Proper 28C: In the Shadow of the Dawn

Dawn & ShadowsOLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 65: 17-25

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

In this week’s reading, there are three familiar motifs:  the recurring theme of comparing the former and latter things, the glorification of Zion, and the theme of the shalom and peace of God’s holy mountain.  The theme of a new creation, of a new Jerusalem, of joy replacing weeping, of life overcoming death abounds in this reading from near the end of Isaiah. The passage is part of the closing sequence not only of the third major section of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66, known as Third Isaiah) but of the book of Isaiah itself. Some writers have drawn comparisons between Isaiah 65-66 and Isaiah 1, seeing these chapters as “book-ends” enclosing the whole and bringing it to a conclusion.

Today’s reading echoes the restoration of Jerusalem in other parts of Isaiah.  There is a sense that in Isaiah 65-66 not only do the last 11 chapters draw to a close but that all the themes of the previous 66 chapters–judgment, salvation, and further judgment–have their conclusion here with the promise of a new creation.  The reading also needs to be set in the context of Isaiah 65-66. Verse 17 begins as if it is a development of what has gone before.

The chapter begins in vv. 1-7 (prior to this week’s reading) with a statement by the Lord that the people have rejected the Lord, worshiped idols and participated in all sorts of foreign practices. The Lord’s statement bears all the marks of frustration at the people’s rejection, of anguish over their foolishness, and of suffering their abuse. It ends with words that are both just and angry as God contemplates the punishment of the people. The Lord no longer calls them “my people” but “a people” or “a rebellious people”.   But then a change occurs.  Even if this people do not know what repentance is about, the Lord does and that is their hope. The Lord leaves off executing his punishment for the sake of those servants among the people who do remain faithful. For the sake of the ones the Lord calls “my servants’, “my chosen’, and “my people who have sought me” the prophet says the Lord will delay his just anger and reserve its outworking for those who continue to rebel against him. The central section then ends with the Lord called “the God of faithfulness”.

This faithfulness of God (even sometimes in the face of the faithlessness of God’s people) is what is described in this week’s reading with its emphasis on newness and joy. The Lord will now delight in “my people”. All that destroys life will pass away – weeping, distress, premature death, unfulfilled hopes, injustice, robbery, pillage, even genocide. Some of the imagery comes from the ancient context of a people caught up in the atrocities of war as foreign armies march through their land decimating the countryside, its crops, herds, villages, towns and cities, and slaughtering the population. The prophet is speaking about the most horrible experiences and even these things will be overcome by the faithfulness of the Lord.

Every Sunday of every year Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer. They could say it in their sleep; I often wonder if some do! Rather like the “Gary, Indiana” in Meredith Wilson’s classic musical, The Music Man, that prayer sort of “trips along softly on the tongue this way.” In other words it just comes out without a whole lot of thought. But one of the requests we make in that prayer is fraught with power and rife with implications for us and for our world. It happens early on: “Thy Kingdom come,” we ask. We say we want God to come now and reign over us; we want God to rule in our lives. We want no longer to rely on our own resources to make our own way in the world. I want to be honest with you; sometimes when I say that, I have another voice in the corner of my mind saying, “But not today! I rather like the way I am directing things at the moment, God. Maybe tomorrow, please!”

…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together;  The lion will eat straw like the ox . . .

Well, isn’t that all grand? And just when can we all expect to see this magnificent reign of God? Just exactly when will terrorists stop their destructive hate and sue for peace? Just when will preventable childhood diseases finally be prevented so infants do live full lives? Just when will cancer be eradicated so that old people can live to be 100? When will there be food enough for all, houses enough for all, good and enriching work for all? Just what are we all to learn from this expansive dream of the reign of God?

