“The country is messed up, and what are you going to do about it?”
First Congregational Church, Lebanon, NH
August 15, 2010
Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 12:49-56
Summer is a time when many people attend family reunions. Some of the reunions, especially the large ones, can be very trying. Although you are related somehow to the many people who gather, you may feel little kinship with them, and, if the truth be told, you may not even want to talk to them. Indeed, you may discover, as soon as you try to enter into a conversation, that there is no safe subject except the weather. Just because you are related to them doesn’t mean that you share deep beliefs about things that really matter. Race, religion, politics – talking about these subjects reveals, very quickly, deep seemingly unbridgeable disagreements, and each party seems to think that they are absolutely right. Too many of my conversations at such gatherings end up with one of my relatives saying to me, “Our society is corrupt; what are you going to do about it?” – or, since most of my relatives are southerners: “This country is messed up, and what are yewe goan to do about it?” Unfortunately, I don’t think many of them really want to hear my suggestions. Especially is a nation as polarized as ours is now, we often find the situation that Jesus described: father against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in law. This is of course not a universal experience, but it is a common one. All of us prefer to have deep conversations with people who share our basic values. We find it hard to talk comfortably with people who hold strong convictions that are antithetical to ours. It is hard to have a pleasant conversation with someone who is deeply convinced that you are going to hell.
Now this fact, this reality, is something we wish were not true. All of us love the sentimental picture, I expect, of the large family gathering where everyone agrees and is delighted to see each other; where there is no tension or conflict; where everyone is right-thinking, appealing, and accepting. But that just doesn’t describe reality. Even at the general assembly of the Presbyterian church, where 1000 of the most saintly of Christians gather every two years, the tension over issues like homosexual clergy, evangelism, abortion, the second coming of Christ, the right way to interpret the Bible – sometimes threatens to disrupt the fundamental Presbyterian love of doing things decently and in order. Even people who claim to love Jesus sometimes find themselves in violent disagreement with each other. The ideal picture of Christian love and charity is sometimes very far from reality.
So we know that the simplistic description – if everybody just loved Jesus, we’d all get along – is not true. I know most of my family deeply love Jesus, and most Presbyterians do too – but that doesn’t mean we can always get along. Somehow we seem to love Jesus in different and sometimes conflicting ways. And then there are those people who say they don’t have any love for Jesus at all, yet who seem, in some ways, to be more agreeable to us than the members of our own family of faith.
This is not a new situation. The passage that we read today from Isaiah states the situation well. Isaiah speaks for God, who likens the people Israel to a vineyard. God wants to sing a love song to Israel, a vineyard that he has carefully planted and cultivated. But what God discovers is that the beloved vineyard, which should be producing good grapes, is full of wild useless bitter grapes. So God resolves to tear up the useless vineyard. It is a metaphor that is explained in these words: The vineyard “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 5:7). Even 2500 years ago, there was a fundamental tension within Judaism about what it meant to be God’s people. Isaiah was among the prophets who spoke in God’s name to tell them that their way of life was wrong, leading to destruction – that God’s patience with his beloved vineyard was running out. The demand of Isaiah – God’s demand, really, - was for justice, but what God found was bloodshed; God demanded righteousness, but heard instead the cry of people being abused. In other words, Isaiah proclaimed to the people Israel, just as so many today proclaim, “Our society is corrupt, and what are you going to do about it?”
Throughout our history, our nation, the United States of America, has often seen itself as a second Israel – as God’s chosen people, a chosen nation. Certainly many of the early English settlers saw it this way – a land they considered all but empty, fruitful and fertile beyond measure, offering an opportunity to establish a godly society, to start anew and do things right. John Winthrop, in his famous sermon to the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony, (called A Model of Christian Charity) proclaimed that they would be a city on the hill, an example to the nations. And we have thought of ourselves in this way ever since. We have always assumed that we are a righteous people – the most righteous on earth. Our government is divinely inspired, our way of life sacred, our mission to spread light and democracy and prosperity to the world. This makes it extremely difficult for us to hear criticism. Even if we have strong disagreements among ourselves, we will hardly brook any criticism from "foreigners” – especially the benighted Europeans. It makes it hard for us to hear the words of prophets who call us into question today, who say, “What have you done with the advantages you were given? I planted a vineyard and expected good fruit. I expected justice, but what I see is bloodshed; I expected righteousness, but I hear people crying.”
