Monday, August 2, 2010

Proper 15 Year C

Proper 15 C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2,8-18; OR Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-21:2; Luke 12:49-56

The "gardener's love song"  in Isaiah depicts an attentive, hands-on worker who lovingly planted and nurtured a vineyard in the expectation that one day it would "yield grapes." Instead, it produced "wild grapes."  In frustration and disappointment, the gardener decided to tear down the hedges that protected the vineyard and let it return to it's wild condition, to go to"waste."  Now the text reveals that the gardener is "the Lord of hosts."  The vineyard is Jerusalem/Judah.  The "wild grapes" are the "bloodshed" and the wail of pain from those who suffer injustice there.

The psalmist identifies God as the One who took a vine out of Egypt, cultivated the soil and transplanted it.  The vine flourished, providing protective shade.  "Why," the psalmist asks God, "did You breakdown the walls/so all passersby could pluck it?"  And wild beasts rampage over it?  Now the psalmist pleads to God: "come back/look down from heaven and see/and take note of this vine/and the stock that your right hand planted."  May God's benediction return to "the son You took for Yourself."


Jeremiah draws a sharp distinction between those who claim to speak for the Lord in "dreams" and the prophet who "has my word," "speaks it faithfully" and lets the chips fall where they will.  One is like straw the other is like wheat.  "Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?"

God demands answers:  "How long will you judge dishonestly/and show favor to the wicked?"  God demands action: "Do justice... vindicate... free... those who always  get a raw deal in life.  This God who is obsessed with justice is not like other divinities humankind has imagined.  The psalm concludes: "Arise, O God, judge the earth...."

The writer who has chosen to address himself to "the Hebrews" cites the ultimate salvation action-- "the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land,"-- the miraculous conquest of Jericho, and provides a list of those who "lived... by faith..." and endured all kinds of humiliation and threats.  Although all these came to be "commended," they were denied "what was promised," this writer surmises, because "God provided something better...."  Focusing on Jesus, "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith," who knew humiliation and suffering himself and is now enthroned, "let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us...."

Given Israel's recent, disastrous history of conquest and destruction at the hands of several superpowers, a mood of doomsday, (the apocalyptic Book of Daniel seems to belong to the late second century B.C., for example), runs throughout canonical and non-canonical Jewish and Christian writing.  Luke's Jesus expresses it with particular intensity and declares that his "coming" precipitates its own crisis.  His appearance, because it challenges directly individuals and human institutions, does not bring peace, but division between those who respond and those who ignore his presence.  Why, Jesus asks, can you figure out weather patterns, but do not know "how to interpret the present time."

Andrew Delbanco, humanities professor at Columbia University, chronicled the trivialisation of evil in Western Modernity in The Death of Satan: How America Lost the Sense of Evil, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1995).  He tells how "the story of relentless secularism" deprives believers and any person of conscience ways to talk abut evil responsibly.  He also reports a story taken from the memoir of Francis Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, (p 190ff).  At his parish church in Hyde Park, the young rector commented to the President after services one Sunday the mystery writer and theologian, Dorothy Sayers. whom, he said, had been greatly infleunced by Kierkegaard.  Reportedly, Roosevelt replied, "Who is Kierkegaard?"  The Episcopal priest replied  the it was Kierkegaard who had put "a fresh emphasis on the doctrine of original sin and its implications...."  In the memoir Perkins records that several weeks later the President asked him if he had read Kierkegaard.  Roosevelt continued: "Kierkegaard explains the Nazis to me as nothing else ever has."   

Kierkegaard's work, in particular his concern with the real, actual consequences of human injustice, influenced directly many writers now regarded as Postmodern, especially Heidegger, Levinas and Derrida.  For Emmanuel Levinas, philosophy in the West needed to be superseded by ethics.  And, ethics was not abstract or theoretical,  It was specific and concrete; ethics begin and end in the other person.  "The Other" person and the mystery of the "Totally Other" are synonymous.  In the work  that is generally regarded as his first major work, Totality and Infinity, Levinas wrote that "the dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face."  "The proximity of the Other, the proximity of the neighbor, is in being an ineluctable moment of the revelation of an absolute presence...."  The presence of the other puts me in a relationship of obligation to the Other; his or her "very epiphany consists in soliciting us by his [or her] destitution in the face of the Stranger, the widow and the orphan."  Therefore, he concludes,  "the work of justice-- the uprightness of the face to face-- is necessary in order that the breach that leads to God be produced-- and 'vision' here coincides with this work of justice."  (p.78)

In today's excerpt from Isaiah, God is ready to abandon God's people for one specific reason-- the cry of those who suffer injustice in their midst.  From Jeremiah, God calls out human complacancy and complicity.  In psalm 82, God demands answers and action-- "Do justice...!"  Luke's Jesus, who unforgettably teaches and embodies practical justice for any and all persons, therefore, is also a threat to the staus quo of individuals and society that benefit from callous indifference to the needs of others.  For those who want to understand the times in which they live, Jesus says, one question must be paramount: How is justice done or not done now?  This is a provocative question.  It can divide friendships and families.  Human sin is not about slight offences or titillation, it is about the well-being or even survival of others.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, the psalmists,  and Jesus all link how a people answer that question to the very sustainability of a society and its times.  A society that cannot conduct a responsible conversation about real, actual human evil and then"Do justice" makes itself vulnerable.  Anyone who raises the question and engages it seriously speaks God's word "faithfully," Jeremiah would say.  It can divide families, but it can save our souls and our times!