Proper 28C: In the Shadow of the Dawn

Dawn & ShadowsOLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 65: 17-25

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

In this week’s reading, there are three familiar motifs:  the recurring theme of comparing the former and latter things, the glorification of Zion, and the theme of the shalom and peace of God’s holy mountain.  The theme of a new creation, of a new Jerusalem, of joy replacing weeping, of life overcoming death abounds in this reading from near the end of Isaiah. The passage is part of the closing sequence not only of the third major section of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66, known as Third Isaiah) but of the book of Isaiah itself. Some writers have drawn comparisons between Isaiah 65-66 and Isaiah 1, seeing these chapters as “book-ends” enclosing the whole and bringing it to a conclusion.

Today’s reading echoes the restoration of Jerusalem in other parts of Isaiah.  There is a sense that in Isaiah 65-66 not only do the last 11 chapters draw to a close but that all the themes of the previous 66 chapters–judgment, salvation, and further judgment–have their conclusion here with the promise of a new creation.  The reading also needs to be set in the context of Isaiah 65-66. Verse 17 begins as if it is a development of what has gone before.

The chapter begins in vv. 1-7 (prior to this week’s reading) with a statement by the Lord that the people have rejected the Lord, worshiped idols and participated in all sorts of foreign practices. The Lord’s statement bears all the marks of frustration at the people’s rejection, of anguish over their foolishness, and of suffering their abuse. It ends with words that are both just and angry as God contemplates the punishment of the people. The Lord no longer calls them “my people” but “a people” or “a rebellious people”.   But then a change occurs.  Even if this people do not know what repentance is about, the Lord does and that is their hope. The Lord leaves off executing his punishment for the sake of those servants among the people who do remain faithful. For the sake of the ones the Lord calls “my servants’, “my chosen’, and “my people who have sought me” the prophet says the Lord will delay his just anger and reserve its outworking for those who continue to rebel against him. The central section then ends with the Lord called “the God of faithfulness”.

This faithfulness of God (even sometimes in the face of the faithlessness of God’s people) is what is described in this week’s reading with its emphasis on newness and joy. The Lord will now delight in “my people”. All that destroys life will pass away – weeping, distress, premature death, unfulfilled hopes, injustice, robbery, pillage, even genocide. Some of the imagery comes from the ancient context of a people caught up in the atrocities of war as foreign armies march through their land decimating the countryside, its crops, herds, villages, towns and cities, and slaughtering the population. The prophet is speaking about the most horrible experiences and even these things will be overcome by the faithfulness of the Lord.

Every Sunday of every year Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer. They could say it in their sleep; I often wonder if some do! Rather like the “Gary, Indiana” in Meredith Wilson’s classic musical, The Music Man, that prayer sort of “trips along softly on the tongue this way.” In other words it just comes out without a whole lot of thought. But one of the requests we make in that prayer is fraught with power and rife with implications for us and for our world. It happens early on: “Thy Kingdom come,” we ask. We say we want God to come now and reign over us; we want God to rule in our lives. We want no longer to rely on our own resources to make our own way in the world. I want to be honest with you; sometimes when I say that, I have another voice in the corner of my mind saying, “But not today! I rather like the way I am directing things at the moment, God. Maybe tomorrow, please!”

…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together;  The lion will eat straw like the ox . . .

Well, isn’t that all grand? And just when can we all expect to see this magnificent reign of God? Just exactly when will terrorists stop their destructive hate and sue for peace? Just when will preventable childhood diseases finally be prevented so infants do live full lives? Just when will cancer be eradicated so that old people can live to be 100? When will there be food enough for all, houses enough for all, good and enriching work for all? Just what are we all to learn from this expansive dream of the reign of God?

