Proper 24C: Keeping Heart

 

Peaceable Kingdom, by John August Swanson
Peaceable Kingdom, by John August Swanson

OLD TESTAMENT:  Jeremiah 31: 27-34

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

Last week, we talked about the setting in which the prophet Jeremiah lived and prophesied and much of Jeremiah includes words of judgment for the circumstances of that time.  The four chapters beginning with chapter 30 conversely pick up the theme of hope and comfort.  These words of hope come in three parts, the first of which includes chapters 30 and 31, which together are commonly called “The Book of Comfort” or “The Book of Consolation”.

The focus of the passage is a promise of the future, a future of fertility and prosperity in response to Jeremiah’s call.  The land will be full of people, and the animals will multiply, providing greater sustenance and support.  The call “to build and plant” (from last week’s passage) begins to be carried out.  No longer will the children suffer for the sins of their parents.  Instead, a community will be planted that is different from the one in the past and the sins of that community will be handled according to a new justice.

The whole idea of a “new community” was probably pretty foreign to the hearers of Jeremiah’s message. (Who are we kidding…it’s probably pretty foreign to us!)  The whole shape of their community had to do with the past and with the foundations from which they came.  We hear about this “new covenant”, the only reference to a “new covenant” in the Old Testament.  This is a covenant that holds divine forgiveness.  God will forgive the people and no longer remember their sins.  This covenant is written on people’s hearts.  There are no breakable clay tablets that can just be tossed aside.  We are presented with the imagery of a “new Jerusalem”, the holy city that the Lord will build in the future in the midst of humanity.  This is probably not intended to be a political city with physical boundaries, but, rather, a manifestation of God’s compassion and justice.  It is the place where shalom finally resides, the place of the peaceable Kingdom that God envisioned at Creation.

The vision of Jeremiah’s has an eschatological ring to it, perhaps one that we’re not accustomed to hearing in the Old Testament.  Because God has written the capacity for love and faithfulness into us, the days are surely coming.  In the meantime, we hope and trust, and we expose our hearts to God.

Much of this covenant has to do with divine forgiveness.  But inherent within this discussion is a call to forgiveness of each other.  Ernest Hemingway tells the story of the Spanish father who wanted to be reconciled with his son who ran away from home to the city of Madrid. The father misses the son and puts an advertisement in the local newspaper El Liberal. The advertisement read, “Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven! Love, Papa.” Paco is such a common name in Spain that when the father went to the Hotel Montana the next day at noon there were 800 young men named Paco waiting for their fathers! Hemingway’s story reminds us how desperate all of us are for forgiveness.

According to Walter Brueggemann, “In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”…means just for a moment, if only for a moment, you are wiped clean, you are renewed, the past is gone.  This, however, is not a destructive thing but, rather, a renewal of what was already there. It is the total and complete forgiveness of the sins of the world. Joan Chittister says that “perhaps forgiveness is the last thing mentioned in the Creed because it is the last thing learned in life.  Perhaps none of us can understand the forgiveness of God until we ourselves have learned to forgive.”  “For it is in forgiving that we are forgiven.”

Forgiveness is something freely granted, whether earned or deserved; something lovingly offered without thought 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.  But, most of all, it makes us one with the human family and 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.  And that, perhaps, is the closest we can come, in our humble human fashion, to the divine act of bestowing grace.  (Kent Nerburn, Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace:  Living in the Spirit of the Prayer of Saint Francis, p. 120)

a.      What is your response to this passage?

b.      What does the notion of this “new covenant” mean for you?

c.       What  does it mean for you to think of this covenant “written on your heart”?

d.      What  does it say about a “new community”, a leaving of the past ways behind?

e.       What  does that have to do with forgiveness?

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Timothy 3: 14-4:5

To read the Lectionary New Testament passage, click here

Remember that the pastoral epistle of 2 Timothy is focused primarily on establishing the “right” personal character of believers.  Today’s passage begins by laying out the idea that the main guideline achieving the wisdom and wholeness of God is the holy writings.  The writer of Timothy sort of looked upon these writings as sort of a textbook for the faith.

