Proper 16C: The Sabbath Is Calling

Spending time with godFIRST LESSON:  Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Read the Old Testament passage

This passage begins a series of readings from the prophet Jeremiah.  Compared to other prophetic books, we seem to know a good deal about the prophet Jeremiah. There are sections of material in the book which appear to be biographical or autobiographical in nature. According to the information in the book, the prophet Jeremiah began his activity in 628 BCE, the 13th year of king Josiah. He saw out the reigns of five Judean kings, from Josiah to the end of Zedekiah. He was a priest from the town of Anathoth, of a Levitic family claiming descent from Moses. According to the book, Jeremiah had a disciple Baruch who acted as scribe. The prose sections of the book have sometimes been attributed to Baruch.

This is an account of Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet. This account is told in a formulaic way. It follows a pattern present also in the stories of the call of other servants of God, such as Moses. Elements of this pattern include: the context of conversation, divine initiative, a protest, divine reassurance, and some act of commissioning and the message. It is as if God doesn’t want to call on people who are so sure of themselves and the trajectory of their lives that they do not listen. The call is initiated by God or God’s word; it never comes from human initiative. The use of the pattern to describe these different experiences of quite different characters, points to the community aspect of these calls. They may appear to us to be quite personal experiences, but until there is a ‘public’ description of a call in language that is publicly recognizable as just that, there is no call. Prophetic authority only exists when it is publicly acknowledged, when the power of God behind a word of judgment or hope within public life is recognized by the community of faith itself.

The call is wrapped up in six verbs—“pluck up”, “pull down”, “destroy”, and “overthrow”, and then “build” and “plant”.  We don’t really know when this call was heard or when it was recognized, but it shapes Jeremiah and it shapes the people who listen to the message.  We are a people called to tear down that which is destructive, which is not part of the Kingdom that God is calling us to build and build the rest into what God calls it to be.

In his response to this call, the prophet will meet strong opposition to his calling. I’m sure at times he will question it and wonder what in the world he is doing or even, perhaps, if he had gotten the whole thing wrong.  There will be resistance from others to this plucking up and overthrowing, and others who will resist the building and planting. Jeremiah will need courage in the performance of his prophetic duty. He will be called on to speak to the leaders of the nation. He will encounter the strong criticism of other prophets and leaders of the temple. His call will be costly. Yet as it unfolds the word he is to pass on, the word which fills his mouth, will prove the only hope for this people. He will be delivered, as is promised, and the people to whom he proclaims this word will finally be delivered.

 

Recall the words of the poet:

Sometimes when the river is ice
Ask me mistakes I have made;
Ask me whether what I have done
Is my life.

Parker Palmer tells of the time he went to a college to lead a workshop on teaching. Early on, he was warned about the curmudgeonly Professor X. Professor X would come to the workshop, he was told, but likely only to debunk whatever was said. As the workshop began, Palmer asked the teachers to tell the group about a mentor, someone who had taught them how to teach. The teachers related many stories, moving stories. After several people had gone, Professor X began to speak, not in the cranky tones his colleagues were used to hearing, but in a voice full of sadness and regret. He confessed that for twenty years he had been trying to mimic his mentor’s teaching style-the results had been disastrous. His teaching wasn’t working because he was trying to be someone he was not. Twenty years into his career it was just starting to dawn on Professor X that what he was doing was not his life.

 

Ask me whether what I have done is my life. (From “What’s My Life”, a sermon by Rev. Dr. Kimberleigh Buchanan, available at http://day1.org/478-whats_my_life, accessed 18 August, 2010.)

 

 

I was reminded of this as we talked about what God intends for each of our lives:

 

Years ago, my brother had begun training his Labrador Retrievers to respond as hunting dogs and together they participated in what are called “hunt tests” in which the dogs have an opportunity to receive a title sanctioned by the American Kennel Club.  Now I love dogs but guns and shooting ducks and mud and weeds and swamps are not really my thing.  But one day I went to go watch my brother’s young dog Maggie do whatever it was she was supposed to do.  I didn’t really understand it.  Truth be told, it really made no sense to me at all.  I just went to support Donnie and Maggie.

It was so muddy that the only way to get into the test was with my brother’s four-wheel drive pick-up and then we had to walk about another half mile or so to go watch the test itself.  We stood and waited and I just listened to the early morning quiet.  Maggie and Donnie were standing at the end of this huge piece of flooded pasture land.  Then the quiet was interrupted by a gun shot followed by something falling into the water.  Maggie did not move.  She watched her destination and then when Donnie said “Maggie”, she took off toward it.  And I had the wonderful blessing of watching the most magnificent piece of Creation that I had ever seen.  With ears laid back and her whole body in connected motion, Maggie seemed to skim the shallow water, never veering from or taking her eyes off the mark.  What I realized was that Maggie was not acting out of obedience to Donnie or what he had taught her; she was being who she was supposed to be in the very deepest part of her being.

