Category: Hebrew Bible

A Prophet of Doom? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14C (Jeremiah 4)

 

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse— 12 a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
22 “For my people are foolish,
    they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
    they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
    but do not know how to do good.”
23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
    and to the heavens, and they had no light.
24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
    and all the hills moved to and fro.
25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
    and all the birds of the air had fled.
26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
    and all its cities were laid in ruins
    before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
27 For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
28 Because of this the earth shall mourn,
    and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
    I have not relented nor will I turn back.
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                Chicken Little was known for going around proclaiming that “the sky is falling.” He was proven wrong in his prognostication. The sky didn’t fall. Though plenty of so-called prophets of doom have arisen over time, no one really wants to be thought of as a version of Chicken Little. Nevertheless, messages of doom continue to be broadcast (now by way of social media). Sometimes these messages need to be ignored, but at other times they should be heeded. When the Weather Service forecasts a hurricane, you ought to take it seriously. Get out of the way, if you can.

The prophet Jeremiah, as we’ve seen in recent posts, had a penchant for his messages of impending doom. From the very beginning of the book, messages of judgment and impending destruction were revealed. If the people persist in their wickedness, they will perish (at least the nation as a nation will perish. That message proved correct. The Babylonians swept in, destroying the city of Jerusalem together with the Temple, after which they carted off into exile the king and leading members of society (along with, we’re assuming, lots of loot, especially gold from the Temple). These readings from Jeremiah are being heard, if chosen, as churches begin their fall seasons. So, are you ready to hear the word of the Lord as delivered by Jeremiah?

                A week past, the lectionary invited us to consider a reading from Jeremiah 18. Now, we find ourselves in chapter 4. It appears that we’re going backward. Why? I’m not sure, but such is the course set before us. As before, Jeremiah has a word of judgment to share with us. We’re not reading from verses 5 and 6 of Jeremiah 4, but it does set up what we’re about to consider. Jeremiah hears the word of the Lord: “Proclaim in Judah, announce in Jerusalem, and say: ‘Blow the horn in the land!’ Shout aloud and say: ‘Assemble, and let us go into the fortified cities!’ Set up a signpost: To Zion. Take refuge, do not delay! For I bring evil from the north, and great disaster” (Jer. 4:5-6 Tanakh). Yes, take cover, right now. Don’t wait any longer, for disaster is at hand.

When we come to the reading for the day from Jeremiah 4, we hear a word of judgment. The prophet, speaking for God, promises that a hot wind will come off the desert not to cleanse, but as a sign of judgment. What will that wind look like? Could it be the Babylonians? Having spent time in Jeremiah, we know that he promises judgment on the people if the nation doesn’t turn from evil. Though not part of the assigned reading, in verse 14, the word of the Lord declares: “Wash your heart clean of wickedness, O Jerusalem, that you may be rescued” (Jer. 4:14 Tanakh). Of course, we know the rest of the story. If there was repentance, it didn’t forestall the judgment that was visited upon Jerusalem and the nation.

                The core of our reading begins with the declaration “For my people are foolish,” therefore they don’t know God. In a parallel statement, Jeremiah declares on behalf of God “they are stupid children.” Yes, they are foolish and stupid, and thus don’t know or understand God. What they do seem skilled at, however, is doing evil. In other words, when God looks at the people, what he sees is a total mess. Foolish and stupid people who know not God but do know evil.

                Here the text takes a cosmic turn. Before this, the prophet is giving attention to Jerusalem, but now it’s creation. God has looked upon the earth and what God sees is something that is “waste and void.” The Hebrew is tohu wa bohu. These words are found at the beginning of Genesis 1, when the earth was “formless and void” (Gen. 1:2). The earth, it seems, has reverted to its original state. It is formless and void. The light has disappeared from the skies. The mountains are quaking. Not only that but humanity is gone, and the birds have fled. Farmland has turned to desert, while towns lay in ruin.  All of this is due to God’s “blazing anger.” Creation has reverted to its original state.  

                So, what word do we hear in this passage? Is there a call for repentance? When we read words of judgment, we often think of God acting unilaterally sending destruction down upon us. But might judgment come in the form of consequences? The judgment that came upon Jerusalem and Judah didn’t come in the form of lightning bolts. It came in the form of a conquering army. So, might the judgment coming upon us in our day be the consequences of our own actions?

                The word we hear in Jeremiah 4 is directed at foolish and stupid people who give no heed to God. Allie Utley responds that with regard to this word, “The reader must wrestle with the idea that when the people of God do not know God, all of creation will suffer.” Might we understand this word in light of the current climate crisis? Allie Utley invites us to use this passage as a “lens to think about ecojustice.” She writes that “our human actions have a direct impact on the earthly, both in our local communities and on a grand scale” [Connections, p. 306]. Hurricanes, floods, fires, drought. They are becoming more common. Island nations face the prospect that their islands could disappear in rising seas. Glaciers that feed river systems are shrinking. Unfortunately, there are those who wish to deny the message of the vast majority of scientists (this includes the current American administration and that of the president of Brazil, where fires are raging destroying the Amazon rainforests, which provide so much of the earth’s oxygen). They deny that the climate is changing, and seem hell-bent on rolling back every rule and regulation designed to protect the environment, and thus our future as a species. If we embrace these policies and the politicians who promise us good tidings if we ignore the warnings, should we not be counted among those whom Jeremiah calls stupid and foolish?

                There is no word of grace or hope in this passage as it lies before us, or so it seems. But then, isn’t that the point of a prophetic word like this?  If you don’t get your act together bad things will happen. The choice is yours. In this there is hope. If we heed the warnings of our contemporary prophets, perhaps we can avoid disaster.  

Picture attribution: Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Starry Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55682 [retrieved September 7, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

 

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Clay in the Potter’s Hand — A lectionary reflection for Pentecost 13C (Jeremiah 18)

Potter by Else Berg
Jeremiah 18:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

 

 
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                Most of us, at one point or another, have worked with clay. Perhaps when we were children we experienced playdough. It gave us an opportunity to express our creativity without making too much of a mess. When we were done, we could fold it all up and put it back in the can and try some different the next day. Later on, we might have worked with clay for a school art project. I have on my bookshelf a rather interesting-looking fish that my son created at some point. I can’t find a date so I’m not sure what he age he was, but I like it. Otherwise, I might not display it quite so prominently in my home study. Maybe, if we’re crafty enough, we might sit down at a potter’s wheel and create something beautiful and useful. As long as the clay is wet and malleable, we can do whatever we wish with it. If it doesn’t appear to be what we want, then we can throw it down and start over and create something else. The goal is to form something we find to be to our liking. We are the potter, and the clay is the material we use to create that item of delight.  According to Jeremiah, God is the potter and Judah is clay.

                Jeremiah doesn’t beat around the bush. He has a message for Judah. It’s a rather harsh word, but the times seemed to warrant it. When he delivered this word, it would do no good to suggest that all is well, when disaster is on the near horizon. It’s sort of like a hurricane warning. When you hear word that a hurricane is coming, you better figure out what you’re going to do quickly. Such is the case for Judah as the age of the Davidic monarchy is nearing its end.

Yes, God is the potter and Judah is the clay. God is attempting to form Judah into something that might lead to God’s delight. Unfortunately, this batch of clay resists God’s handiwork. It doesn’t want to be formed into something of beauty and value. If things don’t change soon, God may choose to throw it down and start over. Now, if Judah obliges God and lets God form it into something God desires, then all will be well. However, if Judah persists in doing evil, then God will throw it down and make something new. What do you think of that?

This is not the kind of message most preachers would want to take up (if it was me, I might choose a different lectionary passage).  Yet, it is a word to be considered. We can agree or disagree with the prophet. We might even decide to ignore the message. But, if we take it seriously, then what is the message God would have us hear?

We might want to start with Jeremiah’s context. He’s speaking to a community that is experiencing a traumatic moment. The nation of Judah is facing annihilation. Jeremiah was active in the closing years of Judah’s existence as a relatively independent nation. Before long everything will come crashing down as Jerusalem and its Temple are destroyed by the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar, while the leading members of society will be carted off into exile in Babylon. That things still hang in the balance suggests that Jeremiah and Judah are still experiencing that pre-fall position, but Jeremiah could see the writing on the wall. He sees what is coming, as do the people. They want to know why it’s about to happen.

The reading from Jeremiah is accompanied by a reading from Deuteronomy 30. Deuteronomy provides a context for understanding Jeremiah’s message to Judah. Consider this word from Deuteronomy:   

 

16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  [Deut.30:16-18 NRSV]

If you obey the covenant stipulations, then things will work out for you. If not, if you choose to do evil, then you will be cursed. Bad things will befall you. Now, we moderns tend to read this individualistically, but Jeremiah is speaking to the community as a whole. This is a corporate message. Depending on whether the community obeys or disobeys, it will either prosper or be cursed. It’s pretty straightforward, at least in theory. Of course, life rarely works this way. The rain falls on both the good and the bad, and so does famine. This Deuteronomic vision is comforting but it doesn’t always work. Fortunately, the makers of the biblical canon may have understood this, because they provided us a Bible with the Book of Job to offer us an alternate view of things.

                In this word from Jeremiah, it appears at one level that there are choices to be made. Do what is right, and you will prosper. If you do evil, you will be cursed. The problem is that Jeremiah uses the image of clay, and clay is a passive object. It can be molded by another, but it has no ability to define itself.  So, could this suggest that maybe God has some responsibility here? Joseph Clifford, notes that “it was God who brought Israel into being in the first place. Can the potter blame the clay for its shape?” [Connections, p. 287]. What is at this point is the clay remains malleable. It can be formed and reformed. Once it hardens, it will simply break, and all is lost. So maybe what is clay is not Judah, but God’s plans for Judah.

                Like I said before, Jeremiah was not one to pull punches. His words were often harsh. But, he had good intentions. His job was to warn Judah of their impending doom if they didn’t change their ways. This was a moment of crisis. The hurricane (a major hurricane is afoot as I write this reflection) is heading your way. Evacuate now. Don’t wait until the water is at your door. The word is strong and pointed because the Potter wants to shape Judah into a faithful and just people. As Barbara Lundblad suggests: “Like the potter, God’s intent is not to destroy the people but to reshape them in faithfulness and justice. The final words of this text can be heard as an invitation: ‘Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.’” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 377].

                It is worth noting that the Psalm for today is Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18. It offers the word of comfort that’s not as apparent in Jeremiah. Reading from the Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society), verses 13-14 declare:

                It was You who created my conscience,
                                You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
                I praise You,
                                For I am awesomely, wondrously made;
                                Your Work is wonderful;
                                I know it very well.
 

The Potter knows us well, and wants what is best for us, because as the Psalmist declares: “For I am awesomely, wondrously made.” The key is to do what is right before the Lord, to walk with God faithfully and with justice always abiding.

This is a word for us at this moment in time when the church is being tested. The world is watching to see what we will do in the face of the challenges of the moment. How will we deal with issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, immigration, health care? Yes, these are political issues, but they are also faith issues. As Jeremiah declares: “Turn back, each of you, from your wicked ways, and mend your ways and your actions!” [Jer. 18:11 Tanakh]. This is a word that is worth hearing. It is a reminder that God desires justice and mercy on our part. Besides, if we are created in the image of God, then we too are potters and there is clay set before us ready to be molded. What will we do with that clay?

                 
Picture Attribution: Berg, Else, 1877-1942. Potter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55636 [retrieved September 2, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Else_Berg_A_potter.jpg.

 

Going Astray — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12C (Jeremiah 2)

Jeremiah2:4-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
    that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
They did not say, “Where is the Lord
    who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
    in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
    in a land that no one passes through,
    where no one lives?”
I brought you into a plentiful land
    to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land
    and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
    Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
    the prophets prophesied by Baal
    and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
    and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
    send to Kedar and examine with care;
    see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
    even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
    for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
    be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
13 for my people have committed two evils:
    they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
    and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
    that can hold no water.
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If we define sin in terms of straying from the ways of God, then the prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible is concerned with sin. Of course, in this case, sin is defined corporately and not individually. If you spend any time with prophets such as Jeremiah, you will hear a great deal about Israel’s (here I am thinking of both the northern and southern kingdoms though by Jeremiah’s time the northern kingdom is long gone) tendency to abandon the covenant relationship God had established with these people when God redeemed the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land. While God is faithful to the covenant relationship, Israel seems unable to fulfill its side of the covenant. So, why is it that Israel continually fails to meet its responsibilities to the covenant? Did God set the bar too high, or do they seem unwilling to even try? Could it be that the offers made by other deities are just too good to pass up? It might seem like that is the answer, but according to Jeremiah, the promises made by these other gods fall far short of expectations.

 

In Jeremiah 2, the word of the Lord comes to the people. This word from God asks a pertinent question: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” This question is posed in a way that suggests that God has been wounded by Israel’s tendency to wander away from the relationship. God asks plaintively: What did I do wrong that your ancestors chose not to be faithful? Why did they pursue worthless things? Why seek baubles when you can have the real thing? That question continues to speak to us. Why do we choose lesser things?  

 

There is a second related question that gets asked twice in this passage. God asks why no one bothers to ask, “Where is the Lord?” The people don’t ask, but neither do the priests. It’s not that God was absent, but the people led by the priests simply ignored the God of Israel as they pursued other gods, including Baal. Do they think they’ll get a better deal from these other deities? After all, who brought the people out of Egypt? Who led the people through the wilderness? Who brought the people to a place with good farmland so they could “enjoy its fruit and its bounty”? Why did they not ask where is the Lord? Why weren’t they looking? Indeed, the Lord asks why the “guardians of the Teaching ignored me” (Tanakh). Why do we so often fail to heed the words of God?

 

The Word we hear in Jeremiah 2 comes in the form of an indictment. God is taking Israel to court. The prophet asks, on behalf of God, why do the people exchange their God—Yahweh—for what are in essence no gods? Indeed, Jeremiah shares the word of God: “But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.” Why would you do this? Why would you exchange God’s glory for the dross of false religion? Yet, how often do we choose that which is contrary to the essence of faith?

 

As I pondered Jeremiah’s words about Israel’s tendency to ignore the ways of God—their failure to ask: “where is God?” —I thought of the American tendency to embrace forms of civil religion that contradict our faith. I think of the defenses made of slavery in the antebellum American south. The Bible was quoted, but in a way that contradicted the ways of God. I think of the current situation in my country, where a portion of the Christian community has linked itself to a political figure who has demonstrated no understanding of the teachings of Jesus, whose morals are far from that of the faith, and seems to believe that he is chosen of God because he promises to protect them from their perceived enemies. They seem intent on pursuing political power at all costs. Of course, this is a tendency that many fall victim to. As it is often said: politics makes for strange bedfellows. In other words, they have given themselves over to foreign gods, rather than giving themselves over to the God who brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

 

What causes confusion here, at least as Jeremiah presents the indictment, is why the people of God are doing what no other people would do. That is exchanging their God for other gods. Why do they abandon God who has demonstrated faithfulness? In doing this, they have forsaken the “fount of living waters.” Remember that in ancient Israel, water was scarce so you wanted to make sure you had plenty of water. The also dug out cisterns for themselves, but these cisterns were cracked and couldn’t hold any water. Why do this?  Why won’t they give their allegiance to the one who has proven to be faithful?  There is something of a parallel here to the question of Joshua to the people of Israel. The question posed by Joshua to the people concerned who they would serve. The answer that God desired to here was simply this “I and my household will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:14-15 Tanakh).  Will that be our answer?

