Epiphany 5B: Spending Time With God

Spending time with godOLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 40: 21-31

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

Many scholars claim that at Chapter 40 in the Book of Isaiah, we cross a significant boundary. The Babylonian victory over Judah and Jerusalem is now presupposed and Judah has shared in that defeat. This is now the time when the “former things have [truly] passed away.” The passage begins by appealing to what Israel already knows. It is a reminder of what the Creator God has been doing since the beginning of Creation. It is a basic notion in their understanding of God that God’s ongoing creative activity asserts that things are always moving, always headed toward the way they are supposed to be.

But the image of us as grasshoppers is not meant to denigrate us but rather to remind us that Creation is bigger than anything that we can possibly be or imagine. We are only a small part of the whole. So, for the writer, “who are we to question the vastness of God?” Even though Assyrian rule is probably firmly in place here, there is a reminder that no sooner do they put down roots against Israel that God will put them away with what can be conceived as terrifying power. We remember from earlier passages in Isaiah that an entire generation in Isaiah’s lifetime had their ears shut and their eyes closed. This is the beginning of a new generation and the writer appeals to them in the strongest possible terms: to listen and see and know again, for God’s word does not require assent to remain true and abiding. It stands forever. So, our faith allows us to live in two orders of Creation—the already and the not yet, but always strengthened by the master Creator of them both.

Now understand that it was not that the earlier generation did not have God present; it was that they failed to hear, receive, and heed the Word that God put forth. In other words, our ears must be opened to hear aright. Each generation must be taught to hear and see God. God is the only one capable of “flipping the switch”, so to speak on how the world works. We have to be open to what God does and be prepared to hear and see it.

As an aside, it might just be a play on words or images, but did you know that grasshoppers have five eyes? They are able to see everything in what could be described as panoramic view. That’s sort of interesting, given the comparison of humanity to grasshoppers, to insinuate that we have the capability, if not the sensibility, to see all there is within the perspective of where it is. Perhaps what most gets in the way is that we think we have already figured everything out.

And yet God continues to persevere, holding us when we need to be held, leading us when we need to be led, and perhaps waiting, oh so patiently, for us to notice it all. And when we open our eyes and open our hearts to all that God holds for us, our future is ours. But are we, too, patient enough to wait for it to come? In all truth, we live in a world order that is slipping away. Maybe not tomorrow; maybe not for centuries; maybe not even for eons, but slipping away nevertheless. We are fleeting. But the everlasting God has promised that if we just open our lives and our hearts and our eyes, we will see and know that an everlasting order waits for us. But it’s different; it’s not the one in which we live. And, really, hasn’t that been said from the beginning? What we have now is not ours. We’re not meant for it. But, oh, the future one that waits for us…it is ours. It is home. And nothing is impossible.

 

This story is taken from “The People Who Could Fly”, a sermon by Otis Moss, III, 12/31/2006, available at http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/moss_5012.htm:

 

There is a story that I am told has been passed from mouth to ear somewhere along the palmetto dunes of South Carolina, a story passed down from West Africa to the North Atlantic. It is the story, a unique story, of the people who could fly. Depending upon whom you’re talking to, it is a little bit different, depending upon who is telling the tale.

The story takes place in St. Johns Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, as Africans who had been mislabeled slaves are toiling in the hot sun. They are working so very hard to pick cotton. There is one young woman and beside her is her small boy, maybe six or seven. She’s working in the fields and she has such incredible dexterity that she is able to pick cotton with her right hand and caress the forehead of her child with the left. But eventually, exhausted by working so hard in the fields, she falls down from the weight and the pressure of being—in the words of Dubois—“problem and property.” Her boy attempts to wake her very quickly, knowing that if the slave drivers were to see her the punishment would be swift and hard.

He tries to shake his mother, and as he’s trying to shake her, an old man comes over to him. An old man that the Africans called Preacher and Prophet, but the slave drivers called Old Devil. He looks up at the old man and says, “Is it time? Is it time?”

The old man smiles and looks at the boy and says, “Yes!” And he bends down ands whispers into the ear of the woman who was now upon the ground and says these words: “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”

At that moment the woman gets up with such incredible dignity. She stands as a queen and looks down at her son, grasps his hand and begins to look toward heaven. All of a sudden they begin to fly. The slave drivers rush over to this area where she has stopped work and they see this act of human flight and are completely confused. They do not know what to do! And during their confusion, the old man rushes around to all the other Africans and begins to tell them, “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”

When they hear the word, they all begin to fly. Can you imagine? The dispossessed flying? Can you imagine the disempowered flying? Three fifths of a person flying? The diseased flying? The dislocated flying? They are all taking flight! And at that moment the slave drivers grab the old man and say, “Bring them back!”

They beat him, and with blood coming down his cheek, he just smiles at them. They say to him, “Please bring them back!” And he says, “I can’t.” They say, “Why not?” He said, “Because the word is already in them and since the word is already in them, it cannot be taken from them.” The old man had a word from West Africa, cooleebah, a word that means God. It had been placed into the heart of these displaced Africans and now they had dignity and they were flying.

 

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What parallels for our time do you see?
  3. What most stands in our way of “hearing” and “seeing”?
  4. How much more do you think we’re capable of hearing and seeing than we do?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 9: 16-23

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Well, in case it seems like we’re walking into the middle of a discussion, this passage is actually a continuation of the veritable “meat saga” that we read last week. Paul anticipates a possible misunderstanding in what he had said earlier and he counters by denying that he is only saying these things so that he benefits more from his position. Paul understands that he did not just “decide” to preach the gospel but rather that he is entrusted with a commission, or a calling. He does not take that to mean that he is due any wage or benefit. Paul sees himself as a “slave” to God, one who has been renewed and revitalized. He is in it solely for the purpose of spreading the gospel of grace.

