Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Sunday, October 3, 2010
When I first read our Gospel reading this week my first response was, “there has to be something better than this.” After all, it is World Communion Sunday and this is not very Communion like. The temptation was strong to saunter over to the Gospel of John and Jesus words about the true vine, or perhaps simply read from the Last Supper.
But the Lectionary exists for a reason, or reasons, and one of them is to bring out attention to bear on passages of Scripture we would just as soon leave alone. Here Jesus appears to be comparing the disciples to slaves of the master who have no right to claim preference but must, in fact, wait like the family dog to eat last and to acknowledge that all of the hard work and effort is not worthy of praise but, rather, is nothing more than duty. There is no “thank you” here for the all the effort. No “well done, good and faithful servant,” like we read elsewhere. We all like praise and there are not many of us, this side of Mr. Spock, who say “why do you thank me? I merely do my duty.”
This perplexing saying comes at the end of a series of four sayings, only two of which we read this morning. Luke 17:1-10 forms a unit of sayings, the first two have to do with not being the cause of stumbling for new converts to the faith. The second concerns forgiving the penitent. These sayings sufficiently frighten the disciples who believe themselves incapable of living up to this expectation. So they, understandably, ask Jesus to “increase their faith”.
This is something we all tend to do. When confronted with what seems a taunting task, we put the responsibility back on the one presenting the challenge. I remember when Amy Jo and I were considering relocating in 1999. We were reading Church Information Forms. A great many of them would spell out the difficulties and challenges of their current ministries and then they would say, “We need a minister who will motivate us to get to work.” They were saying, as the disciples were saying, “increase our faith.” Children, while in the process of learning to responsible, often do the same thing. When confronted with a task or a home chore, they will respond that the parent has somehow been deficient in the transaction. How can I clean my room when you haven’t….. I can’t take out the trash because the you never brought the bin back from the street.
The disciples say to Jesus, increase our faith. How can we be expected to be responsible to the calling of the Kingdom of God as we are? If you want us to do all these things then you have to make it possible for us. Jesus responds to the disciples in this way: “If you had the faith the size of a mustard seed, you could uproot a tree.” In the Greek language there are two uses of this phrase. One reflects a condition contrary to fact: “If you were a bird”. The other reflects a condition according to fact: If Jesus is Lord. This usage is the second usage. In other words, Jesus says If you have the faith of a mustard seed (and you do)…. The problem, therefore, is not that the disciples lack the necessary faith. The problem seems to be that the disciples do not accept responsibility for the faith that they have and the work they are called to do.
Having said that, it provides some perspective on the last of Jesus’ four sayings here presented. When I first read it I was not sure it was a good choice for World Communion Sunday. It seems a bit nasty. After all, we come to the table because we have been invited by our Lord. And here in this parable the opposite is the case. The slave is not invited first but, rather, must prepare supper for the master and eat later with the family dog. But as with all of Jesus’ sayings, this parable as a specific purpose and it is related to the question of responsibility. Our faith is sufficient—we have our orders—get on with it. In the same manner that we want to deflect responsibility to others, so also we want reward for doing what is basic human responsibility. First we do not want to do what is ask of us. And if we do, we want to be lifted up as special for having done it. Jesus is telling the disciples and us that the Kingdom of God is not going to work that way. What we need we have been given. Faith. Grace. Forgiveness. What we need to do has been shown to us. Take what we have been given, do the work for the kingdom of God and all will be well.
And even though we are invited to this table by our Lord, we are not the first to eat of it. As Jesus asks his disciples in another setting, can you drink from the cup from which I drink? It is because Jesus goes before us that we are able to sit at this table. It is because Jesus is the bread of life and the cup of salvation that this sacrament has meaning. We do come in response to Christ’s invitation—filled with sufficient faith—and having been filled with spiritual nourishment—are returned for our work in the Kingdom of God.
If we have the faith of a mustard seed. We do. Then we can do whatever the Kingdom requires. And we should. And then we eat. Only not as worthless slaves. We come together as children in the family of God.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Saturday, September 25, 2010
We have all heard a lot about the economy, the housing market, no jobs. In some cases we have heard more than we want, in other cases we don’t feel enough is being done. But I am sure that the residents of Judah in 588 BCE would say quit your griping. You see, they had bigger problems. The city of Jerusalem was surrounded by a huge army under the command of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. And they were breathing fire and had murder in their eyes.
This was not the first time King N had come Judah’s way. After the death of Josiah, one of Judah’s few good kings, Egypt took charge of the region and held Judah as a vassal state. But there was a new bully on the block, and its name was Babylon. When it appeared that Babylon might conquer Egypt, the king of Judah sided with Babylon. The forces of Egypt and Babylon met on the battle field and the result was inconclusive, although both sides suffered heavy losses. Each went home, licking its wounds. In the period of relative calm, Judah tried to reassert its independence. Although Egypt was a worthy foe, Babylon had no regard for Judah’s bit of arrogance and decided to take a victory where it could. So the Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem, this time dedicated to teach Judah one full and final lesson. No longer satisfied with tribute, Nebuchadnezzar was intent on razing Jerusalem to the ground.