 

Living out one’s call from God is not easy.  Truth be told, I’m pretty sure that it’s not meant to be.  Some of it makes no sense in light of how we see the world.  I mean, really, look at Jeremiah.  Wouldn’t it have been a whole lot easier to just pull out the pastoral side of himself and tell these people what a great job they were doing being the people of God?  But instead, he became what God called him to be in the deepest part of his being.  He became who he was created to be.  And God saw that it was good.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What is it that you are called to “pluck down”?
  • What is it that you are called to “build up”?
  • Why do you think there is almost always a denial of a call before the acceptance?
  • What do you think of the notion of God knowing you before you were?
  • What does it mean to you to do with your life what God intends?

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Hebrews 12:18-29

Read the passage from Hebrews

“This is your final warning!”  Throughout this book of Hebrews, the unknown writer has been warning us against neglecting our salvation, against neglecting our relationship with God.  Toward the end of the writing, there is one last warning issued.

The writer uses a contrast to issue this warning.  Two mountains, Sinai and Zion provide the basis for comparison.  The writer reminds us first of the experience of the Israelites at Sinai: the flames of fire, the mist and gloom, the trumpet blast, and a Voice too terrible to endure. But we have not come to worship at this frightening, inaccessible, isolated mountain. Instead, we have come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. A marvelous company gathers in this city of the living God. There are countless angels who have come to join in celebration and worship. There is the congregation of the first-born, the brothers and sisters of Jesus the firstborn. There are the spirits of righteous people. There is Jesus, who mediates a new covenant making possible a new access to God and divine blessing.

The writer interprets the prophetic word to refer to a global destruction of created things (“what is shaken”) so that eternal things (“what cannot be shaken”) may remain. For us, this shaking, painful as it is, is a moment of crisis that reorients our lives. As a result of this process of judgment, we lose the things that can be shaken—all that is temporary. But in the midst of such cataclysmic trial, there is good news because that which cannot be shaken abides. Most importantly, what abides is God’s unshakable kingdom—a kingdom we are receiving even now due to the new and living way to God that Jesus has opened for us. That awareness leads to joy and thankfulness because we participate in the eternal realm and reign of God. Through our participation in that kingdom, we may worship God aright, with reverence and awe, knowing our God is a consuming fire who burns away the ephemeral things of our lives and purifies the precious gold that abides.

The “final warning” is that we need to remember this and not get so wrapped up in what sustains us now, in what fulfills our life today.  There is something more.

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What are those things in our lives that should be lost in this “shaking” and reorienting?
  • What should be kept?
  • What do you think of the image of God as a “consuming fire”?
  • What is bothersome about this passage?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 13:10-17

Read the Gospel passage

While this appears on the surface to be another healing passage, it is probably more about Sabbath, about what it means and what it doesn’t mean.  We first encounter the Sabbath at its very Creation.  But many of us read the beginning of the second chapter of Genesis as sort of a pretty poetic “wrap up” to the whole Creation account. But the Sabbath is much, much more.  This divine resting is part of the created order.  This divine act of blessing the Sabbath is God’s act of giving power to the temporal order; it is the honoring of the cycle of work and rest that is part of the implicit rhythm of Creation.  God did not stop working at Creation to lay down and take a nap.  God rather created the Sabbath that we might embrace all that had been created.  Essentially, the Sabbath is the climax of all there is.  And so, we are given the commandment to “remember the Sabbath” or to “observe the Sabbath”, depending on where you’re reading, not because it’s a rule but because it’s part of who we are.

But in the Gospel passage we read, there are those who forgot this.  In one of his poems, T.S. Eliot said that “we had the experience but missed the meaning.”  This describes it to a tee. They were so worried about Jesus breaking the “rules” of the Sabbath that they forgot compassion; they forgot justice; they forgot who they were; they forgot what the Sabbath was meant to be.  The Sabbath is not merely a list of rules. And Jesus is not merely a keeper of the rules.

The funny thing is, this woman didn’t even ask to be healed, according to the passage. And no one from her family made that request either.  Jesus healed her, set her free from her affliction, because that is who Jesus was.  The story essentially portrays Jesus as keeping the Sabbath because he sees it differently.  If the purpose of the Sabbath is to stop and rest that we might be free to praise God, Jesus heals this woman so that she can do exactly that.  Commentator Sharon Ringe makes the point that “this is not “whether” but “how” to keep the Sabbath.”

