Proper 21C: Reversal of Blessings

man-under-waterfallFIRST LESSON:  Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15

Read the passage from Jeremiah

The prophet Jeremiah has sort of changed his focus.  These chapters are commonly called “The Book of Comfort”.  It’s 588 B.C. E., and Babylon is pounding on the door of Jerusalem – again. Ten years earlier, they had “disciplined” a rebellious Israel with a measure of destruction and had carried off some of its people. But now Israel was getting overly confident again, probably because they thought they had Egypt backing them up (sometimes it works to get one bully to fight the other), and the Babylonians were going to make it very clear that there would be no more trouble from this upstart kingdom. We know that the destruction and exile that followed left a profound mark on the spirit and history of the people of Israel, when the land that had been promised to their ancestors long ago, the land to which their freed-slave forebears had been led through forty long years (and much longer in captivity), the land of David and Solomon’s glory, the land that was theirs: this land was in every sense taken from them. Jeremiah had tried to warn them that they needed to get right with God instead of taking God’s favor for granted, and he saw Babylon as the instrument of God’s punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness.

When Jeremiah hears that his relative, Hanamel, is going to come to him with the offer to sell him his land in Anathoth, and then Hanamel appears and does exactly that, Jeremiah knows that this “message from God” is valid.  And so he obeys the command he has received, and purchases what is, at least at this moment, worthless land. (John Holbert calls it “the worst land deal in history.”)  Now see, the people still remembered that the land was not only a gift from God, but in a very real way, still belonged to God. But what good was it when the Babylonians were squatting and camping on it?  It certainly couldn’t be farmed, or provide sustenance or income for its owner. If he tried to sell it, he’d have to find another family member as “foolish” as he was, willing to pay money for what appeared to be worthless.

So, when the word of God came to Jeremiah and told him to buy the land, it also helped him to dare to see that there would be more than this impending desolation, more than the realization of his worst warnings, and that there would be life again, with God’s people back on their own land, and the most ordinary of human transactions, including those of real estate, resuming once again. That’s why Jeremiah ordered his secretary, Baruch, whom we meet for the first time here but whose role bears further reflection, to copy and preserve these documents of sale not only for verification but for future generations who will read them and be inspired to hope in their own day. Even though Jeremiah himself wouldn’t live to see this happen, he wanted to make sure that his descendants would see in the good times the hand of God fulfilling ancient promises, and would, in the bad times, hold fast to those same promises of abiding, faithful love and compassion by a generous but demanding God.

This is really a very forward-looking, faith-filled passage.  It is a passage that dares to see that God holds more for us than what we imagine in our present circumstances.  John Holbert says it like this:

Here is something that the prophet can teach those of us in the 21st century. When we see a world hell-bent on destruction, when we see the barbarians at the gate (of course, my barbarian may not be your barbarian!), when we think that the end has finally come to our hopes and dreams for justice and righteousness for all of God’s people, then we can watch the land deal of Jeremiah, watch him sign the deed, weigh out the money, give the deed and its copy to Baruch, witness Baruch put them in a jar, and we can know that the end has not yet come, because YHWH has more for us yet to do.

Baruch is Hebrew for “blessed”; that word is the first word of nearly every Jewish prayer. May it be the first word of our prayer, grateful for Jeremiah, grateful for his reminder to us that YHWH is not through with us yet. (From “The Worst Land Deal in History”, John C. Holbert, available at, accessed 22 September, 2013)

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What do you think of the idea of this “forward-looking” way of seeing things?
  • What stands in the way of our realizing that very notion?
  • What message does this hold for our own time?



NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Timothy 6: 6-19

Read the passage from 1 Timothy

This passage is countercultural – much more so for us than for its first hearers. Contentment rests in connectedness, above all, with God, because it connects us to others, to our world and to ourselves. The passage confronts our mortality. But it does so assuming we might worry about life beyond this one.

