Category: Ordinary Time

Forget Me Not: Christ the King (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 24, 2019

Read: 2 Kings 22:1-10, [14-20]; 23:1-3

Photo by Jordy Meow on Unsplash

Reflection

There is an episode of the Original Series of Star Trek where Kirk and Spock beam down to a planet and in the midst of a war. They end up in a village of people who call themselves Comms who imprisions them. They are in jail with a person from another tribe called Yangs. Kirk and the Yang leader escape to the Yang villiage. It’s during a ceremony where the Yangs recite something that seemed very familiar, that Kirk and the others notice what looks like an American flag. They all surmise that this planet had something akin to a cold war between “Yankees” and “Communists.” But this war grew hot as the nations used biogical warfare. Later on, one of the Yangs starts reading from a scroll and again, the words were familiar. Kirk undstands that this was the preable to the US Constitution. He chides the group for not understanding the meaning of the document. The Yangs had fought for so long that they had forgotten the meaning of the constitution, which Kirk reminds them is not just for the Yangs, but for the Comms as well.

Every culture is formed by stories. But stories can get lost and forgotten. Or the meaning is lost to the story and it becomes interpreted in ways that the document was not intended.

Reading today’s text can be a challenge. It’s very dense and filled with words that were hard to read. But after a while, the clouds will scatter and the message becomes clear.

Josiah was now the king of Judah. It is a vassal state of Assyria. There are people at work repairing the temple when the workers find a document. It is the law that was given to the people as the journyed from Egypt to the Promised Land. They had fallen so far, that the law had been be forgotten and lost.

Josiah hears the prophecy and he rips his clothes in sadness. He sent his court priest to go to the prophet and ask what God wants. The priest does go to the prophetess Huldah who confirms that yes, the kingdom of Judah will suffer a dark fate for falling away from God. But because Josiah expressed repentance, Josiah will not see that fate.

Now, if I heard all of this I might be happy that I won’t have to face the coming judgment. But Josiah does something different. Instead, he launches a reform campaign. We don’t read more than the first few verses of chapter 23, but in verse 25 we learn the details of his reform:

The king now commanded the people, “Celebrate the Passover to God, your God, exactly as directed in this Book of the Covenant.”

22-23 This commanded Passover had not been celebrated since the days that the judges judged Israel—none of the kings of Israel and Judah had celebrated it. But in the eighteenth year of the rule of King Josiah this very Passover was celebrated to God in Jerusalem.

24 Josiah scrubbed the place clean and trashed spirit-mediums, sorcerers, domestic gods, and carved figures—all the vast accumulation of foul and obscene relics and images on display everywhere you looked in Judah and Jerusalem. Josiah did this in obedience to the words of God’s Revelation written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in The Temple of God.

25 There was no king to compare with Josiah—neither before nor after—a king who turned in total and repentant obedience to God, heart and mind and strength, following the instructions revealed to and written by Moses. The world would never again see a king like Josiah.

2 Kings 23:21-25 (The Message)

The companion text for this week is from Luke 24, where the risen Jesus meets with two disciples who don’t recognize him. What both texts highlight is how we can blind ourselves to God. The people of Israel forgot God’s law and the two disciples could not see Jesus walking with them.

It can be so easy- the cares of this world make us blind to God speaking in front of us.

A pastor friend liked to say to the congregation he preached at where they saw God this week. I think that question is important, because it forces us to remember that God is present in the world and in our lives, even when we forget Jesus.

Josiah could have just been happy to know that he wouldn’t see the coming judgement. But he wanted everyone to remember, to remember what God had done in the lives of the people of Judah.

Where have you seen God this week? What stories do you think have been forgotten?

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

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

Isaiah 65:17-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
 
*****************

                Won’t you envision with me a new heaven and a new earth, where violence and death and suffering are no more? This is the eschatological vision that is revealed here in Isaiah and then again at the end of the Book of Revelation. In that last vision of John the Revelator, we hear the pronouncement:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev. 21:1). That reference to the sea is important, for the sea stands in for chaos. It is the enemy, so its absence is a sign that peace has come upon the land. It might not be a welcome word if you enjoy the ocean (as I do) but remember the context. The people of Israel weren’t a sea-going people. That said, the vision here is one of change, but what is the nature of that change? When the two passages are read together, this vision of a new heaven and new earth sounds rather ominous. That is because it seems to suggest something catastrophic occurring. It would appear that God intervenes in a radical way so that the old creation is done away with and something new replaces it. That vision has its attractions, but is this what the Prophet envisioned? Perhaps not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick’s Roll: Pentecost 22 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 10, 2019

Read: Hosea 11:1-9 and Mark 10:13014

Reflection

First off, sorry for not writing these past few weeks. Being the bivocational pastor makes for a busy life, but I will try to be more regular in my reflections.

This Sunday’s text has me thinking about prophets, God’s love and Rick Astley.

Who can forget the British singer who bursted on the the pop music scene in 1987 with the song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It was smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic and the video has become a popular internet meme.

But that song also reminds me of how God expresses God’s love for the people of Israel who have failed him time and time again. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” says a pained God. God is angry at how Israel has decided to not trust in God, but to seek alliances with other nations to protect themselves from Assyria. They don’t realize that this will be a fatal mistake. Assyria will invade and cause the Northern Kingdom to cease to exist. The population, the 10 tribes of the North, will become lost to history.

When I’ve looked at this text before, I usually focus on how God is responding. But I’m seeing the Hosea from a different viewpoint; that of Hosea himself.

Throughout the book of Hosea the prophet is led by God to do some odd things that are to symbolize the fraught relationship between God and Israel. Early on, he marries Gomer a prostitute. I won’t go into detail about this, but the marital and parental images are suppose to show the love of God and the faithlessness of the people.