Now keep in mind that for Jewish boys (not girls) who were literally “schooled” in the faith, the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings provided the school curriculum as well as Israel’s law book and prayer book.  In this society, the way to achieve wisdom was to know them well.  For this writer, the holy writings had a targeted purpose “to make you wise for salvation”.  The purpose of Scripture, like the purpose of proper schooling, is to produce the well-instructed and disciplined adult, proficient and well-equipped in the graces and skills required for a positive role in church and society.

The beginning of chapter 4 leads into the final section of this second letter to Timothy and focuses on the teaching and preaching ministry of the congregation and whether or not it is properly preparing its hearers for what is to come.  The term “inspired by God” in this passage is essentially a translation of the Greek theopneustos, or “God-breathed”.  It should be noted that this would mean that the Scripture itself is “God-breathed”, rather than that the writer is merely inspired.

It is traditional to speak of Scripture as “inspired”.  There is a long history of unhelpful formulations of what that notion might mean.  Without appealing to classical attempts at formulation that characteristically have more to do with “testing” the Spirit than with “not quenching” the Spirit, we may affirm that the force of God’s purpose, will, and capacity for liberation, reconciliation, and new life is everywhere around this text…The Spirit will not be regimented, and therefore none of our reading is guaranteed to be inspired.  But it does happen—on occasion.

It does happen that we are blown in and through the text beyond ourselves.  It does happen—on occasion—that through the text the Spirit teaches and guides and heals so that the text yields something other than an echo of ourselves.  It does happen in prayer and study that believers are led to what is “strange and new.” (From “Biblical Authority:  A Personal Reflection”, by Walter Brueggemann, in Struggling With Scripture, by Walter Brueggemann, William C. Placher, & Brian K. Blount, p. 23-25.)

a.      What is your response to this passage?

b.      What, for you, is meant by the call for “sound teaching”?

c.       Do you think the meaning of that has changed in today’s context?

d.      So what reactions do you have to this notion of a “God-breathed” Scripture?  How does that notion play into current day literalism?

GOSPEL:  Luke 18: 1-8

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The Gospel passage for this week begins with Jesus telling a parable about “not losing heart”.  The parable ends with a challenge about faith.  Essentially, this is one of the few parables in which we are actually told the point before we hear the parable.  The parable that is in between may sometimes be a little uncomfortable.  Here, the unjust judge is the one used to make a statement about God.  Well, we know that God is not unjust, so how does this work?  The point is in the response.  If this kind of judge, unjust as he was, was willing to respond justly to the widow who asked, don’t you think God will respond to us? (And don’t you think that we are called to respond to each other in the same way?)

Remember here, that the force of this parable heavily depends on the social status and religious duties of the roles of the characters.  In ancient Israel, the duty of the judge was to maintain harmonious relations in society.  He would have held a very prestigious position.  Widows were deprived of the support of a husband and could not inherit their husband’s estate.  That instead passed on to sons and brothers.  True to Luke’s version of the Gospel, the widow was typical of the “least” of society.

Now the fact that the judge (who held a high position in Jewish society) was not faithful to God actually meant that he was totally unfit for his post.  But the widow calls upon the judge for justice.  Perhaps she has a legitimate grievance.  But the response comes probably because he wanted her to leave him alone.  The judge finally does what is right, whether or not it is for the right reasons.  In truth, the widow was not just a believer; it was not that she was just faithful.  She yearned for a change.  She yearned for justice.

Essentially, there is a two-part question raised here.  Have we become so calloused that we turn a deaf ear to those who cry out in need?  Or have we given up hope that God will hear our own cries for help?  Both involved the prospect of “losing heart”.  Faith requires a different response to each of these questions.

In some way, it is a reminder that justice alone is hard and cold and calculating.  The heart gives justice passion and compassion; the heart is the way to God’s vision of justice.  “Pray always and do not lose heart.”  As William Willimon said, “if we really believed in the power of prayer, if we really believed that prayer can effect world peace, if we were truly convinced that prayer changes things, heals broken lives, and restores severed relationship, then we would be praying constantly.  You couldn’t keep us from praying.  But isn’t the problem with prayer the one that Jesus addresses here?  We simply lose heart.

Why is that?  What does it mean to not lose heart?  What does it mean to, putting it in the positive, keep heart?  You could translate it as staying focused, as persistence, or even as faith—not blind faith, mind you, but a realization of who and whose you are.

      Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told a story of teaching a confirmation class years ago in which he outlined the meaning of the Mosaic Covenant. He went step by step through it, explaining the promise of God, that God would rescue the Hebrew people from slavery and that they would worship only God and then act in ways that show themselves to be liberated people. And he showed them how that principle showed up in the teaching of Jesus later on. When finished he asked them as a review to tell him what he had just said. He got a variety of attempts, some close some not. Then one little boy raised his hand and put it better than any theologian could have. He said (quoting God), “I saved your butts, so now you go behave.” (From “Written on Their Hearts”, by Dr. Stan G.B. Duncan, available at http://homebynow.blogspot.com/2013/10/written-on-their-hearts.html, accessed 14 October, 2013.)

           Maybe keeping heart is the desire that compels us to be something more, to be new, to become new, to be open to God’s recreation of our very lives.  And in the meantime, the prophet weeps for something more. 

 

a.      What is your response to this passage?

b.      What does this parable say about justice for you?

c.       What does this say about faith?  About prayer?

d.      What do you think of the statement from Willimon about what would happen if we really believed in the power of prayer?

e.       What is it that stands in our way of “keeping heart”?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The best success I can dream for my life: to have spread a new vision of the world. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

The mediocre teacher tells.  The good teacher explains.  The superior teacher demonstrates.  The great teacher inspires.  (William Arthur Ward)

 Perhaps our real task in prayer is to attune ourselves to the conversation already going on deep in our hearts.  Then we may align our conscious intentions with the desire of God being expressed at our core. (from Soul Feast:  The Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life,  by Marjorie J. Thompson, p. 31.)

Closing

This is prayer.  This is deep, faithful listening, waiting for what is hidden to be revealed.  Prayer is not words; prayer is what happens when you listen and wait, beneath the words, for the outline of heaven to emerge.  (Wayne Muller, in Learning to Pray, 1-2)

Pray always and do not lose heart.  Amen.

Proper 23C: Made Whole

Shell in sunshineOLD TESTAMENT:  Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7

To read the Old Testament Lectionary Passage, click here

The prophet Jeremiah probably lived and prophesied through two great events in Judah’s history.  The religious reform of Josiah (622 bce), during which Josiah eliminated all non-Yahwist cults and practices and centralized worship in the capital city and its temple.  He invited all of the priests in outlying areas to come and reside in Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem and Judah signified the beginning of the exile of many of its leaders and citizens.  The prophet Jeremiah was one of those that actually remained in Jerusalem.

So, this passage begins with the words of a letter sent from Jerusalem by the prophet to those who have been forced to leave.  The focus of the passage is to relate to the exiles the need for them to accept their fate and know that the God who has brought it upon them is at work for their ultimate good.  He also warned them against listening to false prophets while they were in exile.  But more than anything, he’s reminding them of the promise that is so much a part of their lives, so much a part of who they are.  He’s essentially saying to the community:  “Do not resist; carry on your lives; learn to come to terms with your situation.”  The exiles are enjoined to find their life—their REAL life– now in this new and difficult place, to, essentially, seek the peace, the shalom, of the place that they are.  Perhaps this was Jeremiah’s way of telling them that the exile was going to last beyond what they thought, that their lives and the lives of generations to follow had changed forever.  But they were not in this alone.  This was their chance to connect to God in a new and different way.  Keep in mind that this letter is followed by the 31st chapter of the prophet’s writing, in which the people are promised a “new covenant that is written on their hearts.  (Jer. 31: 31-34)  It is a promise that they will never be overthrown again.  But it is also a promise that this will be a new and different way of being.

This is similar to the Benedictine monastic vow of stability—the call to live in the “now”, to be present to this moment whether pleasurable of painful.  Now this is sort of contrary to the teachings of our “quick-fix”, independent society.  God is not here as a vending machine to make all of our hopes and dreams for this world come to be.  God is here to give us life if we just rely on God to do that.  What does that say about our dependence upon God?  The theology of exile (whether during the time of Jeremiah or today) is the belief that one is called to depend solely on God.  Essentially, through history, people in exile have stayed more true to God than those who are tied to empires.