The Sabbath is essentially a gift of freedom.  Jesus realized this.   The body-bent woman realized this.  It means freeing one to be with God—freeing us from afflictions, from bent-over bodies, or from starved souls, from clocks and commitments, from tensions and worries.  It means giving us the freedom to look beyond where we are.  You see, we are all body-bent, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual.  We all have afflictions from which we need to be freed.  God can do that.  God does it all the time.  We just have to pay attention and let go so that it can happen.  And then we will experience the freedom that God created us for us.

There is a story of an American traveler on safari in Kenya.  He was loaded down with maps, and timetables, and travel agendas.  Porters from a local tribe were carrying his cumbersome supplies, luggage, and “essential stuff.”  On the first morning, everyone awoke early and traveled fast and went far into the bush.  On the second morning, they all woke very early and traveled very fast and went very far into the bush.  On the third morning, they all woke very early and traveled very fast and went even farther into the bush.  The American seemed please.  But on the fourth morning, the porters refused to move.  They simply sat by a tree.  Their behavior incensed the American.  “This is a waste of valuable time.  Can someone tell me what is going on here?”  The translator answered, “They are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”

That is what God has given us in the Sabbath—the gift of reconnecting with our soul, the gift of reconnecting with God, the gift of once again realizing what the freedom of life means.  It is the chance to once again stand up straight and praise God for all that we are and all that we will become.  It is the freedom to be what God intended us to be.  Maybe that’s something we ought to put on our “to do list”.

The traditional Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown, the Christian Sabbath with morning worship.  In both, Sabbath time begins with the lighting of candles and a stopping—to welcome the Sabbath in.  Marcia Falk writes that “three generations back my family had only to light a candle and the world parted.  Today, Friday afternoon, I disconnect clocks and phones.  When night fills my house with passages, I begin saving my life.”(Marcia Falk, in Sabbath:  Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives, Wayne Muller (New York, NY:  Bantam Books, 1999), 21.) This is the beginning of sacred time.  This is the beginning of eternity.  This is where we find life.

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What is “Sabbath” to you?
  • What keeps you from “keeping Sabbath”?
  • What are those things that make us “body-bent” or “soul-starved”?
  • What do we miss if we miss the Sabbath?
  • What does it mean to you to wait for your own soul?
  • What does that mean to you to “find your life”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

God…leads us step by step, from event to event.  Only afterwards, as we look back over the way we have come and reconsider certain important moments in our lives in the light of all that has followed them, or when we survey the whole progress of our lives, do we experience the feeling of having been led without knowing it, the feeling that God has mysteriously guided us.  (Paul Tournier)

Every way of seeing is a way of not seeing. (Alfred North Whitehead)

Unless one learns how to relish the taste of the Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.  Sad is the lot of the one who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath. (Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 74.)

 

 

Closing

 

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam

Asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu

L’had’lik neir shel Shabbat.  Amein

 

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe

Who has sanctified us with [these] commandments and commanded us

To light the lights of Shabbat.  Amen.           

 

Proper 15C: Learning a New Song

Vineyard
Indian Valley Vineyards, San Miguel, CA

FIRST LESSON:  Isaiah 5: 1-7

Read the passage from Isaiah

This passage is one of the best-known oracles of the eighth century prophet and summons its Judean audience to judge the legal complaint of a would-be vintner who lavishes care upon his vineyard but only harvests bitter and useless grapes.  It begins with a song and the writer takes up the role of a minstrel.  It sets the stage for what we think is going to be a wonderful feel-good love song that that brings visions of beauty and love and goodwill, a rich ritual celebration, because this is normal for Biblical literature.

But that is not the song we hear; because, unlike most of the Hebrew love poetry, this song quickly loses its beauty and sensuality and gives way to a sort of judicial oracle.  The “Song of the Vineyard” becomes a parable of judgment against the Hebrew people for their continued disobedience of God.  The words of this song remind us that God did not merely create humanity and then set down Creation with everything that was needed for our enjoyment.  The passage tells us that God expects something from us.  God invites us to a new vision of the world around us.  That is the song that we are about to hear.

Remember that this part of Isaiah is generally assumed to be set in the 8th century, probably sometimes between the death of King Uzziah of Judah and the final fall of Judah in 701 BCE.  During this time, Judah became a vassal of Assyria and fell into practices that were not in accordance with what we would call a right relationship with God, practicing social oppression and allowing social injustices to pervade their society in what the prophet saw as an out and out rejection of God.

