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Here we are at the second Sunday of Advent. As usual, on this Sunday, the lectionary presents us with that wild man, John the Baptist, the one with the funny clothes and questionable dietary choices. One commentator says this about John and his message: “Like a yapping little terrier, it nips relentlessly at our heels as we attempt to slide past the message to Christmas.” The trouble is, we can’t get past John. There is no getting to Christmas without going through John the Baptist.
Actually, he, and his message,are the perfect Advent focus. United Church of Christ pastor, Mark Yurs, reminds us that all true worship takes place in a wilderness, of sorts, where people can rethink their lives. He says that the sanctuary where we worship is the place we sit with our “fears, worries, responsibilities,” and where “people confront the howling winds, thorny brambles, and lonely emptinessess of their lives.” So it is appropriate to join John the Baptist in the wilderness this Sunday as we get ready for Christmas.
Another commentator says if we want renewal in our faith, “we must travel outside of holiday sounds, sights, and social events to the place in our lives where ‘wild things’ live in order for something new to be born.”
Both are getting at the same truth. Advent and wilderness go together. It is not that holiday sounds and sights are wrong. Enjoying holiday parties is certainly appropriate. But, if we want to take advantage of this season of preparation in order to grow in our faith, we will need to seek out and not be afraid of wilderness places, places removed from where we are totally in control. I am talking about literal places of wilderness as well as those wildernesses of the heart many of us know intimately.
John’s message in our passage for today is a call to repentance. It is a call to make room in our hearts for God’s presence to do the work that leads us to walk in another direction. After all, repentence is simply realizing we are walking in the wrong direction and then turning and going in another. It is recognizing that we have been walking away from Christ’s light and into the darkness, into places in our lives and hearts that do not lead to life. And when we recognize this, we should not wallow in guilt for all the stupid or mean things we have said or done. We just need to turn and walk in another direction.
Episcopalian priest, Suzanne Guthrie writes, “If the foundation of existence is God then everything about my life must change.” She says when we accept that God is that foundation then our job is to “orient my life so that I live in a way that accommodates God’s existence.” What would that look like in your life? What must we discard, or rearrange, in order to accommodate God’s presence?
John says when the one who is more powerful than him comes (referring to Jesus), he will burn all the chaff with unquenchable fire. When we discussed this in our lectionary class, someone said this passage is perfect for a fire and brimstone sermon. It sounds so harsh and judgmental.
I suspect that kind of sermon is the last thing people who come to worship during Advent want to hear. I know such a sermon would not be one I would seek out if I weren’t the one preaching! But, as tough as John’s words seem, they don’t have to lead to harsh judgement or fear of being sent to hell.
Many have seen these words about fire as a purifying image. They also see the words about the threshing floor separating the wheat from the chaff as a call to do some inner housecleaning. We are all a combination of wheat and chaff, so to speak. We all have parts of ourselves that can be referred to as chaff. We all have attitudes and behaviors that are not helpful and even harmful to ourselves and others.
Advent can be a time to do some introspection. What distracts us from spending time with the really important people and things in life? What worry about the future robs us of living fully in the present where God dwells? What guilt and grief from the past makes it impossible to live in the present with grace and freedom?
Especially in this season that pushes consumerism, always wanting more can be seen as chaff in some people’s lives. That’s an easy thing to point our fingers at and deplore as unhelpful. What about the more subtle things that get in the way? Could the need to be in control at all times be chaff in your life? For some an obsession with neatness, causing crankiness and criticism, gets in the way of enjoying fun, but messy times. Others nurse little sleights that sour relationships. All chaff. Perfectionist tendencies, as I have said so many times, are a common type of chaff we would do well to burn off.
The point is simple. Don’t waste this Advent season by avoiding inner housecleaning. Decorate your homes, to be sure, but clean out the chaff in your hearts at the same time.
Advent is also about a deep sense of longing for the world to be a better place. We long for peace in our violent world. We long for healed relationships. We long for things to be less hectic. Ultimately we long for God. We have to be careful with this longing. Another Episcopalian, vicar Rosalind Brown says, “It is rarely safe to long for God, and impossible if we are unwilling to be changed.”
When we create space for God to be born in us as God was born in the manger in Bethlehem long ago, we need to accept that when we are hospitable to God, our lives will change. We will cease to act like we are the center of the universe. We will do little acts that contribute to God’s Commonwealth becoming more of a reality in our homes and our communities.
It is no accident then, that Advent is not just linked to wilderness. It is also intimately linked to hospitality. Hospitality has been the theme of our kitchen campaign begun last spring and our stewardship drive this fall. It is a central biblical virtue. Hospitality urges us to welcome all in our worship service and at our tables, including our communion table. Hospitality recognizes there is no peace without justice.
I have been reading a little book called Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro. She says in Advent, “we are invited to practice a unique kind of hospitality with one another: the sort of hospitality that makes room for people to share the strange ways in which God is moving in their lives; the sort of hospitality that encourages people to put down wearisome baggage and trust God to fill their empty hands and hearts; the sort of hospitality that nurtures space for holy listening.”
I have to admit, I love Advent possibly even more than Christmas. Sure Christmas is wonderful, festive, and emotional as we light candles while singing “Silent Night” and other beloved carols The music is stirring. The smells are mesmerizing. It is fun to give and get gifts. It is hard to beat warm and fuzzy. But, there is something about the deep longing, the bitter/sweet ache that wishes things were better, more whole, less broken or strained that touches me on a deeper level than warm and fuzzy. Even the hard work of inner housecleaning, soul cleaning as it were, draws me in and captures my best instincts.
So, as this Advent progresses, let us not shy away from the wildernesses in our lives. Let us find those places far away from all that might distract us, and begin to sift through the chaff so that all that remains is the wheat, all that remains is our best instincts and our most hospitable selves. Let us remember John did not call his hearers to believe differently. He called them to bear fruit worthy of repentence. He called them to be hospitable to God so that they might be more hospitable to others. Amen
Luke’s Gospel has a unique take on Jesus’ life. He makes a connection with Jesus’ entry into this world at his birth with his exit at his death. When he is born in Bethlehem the only ones to greet him and pay homage are the lowly shepherds.
The First Testament used to talk about kings and even God as a shepherd. Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd. . .” To call someone a shepherd, then was to say they were king. But, by the time we get to Jesus’ day, the shepherds have become outcastes. They were considered ritually unclean and consequently they were unwelcome in the Temple. It must have been very surprising for Luke’s early readers to see that the ones to welcome Jesus were not important religious leaders or even respectable people. No, Luke gives that prominent role to the lowly shepherds.