I think we learn this. When a Christian and a Muslim sit down to eat and talk, it is a sign of the rule of God. When people band together to begin the eradication of malaria in Africa, it is a sign of the reign of God. When prostate cancer deaths are reduced to increasingly smaller fractions, it is a sign of the reign of God. When millions are fed, when Habitat for Humanity builds another 100 houses, these are signs of the reign of God. Isaiah 65:17-25 is a sign and seal of the certainty of the coming reign of God. It is a divine vision that we can never fail to hold before us, reminding us of our part in the dream and reminding us of God’s constant work to make that dream a reality. “Thy kingdom come,” we say, and it will, oh, yes, it will.  (Excerpt from “Thy Kingdom Come:  Reflections on Isaiah 65: 17-25, by John C. Holbert, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Thy-Kingdom-Come-Reflections-on-Isaiah.html, accessed 10 November, 2010)

This new creation will be the peace that the Lord envisions and for which God works.  It is not “putting things back” the way they were before; it is recreating something new—a new Creation, a new peace unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, a new life.  Death and violence are consumed by harmony and peace and life.  Justice reigns.  Everyone has what they need and those who have always had more than they need are finally satisfied.  All labor will be rich and fulfilling.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, without one taking advantage of or consuming the other.  The lion shall eat straw like the ox and both will be satisfied without needing more.  None of us will ever again hurt or destroy another.  All of Creation is resurrected.   You know, we were shown that before.  I wonder when we’ll finally get it.

 a.      What is your response to this passage?

 b.      What is your vision of this “new Creation”?

 c.       How willing, really, do you think we are to embrace newness, embrace change?

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13

To read the New Testament Lectionary passage, click here

As we said last week, this is penned as Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonica, but in all likelihood it may have been written by a follower of Paul’s who sought to protect Paul’s foundations that had been so carefully laid before.  The point is that the church at Thessalonica was apparently experiencing some idleness and probably some boredom when it came to faith. (Imagine!)  The practice of the faith had become routine.  Prayer had become a rote monologue.  This is not what we had in mind.

The truth was that things had gone on for a while.  Maybe it was becoming a little too rote, a little too routine.  Maybe it has been a while since the Holy Spirit has been allowed in the heavy front doors.  Perhaps the church was in need of some new creative dynamics to show people the grace of God through Christ.  In fact, some of the members of the faith community are just flat letting others down by refusing to contribute to the community by working.  The writer is not advocating that they be kicked out of the church though, but rather that they be brought back in and nurtured in the faith.  But life in community requires that everyone be enabled and encouraged to work.  Actually, leaving someone out of the work is essentially demeaning.  Finding a way to engage everyone is a sign and means of grace.

There is a little bit of an interpretive question here.  It is possible that the problem addressed is more “disorderliness”, rather than “idleness”; in other words, the problem of one walking “without order” and not as part of the faith community.  Either way, this was not the way to build the Kingdom of God.  There is a “rhetoric of obedience” as Abraham Smith at Perkins put it.  It is not that there is one way to walk or one way to act; just that each one must work within the community to build together this vision of God, this peaceable kingdom.  It is an act of hospitality and an act of inclusion.  It is becoming faithful people in the midst of a faithful community.  It doesn’t mean that we all look the same or think the same.  It just means that we love each other enough to want the best for each other; it means that we love God so much that we can only imagine being who God calls us to be—all of us.  Nothing else makes sense.

Elizabeth Barrington Forney says that “these [very] thoughts bear important implications for much of our congregational life.  The church who participates in a feeding ministry might wonder if the guests who are willing and able are being given ample opportunity to serve alongside church members in preparation and serving of the meals.  Is a disparity being created that makes guests dependent on being served?…There is ample opportunity in this text both for instruction about compassion and for a prophetic call to partnership in ministry.” (From Feasting on the Word, p. 307)

a.      What is your response to this passage?

 b.      What do you think happens when one or when a whole community experiences “idleness”?

 c.       Does it change the meaning if you think of the warning as one against “disorderliness”?

 d.      What do you think of the implication of involving those to whom we minister in ministry?  What sort of vision does that bring about for you? How would that change our ministry?

 GOSPEL:  Luke 21: 5-19

To read the Gospel Lectionary text, click here

This is, needless to say, a difficult text.  But, despite how we may read it, it is not meant to be a prediction of the future.  It was written to a persecuted and frustrated minority that lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  They were feeling as if the veritable end of their world had come.  And some, perhaps at the prodding of the disciples, were looking to the temple, the center of their world and their life, the symbol of God’s very presence in their midst, a shining thing of beauty in an otherwise dark world.  But then they were told not to look there for it, too, would fall away.  Instead, the writer of Luke is telling them to listen to Jesus and trust in Jesus.  We didn’t read the first four verses of this chapter but they portray the account of the widow with two coins.  Jesus is essentially saying:  “Not the temple!  Look at her!  Look what living a life of faith means!”