 

Picture Attribution: Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319. Prophet Jeremiah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46451 [retrieved August 25, 2019]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

 

 

 

 

 

Beloved Children – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8C (Hosea 11)

 
11 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
10 They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
 
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                God is love. God is compassionate. Yet, God can get frustrated. We who are numbered among God’s creation, tend to do what is good in our own eyes. We have the freedom to do so, but often it is too our own detriment. Parents understand this. Children are loved, even though they can frustrate. Of course, parents ought to remember that they too were once children. We who are parents once frustrated our own parents and the same will be true from generation to generation. It is good to remember that Scripture speaks regularly of God’s relationship with humanity as one of parent and child. So, maybe human experience can help us understand God’s experience with us, experience that involves compassion and frustration. In this chapter we see God teaching the children of God to walk. God bends down to feed the children. God cares for the people, providing healing when needed. The vision here is kenotic. We see God act in human terms; terms we can understand. God is not a human being, and yet we require human terms to catch a vision. What better image than that of the parent and the child.

                The book of Hosea records the prophetic work of an eighth-century prophet who is perhaps best known for marrying Gomer and using her unfaithfulness as an illustration of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Marvin Sweeney puts it this way: “Hosea draws upon the traditional portrayal of Israel as the bride of YHWH to charge that Gomer/ Israel had engaged in harlotry by pursuing other lovers, prompting Hosea/ YHWH to punish the wayward bride with divorce.” [Sweeney, Tanakh: A Theological and Critical Introduction to The Jewish Bible (Kindle Locations 9564-9566). Fortress Press.] There is divorce, but also restoration. Thus, as Sweeney notes, judgment is not final but preliminary to restoration. The reading for the week from Hosea 11 looks back to Egypt, when God led Israel out of slavery and on to the Promised Land. The Tanakh personalizes the message of divine love: “I fell in love with Israel when he was still a child; and I have called [him] My son ever since Egypt” (Hos. 11:1). Nonetheless, despite this divine love for Israel, “they went their own way” by sacrificing to Baal. Despite God’s efforts to pursue a relationship with Israel (like Gomer) pursued other loves (other gods). Though God pampered Ephraim (another name for Israel), the nation “ignored my healing care” (vs. 3 Tanakh).

                When we read a book like Hosea, which at points is difficult, we discover that God is faithful despite our unfaithfulness. God invites, we spurn. God pursues. We do our own thing. God redeems. Hosea spoke to a nation that would in time disappear from history. Though Israel put its hope in Egypt (rather than Yahweh), Assyria would eventually sweep in and destroy Israel. Despite the fate of Israel, the messages delivered in the eighth century by Hosea were retained and passed on. They continue to remind us of God’s compassion despite our tendency to pursue agendas that run counter to that compassion. The word here has to do with the pursuit of other gods. There is a warning. The nation will suffer. Assyria will be their king, “because they refuse to repent” (vs. 5 Tanakh). So, God will allow them to suffer the consequences of their decisions. “The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes” (Hos. 11:6 NRSV).

                Despite everything, God is unwilling to give up on Israel. God has had a change of heart and won’t act on God’s wrath. Why? Because God is God and not a human being. Therefore, God will not come in fury. There are parental/familial analogies, but at some point, they will fall short. God is not a human being; therefore, God can see beyond the boundaries we run up against. While Israel (northern kingdom), as a nation, will come to an end in 721 BCE as a result of the Assyrian conquest, scatting its people, if we read the New Testament carefully, we will discover the presence of a remnant, the Samaritans. These people claimed descent from those original people who inhabited the land. I’m not sure what to make of this relationship, except that it does suggest (in my mind) the possibility that God was not left without a remnant who might be restored to their homes.

Among the questions that emerge from this passage of Scripture concerns the relationship between our unfaithfulness and God’s faithfulness. How does God come to us as a parent whose compassion includes discipline but doesn’t end there? I’m of the opinion that there are consequences to our actions. When we choose a pathway in life that is destructive, we will likely suffer the consequences. But that doesn’t mean we’re without the possibility of redemption or restoration. The message here is that God is always there, willing to bring healing and wholeness to our lives, despite our unfaithfulness.

Hosea spoke to the people of Israel (northern kingdom) living in the eighth century shortly before the fall of the nation to the Assyrians. The fall was quick and complete, and yet there was the promise of God’s faithfulness. Perhaps it served as a warning to the southern kingdom, which survived for a time, but after its fall did experience restoration. So, how do we hear this word? What message does God have for us through the voice of Hosea that speaks to our contemporary situations? For me and many who read this, it will be an American context. Many who read will be, like me, of European descent (white). There is unfaithfulness to God’s vision for humanity present in our context, including the church. We too follow after idols. They may be different in some ways from the gods Israel pursued, but they are idols nonetheless. They are enticements to follow a path of unfaithfulness. The list is extensive. It includes materialism, nationalism, imperialism, racism, sexism. You can add on to this list as you please. Ultimately, they are all idols that call out to us, inviting us to take a path away from the path God would have us walk. God may reach out to us as a loving parent, ready and willing to bind our wounds and embrace us with divine love.