We are invited us to a lifestyle which makes do with enough. There is no need to busy oneself with more. Accumulation of wealth is the task of a lifetime and leaves little room for others and in a paradoxical sense for oneself (and frequently those around us usually when they need us most). So our passage is addressing the practicalities of living and identifying the deception which we forge when we spend our lives accumulating more and more – far more than we need. The author appears concerned primarily with self destructive forces which bring ruin. Greed for money also plunges others into poverty and ruin.

“Godliness” was a popular value of that time (and our time, for that matter).  But we need to be careful with this idea.  We are NOT God.  We are not even “God-like”.  (And if we are, we need to look at ourselves a bit more!)  Notions like righteousness, faith, and love carry much more value.  They are essentially the alternative, the way of Christ. To decide for Christ is to decide against the prevailing cultural norms. We are reminded that Christ’s refusal to back away from his confession of this alternative, of God’s way was what hauled him before Pilate.  The odds are overwhelming.  It really is a struggle to resist the wealthy way of life which promises us contentment and takes away a living wage from others.

The author does not envision a belief that rebukes the rich.  Rather, we are called to use our wealth effectively.  Freed from the need to accumulate as the means of finding meaning in life, we can turn their attention beyond themselves to others and learn to love effectively with the means they have. The challenge is usually to know the cut off point of what is enough. Usually that inflates to levels of wealth which make the leftovers a symbol of excess rather than generous self giving. The problem is written across the face of the world. Its accepted violence evokes the abhorrent acts of terror which are then turned to justify our protecting our way of life. Christ offers a different way.

In a nutshell, the Way of Christ does not fit within the rules of the world.  It’s hard to explain; it’s hard to understand; it just is.  Frederick Buechner says this of “righteousness”:

“You haven’t got it right!” says the exasperated piano teacher. Junior is holding his hands the way he’s been told. His fingering is unexceptionable. He has memorized the piece perfectly. He has hit all the proper notes with deadly accuracy. But his heart’s not in it, only his fingers. What he’s playing is a sort of music but nothing that will start voices singing or feet tapping. He has succeeded in boring everybody to death including himself.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) The scribes and Pharisees were playing it by the Book. They didn’t slip up on a single do or don’t. But they were getting it all wrong.

Righteousness is getting it all right. If you play it the way it’s supposed to be played, there shouldn’t be a still foot in the house. (from “Weekly Sermon Illustration:  Righteousness”, by Frederick Buechner, available at, accessed 22 September, 2013.)

  • What does the term “godliness” mean to you?
  • How do you envision the “alternative” way of Christ?
  • So, what does this passage mean for us today?
  • What ways of life do we protect?



GOSPEL:  Luke 16:19-31

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Luke

This story apparently assumes that judgment takes place at the time of death.  It seems to indicate a popular view of the afterlife among many Jews and non-Jews of the period which focused on the individual’s fate.  In that sense it lacks the vision of a transformed world, which thought in wider than individual terms: the vision of a just society, transformed and recreated.  So we probably need to supplement it with this wider and more inclusive vision.  But it’s apparently set in the context of an abuse of wealth in that society.

The rich man is not depicted as one who is bad or evil; rather, his self preoccupation with which he prevented himself from caring about others as he cared for himself. The man is very rich and very privileged.  In fact, wearing garments of purple suggests some link with royalty. Having a gate and a wall implies a large mansion. The poor man is named, Lazarus. The name means “God has helped”. The image is one of abject poverty and humiliation.

So, after each of their respective deaths, the rich man received the torment that he had dished out to others.  And so, the rich man asks Abraham to get Lazarus to help him. What a reversal! Give him credit, the rich man then recovers some concern for others, but limited to his own family, his brothers (I hope he had no sisters!). The exchange which follows is interesting because it assumes that people need to hear the Law and the Prophets, whether from people still alive or from someone returned from the dead. The way to life is to keep the commandments in the way Jesus expounds them. Failure to heed this message on the assumption that faith in Jesus can be separated from it and will guarantee a place in heaven is as much a folly now as it was then. Being and doing are what matter, not signing up. It is not about earning a reward, but about engaging in an ongoing relationship which has compassion as its agenda.

