Posts Tagged 'promises of God'

For Aug. 18, 2013: Proper 15, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 5:1-7

Today’s passage from Isaiah begins as a love song but rapidly turns bitter. Everything possible has been done to assure that the vineyard would produce a sweet, good vintage. Instead, the vineyard yields fruit that stinks: not justice (miṣpat in Hebrew) but spillage (miṣpaḥ) of blood, and not righteousness (tsedeqah) but a cry (tseʕeqah). As Isaiah explains, the errant vineyard will be laid waste—and it stands for God’s people.

The Response            Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18

“Turn now, O God of hosts…; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted.”

The Epistle            Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Today’s reading from the book of Hebrews continues last week’s discussion. The towering figures of the Old Testament, and those who underwent bitter torment, are held up as examples of faith to follow—and yet, we are told, they had to wait for the fulfillment of the promises in Jesus.

The Gospel            Luke 12:49-56

“‘I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!’”


Further thoughts

Today’s readings induce squirms. The reading from Isaiah gives us God’s forceful renunciation and even repudiation of Israel: this squares uncomfortably with our sense of God as abounding in mercy. The Psalm, for its part, begs for God’s intervening, up to and including the annihilation rather than the redemption of others. The reading from Hebrews holds up as heroes the likes of Rahab the Canaanite whore and assorted practitioners of ethnic cleansing, Old Testament-style, and brings up that vexed word “perfect”. To top it all off, Jesus’ words as transmitted by Luke show us the Son of God and Prince of Peace as a fomenter of interfamilial strife; little wonder that preachers tend not to preach on the gospel this Sunday.

I wonder if the messages might be mixed on purpose, and, as the last three verses of the gospel suggest, much turns on how we interpret them. When bad things happen to me, should I not at least consider the possibility that my bad choices had something to do with it—but should I not also entertain the possibility that it is not be about me at all? When my foes come to the bad end that the Psalm requests, perhaps it is their wickedness, but might it be not about them at all, and have I any right to my barely suppressed snicker at their comeuppance? How am I to understand this word “perfect” in Hebrews when I know in my marrow that I am nowhere close, and how shall I manage not to make the goal of perfection a burden to those around me? What of the fact that even closely related people can and do disagree violently on how or whether to live life in Jesus? Does my belief entitle me to push the divisions however I can? Does it license me to press tracts and testimony on all comers at all times? If I don’t press tracts at all, am I simply trying to keep a peace that can’t be kept?

Is it even possible to have a faith that amounts to anything worthwhile without squirming?

For Aug. 11, 2013: Proper 14, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

During the eighth century before Christ, the northern kingdom of Israel was overrun by Assyria, and the southern kingdom of Judah was embattled. In today’s reading, the prophet Isaiah relays God’s diagnosis and challenge: the powerful people who have paraded their rituals while sinning against God and the poor and powerless must stop and repent.

The Response            Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24

“Our God will come and will not keep silence… he calls the heavens and the earth from above to witness the judgment of his people.”

The Epistle            Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Isaiah prophesied bad things for wicked people. The book of Hebrews is written to very early Christians to whom very bad things are happening for following Jesus. Today’s reading reassures them and us: the promises of God may not all come true in our lifetime, but they belong to God’s people, we who are saints not because we are good but because we are God’s—and, astonishingly, it is no shame to God to be our God.

The Gospel            Luke 12:32-40

“‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’”


Further thoughts

Just how badly can we screw up and still be God’s, and what is our next move? Today’s readings pose answers that are, by turns, terrifyingly blunt, reassuring, and challenging.

The reading from Isaiah, from the very beginning of the book, opens with a no-holds-barred assessment of the behavior of God’s People. They are likened to the rulers and residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, the names of which cities still stand as bywords for wickedness. The sin of Sodom was not, in the quaint phrase, “men lying with men”, it was the violent and premeditated rape of those who should have been able to expect the city’s protection and hospitality. By extension, God’s Voice through Isaiah is charging God’s own People with a kind of rape of the poorest and most powerless in society, and no amount of ostentatious sacrifice or religious observance could possibly mitigate that sin. But still there is hope: even as God Almighty the Prosecutor pronounces judgment, God Almighty the Merciful holds out hope of forgiveness—if, if we change our ways.

The letter to the Hebrews shows us an unusual relationship between faith and mercy. It reinterprets Abraham’s history to suggest that faith is not the fruit of personal goodness: instead, faith is seeking and believing God, and it is the gift of God. I think this does not mean that failure to feel a particular way about church or even God at a given moment is a failure of faith. In the dry times—and there are dry times in any life—it suffices to keep acting as though we believed, and to seek the company of those who can help bear us up.

And what then? The gospel answers: quit hoarding; be generous; and be ready, at whatever time or place, to do the good that needs to be done.

Might faith also be the ability to recognize and respond to one of God’s children in need?

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