I should note that we moderns tend to read passages like this in individualistic terms. For his part, Hosea was speaking to the community. We might want to hear this word as a word to the community because it’s rare that we simply walk in our own pathways. We tend to follow the lead of others. As a broader community, we’re hearing messages of division, of hate, of violence. The loudest voices seem to emerge not from the light but from the darkness. To give but one example, recent polls that suggest that the vast majority of white evangelicals do not believe the United States has any responsibility for refugees. Before we tar and feather evangelicals, the polls suggest that white Mainliners aren’t much more compassionate. Why is this? What idols are we pursuing that lead us astray? The previous ten chapters of Hosea speak of God’s frustration and anger. God is not happy with Israel. I dare say, God is not happy with the United States of America (and a lot of other nations). Here in chapter eleven, we hear a word of grace and compassion. We may suffer the consequences as a country and as a world and as individuals because of our corporate and individual unfaithfulness, but the good news, and there is good news to be embraced, is that God will settle us in our homes. We will experience restoration. Healing is possible. We simply must turn back, like the prodigal, and ultimately receive God’s parental compassion and love    

                 

                 

Picture Attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. First Steps, after Millet, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55507 [retrieved July 28, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1890_van_Gogh_First_Steps_-_after_Millet_anagoria.JPG.

Judgment Day — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 6C (Amos 8)

Amos8:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me,
“The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”
says the Lord God;
“the dead bodies shall be many,
cast out in every place. Be silent!”
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day.
11 The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.
 
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            There are men, women, and children held in cages at the southern border. Many are refugees fleeing violence in their homelands. The polls suggest that a majority of white Protestants do not believe that the United States has any responsibility for refugees. What might Scripture say to this polling? What might the prophet Amos have to say to us who claim to be servants of God? The first reading for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost takes us back to Amos. In the previous reflection, I examined Amos’ encounter with the religious establishment in the northern kingdom of Israel as revealed in Amos 7. He was told by the priest to go back home and take care of things there. You see, Amos came from the southern kingdom of Judah, a kingdom that was a vassal to the richer and more powerful northern neighbor. The folks in the north didn’t care for Amos’ message. Now we come to chapter 8. Amos will not be silenced. He becomes even more pointed in his word of judgment. Of course, Amos doesn’t claim to be a prophet. He’s just a farmer sent on a mission. This isn’t his profession. It’s not his day job. He’d rather be back home tending to his farm. But God had other plans. God had a message and Amos is the chosen messenger. Isn’t that like God, to choose the unexpected person to deliver the message? Prophet after prophet asked who am I that you would send me. Jesus came out of a small town in a backwater area to reveal the truths of God to humanity.

 

            God has a message for the people of Israel: “the end has come.” In a passage that begins with the image of the abundance of summer fruit ends with a word about famine (of the Word of God). Throughout the passage, the message is clear: Things might look good at the moment, but judgment day is on the horizon. At the moment things were going well economically in Israel under Jeroboam II, the greatest of the northern kingdom’s monarchs. While Jeroboam and his friends were doing well, it apparently came at the expense of the people. God is not impressed. Judgment is at hand. The songs of the temple, which were probably songs of praise, will become songs of grief. Wailing will be the predominant voice in the temple—the one that would not welcome Amos into its midst.

 

            Scripture doesn’t prescribe a political system. We who live in the United States experience a very different context from what was experienced in the centuries in which Scripture emerged, including the Book of Amos. Israel under Jeroboam II wasn’t a democracy. Instead, monarchies, oligarchies, tribal chieftains, and empires provided the context for these messages. Prophets would speak to these realities, holding the powers of the day to account. They most often spoke on behalf of those whom Jesus in Matthew 25 called “the least of these.”

 

            The Word of the Lord came to Amos, who delivered to the political and religious leadership in Israel has a definite economic tenor: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” judgment is coming. You will seek a word from the Lord, and you will not find it. You will grow frustrated, but the reality is, you’ve set something in motion that you don’t seem willing to stop. Instead, you monkey with the financial system, so it benefits the powerful at the expense of the people. Some of us might remember the financial debacle of 2008. Amos declared: you buy “the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s not a recent thing. It’s been going on for millennia. The Word of the Lord consistently calls the perpetrators of injustice to account.

 

            The declaration that comes to Israel is apocalyptic in nature: “On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” On that day God will turn their “feasts into mourning, and all [their] songs into lamentation.” The day of judgment will come. The day might look bright at the moment, but the clouds are on the horizon. A day of bitterness is coming, so be prepared. Famine is on the horizon, but not one involving bread. It’s a famine of silence. God is finished speaking to Israel. They’ll run to and fro seeking guidance, but it will be too late. Prophets have come and gone, and they have been ignored. So, God is finished with them. They have chosen their pathway and they will suffer the consequences.

 

The word of God revealed through Amos is not a happy one. I would rather hear a word of grace. I want to be comforted. Words of judgment are difficult to hear (and to be made the center of a sermon). The question is, do we need to hear words like this to get our attention. Things were going well for the northern kingdom at that moment, but dangerous times were ahead. Within a few decades, this nation will disappear from history.

 

How should we hear this word, we who embrace the premise that God is love? How does judgment factor in? God appears in Amos as a rather angry figure. It’s justified, but it’s unsettling. But perhaps love for creation requires a bit of anger on God’s part.  So, we come back to that poll that suggests that a majority of white Christians, haven’t been paying attention to the prophetic words that are present in Scripture. Now, that might be due to silence on the part of the preachers. Martin Luther King responded to white preachers who told him to take it slow and easy. Don’t be so forceful in your message. Dr. King responded to their counsel from the Birmingham jail. Could it be that many in the churches are no longer attentive to the word of God? Is there a famine of the Word in our midst? It’s not that the prophetic word has been silenced, it’s just that we tend not to listen.