I think we learn this. When a Christian and a Muslim sit down to eat and talk, it is a sign of the rule of God. When people band together to begin the eradication of malaria in Africa, it is a sign of the reign of God. When prostate cancer deaths are reduced to increasingly smaller fractions, it is a sign of the reign of God. When millions are fed, when Habitat for Humanity builds another 100 houses, these are signs of the reign of God. Isaiah 65:17-25 is a sign and seal of the certainty of the coming reign of God. It is a divine vision that we can never fail to hold before us, reminding us of our part in the dream and reminding us of God’s constant work to make that dream a reality. “Thy kingdom come,” we say, and it will, oh, yes, it will.  (Excerpt from “Thy Kingdom Come:  Reflections on Isaiah 65: 17-25, by John C. Holbert, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Thy-Kingdom-Come-Reflections-on-Isaiah.html, accessed 10 November, 2010)

This new creation will be the peace that the Lord envisions and for which God works.  It is not “putting things back” the way they were before; it is recreating something new—a new Creation, a new peace unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, a new life.  Death and violence are consumed by harmony and peace and life.  Justice reigns.  Everyone has what they need and those who have always had more than they need are finally satisfied.  All labor will be rich and fulfilling.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, without one taking advantage of or consuming the other.  The lion shall eat straw like the ox and both will be satisfied without needing more.  None of us will ever again hurt or destroy another.  All of Creation is resurrected.   You know, we were shown that before.  I wonder when we’ll finally get it.

 a.      What is your response to this passage?

 b.      What is your vision of this “new Creation”?

 c.       How willing, really, do you think we are to embrace newness, embrace change?

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13

To read the New Testament Lectionary passage, click here

As we said last week, this is penned as Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonica, but in all likelihood it may have been written by a follower of Paul’s who sought to protect Paul’s foundations that had been so carefully laid before.  The point is that the church at Thessalonica was apparently experiencing some idleness and probably some boredom when it came to faith. (Imagine!)  The practice of the faith had become routine.  Prayer had become a rote monologue.  This is not what we had in mind.

The truth was that things had gone on for a while.  Maybe it was becoming a little too rote, a little too routine.  Maybe it has been a while since the Holy Spirit has been allowed in the heavy front doors.  Perhaps the church was in need of some new creative dynamics to show people the grace of God through Christ.  In fact, some of the members of the faith community are just flat letting others down by refusing to contribute to the community by working.  The writer is not advocating that they be kicked out of the church though, but rather that they be brought back in and nurtured in the faith.  But life in community requires that everyone be enabled and encouraged to work.  Actually, leaving someone out of the work is essentially demeaning.  Finding a way to engage everyone is a sign and means of grace.

There is a little bit of an interpretive question here.  It is possible that the problem addressed is more “disorderliness”, rather than “idleness”; in other words, the problem of one walking “without order” and not as part of the faith community.  Either way, this was not the way to build the Kingdom of God.  There is a “rhetoric of obedience” as Abraham Smith at Perkins put it.  It is not that there is one way to walk or one way to act; just that each one must work within the community to build together this vision of God, this peaceable kingdom.  It is an act of hospitality and an act of inclusion.  It is becoming faithful people in the midst of a faithful community.  It doesn’t mean that we all look the same or think the same.  It just means that we love each other enough to want the best for each other; it means that we love God so much that we can only imagine being who God calls us to be—all of us.  Nothing else makes sense.

Elizabeth Barrington Forney says that “these [very] thoughts bear important implications for much of our congregational life.  The church who participates in a feeding ministry might wonder if the guests who are willing and able are being given ample opportunity to serve alongside church members in preparation and serving of the meals.  Is a disparity being created that makes guests dependent on being served?…There is ample opportunity in this text both for instruction about compassion and for a prophetic call to partnership in ministry.” (From Feasting on the Word, p. 307)

a.      What is your response to this passage?

 b.      What do you think happens when one or when a whole community experiences “idleness”?

 c.       Does it change the meaning if you think of the warning as one against “disorderliness”?

 d.      What do you think of the implication of involving those to whom we minister in ministry?  What sort of vision does that bring about for you? How would that change our ministry?

