15 August 2010/Proper 15 - Isaiah 5:1-7/Hebrews 11:(1-28),29-12:2/Luke 12:49-56
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter's at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
The Dog In The Manger
The Bible can be said to be a record of God's creation and how God intends for this creation to be tended, cared for, kept in some sort of conformity with God's dream. Which, as Howard Thurman has observed, is a dream of "a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky." The great surprise in the Biblical record is that God's primary strategy for carrying out this dream of his is us - that's right, we are created male and female in the image of God (imago Dei) to take care of creation the way God wants it to be.
Walter Rauschenbusch, in a little book titled The Social Principles of Jesus (1916) notes what he saw happening in the world of 1916, "The desire for private property has been the chief outlet for selfish impulses antagonistic to public welfare. To gain private wealth men have slaughtered the forests, contaminated the rivers, drained the fertility of the soil, monopolized the mineral wealth of the country, enslaved childhood, double-yoked motherhood, exhausted manhood, hog-tied community undertakings, and generally acted as the dog in the manger toward humanity." p. 192 This could have been written on this morning's OP-ED Page!
So does it surprise us that from time to time God is disappointed in our overall stewardship of creation? Today we get two examples of God's frustration with our care for the earth and care for one another - especially those "others" who are utterly unlike us, without resources (widows, orphans and resident aliens as the Bible describes them), and even our enemies - those who wish us harm and those whom we have injured or offended.
First, there is God in Isaiah, some eight hundred years or so before Jesus, who had chosen Israel to be a little demonstration community of how this all should work. The people of God are God's vineyard, a sort of model organic vineyard taking the most meticulous care of the vineyard as well as the people who worked it, visited it and lived around it. It takes no careful exegesis to hear the utter pathos in God's lament, "What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done it? ... I looked for justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!"
The last time God had heard such a cry they were slaves in Egypt. The Exodus, the Wilderness experience, the giving of the Land, the Law, and especially the law of the Sabbath, was to have resulted in a land of justice and peace among people and with the land - instead there was an increasing gap between the haves and have nots, and the Land was being wasted, and bloodshed was rampant.
Fast forward eight hundred years. God as Jesus comes to live among us once and for all to show us how to be the demonstration community he has always dreamed we would be. We should note these are hard times - life under Roman rule was a vast and harsh, culturally diverse set of societies, unrelated by languages, economics, religions and histories, all forced into political unity by a brutal military presence. The vast majority of those under Roman rule resented or hated the forced political unity, and experienced few, if any, benefits from its social and economic structures. It was a non-democratic, rigidly hierarchical, status-based world of haves and have nots - mostly have nots. Bass, Diana Butler, A People’s History of Christianity, p.27
Jesus came to change all of that - to draw to himself a community of people dedicated to living out God's dream. Suddenly he finds himself in Luke's gospel surrounded by people like his own disciples arguing over who will be the greatest when God's Kingdom supplants Rome, wanting to rain fire on their Samaritan enemies, and quibbling siblings, whom he has already labeled "fools," more interested in how much they can get out of their father's estate rather than how much they can contribute to the new community of Christ - a world which Luke displays later in the Book of Acts as a community that shares all resources so as to provide for "the least of our sisters and brothers."
So can we blame him if he appears to be out of sorts? Feeling much as he did eight hundred years earlier he must feel like saying all over again, What more can I do for you to show you how this all works? Love of God and Love of Neighbor - devotion and ethical behavior. Can I break it down any more simply than this? I am not here to validate the status quo - that is devotion and identity to family kinship groups is no longer going to work. Devotion to God and to loving others will. Does anyone hear me at all? Turns out God does care what we are or are not doing.
Tucked neatly between these two episodes of Divine Frustration is the witness of someone who evidently does hear him and does get it - the mysterious and unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews - curiously regarded these days as "not a letter" and "not to Hebrews at all," but a treatise to a group of early Christian who seem to have already lost their way prior to 70 CE.
It is by one who understands that Christianity at its outset was not a set of beliefs so much as a new way of life - a way utterly different than life in the Roman Empire. By enacting the teachings of Jesus, Christianity changed and improved the lives of people and served as a practical spiritual pathway. Why did Christianity succeed in the Roman Empire? Not because it offered “other worldly compensations for suffering in this life,” rather it was a faith that “delivered potent antidotes to life’s miseries here and now.” All grounded in a faith in which we are to Love God and Love our Neighbor. It was this faith that propelled them to do things in ways contrary to the Empire. Ibid, p.26
"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen...By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear." That is how this eleventh chapter of Hebrews begins - and it catalogs, beginning with Abel, Abraham, Noah, Rahab and others, just what people who have grasped God's dream have done, not knowing how things would eventually work out!
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted." Hebrews 12: 1-2
Back in 1916 Rauschenbusch cites this passage from Hebrews when he writes, "The man who wrote the little treatise from which this is quoted saw the history of humanity summed up in the life spirits who had the power of projection into the future. Faith is the quality of mind which sees things before they are visible, which acts on ideals before they are realities, and which feels the distant city of God to be more dear, substantial, and attractive than the edible and profitable present. Read Hebrews 11. So he calls on Christians to take up the same manner of life, and compares them with [people] running a race in an amphitheatre packed with all the generations of the past who are watching them make their record. But he bids them to keep their eye on Jesus who starts them at the line and will meet them at the goal, and who has set the pace for good and fleet persons of all time." ibid p.189
There are those who have gone before. There are those who see the dream now. There are those who will be greeted by Jesus at the goal. The good news is that because we look to Jesus to perfect our faith, we can be like them. The only question is, will we? Amen.