 

The way I understand prophetic ministry—in its biblical context—is that the future is not predetermined. Israel could change its ways. It could listen. It could turn (think of Jonah’s message to Nineveh, which though fictional is a good reminder that repentance forestalls judgment).  The question is, will it/we listen before the prophetic voice goes silent? Will we? 

           

Picture attribution: Caillebotte, Gustave, 1848-1894. Fruit Displayed on a Stand, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=50942 [retrieved July 15, 2019]. Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.

 

Not Measuring Up? — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 5C (Amos 7)

Amos the Herdsman – Amiens Cathedral
 
 
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”


12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

 

16 “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’


17 Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”
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                The prophet Amos wasn’t what you would call a “court preacher.” He wasn’t employed by the monarchy or the religious establishment. In other words, he wasn’t a spiritual advisor to the king. As far as the monarchy and the religious leaders were concerned, he was a nuisance who brought to the land unwelcome messages. He made people feel uncomfortable. And Amos didn’t seem to care. Besides, he came to Israel from down south, from the rural community of Tekoa in Judah. According to Amos, God sent him to speak words of judgment against Jeroboam II and his regime that ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel, despite the fact that he came out of a vassal kingdom. Why bother with him. He was just a disgruntled neighbor, from a less powerful and important realm. When Amos came north, he encountered a nation that was its height. This was the reign of Jeroboam II (r. 786-746 BCE), one of the most powerful and successful monarchs in Israel’s history. So, why bother with this troublemaker?  

 

Sometimes we preachers want to think of ourselves as the spiritual descendants of a prophet like Amos, but I doubt the moniker fits most of us. He was too much like the guy standing at the corner with the sandwich board declaring that the end is near at hand. No, there must be a better model for us than him. Yet, here we are, with Amos standing before us, bringing what he says is another message from God. He offers Jeroboam a word from God about a plumb line.

Plumb lines, which were strings with weights attached, that was used to make sure the walls of the building were built straight and true from top to bottom. If they weren’t, the typical two-story house of that region would collapse. You don’t want that. Jeroboam and his kingdom might seem to be prospering. The stock market might be on the upswing. Employment numbers are good. The military is strong. The nation’s enemies are being kept at bay. Yet, here’s the Word of the Lord—you’re not measuring up. If you don’t get your act together you will soon collapse. History is on the side of Amos. Jeroboam might die with Israel at its height, but a quarter century later the Assyrian’s would march in and lay waste to the nation. The people of Israel and Judah might be related. They were neighbors. But they were also rivals. One nation survived (at least for a time) and the other disappeared from the map.

Amos delivered his message to an unreceptive audience. The priest at Bethel, the capital of the northern kingdom, a man by the name of Amaziah, told Amos to go home. Go earn a living elsewhere. This was the king’s sanctuary. It was his temple. He set the rules. There is a principle that was widely used in the period after the Reformation as differing religious entities took root in Europe. The principle goes by the name of Erastianism. The idea is that the religion of the king is the religion of the people—consider that Henry VIII and his successors (to this day) declared themselves the Head of the Church. That’s what Amaziah was trying to communicate to Amos. Go home. Your message is a foreign one. It doesn’t fit with what the king has decreed. Besides, the king is successful. He’s rich. He’s powerful. As for Amaziah, he represented a religious elite that supported and sustained a system that oppressed the people. The word of God was that he would get his just desserts.

Amos is not your typical preacher. As I said, he’s a bit like that street preacher with his sandwich board. He’s parked outside the Temple, annoying everyone who comes into contact with him. When Amaziah tells to go home and prophesy elsewhere (earn your living somewhere else), Amos simply says:  “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” He told the priest that he was just a simple farmer, a layperson, who didn’t want to come north. It wasn’t his idea. No one was paying him for this. In fact, he had to leave behind his fields and flocks to make the journey.  But when God said go, he went. He was standing there before the temple because God said: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

                Amaziah told Amos to go away, don’t prophesy here. But Amos persisted. He delivered the message God had given him for Israel and for Amaziah. What is the message? Your land will be taken. Your people will die by the sword or go into exile. Things might look good right now, but before you know it, things will turn bad. Why?  Because you’re not following the ways of God. While the passage doesn’t spell things out, we will get there. It has something to do with justice.

                Speaking truth to power isn’t easy. It can be dangerous. Think about St. Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, who was murdered while saying the mass in his chapel because he dared to oppose the political leadership that was oppressing the people. Now, he was a religious leader and not a layperson. But others have taken up the mantle of speaking truth to power. Lay people can be the most effective voices for justice. That is true here. Amos draws attention to the injustices of the day, injustices that had caught the attention of God.

What are we called to do? Amos heard the call and heeded it, even though he didn’t have any prophetic credentials. He was a farmer, not a preacher or a theologian. It’s not that we preachers and theologians don’t have our place, but the voice of God can and does come through the voice of the people. As for the religious leaders, we out to be circumspect. When we become the mouthpieces of an oppressive regime or when we justify unjust acts—the detention of refugee children in overcrowded and filthy camps—what might God have to say? How do we measure up?    

Picture Attribution:  Amos the Herdsman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29259 [retrieved July 8, 2019].