The parable obviously targets the violence of apathy and neglect which is widening the chasm between rich and poor. The trouble is that even such abstractions become easy to tolerate. We need some first hand experience of encountering the real people whom we will then not be able to dismiss as relative statistics. And if that cannot be first hand, we need to help people engage in active imagination of what it really means to be poor, to be a refugee, to be caught on the wrong side of the chasms which vested interests maintain.

This is not really meant as a literal portrait of what life after death is like. It reflects the Greek notion that souls go to the underworld for punishment at death. Hades is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament as a place of torment. In Jewish and Christian understanding the resurrection of the dead with judgment and vindication will happen when the Messiah returns, not on the immediate death of each individual. So we have here a parable meant to illuminate truths about the kingdom of God and shed light on how we are to live this life, rather than the next.

Alyce McKenzie points out that “the background of this parable is a tale from Egyptian folklore about the reversal of fates after death. It also has connections to rabbinic stories. Rabbinic sources contain seven versions of this folktale. In Greek the name Lazaros has the same root consonants as the name Eliezer who, Genesis 15:2 tells us was a servant of Abraham. Some rabbinic tales feature Eliezer (Greek Lazaros) walking in disguise on the earth and reporting back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s prescriptions regarding the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor.  Lazarus is a poor beggar (16:20); he returns to Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man requests that Abraham send him as an emissary to his brothers.”  (Alyce McKenzie, “To See or Not to See”, available at

This parable is found only in Luke.  It underscores a theme expressed earlier in the Gospel (Luke 1:52). God has “put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree”. It also reflects Luke’s heart for the poor echoing his version (Luke 6:20) of Jesus’ earlier beatitude “Blessed are you who are poor (Matthew 5:3 has “poor in spirit”) because yours is the Kingdom of God.” The story is a three act play. The first act portrays the earthly contrast between the wealthy man and Lazarus. The second act describes the reversal of their conditions in the afterlife. The third act depicts the rich man’s request to Father Abraham for a sign so that those still living can avoid his torment, a request that Abraham refuses.

First century hearers of this parable would not have assumed that the rich man was evil and that the poor man was righteous. On the contrary, wealth in the ancient world was often viewed as a sign of divine favor, while poverty was viewed as evidence of sin. The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that, during his earthly life, he did not even “see” Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home. It is interesting, however, that he knows his name. The rich man remains anonymous, but Lazarus has the distinction of being the only person given a name in any of Jesus’ parables.

The point is that we need a bigger transformation, a bigger vision than the tale actually depicts.  It is a vision of a God who offers a place for all and turns no one away.  And in order to be a part of this vision, we need to be able to see all of our brothers and sisters that share this kingdom with us.  There are no longer divisions, no longer “the have’s” and “the have-nots”, no longer those who ignore the needs of someone else.  Is that so hard?


  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does this mean for us in our own society?
  • What situations does our society (and we) tolerate when we should be changing them?
  • What makes the difference between our seeing the Kingdom of God and not seeing it at all?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

We of the modern time live much more in the attitude of interrogation than of exclamation.  We so blur our world with question marks that we lose the sense of wonder and sometimes even of vision.  It is refreshing to note how frequently the great spiritual teachers of the New Testament introduce their message with the world “behold!”  They speak because they see and they want their hearers and their readers to see.  Their “behold” is more than an interjection—it has the force of an imperative, as though they would say:  ‘Just see what I see.  Open your eyes to the full meaning of what is before you, which is the method of all true teachers. (Rufus Jones)

To belong to a community is to begin to be about more than myself.  (Joan Chittister, Listen With the Heart:  Sacred Moments, in Everyday Life, 65)

