Lectionary, Prop 25: The Witness of Mercy

Proper 25, for 10/24/2010
Our sins are bigger than we are, but God is bigger than our sins. When we deny our own weakness, we withhold the credit due to God for God’s mercy in accommodating that weakness. That’s the common ground of passages in the lectionary for Proper 25.

Joel 2:23-32

The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.

If ever there was a passage for the recession, this is it. The early and latter rain has been poured down, as before, and the threshing floors shall be full of grain. The hardship came from the hand of God, according to this passage, and so does the restoration. Hang in there, Joel seems to say, God’s restoration is coming!

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Why does the prophet emphasize male and female, young and old, slave and free? He wants to make sure that no class or gender tries to claim exclusive right to the revelation about to be revealed. Doing so is a revelation in itself — that God will strike this patriarchal, stratified society with revelation unbounded by presumed privilege. It is a gifted revelation, distributed by God as God sees fit. It is a lesson some quarters of Christendom have yet to learn.

Psalm 65

When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.

Some translations say, “Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.” It is a concept so common in scripture and human experience that it is immortalized in the 12 steps of AA: “We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors.” Over and over, scripture points out that not only are we more capable when we rely on God, but our very inability to overcome on our own brings glory God. Our weakness, and God’s tendency to compensate for it (a.k.a, “mercy”) will bring us to God when all else fails. It is, in effect, a mechanism through which God keeps us in touch.

You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.

The parallels here to the Joel verses may in fact be the connection that brings both sections into the same Proper. We should all marvel and thank God for the earth’s ability to produce food and its relatively hospitable environment. We are no more self-made people than residents of a manmade planet. God’s on testimony makes this God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus — “the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.”

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

At first glance, this would seem to be the obligatory epistle passage, with little connection to the other passages. Whether or not Paul himself actually wrote this epistle, it is certainly the intent of the writer to represent Paul’s farewell to Timothy.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Paul has won the race not through accomplishment, but by keeping the faith. I tried, he said, and that’s enough because Christ’s prize is to be given to “all who have longed for his appearing.”

After a summary list of persons who have been supportive and those who have not, Paul shares the assessment of the prophet and the psalmist, that God steps in where human effort fails:

At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Jesus spent much of his recorded ministry pointing to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Yes, they were pious in many wonderful ways — by human standards — but no one is justified through boasting to or about God. It is surely a prime example of taking the LORD’s name in vain. It points to the “faith not works” theology that Paul would later embrace, and it’s a good fit. Jesus gives a pious man pious words, and fits humility to one already humbled by society — then declares the latter to be justified where the former is not. We may long for some perfect fit of pious deeds and humility, but Jesus makes it clear that the path of righteousness is humble reliance on God’s mercy.

Lectionary, Prop. 24: Reboot

Lectionary text for Sunday, 10/17/2010

Jeremiah 31:27-34

Stray thoughts, false leads, ceremonies that have lost their meaning, files of information that may never be used — it’s the confetti of life. It gums up the brain, the computer and the church. Proper 24 turns the Rock of Ages into fertile ground, soft soil where new faith can grow and take root. It acknowledges the foundation of history but leans on a present, living relationship with God to reboot the rhythm of faith.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

After the exile to Babylon, Jeremiah foresees a day when Judah and Jerusalem will get a fresh start, a new covenant, without the baggage of sin and error that was the downfall of the ancestors. This new generation will no longer be dependent on the history of Exodus to validate their faith. Instead, they will have their own relationship with God, a law written on their hearts, more readily available than stone tablets and parchment scrolls.

The story of new beginnings is as old as the exile from the Garden, the tower of Babel and the great flood. The spirit of new beginnings was co-opted by Jesus, the apostles and Paul to describe a faith freed from the traditions and restrictions of the past, based on a new revelation directly from God. The history of God shows strength and stability, but the presence of God shows life and relationship.

Faith that is based on history alone becomes gummed up, burdensome, sluggish. But the history of our faith, the Holy Bible, is filled with examples of new beginnings, restarts, reboots, that keep our faith fresh and alive.

Psalm 119:97-104

I do not shrink from your judgments,
because you yourself have taught me.

Wisdom becomes relevant when it is internalized. The psalmist doesn’t simply know the law, but loves it, because he has been dwelling on what it means in his life. “Oh, how I love your law! All the day long it is in my mind.” In this psalm, the law is indeed written on the heart, and not merely on parchment. It is beloved for its Source, received not as a burden, but as a gift, and a life is enriched by its application.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Here’s a troublesome passage, but only because of how it has been abused. The usefulness of scripture is in its application, but it is a narrative in motion. The eternal truth of Scripture is unchanging, but that Scripture itself is an illustration of change. Laws that applied to one generation are superseded and retired in the text itself. The prophets lambast the people for following the letter of the law to the detriment of its spirit.

