Photo from the chapel of the Monastery of St John the Evangelist, Cambridge, MA
August 18, 2013 Preached at St John’s Church, Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, New York (founded 1834)
Scriptures: Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18, Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2, Luke 12: 49-56
The voice of a prophet is never well-accepted in his or her own time. The content of a prophet’s message is never without controversy when it is first heard.
Ten days from now will mark the 50th anniversary of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech on the Mall during the March on Washington. Although the words of that address ring together like the bells of a church tower so perfectly tuned are they, it was by no means everyone in the nation who heard his words with openness or with pleasure. King might have hoped that his words would inspire a more just nation when it came to matters of race and of equality. They did. But they also inspired, only weeks later on September 15th, 1963 the Sunday morning bombing of the mostly black congregation of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (Alabama) where dozens were injured and four girls, ages 11 to 14, were killed. With twenty-two others they were walking into the church basement to hear the Sunday School lesson for that day. The theme for that lesson was ‘the love that forgives.’
The prophet Isaiah sings a song this morning for us in the fifth chapter of his prophecy. It is, according to his own testimony, a love song. It concerns the love his at first unnamed friend had for his vineyard; all the loving work and care he showed in preparing that vineyard to yield good grapes for fine wine. Instead, the grapes are bitter; there is no wine, and Isaiah’s friend announces his intention to undo all the good he had done for that vineyard, now that it provided not justice but bloodshed, and a cry rather than righteousness.
At first the words of this prophetic song might have sounded harmless enough to its first hearers. But when the prophet identifies the disappointing vineyard as God’s own people, all of that changed. They heard words of judgment. They heard threatening words. They recognized a challenge that likely made them want to put their hands over their ears. That’s what it’s like when true prophet speaks true prophecy. Prophecy always asks more of the hearers than they (we!) are willing to give.
Jesus, on his way toward death in Jerusalem according to the 12th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, speaks like a prophet today. Words hard to hear. Words that don’t sound like the Jesus we are comfortable with, the Jesus who promises comfort and peace and who brings healing. On this occasion, Jesus speaks words literally full of fire. “I came to bring fire. What stress I am under! Have I come bringing peace? No, I tell you, but rather division!” And this firey Jesus makes explicit that this division he brings will even enter deeply into families, dividing homes into opposing camps. This is Jesus fired up about his mission, carrying the heavy weight of his own suffering and death, which he knows he is walking towards. This is Jesus cutting no corners and taking no prisoners. This is Jesus, passionate and challenging, as this Sunday’s gospel ends with the words, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
There’s the key question. This is exactly what a prophet does: he interprets the present time. She looks at the realities of the day and understands, sees deeper than most people, and speaks out of that understanding and out of that seeing. Speaks, as noted, words that no one is comfortable hearing.
In other words, Jesus, in his closing question, is asking those who first heard him that day, and we who gather here this morning: why are you not a prophet? Why do not see what is going on around you and understand? Why is your perspective limited and focused so narrowly? Why can’t you see? It’s as clear as a heavy raincloud and as obvious as a hot south wind. Why can’t you see?
This challenge in turn makes clear why Jesus describes himself as bringing division. The division is between those – even in a single family – who really hear Jesus and respond with everything they have on one side, and those for whom Jesus’ voice is a ho-hum, and Jesus himself not really much of an attraction on the other.
Where is unity then? Where is peace? Here are two possible answers. First, we can say that unity and peace are found in faith. If we trust Jesus, if we put our faith squarely in him above all others, then we will see as he sees. We will see through the eyes of Jesus Christ. This is possible. This is real. If we don’t think that it is, then I don’t know what we’re doing here this morning, or any other morning for that matter. Secondly, we can say that unity and peace come in our agreeing – and it is risky – to become part of a band of prophets who look at the present reality as Isaiah did and as Jesus did, and then dare to speak what we see. Is there injustice? Is there lack of charity? Are there people being forgotten by society, dropping out of sight into extreme poverty, into unchecked alcoholism or other addiction? Is there war where there could be peace, hatred where God wills love?
A prophet sees these things and understands and speaks – no matter who is bothered by the hearing.
If we are a community of faith in Christ, and if we are bound together as prophets in his company, then there will be a new unity and a new peace among us, deeper and more lasting than any we have yet known or experienced.
You see? Isaiah’s words really are a love song. The prophet’s words express the love of a God who, if only we will respond to his gifts, is willing to restore the vineyard in which we live and work and hope; to make it more than it ever was before. And Jesus’ seemingly harsh words are actually an invitation: like Martin Luther King Jr we too are invited to dream.