Paul is not “giving up” his freedom or his free will but is rather choosing not to exercise them in certain circumstances. That is a very different understanding of freedom and is interesting given our understanding of the Gospel as “setting us free”. St. Augustine said this: In Christ’s slavery, there is freedom indeed. But it’s hard to get our heads around. Paul does all things and becomes all things for the sake of the Gospel, showing his understanding of the dynamics of community in the life of faith.

In Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr says that “we have defined freedom in the West as the freedom to choose between options and preferences. That’s not primal freedom. That’s a secondary or even tertiary freedom. The primal freedom is the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances. That’s what great religion offers us. That what real prayer offers us. That’s why the saints could be imprisoned and not lose their souls. They could be put down and persecuted like Jesus and still not lose their joy, their heart, or their perspective. Secular freedom is having to do what you want to do. Religious freedom is wanting to do what you have to do.

Perhaps freedom is having the ability and the wherewithal to be who we are called to be by God. It is not the freedom to become enslaved to the things of this world, thereby giving up our freedom. The thing that we are called to do is the thing we HAVE to do. It is the thing that we must do to be who we are. That is the freedom God gives us—to be who we have to be and to empower others in the world to do the same. Therein is the hope of Christ.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does Paul’s view of “freedom” mean to you?
  3. What does “freedom” mean in our society?
  4. How does that affect our notion of “reward”?

 

GOSPEL: Mark 1: 29-39

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

It is evident here that Jesus’ reputation is swiftly increasing. Right after they left the synagogue, the first healing episode occurs inside a house. Jesus cures the woman, who then serves him dinner. The next thing you know, all of a sudden the “whole city” (Really? A WHOLE city—like, ALL of Houston?) shows up begging to receive some of what Jesus is offering. You can imagine a hoard of townspeople crowding around the door of the house. And it says that he cured many—not the whole city, interestingly enough—but many.

But keep in mind that for the writer of the Markan Gospel, Jesus did not come to win the adulation of the crowds by working miracles but rather to claim the authority and identity of the Christ, which, for this writer, includes the cross itself. The crowds apparently begin to represent a problem for Jesus. He did not come to settle into the town as a local healer, but to preach the Gospel throughout the region. So he leaves Peter’s house in the darkness well before dawn, returning to a deserted place to pray. For the writer of this Gospel, it was clear that Jesus comes to do God’s will, not to seek his own advantage or popularity.

But, of course, Jesus is eventually “hunted down” by Simon and his companions. You can imagine it: “Come on, Jesus, everyone is looking for you, everyone needs you…what are you doing out here by yourself when there’s so much work to be done.” (OK, I think this is rather humorous!) Jesus’ answer? (Wait for it!) “OK, then let’s go somewhere else.” (GREAT answer!) Because after all, his mission was to spread the Gospel not get “bogged down” in answering every need of the town.   What a great lesson this could provide for us! Jesus did not feel the need or the compulsion to be “all things to all people”. He rather had what could be called a “big picture” view of what the Gospel meant. I mean, after all, the whole world order was changing, remember?

There’s a lot that this passage holds. It’s a lesson about Sabbath time; it’s a lesson about prayer; it’s a lesson about understanding others’ needs; it’s a lesson about who Jesus was. Or maybe it IS a call to see the “big picture”, to know in the deepest part of our being that even in the midst of chaos and disorderly fray, even in the midst of too many people expecting too much of us, even in the midst of those who misunderstand who we are, we, too, can be lifted up with wings like eagles and be taught how to fly. We just have to see it. The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is only partially about what Jesus can do for us. Mostly it’s about who we can become with Jesus by our side.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does this say about answering God’s call?
  3. What does this say about the totality of the Gospel?
  4. What could we learn from Jesus’ reactions?
  5. What “big picture” scenes are you missing from your life?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences. (Susan B. Anthony)

We are what we repeatedly do. (Aristotle)

 

One of the saddest lines in the world is, ‘Oh come now—be realistic.’ The best parts of this world were not fashioned by those who were realistic. They were fashioned by those who dared to look hard at their wishes and gave them horses to ride. (Richard Nelson Bolles)

 

Closing

 

Holy God—in this precious hour, we pause and gather to hear your word—to do so, we break from our work responsibilities and from our play fantasies; we move from our fears that overwhelm and from our ambitions that are too strong. Free us in these moments from every distraction, that we may focus to listen, that we may hear, that we may change. Amen. (From Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, “That We May Change”, p. 61.)

Proper 16C: Keeping Sabbath

 

Lighting Sabbath Candles, by Barry Kester
Lighting Sabbath Candles, by Barry Kester

FIRST LESSON:  Jeremiah 1: 4-10

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 resistance from others to this plucking up and overthrowing, and others which 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.

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What is it that you are called to  “pluck down”?

3)      What is it that you are called to “build up”?

4)      Why do you think there is almost always a denial of a call before the acceptance?

5)      What do you think of the notion of God knowing you before you were?

6)      What does it mean to you to do with your life what God intends?

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Hebrews 12:18-29

“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 MountZion, 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.

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What are those things in our lives that should be lost in this “shaking” and reorienting?

3)      What should be kept?

4)      What do you think of the image of God as a “consuming fire”?

5)      What is bothersome about this passage?

 

 GOSPEL:  Luke 13:10-17

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 looked beyond where we are.  You see, we are all body-bend, 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.

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What is “Sabbath” to you?

3)      What keeps you from “keeping Sabbath”?

4)      What are those things that make us “body-bent” or “soul-starved”?

5)      What do we miss if we miss the Sabbath?

6)      What does it mean to you to wait for your own soul?

7)      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.