Imagine a large circle and in the center of it rays of light that spread out to the circumference.  The light in the center is God; each of us is a ray.  The closer the rays are to the center, the closer the rays are to one another.  The closer we live to God, the closer we are bound to our neighbor.  (Fulton J. Sheen)



I am here in this solitude before you, and I am glad because you see me here.  For, it is here, I think, that you want to see me and I am seen by you.  My being here is a response you have asked of me, to something I have not clearly heard.  But I have responded…You have called me here to be repeatedly born in the Spirit as your child.  Repeatedly born in light, in unknowing, in faith, in awareness, in gratitude, in poverty, in presence, and in praise.  Amen. (Thomas Merton)

Proper 12B: How Much Abundance is Enough?

multiplication of loavesOLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 11: 1-15

Read the Old Testament Lectionary passage

“In the spring of the year…the time when kings go out to battle.” The stage is set. It is spring and battles rage. Perhaps this story begins with that seemingly poetic phrase as it is trying to set the context for us. You know…”all is fair in love and war”, right? Really? Is that our excuse? Let’s get real…this is the grand poetic prelude to one of the biggest out and out failures by anyone in the Bible. Just to set the record straight: I do not think that this story can simply be dismissed with one of those “God can even use characters like this” comment. This is a clear exploitation and manipulation of power—even God-given power. Being “God blessed”, whatever you think that might be does not exempt one from sin or the consequences of that sin.

This story depicts a shift from the public domain to the personal, from power to vulnerability, from blessing to curse. There are four main episodes of this story: First, David is at home while his armies rage and lay siege to Rabbah. He sees a beautiful women bathing and exercises his power as king to take her. She becomes pregnant. So, David brings Bathsheba’s husband Urriah home from the front to sleep with his wife to cover up the pregnancy. But Urriah is too dedicated to his comrades in battle. And, finally, David arranges with Joab to see that Urriah dies in battle. But other innocent lives are lost in this process.

It’s actually pretty remarkable that this story was preserved and that it became part of the Hebrew writings and, thus, our Christian canon. After all, it doesn’t exactly show the fair King David in the best light. So, often this story has been “explained away” by depicting Bathsheeba as a beguiling seductress, which would then transform David into some sort of victim. Many take it as a warning against sexual temptations. Oh come now! Then, there are also those that will explain this away as the work of God to rectify the marriage of Urriah, a Hittite, to Bathsheeba, an Israelite, which was forbidden. There is even a story of Satan appearing as a bird and when David shot an arrow at it, the screen toppled, revealing Bathsheeba to David. But, sadly and truthfully, this is probably the story of a hero gone bad. David failed; David sinned; and then David did the unthinkable to try to hide what he had done. From whom did it need hidden? Those whom he ruled? God? Perhaps David himself? So what are we supposed to get out of it?

Perhaps we are supposed to look at ourselves and our own reactions. In essence, David becomes sort of a comic character in this story. The great military strategist is now put in a position of petty scheming and secret plotting to cover up his own lack of control. God’s response actually does not come until next week’s reading. A hint: Even David’s monumental breakdown is not enough to negate what God is doing.

It also should be noted that while David was doing all this, his army was fighting for their lives and taking the lives of innocent others. (After all, it was spring. Why wasn’t David with them?) And then when David needed Uriah’s death, he framed it in a military way, using his role as “Commander in Chief”, if you will, to cover up his own wrongdoing. David as king was meant to show and live out the righteousness of that role. But this is a story about the abuse of power and privilege and the victimization of others. The theology of failure is quite explicit. What does failure mean to God? What does the failure of our leaders mean to us? What does our own failure mean for us and for our faith?

The truth is, while all the violence was going on around him, David was enacting his own war, his own set of violent actions—violent sexuality, violent cover-up, violent murder. Maybe the most profound of all is the violent act of David’s own self-deception which, in all honesty, is also an attempt to deceive God. And, for us, rather than just slapping the hand of the perpetrator (“BAD DAVID!”), maybe in some odd sort of way, we are supposed to take a look at our own deceptions, at our own violent actions that are not in harmony with the Creation that God has envisioned. After all, we try, but, still, “in the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…, where are we?