 

Passing the Mantle — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3C (2 Kings 2)

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

2 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 

6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. 

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 

13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

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                As I grow older and can see retirement on the horizon, texts like this begin to speak more loudly. I’m not Elijah or Elisha. At one level, I don’t claim to be a prophet in the form that these two figures take. At the same time, as an ordained minister, who has preached most Sundays for the past twenty-one years, I hear in this story a word spoken to my own journey. To preach requires the Spirit. The same is true for all acts of ministry. Different people will have different takes on this passage. Personal context matters. For me, it’s that sense of seeing the current pathway closing. In other words, I’ve begun to see more clearly that a time when the mantle must be passed on to the next generation. In fact, a few years back, when I was inducted into the College of Fellows of the Academy of Parish Clergy, I saw this as a recognition of a call to assist younger clergy in furthering their journeys. This is an important calling since at least half of all clergy will leave the ministry within five years of ordination. Many leave due to disillusionment. Some of that disillusionment rests at the feet of older clergy who may feel threatened by the emerging generations. Instead of offering to help with the passage into the future, they cut themselves off and important forms of wisdom don’t get passed on. When God said to Elijah that he should anoint Elisha as his successor, Elijah could have resisted. He could have felt threatened. But Elijah understood the need to mentor his successor. So, he took up the task (1 Kings 19).

 

This passage also came to mind as I was planning for my upcoming sabbatical. The grant application the congregation was submitting required a theme, and we chose “River Crossings” because that spoke the journey ahead.  A time of transition stands on the horizon for me as a pastor and for the congregation I serve. So, stories that speak of transition stand out. There is the story of Moses, who led the people to the Jordan but didn’t cross over. That was left to his apprentice, Joshua. Elijah crossed the river, together with his apprentice, Elisha. Once they crossed the Jordan, Elijah passed the mantle. These are two images of transition. The one before us pictures Elijah and Elisha crossing the river, but in the end, it is Elisha that continues the ministry that had once been Elijah’s. His ministry would be different from his predecessor, but Elijah was willing to serve as his guide.

                These two figures can leave us confused. Who comes first, Elijah or Elisha? The writers of 2 Kings, let us know that it is Elijah first and then Elisha. When last we saw Elijah in the lectionary readings, he had fled to the desert, where he hoped to die, feeling abandoned. His cry to God was something like “Woe is me, nobody likes me, everybody hates me.” (1 Kings 19:1-15). After that experience in the desert, Elijah is told to anoint “Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.” With that instruction, Elijah found Elisha plowing his field and threw his mantle over him, and after a bit of negotiation, Elisha followed Elijah, becoming his apprentice (1 Kings 19:16,19-21). Now it was time to pass the mantle. It was time for Elijah to leave and Elisha to take his place. This didn’t occur until Elijah had fully instructed his apprentice, and for his part, Elisha is faithful in his following of Elijah. Elijah is the more famous of the two, but both men spoke for God to a people who didn’t always appreciate the message.

                The passage begins with Elijah and Elisha heading out from Gilgal. Elijah told his apprentice to stay behind as he headed to Bethel, but Elisha declared his desire to continue on with his master. When they arrived at Bethel, the disciples of the prophets came out and warned Elisha that God would be taking Elijah away from him. He acknowledged the fact. Elijah and Elisha would repeat this pattern regarding staying behind at each juncture on the path to the place where God would take Elijah. Each time Elisha pledged to stay with him. As they made the journey from Bethel to Jericho and then to the Jordan, fifty disciples of the prophets followed along with them, but at a distance, until they reached the Jordan. Here is where the moment of transition begins.

 

                Once again, Elisha is told to stay behind, as Elijah follows his path beyond the Jordan, but Elisha refuses. At this point, Elijah takes his cloak or mantle, rolls it up, and then slaps the water of the Jordan with it. With that, the water of the river divides, much like it did when Joshua led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Though, on this occasion, Elijah intends to cross to the other side, out of the Promised Land. As they cross the river, Elisha having demonstrated his loyalty to Elijah, his master asks him: “what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”  Elisha answers: “Let a double portion of your spirit pass on to me.” (vs. 9 Tanakh). That’s asking for a lot, says Elijah. But, he’s open to the possibility, as long as Elisha keeps his focus on his master as he is taken up into the whirlwind. If not, if he fails to keep his concentration on Elijah’s departure, the deal’s off. All along the way, from Gilgal to this moment, it seems as if Elijah is testing Elisha’s resolve. This will be the last test before the mantle is passed.

                It is at this point, as they are walking and talking that a fiery chariot descends from the heavens and sweeps in to take Elijah from the earth. And as Elisha watched Elijah taken up into the whirlwind, he cries out “oh father, oh father.” When he could no longer see his master, he took his garments and tore them in grief. With that expression of mourning, Elisha picked up the mantle of his master, which Elijah had dropped. He struck the river, which parted, and he crossed over. Here is the evidence—Elisha has the spirit, perhaps more than did Elijah.  He is the heir. His turn has come. Thus, begins a new chapter, a new ministry.

