May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Does God ever give up?
I’ve spoken about that wager God has with God’s Self, that humans can give themselves back to God and grow into peaceful and loving relationships with each other and let go of pride of place and the whole notion of being first, having the best, but rather come to know ourselves and be grateful to be who we each and all are—beloved children of God. We have that wonderful line in Psalm 139: “Lo, I am fearfully and wonderfully made and that my soul knows right well.” Meditate on that for an hour this week and let God reveal more to you about yourself than you already know, and take in deeply how much God loves you.
I think God just keeps on trying to believe this about us creatures, but sometimes the prophets who speak for God are full of rage which they claim as God’s rage, and sometimes, like today in this passage from Isaiah, we seem to hear God as crestfallen, so disappointed in us as to be ready to withdraw. We have this lovely image of a vineyard, where everything has been done just so, from the clearing and planting, to building the fence and the winepress, and then the careful weeding and pruning and tending to it. But instead of yielding big, luscious grapes, full of juice and ripe with flavor, they are small and dry and possibly very sour, not good for eating and hardly suitable for making good wine.
This is where God seems to give up, taking away the protection, the caregivers and even the rain. Then comes the revelation, through Isaiah: the vineyard is you, O Israel, the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting. There’s still that note of tenderness, that revelation of affection, but the further dimension that if God is not abandoning them entirely, God is at least withdrawing from them to wait for them to come to justice and to choose righteousness. Remember, in an image like this one, the rain that comes to soak the parched earth and cause shoots to sprout and spring up is God’s word delivered through the prophets. In this chapter of Isaiah we don’t hear the anger we heard in his preaching last week, but there is this deep sense of sadness and lamentation: what more could I have done? This is so like the wailing plainchant we use in the Way of the Cross on Good Friday when we travel from station to station singing God’s song: O my people, what have I done to you? Testify against me!”
It is one thing to hear God the Creator, the Father of Humankind being angry. So many of the prophets spoke from that tone, that mode, scolding, shaming, spitting out rage and threats of punishment and damnation. I grew up in a fairly moderate branch of the Lutheran Church, where we heard very little hellfire and brimstone from the pulpit, but as I entered adulthood, I think my major sense of God the Father was that of “the Celestial Sniper.” No matter what, God was going to get you for something. Oh, there was salvation in the end, but that would come after a good bit of purging and cleansing, a treatment that was bound to hurt.
Then one day I tried The Episcopal Church. It was a tiny congregation in a town of 3200 and a college of 500 called Carthage, so of course the patron was the great early theologian, St. Cyprian of Carthage. A big saint for a little church.
I was enjoying the liturgy with all its beauty, and then we got to the Prayer of Humble Access, in which we name that “God’s property is always to have mercy.” I was blown away; it knocked my socks off. There it was in the heart of the liturgy, the revelation that Anglicans believe God is first and foremost, merciful, full of mercy. That’s when I knew I was finding a new spiritual home. [I wish we could find a better place for it in the liturgy, since it is too penitential to use after we are absolved of our sins. It’s like stooping down and picking them all up and taking them home again.]
Back to Scripture: this week it is Jesus who is angry. “I came to bring fire to the earth.” Elsewhere he talks about bringing a sword. And he uses all these examples of division, as if he purposely wants to drive wedges between. That seems so inconsistent with his gospel of love, his warning to do no harm. If we remember that fires can have a positive dimension as well as a very fearful one when we think of a house burning or the inferno of a forest fire. I have a small prairie between my house and the lake where I live, and every year I hope to do a controlled burn at a certain time in April, because the weeds sprout first and then a couple of weeks later the prairie grasses and wildflowers push through the earth. The weeds love to spread and grow tall to grab all the space and the sun, and a controlled burn cuts off their first sprouting and give the other plants a chance. It’s not easy. The past two years we had 15” and 10” snowfalls in mid-April, which stayed on the ground a good while due to a cold snap, and then the winds were so high it was dangerous to do a burn. So the weeds had the upper hand.
I think this is what Jesus is talking about when he talks about division. It is about pruning, cultivating for maximum health and growth and strength, and there are some who make themselves available for the pruning and others who don’t. It is our choice, and I think Jesus is just naming reality here, not threatening us.
I’d like to reflect a bit on anger at this point, mainly because we are seeing so much of it in our society right now, and with such tremendous efforts to justify or even excuse it. Let’s remember that anger is always rooted in fear. That’s why Jesus says again and again, “Be not afraid.” We heard it again just last week, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” Depending on the degree of fear, we can go to great extremes with our anger. On a social level we are seeing the rise of a very exclusive nationalism in almost every “first world country,” those with some of the natural resources, but with almost all of the money. And these movements are all very angry, venomous, belittling some people because they do not belong for some reasons the group has decided on. And when we belittle, we grow in ourselves the attitude that it is all right to hate this people and treat them badly. We forget that collect in Morning Prayer saying that God has made all people of one blood.
It is interesting that Jesus uses an image of separation to speak against separation. He is not wanting to separate us from each other, but he is describing how we will divide ourselves that way if we do not try to separate ourselves from our baser attitudes and behaviors. What we need to be afraid of here is our own unbridled passions, particularly anger. And I don’t hold much stock in what some call “righteous indignation.” It’s indignation, all right, but it is rarely righteous. It is usually the compounding of a bunch of angers that have been building up in us and when we finally explode it is disproportionate to the event that teed us off, and then it is destructive. It’s like shooting a squirrel with an elephant gun.
The Rt. Rev. James Jelinek