Isaiah 5, Psalm 80; Heb. 11: 29-12: 2; Luke 12: 49-56
Think about the last time you had a big fight or argument with someone you're close to. We've all been in conflict with someone important in our lives at some point, right? It is not something we shout from the mountain tops to make others aware of; but it is a part of life that we have all experienced. It is inevitable. No one escapes it. And conflicts have only three possible results: either the relationship breaks up; or the partners put distance between them; or they reconcile. I’ve experienced all three in my life, and I imagine you have too.
Isaiah describes a moment in the life of Israel when it appeared that God and God’s people had broken up, their relationship was over, done. The punishment God promises sounds like something a parent might say amid a fierce argument with a child: "what I plan to do to my vineyard [is] remove its hedge, so it will be devoured; I will break down its wall and it shall be trampled down; I will make it a waste… and it shall be filled with thorns and weeds. I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it." A modern parent might say, "I'm going to stop calling you my son; I'll take away your inheritance; and I want you to leave the house this instant and not come back." If you haven't said or heard those words, you've undoubtedly heard a story of another parent who has told it – because their daughter married a Jewish man, or their son came out as gay, or any of a dozen other reasons. That’s why we understand so well when Jesus speaks of divisions in today's gospel: father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, etc. We've all felt that level of anger against someone in our family.
This passage is one of the most difficult in the gospel. To say that Jesus is actually the one who came to bring fire, to bring a painful baptism, and to bring division among families is not the good news we want to hear. Fire usually refers to judgment. Jesus is saying that, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise, there is no peace without conflict, and there is no salvation without rejection.
But isn’t that the Old Testament God that so many of us have rejected? When Isaiah speaks in those terms we understand. But, Jesus? Well, I learned through community organizing work that taking into account conflict and rejection is part of human wisdom. Community organizers have a saying that goes: "you cannot organize anything before first disorganizing it." From this point of view, rejection and conflict are not signs of defeat; they are part of the divine plan. Sometimes you do have to allow the boil to burst. Sometimes those words will come out of our mouths. It’s scary because both Isaiah and Luke make it sound like it’s the last word. But the good news is that it doesn't have to be. Sometimes it is; but sometimes the heart of the father or the son grows tender, and one side first, and then the other, is willing to repent. At that point reconciliation is achieved. But in the moment of the outburst we don’t know that; and it feels like the relationship is ending.
The second possible outcome of a conflict is that people distance themselves from each other. Two spouses fight, and say many offensive things. For a variety of reasons, neither of them can afford to have the relationship end, so they’re afraid to actually break up. They stay together, but their relationship isn’t the same. They don’t share confidences any more. They don’t spend much time together. They speak ill of each other with their friends. People do that in their relationship with God, too. They may not reject God outright. But they distance themselves from the close relationship they had before. C. S. Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce, describes this by painting hell as a place where every time people have a conflict, they are allowed to move further away from each other. So when you visit hell, you have to travel great distances between the lights on the horizon.
The image offered by the Letter to the Hebrews is the opposite of the one Lewis describes. Hebrews presents a cast of diverse characters, and calls it a cloud of witnesses: Rahab, the prostitute; Gideon, the judge; Barak, who hid behind a woman when the enemy came looking for him; Samson the strong man with the long hair; David, the king chosen by God, and Samuel, the priest. All these very diverse people were severely tested in conflict. What does a prostitute have to do with a priest? What does a King have to do with a prophet who questions? What does a man hiding behind the skirts of a woman have to do with a man who has killed lions? Each of these witnesses caused conflict in their community. And they were very different from each other. Yet they didn’t distance themselves from each other. Hebrews describes them as a cloud, and one in which we are also enveloped. But aren't clouds supposed to be soft? In this case the the cloud is made up of people who have fought fire, been killed by the sword, been tortured, mocked, beaten, imprisoned, and faced storms and persecutions. It’s as if we were being shaken in a Cessna 2 as we flew through the clouds. But at least we’re there.
The last option, and the most desired one, is the repentance that leads to reconciliation. That always exists as a possibility, even after a breakup or a distancing in the relationship. When we offend or hurt another – whether another person or God - we need to repent and ask for forgiveness. If not, either the relationship will break up, or we will distance ourselves from the other person. But notice that reconciliation doesn’t come about just because the offender repents and asks for forgiveness. What also has to happen to achieve reconciliation is that the offended person must repent of his anger and resentment, her disgust and disappointment, or whatever have they have felt, and offer forgiveness. When the offender asks for forgiveness, it helps the offended person to forgive. But reconciliation can't be achieved without that person’s forgiveness. It always requires the participation of both parties.
The psalmist shows that it works the same way in our relationship with God. In the Psalm, the people never repent. They simply promise never to go astray in the future. But they remind God of the blessings God had sent them during their history; then they ask why God has let others destroy them. The most dramatic moment in the Psalm comes when the people actually demand that God repent of justifiable anger and to look upon and visit the people again. Now that's is a bold prayer! Here is the radical message of the Psalm: what really achieves reconciliation is God's repentance, not ours! Both the Psalm and the cross show that our lives depend on God’s willingness to repent. Our repentance only shows that we are going to once again accept the loving embrace of the God who gives us life. It works the same way in our relationship with God as it does in our relationships with each other. We have to be willing to repent, to change directions, to decide not to act on our feelings, no matter how justified they may be.
Are you willing to ask for forgiveness? Are you willing to forgive? Are you willing to change course and live differently? That is what it means to repent. And that’s the only way to achieve reconciliation with God, and among those we love.