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Interpreting the Times

When I was a teenager, my family moved to a new home in the fruit belt on the south shore of Lake Ontario. It was deep in the country for this boy from the suburbs, and I was thrilled to find a row of grapevines in our back yard. They were lush with big leaves that spilled over the top and sides of a small arbor. I couldn’t wait to have our own grapes and I watched eagerly for them to appear. One day disaster struck. A helpful farmer stopped by when I wasn’t home and pruned the neglected and overgrown vines. I couldn’t believe the resulting scene of devastation! All that was left were a few spindly branches stretched and tied across the wires. The leaves were gone, and I was sure the vines were dead. That’s how little I knew about farming. The branches grew and pushed out new leaves, of course, and that fall my mother put away countless jars of grape jam for the winter.

Healthy vines need pruning. Did you know that a song was written about that? Right in Isaiah chapter 5: “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning the vineyard.” The song is about a vineyard on a hillside with the best vines and a big wine vat all set for the fall harvest. It does start out like a love song, but it quickly becomes very dark and even scary. Instead of delicious, sweet grapes, the vines produce something wild and unsuitable for even a mediocre wine. Then devastation follows. The singer of love songs removes the fence and refuses to prune or otherwise tend, leaving the vineyard overgrown and overtaken by thorns. Even the rain is halted in this love song gone wrong as the unfaithfulness of Israel is revealed and punished. The vineyard is the nation, and the plantings are its people. The final words are anything but a love-song: “I expect justice from you, but instead all I see is bloodshed.”

The word picture in Isaiah 5 is pretty disturbing. Not the image of untamed branches and ravaged grapes, but the depiction of a God who actively withholds sustenance from created beings. Is that how God acts? When it doesn’t rain in California or the Sudan, is it God’s punishment? I guess we could say that the unjust, faithless acts of God’s chosen merited the response in Isaiah, but it’s also likely that natural disasters like drought were interpreted as divine punishment by those who realized they’d fallen short of God’s call to just and holy living.

Jesus said something about that in our gospel reading: “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” He talked about weather forecasts (always a topic of interest here in Boulder whether you are a meteorologist or just want to be outdoors!) When you see clouds, he said, you know it’s going to rain. When the desert winds blow from the south, you know there will be unbearable heat. But what about the other signs pointing to good and bad, hope and despair? Can you correctly interpret and understand what is happening?

The words of Jesus preceding this are just as disturbing, or more so, than the supposed love song contained in Isaiah. He sounds downright vindictive when he proclaims, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and I wish it was already burning. Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, not peace but division.” Other translations use the word “sword” instead of division: “I came not to bring peace, but a sword,” which is commonly-quoted source these days in support of personal weaponry. Either way, it doesn’t sound like the Jesus we admire and are inclined to say we follow.

It gets worse. Some of Jesus’ words seem to threaten our most personal relationships. He says that families will be divided because of him, fathers and mothers against their children, three against two and two against three. If we want to talk about family values, this is not the best place to start!

The passage in Luke is among the most difficult to preach on in the New Testament. I’ve been trying not to avoid those challenging texts when they appear in the Lectionary. I’ve spent time this week pondering the meaning of Jesus’ words in Luke 12, and I have to admit I am left with more questions than answers.

Last week, we talked about a section of Scripture that is part of the wisdom saying in the Bible. Today’s two passages are a different genre that could almost be described as apocalyptic, especially the words of Jesus in Luke. If we are looking for some good news to hold on to in a world that is already too divided and is desperately needing to believe that peace is possible, this is not it. And so the question is, what is it? Why is it so oppressively dark, and is it true that division is inevitable for people who differ in their beliefs or for a nation or nations with vastly different perspectives?

When Simone Biles took the gold medal for all-around women’s gymnastics on Thursday, she was flanked by silver and bronze medalists Ali Raisman and Aliya Mustafina. One Christian, one Jewish, one Muslim. Two American and one Russian. Journalist Peter Weber noted that the International Olympic Committee has revived the ancient Greek tradition of an Olympic Truce, the goal of which is to protect "the interests of the athletes and sport in general, and to encourage searching for peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts around the world," including through fostering "a window of opportunity for dialogue and reconciliation." That's obviously easier said than done, but the image of a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim from two of the world's most powerful enemies smiling in peaceful victory makes it almost seem possible.

Here in the United States, an India-born Muslim named Malik Waliyani bought a gas station and convenience store a few months ago. Not all neighbors were pleased, and the store was quickly burglarized and damaged. He struggled to keep it going. The nearby Smoke Rise Baptist Church heard what had happened. “Let’s shower our neighbor with love,” Chris George, the pastor, told his congregation at the end of his sermon, and more than 200 members drove over to assist, mostly by making purchases. One man, though, drove his car around until the gas tank was empty, so he could buy more gas. “Our faith inspires us to build bridges, not to label people as us and them, but to recognize that we’re all part of the same family,” the pastor said. “Our world is a stronger place when we choose to look past labels and embrace others with love.”

That’s an inspiring story that doesn’t seem to support the message of Jesus in Luke 12. How do his words about bringing division, not peace, relate to the realities of our world and the need to make peace? Jesus’ insistence that he would bring division make sense, I guess, if we don’t see them as a gleeful expectation as much as an unfortunate truth. Jesus advocated throughout his ministry on behalf of persons the majority preferred to ignore or abuse. His tendency to eat with sinners and fraternize with women and commend Samaritans made him immensely unpopular with those who held power and wanted to retain it. Those who resisted and ultimately killed him were angry that their own lives were so hard. It’s a truism that many resist improving the situation of others when their own interests are threatened.

But what about family members set against one another? It’s a sad picture that Jesus presents: a family of five, perhaps including a mother, father, son, daughter, father-in-law, or mother-in-law, locked in conflict and unable to resolve their differences when what they value most is at odds with one another. It’s like a family gathering when an in-law makes a jab at your political party or candidate over dinner and the conversation quickly goes south. Right now many of us find it hard to be in relationship with family members whose political views cause them to support a different candidate than our own. Peace on earth doesn’t seem as possible in those moments when we can’t even agree with those who share our table.

Sometimes our current political climate seems apocalyptic. Will the world end, or will God punish us if we don’t choose the right presidential candidate? I don’t believe so, but it’s clear that some do. This week, the pastor of one of the most influential mega churches in our country issued a twenty point declaration stating why America as we know it will end if we do not elect God’s chosen candidate. The scenarios were pretty grim, and I wondered how anyone could be so hopeless about the future and so certain about how God would save us at the same time.

After talking about clouds and rain and wind and heat, Jesus said at the end of our reading from Luke, “you know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Jesus was talking to some folks who were apparently struggling to make sense out of the hard realities of their world. Does that mean that he is saying that we, too, are unable to interpret the present time? I don’t believe so. With God’s help and a heart that is open to truth, we can use the minds God gave us to discern the present time and to act decisively to make the world a better place for ourselves and others.

May we live in peace with one another and call others to a life of peace. Amen.

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