October 7, 2016

The Adventurous Lectionary – October 16, 2016 – The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-14; 2 Timothy 3:15-4:5; Luke 18:1-8.

How shall we understand the divine order of the universe? Is there a divine law that undergirds the universe and human life? Is this law inflexible or relational? Are the laws of nature and the laws of human life oppressive – as most legalistic interpretations of natural law suggest – or liberating, encouraging creativity and care for each other as the heart of our relationship with God?

The passages from Jeremiah 31 and Psalm 119 affirm the transformative power of divine law. God’s law is intimate and personal, written on the heart. Divine law is present as our deepest reality. Aligned with divine law, we experience the blessings of God’s presence. When we turn away from the law, as Israel did, God appears to be absent and punitive. We experience spiritual deprivation which is reflected in political, economic, and communal destruction. The prophet even suggests, in patriarchal terms, that God has a right to destroy unfaithful people and their nation in the same way as a husband can dispose of an unfaithful wife. Surely, we must liberate this text from oppressive patriarchy and marital legalism to discover its deeper meaning and role in healing us and our institutions.

Jeremiah provides words of hope after a time of desolation. In a time of darkness, God promises a new beginning. People will once more experience God’s presence and have a clear sense of God’s guidance. God is doing a new thing – making a new covenant – in the peoples’ inner lives that will be reflected in a transformed social order. God initiates, but the people must open to divine wisdom emerging from within their lives. This wisdom is not so much statutory – an inflexible external law or undeviating natural law –but an inner relationship similar to the love of parent and child. This divine infusion of wisdom leads to a sense of love for the law, as Psalm 119 articulates. The law of God is sweet, trustworthy, and nourishing. While directives may be present in divine law, it is ultimately about relationship – God’s nearness and our response.

Paul Tillich once spoke of three types of law – autonomy, self-rule, “I will do what I want or think right,” or as Sinatra sings, “I’ll do it my way,” epitomized by the American individualistic ethos; heteronomy, the rule of others, reflected in the behavior of authoritarian regimes and family situations, “You will do what I tell you” or “because I said so”; and theonomy, alignment of God and humankind, “God is calling with love and I respond lovingly, recognizing that God’s way brings joy and reflects my own well-being and the well-being of the planet.” I believe that Jeremiah guides us toward a theonomous understanding of law and ethics, reflective of what is best for us, our neighbor, and our planet, and recognizing the interplay of self-affirmation, love for the neighbor, and love of God in creative and liberating ways.

The words of 2 Timothy describe an authority beyond us that nevertheless brings fulfillment to our lives. In a pluralistic culture, the author counsels “hold fast to your Christian identity, don’t be led astray by popular movements, take seriously the wisdom of tradition in growing your faith and staying on the right path.” In a passage often misunderstood, the author asserts that “all scripture is inspired.” This has often been cited to undergird fundamentalist or literalist understandings of scripture or subservience to those who interpret scriptures, but I think the meaning is deeper than merely paper authority or rigid doctrine. First of all, taken literally, this passage only pertains to the Old or First Testament – the New Testament scriptures had not yet been written. Second, in the spirit of the Hebraic and early Christian understandings of scripture, scripture was intended to be part of a lively dialogue, a life-giving and dynamic midrash, with commentaries emerging to respond to changing times, rather than as an unchanging and infallible document. Finally, God-breathed scriptures are inspiring, not imprisoning. They guide our paths but don’t determine “woodenly” every step we take. Like deep breaths, they energize and motivate rather than imprison and suffocate.

We clearly need guidance in a pluralistic and relativistic age, and scripture’s stories and counsel is a guidepost for the journey. While God’s mercies are new every morning, we need to join tradition, scripture, experience, reason, and cultural insights in understanding God’s call in our time. Salvation doesn’t come from workshops or best sellers but from the interplay of contemplation and action, community and reflection, and tradition and novelty.
The parable of the Widow and the Uninterested or Apathetic Judge affirms the importance of persistence and patience in prayer. The widow comes to the judge day after day, petitioning him to decide on her behalf, and despite his indifference to the justice of her cause, he relents simply to get her off his back. In contrast, God is interested; God cares; and God wants us to receive blessings. The problem Jesus raises is that God’s blessings are often deferred, or appear to be. God apparently does not wave an almighty hand, solve all our problems, cure all diseases, or make governments just. There seems to be a gap between our prayers and God’s responses. While this parable doesn’t go into the metaphysics of prayer – answered and unanswered prayer – the implication is that God’s love will be revealed and though it may emerge in ways different than we have imagined, we need to continue to pray and look for divine responses. God is always faithful and wants us to have abundant life despite appearances to the contrary. We need to look at the long view, keep opening to God in prayer, and wait for God’s guidance.

The “how” to intuit God’s way is the challenge. There are many paths but the simplest and most ready to hand involve: simple prayers for guidance (“show me the way”), listening for wisdom (pausing and noticing and then responding prayerfully), reflective and open-spirited reading of scripture, and spiritual friendships (opening to the wisdom of mature spiritual persons). God is constantly addressing us in ways that deepen and heal our lives and communities. We need to listen patiently and follow when we receive enough light for the journey. (For more on spiritual practices for pastors, see Bruce and Katherine Epperly, “Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry,” Alban, 2009.)

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