Proper 25C: The Humble Heart

OLD TESTAMENT:  Joel 2: 23-32

BlessingRead the passage from Joel

We don’t really know when the Book known as Joel was written.  Some scholars think that it may have come about as early as the ninth century BCE and some think that it may have been right before the exile.  Most place it sometime between 500 and 350 BCE.  Assuming that, the Babylonian exile and dispersion are in the past.  There is no mention of a king or royal court, and the priests and elders are the community’s leaders.  The walls of Jerusalem have been restored.  There doesn’t seem to be any external unrest threatening the community.  The prophet uses the traditions and earlier prophecies to frame his message.  Sometimes he borrows whole parts of other prophets’ messages.  He is calling for the continued work of the prophetic word even in this time.

The setting is apparently following some sort of natural disaster—perhaps a locust plague associated with a drought.  And in the understanding of that time, the disaster would have been a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon a sinful people.  And yet, God renews not only the people, but the face of the entire earth.  Hope abounds.

In the passage that we read, the gift of rain depicts God’s righteousness, or the fulfillment of relationship.  The rains become a symbol of the restoration not only of fertility of the ground but a restoration of the covenantal relationship with God.  All the hardships of the past will be reversed.  God will once again bestow covenant blessings on the repentant and faithful people.

In v. 28, “afterward” probably refers not to the time following these events but rather that indefinite time of the coming of the day of the Lord.  At that time God will pour out God’s spirit on ALL flesh.  The prophet prophecies that the people will have direct communication from God. Joel is the first prophet to introduce this idea of the “Day of the Lord”.  Joel promises that all who call upon the Lord will be delivered.

It’s sort of interesting.  Keep in mind that the Hebrew understanding of a “day” begins not with sunrise but with sunset (like the Sabbath).  The “Day of the Lord”, for the prophet Joel, begins at night.  It begins in darkness.  Keep in mind that this is after the exile, but their land, their ownership, has not been restored.  The prophet is then talking of God who will send help for the people.  And the people will respond joyfully.

Maybe that’s the whole point.  We walk in darkness.  But this is the beginning, the beginning of God’s Kingdom flooding into our midst.  It has already begun.  We are not there.  It is still too dark to see sometimes.  But there is a faint glow as the sunrise begins to peek through the clouds.  We are there—now—at the beginning.  (Wasn’t there something in Genesis about that?)

Through the words of the prophet, the people came to understand that what they have might have been taken away because of the injustices that they had allowed to persist there.  Think about this:  The holiness of God cannot share quarters with sin and injustice.  The idea of “God’s holy city” is not some sort of utopian paradise; it has to do with justice.

In his book, Credo, William Sloane Coffin says this:

 

“And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice…”  “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.”  (Brueggemann).  Justice then redescribes the world.  And to do justice as God does justice is to intervene in the social order [of the entire world]…(William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p. 63.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What, for you, is meant by the notion of the “Day of the Lord”?
  3. What does it mean to “call upon the Lord”?
  4. What is your image of this “holy city of God”?

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Read the passage from 2 Timothy

As we come to the end of this second letter to Timothy, Paul makes a last testimony (or possibly some of Paul’s last words were used to make the impact here).  Paul’s realizes that his time is drawing to a close.  His death is imminent and clearly in view.  The impact that this is intended to make is to allow it to influence and mold our lives for the better.  Paul was indeed looking back on his own life, but at the same time, he was asking those who shared it with him and those who would share in his memory (that, of course, would be us) to keep going, to keep the faith and strength in God, to keep on keeping on in the name of Christ.

It is a reminder that discipleship is not about being “blessed” or, I would think, even being “right”; it is about perseverance through faith and doubt, through high points and low points, through life and through death.  The lesson of this passage, then, is that only when reality and life is accepted unconditionally, can there be that unconditional trust that remains confident in God through, as well as despite, everything.  Through these words of Paul, we are told to press on now, not toward something that we do not know or cannot grasp, but to the God that is there now.  That is the message that should be proclaimed.

This passage is used a lot for funerals and memorials.  It is an assurance that the person that we have lost has achieved the “prize”.  And yet, what does that mean?  I struggle with the concept of heaven as just another “place”.  For me, eternity is a new way of being, whatever that looks like or feels like and in some mysterious way, that eternity is mixed in with our lives even now.