Now the irony is that although everybody thinks the society is corrupt, everybody also thinks that they are righteous. And so we have people who condemn the inexcusable greed of our financial system, rightly pointing to the inequality of wealth that it perpetuates, but the investment bankers think that they are the victims of corrupt politicians who are only grand-standing for public approval, and who are themselves corrupt. We have supporters of the president blaming congress for our corrupt society and opponents of the president blaming the president for a corrupt society. There is blame and accusation coming from every quarter, and those of us who sit out in the hinterlands observe it all as we would observe two armies clashing in a far off field, each firing at the other, but with smoke so thick and noise so great that he participants are indistinguishable, and nothing is certain except carnage.
Is this what Jesus meant when he said, in this difficult passage, that he did not come to bring peace, but rather division? Did he mean that people would always claim his own name for their fights, cloaking their self-interests in piety? Did he mean that there would be perpetual jockeying for power? Did he mean that there would be endless violence, endless greed, endless abuse of the poor, endless self destruction, all justified in the name of God? Does not Jesus himself offer a way out of this endless conflict?
There is a way out, but it requires great sacrifice. It requires that we give up the desire to be right and seek instead to be compassionate. And that’s hard – because most of us would rather be right than compassionate. But Jesus does not so much expect that we be right as that we be compassionate. Compassion means “Suffering with someone”, or feeling their suffering. It is hard to replace our desire to be right – our own righteousness, if you will - with compassion, but it is not impossible. Even in war, the most extreme situation of people willing to die because they think they are right, those who serve under the red cross seek to treat the wounded without ever asking which side the victim is on. Their only concern is healing.
Yet, it is a sad thing that even compassion brings division – for there are those, always, who argue against it, who see it as weakness rather than strength. Take, for example, the current debate about immigration. What is to be done with people who are in this country illegally? There is no right answer. Certainly borders need to be respected, since we have not yet reached a world of totally unrestricted movement. But how does one deport illegal immigrants whose children, born here, are US citizens? Does upholding the law demand feeling no compassion for those who are desperate?
There is no way always to be right. Compassion cares less about being right, and more about alleviating suffering. Our scripture lesson today says that God looked for righteousness, but heard, instead, a cry. Righteousness does not mean always being right; it means being in right relationship, and the right relationship between human beings is compassion.
Compassion, however, does not always tell us what to do. We may feel someone’s pain without knowing how to alleviate it. In fact, our action may make it worse. We don’t always know what to do. But at least it’s a start. Compassion does not ignore the cry. And that’s a start.
I have been reading a wonderful a book about the Civil War (or the War Between the States) – that time when our country was most bitterly divided. The book, called Upon the Altar of the Nation,(by Harry S. Stout) describes how both North and South were equally convinced that they were right, and each side was fervent in its faith that God favored their cause. At first each side thought it would be a short war; each side thought it would win quickly. But, as you know, the war dragged on for four years, with over a million people killed, countless others wounded. It was this war which inspired Julia Ward Howe to write the hymn that we sing, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which, drawing upon Isaiah’s imagery, describes the judgment of God against the South - God “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” It has taken a long time for many Southerners to be able to sing that hymn. Yet all of us now acknowledge the truth of President Lincoln’s words, near the end of that bloody war, who said in his very brief second inaugural address that it was our primary duty “to bind up the nation’s wounds” (“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”)– for he knew that a nation cannot cohere if it is divided between those who are right and those who are wrong. Righteousness, as Lincoln knew, requires, above all, compassion.
The country is messed up, and what are you going to do about it? Let’s start by paying attention to the bloodshed, and listening to the people who cry. That is what God expects of us all.