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this say about how we react to all of the issues in this passage?
  3. What does this say about sin?
  4. What does this say about God?
  5. What does failure mean to God and to us?
  6. What message does this passage hold for us today?


NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 3: 14-21

Read the Lectionary Epistle passage

This passage contains a beautiful prayer that builds to the eternal proclamation of God. At the beginning, it proclaims God as “father”. This does not imply a “parental” or fathering relationship but, rather, one of power. Essentially, it is saying that God is God and there are no others. The writer then speaks of God’s Spirit, not as an “other-worldly” thing, but as part of our inner self that governs all that we are. This is continued with the mention of the Risen Christ, implying God’s ever-abiding Presence with us.

And, so, who we are, the very foundations of our lives are rooted in who God is. Knowing God, though, has nothing to do with knowledge of God, but, rather, in being so attuned with the God here and the God-piece in us that we begin to comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of God. God does not desire our worship or our glory; God desires to be known by us. God desires that we know and enter the immeasurable power that is God.

In a sermon on this passage, Edward Markquart relates the story of Ollie the Oyster with these words:

It’s time for a story, the story about Ollie the Oyster. It is an old story that is like a weathervane for me on the top of a house in rural North Dakota. This old weathervane points in the right direction, and this story about Ollie the Oyster has always pointed me in the right direction. Ollie the Oyster was swimming along one day in the ocean and he was having a wonderful time, with the sun out and weather warm. He was cruising along at the bottom of the ocean happily and joyfully when suddenly, a piece of sand, a piece of ocean grit, got into his skin. Ohhh, what pain. That piece of sand hurt so much. Ollie didn’t necessarily do anything wrong to get that sand in his life; it just happened. But ohhh, how it hurt! And so Ollie the Oyster cried. How he cried! He cried and cried and cried, tears and tears and tears, so much so that the ocean slowly rose over the days, weeks and months and years. After he had cried for two or three years, Ollie stopped and…and…the sand was still there, causing him pain. What to do? So Ollie the Oyster started to cuss. He used every cuss word that he learned in grade school and junior high school. He cussed and cussed and cussed, so much so that a plume of blue smoke came up from the ocean where he lived. When Ollie the Oyster was finished cussing, he stopped….and…and…the sand was still there in his side, causing him immense pain. So Ollie the Oyster started to pretend. He would pretend that the piece of sand was not in his side. He pretended and pretended and pretended. He repressed and repressed and repressed. When after all those months and years of repression had passed, he woke up to reality enough to realize the sand was still there, causing him pain. What to do? And slowly, ever so slowly, it began to dawn on Ollie the Oyster. Slowly, o so slowly, he remembered that he had a special power within, and so he grunted and groaned and groveled and slowly an excretion of gooey oil came out and surrounded the piece of sand, insulating the sand and the pain went away. What a miracle! The pain was gone. And ever so slowly, over time, that gooey substance began to harden around the grain of sand, and in time, it became a pearl. Yes, a pearl, for that is the way that pearls are made. (Edward Markquart, “The Power of God Living Within Us”, available at, accessed 23 July, 2012)

The prayer itself has been handed down to us, handed through thousands of generations, because we need to hear it. Knowing God is not private work. It is part of the community in which we live and work and have our being. In a commentary on this passage, Sally A. Brown says that “we are blessed with each other and stuck with each other.” (available at In other words, this community is God’s dwelling place. God is already here. Love and grace and God’s power comes before. The One to whom we bow has been here for all these countless generations. All we have to do is know the God who is already known and enter the mystery that abounds. It is the love and grace that fills us. We were never promised easy; we were promised life. We just have to open ourselves to what is already there and be transformed in the process.


