Lectionary Reflections for October 20, 2013
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Today’s lectionary readings could easily inspire three different sermon trajectories. The insightful preacher may choose to reflect on themes such as: 1) the meaning of divine law and its relationship to our well-being, 2) the inspiration of scripture and its role in sharing God’s news, and 3) persistence in prayer and the question of unanswered prayer. These themes are woven together by a vision that God acts in ways that invite us to be part of a greater adventure, companionship with God in healing the world. Alignment with divine evolving order, sharing the good news of an open-spirited gospel that reflects a living, moving God, and prayerful persistence in seeking the greatest good are all responses to God’s vision of Shalom. Hopefully, by the time you read this, USA issues of approving a budget and raising the debt ceiling will have been resolved to the benefit of the most vulnerable and least powerful citizens; but still we must pray that our nation be in alignment with God’s vision of Shalom for its people and the world.
Jeremiah imagines a new day for Israel. Divine help is on the way. The broken country can be healed. Alienation can give way to reconciliation. The law as antagonist and judge can become our deepest reality, written our hearts. In spite of appearances, the prophet imagines a day in which the nation will walk with God again. The laws of God, written in our hearts, will no longer be a source of dissonance, but flow out of our relationship with God. Every action can reflect the intimacy we feel toward our Creator and Lawgiver. Law is no longer an external judge or something we need to live up to, it is the inspiration to a new way of life, loving justice and walking humbly in relationship with God.
Theologian Paul Tillich once spoke of three attitudes toward divine law, the ultimate law of our being: 1) heteronomy, the law as externally enforced and going against our desires; 2) autonomy, being laws unto ourselves, doing what we want on our terms, regardless of the well-being of others and the community; and 3) theonomy, congruence between our deepest desires and God’s vision for our lives. Jeremiah aspires toward a heart-felt relationship with God in which we do the good as a result of our relationship with God.
The Psalmist proclaims his love for the law. The law is as sweet as honey and will fill our lives with joy. Again, the Psalmist is not speaking about legalism but mindfulness. Every act can be a way of encountering God; every moment can align us with God’s vision for our lives. In synch with God’s law, we experience the joy of fulfilling our deepest heart’s desire. God’s law is reflected in life-giving practices of personal and communal life and in God’s ever-present and ever-evolving presence in our lives. Divine law is reflected in what fulfills our vocation in this moment and over the long-haul.
The passage from Timothy has often been used to justify a simplistic form of Biblical literalism. The insightful pastor might invite her or his congregants to explore the role of Biblical inspiration and authority in their lives and the life of the church with questions for reflection such as: What role does scripture play in Christian life and in your life in particular? How do we deal with problematic passages? Are all passages of equal authority? Are certain passages unworthy of the gospel, especially those that counsel violence, promote homophobia, and subordinate women?
Affirming scriptural inspiration need not lead to biblical literalism. Scriptural inspiration can be seen as dynamic, relational, contextual, and ongoing. Scripture can be seen as the result of a dynamic call and response involving God and the religious community, concrete, historical, and limited. Divine revelation always involves a receiver and a community. Communities of revelation that over time created our scriptures put their stamp on their experiences of God. The God we read about in scripture shaped their lives, but they also forged an understanding of God based on their particular points of reference and level of spiritual and ethical evolution. Accordingly, scriptural inspiration is always “human”: it speaks of God from the perspective of our time and space, and reflects our encounters with the Holy. Scriptural inspiration is concrete, not abstract. Its limitations are the source of its significance.
The passage from Timothy also speaks of the importance of “sound doctrine.” This begs the question: What is sound doctrine and how does it relate to our understanding of scripture? Can we affirm an “imperfect” scripture subject to critique and revision? Can we preach God’s good news, with full awareness of the relativity of our standpoint? The Timothy passage can provide the preacher and congregation the opportunity to reflect on what guides our values as well as the importance of practical theology that joins vision and practice in shaping a Christian community and personal faith. (For more on my personal vision of practical theology in a postmodern world, I invite you to look at Loosely Christian: Answering God’s Call to a Creative Faith for Today, found at http://www.amazon.com/Loosely-Christian-Answering-Invitation-ebook/dp/B00EKUD81O/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1381058867&sr=8-3&keywords=Bruce+Epperly)
The gospel of Luke encourages persistence in prayer. God wants us to respond to our deepest needs. God withholds nothing from us and does not to be persuaded to see our well-being. The parable concludes with the question: Will God find faith on earth? This implicitly counsels patience in prayer. We need to look toward the long haul rather than seek simple answers to prayer. There is great wisdom in waiting for the right time and trusting God’s wisdom to respond to our deepest needs on the timetable that is best for us.
Still other questions emerge, based on questions raised by words from the parable itself: “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” God is faithful, we proclaim, but are all of our prayers answered? Many persons die in unjust situations or from incurable illnesses, trusting that God will provide a miracle. Where is the justice God promises? These words must be interpreted in a way that does not lead to maintaining the status quo of unjust social systems or blames the sick for their diseases.
In light of Timothy, we need to explore the meaning of a “sound doctrine” encompassing answered and unanswered prayers. Sound doctrine can be defined in terms of health: sound doctrine is doctrine that brings healing and wholeness to us and the world. By your fruits you shall know them. If our doctrines lead to injustice and oppression, or put the desires of the wealthy over the vulnerable, they are out of synch with the message of Jesus and the prophetic tradition. There is no soundness in doctrines that bring harm and neglect to the most vulnerable members of our society, whether these are advocated by pastors, corporate leaders, or congressional representatives.