Proper 20C: Beyond Complaint

 

Weeping of Jeremiah, Marc Chagall, 1956, France
Weeping of Jeremiah, Marc Chagall, 1956, France

FIRST LESSON:  Jeremiah 8: 18-9:1

Click here to read the Lectionary Passage

The prophet Jeremiah is often called the “weeping prophet” and this passage depicts that to a tee.  This week’s passage is from a portion of the book that deals with the unrepentant and incorrigible people of Judah and God’s seemingly wrathful reaction to them.  In the context of the whole book of Jeremiah, this passage is moving closer toward what would be the total destruction of Israel.

Preceding these verses is the image of the bitter disappointment and dismay of a landowner who comes at the harvest to gather grapes or figs only to find there is no fruit.  The distress and anger of the landowner is made evident.  And even though the people acknowledge that they have had a part in these wrongdoings, their response is one of resignation, rather than repentant.  They desperately want peace and healing but are unable to heed to call to do what it takes to make that happen.  And so the Babylonian armies come closer and closer to Jerusalem.

And so in today’s passage, we have the sense that Jeremiah is overwhelmed with grief, sharing the pain and dismay of what is happening around him.  He is frustrated and filled with a deep sense of helplessness.  What is happening to the people is surely an out and out faith crisis.  God seems to be absent.  The harvest is over and there are no filled barns to get us through the rest of the year.  The God who protects and delivers has not come.  But is the God they are seeking some sort of vending machine God that always comes to their rescue?  God, rather, desires a relationship with the people, desires that they truly become the people of God.  Their piety and their theology do not reflect God’s ways.  In truth, they really know nothing of the Lord on which they rely.  In fact, they know so little of the Lord that they do not realize that God is still with them.

The prophet Jeremiah is torn between his love for his people and his love for God.  He claims that he cannot weep enough for the suffering of the people and, yet, he desires that they change and turn toward God.  Jeremiah’s joy is gone, his heart is sick, and he hurts for the hurt of the people.  God feels all that and more.  God, too, weeps for the people.  Like Jeremiah, God loves the people but cannot ignore the fact that they are so far away from Truth and Life.

In these words, we find an image of a God that holds deep and abiding compassion for God’s people, while at the same time One who cannot ignore what they have done.  This is a God who hurts for the people’s hurt as much as the hurt of God.  This is a God who desires so deeply a relationship with God’s Creation and God’s people that this God will stay even when God is ignored or turned upon.  But God also cannot ignore what has been done.

The familiar phrase referring to the “balm in Gilead” probably refers to a resin from the balsam trees that were so plentiful in the area around Gilead.  They did, indeed, provide a healing of sorts.  But this was not going to be enough this time.  You cannot mend destruction with a band aid and you certainly cannot anesthetize it away.  No longer is there a “right” and “wrong” way or a “right and “wrong” side.  Things are too far gone for that.  Rather, God, in the midst of sorrow and grief, calls the people to total and complete transformation.  But the good news is that God is not asking us to do it alone.    

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What do you think of the image of God feeling pain, or sorrow, or grief?

3)      How does our own societal order fit in with this passage?

4)      What vision of hope does this passage depict for you?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Timothy 2: 1-7

Click here to read the Lectionary Passage

Remember that the letters to Timothy and Titus are known as the Pastoral Epistles, meaning that they were addressed to the whole church.  In this passage, the writer (probably not Paul) uses the Greek phrase that is translated as “everyone” to emphasize the universal nature of the Christian faith.  As the passage says, “everyone” should be the focus of our prayers, our intercessions, and our thanksgivings.  “Everyone” should be the focus of our Christian faith.

Some interpreters have suggested that this emphasis on inclusiveness reflects an intentional corrective to Gnostic attitudes that one should pray for only certain people who are in possession of the “special” knowledge of Christ.  But it also means that the writer is exhorting the readers to pray for even those who are teaching false doctrines and causing the new faith community so many problems.

So, we are told, pray often; pray for everyone.  But, the passage continues.  What is important is not just prayer for prayer’s sake, but the meaning:  the One God revealed by Christ, who wants a broken and estranged humankind (all humankind) to be mended with the truth of divine shalom.  And, to take it a step further, we are to pray with gratitude and thanksgiving.  We are to give thanks for all things and all people.  What would that mean if we really did that?  Well, it would imply that there is something in all of us for which we should give thanks.  It sort of dispels that “right” and “wrong” depiction or the “good” and “evil” one.  All of us are God’s creatures; all of us were created by God with gifts and graces unique to each of us.  What would that mean to give thanks for all?  Well, for one thing, it would probably transform the world.

In Feasting on the Word, Matt Matthews tells a story that was told by John Buchanan in “The Christian Century” as a tribute to the Russian cellist Matislav Rostropovich.  Buchanan admired Rostropovich’s courage.  In 1970, Rostropovich expressed his support for artistic freedom and human rights in a letter to “Pravda”, the state-run newspaper of what was then the Soviet Union.  In response, the Soviets stripped him and is wife of citizenship.  Buchanan saw Rostropovich play a Dvorak cello concerto in Chicago.  As the last note faded, the audience sat mesmerized.  Rostropovich did and extraordinary thing:  he stood up and kissed his cello.  The audience erupted.  Then he hugged and kissed the surprised conductor.  Then he hugged and kissed the entire cello section before moving on to the violins.  He hugged and kissed most of the orchestra.  Gratitude.  What if we prayed for others like that?

