Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-9; Psalm 137
In the Christian church year, we are in the season that leads up to Advent. In the Christian liturgical tradition, some portions of Lamentations that are also read during Holy Week are included in the readings for today.
Both Jewish and Christian interpretations of these passages deal with a spiritual world that is transformed into an alien place overnight. Psalm 137 tells the story of the Babylonian exile of the 6th century, bce. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The ancient Hebrew people who experienced the original exile were physically uprooted and marched away into captivity in the 6th century, bce. The commemoration of that day happens on the 9th of Av in the Jewish calendar, which this year was July 19.
The 9th of Av also memorializes the day when the Romans destroyed the Temple in about the year 70. The foundation of the Jewish community was obliterated. From then on, the Jewish religion changed from one focused on the Temple in Jerusalem to an itinerant religion in permanent exile until the founding of the nation of Israel in 1949. As another historical aside, that day – the 9th of Av – was deliberately chosen for the day when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.
These are powerful texts in the history of the struggle by the Jewish people for justice. We should use them with respect. With that in mind, as Christians get ready for the season of Advent, we remember that everything Jesus’ followers had come to trust was destroyed by his death. Because they were devout Jews, who lived their tradition, they would have turned to these scriptures for solace. So with this week’s reading we remember our own exile from God’s kingdom, and we claim the promise of deliverance by the Messiah to come.
Even in the midst of his unspeakable grief over the loss of Jerusalem, the writer of Lamentations trusts that God will make things right in the end. Lamentations 3:19-26 says: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases . . . the Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” God will restore the covenant with the people. Remember that when the people were forced out of Jerusalem, Jeremiah stayed behind in the occupied city. Jeremiah knew the people would return from exile. He trusted in God so much that he bought a field that had been abandoned by one of the exiles, and agreed to hold it until the proper owners returned.
The lectionary reading from Luke for this Sunday sends us to a scene in which Jesus’ disciples ask him to increase their faith. But Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Then Jesus goes on to make the point that no one invites a servant to eat dinner with them. Instead, the boss commands the servant to make dinner for the boss, and eat later alone. Jesus tells the disciples they are more like the servants who do only what they are ordered or obliged to do. Jesus is reminding his disciples that anyone with faith as small as a mustard seed has the power of faith that can propel mulberry trees to throw themselves into the ocean, but service to others is what really matters. And service to others is far more difficult. The passage from Luke reminds us about the power of even the least amount of faith in Jesus. And the writer of the second letter to Timothy urges continued courage in the struggle to spread that faith – the gospel of the Christ.
The disciples did not understand what Jesus was talking about when they asked him to increase their faith. Jesus did not mean that faith as tiny as a mustard seed could literally cause a mulberry tree to throw itself into the sea. What Jesus meant was a radical abandonment of self-interest. That means a willingness to give up our own well-being and act as servants or slaves who only do the master’s bidding.
Luke’s Gospel is full of examples of fairly well-to-do folks who are concerned only with their own personal welfare. There is the man who has harvested a bumper crop, and has built huge barns to store all of his wealth in, but that very night he dies. There are the Pharisees who insist on the front row seats in the synagogues, and demand proper greetings in the streets. There is the prodigal son, who takes his inheritance and squanders it. Luke’s Jesus says on several occasions that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last; that the servant is greater than the master. His point is that whenever we are more interested in the etiquette of seating and service, dinner and entertainment, and how to safeguard our own wealth, we lose touch with the power of God to transform the world in which we live. The mulberry tree stays firmly planted in the yard.
The problem is that when we do follow Jesus into a life as a servant or slave we very easily find ourselves in a kind of exile. When we align with the fringes of the communities in which we live – such as the immigrant community, or gays in the military – we are doing something counter-cultural. Our ministry becomes contrary to what the rest of society thinks is proper or good. We might get threatening phone calls; our neighbors may stop talking to us. We may get crosses burned in our front yards.
To paraphrase the desolation of the exiles in Babylon in Psalm 137, sometimes we feel like leaning our guitars against the wall, and throwing ourselves down on the banks of the Potomac River at the Watergate amphitheater across from the Pentagon, and weeping. How can we possibly sing the Lord’s song of justice-compassion in a land where highly qualified men and women are denied their calling as warriors because of their sexual orientation? How can we possibly sing the Lord’s song of liberation in a land where immigrants have no right to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care? How can we sing the Lord’s song of love in a land where hatred and fear holds sway?
The kind of faith Jesus actually taught is trust in the power of choosing to participate in God’s Kingdom of justice-compassion, which changes the very contours of the world – or, in 21st century language, shifts the paradigm. The paradigm shift Jesus spoke of most often is the radical abandonment of self-interest individually, collectively, socially, politically, globally. Prophets – such as Habakkuk and the writer of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and Jeremiah himself – not only believed, they knew that God would act in real time to return the people to their land, and restore God’s covenant.
