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Thursday, August 15, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 5:1-7 AND Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 OR Jeremiah 23:23-29 AND Psalm 82:108, Hebrews 11:29-12-2, Luke 12:49-46

I developed an awareness of justice very early in life, although it was not an angry awareness.  In fact, I was hardly even aware that I was aware.  I’ve more than once talked about growing up in poverty, but not knowing it.  I knew it all right but I didn’t feel poor.  My Dad’s wages were always below the official poverty level, but we didn’t have food stamps and there was certainly enough to eat.  I couldn’t wear the latest fashions and fads, but I got plenty of hand-me-downs from a plethora of cousins.  My parents always made sure I was adequately dressed.  I remember the first time I got a new suit (for church).  My first question was, “Whose was it?”

Although we lived in many substandard dwellings in my first few years of life (including a warehouse and a chicken house), most of my school years were spent in a comfortable three-bedroom house across from the city park and tennis courts.

Nevertheless I was aware of larger forces at work.  There was something called “The Union” which my Dad refused to join---something I had a hard time forgiving him for since to join would have meant better wages.  We knew who the enemy was---all those powerful people “back East,” although my physically handicapped father eventually benefited from New Deal programs, working on a Works Progress Administration project and getting training in electrical wiring in the Seattle shipyards during the war.

I also observed people who lived in what I thought was “real” poverty---the Mexicans who wandered by on streets leading to the migrant labor camp nearby, for example.  I eventually worked for a year as a student missionary to migrant workers where I saw 14 year old girls forced into prostitution---right here in Oregon.

These and many other experiences led me to begin to connect issues of justice with my faith and my reading of scripture.  Although it is not my nature to get seriously angry, I began to build up a head of steam about the unfair circumstances of life that I experienced and observed.

I don’t much like to think of God as angry.  That’s what we have in some of today’s scriptures.  One of the things that seems to arouse the most anger in God is injustice, particularly injustice committed by those who should know better, his own rebellious people.

Two of this week’s lectionary passages use the image of a vineyard, the vineyard being a symbol of God's people.  God loves the vineyard.  The reading from Isaiah, chapter five, begins with these words:  “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:  My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.”  (Isaiah 5:1)  Instead of good grapes, however, “it yielded wild grapes.”  (vs. 2)  As a result, God tramples the vineyard down, makes it waste, allows it to be overgrown with briers and thorns.”  (vss. 5:5-6)  The final verse makes the meaning plain.  “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”  (vs. 7)  How many places in the world today do those words fit?  Psalm 80 continues the image of the vineyard, with the people feeling the results of the judgment that has been placed upon them, pleading with God to restore them to life.  (Psalm 80:14, 18-19)

To understand the reading from Jeremiah, chapter 23, we need to go back to verse nine where God speaks “concerning the prophets.”  My heart is crushed within me, all my bones shake; I have become like a drunkard, like one overcome by wine, because of the Lord and because of his holy words.  For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns, and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up.  Their course has been evil, and their might is not right.  Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their wickedness, says the Lord . . . they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from wickedness . . .”  (vss. 9-11 & 14)  These same prophets, however, tell the people, “It shall be well with you . . . No calamity shall come upon you.” (vs. 17)  God tells the people not to listen to such prophets.  (vs. 16)  How often do we hear our political leaders speaking platitudes rather than facing reality?  What about our own perspectives and attitudes?

In the portion of Jeremiah in the lectionary reading, God is angry.  “How long?” God cries out.  “Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back---those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit in their own hearts?”  (vs. 26)  Then comes the distinction between fantasy dreams, head in the sand thinking, and the wheat of God’s word.  If we are to dream, let it be God’s dream of justice.  “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.  What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord.” (vs. 28)

Psalm 82 was already included as a reading in recent weeks.  In it, God calls together a “divine council,” accusing “the gods” of judging “unjustly;” and showing “partiality to the wicked.”  (Psalm 82:1-2)  He calls them to “give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.  Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”  (vss. 3-4)

The reading from Hebrews continues with the litany of religious heroes, begun last week, who lived by faith.  Finally the writer notes that “time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets---who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Women received their dead by resurrection.  Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, there were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented---of whom the world was not worthy.  They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”  (Hebrews 11:32-38)

These words contain many troubling, confusing, even disturbing images.  Embedded within them, though, is the message that these people have not only seen persecution and death dealing with issues of justice; they themselves have been victims of unjust systems.  The point, at the end, is that none of them lived to see full justice realized.  I leave it to others to debate about some time when God will intervene and establish a perfect reign of divine love and justice.  The message of this reading is to keep on going, encouraged by all these who have gone before.  “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.”  (Hebrews 12:1)  The inspiration is not only behind, but ahead, where we look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross . . .” (vs. 2)

Our breakfast group recently got into a discussion of heaven, including Jesus pointing to some kind of heaven on this earth, in our midst.  Passages like this week’s suggest that peace and justice are central to “the kingdom of heaven.”  What would such a “heaven on earth” look like?  What is your dream?  What is God’s dream?

That leaves the Gospel reading from Luke, chapter 21, a passage that has always been troubling to me and many others.  It speaks of divisions which pit parents against children, in-laws against one another, etc.  (Luke 21:52-53)  Such divisions are a reality, but we hardly want to think of them as part of God’s scheme of things.  It is true that families can be divided by the way that they look at justice issues and by their approaches to politics, but is that the primary point here?  Jesus even goes so far as the ask, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!” (vs.  51)

Sorry, I’m not going to try to sort it all out this week.  I think the main point is for us to see the destructive injustice that is going on around us and to follow Jesus’ lead in embarking on a mission to lay our lives down for the cause of justice, even when it costs us dearly in our relationships with those we love.  He speaks of a “baptism with which to be baptized,” (vs. 50) and concludes with an analogy from weather applied to our perception.  “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.  And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.  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?”  (vss. 54-56)  Are we like the prophets in Isaiah who overlook, even participate in and contribute to, the troubles of our times?

Along with “Let there be light!” and all the other “Let there be . . .” pronouncements, I’m pretty sure God also said, “Let there be justice!”---maybe not during the creation story itself, but certainly in the stories of the prophets and in his continuing work of creation through Jesus and into our day.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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