Year C — The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15)

Commentary for August 18, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast with the Rev. Julian Gordy

Isaiah 5:1-7
Isaiah’s opening sounds a bit like Solomon’s Song of Songs — a love story! 

The vineyard is so carefully (lovingly) prepared and cultivated, it seems that every crop that springs forth should be “guaranteed” to be fruitful and delicious. Alas, it is not so. 

As with the “things of the Lord,” stuff doesn’t always work out. When we allow our spiritual lives to go untended, we may expect waste, overgrowth, and drought. 

Dang.

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Asaph, the court musician, pens a plaintive lament seeking to understand why God has withdrawn God’s hand from the people of God. 

The closing verses are a beautiful, heartfelt prayer for God’s return — the light from God’s face that brings our salvation.

Jeremiah 23:23-29
It appears that God takes the preaching of God’s word fairly seriously.

We want to be pretty careful that it is not our own “dreams” that we proclaim from the pulpit, but rather the word we receive from the Lord. 

Of course, that raises a whole other set of issues, as the word that comes from God is not always a calming, comforting word. It is like fire; it is a hammer that breaks the hard rock of our hearts (or maybe our heads?)

Psalm 82
We are reminded again of what is important to God: “justice to the weak and orphan, giving what is right to the lowly and the destitute.”

How are we doing, church?

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
I live in the hometown of the University of Florida Fighting Gators; current radio broadcaster and “Voice of the Gators” is Mick Hubert. One of Hubert’s catch phrases — used after a dynamic play or a devastating (to the Gators) call by a ref — is, “Oh, my!”

I’d kind of like to give this passage from Hebrews a big, “Oh, my!” It is a stunning piece of scripture and a dynamic section in the extended sermon by this long-ago preacher.

Be sure to consider the relationship of the long list of heroes and martyrs that concludes chapter 11 and the more famous opening words of chapter 12, concerning the “great cloud of witnesses.”

Our call to follow Jesus is always and ever a call to the way of the cross — and, evidently, to some other fairly uncomfortable situations on the way to any great victories God desires to give us.

Luke 12:49-56
On this week’s Lectionary Lab Live podcast, Dr. Chilton raises the question of the “family values” revealed by Jesus in this week’s gospel text. This is not one of the more comfortable texts you will ever have to deal with, preachers!

Disruptive and divisive at times, the gospel is always moving us from somewhere to somewhere. We rarely are allowed to simply sit and watch the world go by. 

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the ability to read the signs of the times. To look at obvious things, like dark clouds and south winds andknow what they mean. Jesus wonders  why people can interpret ordinary stuff, but don’t know how to look at the social world around them and see it for what it is.

When we read this section, we usually assume that Jesus’ is referring to a dark omen of evil times in the offing. But let me propose that that is not necessarily the case.  There are many times when rain in the offing is good news, not bad. Jesus says here nothing about looking out for evil times; he merely suggests that we should pay as much attention to the times as we do the clouds.

In the Jewish tradition clouds were a sign of God’s presence. When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, he ascended up a mountain into the clouds where God was hidden from the view of those below.  When the Children of Israel were crossing the wilderness, they were led by God, by a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. The clouds were signs of God’s presence, God’s protection, God’s provision.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians. In it, the author uses the phrase 
“a great cloud of witnesses.” He is referring to the long list of folk he has named who trusted God throughout their problems and difficulties.

The first part of our text is about the exodus and coming into the promised land. The second part is about the time the history of the kingdom of Israel. The third part is about the great trials the Jews faced during the Maccabean period. 

Then, in 12:1 and 2, the author makes his point:  we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses.   A “cloud”, not a crowd; the witnesses are a sign to us of what God can do with and for us in the midst of difficulties and hard times.
 
12: 2: “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for our sake endured the cross, disregarding its shame, . . . “  ties directly to the beginning of the Gospel lesson.  Jesus here refers not to some future apocalypse, some deep punishment of the earth which an angry God holds in abeyance until it suits his whim and fancy to unleash it on us. Jesus is talking about himself, telling us that he came to bring good news, but not necessarily “pleasant news.” Jesus says he came to break in order to heal, to burn in order to purify, to tear down in order to build up. 

Though the world often seeks pleasant news, it has often been the un-pleasant duty of the church to bring good news that is frequently neither gentle nor welcome . People want, in the midst of the misery that their sin and rebellion have brought upon them, to be told that God is love and forgives them. That is pleasant news.

They do not wish to be told that while God loves them as they are, God also loves them too much to let them stay that way.  God will always seek to change and transform us more and more from sinners into saints.

It’s a different message than we’re used to hearing, but it is an important one. Jesus came into this world with a message and a mission, both of which were good, but neither of which was pleasant. His message was a message of love, and as we all know, love can be very, very unpleasant at times.

The opposite of love is not hate, not anger, not unpleasantness. The opposite of love is apathy, uncaring, uninvolved; which can often be very quiet and pleasant. Love is noisy and nosy and involved. Love will not let you slip away unchallenged into nice failure.

Jesus had a message of love, a message of love that disturbed families because it called upon people to get beyond roles and to get into relationships; real, messy, involved relationships; and that kind of love is disruptive, it broke what isn’t working in order to create a new family, a new community of truth and love.

Yes, Jesus came with a message and a mission, and his mission was to break the power of the evil one through the power of selfless love. That is the “baptism” he refers to, the thing that must be completed.  Jesus came to complete what was begun many years ago in the parting of the Red Sea; Jesus came to rescue God’s people,  Jesus came to fight the good fight of faith and to break us free from our bondage to sin, death and the devil. Jesus came to be the capstone, the final chapter, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

So, what is our sign today, what do the clouds hold for us? Life is difficult for many of us. We are living in the midst of tough times. But, we are called upon to look to the “great cloud of witnesses” who went before us.

We are not alone, sisters and brothers, and we are not traveling down roads untrod. Where we are, for the most part, others have been before, and they held on to their faith and God held on to them. We are called to look to them as a sign, a seal and a promise of God’s presence, God’s protection and God’s provision; we are to look to them and trust in the hand of God to carry us through.

Amen and amen.

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