Author: Robert Cornwall

Just Be Patient – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3A (James 5)

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field in Rain
James 5:7-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

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                This word about patience comes at an interesting time in the year. The season of Advent is meant to be a contemplative time. That means we should slow down and prepare ourselves to welcome the coming Lord. John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, making the pathways straight, by proclaiming the coming reign of God by inviting all who would list to repent and change their hearts It was a ministry that Matthew saw foretold in the words of Second Isaiah (Mt. 3:1-3; Is. 40:3). In this Advent season, we hear the call to repent and live into God’s realm that is coming into existence. The place we will find this realm revealed is in the person of Jesus. As Matthew records, the Holy Family is told that the child who will be born in Bethlehem is to be called Emmanuel (God with Us) (Mt. 1:23).

                Each Sunday of Advent we hear a call to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord by embracing a particular core value. First is the call to embrace hope and then there is the call for peace. On the third Sunday, a day when we hear this reading from James 5, we are called to embrace the joy of the Lord. While we hear these invitations to prepare for the coming of the Lord, the broader culture has invited us to a party. While Christmas (often in its commercialized forms) dominates, it’s not the only holiday party going on. That’s why it’s appropriate to greet each other with a Happy Holidays. Whether religious or secular these events can overshadow the call to prepare for something other than the beginning of a new year (and the end of a decade).  

 

So, in this busy season how do we embrace the virtue of patience? When people are rushing around making last-minute preparations for parties or travel, as well as doing all that Christmas shopping, how do we take seriously James’ call to be patient? Maybe in January, when things settle down, then we can consider the idea of being patient. Then we can consider the patience exhibited by the farmer who waits for the rains to come and water the crops.

               The Letter of James is often understood to be an expression of the larger Wisdom tradition. It has the marks of that tradition, in addition to a distinctly Jewish feel. That makes sense as it is often attributed to James, the Lord’s Brother. And, in the absence of a better claimant, I’m comfortable with that appellation. If it is from the pen of that particular James who, according to the Book of Acts, was a leading figure in the church in Jerusalem, it would be a rather early letter. The context of chapter 5 suggests that the recipients may have been experiencing some form of suffering. That might have come as a result of the Jewish Wars that took place between 60 and 70 CE, which scattered the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Among those Jews who were sent into the Diaspora would have been Jewish Christians. That appears to be the audience of this letter. While this letter has the marks of Jewish wisdom literature, this particular passage also has an eschatological, even apocalyptic feel. That is because it is offering counsel to the people as they look forward to the coming of the Lord.

Whoever is the intended audience, they are in this passage being counseled to be patient. What this coming of the Lord involves is not certain. It might include the expectation or the hope of a victory over the Romans. Whatever the hope is, the greater hope is placed in the coming of the Lord and preparing for it. That preparation includes endurance, as seen in the word present in verse 11, pointing to the story of Job.

                The eschatological element present here does point toward a day of judgment, with perhaps the coming Lord being that judge. Thus, with the day of judgment on the horizon, James warns the community to live as ones who can face that day without worry. This is a call to live faithfully as the people of God. Leading up to this word of wisdom, James has spoken of judgment on the rich who oppress the poor (Jms.5:1-6). He has also warned against the dangers of the tongue which can destroy (Jms. 3:1-12). Inappropriate use of the tongue also could lead to judgment. In the midst of this particular reading from James 5, we hear a warning against grumbling against others in the community. In other words, be careful with what you say.

James is concerned about actions that can divide and destroy a community that is facing many challenges. In response to those who, perhaps claiming support from Paul, say that faith alone is sufficient, James has declared that faith without works is dead.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

There are times when it would be appropriate to emphasize grace and faith as the foundation of our relationship with God in Christ. God’s love is unconditional, but there are also times when it’s clear that we can take this grace received by faith for granted. James wants us to understand that our relationship with God in Christ should bear fruit. If it doesn’t, then somethings wrong.

                So, when it comes to the counsel of patience here, we shouldn’t think here in terms of a passive waiting for something to happen. Consider this analogy of the farmer. It may be true that the success of the harvest is dependent on the rains (in a land that is by nature dry), but that doesn’t mean the farmer is sitting back doing nothing. No, the farmer is always at work preparing things so that when the rain comes everything is ready to go. The same is true for the prophets, whom James mentions. They are more examples of endurance in the midst of suffering than “patience,” if patience means simply waiting around for things to happen. Of course, in James’ mind, their patience is related to the delay in the coming day of the Lord. They were faithful in their proclamation even if they did not see the fullness of their message revealed. For James, the messages of the prophets pointed to Jesus and his embodiment of God’s realm.

This call to embrace patience is not an invitation to passivity. If we know anything about James, it’s an active form of patience. That patience has to do with the coming of the Lord. In the Gospel reading from Matthew that is paired with James 5, Jesus tells the disciples: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt 24:42). Such is the message of Advent: Stay awake, be ready, for the rains will come, as will the day of the Lord. On that day there will be judgment, but will that entail? That is the question that we continually ponder. Matthew has a separation of sheep and goats. It’s a powerful image, and it fits with James’ message, but is that the final word?

 

As we consider this call to prepare for the coming of the Lord, I want to leave you with a word from theologian Jürgen Moltmann, and then the opening lines of an Advent hymn that speaks of waiting “patiently” for the coming of the Promised One. So first Moltmann and then the hymn.

 

What we call the Last judgment is nothing other than the universal revelation of Jesus Christ, and the consummation of his redemptive work. No expiatory penal code will be applied in the court of the crucified Christ. No punishments of eternal death will be imposed. The final spread of the divine righteousness that creates justice serves the eternal kingdom of God, not the final restoration of a divine world order that has been infringed. Judgment at the end is not an end at all; it is the beginning. Its goal is the restoration of all things for the building up of God’s eternal kingdom.” [Jürgen Moltmann. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3617-3621).] 

So let us sing:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
and open furrows await the seed of God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
it cries out for justice and searches for the truth. 
                                                                —Albert Taulè
               

Picture attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1820-1888. Wheat Field in Rain, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56228 [retrieved December 8, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh,_Dutch_-_Rain_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

All Are Welcome — Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2A (Romans 15)

Lahneck Castle, Germany
Romans 15:4-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 
7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
 
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
    and sing praises to your name”;
 
10 and again he says,
 
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
 
11 and again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
    and let all the peoples praise him”;
 
12 and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
 
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
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                What a wonderful message to hear proclaimed during the season of Advent, especially on Peace Sunday: All are welcome in the name of Christ.  Paul’s message to the Church in Rome is that God of steadfastness and encouragement, who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus, continues steadfast in service to the promise to the circumcised, the Jewish people, but we’re reminded that as part of this commitment to the Jewish people is a desire to bring into the covenant family Gentiles.  So, we hear Paul declare: “welcome one another” … “as Christ has welcomed you.”

