Weekly Preaching: August 18, 2019

August 13th, 2019

Isaiah 5:1-7 is a vivid parable of a well-tended vineyard failing to produce fruit, reminding us perhaps of Jesus finding that tree to be unfruitful. If you visit biblical sites in Israel, you notice the omnipresence of wine presses. Bible people were utterly familiar with vineyards, fruit, wine-making, light years from the elitist sommeliers and wine tours we see today. Bible people were close to the earth and knew its processes. Gisela Kreglinger, a theologian who grew up in a wine-producing family, has written a fascinating book, The Spirituality of Wine, well worth exploring! A barren vineyard would have raised questions about the roots, the weather, the soil, bugs, and laziness.

Isaiah 5 is couched as a love song, beginning in tender joy (with verbal echoes of the Song of Songs), but it turns quickly to scathing critique, featuring wickedly harsh wordplay. God looked for mishpat (justice) but found only mispach (bloodletting); God sought zedekah (righteousness) but found only ze’akah (a yelp of pain). These are memorable, haunting words that cannot have been well-received by the smug who first heard them.

Preparing to preach on this? Drive to a vineyard and get in a conversation with a laborer or two, or the vintner. Ask about frustrations. Get the feel of the place. Get the feel of what God felt. Or ask people around your parish or neighborhood of times they felt they had labored hard but earned nothing but exasperation in return. You’ll be getting close then to the heart of this text.

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Hebrews 11:29-12:2 continues the roll call of Israel’s heroes of faith from last week. I love the “time will fail me” in v. 32, reminiscent to the scene in Sleepless in Seattle when Jonah springs a phone call with radio therapist Dr. Marcia Fieldstone on his dad, Sam. She asks, “What was so special about your wife?” He responds, “Well, how long is your program?” The preacher can tantalize people by playing on this, rattling off names and brief summaries of the exploits of Bible heroes (including those saints who've lived past Bible times).

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How intriguing is Hebrews’ spin that “They grew powerful out of weakness." It's a common biblical theme, one re-popularized in our day by Jean Vanier, Brené Brown and others. Verse 38 reminds us of the Desert Fathers  even all these great heroes didn’t get what God has prepared, which is better. Wow. If so, for us, we “put aside every impediment," raising homiletical questions about what impediments people carry around like some heavy backpack.

As for the race running image: If you aren’t a runner, or even if you are, interview a few runners. Review the text and see what they say about running, discipline, the mental battle, injuries, cheerleading, whatever.

The “cloud of witnesses” image is so powerful! I preached a few years back at our conference’s memorial service for clergy and their spouses who had died in the past year. I tried to think about tears as little droplets of water. What is a cloud but little droplets of water all together? And that such little droplets are at their most colorful and beautiful  when?  at the end of the day, as the sun is setting. We have lost great ones and we have shed tears, but those tears are gathered up into a cloud and the refraction of light is stunning and lovely.

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Finally, Luke 12:49-56 is a great text, although I won’t focus on it. The family division is tough to talk about, although we have someone like St. Francis of Assisi (who could be an addendum to the Hebrews 11 list!) winding up cut off from his father Pietro because of his following Christ (as depicted so powerfully in Giotto's fresco). Certainly Christian faith doesn’t make families chipper or hold them together. It might, but often does not. Idolatry of the family is one of the naggingly pernicious blockers to people following Jesus. Again, it grows out of our nasty tendency to think that the Christian life is about being nice, or my goodness, or is a prop to our prearranged, preferred lives. Serious adherence to Jesus inevitably breaks down human relationships.

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