Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September 19, 2010. Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

© 2010 by Louie Crew

Today’s Lections

The Collect

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

The reading is not easy to follow. The quotation marks, absent from the original manuscripts, have been added to help. Presumably Jeremiah is speaking the bulk of the passage. After two verses, he quotes the cry of the people for one verse, and then adds a parenthetical quotation, in which God is presumably speaking, fussing at the people for provoking him to anger with their images and their foreign idols.

Jeremiah himself laments on behalf of “my poor people.” He asks why their health has not been restored, and fantasizes that he wants his tear duct mechanism to be changed into a spring of water, not to experience joy, but to have more water with which to lament. That’s kinky, over the top!

Small wonder that Jeremiah is often called the “Weeping Prophet.” The problem with that reputation is that fewer and fewer take notice of tears after a while. Perpetual complainers sound like spiritual hypochondriacs

Psalm 79:1-9

Psalm 79 also encourages spiritual hypochondria. Citing no sins that are particularly egregious, the psalmist still blames all current ill fortune on God’s wrath as punishment. The psalmist does not consider the possibility that bad things sometimes happen to people quite unrelated to their actions, good or bad.

The psalmist also assumes that God is always unavailable to us when bad things happen to us. That’s a dangerous assumption and can cut people off from awareness of God’s presence as comforter through hard times,.

Job, in one of the oldest books in the bible, stood firm in asserting that the many unpleasant things that befell him were not consequences of something he had done wrong. Not a model of patience at all, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Job repeated through much of the drama, “Show me my guilt.” We who are in on the first chapter of the play (and it was written not as history, but as drama) know that he is right. His behavior had nothing to do with the problems that befell him. Instead, God bet Satan that Job would still worship even if God took away his comfortable life. Satan expected Job to curse God. He does not, but Job does call God to account.

Psalm 79 moves a long way from Job’s point of view.

There is something arrogant and absurd when we assume that even our misdeeds are important enough to have consequences that explain bad weather and other misfortunes.

Such superstitions can cut us off from taking rational responsibility. Rational responsibility leads us to search methodically not only for the real causes of problems, but also for their remedies.

Superstition invites us to wallow in guilt, known as “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Perhaps we can salvage psalm by revising parts of it, such as:

Help us, O God to stop putting ourselves at the center of the universe, presuming that our least behaviors affect the wind and the rain. Thank you for already forgiving us: help us to forgive ourselves. Thank you for our minds; we rejoice to use them to solve problems rather than blame you or ourselves for everything that happens to us. Amen

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Surely all Christians can understand the need of prayer -- supplicant, intercessory, thanksgiving… But Saint’s advice to Timothy seems to have as subtext: ‘Don’t get sidetracked by the high and mighty. Pray for them. Don’t distract from your religious message by getting involved in politics.’

Christians have often followed such a doctrine of quietism. ‘Be quiet about the affairs of this world; attend to the affairs of the next.’

That’s a far cry from what Jesus intended when he asked us to pray, “Your realm come on earth as it already is in heaven.”

When I taught in the Foreign Language Institute in Beijing in 1983-84, I regularly attended the Chong Wen Men Church, a large ecumenical body of most Christians in the capitol. Fundamentalists and evangelicals far outnumber other Christian groups in China, and thus they set the tone of the worship and preached most of the sermons.

Students at the Institute often wanted to check out the controversial group but risked reprisals from the atheistic government and from political leaders at the Institute if they attended on their own. However, they were immune to reprisals if they attended to help a foreigner, and thus many volunteered to interpret for me.

Often I needed to hear only 4-5 sentences of a sermon before I could have written the gist of the whole thing. For example, one Salvation Army preacher began by reading the text “thou are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.’ “This is not talking about St. Peter in Rome,” the preacher shouted, and indeed for the next 55 minutes preached about how evil Roman Catholics are to take the Holy Book and misread it to lead millions away from true Christianity.” You too can see where the sermon was going, and it did so relentlessly, while 300-400 Christians in Beijing paid close attention.’

The Romans worshipped in their own church over a mile away, but it was so infiltrated by communist members that it did not publicly threaten the government any more than the folks at Chong Wen Men
Church. For added certainty, a next-door neighbor clanged away with a hammer during the service on most Sundays. The Mass went lickity split (16 minutes max?) and you knew where the priest was in the service by the sanctus bells. (See Ecumenism in China which first appeared in The Witness 67.8 (1984): 15-17, co-authored by Li Wenxin and Louie Crew.)

Worship at both places was marked as much by what you did not hear as by what you heard. At neither venue would you hear any reference to the material needs of anyone. The state reserved all those concerns for itself.

Without a material commitment to those around us, faith easily becomes ethereal in ways that present few challenges and little danger to anyone else.

The communist leaders in Beijing found nothing threatening when Christians behaved as Paul told Timothy to behave.

Aside from a few important exceptions, the Nazis in Germany were rarely threatened by a contrary witness of Lutherans or Catholics. Most kept mum and apolitical, focused, they thought, on ‘spiritual things.’

Luke 16:1-13

Luke promotes Christian opportunism to a new low watermark. In Luke’s story, Jesus commends a manager who steals from his master. The manager gives the stolen property to his master’s debtors and he reduces the record of what they owe to the master -- all of these favors so that the debtors will welcome the manager into their homes when the master fires him.

Jesus then tells us: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Will any preacher in America say amen to Jesus for this advice?!

It would be interesting to know what percentage of the clergy will avoid Luke’s text altogether.

See also

No comments: