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)

Proper 19C: The Unmaking

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

Click to access Scripture Passage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

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

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

4)      What keeps us from turning toward God?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Timothy 1: 12-17

Click to access Scripture Passage

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

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

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

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

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

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

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

3)      What is grace to you?

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

  GOSPEL:  Luke 15:1-10

Click to access Scripture Passage

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

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

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

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

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

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

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

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

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

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

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

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

Closing

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

(Celtic Benediction)