 GOSPEL:  Luke 21: 5-19

To read the Gospel Lectionary text, click here

This is, needless to say, a difficult text.  But, despite how we may read it, it is not meant to be a prediction of the future.  It was written to a persecuted and frustrated minority that lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  They were feeling as if the veritable end of their world had come.  And some, perhaps at the prodding of the disciples, were looking to the temple, the center of their world and their life, the symbol of God’s very presence in their midst, a shining thing of beauty in an otherwise dark world.  But then they were told not to look there for it, too, would fall away.  Instead, the writer of Luke is telling them to listen to Jesus and trust in Jesus.  We didn’t read the first four verses of this chapter but they portray the account of the widow with two coins.  Jesus is essentially saying:  “Not the temple!  Look at her!  Look what living a life of faith means!”

So the passage that we read begins with that prediction of destruction.  From Luke one senses sadness rather than smugness. Just a few chapters later, we would read the account of Jesus weeping over a city that would not listen and would not change course.   Instead they wanted concrete evidence of exactly when this would happen and some had begun to listen to messianic “fortune-tellers”, if you will, that claimed to have all the answers.  Like today, there were those who were easily swayed with predictions of “doomsday”, with the foretelling of the end at hand.

Remember, Jesus never promised that following this Way would be easy.  And despite what some would claim, there is no known timetable of when something will happen.  But it is a reminder for us of the God who triumphed over chaos over and over again.  Jesus is not calling them to be martyrs or heroes—just faith-filled followers.  All of the other usual symbols will eventually fall by the wayside.  But Jesus promises that he will remain as a holy presence with the wisdom to persevere.

I don’t really think Jesus was telling the future (regardless of the fact that those beautiful stones were indeed soon destroyed).  Perhaps Jesus was just saying, you know…this is not easy.  Life happens.  Bad things happen.  But nothing, absolutely nothing, can take me away from you.  Just hang on!  The Sabbath is coming!

David Livingstone, the legendary missionary to Africa, prayed, “Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me.  Lay any burden on me, only sustain me.”  And he testified, “What has sustained me is the promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”  This is the promise that Jesus conveys.

And when the world does shake to an end, whether it’s through natural decay or we humans just blowing the whole thing up, there’s always something more.  The truth is, the temple WAS destroyed.  And the great Roman Empire collapsed into history.  But the story has not diminished.  “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”

a.      What is your response to this passage?

b.      What things are we tempted to hold onto in our world, hoping for something better?

 c.       What does this passage say about the church itself?

 d.      What does this passage call us to do?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

True hope isn’t blind…The messianic hope for the new world looks into the future with its eyes wide open.  But it sees more than what can be seen on the horizon of history.  The Indonesian word for hope means “looking through the horizon to what is beyond.”  True hope looks beyond the apocalyptic horizons of our modern world to the new creation of all things in the kingdom of God’s glory.  (Jurgen Moltmann, from The Source of Life:  The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life)

A dreamer is one who can find [his or her] way in the moonlight, and [whose] punishment is that [he or she] sees the dawn before the rest of the world.  (Oscar Wilde)

 The marvelous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realization in our day-to-day lives.  Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises.  Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey)

Closing

Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that hath stood too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood, and where the sun that shineth is God’s grace for human good.  Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair; lo, how its splendor challenges the souls that greatly dare; yea, bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory there.  Amen. (From “O Holy City, Seen of John” (vs. 4-5), by Walter Russell Bowie, The United Methodist Hymnal # 726)

Proper 22C: Illumined Uncertainty

jesus_lament_04FIRST LESSON:  Lamentations 1: 1-6

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage click here

Lamentations is a book of poetry around the subject of unspeakable suffering.  In Hebrew, the name of the book means something like “funeral dirges”.  The writings come from a place of deep and profound hurt and, for that reason, the book is often considered on the margins of the liturgies of both Judaism and Christianity.  The book is actually a short collection of five poems in response to a national tragedy.  There is debate over which historical setting to which it is responding, but more than likely it was written in the aftermath of the Babylonian invasions of Jerusalem. (about 587 or 586 bce)  There was a real sense of just how God could have let this happen.  The primary speaker is an unknown narrator and the audience, too, is unidentified.  There is an overwhelming tone of sorrow and shame and a sense of nostalgia, a remembrance of what “was” (and perhaps what “could have been”).

