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)

Proper 19C: The Unmaking

EarthquakeFIRST LESSON:  Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28

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This lament of Jeremiah is part of the larger unit that describes the looming Babylonian threat on the horizon.  In sight of this threat, the people have not heeded warnings and have continued down paths that the prophet feels called to denounce and condemn.  In the context in which this was written, Israel was a virtual land bridge between Asia and Africa, a place of trade between East and West.  Look upon it as a crossroads, as a place where the decision could be made to go one way or the other. 

Egypt was the great power to the South and Babylon to the North.  Assyria had just been defeated by Babylon, the monster just north of Israel.  This was a time of rebellion after rebellion against Babylon, to which Babylon acted with greater and greater punitive measures until the Temple was completely destroyed in 587 BCE.  This began nearly three centuries of exile for the people of Israel.  Jeremiah tried to stave off this rebellion against a great power of Babylon and cautioned a more humble approach to international affairs.  He was reminding the people to not act so mighty and powerful and look at what was happening. According to Old Testament commentator R. E. Clements (1988, p. 42): “Jeremiah appears to have addressed a people who were so self-assured in the rightness of their cause, and in the backing God must give to it, that they discounted the serious possibility of harsh Babylonian reprisals taken against them.” 

We are told of a hot wind, an unbearable wind.  This is not a gentle flowing breeze like we begin to get this time of year.  This is the hurricane-force winds that come when we are near the eye of the storm.  This is a wind that is destructive.  Jeremiah saw imminent political and military disaster for his nation and for the world around him.  He was trying a last-ditch effort to turn the tide toward good.  He desired the kings to be more humble and the people more compassionate.  He was trying to open the eyes of his hearers that they might be honest with themselves.  No more looking for someone to blame.  Things were bad. 

The prophet depicts a coming destruction of all of Creation, of everything that the people know.  It is literally the “unmaking” of Creation, borrowing some of the same language from the Creation story in Genesis.  But rather than “it is good”, it is proclaimed to be a desolation, an ending.  It is a bleak passage, void of plans for redemption or resurrection.  Instead, we are left with a desolate silence. 

Some would take it as a promise of a vengeful God to destroy the Creation that has in essence turned its back on its Creator.  But instead, what if it were a warning? God has given us the power to make decisions, to choose right or wrong.  It is not an easy thing.  Power can be destructive when we choose to use it that way.  Perhaps this is a warning against the ultimate destruction that we humans hold in our hands.  After all, God has entrusted us with this Creation.  What happens when we don’t choose to respond to God’s call?  What happens when we forget who and whose we are?  What happens when we let power get in the way of conversation and greed get in the way of compassion?  We have, then, set our feet on a path of ultimate destruction.

It’s hard to read this and place ourselves in this passage.  It’s so bleak and depressing.  SURELY we’re not that bad.  SURELY this is about another time and another people.  Well, it is.  It’s about a people that were sure that God was on their side no matter what.  They believed that this line of David would never be broken and that God would always dwell with them.  So, when Jeremiah enters, it’s really just downright insulting. (Jeremiah was probably accused of being unpatriotic and unfaithful!)  And yet, we DO somehow belong here.  Maybe we’re a little too sure of our rightness, a little too sure that God is pleased with what we do.  And, uncomfortably, the whole prospect of the unmaking of Creation is looming much more closely to us in our world today as our nation and our leaders make the case for yet another military action.  But we don’t want to hear this in church.  We want to leave feeling better about ourselves.  We want to come and be protected from weapons of mass destruction.

So, did we miss it?  Aren’t Scriptures supposed to have some sort of good news in them?  The good news is that God patiently waits until we turn away from ourselves and toward God. God is always and forever remaking us and unmaking us into what God envisions we can be.  (Hmmm!  Have you ever thought that God might not be unmaking God’s Creation, but rather ours.)  You see, God did not promise that the world would be easy; God did not offer a Creation that did not sometimes shake and tear and come down upon its people and itself; God never told us that the road would be straight and protected.  God promised us that when it was all said and done, we would have life abundant—here, now, for the taking. Life is not easy; life is eternal; and it is very, very good.

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      How would this depiction play out in our world today?

3)      Where do you see our world in this warning from Jeremiah?

4)      What keeps us from turning toward God?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Timothy 1: 12-17

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The two letters of Timothy and the letter of Titus make up what is known as the Pastoral Epistles, meaning that they were addressed to the whole church, rather than a specific group.  This letter is assumed to be pseudipigraphic, not written by Paul but in the form and shape of Paul.  It is a letter to a young person that wanted to further the gospel to encourage and guide him, to remind him that there will always be rough patches.