Then at the end of Jesus’ life, on the cross, it is the despised criminal who is the only one to recognize Jesus as the true king. The religious leaders scoffed at him. The sign above his head: “This is the King of the Jews” was meant to be sarcastic and a cruel joke.
The soldiers, representing the secular power of Rome, mocked and teased him. They offered him sour wine in order to revive him so he could suffer some more. And the other criminal derided Jesus for not helping him. Surely if he was a true king he could do something. Instead it was the other criminal suffering with Jesus who recognized him and paid homage to him as king in his request to be remembered.
Jesus’ last conversation on earth, for Luke, is not with good religious people, not even with his disciples, but with this criminal. It is an amazing conversation to be sure. We have read it so many times it has lost some of the shock Luke must have intended.
Listen to how commentator, Lance Pape, an assistant professor of Homiletics at Brite Divinity School, describes this conversation:
“What Luke wants to show us about the peculiar sovereignty of Jesus, he communicates through a brief but remarkable conversation. Amid a chorus of mockers a lone voice, that of a condemned man hanging beside him, asks, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (v.42). This is preposterous. At that moment you could have searched the entire human realm and it would have been impossible to find two people with less earthly hope than these conversation partners. They were Jews in a Roman world. They were condemned criminals in a world of brutal and often arbitrary law. By any reasonable human standard they were finished. They had been cast outside the city wall, stripped of all possessions right down to their bare flesh, impaled with cold iron, and hung naked to suffocate and bleed out their last hours on earth as subhuman refuse. Every possible dignity was denied them. The only remaining use the world had for them was to make an example of them-to exact the greatest possible price of pain from their bodies, the greatest possible price of shame from their personalities, before they perished. In the end, they would hang torn and lifeless, a gruesome testimony to the power and brutality of the world that rejected them-a warning to any who questioned the authority of the powers that be. But the conversation Luke gives us is not one of despair. As they live their social death, as they stare physical death in the eye, these two speak of the future!”
Can you see how amazing this was? When we strip away all our preconceptions and try to read this passage as if for the first time, we can begin to see just how preposterous, just how wonderful is this little conversation. It is so much deeper than a story about a last minute conversion as some try to interpret it.
This is the focus of Christ the King Sunday. When we call Christ King and follow him, outlandish hope in the face of total hopelessness becomes possible. When we call Christ King we march to the beat of a different drummer. We follow the one who forgives his tormentors. We follow a king whose power is expressed in weakness. We follow a leader who does not protect himself but is willing to suffer for doing the right thing. That is so unlike many of our politicians today who are afraid to vote in a way that might not get them re-elected. This king puts others and the common good ahead of his own comfort and power.
Most amazing of all we follow a king who is a giver of surprising grace. When Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” we need to know he is not talking about heaven as we know it. Paradise, in that day, was the place of the righteous after death where they waited for the final resurrection. Jesus, then, was calling this criminal a righteous man. He was invited to rest in the place of the righteous along with all those respectable people who looked down on him. This would have offended people in that day. His calling him righteous was a matter of sheer grace. It was unearned. It came at the end of a troubled life of crime.
As we end this liturgical year we can see how the whole year builds to this affirmation: Christ is King and Caesar is not. It is an affirmation we can make today. I realize the king language is not comfortable for some. It does sound very paternalistic. But sometimes it catches the meaning of the scriptural hope in ways other language does not. So, we can say today Christ is king and all those powers and leaders in our day who seem so invincible are not. No, Christ is King. We follow a shepherd, we give our allegiance to a humble king as we try to live by his standards and ethics.
All are welcome in Christ’s Commonwealth. Grace abounds, even to those who have done nothing to earn it. Violence is condemned as a means to fight injustice. Hope is possible even in the bleakest of moments. For this we give thanks.
It is serendipitous on this Sunday before we celebrate Thanksgiving that we also celebrate Christ the King Sunday. As we give thanks for all the blessings in our lives, may we also recommit ourselves to follow the one the Bible calls the true shepherd, the true king. May we do our part to make the reign of Christ more visible in a world that can be so selfish and self-centered. Amen
What are we to make of this outlandish passage of hope in Isaiah? He even encourages us to forget the past. Aren’t we told that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it’s mistakes? But here in Isaiah we read, “the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.”
If that is not perplexing enough what about the rest of the passage? We read about a world where there will be no infant mortality; where people can expect to live to be 100 years old or feel cheated if they don’t. Isaiah then gives a vision of the peaceable kingdom, a kingdom that sees the wolf and the lamb feeding together, the lion not ravaging people and the snake not biting anyone. Really?
In a world where dictators butcher their own people, as in Syria; where devastating cyclones wreck whole cities and the lives of its citizens; where governments are dysfunctional, including our own; where school shootings are on the rise, and the NRA prevents any sensible gun laws; and where cancer seems to be running amok, affecting almost every family; in such a world, how can we read this passage of outlandish hope and not cynically dismiss it, or even laugh at it?
Let’s step back a moment. This part of Isaiah was written to those Israelites who had returned to their homeland from Babylon after Persia defeated the Babylonians. They returned to a land in a shambles. Their beloved temple built by Solomon was no more. Things were bleak. It seemed impossible to regain what had been lost.
Remember when they were taken into captivity others moved in and lived in their homes. Others ate the fruit of the crops they planted before being taken away. Many died in the battle with Babylon. Many children born in that time did not live into adulthood. These people knew the opposite of the hopes Isaiah wrote about.
It was tempting for them to give up and mourn their pathetic present. It was easy to nurse the hurts of the past, get stuck in their grief, anger, and, no doubt, desire for revenge. It was easy, as well, to remember how things were before they were defeated, and to wish it could be like that again. Nostalgia for the past usually forgets the whole story, but is sure feels better than a hard present.
Somehow they needed to put that past behind them. They needed to not remember the former things so they could be open to something different, something new, maybe even something better than their glorious past.
The first step for them, for us, is to believe something new can actually happen. And when they/we get a glimpse of something new, we will need to accept the changes. Being comfortable with change, even good change, is hard enough.
When I went back to my old seminary this past month, things were not the same. There was a new library in place of the old library in which I had spent hours studying, writing papers, and getting ready for tests. The old bookstore where I was the assistant manager was gone. Everything was online now. Things were different and I hated it!
Well, hated is a strong word. I was a bit disoriented and disappointed. While I still think getting rid of the bookstore, where one could go and actually thumb through books, and replace it with an online store was not a good move, I have to admit the new library was stunning. There were wonderful little reading nooks with comfortable chairs looking out on the campus through floor to ceiling windows. There were plug-ins everywhere for peoples’ computers. There were gracious meeting places for students and faculty to congregate. It was different, but I have to say, it was better.
Still, change is not always good news for those stuck in the past. No new creation can be embraced, however, unless one stops holding on to the former things. That’s the first step in believing something new can happen.
The next, and last step is even harder. It is to have a vision of a wonderful future and then work for it. That is why Isaiah’s outlandish passage of hope is important. It was an impossible ideal, but it showed the people a goal towards which to work. Their job was to ask themselves a simple question: what am I doing today to make that impossibly wonderful vision more of a reality than it is now? How am I creating room in my head and heart for God to work through me so that I can be a co-creator with God of that new creation?
I remember, as I have said several times this past year, when Sandy said she hoped money given in memory of her would be used to build a new kitchen. It seemed impossible. But two years later we are using that new kitchen. We are growing into being a more hospitable community because we have a kitchen that will better enable us to welcome others for a meal.
Hospitality has been the focus of our stewardship campaign this year. When we are hospitable we create a world more like the one Isaiah’s poem envisioned. It won’t happen all at once. It begins with simple little steps.
One of the commentators I read this week put it this way: “One book given, one friendship claimed, one covenant of love, one can of beans, one moment of commendation, one confession of God’s presence but for the asking, one moment in which another person is humanized rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice, one declaration of the evil that is hiding in plain sight, one declaration that every person is a child of God: these acts accumulate within God’s grace.”
If we believe that, we can have hope even when the present seems bleak. One commentator said that hope helps us see there is a purpose to human history. Without hope this life we all share is just one darn thing after another. It can feel meaningless or absurd. We may never fully grasp the purpose of our collective history, but we desperately need to trust that our actions, our lives have meaning. We need to trust that we are about creating a better world than we inherited.
So, rather than laughing at Isaiah’s outlandish poem of hope, rather than giving up and being stuck in the past, let us take one step toward living into that hope. Let us commit to doing one action God might use to help create that kingdom where violence is no more, where children are safe, where all have a roof over their heads and are fed, where hospitality reigns. May our pledging this day be one of those steps. Amen
Let me tell you a story. Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee who prayed a typical Jewish prayer of gratitude similar to many passages out of the Psalms. He was very grateful for his lot in life. The other one was a tax collector who beat his breast, lamenting what a horrible person he was in a super humble way.
When they both left the Temple it was the Pharisee who goes home justified for his gratitude and proper Jewish prayer. The tax collector, who relied on his humility that he knows God loves, was rejected for his presumption. He was probably thinking, “Thank God I am not like that self-satisfied Pharisee!”
I stole that version of Jesus’ parable from a couple of the scholars I read this week. They wanted to help us not leap to easy conclusions as we read this very familiar parable. It’s easy for us to jump to the conclusion that the Pharisee is the bad guy. We have been pre-conditioned to see Pharisees in a poor light by how they are often presented in the gospels. That means we are tempted to root for the underdog tax collector. In doing that we miss Jesus’ point. We miss the shock the original hearers of this parable felt.
Listen to how Paul Duke, a pastor of the Kirkwood Baptist Church in Missouri understands this passage. I will quote him at length, since I can’t see any better way of getting his point across. He writes, “To see the Publican as honorable and the Pharisee as a creep makes the story false, curdles it to a dishonest (and easily anti-Semitic) morality tale and sends us straight into the trap of saying, ‘God, we thank you that we are not like this Pharisee!’ Better to see him as he is-a thoroughly decent, generous, committed man-and to see the Publican as a compromised, certified stinker.
” I know which character my church depends on. I know which one pays the bills, teaches the lesson, visits the sick, feeds the hungry. I’d love a churchful of people with his commitments-people who care enough to fast, people who tithe on all their income and who thank God that they can. As in Jesus’ day, it’s people like the Pharisee who hold the community together and keep the faith with diligence and passion. We can’t color him sinister. He’s not J.R. Ewing in a choir robe. He’s a better man than I am, and probably better than you.”
Duke reminds us we have made this parable into a cliché. We need to remember Jesus shocked his original hearers in telling this story. Pharisees were the admired liberals of his day. They would be the Newport Presbyterian type of Christians as opposed to the fundamentalists in our day. And the tax collectors would be the terrorists if Jesus told that parable today. They were absolutely hated, and for good reason. They were traitors working for the occupier Rome to collect taxes. They charged exhorbitant rates making money for themselves.
For Jesus to make the tax collector the one who left the Temple justified would have blown the minds of those first hearers of this parable. How could that be? How dare Jesus make the tax collector the one God seems to favor.
Where did the Pharisee go wrong? His prayer was very similar to other Jewish prayers of that day. Duke quotes other classic prayers: “I give you thanks, O Lord my God. . .that you have not set my portion with those who sit in street corners,” and “Praised be the God who did not make me a heathen. . .and who did not make me an uneducated man.”
No, this Pharisee was not doing anything wrong with his prayer of gratitude. But, as commenators are fond of saying, he went wrong when he stopped praying and started peeking. When he used the words “and even like this tax collector. . .” he was comparing himself to others in order to bolster his own esteem.
Sound familiar? What one of us has not done a similar thing. We compare how much we make to those who earn more or less. We compare how we look to those we think are prettier or more handsome. We compare our athletic ability, or any other skill we might have to those more, or less skillful. His comparison is painfully familiar to me. How about you?
When the Pharisee compared himself to the tax collector, he felt very justified in his own actions. In fact, he felt so justified he did not ask for anything from God. He did not ask for forgiveness and therefore was not forgiven.
Luke wants us to see that we are all flawed people. We are all in need of God’s grace. It is interesting to note that even the Pharisee could be seen as a tax collector. He was involved with the Temple tax where those in leadership in the Jewish community charged other Jews to keep up the Temple and to pay for the hierarchy. One scholar said the Temple tax could be as high as 21 to 23% of a farmer’s income. The tax Rome charged was on top of that. So, both men in the Temple in that parable were tax collectors of a sort.
Both, as another scholar points out, saw God as a rule giver. The Pharisee was a big rule follower in terms of fasting and tithing. He felt like he justified himself in his ability to follow the rules. The tax collector also saw God as a rule giver only he was not able or willing to follow the rules. Therefore he felt very bad about himself. He could not earn God’s love by his obedience to the rules.
Luke’s point in telling this parable is to say we can’t earn God’s love or grace by our rule following. There is nothing wrong with following rules. It certainly makes society run more smoothly. And, as Paul Duke says in his commentary, churches love folks who take their faith seriously and try to be obedient to the rules.
