Isaiah 5:1-7; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:14-56; Ordinary 20C Proper 15
Hebrews feels like an outlier this week. By faith – the litany goes – by faith the Israelites walked through the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, Rahab was brave and Gideon defeated the Midianites.
By faith lions’ mouths shut and even flames of fire did not consume God’s faithful. Therefore, we, too, ought to live by faith, remembering the witness of this pantheon of people and God’s power bestowed upon and around them. Any questions?
The Hebrews reading this Sunday bolsters our waning energy for working for the Lord, our creeping despondency about the way things are, our growing helplessness with each news story of hate, violence, natural disaster and human-made tragedy. Keep the faith! The writer of Hebrews shouts. Remember! Look at all God has done and know God still works, in your age and through you.
Such an encouraging word is welcome, needed. But what do we do when we put this chorus of faith, both God and human, beside the reading from Isaiah and Luke?
Despondence marks the prophet’s story as God laments: What more could I have done for them than I have done for my people? God decries the response to the over-the-top-generosity shown through a tended, nurtured, beloved vineyard destroyed by the very ones gifted with it to enjoy and share.
This text resonates, too, in our time. Not climate change, but climate crisis, forcing migration, decimating once luscious landscapes, rendering inhabitable places meant to nurture life and life abundant.War also brings forth suffering – a flood of not only hate-filled rhetoric, but deadly acts perpetrated upon the perceived other. God, in this Isaiah text, runs out of patience. Time is up.
Who wants to preach that word to their faithful flock? God’s done, saying: Look around my creation. Survey your own communities. What more could I have done to resource, sustain, equip and care for you in order that you might be a light to the nations, might show forth my character of compassion and generosity, participate in my gift of shalom? And what have you done? What have you left undone? By faith – in the name of faith – you have you created bloodshed and inflicted pain on all that I love. Time is up.
Next reading, please.
But the Gospel of Luke grants no respite this Sunday. Jesus proclaims: I have come to bring fire to the earth and, as a matter of fact, I wish I’d already lit the match and put it to the kindling. In all our talk (and the biblical verses) of unity and reconciliation, Jesus inserts this word of radical division. Families will split up, father against son, daughter against mother. By faith – your closest ties will be cut and animosity will grow. A time will come – has come – when you must choose between loyalty to Jesus Christ and all the other ties that bind you.
I recently learned from a high school student that the idiom “blood is thicker than water” is a shortened version of “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” Flipping the script of the more modern version, Jesus warns his hearers that following him to the baptism he must endure requires disciples to prioritize nothing over loyalty to the Most High God. There may come a time when a choice is demanded: hide a Jewish family or protect my own, work for justice for the oppressed or enjoy the privileges their suffering affords me, speak up and risk my job, my security, my dearest relationships or remain silent and safe.
Perhaps the time of choosing is upon us.
As odd as the inspiring litany in Hebrews seems this Sunday, it is, in fact, the illustration of making a choice for God, no matter the consequences. Hebrews genealogy of the faithful demonstrates what living rightly in God’s vineyard, God’s creation, looks like. Note, however, that the list in Hebrews begins with God’s act of parting the Red Sea. The Israelites’ faith did not create the dry land but it did propel them to walk across it (under the compulsion of the Egyptians pursing them). There is nothing God doesn’t do to set us up for faithful action. The question for us, then, is what will we choose to do by faith?
What will we risk? What words will we speak or refrain from saying? Where will our loyalty be and how will that loyalty be made manifest in the world? Which side of the divide of wealth, opportunity, prosperity or safety will we stand? These are not theoretical questions. Not now. Not ever. Lives are at stake.
We are right now surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, some known to the world and some no doubt known only to us. Rahab, Gideon, Mary, Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa – yes, those whose stories and faithfulness reverberates through history. But also Sister Marie Horne, my elementary school art teacher who taught me to see beauty everywhere, elder Ben Mitchel who risked his own financial security to fight segregation in his hometown, editors of the Outlook like E.T. Thompson and Aubrey Brown who worked, year after year, for justice, despite the personal cost. By faith these witnesses worked diligently in the vineyard God planted, recognizing God intended it to be a place of life and peace for all people.
Every disciple and every congregation face the choice of living by faith, trusting God’s power, recognizing God’s abundant provisions and grace, and risking the consequences of unmitigated loyalty to the One who loves the world – or living for self alone, for a tightly defined tribe, mistakenly thinking they are the ones who draw the boundary lines and wreaking havoc not only for others, but ultimately for themselves and their tribes, too, because eventually God will say: Time is up.
- Do you see the reading from Hebrews this week as in opposition to the other two readings or in concert with them?
- Who are your great cloud of witnesses, those known to the world and those known only to you or a few others?
- What have you done “by faith” and how did you experience God in that undertaking?
- What vineyard has God given you to tend and nurture? How are you doing with caring for it?
- Does Jesus’ word and seeming anger in this passage from Luke disturb you? Thinking about other biblical stories as well, what makes Jesus angry?
- Have you ever had to make a choice between your faith and your family (or other close relationships)? Why? What happened?