So the passage that we read begins with that prediction of destruction.  From Luke one senses sadness rather than smugness. Just a few chapters later, we would read the account of Jesus weeping over a city that would not listen and would not change course.   Instead they wanted concrete evidence of exactly when this would happen and some had begun to listen to messianic “fortune-tellers”, if you will, that claimed to have all the answers.  Like today, there were those who were easily swayed with predictions of “doomsday”, with the foretelling of the end at hand.

Remember, Jesus never promised that following this Way would be easy.  And despite what some would claim, there is no known timetable of when something will happen.  But it is a reminder for us of the God who triumphed over chaos over and over again.  Jesus is not calling them to be martyrs or heroes—just faith-filled followers.  All of the other usual symbols will eventually fall by the wayside.  But Jesus promises that he will remain as a holy presence with the wisdom to persevere.

I don’t really think Jesus was telling the future (regardless of the fact that those beautiful stones were indeed soon destroyed).  Perhaps Jesus was just saying, you know…this is not easy.  Life happens.  Bad things happen.  But nothing, absolutely nothing, can take me away from you.  Just hang on!  The Sabbath is coming!

David Livingstone, the legendary missionary to Africa, prayed, “Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me.  Lay any burden on me, only sustain me.”  And he testified, “What has sustained me is the promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”  This is the promise that Jesus conveys.

And when the world does shake to an end, whether it’s through natural decay or we humans just blowing the whole thing up, there’s always something more.  The truth is, the temple WAS destroyed.  And the great Roman Empire collapsed into history.  But the story has not diminished.  “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”

a.      What is your response to this passage?

b.      What things are we tempted to hold onto in our world, hoping for something better?

 c.       What does this passage say about the church itself?

 d.      What does this passage call us to do?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

True hope isn’t blind…The messianic hope for the new world looks into the future with its eyes wide open.  But it sees more than what can be seen on the horizon of history.  The Indonesian word for hope means “looking through the horizon to what is beyond.”  True hope looks beyond the apocalyptic horizons of our modern world to the new creation of all things in the kingdom of God’s glory.  (Jurgen Moltmann, from The Source of Life:  The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life)

A dreamer is one who can find [his or her] way in the moonlight, and [whose] punishment is that [he or she] sees the dawn before the rest of the world.  (Oscar Wilde)

 The marvelous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realization in our day-to-day lives.  Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises.  Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey)

Closing

Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that hath stood too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood, and where the sun that shineth is God’s grace for human good.  Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair; lo, how its splendor challenges the souls that greatly dare; yea, bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory there.  Amen. (From “O Holy City, Seen of John” (vs. 4-5), by Walter Russell Bowie, The United Methodist Hymnal # 726)

Proper 27C: Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On

Scrabble lettersOLD TESTAMENT:  Haggai 1:15b-2:9

To read the Old Testament Lectionary text, click here

Little is known about the man for whom the book of Haggai is named.  There is no family name or other information provided.  The only other place that he is mentioned is in Ezra.  There is a suggestion that possibly his family connections would have been problematic if they were announced or the lack of information may simply be meant to focus more on the divine authority by which the prophet spoke.  One thing that can be said for certain is that he was remembered as a prophet with authority.  The name, in Hebrew, means “make a pilgrimage” or, possibly, “observe a pilgrimage feast”. 

The work of the prophet Haggai is concentrated between August, 520 BCE, and December of that same year, the second year of the reign of Persian King Darius.  Most scholars agree on these dates and believe that the book was at least compiled before 515 BCE, when the work on the Temple initiated at Haggai’s urging was completed. (If it was truly compiled this soon after the original words of the prophet, this would indeed add even more integrity and authenticity to the writings.)  Jerusalem, the major market and trading center of the region was still recovering from the devastation that had occurred nearly 70 years before at the beginning of the time of exile.  There were limited resources and more and more the wealthy seemed to usurp those resources from the poor.

When families had been exiled in 587 BCE, their land had been taken by the people who remained.  When they returned, conflicts over the land arose.  So a system was instituted whereby people were identified by their genealogical line from tribal times, which then linked the returning deportees with their distant relatives who had stayed behind.  This was the institution by which land was redistributed and some measure of stability returned.  But this also meant that there was no longer a society defined by national borders.  The community was instead organized into landholding collectives with the Temple of the Lord as its administrative, economic, and religious center.