But the point is not about following rules in order to be loved. It is also not an instruction manual about how to pray as one commentator notes. We are not to follow the tax collector and beat our breasts in prayer. Interestingly many of us, like the tax collector, bow our heads and close our eyes when we pray. That posture in prayer may go back to passages in scripture like this. I know I was sternly warned when I was a kid not to open my eyes in prayer. To do so felt like a sin. I still feel a little guilty when I open my eyes when praying!
No, the point Jesus was shockingly making was that even this hated tax collector was loved by God. Grace is not earned but freely given. This is something church folks in our day need to remember. Many of us secretly think we can please God by our obedience, by our church attendance, by following the rules. The perfectionists among us especially struggle with this.
I read where the results of a poll taken in the 1980′s said that 72% of church members said they expected to go to heaven because of their goodness and humility! Some Christians still think trying to be a good Christian is all about getting a ticket into heaven because of what they believe or how they follow rules. Jesus’ message is far more radical and freeing than that.
Last week we talked about prayer in terms of not losing heart in hopeless situations. This week Luke follows that up with two men praying. Luke wants us to stop trying to earn God’s grace by comparing ourselves to others and feeling good about ourselves because we are better than others. We don’t need to beat ourselves up like the tax collector. We can, however, follow his example by accepting who we are, warts and all.
Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage ends this way. “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
When we can stop trying to impress others or God and accept ourselves as flawed people, not horrible people, just imperfect people, we end up giving God’s grace room to work in our hearts. If we give grace a chance to work we will find we slowly become more than we are now. We are loved into being lovable. That is good news. Amen
We all know of, or have experienced a time when it just felt like there was no hope. Things were so bad or so absurd, and we could not see any way we could do anything to make it better. I am thinking of things like a spouse going through the last stages of dementia, not recognizing anyone or able to have much quality of life; a cancer diagnoses that has no hope for remission or even a cure; the recent stalemate in Congress where our representatives push their own partisan agendas and the common good is neglected; being laid off with no job possibilities in sight; or even some parenting situations where we are at our wits end and don’t know what to do to make it better.
When we face these kinds of situations what do we do? How does our faith help us? How do we move forward without just giving up, becoming depressed or just angry at the world or God? Our passage in Luke is one response to a very hopeless situation.
Luke was writing to a church that was experiencing persecution. Their situation seemed hopeless. Christians were in the minority. They were alienated from the Jewish community where many early Christians were raised. The Roman authorities were persecuting them. They had virtually no power to deal with these hardships.
So Luke records one of Jesus’ parables. It is the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. It is a funny parable on the surface. Seeing a judge intimidated by this persistent widow, finally giving in and helping her, must have made his original hearers smile. The literal translation in the Greek says the judge was worried this widow might give him a black eye, both literally and figuratively!
But this parable is getting at a deeper reality. Luke sets the stage when he writes that this parable was about “their need to pray always and not lose heart.” Then he tells the parable. The situation is really hopeless. The widow in that culture was very vulnerable. She could not work to earn a living once her husband died. If she did not have anyone to take her in and provide for her she was in big trouble. She was the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in that time.
Her one hope for justice, maybe getting what was due to her from her husband’s relatives, was to go to a judge. Sadly the only judge she could see was one who did not respect anyone and did not fear God. These qualities were the exact opposite of how the First Testament talks about the qualifications for a judge. He was a terrible judge by the biblical standards of that day.
Jesus is painting a picture of dire hopelessness. We have a widow with no power of her own to protect herself and a judge who does not give a hoot about her or God. It cannot get much more hopeless than that.
We don’t want to allegorize this parable as we try to make sense of it. We don’t want to ask who does the widow represent? or who does the judge represent? That is not the point of the parable. The point is to paint a hopeless situation. The original hearers would relate to this because many of them were in a hopeless situation.
They had to decide what they are going to do. They had several options. They could become cynical and just give up or lose heart. Nothing will change this bad time. No one cares. I just give up. Or they could become angry and lash out. They could try to fight for justice or take their anger out on their family or community. Certainly some in Jesus’ day became zealots and tried to fight Rome. They all failed miserably. Or they could pray.
I just finished a book by Elie Wiesel called Open Heart. It is a remembrance of his life after his open heart surgery at the age of 82. The thought of possibly dying on the surgery table prompted him to think back over his life. As you may know, Wiesel was one of those Jews taken to Auschwitz at the age of 15. He survived but others in his family did not.
After he was liberated he had this to say, “I know eternities ago, the day after the liberation, when some of us had to choose between anger and gratitude, my choice was the right one.” It affected how he lived the rest of his life. It enabled him to write and teach impacting many, many others.
How we handle hopeless situations, tragedies, or any events that affect us profoundly is crucial. We have choices. Luke says the choice for Christians during their persecution was between giving up the faith and losing heart, or to pray.
Of course, the next issue is what do we expect to be the result of our prayers? Do we get what we need or think we want when we pray to God? Jesus, in this passage, says God will quickly grant justice to those who cry to God.
My guess would be that some in that day might question how fast God responded. Certainly some of us in our day who have prayed fervently for something, whether it be for justice, an end to war or some resolution to a problem, might question whether God has responded quickly. We have not seen anything change. Is prayer then worthless?
We need to turn to another parable in Luke on prayer to help us with this discussion. In chapter eleven Jesus is talking about prayer and says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” He goes on to say, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Note carefully how this ends. We ask for things in prayer and God responds with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of presence. The answer to our fervent prayers is not necessarily all that we want. The answer is a deeper connection to God. Prayer is critical to a relationship with God. It opens all kinds of possibilities. True healing, as opposed to a cure, becomes possible when we experience presence. Sometimes an experience of presence empowers us to act instead of give up.
It all comes down to a choice. When life feels hopeless do we not lose heart and pray or do we give up on God and become cynical or angry? Elie Wiesel ends his book of remembrances this way. “I have already been the beneficiary of so many miracles, which I know I owe to my ancestors. All I have achieved has been and continues to be dedicated to their murdered dreams-and hopes. I am infinitely grateful to them. My life? I go on breathing from minute to minute, from prayer to prayer.”
The life of faith is a life of “breathing from minute to minute, from prayer to prayer.” It is a life that weathers some tough times without losing heart and giving up. It is a life that tenaciously works at a relationship with God, a God that can sometimes feel so silent, so distant, even absent.
If Wiesel can talk about a life of prayer after all he experienced in Auschwitz, I find any heartache I have had to endure is no excuse for giving up and losing heart. No hopeless situation is so hopeless we cannot reach out to God in prayer. Those prayers may be cries of lament. They may even express anger. The Psalms give us permission to express a whole gamut of emotions in prayer. But, no matter the emotion, prayer opens us to an experience presence. That is good news. Amen
Have you ever noticed when you have a misfortune and think you are unique, you begin to hear about so many others who have had the same thing happen to them? After my house was robbed, I heard about many others who have felt the trauma of that violating event. I know those who have cancer join a great throng of people who have also dealt with that difficult diagnoses. Sandy and I felt a special bond with others in the chemo infusion room as all those with cancer were being given drugs to fight that horrible disease.
This bond even crossed some big barriers in my life. There was a man in our Presbytery who had always been someone I disagreed with on virtually every issue on which the Presbytery voted. But, when both our wives were fighting cancer, we were able to see each other as vulnerable human beings facing the same fears and worries. Misfortune has a way of bridging big gaps, creating community that would not ordinarily be there.
We see this in our Luke passage for today. The misfortune here was leprosy. When one was found to have leprosy they were isolated from the rest of their community. It was a tragic situation. But, those who were shunned by their own community could find a new community with others with the same disease. This new community could even bridge the gaps between normal antagonists. In this case in Luke, this group of lepers included both Jews and at least one Samaritan. They would never be together in one community otherwise.
This notion that our weaknesses more than our strengths can be a source of bonding is interesting and illuminating. Maybe if we were more vulnerable with our weaknesses we might find we share more with others we would call stranger or even enemy.
While this group of lepers did bond in a kind of community, still this did not make up for the fact they were separated from their family and friends. This was a devastating situation. It is hard to come up with something in our own culture that compares with this isolation.
In our lectionary class we talked about how race, disability, culture, certain diseases like AIDS, and even obesity have made some feel isolated. Certainly many of those Muslim women who wore head scarves or even more conservative religious garb or those men wearing turbans felt isolated and vulnerable right after 9/11.
Some scholars suggest this story about leprosy separating people could be seen as a metaphor for how sin separates us from one another and God. All of us, then, can relate to this story. Sin makes us all lepers of a sort. It sours relationships with one another. It can even cause estrangement that is very painful. It also hampers our relationship with God.
Into this picture of separation and isolation steps Jesus. He is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to confronting those who had the power to call others unclean. He is in no man’s land between Galilee and Samaria. This was not safe territory for a Jew. It is here where Jesus is approached and asked for mercy. It is also here where the story gets interesting.
Notice this healing is different from the usual healing stories in the gospels. Jesus does not break the rules of that day and touch these unclean ones. He doesn’t even engage them in any conversation. Those who begged for help do not express any statement of faith in Jesus. They just ask for mercy.
Jesus does not say he will heal them. He just tells them to go to the priests. We need to know that is how one who has had a skin disease finds their way back into society. They need to go to a priest to be certified they are now clean and can go back to their families and friends.
The fact that the lepers obey Jesus and head to their priest can be seen as a step of faith. As one commentator writes, they were acting as if they were healed by going to the priest. This commentator goes on to say that this pretty much sums up the nature of faith. Faith is “acting-as-if”. We may have our doubts. We may not feel all that certain about God or the spiritual life. But when we act as if it were true, we tend to grow into a deeper faith and trust.
I know when I became a minister I did not think I was up to the task. I had never performed a wedding or a funeral before. I had only preached on a couple of occasions, most of which were before other classmates in seminary. Now I was in a church and one of the ministers. I was expected to be ministerial and even wise. That was a streatch for me. I ended up acting as if I were truly a minister and lo and behold, I became one. Of course, if the truth be known, I still “act-as-if” from time to time!
The story does not stop with the ten acting as if they were healed however. One of the lepers doesn’t obey Jesus and turns back. Luke lets us know the one who did this was a Samaritan. Once again Luke is presenting us with an outsider, a despised person who acts as the hero in the story. He had already told the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now another Samaritan outshines the insiders, the Jewish lepers.
This Samaritan leper wants to show his deep gratitude for the grace he had been shown by Jesus. The text says, “when he saw he was healed. . .” Seeing clearly seems to be an important factor in recognizing God’s grace.
The People’s New Testament Commentary tells us that grace and gratitude are related linguistically. They have the same root. It goes on to say, “There can be no awareness of grace without gratitude, no gratitude without an awareness of grace.” They go on to say the Church could be defined as the “community of the grateful.”
I find that a wonderful definition. If only the Church could nurture more people of gratitude we would have a better world. People of gratitude are far more likely to work for the common good. They don’t feel deprived and thus greedy and afraid. They feel they have enough for themselves and enough to share.
It is here, when the one leper disobeys Jesus to come back and show gratitude where the story gets a bit radical. Apparently gratitude trumps obedience. The other nine did nothing wrong. They simply obeyed Jesus and were healed. They were the good religious people who felt following rules is the highest priority.
But, Luke is saying that sometimes we are called to disobey one command to follow a higher law. Gratitude is a greater virtue than a slavish kind of rule keeping, never risking being disobedient for a good reason.
Those who call for acts of civil disobedience in our day are going with this message. When they break the law to speak out for issues of justice and compassion, whether that disobedience is trespassing, withholding taxes, or some other form of non-violent action, they are saying there is a higher law they are following.
In this story in Luke disobedience and the gratitude that led to praise and worship are what led Luke to say this man was made well. The Greek word translated “made well” is a different Greek word than the one translated “healed.” To be made well is to experience being saved. This is a deeper reality than simple healing. Being saved is not just about getting a ticket into heaven. It is about experiencing a quality of life right on this earth that is full and complete. It is tasting a bit of heaven while living on the earth. And it was a result of this man’s disobedience.
Hospitality has been the theme we have been pushing this fall in the stewardship campaign and in our kitchen remodel. When you think about it, our ability to be an hospitable people, an hospitable church, starts with our being grateful. Hospitality is empowered by gratitude. When we feel touched by grace, when we feel like we have enough to live a satisfying life, we can be free to share what we have in an hospitable fashion.
So, let’s be brave enough from time to time to risk disobedience as we follow a higher law. Let us not settle for a slavish rule-following type of religion, but one that lets gratitude be a central part of our spiritual lives. Let us risk letting gratitude trump obedience when that is called for. Amen
I Tim. 6:6-19
You can’t take it with you. You were born with nothing and you will leave this life with nothing. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. These sayings go back a long way. We have a version of them in our I Timothy passage for today. They made sense then. They still make sense today.
We are not quite into stewardship season this last Sunday in September, but the lectionary has given us two passages that deal with money and the abuse of money. We don’t need to wait until stewardship to talk about money. If Jesus talked about it more than any other topic, then maybe Christians should focus on this uncomfortable topic more than we do. We will focus on I Timothy rather than luke. Let’s dive in.