In an article in The Christian Century, Michael Battle writes:

 

What will heaven be like? In London’s Sunday Telegraph of April 27, cancer-stricken Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarked in an interview: ” I wonder whether they have rum and Coke in Heaven? Maybe it’s too mundane a pleasure, but I hope so — as a sundowner. Except, of course, the sun never goes down there. Oh, man, this heaven is going to take some getting used to.”  What will heaven be like? Scripture leads us to believe that heaven will be the completion of our earthly existence. We will have no need of an exploding star (the sun) or a lifeless planet (the moon) to be our light. We will have no need of jihad because all nations will be healed by eating the leaves of a tree of life. Shouldn’t this make us rejoice? Shouldn’t we take great delight in the knowledge that we will be complete, in need of nothing? We should, but as Tutu points out, we have our own image of what delights us. 

If I asked everyone on the planet what do you most desire, what would “complete” you, I would have as many answers as there are people….The ultimate answer to what heaven is like is this: God…Archbishop of Wales Rowan Williams helps us to address our fears. How, he asks, can we be in heaven knowing that others are in hell? In other words: How can heaven be heaven if there is a hell? We must understand heaven as God’s presence through the practices of mercy and humility. We must gain the vision of God’s unrelenting love…Our answer to what heaven is like should be a common answer — uninhibited presence with God. As Tutu said:

It is enough just to be there. You know how it is when you are sitting with someone you love and hours can go by in what seem like moments? Well, in heaven, eternity itself will pass in a flash. In heaven we will never tire. We will never be bored because there will always be such new sides of God that will be revealed to us.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. So what is our image of the “prize” before us?
  3. What is it that most gets in the way of our discipleship here and now?
  4. This seems, somehow, to be a call to surety even in the presence of doubt. What do our doubts say about our faith?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 18: 9-14

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Luke

The parable that we read this week begins by giving us a sense of what it’s about.  We are told that it is being told to some who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt.  Keep in mind.  This is the eighteenth chapter of Luke.  There is a sense as we spin toward the end of Pentecost that the messages are becoming more pronounced, more directed toward us.  For the writer of Luke, the story is becoming more and more centered on God and what that means for salvation.

This idea of “trusting in oneself” is one that leaves a person blind to one’s position before God.  But still, they “go up” to the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee stands alone, in an effort to maintain his purity and cleanliness before God, attempting to shield himself from the riff-raff and undesirables of the world that might get in the way of his relationship with God.

It is interesting that both begin their prayer with “God”, but the Pharisee’s prayer immediately turns back to himself, speaking in the first person.  He continues talking about himself in an effort to “prove” his piety to God (and probably to himself).  He asks nothing of God.  He presumes, rather, that he is seen as pious and faithful.  He gives no evidence of humility.

But, in his defense, remember that the Pharisees were the learned and admirable sect within Judaism.  They were known for their ability to interpret the Scripture, their right living, and their prayer life.  They refused to swear allegiance to Caesar.  Their name “Pharisee”, means “separated one” even from the Jewish community.  They had to remain pure and clean to do their job.  Their main focus was to obey the laws of God and make sure that others did the same.

But the tax collector, standing far off, implying a feeling of unworthiness before God, simply asks for mercy.  “Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner.”  Nothing more is said.  The tax collector “went down to his house justified” because his humility was a sign of faith.  In his prayer for mercy, he reveals the depths and freedom of God’s forgiving love that are not limited by righteousness in this world.

The parable leaves it up to us to figure it out.  Who was the humble one?  Who exalted himself?  And who is seen as faithful in the eyes of God?  This parable is not, though, just a warning about pride and haughtiness.  Grace can only be received by those who have empathy for others.  Even if the Pharisee had been truly self-reflective, how could he be at one with God if he is blind to the needs and lives of others?

We tend, sometimes, to become “pharisaic” about Pharisees.  It is hard to reposition ourselves to look at the whole world, even those with which we disagree, as our brothers and sisters.  The tax collector did not come bargaining with God.  He knew where he stood and he knew that God would still be willing to embrace him.

Here are some excerpts from “Praying With a Sideward Glance”, by Paul D. Duke.  It appeared in The Christian Century in October, 1995: (available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n28_v112/ai_17649075)

THE PARABLE about the Pharisee and the tax collector neglects to mention that the Pharisee was singing “Amazing Grace” on his way to church that day. Or that as he said his prayer, there were tears in his eyes. He feels this stuff. He is awash with religious emotion, truly moved to gratitude for the life God has blessed him to live. Ask him on his way out what he thinks of the tax collector, and he will tell you, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He will even think that he means it.

The parable also neglects to point out that the tax collector, when he has wiped his eyes, blown his nose and gone home, will not be quitting his shady job. He can’t see any options; it’s a nasty business, but he’s stuck in it. Tomorrow he’ll again take money from his neighbors, hand some of it over to the empire and put some aside for himself.

