The Sermon You’ll Never Read

I didn’t preach today, since I’m currently sitting in a guestroom at Montreat, enjoying the evening air and the sound of whatever kind of insects are out there in the trees doing doing their insect things.

Last week’s sermon was kind of different for me – no “Four Page”s, no “The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine” structure (sorry, Hank), no lead-in image-setting story with a “bookend” return, no powerful “clincher” finale. It was just a simple meditation, on the Luke 12 text for the day. This is kind of an unusual blog post, too, in that I’m making a post about a sermon, rather than posting the actual text of the sermon itself. I felt that this more expanded discussion about how the sermon actually came about was probably more helpful than the sermon itself. Besides, most of the points within the sermon end up in this post anyway.

The Old Testament Lesson for the day was from Isaiah 5:

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.  What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?  And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.  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! (Isaiah 5:1-7 NRSV)

followed by the gospel text:

 “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!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;  they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53 NRSV)

Of course, this gospel text has been latched onto by Dominionist and Triumphalist strands within Christianity to justify their beliefs, and the near-breathless glee they often seem to have in their efforts to battle with supposedly inferior non-Christians. This text, they would argue, is Jesus’ endorsement of all kinds of mayhem perpetrated against others by Christians in their efforts to spread the gospel, all supposedly in the name of Jesus.

I certainly don’t see the text that way at all. As I read and re-read this text in preparation of the sermon, I actually sensed a completely different take on Jesus’ words from when I’d read it in the past. Jesus is nearing the end of his earthly ministry. He’s making his way for the last time to Jerusalem, and he knows what’s awaiting him there. He’s sharing with them from the deepest depths of his heart how stressed and burdened his heart is at this point. He knows that his earthly ministry is drawing to a close. And when he says these words to his disciples, I don’t hear any sort of happiness in his voice about this division and discord that’s to come into the world because of him. I don’t hear any bloodlust or dominionism or a call to battle. I actually hear just the opposite.

I hear the very human voice of the God/Man.

He’s sharing his burdens with those closest to him. He’s aware of what he is about to accomplish – reconciliation between God and humanity, bringing us together again, and modeling the sacrificial, self-emptying love that we’re called to have, that we’ve been created for. He’s aware of that. But he’s also aware, because of the same foresight that makes him aware of the good, of all the awful that will befall humanity because of his having entered human existence. He can see all the division – all the bitterness, and hostility, and arguing, and separation, and rejection, and violence, and bloodshed. He can see persecution and purges and Crusades and pogroms and Holocausts. He can see slavery and segregation and shunning and excommunication and burnings at the stake and beheadings and lynchings and more, and all supposedly done in his name, because he chose to walk among us and be one of us.

And in this very human moment, I can hear in Jesus’ voice, not triumphalism, but despair. I hear mourning, heart-aching sorrow about the coming division and strife. At the risk of blasphemy, I suppose, I hear Jesus’ human nature even wondering if it was really worth it, given all the division and pain and suffering and death that his coming would ultimately cause in the world. I hear Jesus almost questioning, Have I actually made a difference? Has my ministry actually had some positive net effect in the lives of people? In the end, was it really worth it?

It doesn’t take a licensed psychotherapist to understand why I might hear Jesus’ voice in this way at this particular moment in my life. I’m within a month of one phase of my ministry ending, and before the next call is in hand. And while I’m certainly not facing crucifixion, I’m also under a good bit of stress over the extreme financial implications this will have as well as the pace of the call process in my tradition, which makes a snail’s pace look like that of a cheetah. But I also look back on the past six years and find myself asking, on a much smaller scope, the kind of questions that I just imagined Jesus asking himself. In the end, have I made a difference in the spiritual lives of the people of my congregation? Have I been a net positive in the life of the congregation, collectively and as individuals? I think that I have, but I honestly don’t know for sure. I can point to some things that would seem to indicate that it was worth the considerable difficulties of trying to pastor a congregation more than an hour away from my home, and the congregation’s experience of me trying to balance comforting and discomforting, embracing and stretching, embracing and challenging. I wonder what awaits them after I leave, and as they begin a new chapter in the life of their congregation. I wonder if their specific congregational culture will enable them to make the hard and unprecedented transformational changes that will be necessary for them to survive in a location where economics and demographics are working strongly against them. I wonder if I’ve helped to guide them into that conversation collectively. I wonder if all my words, and all my non-verbal pastoring, has had any lasting positive benefit in individuals’ lives.

Those kinds of thoughts were the genesis of the sermon. But it really wasn’t self-absorbed navel-gazing; I didn’t get into those issues from my own perspective, at least not directly or too much. That was just the launching point. My real point was that ultimately, we all end up having this same question that I at least heard in Jesus’ voice as he said these things. We all have this existential need to know that our faith, and the lives that we live as a result of that faith, are actually having some positive effect in sharing the kingdom of God in this world (There you go, Hank – existential need – thetinydogNOWismine). Pastor or pew-sitter, not having the same kind of divine foreknowledge and ultimate assurance that Jesus had, we always have some degree of question whether we’re doing the right thing, headed in the right direction, making the right choices, in order for us to be a net good in the kingdom of God. Are we, in fact, expanding justice and righteousness in the world, and in the lives of othes, as Isaiah says God’s vineyard is supposed to do? In that wondering, as I said to conclude the sermon:

I think that in the end, when we consider our lives and wonder if we’re making any real  difference, we just need to recognize that all we can do in our lives is to give thanks to God for caring about us enough to become one of us. For loving us enough to walk our walk, and to know our human doubts and worries firsthand. And knowing that, God tells us to have faith and trust – and that all we have to worry about is to live out our faith by extending that same kind of love and compassion and grace to others, and to let God worry about the rest. It isn’t our job to see the results of our extending God’s love to others. God has told us that ultimately, we’ll know and see the results of our efforts. Even if we didn’t see it before, we’ll see that living our lives in the way that Christ calls us to really did make a difference. If we live our lives faithful to Christ and true to his teachings, he’s promised that eventually, we’ll know and taste the good wine that our efforts, our vineyard, produced.