Sermon Proper 14 Year C 8/15/10
In the first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet reminded the Israelites that God demanded that they learn to do good and to seek justice. The prophet emphatically called them to “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.” This call to justice drew the people out of their preoccupation with the immediate community, and into the broadened concern for the outcasts of society who were primarily sojourners, widows and orphans. In that patriarchal society, the protection of father and husband absolutely was necessary for women and children to survive. Without it, widows and orphans were forced to rely on the generosity of the community for the necessities of life. Unfortunately, the outcasts often fell off the radar screen of society. The story of their plight became old news, back page snippets, and small print stories for which no one paid attention. However, the prophet carried the fire and passion of God’s message of justice to the people and it became headline news.
In today’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah used the metaphor of the vineyard to explain God’s justice and ultimate plan for creation in light of the outcast’s struggle. Isaiah wrote, “The hedge will be removed, the wall will be torn down, and the vineyard will be pruned and hoed.” The prophet was declaring that God would bring about a fire of purification in the vineyard that would bring it to a place where justice and righteousness would prevail. Using this metaphor, the prophet asserted that God would restore justice by the fire of God’s compassion and love.
In the gospel today, Jesus said, “I will bring fire, I will bring division?” For some of us, that scripture may be hard to hear. It’s hard to imagine that the God of compassion, who loves and is self-giving, could bring destructive fire to the earth and cause division between families, create conflicts and encourage crisis. This doesn’t sound much like the good news we expect to hear does it? Keep in mind though, that fire is not for destruction purposes alone. Fire has a certain creative, restorative, refining quality about it. The finest crystal containers begin as crystalline silica. Silica is really just sand, dirt, mere dust, which could be considered useless material except when it is placed in a fire and melted down. Fire burns away the impurities and muck and afterward, one, is left with a pliable, perfected glass ready to be molded into a shape determined by the master glassmaker. This process comes about when the molten blob of perfected silica is placed on the end of a tube and the master blows into it a creative breath. It is then that a beautiful vessel begins to take shape. The object thus emerges from the fire and by the master’s skill, takes the shape of a beautiful vase, a bowl, or maybe a glass container. It is the purging fire, which is required to change the silica into the beautiful container. Fire, which has the potential to destroy, is used to burn away the muck and the mire and make way for new life.
Represented by the metaphor of a cleansing fire, the hope of the early Christian community focused on God’s promise of the coming kingdom. At Pentecost, it was tongues of fire that brought the proclamation of that hope. It is the fire of the Spirit in the church today, that purifies us and transforms us into the people whom we are called to be. It is through our willingness to be purged and purified, that the creative breath of the master flows within us, and draws us into containers that hold God’s love. From us we pour out that love so that all may come to know God’s restorative power.
The fire is good news by which wholeness and restoration takes place. God does not respond with indifference to the plight of the powerless, the downtrodden, the broken and those in pain. Jesus Christ Our Lord stirred up the waters of indifference, turned over tables of self-fulfillment. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, ate with tax collectors, and protected the outcasts of society. There doesn’t seem to be much room for business as usual in the Kingdom of God. We are called out of the mundane to participate in God’s passion for justice. When we witness and respond to the tragedy of the broken lives of those who struggle, we are purged of our own indifference, our desire for self-fulfillment and we are drawn into the work of restoration and justice. Jesus said that he came to bring about division, but the end purpose was not to the breakup family or community. By merely bringing about the message of the need for justice, differences of opinion or divisions naturally occur. By merely declaring a message that there is a need for change in how we respond to those in crises, divisions may occur. When we allow the fire that purges the impurities that separate us from God’s grace, new life, commitment and vision emerges. God is always bringing about the emergence of change in creation and it is by the fire of change within us, that the evidence, the signs of the times, the headline news shout loudly that God’s Kingdom is very near us.