The prophet Jeremiah had seen this coming for a long time. He spent a considerable amount of time in the presence of the king with a simple question: Where is God in all of this? Jeremiah denounced the worldly politics of the monarchy. Why make alliances with Egypt, Babylon, or anyone else? We have made an alliance with God. We are God’s people! Trust and hope in the Lord God! Isaiah had tried the same advice in his day with similar results. No one listened. No one cared. In fact, Jeremiah made such a pest of himself that he was imprisoned. And now his words of wisdom suddenly sounded wiser than before. The armies of Babylon raged, and God was silent. The end had come.
It is at this point that we join our reading for this morning. Jeremiah is in prison, the city is collapsing around him. Here is the chance for him to say, “I told you so!” Here he might derive some satisfaction from circumstances that vindicate his claim that God alone is worthy of loyalty and covenant. But Jeremiah receives a different word from the Lord. The Lord tells him to buy real estate.
It is truly a credit to Jeremiah that he did not go all Job on God and ask what kind of help that was? True, the city was certainly about to become a buyer’s market, but unfortunately there was not going to be anything left to buy. Except land. And the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah that his cousin would be along in a little bit with an offer to let Jeremiah redeem some land, which was his by law to redeem.
Not only does Jeremiah decide to buy the land, but we are told that he made a very public display of it. He had witnesses. Baruch was told to talk it up. The deeds were placed in an earthenware jar—much like the jars in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, which tells you something of their capacity to preserve—for the Lord of Hosts says that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
That is really quite a proclamation. No wonder most people thought prophets were simply mad. What could be crazier than a man in prison buying a field in a land about to be devastated by the enemy? Clearly Jeremiah is out of his mind, so we might as well dismiss everything else he says at the same time.
But to approach Jeremiah’s action this way is to miss the point of his witness. For Jeremiah was not buying land. He was buying hope. Jeremiah had run out of warnings. The time had passed for action rooted in faith. The fall of Jerusalem was irreversible. The collapse of the temple was inescapable. The time had come for an even more amazing prophecy than the doom of the people. The Word of the Lord was a Word of hope. This calamity, as horrific as it was, would not be the last word.
It was also a way in which Jeremiah could make essentially the same point as the one he tried to make before the siege began. God is not the temple. God is not the King’s palace. God is not the well being of the land and the wealth of the establishment. God is God and we are God’s people. When the buildings are gone, when the wealth is destroyed, when the temple is razed and when the King’s palace is in ruin—God is still God. And the people are still God’s people. This relationship cannot be severed by the enemy. Only our earthly treasures we cling to can be destroyed by the enemy. Our relationship with God is a relationship. When the smoke clears and the enemy withdraws, the relationship will be there still. And land and houses and vineyards will again by bought in the land. This is the nature of Christian hope.
And I say Christian hope because Jeremiah’s understanding is brought into the New Testament through Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament texts. According to the theologians who interpreted the fall of Judah, the calamity was brought on by the failure of the leaders of the land to place the covenant with God above other concerns. These other concerns had much to do with their own acquisition of and display of wealth and power. In order to acquire wealth and power, it was necessary to disregard the needs of many people of the land. For example, the ruling King of Judah at the time of the city’s destruction tore down his father’s palace to big an even bigger one, and he used forced slavery to build it.
The relationship of wealth to God flows throughout the New Testament. Jesus talks about money more than any other subject. James warns the church about placing more concern on placating the rich than caring for the poor. Paul brings the matter up repeatedly, including this passage from 1 Timothy. Its hard to find a more plainly stated example than this: But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. We are hard pressed to find a better summation of our current times than this. But this observation is merely the diagnosis, not the cure. The cure is found in these words: pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. The implication is clear: pursuit of such things as these will not lead to success by the standards of the material and wealth hungry world. So what success follows such behavior? The blessing of living in right relationship with God, who will provide everything for our enjoyment.
This passage contains one of the most familiar but misquoted verses in the New Testament. Paul writes to Timothy that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. This observation is commonly misread as "money is the root of all evil". But this is not what Paul says. Paul says the love of money is the root. Money itself is not the problem. Consider how this passage ends. The rich are commanded not to liquidate their assets, but to but them to good use. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share. I know of no pastors who do not wish for a church full of generous, sharing, rich people.
Set your hope, Paul says, on God who provides for our needs and not in the uncertainty of riches. Jeremiah was saying the same thing, only with his public real estate transaction rather than with words. The point is the same—true hope is hope in God and of God’s relationship and promises to us, not in the acquisition of money and material wealth.
This is not to say that wealth is evil. It is a question of orientation. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are the great philanthropists of this generation. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman gave 100 million dollars to New Jersey Schools. Some believe this was an act to counter the negative impression the recently released movie may create…but I think most teachers around here would not worry about that if they could have education enhanced in this way. And speaking of movies, Gordon Gecko is back on Wall Street. I know very little about the new movie but many of us remember the iconic comment from the Wall Street movie from the 1980s--- Greed is Good. This attitude is alive and well today and responsible for many of the economic hardships of our day.
Hope is not anti-wealth, it is anti-greed. Wealth can be a spiritual gift like any other and, like all spiritual gifts, is meant not for personal gain but for the up-building of the community. After all, you cannot buy houses and land and vineyards with assets. Jeremiah is not advocating homelessness. He is advocating a relationship rooted in God, faithful to God, solely reliant on God. Paul and Jeremiah together are encouraging us to let this hope be the foundation of our future, and to take hold of the life that really is life.