The Adventurous Lectionary: Imaging Hope in Times of Uncertainty – September 29

Lectionary Reflections for September 29, 2013

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

I Timothy 6:6-19

Luke 16:19-31

Today’s scriptures present both challenge and hope.  They root our hope in our relationship with God.  Those who commit themselves to God’s cause can imagine futures and act on their imagination, even if the arc of imagination goes beyond their lifetimes.  They can face illness, external threat, and death knowing that God’s providence encompasses them.  Life apart from a relationship with God eventually leads to hopelessness, especially in the context of life’s limit situations.

Jeremiah bought the farm!  Locked in jail for his prophetic preaching, Jeremiah decides to buy a plot of land, and makes a plan for the future.  What an audacious image of hope!  The nation is at a precipice, defeat and destruction are on the horizon, and the prophet takes a leap of faith buying a property he will never occupy.

A quote, popularly attributed to Martin Luther, but truthful even if it’s not factual, asserts: “If I knew tomorrow that the world would go to pieces, I would still plant a tree.”  Jeremiah’s audacity reminds us that we are always planting seeds for tomorrows we may never see.  Our small daily actions, resolutions about new life, and social involvement transform the world in ways we can’t imagine and may tip the balance between flourishing and destruction.

Our problem in North America today is that we focus on the present to the neglect of the future.  Corporations and businesses concern themselves with this year’s profits and shareholder dividends, forgetting that wisdom joins present and future.  Jeremiah alerts us to a larger perspective: the perspective of the “everlasting now” that emerges in this present moment, embracing the past and leaning toward the future.  Faithful stewardship is about planting trees of possibility and acting in light of a hoped-for future.  The moral arc of history may appear slow to the present observer, but it is moving forward toward a horizon of hopeful embodiment.

Transformative ideas linger on the horizon beckoning us forward, personally, congregationally, and institutionally.  What transformative possibilities call you and your congregation toward the future?  What trees of possibility are we invited to plant?  What images should the pastor present for the congregation’s imaginative reflection?

Psalm 91 describes the spiritual rewards of intimacy with God.  The Psalmist does not deny challenge.  There are threats all around and they won’t go away; but God will protect and deliver us from destruction.  We cannot insure physical survival or even success, but we can trust that God’s vision will come to pass and that our spirits remain centered regardless of the storms of life.

The calm of which the Psalmist speaks reminds me of the traditional and later updated hymn, “How Can I Keep from Singing?”

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation,

I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn

That hails a new creation;

Thro’ all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?

 

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile,

Our thoughts to them go winging;

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?

There is a center in the storm – and no evil can defeat us, no inner or outer foe can overwhelm us, when we trust in God’s companionship.

The Letter of I Timothy continues the vision of inner calm amid life’s crises: “there is great gain to be found in godliness combined with contentment.”  Our mortality is a reminder of what is truly important.  We come into life with nothing and leave with nothing; and this applies to wealthy and poor alike.  This reality teaches us to number our days and commit ourselves to a life of faithful generosity and stewardship, trusting our lives to God’s care.

The love of money – dare we say, consumerism – is the root of all personal, communal, and global evils.  Our materialism stands between us and God.   Our materialistic acquisitions will fade and in the process, cut us off from our ultimate happiness, our relationship with God.  When we trust what perishes, rather than the Creator and Inspirer of all things, our lives will collapse in the storms of life.  God’s love insures ultimate well-being, calm, and equanimity in life and death.

This is not a killjoy faith. For, Timothy asserts, God provides us with everything we need for our enjoyment.  God wants us to have abundant life and to live joyfully, but this emerges from healthy relationships with our families, friends, communities, the planet, and God.  Divine enjoyment inspires our enjoyment and our commitment to live by life-transforming values:

“They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

An ethic of enjoyment, grounded in our relationship with God, calls us to an ethic of stewardship for our and future generations.  The needs of others expand our hearts; our generosity adds to our spiritual stature and enhances our enjoyment of our resources.

The parable of Dives and Lazarus, like the words of Timothy, is a warning against wealth, consumerism, and materialism.  Enjoyment and abundance lived apart from care for the poor leads to spiritual destruction.  Dives’ sin is not only his consumption but his apathy.  He may not even notice the beggar at the door and, if he does, Lazarus is an inconvenience, standing in the way of enjoying his property, and frankly a blight on the neighborhood.  In the afterlife, the tables are turned and now Dives suffers, while the beggar rejoices.

Is the gap between the rich and poor unbridgeable?  Are the wealthy in jeopardy of losing their souls if they forget the poor?  This is convicting language as we learn that the gap between the wealthy and poor is widening in the USA and that the middle class as a group are shrinking in a time of record corporate and personal profits among the wealthy.  While the poor do not have moral privilege, it is incumbent upon persons who affirm the way of Jesus to provide for the poor and the growing marginal middle class adequate food, housing, education, and health care.

This shifting of values is not optional for followers of Jesus; it is a spiritual and ethical requirement.  Simply saying “Lord, Lord” and believing in the Bible is insufficient to save our spiritual lives if we turn our back on the poor.  Sadly, many Bible-believing Christians spearhead legislation that would rob the poor of educational equality, voting rights, health care, and the ability to care for their children.  Can such persons claim the name Christian?  And can we in our own apathy?  The gospel asserts that there is hell to pay for those who neglect the poor!

Relationship to Christ is connected with hope for the future.  This hope emerges from a holistic spirituality in which ethics, enjoyment, and prayer are interdependent.  Living a good life and enjoying God’s bounty does not demand radical asceticism but careful compassion, placing the needs of the whole and of our vulnerable neighbor on par with our “need” for life’s comforts.

 

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).


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