The parable begins with a portrayal of a vineyard nestled on a lush and fertile hill.   The image of the fertile soil depicts an image of growing, ongoing life.  There is nothing stagnant about God’s gift of Creation.  According to the passage, the owner has “dug it and cleared it of stones.”  This implies that God has worked for this—this is not just some “haphazard” act of Creation.  God has planted this lush, green vineyard with choice vines, those deep red vines, capable of producing the best and sweetest of fruits and the finest wines.

The song continues as the owner builds a watchtower in the vineyard, which housed a wine vat.  Think about it.  This image of the watchtower is one of a permanent, immovable point that is higher than everything surrounding it.  The whole vineyard can see this watchtower and from this tower, then, it is possible to view the entire vineyard.  But it is more than a place of mere observation.  It includes a wine vat, or winepress.  This watchtower, then, is the place to which the harvest is brought, peeled, and aged.  It is the place where the harvest is converted to a finely aged wine.  It is the central point, the place where all come to be “aged”, changed into God’s people.  For the Old Testament Hebrews, this was the temple, the center of society.  It was for them that highest holy place where all came to worship God and to be formed into right relationship with their Creator.

God had done everything necessary and expected it to yield the choicest of fruits.  But something went wrong and the harvest was one of wild, sour grapes which, though edible, are not fit for the making of fine wines.  This is probably the key to the passage, for it is here that it is evident that the vineyard is useless without the harvest—it is just land; it is here that we are reminded that God’s Creation is meant for our response.  God expects something of us.

And then the song changes key.  And now we begin to get a little uncomfortable.  “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah…”  “And now inhabitants of the vineyard that God has created…”  It is at this point that it becomes apparent that the parable is no longer just a nice little entertaining story but is rather an indictment and denouncement of the injustices that had overtaken this society.  You know, for me, this sudden change in person and structure of the passage almost implies that those hearing it just weren’t getting it.  They had gotten so wrapped up in the story that they hadn’t yet realized that it was about them.

And then at the end for those who are apparently really slow on the uptake, the prophet explains it all: the vineyard is indeed Israel and its people are the Lord’s “pleasant planting”.    The implication is that the inhabitants and laborers of the vineyard are no longer even listening to God.  They have treated others badly, even being guilty of the act of oppression or the passive act of closing their eyes or turning their backs while social oppression happens around them.  They have allowed the vineyard to be swallowed up and overtaken by their own greed, self-centeredness, and perhaps even fear.  They have taken what God has provided but have not responded to God’s call to action in faith.  So what began as a glorious love song is now waiting for a harmonious chord once again from the people of God.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • Where do we see ourselves in this passage?
  • What more was there to do that God has not done?
  • Why has it turned out like this?
  • Why is it hard for us to listen to condemnation like this?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Hebrews 11: 29-12:2

Read the passage from Hebrews

This week’s Lectionary passage continues with our so-called “roll call” of the faithful.  Think of it as our family photo album, as the writer of Hebrews (we don’t really know who that is) brings into our memories the snapshots of the faithful that came before us.  Remember that Hebrews was probably written to a small band of new Christians who were suffering persecution and feeling isolated.  So as we look at this remarkable family the writer of Hebrews sketches, we discover two portraits of faith. One portrait is full of images of triumph: conquering enemies, obtaining promises, shutting the mouths of lions, even gaining victory over death. But the other portrait is filled with images of suffering: public mocking, imprisonment, beating, stoning, homelessness, violence, and death. Our lives are always a mixture of successes and failures, of ups and downs.  But the writer of Hebrews mixes the categories because our lot in life is not a measure of our faithfulness.

The passage becomes a word of encouragement for struggling Christians. If we are struggling, and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is suffering, we might despair. Must our suffering continue forever? If we are struggling and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is triumph and victory, what hope is there for us? But the mixing of suffering and triumph gives us a word of hope: faithfulness shines both in suffering and in triumph, both in sorrow and in joy.  Faith trusts God and God’s promises even when it doesn’t make much sense.  We are in good company.  We are never alone.

We are reminded that there is work to do, a race to run, so to speak.  Think of it as a marathon—sometimes invigorating, sometimes grueling, sometimes crowded, sometimes lonely, but always fixed on what is to come.   So we are exhorted to lay aside those things that might trip us up or weigh us down.  And before us, as laid out by the writer of Hebrews is Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  Pioneer, here, is the Greek word archegos, which means author, beginner, instigator.  In the context of a race, the archegos is the team captain, the trailblazer. The writer also depicts Jesus as the perfecter—the one who fills in what is lacking in our faithfulness or our work.  He takes our incomplete faith and makes it whole.  And, for us Christians, there is also the awareness that Jesus, too, has traveled this road.