Since life was essentially organized around the Temple, there was a great need for the center to be rebuilt.  Haggai’s brief articles contain a very straightforward message:  a summons to Judean Jews in the sixth-century BCE to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, so that YHWH could be honored and the people blessed.  Haggai gives two reasons for rebuilding the temple: the people were building their own houses and had put off the building of the Lord’s house and the increased wealth and better fortune that they were experiencing was, in Haggai’s eyes, apparently a sign of YHWH’s sovereignty.  Other reasons for rebuilding this glorious temple of God was that it would insure the faith community by giving it a foundation and a focus as well as the fact that it was an out and out question of stewardship.  It insured that the people’s priorities were as they should be.

You might be familiar, in particular, with verses 6 and 7.  It’s the basis for the movement “Thus Saith the Lord” in Handel’s Messiah.  These verses suggest dramatic action initiated by God.   “Shake”, here does not imply a term of destruction, but, rather a term of transformation.  God’s intervention may be understood as being brought by human beings.  The text emphasizes that God will bring about the return of the items in the temple and rearrange them, indeed, “shake them up” in order to create a new and more splendid temple.  It’s like God is saying…OK, I brought you back, I delivered you, now you need to grow up and take notice.  You need to realize from where you came and to whom you belong.  I’m about to do a new thing, but you need to pay attention.  I’m going to shake the heavens and the earth, renewing life and restoring everything to the way it should be.

Dr. John Holbert points out that Haggai did not just want a new temple for his own sake.  As he says, “the bricks and mortar of any building have no meaning apart from the conviction that God has brought us out of the bondage of Egypt and remains with us still. No matter what this building looks like, God is here, and God is working… The next time we gaze at our own temples, our churches, our houses of worship, we ought not judge them on the size of their steeples, the splendor of their pipe organs, or the grandeur and number of their classrooms. Do they speak to the world that God is there? Do they shout the truth of the freedom-making God? Only on those bases can any such places be judged.” (“Giving Old Haggai a New Look”, John C. Holbert, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Giving-Old-Haggai-a-New-Look-Reflections-on-Haggai.html, accessed 1 November, 2013.)

 1)      This issue of stewardship is a big one.  What actually belongs to us?

2)      In what ways should we perhaps redefine the word “ours”?  What gets in the way of our redefinition of that word?

3)      So, in the context of Haggai’s writings, what does the term “shake” mean for you here?

4)      What is your notion of the view of the temple (or even our temple) here?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

 

The Second Letter to the Thessalonians reflects a general concern for the church’s stability in the face of mounting hostility from its neighbors.  It also has a concern about the end times, so the writer crafts a letter to encourage the believers not to veer from truth or tradition.  The focus is on both the present and the future.  There is general agreement that this letter was not written by Paul but, interestingly enough, most think that 1 Thessalonians was.  There is a difference in form and style from Paul’s writings.

In the passage that we read today, it begins with the writer refuting the unfounded claim that the day of the Lord had already “appeared”, that indeed Christ had already returned.  Now you’ve got to remember that this was during a time of rampant “apocalyptic fever”.  They were still convinced that Jesus’ words that he would “return” meant imminently if not immediately and they were desperate to not miss it.  Now, just for some background, Paul had founded this church in Thessalonica, a wealthy and prosperous port city.  After only three weeks of a sort of whirlwind preaching tour, Paul had moved so many people to embrace the Christian movement, that the Jews sort of became alarmed.  They had this new hope and if, as they were now convinced, Jesus had already returned, the hope was unfounded. 

In verse 2, the NRSV warns against being “quickly shaken in mind or alarmed.”  A better translation is probably more like “shock the church suddenly” or “repeatedly agitate”.   Essentially, the writer is trying to ease what was essentially a needless panic driving some to despair that the Lord had come.  Those who were standing on the corner screaming “repent the end is near” where, in the writer’s mind, just causing a ruckus. 

The passage ends with verses 13-17 as a reminder of what God has done and a thankful response. It seems to quell all the questions, all the tricks, all the attempts to catch Jesus and insure the power of those who were so worried about him. So, the writer asks the church to do what he initially asked—stand fast and hold fast to the traditions that they know.  In other words, just be who you are, just be children of God, the children that God called you to be.  Stop the arguing; stop the power-plays; just be.

 a.      So what meaning does this passage hold for us?

 b      What does the tern “shake” mean for you in this context?

 c.       What would it mean for you to experience this so-called “apocalyptic fever”, thinking that Jesus’ return was imminent?  What have we lost of that notion?

 d.      What message does this Scripture hold for our time and for the church of today?