 Stability lies in slowing down, being willing to wait, going on with the sameness that is an inevitable part of being human and refusing the quick-fix alternative.  One of the desert fathers, asked by a young monk for a word to help him on the spiritual path, replied, “Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”  Be where you are.  Refuse the fantasy world of “if only”.  Remember that discipleship is about faithful living, not visible success.  Be prepared to wait, sometimes a long time, to hear the word of God that tell you it is time to move on(From Heart Whispers:  Benedictine Wisdom for Today, by Elizabeth J. Canham, p. 110-111)

 a)                        What is your response to this passage?

b)                       How difficult is this for you in your life?

c)                       How does this message relate to our world today?

d)                       Why is it so difficult to live in the “now”?

e)                      Why do you think it is sometimes more difficult to stay true to    God when one’s life is going well?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Timothy 2: 8-15

To read the New Testament Lectionary passage, click here

Remember that the pastoral epistle of 2 Timothy is focused primarily on establishing the “right” personal character of believers.  This week’s epistle passage makes the point that the focus and reason for the hard work is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The passage exhorts its readers to “keep on remembering”.  This passage, like the Old Testament reading, speaks of “enduring”, of holding firm.  For the writer, this was probably more of an entering the suffering of Christ, rather than enduring one’s own suffering for Christ’s sake.  Being a Christian means identifying with Christ in his vision.  It does include suffering, but it also means the presence of faith in sharing in Christ’s future.

And as we enter Christ, even if we have times of unfaithfulness, Christ will not deny us (even if we deny Christ), because Christ cannot deny himself.  Christ’s loving is a constancy of compassion.  So the writer exhorts his readers to do their best to present themselves to God and not get wrapped up in distractions from the heart of the Gospel.  Essentially, we are told to do our best—not anyone else’s best, but OUR best.  (Remember who you are.)

The directive to “study” (as in “to show yourself approved”) is probably sort of mis-translated.  In Greek, this verb is not restricted to mere study.  It involves the whole person—heart, soul, and mind.  By translating it as “study”, it also implies that the “word of truth” are the words of Scripture rather than the totality and truth of the Gospel.  Thomas A’Kempis said “Change your ways, give yourself a fresh coat of paint, convert yourself.  Do all this and you’ll find the cross before it finds you.”

But character is hard.  After all, what is the “right” way of living?  In his weekly sermon illustration on this passage, Frederick Buechner quotes an excerpt from “The Birth” (originally published in The Magnificent Defeat and Secrets in the Dark).  It goes like this: (available at http://frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-die-him)

”And now, brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?”

So what is our calling?  According to the writer of this passage, it is to do our best to be who God calls us to be, to do our best to live our life.

 a)                        What is your response to this passage?

b)                       What does it mean for you to “remember who you are”?

c)                       What is that like in the society in which we live?

d)                       What, then, does it truly mean to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

GOSPEL:  Luke 17: 11-19

To read the Gospel Lectionary Passage, click here

The Gospel passage for this week marks the beginning of a new unit in the Lukan version of the Gospel.  There is a change in geography as well as an introduction of new characters.  The disciples play no role in the story.  Traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus would have been traveling from north to south.  There’s really no “region” between Samaria and Galilee, because Galilee lies above Samaria, so perhaps it is the border between the two.

Anyway, he meets this group of lepers that, according to law, were required to live outside the camp and to warn those who might approach them by crying out “Unclean, unclean.”  If a leper recovered, a priest has to certify that the person was clean before he or she could return to the community. (So don’t be too hard on the ones that did not return to Jesus.  They were doing exactly what they should have done, what their culture, their laws, and their traditions expected.  Maybe that’s a lesson to us too.) The healing of these lepers is not a simple healing story, but also functions as a Kingdom of God story as it is spread to all the world.  There is also the lesson on gratitude in the passage as the one Samaritan returns to thank Jesus, exhibiting a deeper and more abiding faith in God and what God has provided.

Keep in mind that the Jews and the Samaritans were totally dismissive of each other, often to the point of violence.  The Samaritans were not, as many portrayals of them represent, pagan worshippers.  They worshiped the same Yahweh of Jewish faith but had a different interpretation of where the temple and worship should be conducted.  Their “Jerusalem” was Mt.Gerazim.

