Yesterday as part of the Vestry meeting we did a Bible study of today’s gospel. Anytime that we as a community engage scripture the insights can be pretty profound, and I thought our resulting discussions were fruitful.
The Vestry has been reading and discussing a book on making church boards more spiritual and this small study was part of that effort as was a time of prayer at the beginning and end of the meeting.
How Jesus’ words must have shocked his audience! “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Fire often appears in scripture when the writer is comparing the cleansing of the people to how fire draws off all the impurities in metal. Jesus elsewhere talks of God’s judgment in terms of separating the wheat from the chaff with the chaff being burned.
We don’t exactly know what Jesus is speaking of. It is clear that the baptism of which he speaks is his suffering on the Cross. Could he be speaking in this instance of the coming of the Holy Spirit to his followers which will jump start the church and the resulting events of history?
Neither his core disciples nor the crowd seem to be getting the implications of Jesus’ picture of the future when people will be divided over heart-felt belief. As he speaks of divisions even within families, I as a child of the Cold War remember reading of accounts in which children denounced their parents for anti-Communist talk.
But like all good prophetic speech the message applies again and again through salvation history. I am reminded of the Anglican Communion’s splits over the Episcopal Church’s welcoming into full ministry in the church all people regardless of their sexual orientation.
It has certainly set parts of the church against one another. Is this a case of the division that results when people wrestle with God’s call? Only time will tells us for sure.
In this portion of Isaiah, God is prophesying the coming destruction of Israel at the hands of the Babylonians. Both this passage from Isaiah and these portions of Psalm 80 deal with the imagery of the ruined vineyard.
This passage from Isaiah continues the judgment of Israel by God for failing to be faithful in worship and in just dealings with the poor. It forecasts the desolation of the country because of the people’s actions as a vineyard not tended falls into ruin. The Psalm seems to be a subsequent lament using the same imagery to ask God to stop the pain—behold and tend this vine, preserve what your right hand has planted.
God speaks in the prophecy of Isaiah of the expectation of good grapes only to see that the produce is wild grapes—bitter and useless for God’s use.
So what is the import of these passages for us here this Sunday morning at St. John’s? In the view of the Jewish people of the time, God answers unfaithfulness and injustice by a cleansing until only a faithful remnant is saved.
As the Psalm says, ‘Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.”
To me these passages ask, do we take responsibility in our personal and communal activities to do right by others or do we leave it to others to do the right thing?
It is a matter of accountability. To whom are we accountable? In the context of our faith tradition we are accountable to God for what we do and what we fail to do. Within our families we are accountable to the others we live with. But are we not also accountable to ourselves?
We have talents. If we fail to use them appropriately, is it someone else’s fault? No, it is ours. Yet so often we try to rationalize that we were victims of circumstance or some other excuse. We see it all around us. We have a steady diet of national finger-pointing as our leadership at many levels tries to shift blame to someone else.
Were Jesus preaching today how would his message change? Certainly the names of the power elites would be different. The examples in the parables might be updated, but the message would come through just as clearly.
God has expectations of us and we must understand we are accountable for what we do and what we fail to do.