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Pentecost 13 Proper 15C RCL August 14, 2016

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2. 8-18
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

In our opening reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us a moving story of God’s love. God has a vineyard. With utmost care, God plants the best vines, builds a watchtower, and makes a wine vat. God expects this vineyard to yield grapes, but, as scholar James D. Newsome translates literally, the vineyard produces “stinkers.” (Texts for Preaching Year C, p. 470.)

The Southern Kingdom of Judah is enjoying great prosperity, but there is no justice. As in our society, the rich are becoming richer, but the poor are losing ground. There will be invasions by foreign powers—first Assyria and then Babylonia.

In our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, the new converts are reminded of the powerful history of faith from the time of the Exodus onward. God frees God’s people. God leads us out of all forms of slavery. God brings us safely home.

And then the reading moves into that stirring call to faith and action which we read on the feast of All Saints: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The journey of faith is envisioned as a race. We are spiritual athletes practicing askesis, spiritual discipline. Sin is like ankle weights that have been fastened to our legs, slowing us down, deflecting us from the goal. We are called to put aside the weight of sin, focus our eyes upon Jesus, and run with all the energy we can muster. Jesus is our goal. Living in him and allowing him to live in us is the source of the meaning and purpose of our lives.

But then we reach today’s troubling gospel. It makes us stop short. Our Lord, the Prince of Peace, is talking about strife and conflict. Not only that, he is describing deep conflict between members of families—father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, on and on.

Following Jesus is not easy. Our Lord is talking about what  Bonhoeffer called “The Cost of Discipleship.” It is important that we remember that he is on his way to Jerusalem, and he is well aware that the authorities are already keeping a close eye on him. He is attracting huge crowds. The authorities do not like this because they perceive a threat to their rule and control. Indeed, they have every reason to be threatened because the values of his shalom are the opposite of their values. They use violence to control their own people, and they will eventually kill Jesus.

When faced with this passage, I always think of our own Civil War. I think of families in the South, people who owned plantations, who treated their slaves well, and I think of the growing awareness that owning another person is not acceptable. Last Sunday Jesus said that when we wait for the master to arrive, he will sit down and serve us!

Even though slavery was accepted and practiced in Biblical times, it is not acceptable. But think of the pain and turmoil those families in the South endured. Some members of the family still felt that slavery was scriptural and permissible. Others were beginning to see the high standards which are set by the gospel.

During the nineteen fifties and sixties, we grappled in earnest with the issue of racial equality, and that struggle continues into the present.

It is so difficult for us to realize that, in God’s eyes, everyone is infinitely beloved.

In every age, following Christ can cause division. A father wants his son to carry on the family business. The son feels a deep vocation to the ordained ministry.

The son tries to fight this call. He does not want to hurt his father. Finally he sits down with his Dad and shares his vocation. The father is hurt and angry. They make a decision to pray about it and to keep talking together. Finally, the father works his way, with God’s help, to a place of acceptance.

Or, it goes the other way. The father simply does not understand his son’s selfish, willful lack of respect for the family business. This creates a chasm between the father and the son, an abyss of grief and anguish, and suffering for all the family members.

The values of God’s shalom are not the values of this world. God is still calling us to work toward that shalom, but we are not there yet. We can see the conflict, the birth pangs of God’s shalom everywhere.

How can we faithfully follow Christ in the midst of all this conflict? How can we possibly choose the values of his shalom in the midst of all this turmoil? Well, we can,  as our diocesan mission statement says, and as St. Augustine said many years ago, “Pray the prayer of Christ, learn the mind of Christ, and do the deeds of Christ.” In other words, we can root and ground our lives in prayer; meditate on and study and absorb the life of Jesus; and make his life the model for our lives.

Lisa W. Davison, Professor of Religious Studies at Lynchburg College in Virginia writes, “The good news is that Jesus has already run the race, marked the course, and provided a role model for us to follow.”

(Davison, New Proclamation Year C 2010, p. 183.

Let us run the race; let us follow him with all our heart and with all the grace he can give us. In his holy Name we pray. Amen.

 

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