It was a wonderful time with the family at Bethany Beach, Delaware. There were many highlights: “Happy Hour” discussions about the situation in Egypt, the metaphysics of evil, racism in America, and other light topics! And Jack and I went fishing for a sand shark to celebrate Shark Week. Alas, no shark, but we caught other things.
The last evening, after a marvelous hot, sunny day – the storm clouds began to gather. By 6:00 it was gray, by 7:30 it was clear the thunderstorm was coming. The winds began to pick up – it was ominous. By 8:30 it was pitch black and pouring. But some of us had to drive down to the town center for our last ice cream cone – and we found several streets flooded, thunder crashing, and lighting flashing.
When we made it home we sat on the screen porch overlooking the ocean and saw huge streaks of lightning from sky to sea – illuminating almost to daylight – frightening, awesome, majestic, humbling.
On Sunday we drove home and listened to the Indians storm back from five runs down to beat the Angels. We made it back in time for Deanne and me to join others at the church for the every-other-week visit to the family center on Euclid in East Cleveland. We share fellowship, serve meals, and are just present – one mile down the hill from here in one of the poorest cities in America. The family center is just blocks from where women’s bodies were recently found after being raped and killed.
Deanne and I always return from East Cleveland moved and uplifted, troubled, restored, depressed – asking ourselves – how does “this” get turned around; how can there be so many people in such dire need, so many folks who are disabled, unemployed, unemployable and those who are employed – part-time, minimum wage jobs, often far away from where they live. And also so many nice people who care for their children and wonder how to extend their meager earnings.
What can the church do? What would Jesus do? What does this all mean in the wealthiest nation in the world, with an abundance of resources that dwarf any other nation?
One man is so dear – He goes from church to church day to day, finding shelter, food and company; and to his case worker and the clinic for meds. A woman, childlike and gentle, carrying her “friends” – stuffed animals who she pets and coos over. She gave me a pair of socks and a little plastic Christmas tree. She saw the pine tree on my Stanford shirt – the tension between elite education for the power class and abject poverty for the marginalized.
There is a family who moved here from Detroit; another family from Pittsburgh – nice kids.
There is a man who lives off his disability check – out of which is taken child support. He is informed and well-read and very concerned that his food stamps might get cut as our Congress debates the farm bill. He is one of 50 million Americans – 17 million of whom are children – who don’t really know where the next meal is coming from. 5.1 million will lose their benefits with the proposed cuts to SNAP – all in the name of budget austerity, and fiscal responsibility. But as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has repeatedly showed, the food stamp program has long been one of the most effective and efficient anti-poverty programs ever devised. Call your representative, write your letter!
This is the reality to which Isaiah and Jesus call our attention.
No doubt there are gathering storms in your life, and dry periods when there is no fruit and it feels as if God is absent and you are being judged: there is sickness, financial stresses; all sorts of things. You have set up your garden and the grapes are bad. You have done everything right and it all goes bad.
But always alongside of our own individual needs is the common good. We are not just a collection of individuals. We are all linked together in a web of mutuality; if one suffers we all suffer, injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, and the storm of poverty judges us all no matter how far we live away from East Cleveland or how we build distractions to keep us from knowing.
Isaiah lived 750 years before Jesus. He saw the storm coming in Israel and Judah, although he used a different metaphor. In chapter 5, Isaiah sings a love song concerning God’s vineyard. God loved his vineyard and tended it and did everything to make it produce the very best grapes, and yet – the grapes have gone bad. God had provided his people with everything to produce – but now nothing. God expected justice (and in the bible justice is always about care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the left out and looked over); but what God saw was bloodshed; the trampling of the poor. God came to inspect his vineyard and he expected righteousness – that great shalom of community, of equity, of no one going without but what he heard were “cries of distress,” and “moans of victims.” And so God took down the fences and allowed it all to return to the wild.
God comes to his beloved vineyard in Northeast Ohio – and what does he find?
God visits his garden in East Cleveland — and what does he hear?
Jesus in this Lucan passage stressed: “Did you think that I came to bring peace?” “I have come to bring fire on the earth. I have a baptism to undergo,” he says.
As Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’ words: “I’ve come to change everything, turn everything right side up… do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so, I have come to disrupt and confront!” I like Peterson’s use of “right-side up”– God’s call is to stand us upright and have us reclaim the vineyard and produce fruit; to bring us back so that all God’s children have a place in the choir.
Jesus’ words are hard – “to disrupt and confront.” His words and the words of Isaiah have disrupted me and confronted me… so I pass it along! You’re welcome!
No one wants to face the coming storm or the fruitless season. And no one is going to be protected during the shake-up, the restoration, the uprighting. The innocent will suffer and the bad guys will get by with it.
But – thank God for the “but” – for in our times there are signs that Christ will reign, that Christ’s spirit is present, restoration will come, and there are signs that it is here. The storm is gathering and it is pouring, but there are moments when the clouds clear and the sun shines.
Into this time when all things are happening at once, we are grounded in faith and trust, bringing light into the gloom; running the race with perseverance in mission, in generosity, in hospitality – like last night, when we worshiped and ate together. Like at Soho several weeks ago – young and old, black and white, stranger and friend – and $7,000 was raised for Haiti. Kingdom moments.
In service to others – through the Deacons, and the food pantry, and in joining other churches, and synagogues and mosques to set a new social agenda for equity and fairness for all, and in tilling the soil of the garden and weeding and picking tomatoes.
When I was a little boy there was nothing better than to take off my clothes and run outside into the summer downpour with arms stretched wide getting drenched.
The judgment is coming, the judgment is here. The storm clouds are gathering. It is already raining.
Let’s get naked and drenched and cleansed.