The audience of this letter likely includes both Jewish and Gentile Christians. They may have been struggling with how to assimilate these two communities into one body of Christ. In using the word assimilate, I am aware that in our day its use often assumes that minority communities will be subsumed into the majority culture. That may have been an issue here as well, but Paul’s message seems to underlie the promise that whether Jew or Gentile, both are fully included in the community of Christ. It’s also important to remember that Paul has yet to visit this congregation, so he is speaking to a community that he didn’t establish. These are not his people, but he wants them to know that the gospel he preaches is one that bridges Jew and Gentile. He speaks of a harmony that is rooted in Christ. To do this he seems to be reminding his Jewish Christian audience of the promise found in the Scriptures concerning the Gentiles. Yes, Paul draws from the word of Isaiah 11:10 to reveal that the root of Jesse will not only rule over the Gentiles but in him, the Gentiles shall find hope. Though this is Peace Sunday, the message we hear on this Second Sunday of Advent is that of hope, which is found in Christ, the “root of Jesse.”  So, let the Gentiles join the people of God in giving praise to God who is revealed in the steadfastness and encouraging presence of Christ. With this word of hope comes a call to live in harmony (peace) with one another (both Jew and Gentile).

                Regarding this call for harmony, Karl Barth offers this word of guidance:

God does not merely instruct us: He GIVES us the incomprehensible, in order that in all our differences and in all our brokenness we may be—like minded; in order that we may, in all the play of our thoughts, look up to the One, and in order that we may, in the disharmony of the community, hear the voice of fellowship: —That with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  [Barth,  The Epistle to the Romans, p. 526].

 

     Notice that Barth points out that we are called to be “like-minded” in the context of difference and brokenness. He notes the disharmony that exists. It is a good reminder that we do not live in a utopia, where all are on the same page, for we are not. Disunity is not new, but it seems that we are feeling it in new ways. Perhaps it is due to the increasing diversity of context. We may find this disturbing and disrupting, but maybe, if we look at things through the lens of Christ, we might see a way forward.

           Barth speaks of glorifying God, and Jin Young Choi connects the call to worship (praise God) with welcoming others, suggesting that the two together are “essential components of Advent hope.”

Worshiping God cannot be separated from welcoming others. These are essential components of Advent hope as Christians eagerly wait for the Day of the Lord when all the nations—usually translated as the “Gentiles” in English—will worship God together. Accordingly, this concrete vision of a future inclusive community inspires believers to practice welcome.  [Connections,WJK Press, Kindle Edition. Loc. 1044].

                In an age when walls are being erected—both physical and metaphorical—that are designed to keep the “other” at bay, we hear this message of grace and welcome. It is a reminder that when we gather for worship in this Advent season, we come as hearers and bearers of the good news of welcome to those for whom walls have been erected. In fact, Paul is rather insistent that in Christ dividing walls do fall (Ephesians 2:14).

                The recent observance of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a good reminder that walls are not permanent. Some walls, like the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall, remain as remembrances of past attempts to keep others out, but today they are tourist attractions rather than bulwarks against the other. So, on this Peace Sunday, may we join with Paul and tear down the dividing walls that keep us apart. In doing this, we can affirm with Paul the promises made to the Patriarchs and join with the Gentiles (being that I am a Gentile that does include me) in glorifying God.

                Might we sing the second verse of Mary Anne Parrott’s Advent hymn:

            Come quickly shalom, teach us how to prepare
                         for a gift that compels us with justice to care.
Our spirits are restless till sin and war cease. 
            One candle is lit for the rein of God’s peace.   (Chalice Hymnal, 128)
               
               

 

Day Is Dawning — A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1A (Romans 13)

Romans 13:11-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

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NOTE to Readers:  Having reflected upon the first readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, which largely covers the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and having completed reflections on the Gospels, I will now turn for the next three years to the second readings, which normally come from the Epistles. You can find the earlier reflections by searching the text on this blog.
 
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                It is the first Sunday of Advent, which means that Christmas is near at hand. The tree and the lights and the decorations are probably up, and shopping has begun. With all the buzz around the holidays, attending to the message of Advent, which tends to be darker than the celebratory mood of the Christmas season, might be difficult. Hearing a word from Paul, especially one that has eschatological overtones (as is true of many Advent texts) might be even more difficult, but here is the word: It’s time to wake up, because salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” The day of salvation is near at hand, so get ready. Yes, now is the Kairos moment. Something transformative is at hand, so be ready. Be awake to the possibilities of the moment.

                Advent is intended to be a season of preparation. It even has penitential elements, much like Lent. Even the Advent hymns, though not all, tend to be in a minor key, which is why so many churches skip them and jump to carols. When it comes to the penitential side of things, it doesn’t sit well when everyone is in a mood to party (myself included).  Nevertheless, it would be wise to heed the message of the moment, to watch what is happening around us. What might God be up to in this Kairos moment?

One of the primary messages of the first twelve chapters of Romans is that grace is the foundation for our salvation, and now with that foundation, we hear a call to live lives that demonstrate gratitude for that grace. So, in the verses leading into our reading, Paul tells the Roman church to “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). Yes, love fulfills the law. This message isn’t unique to Paul or Jesus. It’s rooted in Leviticus, which calls upon the people of God to love their neighbor as themselves, and Rabbi Akiva, a near contemporary of Paul, suggested that love of neighbor was the essence of the Torah. Rabbi Reuven Hammer takes notes of Rabbi Akiva’s view of the love of others being the essence of the Torah: “It is not enough to insist that we treat others as we want to be treated since some people disdain themselves. It is not sufficient to say that all people are created equal. Love is the basic requirement” [Hammer, A Year with the Sages, p. 157]. Having made his declaration concerning love, Paul declares that now is the time of salvation. So, let us live accordingly.

                When Paul speaks of the day of salvation, which is dawning, and in fact, is at hand, he does so in dualistic terms. The night is almost over, and day is at hand, so “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” It is commonplace to think of evil acts occurring under the cover of darkness. Think of rats and roaches and other things that go bump in the night. When the light comes on the forces of darkness quickly flee. So be ready, the light is going to be turned on.

When we think of Paul’s message in eschatological terms, which fits Advent, darkness also represents the old age that is passing away. When dawn breaks, so will the new age. The old age is one in which sin dominates, and the new age offers freedom from the bondage to sin. Paul understands that we’re not completely free from the old age. Darkness still has some hold over the world, but we are to move toward the new age. The image here involves putting on the armor of light. Jin Young Choi comments on this call by Paul to put on the armor of light: “However, putting on the armor of light does not entail merely engaging ethical behaviors that the believers should choose; it also describes believers’ ontological status as those who put on Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27–28). In the new age, humanity is renewed into Christlike people.” [Connections, (Westminster John Knox Press). Kindle Edition. Loc. 565]. Thus, as we enter this new age of light, the age of salvation, we are to put on Jesus Christ.

Paul writes this letter with a great deal of urgency. He believes that the Kairos moment is at hand. The new age of light is about to break into the world. He believes something is about to happen that will turn everything upside down and that he is going to see it happen. By the end of his life, he might have begun to envision this inbreaking of the new realm taking a bit longer than he expected, but here in Romans 13, he’s still expecting something dramatic to occur that turn everything upside down. We’ve been on this journey now for nearly two millennia, so the anticipation may have worn off a bit. Thus, the value of Advent, for it calls us back to that moment of expectation. With that expectation comes the call to live in the light by putting on Jesus, which means living together in harmony and love. 

It’s unfortunate that what many think of when they hear the word eschatology are the end times scenarios of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. What this vision promises is a future of violence and trauma, where Jesus returns as a Marvel hero triumphing over his enemies with a terrible swift sword. I’m not sure that is what Paul has in mind; at least it’s not part of the message we read in Romans. Paul wouldn’t deny that at the turn of the ages there wouldn’t be suffering, for there likely will be resistance, but he doesn’t glory in it, nor should we. He may lay things out in terms of darkness and light, but what is key here is the reminder that having been redeemed in Christ, we have a future that promises peace and justice for all creation.

Leonora Tubbs Tisdale offers this word of encouragement in relation to our text. She speaks of two things that strike her concerning the season’s vision of social transformation:

The first is that what is often needed for Christians today is a wake-up call regarding the social evils of our day and our ethical injunction as Christians to respond to them. Often people are not so much intentionally evil as they are complacent and slumbering. Paul’s call to us to move out of the darkness of our sleeplike state and to move into the light of Christ’s work in the world is a needed one. Secondly, this text (given its locus in the book of Romans) reminds us that we do not do good works to earn our salvation. Rather, we do them out of gratitude to God and as a way of living into our baptismal callings in Christ. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 4].

So, let us put on Christ and “let us live honorably as in the day.” With that we begin the Advent journey, singing:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
And open furrows, the sowing of our God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
It cries out for justice and searches for the truth.
                                Albert Taulé (1972), tr. Gertrude C. Suppe, (1987)
               
               

 

The Righteous Branch—A Lectionary Reflection for Reign of Christ Sunday (Jeremiah 23)

The Crucifixion – Lucas Cranach the Elder, Art Institute of Chicago
 
Jeremiah 23:1-6 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

23 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. 

5 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

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                We begin the Christian year on the first Sunday of Advent, and in year C it begins with a word from Jeremiah 33. The reading for that Sunday declares: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jer. 33:14-16). The promise of this passage is the coming of the righteous branch who springs forth for David, and who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This is a word of hope offered by a prophet who offers few such words. Year C of the Christian year concludes with another word from Jeremiah, this time from ten chapters earlier. In Jeremiah 23, we again hear a word about the “Righteous Branch” who will be raised up for David. From beginning to end, we hear the promise of God that righteousness and justice will be served and that God will provide the means by which this occurs. This word of hope that comes on the day we call Reign of Christ (Christ the King) Sunday comes with a caveat. There is first a word of judgment on shepherds who have served the people poorly.

 

                The reading from Jeremiah 23 with a word of woe to “the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” (vs. 1). This word of judgment is laid upon the leaders of Judah, the monarchs, the ruling elite, and the religious leadership. This word comes to Judah just prior or perhaps in the midst of the Babylonian conquest that will destroy Jerusalem, the Temple, and lead to the captivity of its leading citizens. During this period of Jeremiah’s prophetic work, Judah had been led by three rather disappointing kings, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. All three of these kings contributed to the chaos that led to the destruction of Judah and the subsequent exile. 

 

Into this debacle on the part of the leadership, God is going to step in and be the shepherd Israel needs. God is going to gather the remnant from the lands into which they are scattered. God will then provide shepherds who will lead with righteousness and judgment. That is the Righteous Branch” who will reign as king over the people. In Jeremiah words of judgment are brought together with words of restoration. Judah may suffer defeat and exile, but this is not the last word. There will be a time of restoration when justice and righteousness will prevail.

 

                We hear this word on Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. This concluding Sunday of the year is designed to focus our attention on the coming reign of Christ over Creation. We can see this envisioned in the iconography of the Eastern churches that picture Christ as Pantocrator or the ruler of the universe. It is a vision that is revealed in the Book of Revelation and in the Gospels, but the reading from the Gospels that is paired with this text speaks of Christ on the Cross. It may not be the vision that we would expect here, but it reminds us that visions of God are not all the same. Justice and righteousness, they are central to the day’s message, but the means could be one of apparent weakness. In the reading from the Gospel of Luke (Lk.23:33-43), the picture of the Christ who reigns is the one named “king of the Jews” by the Roman authorities, who seek to mock the claim. 

 

                The word we hear from Jeremiah is one that is relevant to our times when it seems as if the world is in disarray. People are frustrated with their leaders. In many parts of the world, including here in the United States, many have embraced populist voices that promise to turn everything upside down. Many of them fulfill the promise, but not for the good, not for justice and righteousness. These shepherds are the kinds of leaders Jeremiah condemned for leading the people astray. But all is not lost. There is hope. God will provide for shepherds who will bring justice and righteousness.

 

                Perhaps this is a good moment for the church to consider what is required of a good leader, and how we as the people of God can create and promote such leaders. How might the church speak out against bad leaders and policies? Here’s the thing, how do we do this without becoming enmeshed with partisanship, so that we exchange one set of bad leaders for another? As we ponder these questions, it is appropriate to take note that this word is directed not at the bad leaders, but at their victims, those who suffer under such leaders. God promises to stand with them and provide leadership that is different from what has been experienced. Here’s the thing, as Carlton J. “Cobbie” Palm notes:

The plan for a new future is in God’s hands always, but we must understand that it will never be God’s accomplishment alone. In the unfolding story of God’s work throughout history we see a pattern. God creates and restores on our behalf, but always, and without exception, gives the work back to us to carry forward. This is what Jeremiah is saying when he concludes with the words of God, “I will raise up for David, a righteous branch” (v. 5). This is pointing to us, calling us out of droopiness to prepare for the handover to continue and sustain the work that God has begun. We are the righteous branch. We are the participants in God’s unfolding restoration. [Connections, p. 499].

How is this to be heard on Christ the King Sunday? Can we not hear this in connection with Paul’s description of the church as the Body of Christ? As Christ’s body, might we engage in the work that leads to justice and righteousness in the world? And in this regard, may we sing:

 
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
does its successive journeys run,
his kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
till moons shall wax and wane no more.
 
Blessings abound where’er he reigns:
the prisoners leap to lose their chains,
the weary find eternal rest,
and all who suffer want are blest.
 
Let every creature rise and bring
the highest honors to our King,
angels descend with songs again,
and earth repeat the loud amen. 
                                Isaac Watts
               

 

The Day Will Come . . . A New Creation — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23C (Isaiah 65)

Isaiah 65:17-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
 
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                Won’t you envision with me a new heaven and a new earth, where violence and death and suffering are no more? This is the eschatological vision that is revealed here in Isaiah and then again at the end of the Book of Revelation. In that last vision of John the Revelator, we hear the pronouncement:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev. 21:1). That reference to the sea is important, for the sea stands in for chaos. It is the enemy, so its absence is a sign that peace has come upon the land. It might not be a welcome word if you enjoy the ocean (as I do) but remember the context. The people of Israel weren’t a sea-going people. That said, the vision here is one of change, but what is the nature of that change? When the two passages are read together, this vision of a new heaven and new earth sounds rather ominous. That is because it seems to suggest something catastrophic occurring. It would appear that God intervenes in a radical way so that the old creation is done away with and something new replaces it. That vision has its attractions, but is this what the Prophet envisioned? Perhaps not.

We need to hear this vision in its original context. This word in Isaiah 65 was given to exiles who longed to return to their homeland. It’s given to people who are essentially homeless and face food insecurity. They are refugees who don’t have control over their own lives. Into this context comes this promise of abundance and peace. It is a promise of a long life, but not necessarily immortality. In this vision, the wolf and the lamb lie down together. Yes, predator and prey live together in peace. For a small nation, like Judah, this is a promise worthy of embracing, for they are the prey, while the Babylonians and other empires are the predators. It’s a reality that existed millennia in the past and exists today as well. So, it is a vision that resonates.

So, what do we make of this promise of a new heaven and new earth? Must we envision a catastrophic moment in time when this earth passes away and a new one emerges? Or is there another option? Jürgen Moltmann offers this response:

It is a golden Shalom age in the history of humanity and on this earth that is meant, not a world beyond. But that presupposes that this earth is good, and that in this promised age it will simply have to flower into a new undreamed-of fertility. It will not be annihilated and created anew. The pre-apocalyptic apocalyptic prophets saw a threat to Israel’s life and existence, but not to the cosmos. Their visions of the blessed life presuppose a profound trust in the earth. [Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3916-3919). Kindle Edition.]

The Book of Revelation, which is definitely apocalyptic, may envision a radical change to the cosmic realm, but we needn’t take things quite so far. Ultimately, the future is unknown to us, so we don’t know how things will end. All we can do as make some judgments based upon our understanding of who God is. With that said, I for one don’t embrace a vision of God is one who destroys, but I do envision God being one who is actively engaged in drawing us into a future that looks a lot like what Isaiah suggests!

                To those who heard the prophet’s words, the vision is not of some cosmic reality. It is a vision of restored hope, where the return from exile will lead to stability. The city that was destroyed will be restored. Then the people will dwell in peace. Yes, this is a vision that promises a very different future from what was being experienced at that moment. In that new world envisioned by the prophet, there will be no more weeping. There will be no more war. People will build their homes and live in them, without fear that others will come along and take them. For exiles, that is a very compelling vision. The nation of Judah had watched as the Babylonians invaded their land, destroyed their Temple, and seized their homes, relocating them to another place. But now, with the return from Babylon, though things are still difficult, it’s possible that something new might emerge. Yes, a New Jerusalem could emerge where peace reigns and no injury takes place—the serpent will have to survive on dust (taking us back to Genesis 3).

                For those of living in the 21st century, what word do you hear? What word does this speak to those who are refugees, whether from war or famine or violence? Is there a word here for them? What about those who experience food insecurity or homelessness or who die young either from disease or violence? For those under 30, suicide is among the greatest causes of death. What about them? Then there are those of us who live relatively comfortable lives; those of us who have nice homes and don’t face food insecurity; what word is spoken to us? What word of newness do we hear in this message? We might not have a complete word for the moment. As a colleague shared in her recent sermon, perhaps “The answer is . . . under construction.” Depending on where we find ourselves, we might hear an invitation to join in the work of building a new creation, a new Jerusalem.

                As we contemplate this message we can take hold of the message found in the fourth verse of Brian Wren’s hymn “This Is a Day of New Beginnings.”

                In faith we gather round the table to taste and share what love can do.
 

                This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new. 
                                                                                             (Chalice Hymnal, 518).

A House of Splendor, a Home for God —A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22C (Haggai 2)

Cologne Cathedral
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

1:15b In the second year of King Darius, 2:1 in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2 Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4 Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6 For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; 7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9 The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

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                From the time that Solomon erected the Temple in Jerusalem, it served as the center of Israel’s life (after the kingdom divided it was the center of life for the kingdom of Judah, but I’m using the terms interchangeably here as by the time we get to Haggai the kingdom of Israel no longer existed). When the  Babylonians came early in the 6th century that Temple was destroyed and its fixtures, including the Ark of the Covenant, were taken away. Where the Ark landed, no one knows, though the search for it goes on (Remember Indiana Jones’ search for it in Raiders of the Lost Ark?).  When the exile ended around 538 BCE, after the Persians brought down the Babylonian Empire, permission was given to rebuild the Temple. According to the book of Ezra, this occurred in the first year of Cyrus’ rule in Persia (Ezra 1). For our purposes that is occurred in 538 BCE. When Haggai comes on the scene it’s been eighteen years, and the Persian rebuilding program that was authorized hasn’t gotten very far, and Haggai isn’t happy.

When we pick things up in the book of Haggai, we’re in the second year of the reign of King Darius I (520 BCE). In this reading from Haggai, the prophet addresses Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the High Priest. He encourages them to get busy with work on the Temple so that it might reflect the splendor of God. Note here that Zerubbabel, though a descendant of David, is not a king but governor appointed by the Persians. It doesn’t appear that Haggai has in mind the restoration of the monarchy, though his contemporary Zechariah does seem to envision a king arising (perhaps Zerubbabel) who will rebuild the Temple (Zech. 6:12). Haggai, like Zechariah, is interested in rebuilding the Temple so that it might again serve as the fulcrum of Judaic life. Whatever work had been done on rebuilding the Temple was insufficient. Haggai asks those who might have seen the original Temple whether whatever had been erected in the past eighteen years was anything like what had existed previously. Had anyone seen it in its previous glory? Now, we’re taking nearly seventy years here, so the number of people who remembered the previous Temple would be small if they were present at all. Nevertheless, Haggai’s point is that this dump isn’t worthy of the God of Israel. This isn’t a domicile worthy of the one who had called the people of Israel out of Egypt. Therefore, Joshua the priest and Zerubbabel the governor needed to get to work on bringing this about so that it might again reflect the splendor of God.

The word that Zerubbabel and Joshua hear is “be strong” and get to work because the Lord of Hosts is with them. Remember Egypt and the promises God made to the people as God led them out of Egypt. The former Temple might have been destroyed, but God is still present and will provide what is needed to rebuild. Just get busy! It is interesting that Haggai understands that God can live without a house, but that a house serves an important role as a symbol of God’s splendor.  

 

To add a bit of drama, Haggai speaks in apocalyptic terms. Heaven and earth will quake. Then the wealth of the nations, the silver and gold that belongs to God, will shake out and fall into the Temple so that this place would be a place of prosperity. Note here who is responsible for this. It’s God. God will bring glory and splendor to the people, but they have to build the Temple as a prerequisite. Things might seem bad, but there is hope, for God is with them!

Now this word about the Temple and the splendor that Haggai envisions might be a bit off-putting to some in our day. I remember vividly the cover of the Christian satirical magazine The Wittenberg Door after the erection of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. The accompanying article listed all the good things that could be accomplished with the eighteen million dollars expended to build that glass house. Ironically this famous building, which was as much a tourist attraction as a church, was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange to serve as its cathedral after the original congregation declared bankruptcy. Now, this building was an expression of a certain vision of God and the church—Schuller’s message about “possibility thinking” (a version of Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking”). Unfortunately for the congregation fame was fleeting, as was the vision of “possibility thinking” (though the prosperity gospel still attracts plenty of adherents, leading to the building of new temples.

The lesson of the Crystal Cathedral could be anti-building, but perhaps it’s not the right model for understanding Haggai’s message. Consider the great temples and cathedrals spread across the globe, many of which continue to be centers of worship and pilgrimage centuries and even millennia after their creation. My own recent visits to the cathedrals in Speyer, Strasbourg, and Cologne brought me into contact with awe-inspiring buildings that continue to be expressions of splendor. Is it divine splendor or human splendor? That is a question that one must answer by faith, I think. The fact is, for many people, these buildings are more than tourist attractions (they are that as well), but they are expressions of divine presence. Indeed, during my own visits to these great centers of worship, I at times felt that divine presence, taking me from being a tourist to a pilgrim.

We live at a time when the position of many people of faith is that buildings are irrelevant. There’s nothing sacred about them. Why a building? Isn’t God everywhere? Can’t I be with God out in the forest or on a mountain? Of course, I’ve felt that presence standing on a mountain, but does that mean buildings have no sacred value? Or could it be, that buildings do have their place as sacred locations where we can encounter the divine presence on earth as in heaven?     

There are material temples and there are spiritual ones. Both, I think, have their place, within reason.  Perhaps that is the message that Haggai offers us. May we enjoy the splendor that is God, wherever we encounter it.

 

The Righteous Live By Faith – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21C (Habakkuk 1-2)

Lahneck Castle, Lahnstein, Germany
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
    and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
    therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
2:1 I will stand at my watchpost,
    and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
    and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
2 Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so that a runner may read it.
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
    it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
    it will surely come, it will not delay.
4 Look at the proud!
    Their spirit is not right in them,
    but the righteous live by their faith.
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                Why does evil seem to prevail? If God is the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sustainer, then why do the wicked thrive? These are age-old questions, that have elicited a multitude of answers. Some seem credible and others do not. The big question has to do with God’s responsibility for these matters. After all, if God is all-powerful, as some suggest, then surely God can do something, at least you would expect God to do something if what Scripture says is true, and God is love (1 John 4:7,16). One alternative answer is that God might be mighty, but if love is uncontrolling and non-coercive, then God can’t simply sweep in and overcome the way things are. I find this answer attractive, and yet I also struggle with it. I speak to this dilemma in an essay titled “What Use Is God?” in a volume that responds to Tom Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God.
 
                Many congregations will be observing All Saints Day on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. While the first reading for All Saints day comes from Daniel 7, a passage worth exploring, perhaps this is also a passage worth considering on the Sunday following All Saints Day. It does take up the cause of those we call saints, those who are righteous. How do the saints live? Do they not live by faith?
 
The first reading for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost comes from the words of the prophet Habakkuk, who asks the pertinent question: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” Habakkuk wants to know why violence continues to plague the land and God doesn’t respond.  How come justice never prevails and the wicked surround the righteous? Yes, these are the questions raised down through the ages. If God can do something about the injustices and iniquities of this life, why doesn’t God act? Perhaps Tom Oord is correct, God Can’t. That answer may seem to get God off the hook, but does it? If God cannot prevent evil, then what does it mean for us?
 
                The initial answer to Habakkuk’s question suggests that the people of Judah are getting their just deserts. In the section that is not designated for Sunday, God suggests that the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonian Empire) are an instrument of God’s discipline to the nation of Judah. It’s a common theme in Scripture—God often uses what might be perceived as enemy nations to get Israel/Judah’s attention—but apparently the answer doesn’t satisfy Habakkuk’s questions about justice. So, in verse 1 of chapter 2, we hear Habakkuk declare that he will stand on the ramparts and keep watch until an acceptable answer comes. That’s his job as a prophet of God.
 
The answer that comes to him invites him and the people to wait, to tarry, because things will change in due time. Just be patient, for the righteous will live by faith. The word given in 2 Peter 3:9 echoes the word given to Habakkuk: “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (CEB). There is a time for waiting, of course, but also a time to act. Knowing when and where and what that involves requires discernment. Here patience is connected with faithfulness and persistence.
 
The word here concerning the righteous living by faith inspired Paul, who wrote in his letter to the Romans:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16-17).

Then in the Galatian letter, he wrote: Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” (Gal. 3:11). These are words that stirred Martin Luther’s affirmation that justification is by faith, a key principle undergirding the Reformation.
 
                Paul drew from Habakkuk and Luther from Paul, but what did Habakkuk have in mind? Is it merely belief in Jesus? Or is their more? The Hebrew word rendered here as faith, emuna, speaks of qualities such as loyalty, perseverance, and reliability. This leads Lydia Hernandez-Marcial to suggest that what the prophet has in mind here is faithfulness. That’s a bit more active than mere faith as belief. Thus, she writes: “In this light, Habakkuk affirms that while the proud Chaldeans (cf. 2:5) do not act correctly, the violence will not last forever. The duty of those committed to justice is to wait faithfully for the fulfillment of Habakkuk’s more just vision of the future.” [Connections, p. 444].
 
                The question that is always present has to do with the role that the righteous have in achieving God’s justice. Do we wait passively, or actively? The vision of the prophet has eschatological implications. The assumption here is that evil/wickedness/injustice will not prevail forever. While I would assume we have a role in all of this, the answer give to Habakkuk is that God will take care of things. As Lauren Winner points out, in Habakkuk the word is that “it is God’s action that the passage stresses. In the ‘appointed time’, at ‘the end,’ God—not we—will set things right. Though this healing seems to be rather slow in coming, nevertheless we are encouraged to wait. Redemption is absolutely, unequivocally coming.” [Connections, p. 446].
 
                I’m not sure what to do with this word from Habakkuk. I want to do something about the presence of evil in the world. I want to take a stand against injustice. I don’t want to just stand on the ramparts and watch until God does something. Yet, if God is God then the answer can’t simply lie in our own hands. Perhaps we don’t have to make a choice between passivity and activism.
 
Might we see in Habakkuk’s message a call to remain faithful to the ways of God? Might living by faith involve staying loyal to God despite the realities we face? If so, then this faith, this sense of trust, is not passive. This righteousness is simply living according to the ways of God, as revealed in Torah. This is what Habakkuk had in mind—remaining true to Torah. This then is the key to redemption. Now, it needs to be said, with Karl Barth, our faithfulness is rooted in the faithfulness of God: “Where the faithfulness of God encounters the fidelity of men, there is manifested His righteousness. There shall the righteous man live” [Barth, Romans, p. 42].
 
Knowing that God is faithful, we are enabled to persevere even when things look bad, knowing that justice will prevail. It is something we must take by faith and not by sight, but we are not left without some evidence of God’s faithfulness. It is with this confidence in God’s faithfulness that we can pursue justice and mercy in this world. We can, as Barth suggests, move from being a prisoner to one who stands at watch. In this, we become “the guard at the threshold of divine reality” [Romans, p. 41]. This is a word to take to heart even now, understanding, as I do, that the work of justice requires something of us as we respond to the love that is God. So:
 
Be still, my soul: for God is on your side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Trust in your God, your savior and your guide,
Who through all changes faithful will remain.
Be still my soul: your best, your heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a peaceful end. 
                                Katharina Von Schlegel 1752 (Tune: Finlandia)
               

 

Joel 2:23-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
23 O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
25 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.
26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
28  Then afterward
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.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
 
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                Although we are well into the season after Pentecost, on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost we encounter a reading from Joel that finds its echo in the Pentecost event (Acts 2:17-21). Peter declares that what was spoken of by Joel finds fulfillment on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit fell on the believers. It’s not surprising, due to Peter’s claim on the passage from Joel, that it has had resonance in Pentecostal communities. Pentecostals see in this passage a promise not only for the Day of Pentecost but also for a more recent outpouring of the Spirit (at Azusa Street). The title I have given to this reflection is taken from a famous sermon by Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. In her “Lost and Restored” sermon, McPherson saw in Joel’s words a reference first to the initial outpouring of the Spirit (Pentecost), it’s gradual loss over time (the locusts and other insects), and then a gradual restoration of what was lost, starting with the Reformation moving toward what she envisioned as the coming of the perfect (Christ’s return), which was presaged by the restoration of the gifts of the Holy Spirit’s. In McPherson’s view, the birth of the Pentecostal movement, of which she was a leading evangelist, presaged the coming of Jesus [Aimee Semple McPherson, The Foursquare Gospel, (Foursquare Publications, 1969), pp. 13-38].

 

            While I don’t recommend McPherson’s interpretation of Joel’s message or her interpretation of salvation history (with its apocalyptic vision), the vision of Joel does suggest that something had been lost and that it would be restored. This “lost and restored” theme has resonated with Christians down through the ages, though it takes different forms at different times. My own tradition, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has a restorationist element to it, though we tend to downplay it [see Cornwall, Freedom in Covenant, pp. 24-31]. Our founders believed that something had been lost from the original New Testament vision and sought to restore it in some fashion. A passage like Joel 2 encourages such a vision.

 

            The reading from Joel emerges out of Israel’s agrarian context. It reminds us that their agricultural production depended on the rains, which came at two times during the year—an early and late rain. Drought and plague (locusts) are the scourge of agrarian people. In our reading, Joel points to the early rain sent by God, which has brought with it an abundant harvest, after a time of drought and plague. What had been lost during the drought and the accompanying infestation of insects has been restored. Good times are at hand. With this agricultural vision laid out, Joel moves on to a more eschatological vision, one that involves the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the people of God.

 

The vision offered here is one of God’s sovereignty. This abundant harvest is a reminder of God’s presence in their midst: “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.” The prophet interprets the former devastation to the people’s wandering from their faith in Yahweh. Now they will know, that God is with them and that they should have no other god besides the God who has provided this harvest. The promise here is that they will never again be put to shame. History suggests that there would be more difficult times ahead, but the promise of divine presence remains.  

 

The eschatological vision contained in the passage, a vision that looks beyond the restored harvest, is the vision picked up by Peter on the Day of Pentecost, and then by others down through history. It involves an outpouring of the Spirit on the people of God, one that empowers the entire people of God to proclaim the good news. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, male or female, you will be empowered. It is a powerful word that often has been forgotten by the church as it has placed limits on who can enter the pulpit or speak to the community. This is one of the claims that Aimee Semple McPherson made on this passage and others like it in defending her own call to a ministry of preaching at a time when most pulpits were closed to women.

 

So, how might this passage speak to us? What might have been lost that God is now restoring through the Spirit? Who is God empowering to speak who has been excluded from pulpits and lecterns? As we listen to this word, what should we make of the apocalyptic elements of the reading? How should we think about these portents in the heavens that Joel mentions? Might we take this more metaphorically as an invitation to open our eyes to what is happening in the world? What wakeup calls are we experiencing at this moment in time when the politics of the day seems out of whack, the climate is changing in dramatic ways, and wars continue to manifest themselves? What word of hope is available to us?

 

In the apocalyptic closing of the passage, after the sun is turned to darkness, the moon into blood, on the day of the Lord arrives, salvation comes to those who call on the name of the Lord. There will be survivors in both Mount Zion and in Jerusalem. This isn’t a promise of universal salvation, but it is a word of hope. At this moment in time, when things seem to have gone awry, a word of hope and a promise of healing (salvation) is welcome. But here’s the thing, hope comes from God and not from the idols of our day, whether political leaders or other celebrities.  Trust in God. That is the word that Joel offers us. If we receive the word, then there will be abundance. What was lost will be restored as the Spirit of God flows in and through us! 

 


Attribution: Bruegel, Pieter, approximately 1525-1569. Harvesters, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55749 [retrieved October 20, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder-_The_Harvesters_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

 

Bloom Where You’re Planted — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18C (Jeremiah 29)

Amsterdam
 

29 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

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                The Word of the Lord was delivered by letter to the exiles living in Babylon. The mediator of this word was the prophet Jeremiah, who remained, at the time, in Jerusalem. Verse 2 tells us that this letter was written to the first wave of exiles, who were taken by the Babylonians along with King Jeconiah and the queen mother. It was before the revolt under Zedekiah led to the razing of the city, along with the Temple, but this word is a reminder to the exiles that they would be living in their new locale for a very long time. So, as the slogan that dates back to the 1960s declares: “Bloom where you are planted.”

                You can imagine how these exiled might have felt as they took up residence in a foreign land. They might have been wondering if their God had traveled with them. Did Yahweh dwell only in Judea and Israel? Were they in foreign territory, where different gods had control? Yes, this could be and probably was a rather depressing situation for the exiles. It’s good to remember that in the ancient world “church and state” were inextricably linked. So, had their god been overthrown? So, how might the exiles have heard Jeremiah’s word to them?

                I can imagine some of them hearing this word as permission to blend into the culture. When in Rome, does as the Romans do. Right? Now that they were in Babylon, why not simply become one of the Babylonians? If they worshiped Yahweh in Jerusalem, might they want to go to services at the Temple of Marduk? I don’t think this is what Jeremiah has in mind. The words we hear about settling in for the long haul by building houses, getting married, and having kids, doesn’t involve abandoning their calling as children of Abraham, Moses, and David. The monarchy might be teetering on the edge of collapse (remember that Zedekiah was simply a vassal placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar’s regime). For all intents and purposes, the monarchy had come to an end. 

 

                Blooming where you’re planted could involve blending into the surrounding culture. It is an enticement that is readily available in every generation, including the one we are inhabiting. The lure of power and influence, on one hand, can be intoxicating, of course, but so can the cultural benefits of blending in. Why not eat, drink, and be merry like everyone else? Could there be another way?

                The word of the Lord as delivered by Jeremiah seems to offer that third way. In counseling them to settle in by building homes, getting married, and having kids, Jeremiah is telling the exiles not to get depressed by their situation. Don’t despair. Make the best of things, but most of all remain faithful to their covenant relationship with God. While they may have once put their faith in a royal ideology centered on the monarchy, that was gone. So, a new vision is required for their engagement with the future. As Song Mi Suzie Park notes, “in the face of this religious upheaval, Jeremiah encourages the community to continue to have faith in God’s larger plan—a plan that seems utterly impossible, but which Jeremiah hints is possible for God. They are to hope and know that God can and will bring God’s promises to pass” [Connections, p. 377]. At this point, the Temple still stands, but soon that will be gone as well. Things have changed. There is need for a new covenant, and in time Jeremiah will reveal that covenant (Jeremiah 31). I should note that it is the promise of a new covenant that will give birth to the Christian movement. That is, in Christ we will be drawn into the covenant work of God that is no longer (if ever it was) tethered to the monarchy.

                The key to this passage is found in verse 7. It’s a verse that I find powerfully relevant for today, especially for those of us who live in large urban/suburban metroplexes. Jeremiah counsels the exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Here is where blooming where you’re planted comes in. This is not a call for separatism? This is not a call for the people to go out into the desert and plant a colony that is faithful to God but not infected by engagement with the surrounding culture. No, this is a call to engage the community, without letting the ways of the world determining the nature of that work. This engagement can come in a variety of ways. I will admit to finding the idea of God transforming culture attractive. I have engaged in community activism. For instance, I’m a police chaplain, and in that guise and simply as a pastor I’ve offered prayers at community events. I’ve tried to call on our better angels and call for doing what is right and not simply blessing the status quo, but I’m sure some might hope for a more “patriotic” form of prayer, while others might question why I participate in such events. In seeking the welfare of the city, we might want to make use of our rights as citizens (if we are citizens) to register and vote not only in national elections but local ones. We might even go further in that, but it is important to keep watch on our motives. There are other ways in which we might engage. Faith-based community organizing is an important contributor to the welfare of the city (and other spaces/places). The same could be said of faith-based community renewal organizations. My congregation supports two such entities, one in Detroit and another in nearby Pontiac. These entities have their roots in the faith community, but they are making the welfare of the community as a whole their primary purpose.

The promise here is that if we pursue the welfare of the city—the place where we have been planted—then we will be blessed as well. In fact, our welfare is tied in with the welfare of the larger community. The point is not engagement, but the form that this engagement takes. Is it defined by notions of worldly power or by the power of faith? Are we engaged in this work because we believe it is of God, or because we desire power?

We might want to sing Eric Routley’s hymn “All Who Love and Serve Your City” as we contemplate Jeremiah’s words, the second verse of which offers us a word of invitation: “In your day of loss and sorrow, in your day of helpless strife, honor, peace and love retreating, seek the Lord, who is your life.” We might feel as if this is a time of sorrow and strife and wonder if God is present in the midst of this moment. The counsel of the hymn, and I think Jeremiah, is to seek the Lord, “who is your life.” Regarding the city in specifics, the hymn ends with this word of promise:

 
Risen Lord! Shall yet the city be the city of despair?
Come today, our Joy, our Glory: be its name, “the Lord is here.”   

“The Lord is here.” Even in Babylon. That is good news. It doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for the city. Instead, it reminds us that we are not alone in this work, and the way we engage in this work out to reflect the relationship we have with the Living God who is present not only in Jerusalem but also in Babylon and beyond.

             This word is sent to exiles, refugees (perhaps?). From a North American Christian perspective, I have tended to read this as a word to how I should engage the city/culture around me. That is, I identify with the exiles. But, what if I’m not part of the exile community? What if I’m a citizen of the land in which the exiles are sent? What if this word is sent to exiles/refugees/immigrants who have made a home in my backyard? What if my welfare is entangled with their welfare? It is good to remember as Miguel De La Torre notes, Jeremiah isn’t asking the exiles to forsake their identity or heritage or their God. This isn’t a counsel of assimilation.

Jeremiah does not call the exiles to stop being Jewish or worshipping their God. Rather, as foreigners, we are to work for the common good of all who also inhabit the land where we find ourselves. Foreigners should be willing to learn from the land’s inhabitants, in the same way that the natives of the land can learn from the stranger in their midst. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, pp. 427-428].

                I have tended to read the passage from the perspective of the exiles, but what if I’m the host? Can we be both guest and host at the same time, and thus be equally blessed?    

 

It’s a Ghost Town – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17C (Lamentations 1)

 
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into exile with suffering
and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter.
Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
From daughter Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like stags
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.
 
 
***********

                My first thought when reading this took me back to my childhood visits to “Ghost Towns” like Virginia City, Nevada. All through the American West one will find “Ghost Towns,” towns that are now abandoned or largely abandoned that once thrived on Gold and Silver strikes. Virginia City today is a tourist site, but once it was a thriving metropolis with mansions, saloons, and even a couple of churches, serving a fairly large population. Other such towns haven’t had the same luck as Virginia City in becoming a tourist mecca, but the image seems appropriate. Jerusalem has become a Ghost Town. What was once a thriving city, full of people, commerce, and glory, is now abandoned.

The words that begin the Book of Lamentations, words that are traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, invite us to consider the fate of Jerusalem as it experienced destruction, desolation, and the exile of its leading people. It is unlikely that Jeremiah is the author (while it follows Jeremiah in the Christian canon, in the Hebrew Bible it is found in the third section, The Writings (Kethuvim). Most likely the poet/prophet who wrote these powerful words was reflecting on the exile of Judah and grieving the destruction of the city and state.

The book begins with the words “How lonely sits the city” (NRSV). In the Tanakh (JPS) the phrase is “Alas! Lonely sits the city.” That word “alas” might be more powerful than “how.” It carries a sense of grief and mourning. The tone is that of a sigh. Yes, “alas! Lonely sits the city.” Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note that the Hebrew eka “is frequently used in laments to signal a tragic change of circumstance from joy to sorrow.” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 275]. With this opening word we get drawn into the grief of the moment. We might even begin to connect it with our own moments of tragedy and grief. Might we think of the events of September 11, 2001, and all that has followed? Is this not a moment where the word “alas” fits? Have we not experienced a fall from glory and a season of exile that seems unending? Do we not still sing the laments, liturgies of grief on anniversaries or as we ponder the unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which likely spawned the war in Syria. “Alas! Lonely sits the city.”

In the words of the poet, Jerusalem is a princess who has become a widow who weeps bitterly in the night. Not only does she weep, but there is no one there to comfort her. All her lovers, her allies, have abandoned her. She is all alone in this city once filled with people. She feels betrayed by former friends who have betrayed her. In other words, her allies have turned against her and sided with her enemy—Babylon.

Now that she is in exile, living among the nations, finding no rest, with her pursuers overtaking here, she cries out in anguish. Indeed, we’re told that “Zion’s roads are in mourning, Empty of festival pilgrims; all her gates are deserted” [Lam. 1:4 Tanakh]. Allen and Williamson comment that the poet is reflecting here “an ancient Jewish view that nature itself was animated, ‘the roads to Zion mourn’ because the Temple is destroyed and people no longer come for the major religious observances.” Thus, “the priests groan not only because of the loss of vocation but because they depended upon the Temple offerings for food and livelihood.”  Even the young women grieve. [Allen and Williamson, p. 275]. It’s good to remember that Jerusalem was not only a political center—Judah’s capital—but it was a sacred site. It was the center of the universe, where God’s Temple could be found, and thus God could be encountered in tangible ways. All of this is now gone, and those who sing the lament do so wondering why. What sins had transpired that led to this situation where the sacred city is now ruled by its enemies. The answer must be that the Lord “has afflicted her for her many transgressions” (Lam. 1:5 Tanakh).

 

Our passage doesn’t end on a positive note. After all, this is a lament. It is meant to give voice to one’s grief, confusion, and possibly repentance. The future now lives in exile and its “young male rulers have become like stags without pasture, that is, without sources to sustain fullness of life and procreation (1:6)” [Allen and Williamson, p. 275]. We conclude with this sense that the future is uncertain at best. So, what do we make of our situation?

Laments like this are generally used in times of national crisis, and lectionary wise that situation might not always coincide. So, as we ponder the text, we might use this as an opportunity to reflect on grief and how we deal with it in personal and corporate ways. On the other hand, we may find ourselves in times where lament seems to be the appropriate response to the situation we find ourselves in. As I write this reflection, the United States has entered a period of uncertainty as the House of Representatives begins impeachment proceedings against the President. No matter how you feel about the President there is nothing about this situation that should give one glee. Indeed, this is a moment of lament for the nation. We might cry out that “gone from Fair Zion are all that were her glory.” The challenges of gun violence, whether mass shootings at schools and places of worship or simply random violence in cities and towns across the nation—these could give rise to laments. What of climate change and the continuing extinction of species? Yes, there is much to lament.

The lament begins: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” My first thought upon reading these words was the ghost towns I visited as a youth—towns like Virginia City—but these are symbolic of other cities. We might see this word as an invitation to consider the way we process grief, and that would be a worthy effort. We can turn to Lamentations as an invitation to lament national tragedies, whether a mass shooting at a school or a shopping center or a moment of national despair when it seems as if our government is failing. These would be good, but the lament begins with a word about the city.

If my first thought was the ghost towns of my youth, my second thought when I read this was the great cities of this country that are struggling today, as well as the great cities of the world that are facing myriads of challenges, including the devastation of war. Think of Aleppo in Syria or Kabul in Afghanistan. Closer to home, I’m reminded of the challenges faced by the city of Detroit, a city that once had nearly two million residents and now has less than 700,000. It’s not a ghost town, but vast swathes of the city are abandoned. Detroit is not alone. Flint to the north has lost half its population. I think of my own hometown of Klamath Falls. The population has remained somewhat constant but the lumber mills are gone along with most of the major employers of my youth. I’ve not been back in over a dozen years, but everyone says it’s not the same. I hear the laments for once was a great city.

We ask why? Why has Detroit lost so many people? We know that one reason for Detroit’s slide was “white flight” that began in the late 1950s and picked up steam in the 1960s and 1970s. As the city declined, the suburbs flourished. Yet, we lament. The church I serve as pastor had its glory years in the city of Detroit, but like most predominantly white congregations in the city, it eventually followed its people to the suburbs, but not without a great deal of grief. Whether it is Detroit, Youngstown, Klamath Falls, or Aleppo, the laments continue. We ask why? Could it be as William McClain suggests: “When people are oppressed, desolation comes. Those who should be prospering have been betrayed by corrupt political systems and have become slaves of the very system that should give them hope. But God speaks to us in exile, and God has not abandoned the city. The city is the place where the temple of God has always been—the center of things, at the heart of the people.” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 412].

How do we find hope in the lament? Although Jeremiah isn’t like the author of this lament, we might find a word of hope and purpose in Jeremiah’s word of guidance to the exiles in Babylon, whom he called upon to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). Thus, William McClain writes:

When we begin to understand that our future is tied to the future of the city, we will welcome the strangers (foreigners, visitors) and invite them to gather with us around a common table, a community bound by a common Creator, Redeemer, and Host! And the table will be the “Welcome Table” that my grandmother believed in and sang about. In these in-between times, it is a table where all of God’s children can gather around in one Communion, at a common earthly meal aw a rehearsal for the eschatological banquet. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, pp. 412-413].

It is good and right to grieve what has been lost, but it is also important to embrace the present and future by praying for the city and thus gather together at the welcome table of restoration.

               
           
Picture attribution:   Circle of Juan de la Corte, 1580-1663. Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55724 [retrieved September 27, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circle_of_Juan_de_la_Corte_-_The_Burning_of_Jerusalem_by_Nebuchadnezzar%E2%80%99s_Army_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.