To see the Publican as honorable and the Pharisee as a creep makes the story false, curdles it to a dishonest (and easily anti-Semitic) morality tale and sends us straight into the trap of saying, “God, we thank you that we are not like this Pharisee!” Better to see him as he is–a thoroughly decent, generous, committed man–and to see the Publican as a compromised, certified stinker.

I know which character my church depends on. I know which one pays the bills, teaches the lesson, visits the sick, feeds the hungry. I’d love a churchful of people with his commitments–people who care enough to fast, people who tithe on all their income and who thank God that they can. As in Jesus, day, it’s people like the Pharisee who hold the community together and keep the faith with diligence and passion. We can’t color him sinister. He’s not J. R. Ewing in a choir robe. He’s a better man than I am, and probably better than you.

Someone should draw a cartoon of a congregation at prayer with thought balloons over each head. Worshipers would be saying, “Thank you that I’m not like these fundamentalists” or “Thank you that I’m not like these liberals” or “Thank you that I’m above all this.” Our capacity for smugness is astonishing. In the nation and in the churches, what a rage is on to assure ourselves and define ourselves by who we are not like. Could there be a better indicator that we have no idea who we are? When our eyes move away from our own shadowy hearts, there is no place left to look but at someone else, and no comfort but in claiming: Well, I’m not like that!

God be merciful to me, a sinner,” whispers the man who is not at all good, but who is at least looking at his own lousy heart. And offering it. He’s not unlike the woman whom Jesus would soon see in that very temple, the one who throws her last two pennies into the plate. Like the widow’s gift, the tax collector’s prayer is poor, not given from any abundance but from his need, and it’s all that he holds in his crooked hands. And somewhere Someone cheers.

The story is set in a fine little frame. It begins, “Two men went up . . . a Pharisee and a tax collector.” Now two men go down, but the tax collector is shown first, as if he leads the way. Nothing is said of his counterpart’s destination, but the tax collector has a justified homecoming. After this kind of prayer, you go home. It’s the grand old gospel reversal again–God undoing the order of things as they are in our temples, exalting those of low degree in a great surprise of mercy, filling those whose eye is single” with light enough to return home.

Humility is typically a hard thing for us to grasp.  It involves being able to see the truth about who we really are and accept others as they are.  And more than that, it leaves room for us to see the grandeur that is God.  It allows us to be who were are called to be in God’s order, rather than who we envision ourselves to be.  It enables us to prepare to receive God into our lives—not the God we want or the God we think we need but God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, who loves us more than we can even fathom, on the days when we are sinners and the days that we get it right and the days (which is most of them) when we don’t even know which we are.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. At the beginning, who do you think the “some” to which Jesus was speaking were?
  3. Be honest…who of us looked at the Pharisee with the thought,” Thank God, I’m not like that Pharisee!”?
  4. Who is it that we pharisaically hold in contempt?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Too often we picture God as some immovable rock, when in fact it is God and God alone who never rests.  I only quote Scripture:  “He neither slumbers nor sleeps.”  It is God who says, “Behold, I create all things new.”  Therefore God’s most persistent enemies must be those who are unwilling to move in new directions…If you choose, you’re sometimes wrong; but you never choose, you’re always wrong. (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p. 72)

Doubt is the shadow cast by faith.  One does not always notice it, but it is always there, though concealed.  At any moment, it may come into action.  There is no mystery of the faith that is immune to doubt.  (Hans Kung)

 

What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.  (Monica Baldwin)

 

 

Closing

 

Deliver me, O Jesus,

From the desire of being loved,

From the desire of being extolled,

From the desire of being honored,

From the desire of being praised,

From the desire of being preferred,

From the desire of being consulted,

From the desire of being approved,

From the desire of being popular,

From the fear of being humiliated,

From the fear of being despised,

From the fear of suffering rebukes,

From the fear of being forgotten,

From the fear of being wronged,

From the fear of being ridiculed,

From the fear of being suspected.

Amen.

from A Simple Path, by Mother Teresa, p. 37.

 

 

Proper 24C: Keeping Heart

new-jerusalemOLD TESTAMENT:  Jeremiah 31: 27-34

Read the Old Testament Passage

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)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does the notion of this “new covenant” mean for you?
  3. What does it mean for you to think of this covenant “written on your heart”?
  4. What does it say about a “new community”, a leaving of the past ways behind?
  5. What does that have to do with forgiveness?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Timothy 3: 14-4:5

Read the Epistle passage

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 (sadly, 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.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What, for you, is meant by the call for “sound teaching”?
  3. Do you think the meaning of that has changed in today’s context?
  4. 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

Read the Gospel passage

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.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this parable say about justice for you?
  3. What does this say about faith? About prayer?
  4. What do you think of the statement from Willimon about what would happen if we really believed in the power of prayer?
  5. 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.)