So, we can probably say that there are two key points made with this story:  The first has to do with “seeing”.  Jesus saw the lepers and knew that they needed healed. He then told them to show themselves to the priests (for cleansing)  Then the leper saw that he was healed and returned.  The second has to do with gratitude.  The one leper saw and recognized that he was healed and then responded.  An attitude of thankfulness and gratitude must begin with an awareness of what we have been provided.  The grateful person reveals a humility of spirit and a sensitivity to love expressed by others.  The grateful person regards kindness as experiences of God’s grace.  Life itself is a gift.  In this way, gratitude becomes an act of faith.

“Weren’t there ten?” he says, sounding a little playful.  “Where are the nine?”  Well, it’s perfectly obvious where the nine are.  The nine are doing what Jesus told them to do.  They are literalists, God love them; they are doing their duty.  They have taken the road as commanded, found their cleansing on it, and seemed to think that staying on the road is the thing.  Like Forrest Gump with a football, they have crossed the goal and go right on running, clear out of the stadium, where the celebration happens without them…

 Barbara Brown Taylor says that the question among us is not “Where are the nine?” but “Where is the tenth?”  Where is the one who followed his heart instead of his instructions?  Doesn’t the church resemble a dutiful procession of cleansed lepers who are “doing the right thing by the temple”?  Where is the one who wheels round to return the wildness of love?

 Obedience is needful for the cure, but not all of the cured are whole.  The whole are those whose hearts break into praise, who fall with abandon at the feet of Love to improvise their own love’s unnecessary answer.   (From “Down the Road and Back”, by Paul D. Duke, in The Christian Century, September 27, 1995, available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n27_v112/ai_17582529, accessed 10 October, 2007.)

 So, what does this all mean for us?  It’s simple. Live your life.  Live this one incredible gift that God has given you and only you. It will bring you joy and sorrow, grief and delight.  Some days it will feel like God is right next to you.  And other days you just have to rely on the memory of what that felt like and know that God is there anyway.  Learn to love and dance.  Learn to soak up the sun and bask in the rain.  Just live. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

a)                        What is your response to this passage?

b)                       How thankful are we for what we have?

c)What gets in the way of our expressions of gratitude?

d)                       How can we develop that awareness in our lives?

 Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Just being awake, alert attentive is no easy matter.  I think it is the greatest spiritual challenge we face. (Diana L. Eck)

The present moment delights us.  We see it as an opportunity for grace and mystery.  It is our source of holiness.  (Mary Margaret Funk)

Gratitude is the intention to count-your-blessings every day, every minute, while avoiding , whenever possible, the belief that you need or deserve different circumstances.    (Timothy Miller)

Closing

Sing a joyful song to the Beloved all the earth, and praise Love’s name; Sing in glorious exultation!  We say to You, “How magnificent are your ways:  So great is your power that fear and doubt vanish before You;  All the earth worships You; the people raise their voice, they sing praises to your Name.”

 Come and see what the Beloved has done; wondrous are the deeds of Love.  Remember when the seat turned to dry land?  There, we did rejoice in the One, who rules by the mighty Spirit of Love forever, Whose eyes keep watch on the nations—let not those who strive for power exalt themselves.

 Bless the Beloved, Heart of our hearts, let the sound of our praises be heard.  You keep us attuned to life and guide our feet on solid ground.  For You, O Love, have tested us; You have tried us as silver is tried.  You have allowed us to fall into the net; You have watched us reap all that we have sown; we went through fire and through water, Yet You have brought us through our pain and into your dwelling place.

 I enter your house with gifts; I commend my soul into your keeping; all that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble and pain, I offer up to You; I abandon myself into your hands.

 Come and hear, all you who reverence the Most Hight, and I shall tell what the Beloved has done for me.  I cried aloud to the Silent Watcher of my life; from my tounge came forth words of praise.  Had I cherished greed and power, I would have separated myself from Love; the voice of my prayer was hears.

 Blessed by the holy Name of the Beloved, Loving Companion Presence, who has embraced me, and renewed my life.

 (Psalm 66, from Psalms for Praying:  An Invitation to Wholeness, by Nan C. Merrill)