah carried her dead baby for 17 days. The message could not be clearer. She demonstrated overwhelming grief, and what can we do to keep the rest of those orcas from starving to death?
Fine, God says: I’ll tear out the vineyard, let it all go to weeds. I’m done.
We’ll come back to this idea of God being done with the Israelites. For now let’s turn to our other reading, from the gospel of Luke.
Here comes Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem and that final week there, overturning tables, speaking truth to power, winding up crucified, and then the story not being over. He’s got some of that same energy of bringing change to the people. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
What kind of fire are we talking about?
Wildfire, like the one that flattened Paradise, CA last November? (“God gave Noah the rainbow sign: no more water, fire next time!”)
Fire of passion like the Spirit dancing flames on foreheads at Pentecost?
Purifying, refining fire that burns away all the impurities, just leaves our best selves?
The passage leaves it to us to decide. Maybe it’s like God walking away from the vineyard, ready to torch the whole thing.
Followed by water image: baptism, which in Jesus’ case is a metaphor for the cross. He must go through this and is under such stress until it is accomplished. Baptism is about commitment to God, or about Jesus dying for God’s message so that we can learn how to live. More purifying imagery.
And then Jesus says this: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?”
Ahem: yes. Is this a trick question? Luke 2: Joseph and Mary and the stable, no room at the inn, Jesus born, and to herald Jesus’ arrival, an angel appears to shepherds tending their flocks and says, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, goodwill to all.” When Jesus appears to his disciples after his crucifixion, first words to them are “Peace be with you.” Yes: Jesus came to bring peace.
But this peace is not without division. It is both/and. Jesus brought his message of peace and love and God… and the people in power killed him for rocking the boat, for threatening their whole structure, for naming corruption and calling for change. Peace is not all flowers and happy songs. We have to wage peace.
Jesus comes preaching justice and righteousness, peace and love. This is dangerous in a world that depends on injustice and oppression in order to function. True peace is uncomfortable because it requires a rebalancing between the haves and have-nots so that everyone has enough and no one has too much. Are we willing to give up some of our comfort so that others can live?
Jesus says, “You see a cloud in the sky and you say it’s going to rain. And lo and behold, it rains. You see the wind coming from the south and you say it’s going to be scorching hot. And it is. But you cannot see what is right in front of your face in this day and age.”
What is it that we’re not seeing? What is too uncomfortable? To what do we choose to turn a blind eye? We cannot have peace in our own souls if we refuse to see our neighbor suffering.
Some of us gathered on Friday night to see the film The Wisdom to Survive, about climate change. We heard from Joanna Macy, who says we need to go through the sorrow about destruction of the earth so we can reconnect to the work that’s worth doing. Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute said the work is not going to be easy or pretty, but we have to engage in it. When we see clouds in the west these days, they bring flooding in the Midwest or, this week, in Istanbul. When a hot wind arises from the south, a heat wave may sweep up from Africa through Europe to Iceland and Greenland and the Arctic, melting tons of glacial ice all at once. We have to see the climate of the times for what it is. It’s staring us in the face. It’s up to us to tend the vineyard, to care for each other and all of God’s creation, to make sure the orcas have food to eat, the immigrants have someplace decent to live and work to do and legal status so they’re not subject to raids and deportation. We have to make sure our young black men know they are loved and valued. We have to make sure all people can have decent housing.
Can we fix everything? Can we give enough money to each person holding up a sign to make a difference? No. But we can choose to live lovingly, choose to spend our time taking care of each other, choose to feed people who are hungry and don’t have other resources. We can choose to go talk to our legislators about making systemic changes. We can choose to educate ourselves about the issues, perhaps by showing films such as the one we viewed here on Friday night and then discussing and asking questions and taking action.
When we commit to following Jesus and working for justice and peace, we choose to do better than the mean-spiritedness that infects our country these days from the top down. We choose to address the racism that has meant privileges for those of us with white skins and lifelong challenges for people of color. We choose to see the injustice happening at our borders. We choose to see the havoc that fossil fuels are wreaking on our planet and we choose to make changes, even though it means giving up habits that have become easy and comfortable.
I feel so blessed to be preaching to the choir in this congregation. In our midst we have people who do serve the hungry, who reach out to people on the street in meaningful ways. We have people who put solar panels on their roofs or give up plastic or go vegetarian to decrease their carbon footprint, or really consider in new ways how much they need to drive. We have people in our midst who make this building as inviting and hospitable as possible for other groups who need a place to gather and work on their own justice issues. We have people in our midst who sign letters to our legislators or who go down to Olympia from time to time to talk with those legislators about the environment, homelessness, immigration, health care, justice for the least of these.
We are trying to do the work. There is always more to do. The work is never done. But we are in action. We are engaged.
And here’s the thing. The God who sings a broken-hearted love song over all the corruption, all the meanness, all the injustice—that God does not in fact ever abandon us. That God does not destroy the vineyard. That God keeps inviting us to bear fruit, to live in beloved community. That God built a wine vat in the center of the vineyard so that we may harvest the grapes and have a fabulous, joyful grape-stomping party where all are fed, all are loved, all have a job to do.
So maybe our God is singing a new song. Maybe, in spite of all our flaws, all the ways in which we fall short, God sees that we are doing our best to live in loving ways, to reach out to neighbors everywhere. And even though it’s not about us earning God’s love, God just continues to give it. My hope is that God is singing, “I Still Love You.”
If someday your feet can't touch the ground
If someday your arms can't feel my touch
If someday your eyes can't see my face
I'll carry you be there for you anytime of day
Forever is a long time but I keep my words that I say to you
Together we can go far as long as I'm with you
Cause I will fall for you no matter what they say, I still love you I still love you
You'll never be alone now look me in the eyes, I still love you I still love you