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.           

 

Epiphany 4B: A Listening Faith

can-you-hear-me-nowOLD TESTAMENT: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20

To read the Old Testament Lectionary Passage, click here

The book of Deuteronomy, which means “second law”, is broadly described as the components of the terms of the covenant that was given through Moses at Mt. Sinai between God and the people of Israel. The book begins with a narrative that summarizes the story of Israel’s life in the wilderness and then presents the “law code” as the framework of the remainder of the book. The book was probably not written, though, by either one person or even in one setting or time. It is rather sort of a compilation through which we can understand one of the most formative periods in the development of Israel’s faith.

Up until the time of the passage that we read, there have been essentially three classes of leaders—royalty, priests, and power structures. The passage that we read introduces the idea of public leaders, prophets who would arise from time to time to bring a new word from God that could affect both the national and the private lives of persons in Israel. At this point, they were used to Moses and his particular style of leadership. But someone else would soon be in the leadership position. Essentially, it’s a reminder that true and effective leadership is not about the leader; it’s about the people being led and the message that those people receive.

For the Israelites’ religion, prophets were very prominent. They were usually eloquent speakers and claimed authority that was given by God. They gave expression to the Word of God and were intended to be heard by the people. They effected change. And here, there is an implicit warning against “false prophets”. It is interesting that in this time prophets, who were known to often speak to not only religious issues, but also social and political ones. Prophets spoke for change in the world—the whole world. They were acutely political (of or pertaining to citizens or citizenship.) An interesting question for our time is to ask who our prophets are. Who are the ones calling for total and complete change in the world? Who are the ones calling for justice or peace? To be honest, in both Old Testament times and now, prophets were never that popular. Their message was too harsh, too biting, to close to home. Their message called us to change our lives. But, contrary to the way perhaps I try to imagine God, God is not a perfectionist. I don’t think there’s some static master plan of what the world should someday be. Instead, it’s about listening. It’s about the Creator and the Creation growing into each other. It’s not about keeping up with God. It’s about following wherever God goes. Our faith informs our lives and our lives inform our faith.

William Sloane Coffin said that the final end of life lies not in politics, but the final end of life is concerned with the proper ordering of power to the end that it may enhance and not destroy human life. Only a fool hasn’t learned in the twentieth century that the political order in which people live deeply affects the personal lives they lead…The separation of church and state is a sound doctrine, but it points to an organizational separation. It is not designed to separate Christians from their politics. For our faith certainly should inform our common life, as well as our personal, more private lives.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What parallels for our time do you see?
  3. Do you think there is a prophetic word of God in play today?
  4. How does this speak to the separation of church and state?
  5. How do you think we know when it IS the Word of God?
  6. What is the cost of following a prophetic voice?
  7. So how does this passage depict leadership? Is that the way we usually think of it?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

In this passage, Paul attempts to answer a question about eating meat offered to an idol. He takes their question, though, about a specific practice and gives a much wider explanation of moral reasoning and community relations. Eating, then, becomes a metaphor for the larger issues of living as a person of faith within the community. The point is that there is always more to it than just being right. The question is whether we follow knowledge or love.

Typically, the widespread practice of the community was to sacrifice an animal to a deity, burning some of the flesh on an altar, and then eating some of it in a cultic meal, which was always a festive, social occasion. (Yeah, that’s MY idea of a party!) The remainder of the sacrificial animal was sold to the meat market for resale to the public. So believers would have the chance that they might be eating meats that had been sacrificed. The question here is essentially how one honors and protects holiness, lives set apart for God, while one is living in the world with all of the worldly customs and norms.

But, of course, Paul is much more concerned with how believers relate to others and how believers claim to whom they belong. It is not what you eat, necessarily, but what controls and takes over your life. When something takes over your life, begins to run it for you, causes you to change who you are or what you do or how you live before God, then, according to Paul, you have idolatry. You will not be of any good for yourself or for the building up of the faith community. It is not a question of eating holy or unholy meat; it is a question of faithfulness or idolatry.

There’s actually quite a bit here for us. Who is it we follow? (Again, what constitutes leadership for us? It is issues? Beliefs? Power? Do we follow (or vote!) for the one who will change society for the better or the one who will do the most for our lives?) What issues, or causes, or beliefs control our lives? What is so important to us that we might risk the community relationships surrounding us? Are we more affected by knowledge than we are by love?

The point is that faith is about relationships. It is about relating to the world around us. We are not called to hold ourselves up in some tiny holiness-filled environment so that we can be pure and undefiled. Rather, we are called to go into the world, sometimes with reckless abandon, and take the message of love. It has nothing to do with telling people about God; it has to do with revealing God’s presence in their lives.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What are the “idols” that consume our lives today?
  3. How does that affect ourselves and others around us?
  4. What message does this hold for today?

 

There is a scene in Tom Hanks’ movie, Forrest Gump, that came to mind when I read this text in 1 Corinthians. As a young boy, Forrest has to wear these clumsy, heavy leg braces. For the most part, he doesn’t care. In fact, the braces become so much a part of his life that he doesn’t even realize much how they have trapped and confined him. And then one day, some bullies chase Forrest and he has to run away but the braces slow him down. As the bullies get closer and closer and Forrest struggles to run faster, the braces finally break, fall off his legs, and suddenly he is set free to run fast. The point is this, Forrest never knew what it felt to be free or how fast he could run until he took that step or, in a better sense, was forced to break out of braces, and live differently, to live beyond himself. He never went back to the braces.

