Sunday, August 14, 2016
The Sunday Sermon: Great Expectations
I want to register a complaint. Someone has tampered with my Bible. Just look at this Gospel reading: these verses don't describe the Jesus I like to imagine, gentle Jesus meek and mild, who came to bring love and unity, to heal all wounds and to teach us from his limitless store of patience and kindness, who tells stories of lost lambs and prodigal sons. This Jesus is impatient, driven, confrontational, and judgmental. It must be a mistake.
Or, if it isn't a mistake, maybe I need to adjust my expectations. Isaiah knew about adjusting expectations. Isaiah spoke God's truth to a people who had forgotten that they were God's people, at a time when God's word was withering on the vine and the reign of God seemed remote. The song of the vineyard is a song of dashed expectations, of sour berries instead of juicy grapes, of investments wasted, of heartbreak where there should have been joy. Israel, God's vineyard, has become a wasteland, with bloodshed instead of justice, of wailing instead of righteousness.
This isn't the only time God's people have disappointed their Creator. Scripture is one long series of dashed expectations, of God's loving care squandered in greed and selfishness, of promises broken, of peace rejected in favor of violence. The prophets, one after another, call our attention to the distance between God's expectations and the reality of God's people. And we've all been there. We've all known relationships that didn't measure up to our expectations, that disappointed us, that fell short of what we had hoped for. It's part of being human.
But in the story of God and God's people there has always also been that thread of faithfulness, the determined minority who would not allow Israel to sever herself completely from her God and who kept the promises alive. The letter to the Hebrews recites a list of the great heroes of faith, who never gave up on God, who believed in the promises even when they seemed utterly ridiculous. The passage we've just heard is the end of that list, which started where last week's reading ended, with the definition of faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, and which provided the examples of Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, as well as the rest of the cloud of witnesses in today's reading.
But above all there is Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, described by Luke as a sort of super-prophet, the Jesus we know through the healings and the parables, and the Jesus who confronts us in this inconvenient Gospel passage.
This is a Jesus who is driven and urgent. You'll recall that in previous verses he has set his face towards Jerusalem. He is dangerously single-minded in following the path God calls him to. He will go to Jerusalem to confront the unfaithfulness of Israel as the ancient prophets once did, regardless of the likely consequences. Jesus does not come to maintain the status quo, but to shake up the world, to bring a purifying fire to the earth. He expresses the same frustration as his prophetic forerunners. He knows that not all of Israel will hear his message because it has ever been thus. History proves that those who heed the prophetic voice are always in the minority. The return to God is never easy or unanimous.
There seem to be three distinct messages in this passage from Luke: the fulfillment of Jesus's fiery mission; the inevitable conflict of loyalties within families; and the inability even of those seeking salvation to understand the full nature of faithfulness. In a Gospel written by a master story-teller, this mish-mash of sayings seems clumsy and out of character, a sort of PS at the end of a long section on discipleship that hurriedly adds the rest of the sayings that must be passed on. Luke knows that these sayings are too important to omit, even if they don't flow gracefully within the story. They are important because they reveal a dimension to Jesus that we might otherwise miss.
Every human being has complexities and inconsistencies. It's part of being human, and it's part of what makes us interesting to each other. The great novelists and playwrights know this: the flawed hero is more compelling; the hidden wounds in a character draw sympathy from the reader; the multi-dimensional individual more easily becomes someone we can have a relationship with, even if they exist only on the page or on the stage.
Luke, like all evangelists, wants his Gospel story to draw us into a relationship with Jesus. He wants to paint a picture of someone fully human, someone we can imagine, someone as real to us as our own family members. The master story teller includes details that create tension, inconsistencies that ring true because we are inconsistent, flaws that are believable because everyone is flawed. In these awkward instances of impatience, of divisiveness, of judgment, the image of the man Jesus springs to life and becomes someone we can believe in, know, and love. He is entirely human. But he is unique, because, unlike all other human beings, he will not disappoint our expectations. Jesus alone lives up to our hopes for a love that will not quit, a friendship that is totally and eternally reliable. That's the divine part of him.
These verses make us squirm a little. For some of us they may awaken painful memories of family conflicts, of being rejected or judged by the church, of the kind of single-mindedness that, unchecked, leaves devastated communities in its wake; but they add something valuable to the story of salvation. As uncomfortable as these verses are, they offer us a dimension to Jesus that allows him to be for us all that Scripture promises: a fully human and fully divine Savior, a friend and companion, a teacher and healer, a beloved who will never let us down.
St Paul's Cathedral is a community of human beings. Each of us is flawed and imperfect. But we seek to offer a space where all are welcome and all sides can be heard. We want to be available for important public conversations, and that means that we must be willing to endure conflict, to hear opinions we don't care for, to get along with people who aren't always easy to get along with. If we are to create a world where peace, justice, and righteousness prevail, we must do the hard work of reconciliation, a task that seems harder with every passing day. This encounter with the impatient Jesus reminds us that there is some urgency to our task. Just as Jesus longed to fulfill his mission, so we long for a world where all are served, all are welcome. But the prophets' voices are still heard lamenting the faithlessness of God's people, and the Kingdom of God is still under construction.
And so we will take to heart the words of the Hebrews writer, words that seem peculiarly timely on a day when the Olympics are taking place: "Let us 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."
August 14, 2016 Proper 15
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges