The signs of the times

18 August 2013
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 15C (RCL)
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

The rhetorical force of the opening sentence in today’s Gospel comes through far clearer in the Greek than the English. I better translation would be, “Fire I have come to cast on the earth.” The syntax emphasizes the word “fire.” Not a happy reading. The people who study Q (the material common to Matthew and Luke) tell us that this comes from the second phase of Q’s composition: after a period of initial optimism that their radically inclusive table fellowship would transform society, the Q-people were discouraged, and began to call down fire on those who wouldn’t hear their message. In the third and final stage of composition, they are reconciled to the rejection of the message, and get on about the business of taking the long view.

For Sunday, then, we have a reading that comes from a specific context and feels rather harsh out of its context: “I have come to bring division.” We don’t need any more of that than we already have. The temptation in our current political situation is to withdraw into ideological ghettos, to associate only with the like-minded. There is plenty of that going on. Both sides (or all sides — there may be more than two) demonize the other and actively work to block the “agenda” of those who differ. At least in the case of the Q-people, they were such a minority that they could call down God’s fire on the rest of the world, and the rest of the world didn’t have too much to worry about.

There are people who say that religion shouldn’t cross the line into politics. But if politics is the business of creating a common life, then religion will have to cross into politics. Living in community is messy business. We are going to differ in our opinions of how to create a community worth living in. It is interesting that Jesus, in this passage, chooses adversaries from the most intimate of relationships: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. You can’t escape those relationships, so divisions are particularly difficult. In the context of the Q-people, we can imagine that members of household would actually leave the household in order to cast their lot with the Q community. But that strategy of withdrawal couldn’t last forever. The Son of Man didn’t return on clouds of glory to burn the opposition to a crisp. They had to get on with the work of living in both kingdoms at once.

The signs of our times may be the disappointment of the Q-people. Our ideological purity is not going to bring about the kingdom. We’re going to have to get back to the messy business of politics, of conversations about race, about class, about taxes, health-care and all the rest of it.

Perhaps the Isaiah and Hebrews readings offer us a perspective on how to have those conversations. In the Hebrews reading, all of those who have gone before have looked for something better, the city with foundations. God has arranged it that they will be no means get there before us (or we before them, for that matter). Faith, or faithfulness, is the willingness to hang in there in the conversation, in dreaming the vision, in hoping for the promise. Isaiah gives us a take on what God had in mind.

So, the questions we need to ask: what does fruitfulness look like? What kind of a city do we hope to live in? I suspect that liberals and conservatives both have a vision of what that city looks like. Where we differ is in our understanding of how best to get there. So, we need to back up to the “vision” part of it, and leave aside the “agendas.” Then, when we have seen the vision of the city with foundations, we need to be faithful, to hang in the conversation with each other, knowing that God intends for us all to get there together.

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