Lectionary Reflection for August 15, 2010
Isaiah 5:1-7 Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 Luke 12:49-56
The worst sermons I’ve ever preached were those that tried to “connect the lectionary dots” but didn’t offer a coherent message that tied them together. It would be a cruel trick to publish a “connect the dots” picture in a children’s magazine and, when the little hand took the pencil and connected the dots, they made random lines on the page, but no coherent picture. This week I did discern a thread that connected three of the lectionary text dots: texts from Isaiah 5, Psalm 80 and Luke 12. First, let’s look at the dots.
Isaiah 5:1-7 is called the “Song of the Vineyard.” It depicts Israel as the vineyard chosen by God which did not yield grapes, but only wild grapes. God says he expected justice but saw bloodshed (5:7). Isaiah was a prophet living in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 8th century BCE. The book of Isaiah is comprised of several collections of prophecies from various sources. It shares the perspective on history of the book of Deuteronomy: that the catastrophes that befell Israel in 721 (takeover by Assyrians) and Judah (takeover by Babylonians) in 587, were caused by the faithlessness and ingratitude of the people toward God. This had shaped a faithless form of politics and a self indulgent upper class whose worship was coupled with indifference to injustice. The people brought their defeat by foreign nations on themselves. (Kaiser, 2-3)
Psalm 80 is a community lament sung in the context of a military defeat. Like Isaiah 5, it uses the metaphor of Israel as a vineyard (see also Isaiah 27:2-5; Jeremiah 2:21; Hosea 10:1; and Matthew 21:33).The psalm laments that God has broken down the wall protecting the nation from their enemies and prays God to “turn again” (verse 14) and work through the Davidic king (“the man at your right hand” in verse 18) to bring them victory.
Luke 12:49-56 is Jesus’ words to the disciples about the divisive nature of his teachings. While the psalmist implores God to “turn again,” Jesus urges listeners to turn to God. This text is sandwiched between the parable of the faithful or unfaithful slave (12:41-48) and the command to repent or perish (13:1-5) that is followed by the parable of the barren fig tree (13:6-9). This placement sharpens its point and gives it added urgency.
Matthew’s version of this saying uses the even sharper word “sword,” rather than “division.” The presence of division, if it is the gospel message that has caused it, may be a sign of the presence of God’s kingdom. That divisiveness will reach into the closest of our relationships. (Ellis, 182-183) For Luke, Jesus’ teachings, in the context of his coming death, call for a decision that will trouble the waters of a settled life, rather than help listeners fit into society and smooth the way in all their relationships.
Now here is the connecting thread I noticed when I read each dot (lectionary text). Each of the three texts contains a why question.
In Isaiah 5:4, God asks the people a question in which he challenges them to take responsibility for their situation.
Why don’t you bear fruit when I’ve nurtured your growth for so long? (My version)
“When I expected it (the vineyard) to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”(NRSV version)
Why do you allow us to suffer the consequences of our actions? (My version)
“Why then have you broken down its (the vineyard’s) walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” (NRSV version)
In Luke 12:56, Jesus asks his disciples a question in which he challenges them to stop blaming God and start turning to God and repenting.
Why don’t you see that now is the time to stop blaming God and start turning to God, start taking my teachings seriously? (My version)
“Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (NRSV version)
I think a preacher could build a sermon on these three questions, not just focused on individuals, but also on the communities in which we live. The three why questions are quite theological. They have everything to do with sin, freewill and repentance, for individuals and for communities.
• Why aren’t we bearing fruit?
• Why are we blaming God for our situation instead (or other people?)
• Why don’t we see that now is the time to repent and change our lives?
Building a sermon around questions is something Jesus often did. He liked to ask questions. Not rhetorical questions, questions that have obvious answers, like
Q: “Who is faithful to us in good times and bad? A: God!
Jesus liked to ask what scholars call “impossible questions.” These are questions that challenge listeners (and often frustrate them), because they have no answers. These are questions like “How by being anxious can you add one cubit to your span of life?” And “What does it profit a person to gain the world and lose his soul?” It seems like there should be an answer to these questions, but they stump the most earnest wannabe teacher’s pet in the class.
Here is a pop quiz for you:
Do you think the three “why” questions that popped out at me from these lectionary texts for August 15 are A. impossible questions, questions with no answers, or are they B. questions each person, each church, each society must answer for themselves?
Let’s go with B. Then we can build a sermon around the three questions.
The sermon could be structured as a series of questions by an annoying child. Children love to ask uncomfortable questions. Or a standardized test for which we haven’t studied quite enough. Or a job interview we’re hoping to ace.
The preacher would need to flesh out what that change would look like in dialogue with these texts. And it would be important to emphasize that God has made Godself available to help us bear fruit at every turn.
I think these three lectionary texts might be dots worth connecting…
E. Earle Ellis, The New Century Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Greenwood, South Carolina: The Attic Press, Inc., 1977).
Otto Kaiser, The Old Testament Library Commentary on Isaiah (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983).
Alyce M. McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.