 

In 1 Corinthians, the issue was dietary laws. When Paul was asked in Corinth about eating meat sacrificed to idols he said, “This is not a problem. We know that those idols are made of stone or wood. There is no god there. The sacrifice meant nothing. Pass the steak sauce and eat.” There is complete freedom in the gospel to eat meat sacrificed to idols because we are not saved by what we eat or don’t eat.

 

Forrest could have kept those leg braces on his whole life and he wouldn’t have known it. All he would know is what he couldn’t do. He couldn’t run, can’t swim, couldn’t dance, couldn’t play ball, couldn’t cross his legs, couldn’t put his foot behind his head, or couldn’t do yoga. He would spend his life defining himself by what he couldn’t do. There are Christians like that. They define themselves by what they can’t do. Can’t drink, can’t smoke, can’t dance, can’t play cards, can’t watch movies. Oh, we are long past talking about circumcision and dietary laws but the same issue is at stake. Freedom. What am I allowed to do? If I am saved by grace, then am I free to do as I please? There is an old, subtitled movie called Babette’s Feast. It is the story of a woman, Babette, who has escaped the French Revolution with nothing but the clothes on her back. She ends up in a very small, parochial Danish village where she is employed by two spinster sisters whose minister father founded the village. The town has no joy. Religious rules are overbearing. Pleasure, music, laughter, and frivolity are vices to be scorned. There is a deep, heavy shroud of weariness blanketing all the people. Babette is an accomplished chef but is told to prepare each day a thin broth with bread. When she suggests some variation in the meal, she is quickly told that such pleasures are not of God. This is a place defined by what they cannot do. One day, Babette receives news that she has won the French lottery. The amount of money that she now has will enable her to move from that dreary village and reestablish her life wherever she wants. Faced with all of this freedom, she makes her choice. Babette takes all of her winnings and purchases the most extravagant food from live quails and turtles to unusual spices and seasonings. For the next week, she prepares the most exquisite feast that this village has ever had. And they come. They come hesitantly at first but then through this feast, open up with conversation, laughter, and joy that they have never before experienced. The only problem is that Babette is once again penniless. She has used her freedom as a servant to her neighbors. But in doing so, she not only set herself free but allowed this small village to taste the true freedom of life in the Spirit.

 

(Excerpt from “The Struggle for Freedom”, by Scott Suskovic, available at http://www.sermonsuite.com/free.php?i=788031597&key=h4Nhveasvp1vrfaL, accessed 23 January, 2012)

 

 

GOSPEL: Mark 1: 21-28

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

After Jesus called the first disciples, which we read last week, they made their way to Capernaum. He enters the synagogue there and astonishes the crowd with the authority of his teaching—teaching that brings him constantly in conflict with the scribes, who were the resident “experts” in interpreting the Law. For the scribes, Jesus’ activities and teachings posed a threat to their traditions.

As for the man who Jesus healed, the whole idea of someone with unclean spirits (or who was essentially “impure”) entering the synagogue was against the law as it existed. This person was an interruption. He didn’t fit. He didn’t belong. But not only did Jesus acknowledge him but he also healed him. For the writer of Mark, this was a great depiction of Jesus’ authority; after all, this is the authority to which even the impure, even the unclean, even the demons listen. You will remember that in The Gospel According to Mark, the heavens were ripped open upon Jesus’ baptism, upon the beginning of his ministry. The world as it was known was ending. Continuing that understanding, for the Gospel writer here, the end of these demons, the end of evil, signifies that the worldly age is coming to an end. Evil is being broken and redeemed. This whole idea of exorcism is odd for us, but the point is that God is bringing everything into the Kingdom of God. All of earth, with everything that is wrong, and all of the earthly power structures are being recreated and redeemed.

So, really, was it a demonic possession or just a voice competing with the one to which the demoniac should have been listening? And if that’s the case, then where are we in this story? Jesus brought an unquestioned authority to his teaching. What was that? Well of course, it was the word of God? But what does that mean? It was not an overpowering; it was not a violent overtaking; it was a silencing. Maybe that what we’re called to do. Maybe that’s how God speaks—in the silences, when we’re listening. Shhh! Can you hear me now?

You see, Jesus’ teaching was not just about words; it was instead about transformation. It was about taking that which we perceive did not belong and speaking Creation once again.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How does this relate to our world today?
  3. How are we called to silence the voices of this world?
  4. What voices are we called to silence?
  5. What voices are we called to empower?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction. (E.F.Schumacker)

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

 

My ego is like a fortress. I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God. But I have stayed here long enough. There is light over the barriers. O my God…I let go of the past. I withdraw my grasping hand from the future. And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman)

 

 

Closing

 

“Silence! frenzied, unclean spirit,” cried God’s healing, holy One. “Cease your ranting! Flesh can’t bear it. Flee as night before the sun.” At Christ’s voice the demon trembled, from its victim madly rushed, while the crowd that was assembled stood in wonder, stunned and hushed.

Lord, the demons still are thriving in the grey cells of the mind: tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind, doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason’s sight, guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.

Silence, Lord, the unclean spirit, in our mind and in our heart. Speak your word that when we hear it all our demons shall depart. Clear our thought and calm our feeling, still the fractured, warring soul. By the power of your healing make us faithful, true and whole.

                        (Thomas H. Troeger, 1984, The United Methodist Hymnal # 264.)