Category: Ordinary Time

The Prophetic Call — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11C (Jeremiah 1)

God Touches Jeremiah’s Mouth – Winchester Bible (12th century)
 
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
***************
                I was ordained some thirty-four years ago, the day after I received my M.Div. degree. Even though hands were laid on me that day in June and I received the marks of the profession, I never expected to serve as a full-time pastor. I thought my call to ministry would lead elsewhere. I might not have envisioned the way things turned out, but you never know for sure where a calling will take you. Even if we sense a call to ministry, how do we know if it’s the correct course?  Should we expect to hear God speak to us verbally? Will there be other signs that will confirm the call? I wrote a book on spiritual gifts because I believe we are all gifted by God for service in God’s realm. Such service might entail ordained ministry, but more likely than not, it won’t. While these gifts might be rooted in our very being, I’m convinced that they can be used in a variety of ways both inside and outside the church. So how do you know where, when, and how gifts might be used in service to God’s realm?
                There are examples of rather dramatic calls to ministry to be found in Scripture. Moses sees a burning bush and Paul is knocked off a horse. Sometimes prophetic calls come in the midst of dreams and visions. Some, like Isaiah’s, are rather vivid. Others, like Jeremiah’s, are equally powerful, but may not be as visually dramatic. In most prophetic calls, the one called will resist. Moses did and so did Isaiah. The same is true of Jeremiah, as we see here in Jeremiah 1. In the verses preceding our text (Jeremiah 1:1-3), the narrator tells us something about the one whose call we read about in this passage. We learn that Jeremiah is a PK (a priest’s kid) who first heard the word of the Lord during the reign of King Josiah, Judah’s last great king. The Word of the Lord would continue to speak through him during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah (both sons of Josiah) and continue on until Judah and Jerusalem went into exile. Jeremiah ministered to the people as they fell from glory into despair.  This is the context in which Jeremiah heard the call to prophetic ministry. While he resisted, he would, in the end, embrace it.  
 
                The Word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah in the days of Josiah revealed to the young son of the priest Hilkiah, serving at Anathoth in Benjamin, begins with the declaration that Jeremiah was born—while he was still in the womb—God selected him for this job. The word that came to Jeremiah declared: “Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” A passage like this is powerful. How can you say no if God intended that you follow this path even before birth? At the same time, it can lead to problematic conclusions. If we take this too far, we will have to understand the trajectories of our lives to be predetermined. If God intended for Jeremiah to follow this path, could he have done something else with his life? That leads to the question of whether I could have taken a different path in life. Do I have a choice in the direction my life takes? Because I have embraced an open and relational understanding of God, I do believe we have choices. While God issues calls, we can choose how to answer that call. In Protestant circles, the idea of cooperation with God often has been deemed heretical. I’ve come to see things in a different light, so how might we read this passage in a non-deterministic fashion?  
 
                I think we can start with Jeremiah’s word of resistance. Jeremiah wanted to make sure he was hearing God correctly. Besides, like Moses before him, he complains he’s not much of a speaker. He’s not been to seminary or taken homiletics. He doesn’t know if he’s a deductive or an inductive preacher. He’s not read Tom Long or Fred Craddock. He’s just a boy. While there have been lots of boy preachers down through the ages, who take homiletics before they took up their calling, I’m not sure that’s the point. Jeremiah wasn’t sure what to make of this calling. He wanted to make sure this fit with who he was.  
 
                Jeremiah might not have unclean lips (that was Isaiah’s defense), but he was young. Nevertheless, God was undeterred. He had chosen Jeremiah for this work, and God wouldn’t take no for an answer. God said to Jeremiah, don’t say to me “I’m just a boy.” I’ve got work for you to do. You’re the one I want to do this, so go and do it. Don’t be afraid of your audience, for I am with you. There is a passage in the New Testament that seems to echo this word. In the first letter to Timothy we hear this word of advice given by an older mentor to a protégé:

 12 Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.  [1 Timothy 4:12-14].

It is a common complaint by young pastors that their abilities are discounted due to their “youth.” Timothy is told to ignore the complaints and instead tend to the work set before him. Jeremiah is given the same word of advice, though here it’s God and not a mentor.
                Having issued the call and answered Jeremiah’s questions, God provides the message. In Jeremiah 1:9, we watch as God puts a hand on Jeremiah’s mouth and says to Jeremiah: “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” Don’t worry about what you’re going to say, for the words will be provided. Once again, we need to be careful about how we read this. If you’re a preacher, does this mean that you can simply stand in the pulpit and without any preparation start talking? Does this mean that three years of seminary training are not needed or are irrelevant?  I hope that’s not the case! At the same time, the word here is simply a reminder that Jeremiah won’t be going out on his own. God will be with him by the Spirit.
                As Jeremiah goes out into the world, with the Spirit guiding and encouraging him, he has a job to do. God appoints him over nations and kingdoms. Jeremiah will pluck up and pull down. He will destroy and overthrow. He will also build and plant. There is both deconstruction and reconstruction. As a prophet he’s not only called to denounce or condemn the ruling authorities, he’s also called to provide an alternative.
                So, how should we hear this passage?
                Going back to the beginning, where we read of the call that occurs in the womb, might we see this as an affirmation of our own uniqueness as individuals? Might we not see this as a reminder that we are all unique, that is, we’ve been formed by God with a sense of purpose? It’s not that there is some kind of “purpose-driven life” that we must discern lest we take the wrong road in life. Instead, I would like to read this as a reminder that we are all gifted and called to be witnesses to God’s grace in the world. We’re gifted and called to speak of justice in the world. That may involve speaking truth to power. The other word we hear is that God provides the message. We might find it present in scripture or maybe somewhere else. What hear in this passage is that Spirit will lead us in bearing witness to God’s realm. As for those of us who are called to preach, it is wise not to hear this as permission to avoid doing your homework before you preach. It’s good to do your biblical and theological study before you preach. You might take a look at what’s happening in the world around you. What word might God have us hear as we traverse a world torn apart by violent acts and rhetoric? The way we respond to the call may depend on our place in life, but the responsibility remains the same.
                When the call comes, will we respond by singing the following?

 “Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” [“Here I Am, Lord,” by Daniel Schutte]. 

Picture Attribution: God Touches Jeremiah’s Mouth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55596 [retrieved August 17, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WinchesterBibleJeremiah(cover).GIF.

 

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Great Expectations — Unmet? Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10C (Isaiah 5)

Isaiah 5:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Let me sing for my beloved
    my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry!
 
*****************
 

                Isaiah wrote a love song about the vineyard God planted. God placed this vineyard in a fruitful spot; cleared it of stones and debris; made a winepress; planted grapes. What a sight it was to behold. God even put up a watchtower in the middle of the vineyard just so that an eye could be kept on it. Yes, God loved that vineyard, but things didn’t go as planned. That beloved vineyard produced wild grapes not suitable to make wine. The love song quickly turns into something of a lament. It moves from a song to a parable about Jerusalem, Judah, and Israel. It is a parable about a nation that was expected to be just and equitable, and yet it turned out to be filled with iniquity. God had great expectations, but were they met?

                This is another oracle of the prophet Isaiah, who spoke for God primarily to the people of Judah in the eighth century BCE. His primary place of work was the southern kingdom of Judah, but Israel (the northern kingdom) was in his sights as well. After all, they were God’s people too! They were the wayward siblings, or so the people of Judah thought. Both would find the neighborhood to be a bit dangerous. They had bigger and more powerful neighbors like Assyria to the north and Egypt to the south. While the neighbors posed dangers, these two nations didn’t help themselves with their actions. In the previous reading from chapter1, we saw that God had become frustrated with the people, rejecting their sacrifices because they didn’t reflect the moral/ethical vision of God. The call given to the people was to cease doing evil and so that they might devote themselves to justice (Isaiah 1:10-20). The wording here is a bit different, but the concern remains the same. The people of Judah and Israel haven’t figured out what God expected of them. They didn’t seem to understand that God’s covenant with them required them to act justly. God had planted this vineyard and expected an appropriate return. We might call this allegiance or loyalty or obedience to the stipulations of the relationship. Here again, we discover that at the heart of those stipulations is a concern for justice. Unfortunately, it appears that the people haven’t been learning their lessons well, and so they’ll suffer the consequences.

                As the passage moves from love song to parable, we hear the owner of the vineyard (God) ask Jerusalem and Judah to judge between the owner and vineyard. What should be done with the vineyard that’s not producing as expected? What would you do if a vineyard wasn’t producing the expected fruit? Would you follow the example laid out here by Isaiah? Would you pull down the fences in disgust and let the neighbors invade? After all, you did your best. You picked out good fertile land, prepared the soil, and planted the right vines. But nothing worked like it was supposed to work. If the vine wants to produce wild grapes, which apparently aren’t what is expected or desired, then why not let the wild grapes take over? That’s exactly what the owner does here. The owner of the vineyard pulls down the hedge and lets the neighbors trample over the beloved vineyard so that in the end it is left desolate. Is this not what the people wanted? Did they not prefer to be wild and sour?