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does “knowing God” mean to you?
  3. What is that inner power, that “God-piece” that is in you? What does that mean?


GOSPEL: John 6: 1-21

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

This is one of the most well-known passages. Its popularity was also evident in the first century, because it is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels. There are subtle differences. Here, the writer depicts the group of people as a “crowd”. According to the Gospel known as Mark, it is a “throng”. (I don’t like crowds myself, but, oh, to be part of a throng!) But Luke and Matthew state that it was 5,000 strong (not counting women and children, of course!) So we end up looking at this as some sort of extraordinary miracle where Jesus was able to multiply the food that the little boy had.

But notice, first of all, that it never says that that was the ONLY food. Perhaps there were some people holding back their food, tucking it away so that it would not be discovered and so they would be expected to share. Perhaps the miracle lies in the little boy. He was first, freely and openly offering everything that he had to Jesus. The lunch of barley loaves and fish would have been a basic lunch of the poor. Barley is a very inexpensive grain and fish were plentiful here on the Lake (remember, it’s really a lake, rather than a sea!) of Galilee. And yet, this unnoticed and uncounted person of poverty offered everything that he had. Maybe the miracle was that he sparked others to come forward and offer what they had. Maybe the miracle was that there was enough after all.

I, personally, would like to be like that little boy. I would like to learn how to offer what I have and not feel compelled to hold back for fear of running out. And also notice, that Jesus did not just somehow provide exactly what was needed. This is not the story of a magic trick. There were leftovers. And nothing was wasted. The sandwiches and leftover fish were not left on the grassy mountainside to rot and be picked apart by animals. They were carefully gathered and saved to be used—maybe for the next picnic, maybe for those in the village that did not have enough, or maybe it was given out as holy doggie bags to remind us what can happen when we open what we have and who we are to others!

This is a story about abundance. But we Westerners struggle with scarcity, with worrying that there won’t be enough, with knowing that we have to take care of ourselves first before we take care of others, worrying that there is some storm right around the bend for which we need to be prepared. Why do we struggle like that? Well, the story takes care of that too. The passage tells us that the disciples started across the lake in the darkness. And, just as they had feared, a storm did surface—blowing winds, waves crashing into the tiny boat, drenching them through their slickers. But there, there is Jesus. Do not be afraid…Do not be afraid. Interestingly enough, this account never says that the waves were calmed. It says, rather, that Jesus calmed the disciples. Isn’t that what faith is about? Perhaps abundance has nothing to do with what we have or with the world around us. Perhaps it’s the perspective that comes when you know that God is present your life. Maybe that little boy got that. Maybe faith is about realizing that there are always fragments around us, there is always importance in what has been tossed aside.

In one of his sermons, Thomas Long tells the story of a student of his that went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood.  As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary about urban ministry, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own.  At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a pizza to be delivered to their home when they got there.  As they headed for the phone, though, a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change.  So the father reached into the pockets of his sweat pants and pulled out two handfuls of coins, “Here,” he said to the homeless man.  “Take what you need.”  The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went on his way.

Well, it only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone.  “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a call.  Can you spare some change?”  The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins.  “Here,” he said.  “Take what you need.” (Thomas Long, “Surprise Party”, available at, accessed 21 July, 2009.)

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What makes us hold back from the abundance that God offers?
  3. What stands in the way of us being like that little boy?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

There’s a crack. There’s a crack in everything. Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)

The soul must long for God in order to be set aflame by God’s love; but if the soul cannot yet feel this longing, then it must long for the longing. To long for the longing is from God. (Meister Eckhart, c. 1260-c. 1327)


If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. (Annie Dillard)




My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask [God] to strengthen you by [the] Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask [God] that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! [God] does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, [with a ] Spirit deeply and gently within us.

Glory to God in the church! Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus! Glory down all the generations! Glory through all millennia! Oh yes! Amen.

Ephesians 3: 14-21, in The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson