Lectionary Reflections for October 6, 2013
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
This week’s lectionary is filled with challenging passages. The Hebraic scriptures speak of national desolation and its impact on the faithful. They challenge our belief in a God who is exclusively on our side. The New Testament passages challenge us to expect great things of ourselves and God. We are to aspire toward living “the sacrament of the present moment,” investing ordinary things with extraordinary care and aspiring to become Christ-like. In rekindling our faith, we can shine brightly for God.
Lamentations describes a nation overrun by its enemies. The author remembers the good old days when Jerusalem was proud and the Temple was magnificent in its glory. Now, the city, its rulers and wealthy business leaders, and its religious shrines have been decimated. The author recognizes the people’s culpability in their fate, but wonders if God has gone too far in treating Israel like the rest of the nations, in letting the heathen proclaim victory. Looking for an explanation, the author doesn’t want to jettison his image of divine sovereignty: “the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions.” Yet, this explanation begs the question, perhaps nagging the author of Lamentations: Is the punishment unfair? Does Israel’s unfaithfulness deserve so severe a penalty? Is God truly the engine of destruction?” How does this square with his proclamation that God is faithful; and that God’s mercies are new every morning?
Is God truly the source of our pain? Or, do our lives reflect a dynamic interplay of divine call and human response in which turning our back on God weakens God’s impact on our lives and community? Do we somehow limit or enhance divine possibility and presence by our openness or closedness to God’s way?
In reading this passage, we must take another course than those self-proclaimed Bible expositors who clearly identify natural and human calamities with God’s condemnation of homosexuality, promiscuity, and banning of prayer in schools. Such preachers neglect the Bible’s emphasis on social sins such as injustice, dishonest business dealings, neglect of the poor, and unbridled consumption.
Still, in a world where what we do matters, Lamentations may describe a butterfly effect in reverse. Our injustice and abuse of the environment can be a factor in human chaos and natural catastrophes. It can tip the scale from fair weather to a storm or creative social order to social chaos.
Psalm 137 falls into the category of a lament, a Psalm of disorientation. Can we worship God in a strange land? Can we sing praise when the foundations of our social order have collapsed? The Psalmist laments but also proclaims his love of God. He cannot forget God. God is the center of his life, even as he makes his “cry of absence.”
The Psalmist still loves Jerusalem and clings to God, and this inspires a type of Israelite exceptionalism and blood revenge toward Jerusalem’s enemies. They little ones and dash them against the rock!” This is true bloodlust, reflective of a stream of Biblical thought, that has inspired persecution of the infidel and revenge on the innocent.
The Epistle reading is a love letter from an older sage to young Timothy. He is truly the beloved follower of the author (identified as the Apostle Paul). Paul gives thanks for the faith of Timothy’s mother and grandmother, who have been this young man’s models in discipleship. He reminds the young man that the faith of Christ must be rekindled and from that burst of fire new energies emerge. The laying on of hands conveys God’s presence in ways that renew our spirits and give us power to be God’s agents of creative transformation.
Paul is able to face his sufferings because of his faith in Christ. He knows that whether he lives or dies, he belongs to God. God’s vision of salvation in Christ nurtures and sustains him and enables him to face suffering with hope.
Paul’s words are highly countercultural today. Christians in North America seldom suffer for our faith. Our churches receive non-profit status and pastors receive tax benefits. This text asks us: For what are we willing to suffer to be faithful to the way of Jesus? Where might we trust God and place ourselves in the position to suffer for the Gospel?
In the Gospel reading, the disciples ask Jesus, “Increase our faith.” Jesus responds, reminding them that only a little faith can transform the world. Luke, then, suggests that faithfulness and loyalty to Christ’s way are not optional, but mandated for believers. Increasing faith emerges in the everyday events of life. In the spirit of the Buddhist saying, we chop wood and carry water; we do what is required of us in the quotidian responsibilities of life. Faith is a matter of life – it is a “how” and not a “what.” Belief finds its fulfillment in our responses to ordinary events. The word is made flesh at the work place, driving a child to school, dealing with conflict, and facing the challenges of difficult relationships or challenging family situations.
The passage smacks of hyperbole both in its description of tree-moving faith and its chiding the disciples as “worthless slaves” for just doing their duty. The latter is not intended to encourage “works righteousness” or the attempt to earn God’s love by our propriety or perfectionism. Rather, it is a reminder that faith is a lifestyle as well as a belief system. There are certain things that Christians simply do because they are Christians! We need to expect great things of ourselves and great things of God. We are not to settle for such half-hearted sentiments as “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re just forgiven,” but aim high in our ethic and spirituality. We are to aspire after lives of holiness and wholeness, living with our imperfection and knowing God loves us, but constantly asking more of ourselves as followers of Jesus in family life and in the social order.
These passages point to the importance of living in the spirit of Jesus and aiming high in our faith journeys. Aiming low leads to personal and social destruction. In contrast, a life of faithful discipleship creates circles of well-being that transform families, communities, and nations.