If this is written by the one we call First Isaiah, then timing-wise, this is the era of the Assyrian advance that will threaten Judah (during the reign of Hezekiah) and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. In the parable as told by Isaiah, the land will not be pruned or hoed. Instead, it will become “overgrown with briers and thistles” and the rains that are needed to water the vineyard will not fall. Robert Ratcliff summarizes the message here in this way:

In the story of the vineyard, Israel has in effect decided that it wants to produce wild, sour grapes. To achieve that goal, the vineyard need only revert to uncultivated ground. The actions God promises—removing the hedge, breaking down the wall, ceasing to hoe or prune—are just God’s way of seeing to it that Israel gets what it wants. The prophetic word assures that God will not save us from the consequences of our own folly; often this is judgment enough.  [Connections, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 236].

                Verse 7 brings the parable to its climax. Here in verse 7, we find God’s indictment of Israel and Judah laid out. The indictment declares that God had “hoped for justice, but saw bloodshed.” The JPS translation has injustice rather than bloodshed (NRSV), but I think, either way, we get the point. That is, God wanted to see those wine grapes produce wine, but such is not to be. Why?  It is revealed here that the expectation was for justice, but injustice reigned. God desired equity, “but behold, iniquity” (Is. 5:7 Tanakh).

 

                How might we hear this word from Isaiah? What word does it say to our communities in the face of gun violence, racism, mass incarceration, voter suppression, attacks on immigrants, religious intolerance? The list is long. For those of us who preach, the list can be wearying, as the reality of injustice seems ever on our minds. While we might wish that there is no cause for divine judgment, which we often think of in terms of fire and brimstone being flung from heaven, perhaps there’s a simpler answer. Could it be that God’s judgment on us is found simply in the fact that we suffer consequences of our choices? There are theological and philosophical arguments that can be made one way or another about God’s responsibility for things like natural calamities, but even there we may be implicated. Climate change, for instance, is contributing to natural disasters, and we have been contributing to these disasters by our own choices. So, if we choose a path of injustice, might not that choice catch up with us at some point? So, what does God expect of us? The answer seems clear enough. God expects justice from us. It is the key to the relationship. Worship is good and proper as we learned from Isaiah 1, but it begins in our interpersonal relationships.

Attribution:  Millet, Jean François, 1814-1875. In the Vineyard, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=50342 [retrieved August 12, 2019]. Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.

 

True Worship and Justice – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9C (Isaiah 1)

Herbert Hoover birthplace. Iowa
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
1 The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
    you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.
18 Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be devoured by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
********************
                The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah don’t have a good reputation. They are often fodder for prophetic comparisons. Jesus compared the towns in Galilee who rejected his message to Sodom (Mt. 11:24). In the preceding two weeks, the lectionary offered us readings from Hosea, who spoke words of judgment and grace to the northern kingdom of Israel. Now the lectionary takes us south to the nation of Judah. Here we find the prophet Isaiah, speaking to the nation of Judah and the city of Jerusalem during the eighth-century reigns of Uzziah and his descendants to the time of Hezekiah (vs. 1). The prophet brings an indictment against the nation of Judah using the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that had been faced divine judgment, as a foil. These two cities have continued their notoriety down to the present. Unfortunately, they have been used by anti-LGBTQ preachers to condemn those whose sexual orientation or gender identity skew differently than the majority population. Such is not the case here in Isaiah. The prophet has something else in mind. That something else is essentially false worship. The concern here is worship that is offered by those who engage in unjust acts.
                 In verse 9, a verse not included in the lectionary, we hear this dire warning: “Had not the Lord of Hosts left us some survivors, we would be like Sodom, another Gomorrah.” It’s a declaration picked up by Paul in the letter to the Romans (Rom. 9:29). I am by inclination something of a universalist. I want to believe that in the end all will be reconciled. Yet, we have these words of judgment present in Scripture. They won’t go away, as if nothing mattered in life. At the same time, this word about survivors serves as a reminder that God is faithful to the covenant, even if the nation is not.  
 
