The Adventurous Lectionary – The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 18, 2016
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7 • Luke 16:1-13
There is not a lot of joy in this Sunday’s lectionary readings. They seem appropriate for our current election season in which the two major candidates have more negatives than positives and many people confess to planning to vote for the lesser of both evils. Life can be difficult. Our leaders can make foolish and short sighted decisions and millions can suffer from misguided governmental and business priorities.
Jeremiah plays the role of public griever. He laments the state of the nation, and wonders out loud if restoration is even possible. “Is there a balm in Gilead? Has the nation gone beyond the point of no return?” These are hard words to hear, but even more difficult to speak. In a time in which popular preachers identify themselves with the prosperity gospel and the megachurch movement, what hope does a pastor or church have if it claims the rightful spiritual vocation of lamentation? Jeremiah sees how dire things are. The doors of perception are opened and he not only sees infinity, as Aldous Huxley asserts, but tragedy, the tragedy arising from the nation’s waywardness. How do we lament without being accused of “playing politics?” But, then again, Jeremiah is playing politics: his lament is a call to confession and a transformation of national priorities.
Yes, we need to be comforted in life’s most difficult times. We need a haven of rest. But, we also need to look starkly at our situation – severe weather caused by global climate change, black youth killed by police, racism and sexism touted in the presidential election, growing gap between rich and poor, fear of immigrants and refugees, and this is just the drop of the bucket. How can we appropriately mourn our national situation? How can we recognize that mourning emerges from our recognition of how we have defaced God’s beautiful planet and the image of God in our fellow humans? Mourning and lamentation emerge precisely because we can imagine an alternative reality – God’s Shalom – to human greed and destruction.
Psalm 79 is a desperate plea for help. How long, O God, will you punish us? How long will you turn away? Other nations taunt us and appear to go scot free despite their own iniquity. Our parents have turned away from you – and so have we – but is there any mercy, and deliverance for us, who seek to follow God? This is the plea of a fallen nation not necessarily the greatest superpower. This passage is no justification for “whining” or lamenting the “war on Christendom” or “the loss of Christianity’s favored status.” There is still much Christian privilege in North America. Such protests are gratuitous and miss the point. They deaden us to the plight of those who have good reason to feel good forsaken and punished by an angry and indifferent deity. There are consequences to our infidelity – even though we are often oblivious to the nature of this infidelity or project it on others, the identified “sinners” in our midst. Psalm 79 reminds us of the precariousness of life and the reality that we may suffer the consequences of our nation’s greed, consumerism, nationalism, and militarism.The passage from I Timothy invites us to pray for our political leaders. Does this also apply to would-be political leaders? I must admit that I have to work hard to pray for Donald Trump. Yet, despite his political positions and other deficiencies, as far as I am concerned, I need to lift him up in prayer. There are those who would have just as difficult time praying for Hillary Clinton. But, pray we must that our leaders and those who candidate to lead might have wisdom and compassion and follow the “better angels.” Our well-being and the well-being of the planet depend on the spiritual conversion of those who lead us.
The passage from Luke 16 is challenging in many ways. What are we to say about the character of the dishonest manager? Was he looking out for his best interests or was he a bit of a “Robin Hood,” trying to support those facing economic burdens? While we cannot commend this behavior – and neither does Jesus – we can appreciate Jesus’ recognition that we need to be wise in the use of our personal and congregational resources. We should be especially wise because of the potential pitfalls in our desire for economic well-being. We can put economic security ahead of our relationship with God. Money cannot be the center of our lives. It cannot get in the way of our obligation to God, our self-care and care for friends and family, and our stewardship of the earth. Our use of our largesse must be subservient to our commitment to God and determined by our commitment to God. Our faith must shape our economic and vocational values, not the other way around. In the spirit of Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, we need to ask regularly: “Is this how Jesus would behave in terms of personal and corporate economics? Do my buying patterns reflect a care for my neighbor, the vulnerable, and the planet? Do I place consumerism, security, and comfort ahead of generosity and care for the needs of vulnerable persons?” Luke 16 invites us to an examination of conscience on the personal and political levels and challenges us to see our political decisions in light of our spiritual commitments.
We have much to lament and much for which to be grateful. In fact, lamentation and gratitude go together. Our grief is the result of recognizing our wayward and reckless use of the earth’s bounty and our forgetfulness of our neighbors’ needs. Repentance is possible, but it comes as a result of seeing our largess from God’s perspective and not our self-interest.
Bruce Epperly is pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Centerville, MA, on Cape Cod. He is the author of forty books, including “Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians,” “A Center in the Cyclone: 21 Century Clergy Self-care,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure God.” He can be reached at email@example.com.