The issue in I Timothy is not wealth, per se. It is the love of riches that leads to problems. Being rich is not wrong, Greed is. Money, however, is a dangerous commodity. It can seduce us into all kinds of bad behavior. Pastoral counselors will tell you that arguments over money cause more trouble in marriages than almost any other topic. When I do pre-marital counseling we take time discussing spending habits and financial goals. Money is symbolic of so many other issues, like status, power, self-esteem and independence.
I had a young couple in my last church who talked about their future plans in very different ways. She wanted to have a little family, a simple, comfortable home, and a quiet family life. He said his goal was to make his first million by the time he was 40 so he could retire and enjoy life. I could only imagine the trouble this couple was going to have as they got married. Those two visions of their future life were not compatible. I almost declined to perform their wedding.
I suspect most of us would say we don’t have a huge problem with money. Sure we like to have it. We like to be comfortable. We like to buy nice things. But we don’t let it lead us into evil places. That seems pretty extreme. The trouble is it is not that simple. There is a fine line between enjoying money, being comfortable, having nice things and falling into greedy habits.
Commentator, Martin Copenhaver, discussed this fine line in a sermon. He asked, “When does the desire for the abundant life become the life that is jerked around by grubby greed?” He goes on to say, “I expect that you know better when I trip over that line than when you cross it.” He is right. It is always easier to see greed in someone else than in ourselves.
Certainly a problem in our affluent culture is the temptation to buy things we don’t need. One commentator talks about the old joke “that said there are three reasons for buying something: 1) I really need this now, 2) I don’t need it now but since it’s on sale I ought to buy it because sooner or later I’ll need it, and 3) While I don’t need that, sometimes it’s nice just to treat yourself to something that’s fun to have.”
I don’t know about you, but that comes painfully close to home! While there is nothing inherently wrong with thinking like that, it can lead us away from satisfying our needs and focusing too much on our wants. When our focus shifts to our wants, greed is close at hand. We can even get into financial trouble. The old saying, “Don’t let your yearnings get above your earnings,” is good advice.
There is a story that comes out of a remote corner of Vermont. It is about a general store owner who “had just gotten a shipment of fresh pineapples. It is the first time he has ever carried them, the first time anyone can remember having them available in that little town. One of his customers comes in and the storekeeper says, ‘Try the fresh pineapple. It’s delicious.’ The customer replies, ‘No, thank you. I don’t want to develop any new hankerings.’”
Such wisdom and self-control is hard to fathom. We live in a culture that loves to cultivate new hankerings in us for things that are nice, but things we really don’t need. Is it wrong to satisfy our hankerings for such things? No, but the more we give in to our hankerings, the less we are able to say no to them when our hankerings get out of control.
The author of this letter says the only way Timothy can avoid the lure of greed is to pursue other virtues. These virtues will give him inner resources to avoid temptations. Then the author lists six of them: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.
That’s an interesting list. One scholar says the first three have to do with enhancing our relationship with God. Righteousness is being in right relationship with God. Godliness is living a life acceptable to God. Faith is trusting God to the point of obedience in our life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us.
The last three-love as defined by the Greek term agape, endurance and gentleness affect our relationship with one another. At our lectionary class this past week, one of the people said she heard a commencement address by Arianna Huffington. Huffington was urging the graduating class to pursue the three “w’s” in their life: well-being, wisdom and wonder. Those virtues are a fine compliment to the six in First Timothy.
I particularly like her inclusion of wonder. To walk through life amazed at the beauty of creation, to be grateful for all that we have, would lead to humility and contentment. I know I could use more wonder and less dissatisfaction in my life!
If you had to pick virtues you are pursuing, or you wish the younger generation would pursue, which would you pick? It’s hard to improve on I Timothy’s six or even Huffington’s three. I would probably use different words than the author of First Timothy used however. Righteousness and godliness don’t translate so well today as they did back then. I would want to add a few more virtues: integrity, courage, and compassion for the poor. What would your list look like?
The important point is that we will not be able to fight the temptations money presents, the greed our unchecked hankerings lead to, unless we pursue virtues that can build a strong character and inner life. First Timothy says when we cultivate these virtues we will build a solid foundation for the future. The author is talking about the after-life, to be sure, but his focus is on more than the after-life.
His foundation for the future will help us take hold of the “life that really is life.” Another term for this is eternal life. Eternal life is something we experience, at least partially, now, while we live on the earth. It is a quality of life that speaks to deeper values than accumulating things. It is a quality of life that deepens our relationships with God and one another.
One commentator helps us put wealth into perspective by using the analogy of a penny and the sun. Wealth is represented by the penny. The life that really is life is the sun. When we hold the penny at arms length against the sun it looks small in comparison. The sun is everything. But when we hold the penny close to our eyes while looking at the sun, the sun is blotted out. All we see is the penny.
So, too, when we focus on accumulating wealth, thinking it will make our life richer, we miss focusing on the truly rich life. When we can keep wealth at arms length, so to speak, then we can see what is far more important in life.
So, on this fall Sunday, weeks away from Stewardship Sunday, let us pursue those virtues that will help us deal with our unhealthy hankerings. Let us take hold of eternal life so that we might have a rich inner life that will enhance our relationship with God and one another. We can’t take it with us. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. May we never forget that. Amen
I Tim. 2:1-7
Context is critical. It is hard to make sense of passages in the Bible without knowing the context out of which the author was writing. What was going on in the world at the time the the gospel or letter was written? To whom was the letter addressed? What were the issues that community was facing?
To fail to do that homework may lead to troubling, and even absurd conclusions. Certainly those who try to slap any biblical passage on our day 2,000 years after it was written without considering some of the questions I just raised is in danger of misrepresenting the Bible. Some passages, if taken literally, can be used as a club, controlling or condemning behavior in an ignorant fashion.
For example, our passage in I Timothy could be seen as saying only the Christian God is real. Unless you believe in Jesus you will not be able to connect with the only real God. I have mentioned this exclusive perspective in several other sermons, but it is important to draw our attention to it once again when we encounter such passages. Listen again to verses five and six. “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for
all. . .”
Some in our day have quoted passages like this to say that any of the other enduring religions have no validity. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others are just false or misguided at best. They do not have the correct mediator to connect to God. Such a use of this passage does not understand the audience to whom I Timothy was writing. It was so unlike our pluralistic world. We may know people of other religious traditions because they live in our neighborhoods, shop at the same stores where we shop, and may even work at the same places we work. The recipients of this letter were living in a very different world.
I Timothy was writing to those who were dealing with some of the pagan religions in that culture. Those religions talked about many gods and many mediators. This could make religion very complicated. Fear could be a big factor in one’s religious life if you thought you might upset one of the gods.