 GOSPEL:  Luke 20: 27-38

To read the Lectionary Gospel text, click here

This is the only place in the Gospel According to Luke where the Saduccees appear.  They were a Jewish group that was closely aligned with the priestly classes and aristocracy.  They rejected the oral tradition (including the writings of the prophets and the Wisdom writings), denied the belief in Resurrection or angels, and emphasized free will.  Because of these somewhat unique beliefs as compared to the society in which they lived, there was always an ongoing debate between the Pharisees and the Saducees over many issues (resurrection, in particular).

So in an effort to prove their own beliefs, their question assumes the practice of levirate marriage, which required that if a man died without children, his brother was obligated to take his wife and have children with her in the first brother’s honor.  This insured the perpetuation of property within the immediate family and security for the brother’s widow.  The term is derived from the Latin, levir, which means “brother-in-law”. 

Keep in mind the time.  This is late in the Gospel; the time is drawing to a close.  Jesus is, for all practical purposes, on the way to the cross.  This is their moment to encounter this man; this is their time to be right.  But in the passage, it is said that Jesus explains that life in the resurrection will not simply be a continuation of life as we know it.  (By grounding it in the Law of Moses, he is using the Saduccees own teachings to support what he is saying, to support the notion that even at this very moment, the world is beginning to shake.)

Jesus really said very little on the subject of life after death or Resurrection.  (In fact, recent scholars agree that there is no real basis for Jesus saying this at all, but that it probably was in line with his way of thinking.)  There is definitely a mystery of the unknown and the limitations of our own understanding.  Essentially, life beyond death is God’s gift, just as life now is.  As “children of God”, we are also “children of the Resurrection”.  All are alive to God.  There is no room in God’s Kingdom for possession.  (It’s also saying, then, that no person is “owned” or “claimed” by another—all are children of God).

It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t really directly answer them.  Instead, he takes that protective circle of belief that they had so carefully formed around them and splits it apart.  Their question was a not a search for the truth.  They don’t want an answer; they want to prove they’re right.  Rainer Marie Rilke said, Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Richard Rohr, in Everything Belongs, says it like this:  If you understand it, things are just as they are.  If you don’t understand it, things are just as they are.  The mystery is to be ready to receive things just as they are and be ready to let them teach us.  That’s the mystery.

This is one of those weeks that all the Scriptures really do sort of fit together.  If I were to write a sermon, the title would probably be something like “A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On”.  All three Scriptures deal with looking at the world differently, with letting God show you what it’s meant to be.  As we said, the name Haggai means “to make a pilgrimage”.  What does that mean?  Think about it a pilgrim is not a visitor—a pilgrim is one who has traversed to another place and is trying his or her best to carve a being and a life out of it.  A pilgrim is one who is ready to see things anew, to actually see what is already there, and then make it a part of his or her life.  As Richard Rohr said, “God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so do not waste too much time protecting the boxes.”

 a.      So what meaning does this passage hold for us?

 b.      This notion of the levirate marriage is odd for us.  And, yet, how does I play into our own faith interpretation?

 c.       What does it mean, then, to love the questions or love the mystery?

  

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The whole future of the Earth, as of religion, seems to me to depend on the awakening of our faith in the future. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

Prayer is hope’s breathing.  When we stop praying, we stop hoping.  (Dom Pedro Casaldaliga)

 Unless one says good-bye to what one loves, and unless one travels to completely new territories, one can expect merely a long wearing away of oneself and eventual distinction. (Jean Dubuffet)

Closing

We are strange conundrums of faithfulness and fickleness.  We cleave to you in all the ways that we are able.  We count on you and intend our lives to be lived for you, and then we find ourselves among your people who are always seeking elsewhere and otherwise.

 So we give thanks that you are the God who yearns and waits for us, and that our connection to you is always from your side, and that it is because of your goodness that neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor heights nor depths nor anything in creation can separate us from you.  We give you thanks for your faithfulness, so much more durable than ours.  Amen.

“The God who yearns and waits for us”, from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth:  Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, p. 135.