The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 22, 2019
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
If you’re looking for a good time from the pulpit, you may want to stay home this Sunday or opt of preaching. At first glance, there is not a lot of joy in this Sunday’s lectionary readings. They seem appropriate for our current national situation, in which in the United States hate crimes and mass shootings have become the norm, dishonesty at the highest levels of government has been normalized, and government agencies intended to protect the environment are now weaponized to promote profits over environmental protection. The United Nations is reflecting on global climate change and the US government is an intentional denier what is patently obvious to virtually every climate scientist and school child – the earth is on fire! And we note with Jeremiah, “the harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved!
Jeremiah plays the role of public griever and critic. He laments the state of the nation and wonders out loud if restoration is even possible. “Is there a balm in Gilead? Can anyone heal the nation? 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, deny climate change, and overlook children traumatized by the US government, what hope does a pastor or church have if it claims the rightful spiritual vocation of lamentation? Jeremiah sees how dire things are and what the costs may be. 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 and the church needs to be a place of comfort as well as challenge. But, we also need to look starkly at our situation – severe weather caused by global climate change, black youth killed by police, racism at the highest levels of government, growing gap between rich and poor, fear of immigrants and refugees, incarceration of children, 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.
Hoping against hope on Friday, September 20, many congregations are ringing their steeple bells to signal the environmental crisis, even though we wonder with John Cobb, in his classic on environmental theology, “Is it too late?” (For more on environmental spirituality, see Epperly, “Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Planetary Healing” and “Spiritual Decluttering: 40 Days to Personal Transformation and Planetary Healing.”
Psalm 79 is a desperate plea for help. How long, O God, will you punish us? How long will you turn away from our cries for help? The faithful of Jerusalem lament: 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, especially when they are superficial reactions to giving equal access to persons of other faiths and ways of life. Our faux martyrdom deadens 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. In fact, we are seeing it in the planet’s “war” on reckless humankind.
The passage from Luke 16 is challenging in many ways in its apparent affirmation of a dishonest businessperson who has learned the art of the deal. 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, the well-being of our neighbors, and the survival of the planet. 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 need to be smart and also compassionate, shrewd and also generous, looking beyond our self-interest to the common good.
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. It comes from taking a new path, one of justice, earth care, and hospitality.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.”