Lectionary Reflections for September 22, 2013
Today’s scriptures reflect on the social consequences of turning away from God and the possibility that prayer and God-centered values can be a source of health in our personal and corporate lives. A transformed mind may lead over the long haul to transformed social systems.
Jeremiah paints the picture of a prophet with a broken heart. The people are in pain; the nation is in chaos and there is no relief in sight. Although the nation’s powerful and elite, as is frequently the case, have brought about this national catastrophe by their injustice and idolatry, still the prophet implores the saving God to show up and reverse the nation’s fortunes. There is no professional distance in Jeremiah. The people’s pain is his pain and he assumes God’s pain as well. He lives by the hope of what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the “divine pathos,” God’s care for the intimate details of life, reflecting God’s solidarity with the world. Still the prophet asks, “Where is the Great Physician? Who will heal my people? When will the healing begin?” Jeremiah has hope in God, but for his hope to be authentic, it must come out of the ashes and the peoples’ willingness to confess their sin and begin again.
A recent film, Olympus Has Fallen, describes an attack on the White House. The destruction and devastation of a nation’s symbols can demoralize a people. We still remember the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, but even more devastating would be the destruction of the Capitol, White House, or Lincoln and Washington monuments. This is precisely what happened in Jerusalem. The Psalmist experiences utter desolation and disorientation with the desecration of the Temple. The people have turned away from God, but must they suffer these indignities? Even worse, must they endure an attack on their national God? The Psalmist wonders why God doesn’t respond to this affront to his sovereignty. How long must we wait? When will your anger turn to compassion? In other words, God when are going to act to set things state and restore the nation and your honor as Sovereign over all the Earth?
The Psalmist and Jeremiah see God in fully personal terms. God has emotions just as we do – God is angry and compassionate; God can turn away and God can embrace. These images are almost too anthropomorphic, and yet they point to something important about the God-world relationship. God is connected to the world. What happens in the world matters to God such that our pain is God’s pain and our joy is God’s joy. What we do may advance or weaken God’s cause in the world and add to or limit God’s power in our lives and the world.
In his anguish, the Psalmist and the nation have nowhere to turn. At rock bottom, they discover the rock of their salvation. In repentance and transformation, they open the door to the possibility of God’s return to bring healing to persons and nations.
There is a great deal of cursing in the public arena today. We vilify our political opponents, questioning their citizenship and patriotism, suggesting that anything they do will undermine our country’s best interests. What would it be like to bless Boehner? What would happen if you prayed for John McCain or Mitch McConnell? How would it change your life to surround the President with affirmations and prayers and lift up Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, asking that God protect and guide them?
Today, in a time of political gridlock and polarization, prayer is our only hope for self-transcendence and common ground. Prayer is an act of interdependence, joining God and us, as well as humans with one another. We cannot vilify or malign someone we pray for, even when we have contrasting points of view. Prayer unites us as God’s children, looking beyond self-interest, humbly recognizing the limitations of our point of view, and opening to greater guidance and wisdom.
The parable of the dishonest steward is a curious one indeed. It should come with the warning, “Don’t try this at home or the office.” In fact, the steward’s behavior would lead to indictment and incarceration, or – in the case of today’s white collar criminals – probation and a fine! Can we be crafty for Jesus? Can we use sharp strategies to promote the Gospel? We need to be wise in the ways of the world, using the wisdom and technologies of the world to promote the good news of Christ’s transformational presence. We need to be twenty-first century people, using the best practical wisdom of our time, to affirm the everlasting wisdom of an every-emerging God.
The parable also presents most congregations with serious challenges in terms of values, ethics, and priorities. You cannot serve God and money. One has to come first; one has to be the lens through which you make your personal and corporate decisions. Studies suggest that great wealth does not lead to greater happiness. In light of the Hebraic prophetic scriptures, wealth without justice and compassion leads to personal and corporate destruction. Wealth without consideration of God’s Shalom and purposes beyond our self-interest leads to poverty and pain.
There are no guarantees of our immediate success as a result of spiritual transformation. Still, the practice of prayer and self-examination in terms of our values create the framework for communities and governments characterized by shared purposes, unity despite diversity, and greater social equity.