But how does God act? Psalm 37 tells us we should rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him. The expectation seems to be that we don’t have to do anything. Somehow a bolt of lightning will strike, and the world will be transformed: Slaves will be free; poverty will end; racism and bigotry against immigrants and other outcasts will be a thing of the past. The wolf will eat grass like the cow, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and a little child will play in the snake pit without fear. Many Christians believe that will happen in the twinkling of an eye when Jesus comes back, riding in the clouds.
But the early Christian leaders – including the Apostle Paul, and the ones who wrote the Gospel stories – realized very soon that when Jesus did not reappear, the people began to lose heart. When we believe in a God that resides only in the Temple, which we listen to only on Sunday, and which we expect to intervene on our behalf, the result is alienation – exile from God’s love – powerlessness, hopelessness, and fear. The same thing happened during the long years of Babylonian exile in the 6th Century bce. So what did the prophets tell the people?
“How long . . . shall I cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” the prophet complains – and God answers: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time . . . .” Habakkuk 2:2-3.
“Covenant” does not mean passively waiting for God to do something spectacular. “Covenant” means active partnership in God’s work to restore God’s rule. And God’s rule has always been justice-compassion. When we trust the spirit of covenant with justice-compassion in our hearts, we can transform the way we live life on this planet. The writer of 2 Timothy says, “. . . for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love . . .” (2 Tim. 1:7). That’s what it means to cause mulberry trees to transport themselves into the sea.
“Covenant” means a never-ending reclaiming of spirit from the ease of complicity with the powers that seem to be. Covenant is counter-cultural. This is why we most need to wait for the Lord and to trust – to have the kind of faith that does shift the paradigm. Psalm 37 says, “Trust in the Lord and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.” God will act by giving us the courage to begin and to continue the struggle, no matter how long it takes.
We know that Jesus died in the service of God’s covenant for justice-compassion. If he had not been engaged in that work, none of the Roman leadership would have cared. But what did he do? He invited the marginalized to eat with him. He included the poor and the sick and the outcasts in his entourage. He even invited himself to dinner with one of the collaborators with Rome – Zacchaeus – who was properly hated by everyone in Jesus’ group.
“Covenant” does not mean passively waiting for Godot. “Covenant” means active partnership in God’s work to restore God’s rule. And God’s rule is justice-compassion. Whenever we do that kind of work – such as making sure immigrants have a chance at being treated fairly in work, housing, and health care, or standing for truth and justice against lies and gross unfairness wherever and whenever we encounter them – we are participating with God in the great work. We are living the incarnation of the Christ.
COMMUNION TO RENEW THE COVENANT
On this Sunday, all over the world, the Body of Christ – the Church – and all those who would follow Jesus’ teachings, are celebrating the one Sacrament that separates Christians from all other spiritual practices. We know that Jesus died in the service of God’s covenant of justice-compassion. If he had not been engaged in that work, none of the Roman leadership would have cared, and we would not be here today. We know that whenever we engage in that same work, we embody the Christ, and bring the realization of God’s kingdom to a closer reality.
On the last night with his disciples, as they lounged at their dinner, Jesus decided to try one last time to make them really understand what he was doing, and what it really meant to follow him He picked up a loaf of bread, and spoke into the hubbub of their conversation: Listen! – he said – This bread is like God’s justice in this world. Then he tore the loaf into two pieces.
This is God’s justice in the hands of the Romans and the Temple authorities who collaborate with them. Believe me, one of you is going to turn me in to them soon. If not tonight, then as soon as the Passover is finished. Whenever you eat together after this night, remember that, and remember me. For this is my body, broken for you.
Then Jesus picked up the jug of wine. This wine is also like the Kingdom of God – it is the blood of the paschal lamb, painted on the lintels and doorposts of our people as a sign that they belong to God and not to Pharaoh’s Empire. But this cup that I drink is a new cup. It is a libation of my blood poured out for justice for all those who choose to share it.
Drink it. All of you who are willing to engage in the work and participate in God’s covenant of justice-compassion, and remember.
One: The gifts of God for the People of God
All: Thanks be to God
THANKSGIVING [Based on The New Century Hymnal Prayer of Thanksgiving, p. 20]
All: Eternal God, you have called your people from east and west and north and south to feast at the table of Jesus the Christ. We thank you for the spiritual food of bread and wine, body and blood. By the power of your Holy Spirit, go with us to the streets, to our homes, and to our places of work and play, so that whether we are gathered or scattered, we may be the servant church of the servant Christ, in whose name we rejoice to pray. Amen.
Hymn: God Reigns O'er All the Earth NCH #21
BLESSING [Based on the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith]
Go now in peace, secure in the knowledge that all who trust God’s promise will find forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in God’s realm, which has no end.