Keep in mind that this is a people who have long seen themselves as “chosen” by God, as delivered by God from slavery in Egypt and led to a promised land, a people whose holy place was high upon a solid rock.  Israel had faith in God to protect them.  But now the temple mount has fallen (the first of several times, we know now).  The people of God had been given the promised land and they had filled it with their lives, their families, and their homes.  They had established the city of Jerusalem as the capital and built God a great Temple there.  But the city and the temple has now been desecrated by the Babylonians.  Life as they know it is gone.

The writings are riddled with the question “Where was God when all this was going on?”  The reading begins with a depiction of Jerusalem as one in misery, utterly alone, and with a precarious future.  When you get to the later verses, the grief almost becomes palpable—even the gates are desolate, perhaps hanging precariously from their hinges with no protection and no welcome.  And yet, there is a sense of owning of one’s guilt, of one’s part in what has happened.

National tragedies tend to render communities speechless.  The collective grief can be overwhelming.  We, too, have experienced that.  Lamentations names what is wrong, what is out of order in God’s world, what keeps human beings from thriving in all their creative potential.  Acts of lament expose these conditions.  They give us permission to cry, to grieve, perhaps to wail (the way African cultures do), to truly lament.

And even in the midst of darkness, the grieving community looks to God.  There is a realization that while circumstances may change, God is always present and is always steadfast.  Even in the darkest darkness, God is present.  The Book of Lamentations challenges us to reexamine what “blessed” means, what faith means.  It challenges our vision of that for which we hope—something beyond the way things were before.

Jesus wept, and in his weeping, he joined himself forever to those who mourn.

He stands now throughout all time, this Jesus weeping, with his arms about the weeping ones; “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.  He stands with the mourners, for his name is God-with-us.  Jesus wept. 

“Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.”  Someday.  Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes. 

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life, there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep, and of those who weep with those who weep.  If you watch, you will see that hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.  (From Psalms of Lament, by Ann Weems, xvi-xvii)

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What benefit do you see for laments, for the naming of what is wrong?

3)      Why is this so difficult for our society today?

4)      What message of hope does this hold for you?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Timothy 1: 1-14

To read the Lectionary Epistle, click here

As we have said, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are known as the “pastoral epistles”.  Their main purpose was to establish a pattern of ministry and church structure, along with a pattern of “truth”, faith, and sound teaching.  Many try to take these together, but this can be misleading because 2 Timothy has a little bit different scope, focusing primarily on personal character of believers, rather than the patterns of the church.  Most scholars assume that these letters were not written by Paul but, rather, by a student or disciple of Paul’s.

In this week’s passage, the writer refers to the faith in which one has grown, the faith of his ancestors and then proclaims it to be a faith that is continued through the apostolic order, of which the liturgies and order is a part.  The writer doesn’t mean this to be looked upon as a “hand-me-down” faith, but one that is already there.  In essence, this writing is not refuting the forms of worship of the day or of one’s history, but simply infusing them with the Christian spirit—“in Christ Jesus”.  The writer talks of “rekindling” the gift of God that is in each of us, a spark that has been there all along.

The second part of the reading begins with the admonishment “do not be ashamed.”  This is odd-sounding to us, but first-century Mediterranean culture was very much an “honor-shame” society.  The social ethos encouraged the pursuit of works of honor.  So the writer is using it to depict that not acting in accordance with God’s calling and with one’s faith would bring shame.  We are told to join in suffering for the Gospel.

