|Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
By Bruce G. Epperly
Events often conflict with our hopes and dreams. Communities and congregations let us down and may turn away from the divine vision. We may turn away from God’s vision for our own lives. Neither God nor we can avoid the consequences of injustice, racism, and the personal and social sins that harm us and others. Even when we are doing our best to follow God, there are no guarantees that our path will be easy. But, through it all, if we remain awake to this present moment – the sacrament and sin alike of this moment – we discover hope beyond conflict and failure.
Isaiah describes a love story gone awry. The lover has given the beloved everything possible to flourish, but the beloved turns away from the love that gives life and fecundity. Saddened by the beloved’s wildness, the lover has no choice but to let the beloved suffer the immediate consequences of turning away from love. Love does not compel but seeks to heal and transform. Even love has its limits. Love must contend with the freedom of the beloved. Its quest for wholeness is never abstract but also concretely related to our responses.
The God-world relationship is truly relational and dynamic, not one-sided and compulsory. God cannot compel the world to reflect God’s vision. When we turn away, God’s vision is diminished; God’s possibilities limited; and sometimes, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts, the best for that impasse – this moment in its concreteness – may be quite limited and appear negative to those who have turned away from divine love. Our actions have consequences for God and ourselves, but love never gives up in its quest for life abundant for us and others.
Psalm 80 continues the image of a vineyard to describe God’s relationship with Israel and the world. The vineyard has been ravaged and may become a wasteland. The Psalmist cries out for divine deliverance. The Psalmist asks God to return again, for apart from God the vineyard is lost. Regardless of the source of the vineyard’s current condition, the Psalmist cries out to God to bless the nation once more. But, will blessing restore a people who refuse to repent?
The Hebrews reading reflects the reality that persons of faith are not guaranteed success or safety in this lifetime. The author takes faith seriously, but there is always an “in spite of” element to faith. Hebrews critiques both new age and prosperity gospel formulae that provide a royal road to success along with “how to” messages for turning your faith into riches and power. Our hopes are never complete in this world. We must trust that the moral arc of history will be realized in the future, even if we do not experience it ourselves in our lifetimes.
On the pilgrim way, our salvation and hope is found in looking to Jesus, the model of faith and source of healing and transformation. We are surrounded and sustained by a cloud of witnesses, whose lives and intercessions still shape our lives. We cannot predict or insure the success of our endeavors but we can trust God with the final word for our lives, and that word is grace. In the meantime, Jesus guides us through dark valleys and challenging situations, promising a horizon of hope and healing.
The Gospel reading is truly challenging. It suggests that our responses to Jesus’ message will lead to polarization and conflict. Jesus is a provocateur, not a peacemaker, in this passage. Jesus’ vision of an alternative world is so radical, and so threatening, that some will turn against his followers. Jesus sees the possibility of martyrdom emerging from the violent actions of fearful and self-interested people.
These days, we are counseled to affirm diversity of opinion, lifestyle, worship, and politics in our congregations. Jesus states that this may not always be possible and that, in fact, conflict may be curative. We need to ask ourselves what radical vision might lead to polarization in our churches. Dare we embark of potentially polarizing courses – perhaps related to global climate change, racism, economic injustice, inequalities in education, health care, and due process in the legal system? Can we be both prophet and pastor in our churches? The Gospel is clear that there is a cost to prophetic spirituality, but there is also a cost to pastoral ministry that is so accepting that it turns away from corporate sin and interpersonal misbehavior.
Jesus’ words suggest that the source of conflict will be found in the various ways we interpret our present time. What do we notice as we view the “signs of the times?” What is amiss in our culture, economics, and politics? What are oblivious to in our congregational lives? Do radically different visions need always to lead to schism and conflict?
Faithfulness requires us to keep our senses open and look for God’s presence moving in our histories and the world around us. In the language of process theology, we need to be aware of the many factors that are creating each moment of experience for ourselves and others. Are we attending to the highest divine possibilities for our own lives and the communities around us? God’s vision is always both local and global, and personal and communal. God envisages the highest possibilities for this moment, but also for the social and planetary systems that surround and nurture us. Stay awake. Strain your eyes toward God’s messages hidden within the unfolding of history and our personal and congregational lives.
Bruce Epperly, Ph.D. is Pastor of South Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in Centerville, MA, on Cape Cod. A United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, Dr. Epperly is the author of twenty-five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel, Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a Twenty-first Century Gospel, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. His latest book, to be released in August, is Letters to My Grandson. Over the past thirty years, Dr. Epperly has served as a seminary and university professor, university chaplain, congregational pastor, and seminary administrator.