The Adventurous Lectionary – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 6, 2019
Lamentations 3:19-26, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
At the heart of this Sunday’s reading is the affirmation from Lamentations 3: “God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.” God’s is faithful despite life’s challenges. While today, many people want experiential religion – and this is important – experiential religion emerges from and needs to be balanced by a vision of divine faithfulness to get us through rough times. The ground of spiritual experience is an ever-present, faithful, and creative God who is present in every moment of life.
In a challenging time, a time of upheaval, the author of Lamentations 3 remembers God’s ever-present creativity. In the scripture that inspired the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” the author proclaims that despite his difficulties, he has hope: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” God is moving through history, globally and intimately, doing new things, creative and life-giving. God’s faithfulness joins the interplay of steadiness and change. God is always faithful; yet the shape of God’s fidelity varies with our needs. The author assumes God’s intimate knowledge of us, such that God not only does new things globally but also personally as a result of God’s responses to our decisions.
The author of Lamentations 3 counsels us to wait on God, to be patient, and to seek God. God is present in the long haul as well the moment by moment aspects of life. In seeking the divine, we will find traces of divine providence. The moral arc is often slow, the evolution of justice, is often gradual; yet God is faithful. Or, as Jesus says, ask, seek, and knock, and you will receive what you are looking for. Lamentations 3 proclaims that God has the final word, not the oppressor or the oppressive situation. But we need to pause and listen – perhaps we need to deepen our prayer lives – to fully share in God’s ever-new mercies. (A good background book for the preacher is Renita Weems’ “Listening for God.”)
Psalm 137 is challenging. Its high point is the question “how shall we sing God’s song in a strange land?” This is an important question: when everything is turned upside down and our previous experiences of God are found wanting, what shall we do now? This is the question asked by refugees, cancer patients, downsized workers, homeless persons, and bereaved spouses. We live in a strange land – of children separated from their parents, glaciers collapsing, presidential impeachment hearings, and Christians defending dishonest leaders and denying climate change.
The Psalmist’s query ends with thoughts of homicide. He wants to kill the children – or have God kill the children – of those who have harmed him and threatened his way of life. Perhaps, we can see this Psalm as an example of bringing everything to God in prayer. We can only hope that the Psalmist was cured of his violence in the course of his praying! Perhaps, he will discover that God even cares for his enemies as did an equally angry biblical character, Jonah. Still, we dare not read this passage in church – in our own time of violence on city streets and bullying in the political realm – without challenging such blood thirsty imprecations. (For more on Jonah, see Bruce Epperly, Jonah: When God Changes, Energion Publications)
The Gospel reading starts well but then slips into some apparently problematic theology. I am tempted to simply read Luke 17:5-6. The plea for God to “increase our faith” touches every believer. When we see our vacillating faith, our half-heartedness, the ease in which we conform to society, we need God’s grace and power to move us forward in greater companionship with God. We need, as 2 Timothy 1:8, asserts to rely on the power of God when our power and confidence – our fortitude – is waning. Like the author of Lamentations, we need to wait hopefully for God’s faithful presence.
Luke 5:7-10 interject hierarchical and works righteousness thinking. Yes, we depend on God, but are our efforts simply what we should do, no more, no less, or does God appreciate our attempts and give us credit for our efforts. It is not uncommon for mystics to emphasize their sin and distance from God in hyperbolic ways. Perhaps, this passage is also hyperbole and should not be understood literally. On the one hand, we are not fully responsible for our good works, but live by grace. On the other hand, we are performing these works and putting our efforts toward being the best we can. God is not a demanding parent, but a loving power fully aware of our finitude and struggle. No good and loving parent would be as demanding – or exacting – as God is portrayed in this passage.
This Sunday’s passages require both affirmation and critique. Thoughts of homicide and unworthiness make sense if we trust God’s faithfulness and creative novelty. Only if these passages are understood in terms of a loving, creative, steadfast God can we read them in ways that heal and not harm.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.”