This passage in Isaiah 1 doesn’t start out well. God says to the people whom God designates the “chieftains of Sodom” and the “folk of Gomorrah”: “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” God has had enough of their burnt offerings. God is tired of them trampling God’s courts. Their incense is an offense to God, along with their festivals and worship services. Indeed, we hear through the prophet’s voice the word of the Lord: “And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen” (vs. 15 Tanakh).
 
                What does God require of them, instead of their crime-stained worship services?  God wants them to put away their evil deeds. God wishes them to “learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (vs, 16-17 Tanakh). You hear an echo of this declaration in the words of James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 NRSV). In fact, when we read the book of James, we find important continuity with the prophets. Thus, the prophet speaks not only to his own day but to our own. It is a word to the church that has, unfortunately, tended to support oppressive movements. Slavery was defended in the nineteenth century as biblical. Martin Luther King had to issue his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” because white clergy (like me) counseled against pushing the envelope on civil rights. Isaiah declares that God prefers justice to our sacrifices. Nevertheless, the compassion of God is sufficient to turn things around. Our sins might be as scarlet, but they can be like snow. They will be washed away if we are willing to obey God’s vision for humanity. That vision is one of justice, mercy, compassion. The alternative isn’t good.  
 
                Having heard the indictment and the reminder that God expects justice from God’s people, that does not mean God doesn’t welcome our worship. As Ron Allen notes, “The Priestly God does not object to worship as such. God objects to worship that is not rooted in authentic desire to honor God’s purposes by living in mutual support,” Allen goes on to address the problem of churches blessing uncritical nationalism, as revealed in the slogan “’America First’ even when doing so harms the quality of life of people in other lands, and when doing so will eventually harm the quality of life in the United States” [Connections, 218].  Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the mid-second century CE, addressed this call to connect worship and justice:

Let us offer our complete faith, our devout minds, our obedience, and our continual labors to the Lord that he may be pleased with us. Let us give earthly garments to Christ so that we receive heavenly robes; let us share food and drink in this world so that we may join Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the heavenly banquet. [Quoted in Connections, p. 219].

Cyprian seems to draw in part upon Jesus’ vision of the day of judgment in Matthew 25. Isaiah has a similar vision as well. How might we, living in this age of Trump, when many in the church have embraced a repressive vision for the nation, one that turns away the refugee, neglects the hungry, and encourages narcissism? Isaiah has a warning for us. If we gather for worship but neglect justice, God will not be pleased. With that in mind, the better way is to walk in obedience to the God who demands justice.   

 

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].

 

A Dip in the River – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 4C (2 Kings 5)

 

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” 

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” 
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abanaand Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. 
15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” 16 But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord.
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                Just as was true with his mentor Elijah, Elisha was a prophet known for his miracles. He healed people, raised the dead, and fed multitudes. For the most part, the recipients of these acts were members of the prophetic community. Unlike Elijah, Elisha doesn’t seem to be at odds with the monarchy. In part that is due to the fact that Elijah’s enemy—Ahab—is no longer ruling in Israel. Although what occurs here in 2 Kings 5 doesn’t seem to be that big of a miracle—someone is healed, but without any real involvement on Elisha’s part. He gives instructions, but not much else. The person healed, however, is an important figure, as is his confession, which is why it’s odd that the lectionary creators cut the story off a bit early. Yes, Naaman is healed, but why is this important? Without the confession of faith, we’re left with a nice story but not much else. Perhaps the reason for its brevity is that it seems a bit ethnocentric, and not fitting our current needs?
                The story of the healing of Naaman of leprosy is one of those stories we may have learned in Sunday School. After all, it features a warrior and a miracle. But what else is there in this story to be concerned with?
                Let’s start at the beginning. Naaman is a general in the army of the kingdom of Aram (Damascus). He has won his share of battles on behalf of his kingdom, but he had been stricken with some form of skin disease (identified here as leprosy). The disease doesn’t seem to have limited his military prowess, but it might have limited his social interactions. We learn that in his household is a young woman, a captive from Israel. She had been taken from her home in one of the many border wars and skirmishes between two neighboring countries. While we’re not told why she offered this word of advice, she informed the general’s wife, whom she served, about a prophet in Israel who had the power to heal. If only Naaman went to visit this prophet, he could be delivered from this affliction. When informed of this possibility, Naaman went to the king and asked for help in gaining access to this means of healing. The king agreed to the request, and put together some tribute for Naaman to take with him as a sign of friendship, or at least a truce, along with a letter addressed to the king of Israel (who at the time was Jehoram. He did evil in the sight of the Lord, just not as bad as his father, Ahab).
                When the king of Israel received the letter, he was horrified, because he assumed that the king of Aram was asking him, the king of Israel, to heal this general. He was so upset that he tore his robes, as a sign of grief. If he couldn’t heal the man, then surely war was on the horizon. Although one king asked the other king for assistance, the servant girl didn’t have the king in mind, but a prophet. So, something got lost in translation. Fortunately, Elisha heard about the situation and sent word to the king. He told the king to send Naaman to him, for he was the appropriate person to deal with the situation. He was the prophet that the young woman had in mind. Elisha told the king: “Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” There isn’t a lot of compassion in this response on Elisha’s part. It seems as if he saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of Israel’s God. What is about to occur is sometimes understood to be a power encounter. It is meant to be a revelation of the power of God, as opposed to other forces and deities.
                The next word we hear is that “Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.” Naaman came to Elisha reflecting a sense of power. He had with him all the signs of his military prowess and importance. So, what would Elisha do? How would he respond?  The answer is interesting. He doesn’t even venture out from his house to greet the mighty general. He just sends word to the general, telling him to go and wash himself seven times in the Jordan. Naaman is incensed. At the very least he expected Elisha to come out and greet him, and he also expected Elisha to say some words and wave his hand over the spot. Surely there was some ritual to be performed, but why go wash in the Jordan? What’s so special about the Jordan that it would cleanse him. After all, Damascus had better rivers than the Jordan. So, he goes away, angry at being snubbed and told to do something demeaning, like bathing in the Jordan (of all places).
                Though he was angry at Elisha’s request, Naaman’s aides convince him to do as he was asked. Why is it a big deal? Elisha could have asked him to do something much more difficult. The ancient world is full of stories of difficult quests. This is pretty simple. So, Naaman, perhaps reluctantly, but still hopeful that he could rid himself of this disease, does as he was asked. Sure enough, he’s healed. The text informs us that “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”  With this, the lectionary reading comes to a close. We can rejoice in the compassion of God, who provides healing even to a foreigner. In fact, Naaman represented an enemy of Israel. This is good news. Of course, this isn’t really the end of the story.
                By ending the passage at verse 14, the emphasis is on Elisha’s miracle power, but is that the intent of the story? Yes, it’s a story of compassion, even for the outsider (Naaman is both a foreigner and one with a disease that normally excluded them from society). But verses 15-17 speak of conversion. Is this not the point of the whole story? When Naaman returns to the house of Elisha, he confesses that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (vs. 15). This confession reinforces a declaration made at the beginning of the story, that it was the LORD (YHWH) who given him the victories on behalf of Aram, victories that would have included wars and battles with Israel (vs. 1).

                So, at one level, if we continue on to the end of verse 17, we hear a word about the superiority of the God of Israel over the nations. It is a message that is found throughout the Hebrew Bible. Despite the smallness of the nation of Israel or Judah, despite its powerlessness in the face of its enemies, God is still in control. We may struggle with that image—it’s one that we who participate in interreligious conversations struggle with—but is also a reminder that God is not bound by national boundaries. It is also a reminder that God is concerned about the people of all nations, including a general from Aram, who has in his household a captive from Israel, who for whatever reason gets the ball rolling by informing her mistress that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him of his disease. It is a word about humility—finding healing if one is willing to take a dip in a foreign body of water. It is also a word about a transformative experience of encountering the God of Israel.  And through this God is glorified.

Picture attribution: Naaman is cured from leprosy, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55732 [retrieved July 1, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Enamel_plaque_Naaman_BM.jpg.

 

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.

               
                 

 

Woe Is Me: Elijah’s Lament, a lectionary reflection for Pentecost 2C (1 Kings 19)

 

19 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. 

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.  

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
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                We have moved through the Day of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and now we begin the long journey that takes us to Advent. This season, which is nearly six months in duration (and marked by the color green) is called, by some, ordinary time. I don’t care for this designation, so I tend to count the Sundays after Pentecost. I don’t know that any moment in time is ordinary, though there are moments, like Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost that stand out, but each Sunday has its own value. During this season there usually two choices for the first reading, all coming from the Hebrew Bible. I will normally be commenting on the semi-continuous texts, rather than the paired texts. The first of these texts is taken from 1 Kings 19, which picks up immediately following Elijah’s encounter with and triumph over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. That encounter is both exciting and off-putting. It’s always good to hear that God triumphs, but the killing of the prophets of Baal—that’s not so enticing. Such violence doesn’t fit well with our sensibilities. In fact, it serves as a reminder of the tendency of religions in general and Christianity in particularity to enforce doctrinal and moral compliance with the threat of violence. At the same time, it represents the reality of the cycle of violence that is so present in our world. However, this is the background to the reading from 1 Kings 19. In fact, the prophet Elijah seems to take pride in his act of violence, which he believes cleansed the land of religious pollution (the prophets of Baal). Now it should be noted that Jezebel, Queen of Israel, had been attempting a purge of the prophets of Yahweh (1 Kings 18:4). This appears to be the way religious differences were handled back then. But despite his victory, it appears that Elijah is feeling depressed. He did his job, but it doesn’t seem to have made a difference.   
 
                When we come to chapter 19 of 1 Kings, having already watched as God answered Elijah’s prayer and had sent fire from heaven to consume the offering, something Baal could not do, the wrath of Jezebel is unleashed against him. When King Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done at Mount Carmel, Jezebel sent a message to Elijah threatening to do to him, what he had done to her prophets. Thus, the cycle of violence would continue, and truth be told, it continues into the present. When Elijah received this message he fled for his life, traveling to Beer-Sheba, in the neighboring country of Judah. He was safe, for now, unless Jezebel could get an extradition order for his arrest. Though he was safe, he felt depressed. He felt as if, despite his efforts, nothing had changed, and so he left his assistant in the town and headed out into the Wilderness (desert). He was ready to give up and even die. Why go on? He had no purpose.
He lay down in the desert and went to sleep (perhaps hoping not to wake up), but as he slept he was visited by an angel (I’m not sure why verses 5-7 are considered optional, as they detail the angelic vision). The angel had laid out food and water and commanded him to get up and eat. He did so, then went back to sleep. The angel woke him up and told him once more to eat, so he would have strength for forty days and nights (presumably a time of fasting as well as journeying). This time instructions were given. He needed to eat so he could make the journey to Mount Horeb, the holy mountain in the Sinai, where Moses saw the burning bush.  He traveled to Mount Horeb, where he entered a cave and spent the night. You can see here parallels to the story of Moses. Moses had to flee, and it was in the desert of Sinai, on this mountain, that God appeared to Moses and spoke to him (Exodus 3:1-6). It was here that Moses received his commission. It would be here that Elijah would hear from God.
The Lord spoke to Elijah, asking him why he was there. Elijah responded by reminding God of what he had done. He was zealous for the Lord. He’d torn down the altars to foreign gods and put to death the prophets of these gods. Now, he alone was left, and his enemies are after him, seeking to put him to death. Elijah is not in a good place. He feels abandoned. He’d done what he thought God wanted, but to what end. Sometimes we feel that way. We may not have torn down altars, or thankfully killed prophets, but we’ve given our all, and don’t have much to show for it. It’s one of the reasons so many clergy hang it up before they reach five years of service. Where is the fruit of one’s efforts? Where is the appreciation?
Burnout is a common concern among clergy. It’s one reason why pastorates tend to be short. Clergy give their all and then within a few years, feel as if they have nothing left to give to the congregation. So, it’s time to move—either to a new congregation where one can start over or to another vocation. Elijah is feeling it. He’s been battling in Israel for Yahweh for countless years. While he might have a token success here or there, the status quo remains in place, and the people simply don’t seem to care.
God responds to Elijah’s laments (and those of contemporary clergy, perhaps), but sending him out of the cave so he can experience the presence of God. The Lord promises to pass by, but what will be the form of that presence? First Elijah experiences a mighty wind, so mighty it splits mountains and breaks apart rocks. I’ve experienced some big winds, but nothing like that. Even hurricanes and tornados don’t split mountains. Nevertheless, despite the power of the wind, God is not present in the wind.  Then comes an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake either. Both the wind and the quake suggest power and might. Though different in its makeup, God wasn’t present in the fire either. This is fascinating because the Pentecost story suggests that the Spirit came as a mighty wind and baptized with fire. But at least here, wind, quakes, and fire, are not markers of God’s presence, even though that likely was what Elijah expected (or something like it). It’s what we tend to expect as well. Our God is an awesome God, is that not true?
So how is God is present? The reading suggests that the fire was followed by “sheer silence” or as the Tanakh puts it, as “a soft murmuring sound.” This is the opposite of power, and yet this is how God chose to be revealed. Of course, the Gospels recount the story of Jesus, the revelation of God, who reveals God’s presence in and through the cross—not something one would expect of God.
I don’t know if Elijah isn’t all that impressed with this show of God’s presence. He does cover himself with his mantle (cloak), so maybe he got a bit of a scare, from the wind, quake, and fire, but then there’s the quietness. So, maybe he’s a bit underwhelmed because he goes back to his complaints in response to God’s question: “why are you here?” Elijah’s answer is simple: I was zealous for the cause. I did everything I was supposed to do, but here I am, alone with a death warrant set out for me. That’s why Elijah has gone out to the desert—not to meet God but to flee God’s call, which doesn’t seem to have made a difference.
How does God respond? God kicks Elijah in the backside and tells him to get back in the game. Go back to where you came from and along the way stop in Damascus and anoint Hazael king of Damascus, and from there go and anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi as king of Israel. Set up a rival regime in the nations. While you’re at it, anoint Elisha as your successor. It’s time for change—politically and spiritually. The kings of Damascus and Israel had their chance, but they failed, and so it’s time for another. As for Elijah, he still has work to do, but it’s also time to prepare another to take up the mantle. In the end, all who bow to Baal will fall to the sword. That is the task set before Elijah. Oh, and by the way, you’re not alone Elijah. There are seven thousand in Israel who haven’t bowed to Baal.
The word to us as the people of God is the same. Even when things look bleak, we’re not alone. There are others who are steadfast in the faith. So, get back out there. Don’t lose faith. Trust in the Lord who is present not only in the quakes and fire but in silence as well. Now, none of this is meant to downplay the realities of burnout, stress, and a sense of aloneness that many clergy feel. I know I’ve felt it. I’ve had my moments of depression over the years. So, I understand. There are times to walk away. On the other hand, there are times to persevere—in the Spirit, of course.  It is good to know, we’re not alone.

Picture Attribution: Volterra, Daniele da, ca. 1509-1566. Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46988 [retrieved June 17, 2019]. Original source: http://yorckproject.de.

 

Prophetic Callings — Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4C (Jeremiah 1)

Jeremiah (South Portal, Moiaasic Abbey, France)
Jeremiah 1:4-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
 
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
 
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,
 
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
 
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.
 
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                The prophet Jeremiah was born into the priestly caste. That he would a priest was a given. On the other hand, nothing about his birth suggested God would call him to be a prophet. Yet, that would be his calling. When the moment came for him to receive his prophetic calling, like other prophets, Jeremiah asks of God “Who? Me? Are you sure you got the right person?” That’s a bit of a paraphrase, but I think it captures Jeremiah’s initial response. He had no problem with the priestly calling, he was born to it. But the prophetic one was very different. It wasn’t something he expected, and if we read this literally, he was rather young when the call came. I’m not given to theologies that assume God predestines our lives in unchangeable ways, though I do believe the Spirit gifts us for ministry, perhaps from the womb. I do believe that even prophets, like Jeremiah, have the freedom to say no to God. On the other hand, it’s not easy saying no to God, especially when God says to you, this is what I created you for.  In the end, Jeremiah says yes to the call, though as is revealed in the book of Jeremiah his message didn’t make him popular with the governing authorities or the people. His counsel challenged the arrogance of the leadership. Indeed, just a few verses following this statement of call, the word of the Lord came to him, and he declared that “out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.”  God tells Jeremiah that the people will fight against him, but they will not prevail (Jeremiah 1:14-19).
                As we continue the journey through Epiphany, reflecting on the ways in which God is made manifest in the world, shedding light into darkness, it is appropriate to take notice of a prophetic call. According to what we read here Jeremiah the call came to Jeremiah when he was only a child. He would be called upon to speak words of judgment on his own people, though he would also offer them words of hope. While called to speak to own nation, his ministry would have a wider berth. He would speak to the nations as well as Judah. His calling comes at a time when reform was underway in the land of Judah. This was the time of Josiah’s reign. Josiah was one of the righteous kings of Judah. They were few in number, but they arose from time to time. Things were looking up, at least for a while (2 Kings 23:1-27). Unfortunately for Judah, Josiah died in battle, fighting against Pharaoh Neco of Egypt (2 Kings 23:28-30). Things went from bad to worse after Josiah died. His son, Jehoahaz succeeded him, and as is often declared in these books of the Kings, the new king “did evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done” (2 Kings 23:32). From there one son of Josiah took the throne until Nebuchadnezzar stepped in, leading to captivity.
The time frame for Jeremiah’s ministry is noted in the opening frame (verses 1-3), which tells us the Word of the Lord came to the prophet in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah (627 BCE) and would continue until the time of the exile that took place when Zedekiah was king (587 BCE). Jeremiah didn’t accompany the exiles to Babylon. Instead he was taken to Egypt, where we assume he died.  
 