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

Teach the truth of Scripture and the history of Law. Teach also the life of the narrative, the constant flow of human error and Divine grace, the lesson of God’s displeasure with those who use God’s law to usurp God’s mercy. “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52)

We are all tempted to tickle the ears of the listeners and readers, going along with what we know are their preconceived notions of scripture and faith, or joining the cynics in dismissing it lightly. The cure is to pray persistently, as in the Luke passage, and to covet the passion of the psalmist to not merely know, but also lovingly apply God’s truth in our own lives.

Luke 18:1-8

Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

We may give up on religion, but let us never give up on prayer. How often we are tempted to throw up our hands and just go along, never mind making sense of the Text, just wrap it in clever words and fill in the sermon blank! As Disciples of Christ, we have a duty to “be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” — as the Timothy passage states. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in our lives?

There is a divine interconnectedness in Scripture that connects Lectionary passages in ways that the Lectionary assemblers might never have imagined. In the Luke passage, Jesus tells of an unjust judge who is willing to ignore the law but cannot ignore the persistent widow crying for justice. The Old Testament passages salute the Law, but more importantly underscore the internalization of Scripture. Finally, in the Gospel passage, Jesus seems to say that passion and desire have the power to move God even when the Law is ignored.

Scripture is the living word of God; Jesus is the word of God made flesh. Life implies change. The unchanging Word even documents change as being a good thing in the life of faith.

Even as Scripture anchors our faith, let it also illustrate that newness, forgiveness, and freshness are the hallmarks of Christian life. Let’s thank God for new beginnings, clean slates, and the divine reboot.

Lectionary, Prop. 23: Finishing School

Many pastors use the Revised Common Lectionary to select their texts for a given Sunday sermon. The Lectionary takes us through most of the Bible over a three-year period. I usually select one passage and center on that as the Sunday sermon. But with apologies to Bob Cornwall, a blogger at [D]Mergent from whom I stole the idea, here are my first impressions of the Lectionary passages for 10/10/2010:

Jeremiah 29:1,4-7

Jeremiah was considered a traitor in his day. When everyone around him was screaming with nationalism — my country, right or wrong; God is on our side; We’re God’s favorite; etc. — Jeremiah saw reality and spoke the truth. Jerusalem was bound to fall to Babylon, but that didn’t negate God’s blessing to ordinary citizens. Now that you’re exiles and immigrants, he said, you can still thrive in your exile — and your host nation can be blessed as well. Live your lives, Jeremiah said — get married, have kids, plant gardens, and seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you for exile.

Like Babylon, our nation also enjoys the blessing of its immigrants. They are doctors and vets, farmers and gardeners. If God has sent them here, it was probably not to suffer, but to live ordinary lives — to bless and be blessed.

Psalm 66:1-12

You let enemies ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water;
but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.

I find it odd to hear complaints of how Christians are “persecuted” in America. Clearly, in this nation, we have won the culture war. The civil rights movement might never have succeeded without the leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose title forced the white Christian power structure to see that blacks had as much right to the ancient Hebrew stories as did Gentile European immigrants. Can it be that spiritual development requires that we experience the pain of the oppressed? Can it be that God actually lets us live under oppression if that’s what it takes for us to understand? God does sometimes “let enemies ride over our heads.” Or, as the psalm also says, “For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried.”

More likely, I think that these things just happen as a part of the human experience, almost at random, but God’s grace can redeem them, turning hard times into a refining process.

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Paul reminds Timothy that Christ has room to talk about suffering. “If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” He might as well be addressing the blogosphere directly:

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

It is interesting that Jesus was neither Samaritan nor Roman. He was here privileged caste, there oppressed minority; his words are valid to people in either position. The trick is to demonstrate Godly behavior wherever one falls today on the social spectrum. No surprise that Christ both brought down the powerful and elevated the downcast. He was no respecter of persons, sharing healing and instruction with the righteous and unrighteous alike.

Luke 17:11-19

It’s the story of Jesus healing 10 lepers, and only one returned to offer thanks:

And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Again, the outcast, the immigrant, is proven righteous not by standing, but by gratitude and humility. Initial blush reminds me that all are fed by the beans in the field, but who stoops to harvest them? Who is grateful for the job, and humble enough to do it? But isn’t everyone blessed as a result?

I detect a common thread in this week’s lectionary scriptures. God lets us go through the fire and water, but God also brings us to places of refreshment. It’s a refining process. Suffering refines us. The place of refreshment is our opportunity to demonstrate refinement — as we deal with those who are going through their own refinement process.