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The Beginning of the End of the Beginning
Between the popularity of karaoke, the ubiquity of talent shows on TV, and the joy of animated movies like “Sing 1” and “Sing 2,” I think we’re all familiar with what it means to cover a song, right?
And like the rest of America, I love a good cover as much as anyone. But my favorite covers are the ones that completely re-imagine the tone and tenor of the original.
When I hear Ryan Adams sing Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” as a dirge or Radiohead’s alt rock classic “Creep” sung as slow ragtime swing by Postmodern Jukebox, a porcupine singing U2 or Johnny Cash cover, well, pretty much anything he didn’t write, I find that a strange alchemy occurs.
I find myself hearing the words in a whole new way. The meaning of the song adapts to the mood, the truth conforms to its tenor. A good cover is a magical thing, because a good cover allows you to hear a song again for the first time.
Last Sunday we heard a really harsh word from Isaiah and I appreciated the fervor with which Scott Barton read the scripture because the anger really came through. This week we have what appears to be more of the same.
Jesus is bearing down on people with the threat of fire and division and God is ripping up the vineyard of Israel, cutting off the water, and throwing in the towel. Jesus appears to be very angry and God, well, with God it’s even worse.
Which is to say that God isn’t angry. You know what God is?…Disappointed. Yeah.
It would be easy to read these two passages simply as ones of wrath and judgment - and there’s undoubtedly some of that in here - but the more I sat with these readings, the more I began to wonder how the meaning of these texts might change if we read them out loud with a little less anger and a lot more regret.
What if we heard these verses from Isaiah again for the first time, not as an angry tirade but as an incredibly sad love song; the lament of a lover who is utterly devastated by the behavior of their beloved.
What if we imagined Jesus sitting amongst the people, with his head in his hands, taking a deep breath and speaking these words so softly they had to lean forward to hear what he was saying?
And yes, I know there are big exclamation points at the end of these lines in the gospel, but now is as good a time as any to let you in on a little secret. There was no punctuation in the original texts of scripture.
Actually papyrus was so expensive, there wasn’t even space between words. In the original Hebrew texts, they didn’t even bother with vowels. Which is to say that the work of translation is as much an art as a science. And as we all know, grammar can really effect the meaning of a sentence. There’s a big difference between saying: “let’s eat, grandma,” and “let’s eat grandma.”
So what happens if we take the exclamation points out? What happens if we read this in such a way that Jesus sounds soft and sorrowful when he says:
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.
What happens? Well, first off, I think Jesus sounds less like an evil mastermind bent on our destruction and more like a doctor who is going to have to cause us more pain before the healing can begin. I think he sounds like someone who is distraught by what is about to happen to him and his followers, so distraught that he wishes it were already over.
And yet, for all his distress, I think you can still hear the quiet resolve in Jesus’ voice, the resolve to go ahead and do what needs to be done in order to make things right.
Friends, if we take a step back and look at these words in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry, it seems clear to me that he has not come to disrupt for the sake of disruption or divide for the sake of division. He has not come to set the world on fire just to watch it burn.
No, Jesus has come to bring an end to the death dealing systems that privilege a few at the cost of far too many. But in order to set things right, in order to bring a new world into being - a world where the poor are lifted up, the hungry are fed, the captives are set free, and people make war no longer - he and his followers will have to dismantle the world as it is.
He will need to scatter the proud, bring down the mighty, send the rich away empty - that sort of thing. And he knows full well that the rich, the proud, the powerful are not going to go quietly.
Things are bound to get ugly if he stays the course; ugly for him and anyone who dares to follow him. Just to speak of such things would be enough to get a person in serious trouble; enough to set them at odds not just with the people who reign over them but with the people who closest to them.
After all, no one would want to see their parent or child arrested, imprisoned, or - God forbid - crucified by the Romans. But that’s exactly what would happen to anyone who supported the sort of revolutionary thinking Jesus was preaching.
Actually, the very fact that Jesus describes these divisions in familial terms speaks to how incredibly disruptive his vision was. The family, even more so than it is now, was considered the basic building block of society. Your family of origin established your place in the social hierarchy. Your family was your everything: your identity, your security, and your responsibility, your safety net, your retirement plan, and your end of life care.
“By claiming to bring not peace, but division and then illustrating such divisions in terms of the household, the text declares that Jesus’ mission… is not the affirmation of the status quo but … its complete obliteration” (Richard P. Carlson, Feasting on the Word, P 361).
Which is to say, He is not messing around here, and either is God the Creator. For we see a similar obliteration in the text from Isaiah. According to the prophet, God lavished attention on the people of Israel, built and cared and cultivated their kingdom the way a vintner builds and cares and cultivates a vineyard.
God invested heavily in the people -blessed them in the hope that they would be a blessing - only to see them squander the good gifts of God by becoming increasingly greedy, self-serving, callous, and violent:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
And God isn’t going to be party to the violence and injustice of the people any longer. God withdraws from Judah and allows the kingdom to fall, not because God doesn’t love the chosen people - but because God loves all people…loves us all so much that God isn’t going to bless some and then allow them to abuse others with impunity.
God’s dream is for us all to care for one another, and when we deviate from that dream - abusing, oppressing, exploiting, or destroying one another - God wants nothing to do with us.
And so, like a vinter whose grapes have gone sour or a gardener whose tomatoes have blight, God cuts Their losses, pulls up stakes, and moves on.
This is judgment, pure and simple, and it’s harsh. I won’t deny that and we have to face that. When I read these two passages, there is definitely anger and disappointment, and yet…and yet… when we read them a little more softly, underneath all that I can still hear the strains of love being sung and maybe even a little bit of hope; if not for the people who have failed than perhaps for the ones who will come after.
After all the opposite of love isn’t hate, is it? No, what’s the opposite of love? Indifference. And there is nothing indifferent about these words.
I can hear God’s pain because of the actions of people and God’s pain for people…not just back then…but right now. The same goes for Jesus’ final words of warning. For are we not living through a time a great division?
Can we not see the signs in earth and sea and sky? Have we not felt the scorching heat? Did you not see the article in the Times this very morning about the Super Storm fated to hit California, if the the Big One doesn’t swallow it first?
Our earth is on fire, literally and figuratively. We live in a world beholden to death dealing systems that privilege a few at the cost of far too many. There are voices crying out all around us - from George Floyd to the children of Uvalde - from Haiti to Ukraine to Sudan - crying out for justice, begging for help, calling out a warning…and God hears those cries…even if we don’t.
I have the sense, and I know you do too, that things are going to get a lot worse before they can get better. It would seem that just like the kingdom of Judah and the empire of Rome, those of us with the power and privilege and knowledge to do better have really messed things up….again.
We may very well burn it all down, just like they did. And if past is prologue, I’m afraid that God will let us. God will let us experience the consequences of our greedy, self-serving, callous, and violent actions.
But the very fact that we have these words from Isaiah and Jesus, speaks to the fact that we have a God who walks with all of humanity through the fire and the flood and all the many catastrophes we perpetrate and provoke, and meets whoever is left on the other side.
We believe in a God who doesn’t let our sin or our failure or our shortsightedness win. A God who doesn’t even allow death to have the last word, but can breathe new life into dry bones and bring forth shoots from stumps. A God whose mercy is new every morning.
A God who through some strange alchemy can take our broken promises and sing a new song. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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