This is sort of a creedal-type statement which is a confession of God (not of Christ).  It lays out the Gospel as an account not so much of what Christ has done as of what God has done through Christ.  Faith is also depicted as a “deposit”, something that one initially had that now needs to be increased. It’s hard, though, to not read this as if faith is more formalized.  Instead of believing “in”, it almost admonishes us to believe “that”.

Depicted here is a faith that cannot be separated from one’s faith tradition.  But it means making sure that the connections are upheld and maintained and then passed on to the next generation.  It speaks of faith as a connectedness, an ongoing relationship with those before us, those after us, and all of those with whom we share community in this moment.

The Apostle Paul understands that there is no inherent conflict between the personal and communal aspects of faith. No human being is born an orphan. We are all born into a family. The Bantus of South   Africa say, Umuntu, ngamuntu, ngabantu — a person is a person because of other persons. We are born into relationship, we grow and live in relationship and we die in relationship. Our modern Western notion of personal independence and psychic autonomy distorts the truth about us. Transposed into African, the sophisticated Cartesian formulation Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” would read Cognatus ergo sum, “I am related, therefore I am.” To the question “Who are you?” the African would answer, “I am my mother’s and father’s child, of the lineage of so-and-so, of the house of X and Y, of the tribe of Z.” By which time the impatient European or American has moved on to other matters. Yet the Bible is replete with such genealogical material, and even Jesus is situated in its repetitive detail.

Although faith challenges individuals, heroic individualism does not exhaust faith’s fullness and power. At its heart is the gift of memory, the ability to recall and reappropriate. Faith does not just arouse and satisfy the craving for individual gratification or fill our hunger for self-esteem, important as those things are. Faith connects us with others, grants us a name and an identity by which we can respond to God’s call, and assures us that others know that name. Thus is established the social roots of person-hood. When those roots are touched then the branches of my being stir in response. A baptismal is thus the symbol of our integrity, the cup of sacrament filled with the whole body. When Africans name a child at a dedication ceremony they think of it as giving life, the abundant life of relatedness.

And so the apostle affirms Timothy’s faith by a threefold naming — the names of his grandmother and mother and his own name. Wherever the faith has spread it has promoted and been promoted by this sense of names. As long as our names exist the church has hope of continuing community. (Lamin Sanneh, “Naming and the Act of Faith”, in The Christian Century, October 4, 1989, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=889, accessed 29 Sept 2010)

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What do you think of this depiction of faith?

3)      What does the notion of “sound teaching” mean to you?

4)      What does this idea of the “handing down of faith” mean for you?

 GOSPEL:  Luke 17:5-10

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The Gospel passage for this week begins with a discussion of faith that plays right into what we read in the Epistle passage.  This section (including the four verses that come before) pull together four units of sayings:  a warning against causing others to stumble, a challenge to be forgiving, a call to exercise faith, and a reminder of the duties of discipleship.  Then the passage itself starts out with a reference to increasing one’s faith.

It is important to look at what comes before this.  Last week’s Scripture reflected the story of the rich man and Lazarus; and then in the first few verses of the seventeenth chapter of Luke, there are these teachings related to our concerns for the little ones in this world, for the ways we injure and sin against each other, and the call to forgive.  Forgive…There are so many needs in the world.  There is so much conflict.  How can we make it through?  We begin to understand and identify with the disciples’ request:  “Increase our faith.”  Help us get through this; give us strength; make it better; we know that you can make it better.  Because, going back even farther, if we can’t forgive, then we become “occasions for stumbling” for someone else.  Lord, help us!  Help us do what is right!