If we prayed like that, might our prayer-grounded lives better reflect the image of Christ?  Might the sometimes-ashen words of gratitude we use in our stiff praying for others, even enemies, blossom into the lilt of song, the vital flesh of action?  Might a modicum of our selfishness melt to communal concern?  Might we turn away, however slightly, from our penchant for self-reliance (a mirage), toward new submission to the one who “gave himself to rescue all of us”?  To pray like this lessens the space for hubris in the heart of the one who prays and widens its capacity for humility. (From “Feasting on the Word”)

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does that mean to you when the writer exhorts us to “pray for everyone”?

3)      Why is that so difficult?

4)      What would it mean if we took the meaning of this passage to heart?

5)      What does it mean to be the image of Christ in the world?

6)      In terms of our own society, how does this relate to the words “with liberty and justice for all”?

  GOSPEL:  Luke 16:1-13

Click here to read the Lectionary Passage

This parable is really just downright baffling.  The story is clearly set in the context in which wealth is of great importance with all of the problems that entails.  So the disciples are warned that they cannot serve both God and money.  But it’s still an odd way to get to that assertion.  The parable is also pointing to the eschatological hope and promise to which we are all called.

Throughout Luke, the theme of wealth is obvious.  Next week’s Scripture will continue this theme.  The last part of this week’s passage deals with how we handle money as an indicator of responsibility.  In other words, how do our financial decisions inform our spiritual walk?  And the last verse suggests that wealth can assume divine status in people’s lives as the absolute value.

There does seem to be some intent for the writer of Luke to interpret the parable.  The “children of this age” outdo the “children of light”.  So how are we to understand this story?  Was the man overcharging and so forwent his cut to gain acceptance among his former clients when he knew he would be dismissed?  Or was he setting up a situation which would enhance his reputation?  Reputation and trust was of even higher importance in that age than it is today.  Remember that debt was used more than once by Jesus as a metaphor for sins and forgiving debts, for forgiving sins. Jesus uses the same imagery in the Lord’s Prayer. Central to the story is the fact that the rogue had no authorization to go around canceling or cutting people’s debts. It was outrageous behavior. But Luke has been telling us that Jesus’ behavior was also outrageous. His opponents were saying he had no right to go about welcoming sinners and declaring God’s forgiveness to them. Jesus was a rogue in the system. They denied his authority to do so.

Jesus may possibly have taken up a popular story about a rogue manager, then used it to confront his opponents. He is like the rogue whom they accuse of being unauthorized to forgive debts, but, as he asserts, he does so with God’s approval. As the master praised the sacked manager, so, claims Jesus, God will approve his ministry and his radical generosity. Jesus is the legitimate agent. God is that generous!

Wealth and exploitation are not simply a moral issue which Christians also need to address, but something quite central to the gospel. No one is to be written off, because what people have held against others has been written off by the incomprehensibility of divine grace. That divine grace cancels prejudice and judgment of any kind that renders other people less than human and without rights or poor ‘because they deserve it’.

But we still don’t like this story.  The scoundrel triumphs.  That’s not fair.  He didn’t deserve it.  How hard is it for us to believe in transformation, in everything being made new?  You cannot serve God and wealth.  And life is not fair.  But God is very, very just and filled with grace for all (yes, all!).  But, really, who are we called to be?  What if we handed out open hospitality, unending generosity, and unconditional love?  What if we never stopped to look at the budget or ask what it would cost us in resources or reputation?  Well, we’d probably be a church that looked a whole lot like the Kingdom of God that God envisions.  And isn’t that the whole point?  In the big scheme of things, that is all that matters. So why is this parable so bothersome to us?

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What is the most challenging part of this parable for you?

3)      Why is this so difficult for us?

4)      What would it mean to truly believe in transformation and everything being made new?  Would it change the way we read this parable?

 

 Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Hope is not a matter of waiting for things outside us to get better. It is about getting better inside about what is going on inside. It is about becoming open to the God of newness. It is about allowing ourselves to let go of the present, to believe in the future we cannot see but can trust to God….Hope is fulfilled in the future but it depends on our ability to remember that we have survived everything in life to this point—and have emerged in even better form than we were when these troubles began…Hope is what sits by a window and waits for one more dawn, despite the fact that there isn’t an ounce of proof in tonight’s black, black sky that it can possibly come. (Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope)

If you begin to live life looking for God that is all around you, every moment becomes a prayer.  (Frank Bianco)

Forgiveness is something freely granted, whether earned or deserved;  something lovingly offered without though of acknowledgment or return.  It is our way of mirroring the goodness in the heart of a person rather than raising up the harshness of their actions…it allows us to live in the sunlight of the present, not the darkness of the past.  Forgiveness alone, of all our human actions, opens up the world to the miracle of infinite possibility.  (Kent Nerburn, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace)

Closing

 We look for light but find darkness, for brightness, but walk in gloom…Blessed be your name, O God, forever.  You reveal deep and mysterious things; you are light and in you is no darkness.  Our darkness is passing away and already the true light is shining.  Amen. (From “Canticle of Light and Darkness, UMH # 205)

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