So here, probably in the words of one of Paul’s apostles rather than Paul himself, we begin with a letter of thanksgiving for Paul’s ministry.  It is likely that this letter stems from the period well after Paul’s death when new generations were having to cope with problems similar to what Paul faced, to cope with the veritable “unmaking” of Creation around them.  For that reason, it also echoes Paul’s sentiment toward fellow children of God.

It matches Paul’s thought that responding to God’s compassion is not receiving a guarantee for a future gift or a guarantee, but taking up an offer of a relationship with God. We are invited in grace to get on board and go along with this God who is on a mission and where there will be a role, often a distinctive ministry, for us. Paul became a model of conversion, a hero for many early Christians and that understanding comes through in the passage.

It is interesting that whoever the writer is sees himself or herself as the ultimate in sinners—the “foremost”, the NRIV translates.  It is the ultimate “lostness”, the quintessential wilderness.  And the fact that we are found is the ultimate “foundness”, the amazing grace that is our lives.

You may or may not know the story of an 18th century slave trader named John Newton.  Sailing back to England in 1748, the ship he was on encountered a severe storm and almost sank.  While in route, he read the Bible and began to think about God and God’s impact on his life.  He would become an Anglican minister.  But it would be years before he finally accepted the fact that the slave trade was wrong and that his life truly needed to turn toward God.  In 1779, Newton wrote the words of his life, a hymn of forgiveness and redemption, regardless of whatever it is we do.  Amazing Grace is one of the most recognizable hymns in the Western world.

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does this passage say about our image of God?

3)      What is grace to you?

4)      Why do we have such a hard time with the fact that grace is “undeserved”?

  GOSPEL:  Luke 15:1-10

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Lost and Found…the theme appears again and again in the Scriptures.  It is both comforting and disconcerting, because at times we are the found children telling our story and helping others and at other times we are the lost ones, trying to find our way back to God.  The truth is, it is not that our lives go back and forth between the two, but that we learn to live with the two in juxtaposition—both the found children and the lost souls.  We want to be comfortable with the words of this passage, but we’re not…not really.

The shepherd and the woman both show that careful attention to detail that is also known as hard work. Think of all that hiking over hills, the scrambling down creek banks and climbing through brambles: all in search of one sheep that could have nibbled itself into trouble a thousand different ways. Or think of all that housework! Sweeping, moving furniture, rearranging clutter, crawling around on the floor. We can live our whole lives this way, always diligently searching for lost items and responsibly returning them to their correct location: a place for everything and everything in its place. That everything-in-its-place kind of responsibility is not what these searches are about. Instead, the search of the shepherd and the woman are all about joy, a joy that comes with celebration that what was lost is now found.

The truth is, there is a lot of lostness around us.  We try hard to look for God, to find that place where we are both comfortable and committed to God.  But we continue to waffle back and forth between the found children and the lost ones, trying to find our way back home.  We want to be found; we want to feel joy.  After all, it is the foundness that matters, the foundness for which we are searching.  It is the foundness that our faith is about.

We spend a good part of our lives trying to look for God.  And yet, the Scriptures remind us that it is not God who is lost from us but rather we who are lost from ourselves, lost from who God created us to be.  God created us in the image of the Godself.  And in those times when we seem to wander away in the darkness and lostness of our lives, it is God who unmakes us and recreates us once again, gathers us in and again breathes a part of the Godself into our being. Perhaps it is our lostness that teaches us how to be with God.  Because once we lose ourselves in God’s being, once we relinquish control and quit working so hard to find ourselves, once we realize that we are never really lost at all, it is then that we will know that we are always found by God.       

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      To what do you equate being “lost”?

3)      To what do you equate being “found”?

4)      What part of yourself do you need to lose to be found?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

The word dies whenever reality demands absolute dominion. (Amery, at Yad Vashem (IsraelHolocaustMuseum))

Give me a transformed and undefended heart. (St. Augustine)

Let yourself get shaken up.  What are you willing to give up to ensure your own unfolding, and the unfolding of what is holy in life?  Where you stumble, here is your treasure.(Joseph Campbell)

Closing

In the beginning, O God, When the firm earth emerged from the waters of life You saw that it was good.  The fertile ground was moist.  The seed was strong.  And earth’s profusion of color and sent was born.  Awaken my senses this day to the goodness that still stems from Eden.  Awaken my senses to the goodness that can still spring forth in me and in all that has life. Amen.

(Celtic Benediction)