                Taking just the text before us, what we have is a word concerning prophetic (and perhaps ministerial) callings. In light of the season of Epiphany, this calling would be a manifestation of God’s presence. Jeremiah is called and consecrated to this ministry from his conception—when God formed him in the womb. We often take note of the word concerning God forming Jeremiah and knowing him before birth, while neglecting the reference to his consecration. Prophets generally were not consecrated. They were called and empowered, but consecration was something that applied to priests (and kings). It has to do with anointing, and in Israel’s case heredity. Jeremiah didn’t choose to be a priest, he was born a priest. Apparently, he descended from the line that goes back to Abiathar, David’s priest, and from Abiathar back to Eli, mentor to Samuel who consecrated David as king. That Jeremiah comes from the town of Anathoth is important for understanding his prophetic ministry, which takes a rather anti-monarchical position. This is perhaps due in part to the fact that his priestly line was itself in exile. Abiathar, who had been priest during David’s reign was sent away by Solomon, who backed Zadok (who unlike Abiathar had backed Solomon’s claim over that of Adonijah – see 1 Kings 2:26).
                Even if Jeremiah’s family didn’t serve in the Temple, we can expect that he understood what it meant to be a priest. He was born to that. His father would have informed him early on. He might have heard stories of Samuel, who as a boy apprenticed in the Temple during the priesthood of their ancestor Eli. He would have also been taught the story of his people, going back to the Exodus. He understood the covenant God made with Israel. That background would have informed his ability to speak for God in times of crisis. Having that background informed his prophetic calling, but the prophetic call is different than the priestly one. You’re not generally born to it. It requires a separate, unique call. A priest can be a prophet, but you needn’t be a priest to be a prophet. I wonder how that reality might be understood today. What might it mean to be prophetic in our context? Nevertheless, as we move forward, it would seem that Jeremiah operates not as a priest, but as a prophet.
                God has a specific word for him to share with the world: 
 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
(Jer. 1:9-10).
Jeremiah was appointed by God with authority over the nations. He will pluck up and pull down. He will destroy and overthrow. That is, he will pronounce God’s judgement on the nations. However, he will also build and plant. This is Jeremiah’s message, throughout the book, which is often universal in scope. Yes, he will speak to Judah—rather strongly—but the message is much broader than simply the fate of Judah. This gives us a reminder that the God who speaks to and through Jeremiah is not a parochial god. This God is not limited by borders. After all, Jeremiah will end up in Egypt, while much of Israel’s elite will find themselves living in Babylon. In a letter to the exiles in Babylon, probably written from Egypt, he encourages them to settle down and make a life there, praying for the communities in which they find themselves. After all, they’re going to be there for a while (Jeremiah 29:1ff).
God may care a great deal about the covenant people, but God is also the God of the nations. God will deal with both as is appropriate. Jeremiah brings words of judgment, but also words of hope. After all there will be a new covenant, one written on the heart rather than stone (Jeremiah 31:31-34). It is this promise of a new covenant that Jesus takes up in his ministry. While Jeremiah likely has the aftermath of the exile in mind here, it found echoes in the ministry of Jesus, whose own calling is celebrated during this season of Epiphany. We see this calling of Jesus, one that spoke not only to Israel, but to the nations, in the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-11) and in his baptism (Lk. 3:21-22). In the reading from the Gospel of Luke designated for this, the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus speaks of his own calling in terms of an anointing of the Spirit. While Jesus draws from Isaiah rather than Jeremiah, there is a similarity in their visions.
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Lk 4:18-19).
And the Word of the Lord goes forth!
                As we hear this word, we who live millennia later might ask the question: to what is God calling us? What message do we have to share? The reading from 1Corinthians 13 invites us to inhabit the love God. Is this not our calling, at this moment in time?  Jeremiah doesn’t mention the love of God often, but this word is worth hearing as we consider Jeremiah’s calling and that of our own:

23 Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; 24 but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jer. 9:23-24).

Picture attribution: 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=55363 [retrieved January 28, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moissac,_Jeremiah.JPG.