I Timothy says don’t get caught up in that religious perspective. There is really only one God. And if you want to make a connection to God, there is also only one mediator: Jesus. Such a notion was freeing for those first readers. I Timothy was not putting down other enduring religions we have come to know today. He was speaking to a very different situation.
Then there is the ransom language. I Timothy says, “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all. . .” In the churches where I grew up I was taught to see this almost literally. It was not helpful. Here is what two respected scholars, Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring in The People’s New Testament Commentary, say about this passage:
“The metaphor should not be pressed literally, as though God had to pay someone (the devil) a purchase price (the death of Jesus) to obtain humanity’s release. Nonetheless, the redemptive act was costly.”
Don’t we know it. Jesus suffered terribly for his words of freedom for the people against an oppressive religious system. That does not mean God intended for him to suffer, or that God was offering ransom money to the devil.
These commentators see this ransom metaphor as representing God, in Christ, “as redeeming human beings from the bondage of sin and death. . .As God is the savior of all, Christ’s death is for all.” Getting away from literalizing this ransom language makes it much more powerful for me. It presents a picture of God that is not as monstrous as the literal understanding of ransom would lead one to believe.
I wanted to get that out of the way so we can get into some of the other rich ideas found in our passage. One of the first things to note is just how inclusive I Timothy is. They are to pray for everyone, even those kings and people in high positions who might be persecuting them (vss. 1 and 2). God desires everyone to be saved (v. 4). And Jesus gave himself for all (v. 6). That kind of repetition by I Timothy shows how important this was for him.
This was amazing and gracious language for a minority Church who was probably experiencing persecution. He urges his church to pray for the king. Note, he did not say pray to the king, but for the king. That is critical. In his day the Roman rulers saw themselves as mini-gods, or a son of God. They were called Savior. I Timothy pointedly calls God Savior. That was a political as well as a religious affirmation.
Yet, he says the people need to pray for those in power. This was partly self-serving. Christians had been known as trouble makers. They often did not cooperate with the Roman rulers. We know the early Christians refused to serve in the Roman army. This often resulted in persecution.
I Timothy says if you want to live a more peaceable and quiet life, you might want to be seen in a more favorable light. Certainly praying for the well-being of the king was a step in that direction. I suspect it was more than that however. To pray for one’s enemy is not easy. It requires seeing their true humanity, maybe even the God within them as God is in all of us.
At our workshop a week ago, Kathleen MacFerran tried to help us find that common ground all people share so that we might have conversations with those with whom we have huge disagreements. She said that all human beings have the same basic needs for love, safety, friendship, freedom, choice, shelter, etc. Disagreements arise when we choose different strategies to meet those same needs.
For instance, those who favor no gun laws want their need for freedom of choice met by the right to own whatever type of gun they want. Owning a gun makes them feel safer. Those who push for restrictive gun laws want the same needs met. We want to feel safe, not having to fear being shot by those carrying guns. We want the freedom to send our children to school without worrying about their safety.
When we can identify with the same needs in others who have chosen a different strategy to meet those needs, we might find some common ground. When we have a conversation from that common ground we might be able to work towards a compromise that could meet the needs of both sides, at least partially. This is hard work. It requires not becoming defensive. We need to find a centered place in ourselves from which to speak.
It also requires seeing the other person as not the enemy but as a vulnerable human being, like us. The goal is for both sides to see the other’s best side so that the conversation can be respectful, and hopefully create common ground for further conversation.
Certainly praying for those with whom we disagree is a good step. That requires us to see the God within them. It requires us to remember God loves them every bit as much as God loves us. Passages such as I Timothy encourage us to do this.
I Timothy wanted his church to live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. I suspect most of us have the same desire. If we are serious about creating such a life, we will need to be serious about growing in our faith. Perhaps the first step in that is to set aside time to meditate or pray, time to center ourselves so that we respond to others out of the best places in ourselves. And once we are centered we might even be able to pray for our enemies, or at least those who push our buttons with their different strategies to meet the needs we all share.
May we hear I Timothy’s call to pray for everyone. Amen
Jer. 4:11-12, 22-28 and I Tim. 1:12-17
I’ve always heard that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Just because you did not know something was wrong does not mean you won’t be held accountable for doing it. But, that is not true with God. The author of I Timothy writes, “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Ignorance, apparently, is a good excuse with God.
The good news in this passage is bigger than being able to claim ignorance however. Before getting to that we need to admit there are plenty of troubling passages in I and II Timothy that offend men and women alike. Fortunately the lectionary tends to skip passages like, “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes. . .Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”
Not all scripture has relevance in our day. But there are some gems by this author that do have relevance for our or any day. Our passage this morning is one of them.
The author of this letter exaggerates Paul’s bad side using words much stronger than Paul himself used elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul never says he was a blasphemer, for example. And Paul said he was the least of the apostles, not the foremost or worst sinner ever!
These exaggerations, and other language not typically found in Paul’s other letters have led most scholars to say Paul did not write I Timothy. Instead they see it as written by a follower of Paul trying to make Paul’s perspective relevant to his own time and situation years after Paul was writing.
The author exaggerates Paul’s foibles to make a point. The point being: no matter how bad we are, God’s grace can forgive and heal us. God can use even fallible, ornery people to do good work for God’s Commonwealth.
We do know that Paul’s conversion was an incredibly important moment for the early church. He pursued Christians, trying to arrest them. When he had his conversion moment on the road to Damascus the Church saw its greatest enemy become its greatest ally. Acts reports this conversion three times which was unusual. This was a big deal. If God could change Saul to become Paul, then anything was possible. I Timothy wants us, as one scholar put it, to see some of our broken places in his description of Paul’s brokenness. If we can do that we might have hope that we, too, could change.
I’m not so sure, however, that many of us feel like this description of Paul before his conversion. Few of us would say we were the worst sinner of all. Sure, we have been unkind or thoughtless from time to time. We have been selfish and self-centered. We’ve acted, on occasion, like we thought we were the center of the universe. We’ve been lazy, not doing our fair share to make this world a better place. Often, we have let our fears control our decisions. But, most of us are not horrible people. We are just imperfect people. We are just human, in other words.
Maybe the bigger problem for many of us trying to accept God’s grace so we can be used by God to make a difference in this world concerns our low self-esteem. Some of us don’t think we are very talented or smart, or capable of doing great things. We can’t imagine being called by God, however that call may come to us. We settle for a humdrum existence, hiding in the shadows, never speaking up when we see there is a problem. We don’t trust our instincts. Some have suggested this may be something women deal with more than men.