But how did Hosea feel about all of this? We can gather that Hosea, a prophet, had a heart for God and was willing to allow God to work through him. That meant saying and doing somethings that might have seen weird to the people around him.

As we look at our own lives and the life of the church, do we think about what it means if we are Hosea in our modern context? What if we are called to tell the people how they have fallen away from God, but also share God’s great and never-ending love?

Churches in the United States are dealing with a changing culture. In the 1950s and 60s, people were nominally Christian and church was the center of cultural life in America. But we are not the church going nation we used to be. That has left us disestablished from culture. As we see our pews become empty and our budget shrinks, we are wondering how to live. More liberal Christians think it is about social justice and they are busy dealing with various political issues and going to this or that protest. More conservative Christians think it is about moral living and that people must stop living loose and become holy for God. Neither of these are bad choices, but they miss something: God’s anguished love for us all.

What is the church being called to do in this day and time? Hosea echoes Rick Astley by telling the people that God will not give them up, never let them down, never tell lies or desert them. God will never make them cry won’t say goodbye, you get the idea.

In a society that is so fragmented, isolated and angry, can we be a Hosea to the people? Do we feel, do we know that God loves us passionately like a parent loves their wayward child?

That is the mission of the church in these times. We are called in words and deeds to tell of God’s anger and love for us.

Hosea was faithful to God and was able to convey God’s feeling to the people. We are called today to be faithful to God, and share the good news outside of our walls.

Are we ready to be God’s Hosea?

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

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

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

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

********************
 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


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

 

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

Amsterdam
 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into exile with suffering
and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter.
Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
From daughter Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like stags
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.
 
 
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                My first thought when reading this took me back to my childhood visits to “Ghost Towns” like Virginia City, Nevada. All through the American West one will find “Ghost Towns,” towns that are now abandoned or largely abandoned that once thrived on Gold and Silver strikes. Virginia City today is a tourist site, but once it was a thriving metropolis with mansions, saloons, and even a couple of churches, serving a fairly large population. Other such towns haven’t had the same luck as Virginia City in becoming a tourist mecca, but the image seems appropriate. Jerusalem has become a Ghost Town. What was once a thriving city, full of people, commerce, and glory, is now abandoned.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I Wanna Be In Control: Pentecost 16 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 8, 2019

Read: Exodus 1:8-14 [15–2:10]; 3:1-15

Reflection

It’s impossible to read this week’s text and not think about what is happening right now in the United States. The tale of a Pharaoh “who didn’t know Joseph” that fears the descendants of Jacob reminds us of a US President that fears a modern immigrant community, treating them rather harshly.

But, let’s slow down first. If you rush talk about a current crisis through this text, you might forget this actual story. Of course, we should do as the theologian Karl Barth tells us, to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In order to do that, we need to focus on the Scripture at hand first.

So, just what is going on here? There are a few things to focus on.

First, it’s important to know that the Pharoah didn’t know Joseph. Joseph was one of the sons of Jacob who was initially sold into slavery in Egypt and rose to become the Prime Minister of the kingdom. The rest of his family came as guests of the Pharaoh and lived as resident aliens for years and years.

Why didn’t Pharaoh know this history? Surely someone was keeping track of the royal history. For whatever reason, the king is ignorant of the facts. Instead he views the Israelites with fear. He fears that if Egypt goes to war, the nation will have traitors in their midst. He views them not just with simple suspicion, but out and out xenophobia. He has a plan to try to draw down their numbers. Pharaoh makes the Israelites slaves in the hopes that this will kill off a few, but this doesn’t happen. Then he asks the midwives to kill the male children. But two midwives, Shiprah and Puah are God-fearing women who refuse. They lie to the Pharoah that the Israelite women are so strong, they give birth before they arrive.

When that second idea fails, the Pharoah orders that all first born babies were thrown into the Nile to drown. One woman decides to send her son in a basket down the river. None other than the Pharaoh’s daughter sees, the child and claims the baby called Moses as her own. The Pharaoh is thwarted again, this time by his own flesh and blood.

We then skip to a grown up Moses, raising sheep far away from Egypt. He’s been on the run after killing an Egyptian beating up a Hebrew. He is contacted by God and chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and back to the promised land. But Moses doesn’t immediately say yes. He wants to know God’s name but God never gives him the answer he wanted. Moses goes to free God’s people never getting God to reveal God’s name.

Pharaoh and Moses both want to control a situation. Pharaoh is scared of the Israelites, so much so that he sees them as potential traitors. Moses is called to speak for his people in front of Pharaoh, but he wants to know who is this God that is sending him. In Pharoah’s case each time he tried to get rid of the Israelites, he is thwarted. What’s interesting is that in two occasions he is thwarted by women. The text is never clear that Shiprah and Puah are themselves Hebrews. For all we know, they could be Egyptians. What we do know is that they feared God and chose to disobey Pharaoh’s demands. The baby Moses is sent down the Nile and is picked up by the daughter of the Pharaoh. She and Moses’ mother are able to sabotage Pharaoh’s efforts.

Pharaoh and to a lesser extent, Moses want to be in control. But they are unable to get the control they want. The Pharaoh is the leader of a great nation and felt he could do anything he desired. When he didn’t know Joseph, it could also mean he didn’t know God. Because if he had known God, he would know of how Joseph’s God saved the nation so long ago. But he didn’t and thought Egypt was mighty and what God would stop him.

These early chapters of Exodus remind us that God is the one in control in the world even when it might not look like that is possible. May we have the faith of Shiprah and Puah and not the arrogance of the Pharaoh.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

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.