This passage is read a lot in conjunction with funerals.  You can see why.  But it is also a reminder of our connection through Christ to all those past, present, and future and the fact that we are expected to actually do something, to actually participate in the life we’ve been given, to join in this long list of saints and become part of them.  In remembrance, we find our calling to go forward and be who God calls us to be.

Some of you may remember the movie “Dead Poets Society.”  The movie stars the amazingly talented Robin Williams.  Williams plays John Keating, a high school English teacher at an all-boys private academy, who is committed to helping his students take advantage of life’s opportunities.

There is a compelling scene in the movie when Keating leads his class out into the foyer of the building where old photographs of graduating classes from decades past cover the walls.  As the boys study the portraits of the classes who had graduated generations before them, Keating remarks that the men in those pictures were just like them, full of hope and ambition.  Then Keating asks his class, “Did they wait till it was too late to realize their full potential?”  

Then he tells the class that if they lean in close they can hear a message from the men in these pictures.  So they lean in and Keating whispers, “Carpe Diem.  Carpe Diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.” (From “Postcard from Heaven”, a sermon by Rev. Dr. Charles Reeb, August 15, 2010, available at http://day1.org/2111-postcard_from_heaven, accessed 11 August, 2010.)

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does comfort does this give you?
  • What discomfort does this give you?
  • We Protestants don’t have a lot of “saints” or “heroes” that we’ve publicly recognized. We try to be a bit more inclusive.  So who are the “saints” in your faith story?  Who are your heroes?  Why are they on that list?
  • What would that look like to make your life extraordinary?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 12:49-56

Read the passage from the Gospel According to Luke

Needless to say, this is a hard passage.  We’d rather read of unity and harmony and Jesus instead says that apparently we’re just going to have to live with divisions and disharmony.  Here, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem towards his demise.  So it is apparent here that Jesus is weighing two types of peace—one secular, the other sacred.  The truth is, Jesus did NOT come to bring peace to those in power or to bring comfort to the comfortable.  Jesus came to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, to loosely quote a journalist of 100 years ago or so.  Remember that Jesus had in mind a completely new vision, not a “peaceful” earth such that we know.

This is hard for us.  We tend to want an empathetic God, a God who is nice to everyone.  But how in the world, then, would the earth truly get redeemed?  Jesus is combating forms of authority and power that do not fit in with that vision of a wholly-redeemed earth.  The passage begins with the words, “I came to bring fire to the earth.”  That does not sound good.  It sounds much more like confrontation and conflict.  So how can this be good news?  Our answer depends on the way we view the world and the way we view God.  If the world was exactly the way it should be, then this passage would make no sense.  But if the world is marred by oppression and social injustices and killing and war, what would that say about a God who would just let that be?  Jesus is not coming to disturb and bring havoc to a “nice” world; he came to redeem the one we have.

This is a call to fragmentation for the sake of ultimate wholeness.  It is a call to tear down in order to build up.  It is a call, once again, to “die to self”, to let go of what we know and what we have created and what walls we have constructed, and put our faith wholly in the wholly-redeeming God that we know.  It is a call to give your life for the mission of Christ in the world.

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What makes this so difficult for us to hear?
  • What does “redemption” mean to you?
  • What does “peace” mean to you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

We all desperately want peace…that is why “Shalom” is such an oft-repeated word.  For, even as a simple greeting, it embodies deep yearning and solemn promise.  So the ancient sage Hillel insisted that it is not enough to simply want peace, to hope for peace, even to pray for peace; he taught us to “love peace and actively pursue peace.”  (Wayne Dosick, in Dancing with God)

If the poor, the women, and the dispossessed sat at the tables where theological decisions are made, there would be a different set of sins. (Joan Chittister, Called to Question)

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.  (Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century)

 

Closing

…The world has become so strange, and our place in it so tenuous, where gray seems clearer than the white purity of our hopes, or the darkness of our deathly passions.  There is so little agreement among us, perhaps so little truth among us, so little, good Lord, that we scarcely know how to pray, or for what to pray.  We do know, however, to whom to pray!

We pray to you, Creator God, who wills the world good; We pray to you Redeemer God, who makes all things new.  We pray to you, stirring Spirit, healer of the nations.  We pray for guidance, And before that, we pray in repentance, for too much wanting the world on our own terms.  We pray for your powerful mercy, to put the world—and us—in a new way, a way after Jesus who gave himself, a way after Jesus who confounded the authorities and who lived more excellently.

Whelm us by your newness, by peace on your terms—the newness you have promised, of which we have seen glimpses in your Son who is our Lord.  Amen. (Walter Brueggemann, from Prayers for a Privileged People, p. 65-66)