Proper 15

August 19, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 5:1-7
Reading 2: 
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Reading 4: 
Luke 12:49-56
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
Ah, the aroma of a burned heart! We can almost see the smoke rising from these texts, so passionate their love, anger, disappointment. Where there’s smoke, there’s surely fire. The Psalm, Isaiah and Luke texts have the smell of a domestic dispute, one of the most dangerous situations for a police officer to respond to. There’s nothing more lethal than a spurned lover. It might very well be dangerous for the reader and especially the preacher. Enter these texts at your own risk! For the spurned lover is none other than God.

The Isaiah text is the famous parable of the vineyard. It begins beguilingly as a love song. But like a classic Country Western song, it turns quickly to cheatin’ hearts, disappointments, two-timing lovers gone astray, threats, despair. The contrast is striking between the tenderness of the love that produces the vineyard,  the very symbol of care and love and planning for a future together, and the anger that promises to destroy what was so lovingly made. There was a time when things were warm between the lovers; promises were made; a future was planned. “But now” says Isaiah, things are different. The beloved did not respond as intended, as desired. The parable leads to its heavy conclusion: In this pleasant planting, the Lord “looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!”

Righteousness is a fancy word for right relationship. That’s all God wants, is a healthy relationship with the beloved. We shouldn’t be surprised. And justice is an indicator of the health of that relationship. At the heart of a loving relationship gone wrong is the feeling that some injustice has been perpetrated. Violence is often the most extreme manifestation of a relationship gone wrong. God looks for justice, but instead finds violence. God looks for right relationship, but finds only despair.

The Psalm reflects a similar tone, using the image of a vine, lovingly transplanted to its own field. Care was taken in its planting. But the point of view is different. It is from the eyes of the beloved, from whom the divine care has been withheld. The question is Why? The voice of the Psalm is a cry for divine help.

The Luke text displays a rare moment when Jesus’ anger seems to be given voice. “I came to cast fire upon the earth.” “Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No!” What happened to our Prince of Peace? Where is the voice of healing and hope? A clue is in the second half of the text, where Jesus calls his listeners to read the times. Wake up and smell the coffee. The tone of the text seems to be Jesus almost shouting at someone who is dull, not paying attention to what he has been saying. What teacher, in the midst of a disruptive class, doesn’t get frustrated and reach their limit? A scolding comes, a warning. Jesus’ frustration is that his listeners aren’t paying attention to his teachings and warnings. Jesus’ heart is troubled.

The text from Hebrews is a stark contrast to the wayward lovers of the other texts. Here is a rehearsal of some of the faithful and what they were able to accomplish because they trusted God. Their faith carried them through. Yes, life is hard. And yes, relationships are difficult, especially the relationship between the Creator and the creatures. But love persists; hope endures. And there is a payoff: joy.

Process Theology and the text
Everything is related to everything else. We live in an interconnected world, where the welfare of one affects the welfare of all. It makes sense then that the metaphor of a loving relationship is at the very heart of the divine character. In many places in the Bible, God’s love for the world is expressed through divine feeling. God feels the world. God aches for the world, struggles with it, working to bring it to health and well-being. What loving wife or husband or partner doesn’t do the same for their relationship? Why wouldn’t it be the same for God, only more so? If God is love, that means that God is connected to the world through God’s feelings. What the creatures (i.e. the beloved) do affects God.

Love means becoming open and vulnerable to the beloved, open to their love, but also to their hurtful acts. We are exposed to the complexities of life through love more than any other way. It is the same for God. By creating the world, establishing a relationship with it, covenanting with its creatures, planning and hoping for a loving future, God takes the risks of being hurt. That’s the way love works. Why would be think that God is somehow immune from one of the dangers of what make love love, that is, the risks involved in loving another

Preaching the text
This set of texts is what I would call “hot.” They cut close to the bone and resonate with the human heart and its hope and hurts at such a deep level. It is easy for  the reader to identify with the divine struggle to love and be loved. Please, no abstractions for this Sunday. As a preacher, I would keep the sermon hot, that is, focus on matters of the heart, the desires of love and its many disappointments. Talk about love. Define it. Demonstrate it with examples. Maybe use popular song lyrics to express the human heart. Love is in the air, quite literally, it is in the airwaves on radio and TV and movies and songs. We all understand love quite intimately. Oh, the stories we could tell! Get to a place in the sermon when the congregation resonates with a story, a dilemma, the risk, caused by love. Then talk about how it might be the same with God. How else could it be? If God is love, then love must work similarly for God as it does for us, otherwise it would be something else, and we shouldn’t call it divine love. The point of the sermon could be: what we do affects God. Our acts can cause God either pain or joy.

Or a sermon could focus on the image of the vine and a vineyard. The tender care that went into nurturing such a place as a vineyard. It is a symbol of life, a future, hope. A sermon could become a muse on the environment. It would be an easy step to transpose all the talk of vineyards to talk of the environment. After all, that’s where the first humans ended up, in a garden. But what went wrong? What is going wrong now? How can the vineyard, the environment, be established in health and nurtured? Might that be God’s intention? If you love something, don’t you want to take care of it? If God loves the world, doesn’t God want it cared for?

Or a sermon could focus on the divine anger expressed in the texts. Why is God angry? What does God’s anger mean for us? How can we deal with it? How does God deal with it? Is divine anger meant to destroy or to warn? What is it’s function? It can’t involve just appeasement. Every husband knows that appeasement is just a short term fix. Every wife knows that you have to do more than placate or humor the other. It seems the issue of justice is an important clue in dealing with the divine anger. The degree of injustice might very well be the trigger for divine anger. Such a sermon could explore what God might be angry about with us.

Children and the text
Who has a pet? Do you have a relationship with your pet? Of course you do. You love them and take care of them. Do you have a relationship with your mom and dad? Your brothers and sisters? The people at your school? Your teachers? Do you have a relationship with your bedroom? The yard? Elaborate.

The point of course in asking the children these questions is to focus on how everything is related to everything else. We wouldn’t exist without all these relationships. You might continue this line of reasoning by asking: Does God have a relationship with us? With the trees, animals, everything? Would God exist without all of this? The danger is getting too abstract for the children, so try to keep the line of questioning concrete. The point is: When we say God loves the world, we mean that God cares about it and wants it to be taken care of.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.