One of the commentators I read this week said that Martin Luther defined sin as “human arrogance that attempts to justify oneself before God.” This commentator goes on to quote some feminist theologians that say pride and will to power have not been the typical feminine temptations to sin. They write that the better terms for a woman’s temptations to sin are “suggested by such terms as triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence. . .in short, underdevelopment or negation of the Self.”
Such a perspective on women’s sins reminds me that sin is not just about arrogance or being unkind to others. Sin also encompasses being unkind to oneself, letting others define who we are, letting a low self-esteem control how we act.
Personally I don’t see such a striking difference between men and women in terms of sin, but their observations are thought-provoking. The difference between men and women in terms of sin could be an interesting conversation to have sometime in the church.
Suffice it to say, I Timothy says no matter what our sin, God can forgive, heal and use us to do good work. One need only read the Bible to see how some of the least likely characters were used by God in salvation history. David was no saint. Some of the judges were a piece of work. The disciples come off as idiots in much of the gospels. Yet all were used by God. If God can use them, then God can use people like us.
We need to temper this hopeful, graceful word with our other passage for today out of Jeremiah. He calls the people foolish and stupid. Pretty blunt! We need to be careful not to let this passage reinforce a false understanding of the Bible. Some have said the Old Testament is all about a harsh, judgmental, almost grumpy God and the New Testament is about a God of love, who almost comes across as permissive. There is plenty of grace in the Old Testament. There is also plenty of judgment in the New Testament.
But, we do need to hear these harsh words in Jeremiah as a balance to the gracious words in I Timothy. Jeremiah is saying there are consequences to bad choices. While God may love us, we are not protected from the hard parts of life. Certainly tragedies happen that are no fault of our own. But when we make bad choices, we may experience bad consequences. Countries know this in spades when they make bad alliances, or choose to solve their problems with violence. Individuals know this as well.
The life of faith is a balance between trusting God’s grace and mercy as well as realizing this grace is not cheap grace. The best metaphor for God is not a doting, permissive parent. If God is love, as I John affirms, then God can sometimes be tough love.
The bottom line in all of this is grace. Grace has the final word. That is part of the very fabric of the Bible. It is part of our faith DNA. We need not wallow in the consequences of our bad choices. We need not beat ourselves up for being imperfect people. If God can use someone like Saul, David, or the disciples, then God can use us as well.
It is when we trust that grace and mercy that we are able to offer hospitality to others. I pray that those of us at Newport will grow ever deeper in this trust of God’s grace so that it will empower us to be hospitable people to those inside as well as outside the walls of our church. Amen
The choice between pursuing cracked cisterns versus seeking the fountain of living water is perhaps one of the critical choices we make in life. At first glance it seems like a no-brainer. Who would choose cracked and leaky cisterns with scummy water over a fountain of living water?
But, it is not that simple. There are all kinds of temptations in life luring us to go after things that seem good on the surface but ultimately are worthless. Temptations are tough. Oscar Wilde once said “I can resist everything but temptation.” We smile, but many of us can relate to his tongue-in-cheek, but embarrassingly honest remark.
Jeremiah takes this seriously in our passage for today. He writes, Israel “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.” We are what we go after. What we crave begins to define who we are. We are formed by what we pursue. We are led down a path that will have great impact on our development as a person when we choose what ends up being worthless. That is a humbling thought.
When Jeremiah wrote this, Jerusalem was under siege. Their water was running out. They were thirsty. One commentator said Jeremiah used this situation to talk about thirst on a deeper level. He wanted the people to know they were in a spiritual crises and were not just lacking good drinking water.
This is how that commentator put it. “They have long since turned from the deep well of God’s goodness and have, instead, tried to quench their deepest thirst with the thinnest of tonics, with leaky pots full of maggoty gruel: elixirs of gold; drafts of pagan alliances; double shots of worldly power and bloody militarism; cauldrons of boiling idolatries, poisonous leaders, false prophets, and unrepentant kings.” That’s quite a list!
Another scholar says Israel got into this trouble because they had forgotten their primary story. She was referring to the story of their liberation in the Exodus and God’s providing sustenance in the wilderness as they traveled on the road to freedom.
She says stories are critical. When we forget our primary story that gives us our identity, that gives our lives meaning, we will go astray. She then goes on to ask what false stories do we tell ourselves today that lead us to cracked cisterns? “We are what we possess?” she asks. Might makes right? She goes on to say something that is quite challenging, especially in the world in which we find ourselves today.
“Consistently placing global economic and military domination ahead of the needs of the poor at home and abroad is, ultimately, a leaky cistern.” This leads me to ask some hard questions of our government these days. Is responding to the Syrian government’s abhorent use of chemical weapons on its own citizens with a military strike to punish them really the best way to deal with that situation? When you consider how such an action can easily lead to escalation; when you consider the cost of such a military mission and how that money could be used in more humanitarian efforts, one begins to wonder if we are not choosing a cracked cistern in response to that crisis.
I recently saw a powerful movie: “A Place at the Table” about hunger issues in this country. The level of food insecurity among millions of American children is shameful in a country as wealthy as ours. Is cutting back on food stamps for the poor while increasing expenditures elsewhere choosing a cracked cistern?
I realize these issues are not black and white. They involve serious issues that are complex. But Christians need our voices to be heard in this discussion. We must avoid the mistakes of the past and not repeat them. Israel’s leaders: their priests, prophets and kings led Israel astray. We need to hold our leaders accountable for their decisions in our time.
This choice between cracked cisterns and living water is not just a global or national issue. It is one that affects each of us on a personal level. Herb O’Driscoll wonders if our obsession with technology is a cracked cistern. That will be a critical discussion for the next few generations. Are we really better off with our obsession and dependence on technology?
Those of us who are techno-phobic should not sit in judgment on those who love their ipads, smart phones, and tweets. We have our own cracked cisterns to which we give our hearts. Consumerism, security, diet fads, the illusion we can stop aging and be, or look, young forever, you name it, threaten to capture our best efforts. We all need to be aware of our choices and how they either nourish us or lead us astray.
What cracked cisterns are temptations in your life? That is a good question to ponder on this Labor Day weekend. To what do we give our best energies? Do we labor for things that distract us from the more important commitments and people we value?
Then we need to ask the next question. Where do we find living water? Where do we focus our attention? Labor Day is a secular holiday, to be sure. But it is also a holiday that can lead us to ask some very important questions about our choices whether we are in school, in the working world, or retired.
As we take communion this day, as we come to the table where we are spiritually nourished, where we approach the one who offers a fountain of living water, let us commit ourselves to give our best energies to seeking that living water. Let us avoid the temptations that lead us to cracked cisterns. Amen