Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Given the texts for today, the collect is too tame. We might more pertinently pray,
Almighty God, we have prodigally devastated our environment and removed justice from our common life. We repent. Mercifully give us another chance before you send fire. Restore us. Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved, and your beautiful creation along with us. Amen
This is one of the most powerful of the prophetic narratives in the bible. The application and the punch line are carefully reserved until the end.
The prophet Nathan used the same rhetorical strategy when he told King David about a rich man who seized and devoured the only possession of a poor man, a single lamb (see 2 Samuel 12:1-7). As Nathan hoped, his narrative greatly angered David who then called for judgment against the rich man, saying “He shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “Thou are the man.”
Isaiah’s narrative is also only seven verses long. Throughout most of it he talks only about a vineyard. His original audience, mostly agrarian, would be drawn into the disappointment ‘my beloved’ experiences when his tender care and best labors produce not the good grapes expected, but wild grapes. They would well understand the beloved’s anger and disappointment:
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
Only at the end do we learn that ‘my beloved’ is God and that the vineyard
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
It is easier for us to pass judgments on someone else than on ourselves. Over recent months many of us have paid close attention to British Petroleum, and British Petroleum has played the villain part to the hilt. We have learned that lax federal regulators intentionally treated oil company executives as pals rather than as petitioners. The regulators forgot the U.S. public whom they were appointed to serve.
Meanwhile, how many of us have reviewed our own addictions to fossil fuels? How many of those hardest hit along the Gulf Coast do themselves drive SUVs or other major guzzlers driving the deep-water drilling? How many citizens along the Gulf voted to cap the liability of the oil companies in an effort to woo them to drill the wells and bring much employment to their area?
“Thou art the man!”
“Our beloved God expected good stewardship but saw greed and prodigality.”
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
In Psalm 80 the Israelites call for God to restore the vineyard, almost as if in response to Isaiah’s narrative. Psalm 80 is identified as a “Psalm of Asaph,” who like Isaiah, appears to have lived in the 8th century BC, so the two passages could have been in dialogue with each other. It is impossible to know, and not materially important. The vineyard in each narrative makes its point clearly without need of reference to the other.
Psalm 80, directly addresses God, “Hear, o Shepherd of Israel,” and petitions God to restore the destroyed vineyard. Previously God “brought a vine out of Egypt” (possibly through Israelites fleeing their captivity there?). When planted in the land promised, the vineyards flourished, as did trees and other vegetation, as a sign of God’s good intentions toward Israel.
The psalm blames God for the destruction of the vineyard, not the Israelites themselves, as Isaiah does.
Why have you broken down its wall, *
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?
The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, *
and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.
Do we blame God for the current devastation in the Gulf of Mexico? What about British Petroleum? What about our own lax regulators? What about our own addictions to fossil fuels?
Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.
And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.
“For time would fail me to tell of …”
But time does not fail Saint. For 141 words with great rhetorical flourish he rehearses the acts of many whom in the last section, he calls “the great crowd of witnesses.”
As is the Isaiah passage, this one from Hebrews is a performer’s dream, a grammarian’s treasure trove. The telescopic sentences in both soar with wondrous periodicity.
Each passage drives towards a dramatic conclusion. Isaiah reveals that the people of Israel are the ones who destroyed the vineyard, and that God, the planter of the vineyard, is the one who judges them. Saint stresses that the witnesses who have gone before did not receive the promise but that we will enable them and ourselves to be made complete, perfected, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
So Great a Crowd of Witnesses
I have watched God take Her love
and squeeze it through a surgeon's
precise line of vision
to save the heartbeat of a straight
who would probably vomit
to know a Lesbian operated.
I have heard God distill His grandeur
through a Brother's gay fingers
opening organ pipes in dark
to make even tired adulterers
tremble at the glory of the Queandom.
I have watched God twinkle
in the eye of a teacher
seducing bored minds
away from sitcoms and comics
Into Native Son or a Renoir nude,
only to have God laughed at
when the student ossifies to say,
"Teacher was a harmless bit queer!"
And I have seen God grow bald,
don a wig and sequined gown,
and cruise the streets,
even of small towns,
laughing joyfully to be God,
to understand creation,
to wait out
the slow drainage of stupidity.
-- Louie Crew, 1976
- Integrity Forum 2.6 (1976): 6
- Voice of the Turtle 5.1 (1981): 3.
- Chiron Review 8.1 (Spring 1989): 11
- Quean Lutibelle's Pew. Dragon Disks: Newark, NJ, 1990. Page 11
- Thirst December 1996. N.P
- Making Waves 3.12 (December 1996): 1-2
- Voice of Integrity 13.2 (Summer/Fall 2004):16-18. A Reflection on the 30th Anniversary of the Founding of Integrity
- Whosoever10.6 (May/June) 2006.
So much for the image of the “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” meek and mild. So much even for the image of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. So much for Jesus’ own prayer, “That you may all be one, even as the father and I are one.”
“[I have come to bring] division. From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided…….”
Clearly this is not everyone’s idea for a peaceful mural or stained glass window, as it was for many in the 15th century, e.g. Hans Memling:
Jesus accuses the crowd of living in denial. “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"
This passage inspired James Baldwin’s title The Fire Next Time.
Maybe the next time is now?