Life is like that. It never stands still. Elijah was a great prophet. In actuality, his prophetic efforts were probably grander than those of Elisha, but there comes a time for the mantle to be passed. In this story, Elijah is taken from the earth. He doesn’t die; he simply is taken up. Only Enoch has the same experience. That is, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24 Tanakh). Elijah walks with God and God takes him. Elijah had his struggles. He had his victories, but he also had to flee. But the ministry goes on. A new person steps to the plate. He has shown his mettle. He stood steadfastly with his mentor. He didn’t aside and follow another pathway.  But he went forward in the spirit, having received the same spirit that empowered Elijah. The mantle, the cloak, is not the source of power but is the symbol of a spiritual power that Elisha discerned was necessary to fulfill his calling.  And off he goes, in the spirit. The same is true for us. To fulfill our callings, whether we would term them prophetic or not, requires the presence of the Spirit of God.

Picture Attribution:  Swanson, John August. Elijah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56543 [retrieved June 24, 2019]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 2008 by John August Swanson.

               
                 

 

First Fruits of Liberation – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1C (Deuteronomy 26)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

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          We have begun the Lenten journey. In the reading from the Gospel, Jesus has begun his sojourn in the Wilderness, where he will be tested (Luke 4:1-11). The people of Israel had been a wandering people and they two were tested.
          The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. That is the scriptural message, whether we take it literally or not. As the people of Israel draw near the river that separates them from the Promised Land, they are given instructions by God through Moses. The word we hear in Deuteronomy 26 envisions the people settling in, putting down roots, planting crops, and then harvesting the crops. With this assumption in mind, the call for first fruits is given. When the time comes to beginning harvesting the crops, the people are to take the first fruits of that harvest, put it in a basket and then bring it to the designated place where the priest will receive it. In doing this the people honor the God who liberated them from bondage, the God who was with them throughout the years of wandering and is now with them as they settle into life in the Land.
As we begin the Lenten journey, might we hear this word that comes to us from the Hebrew Bible as a call to worship and a call to stewardship? There is a liturgy involved, which reminds us that stewardship is an act of worship and not merely the means of paying bills. While it is a call to stewardship, it is also a call to share the proceeds of the harvest with others, most specifically the Levites (priestly class) and the “aliens who reside among you,” the bounty that God provides. Stewardship, it seems has something to do with sharing. It’s a concept we were supposed to learn in kindergarten, if not before, but a concept that is easily forgotten. Thus, instructions must be given.
As the offerings are brought to the altar, the people make a declaration of faith. They are called upon to remember from whence they came. Who am I? That is a question that continue to get asked. It’s a question that leads us to do genealogical work and check our DNA. In this confession, the people acknowledge that “A wandering Aramean is my ancestor.” The people of Israel, having finally found a place to settle in, are reminded by this confession that they have been a nomadic people. Their DNA is rooted in the tribes and people of Aram, which is the land of Syria and Southeastern Turkey.
So, who is this ancestor? Is it Abraham and Sarah? Yes. Is it Isaac and Rebecca? Yes. Is it Jacob and his family? Yes. In fact, it’s Jacob and his family who went down to Egypt and settled, only to discover that there was to be no security in that land. The initial benefits of living in Egypt proved fleeting. In time the wandering Aramean and family, though small in number, became a great nation. That led the Egyptians to feel threatened. They feared that a time would come when this tribe could gain enough strength to change the nature of Egyptian society. Does that sound familiar? Could it be a reason why some wish to build walls to keep “those people” from adding to their numbers? Is it a reason why there is a growing resistance to welcoming refugees to our shores? One scholar has even translated the opening declaration as “A wandering Syrian refugee is my ancestor.” So, as we contemplate this reading, could there be something of Egypt in our souls?
The confession remembers that Jacob’s descendants were treated harshly. They were sentenced to hard labor. When the descendants of this wandering Aramean cried out to God, their voices were heard. God saw the people being oppressed, and so God acted to liberate the people, bringing them into the Promised Land. Now, it is time to honor that God by bringing offerings to God as a sign of gratitude.
This reading from Deuteronomy speaks of a land that will be filled with milk and honey, a land of abundance. The confession serves as a reminder that the people of Israel are themselves immigrants and descendants of immigrants. They may have found a home, where they can settle in, put down roots, plant crops, but it is not a land to be possessed. It is a land to be received as a gift of God, to be shared. William Greenway writes of this concern: “by anchoring Israelite identity in an immigrant, a ‘wandering Aramean’; by reminding the Israelites that they were themselves poor, marginalized, oppressed strangers in a strange land; and by urging them to share their bounty ‘together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you’ (so, no ritual or ethnic sectarianism; all attend to the basic needs of and break bread with all).” [Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery & Cynthia L. Rigby. Connections:A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 1143-1146)].  Do we remember from whence we came? Do we come to the altar bearing expressions of first fruits, or what is left over from our abundance? Are willing to share, and what does that mean?
As you read this confession, you may notice that the person is to speak this confession as if experiencing the whole. This is a community confession that identifies the person with the community, and not just the present community, but the historical community. One’s current identity is rooted in one’s ancestry. What happened to Jacob and his descendants matters. We who are part of the family of Jesus, by adoption, have been brought in to this ancient tribe. We too are called to bring first fruits and acknowledge that our ancestors are wanderers, and thus we too should tread lightly on the land that is not ours but belongs to God. With this reminder that we are in many ways, spiritually, on journeys that involve a lot of wandering. We may have settled in and put down roots, but it is important that we continue to honor the one who liberated us, and we do this by being good stewards of God’s abundance.