After all, that’s what we should do.  But then the next part of the passage comes into play.  If one is only doing what he or she SHOULD do (as in the servant), then why would the result include a reward?  If one is meeting expectation, then one is really just average.  For the writer of Luke, forgiving is what we should do.  We are not owed anything for doing that.  It is who we are.  It is the expectation.  It reaps no reward.  It is faith that gets us where we need to be.  God’s favor is an act of grace—unearned, unmerited, and, usually, undeserved.  The place at the table is a gift; it is not earned.

The biggest problem here is that the disciples have made faith a commodity, something that can be measured.  We do it too.  And that doesn’t really work when it comes to faith.  Think about it.  Faith is faith.  If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, a tiny speck of a thing, you have faith.  And if you have faith enough to move mountains, to overcome anything, you have faith.  It’s all the same thing.

Maybe the question is not how much we have but what it is.  In our world today, we seem to be bombarded with a theology of certitude, sort of a “my faith’s bigger than your faith” mentality, as if living the right way and dressing the right way and thinking the right way and voting the right way makes us somehow more faithful than someone else.  We live as if being sure of what we know and what we believe means that we have more faith, means that we’re somehow better or more advanced than those who doubt and continue to search.  But, again, what is faith?  I think it is trust in something so much bigger than we are that we cannot imagine it.  I think it is accepting a certainty in the existence of something of which we are a little (or maybe a whole lot) uncertain.  And I think it is, finally, realizing that we are not in full control of our lives, or our world, or our destiny, and that what we do is only a small piece of this veritable tapestry that is our world.

The only certainty that we really have is that faith involves uncertainty.  We are not called to a blind and unexamined faith but one that is illumined with all that God calls us to encounter in life.  “Increase our faith?”   What does that mean?  Remember, faith is faith.  You could say, then, that merely desiring faith is faith.  And desiring to increase one’s faith is a faithful and faith-filled response to God’s calling into relationship.  This is not a commodity nor is it a finished product that we must work to obtain.  Faith is faith.  Desiring faith is faith.  And “having faith” is not about faith at all.  Flannery O’Connor once said that “when we get our spiritual house in order, we’ll be dead.  This goes on.  You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness.  Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you.  It is trust not certainty.”

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      How prevalent do you think the thinking that we “earn” God’s love or that we “earn” heaven is today?  What does that say about our faith?

3)      What is faith to you?

 Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

There are two ways to slide easily through life:  to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking. (Theodore Rubin)

Faith listens to life and hears something new. Faith drifts off during a sermon and lands on new terrain. Faith sings a new song and suddenly knows more. Faith feeds a stranger and responds differently to one’s own meal. Faith makes wild leaps, risks strange thoughts, dashes outside the box, asks foolish questions, hears unexpected voices. Little by little, faith’s “whole being” grows deeper and deeper, broader and broader.  (Tom Ehrich, 12/09/2005, Listening Faith:  Teens and Others)

It’s when we learn faith that happiness comes—real happiness, that underlying descant of the soul that tells us over and over again that what is, in some strange, unexplainable way, is good.  Most of all, faith tells us that what is, is more than good.  It is becoming always better.  In ways we never thought possible.  And how can that be?  Because God’s ways are not our ways.  It is in the depths of darkness that we learn faith; it is in retrospect that we come to recognize love in darkness.  (Joan Chittister, Called to Question, 213)

 

Closing

Plunge into the Ocean of Love, where heart meets Heart, Where sorrows are comforted and wounds are mended.  There, melodies of sadness mingle with dolphin songs of joy; Past fears dissolve in deep harmonic tones, the future—pure mystery.  For eternal moments lived in total surrender glide smoothly over troubled waters.

Hide not from Love, O friends, sink not into the sea of despair, the mire of hatred.  Awaken, O my heart, that I drown not in fear!  Too long have I sailed where’ere the winds have blown!  Drop anchor!  O, Heart of all hearts, set a clear course, that I might follow!  Guide me to the Promised Shore!

Amen. (Nan Merrill, Psalms for Praying:  An Invitation to Wholeness, Psalm 137, p. 288.)