Saturday, October 29, 2022

Pentecost 21C / Reformation

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
The Prophet's Complaint

2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous;
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

1 I will stand at my watchtower
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what God will say to me
and what God will answer concerning my complaint.
2 Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
4 Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faithfulness.

Reformation / Pentecost 21

Reformation Day is October 31, the same day as Halloween or All Hallows' Eve. Martin Luther reportedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church because the church door was the town bulletin board, and with All Saints on November 1st being a holy day of obligation when people were required to attend Mass, he knew everyone would notice his list of grievances against the Roman branch of the church. When October 31 isn't a Sunday, the church celebrates Reformation on the last Sunday of October.

Synchronicity is so fun! Since I'd recently blogged about Jeremiah 31:31-34 that's the first reading for Reformation every year, I decided to visit the first reading for Pentecost 21—from Habakkuk. One of the twelve books sometimes referred to as Minor Prophets because of their length, and not because of their content or import, it doesn't feel as familiar as Amos or Hosea. However, Habakkuk 2:4 contains a primary Reformation text and concept. The Apostle Paul included it in Galatians 3:11 and Romans 1:17; Martin Luther claimed faith or dynamic trust as the key to our relationship with God. Given that the Revised Common Lectionary is a 3-year cycle, it was providential and synchronous to find this passage scheduled for this Sunday.


It doesn't take long on earth to learn how important communication is to any relationship. We're very familiar with God speaking to us through scripture; most of us have more than one hard copy of the bible, and many visit different bible versions online, but easy access to scripture hasn't always been the case. Although presses with static type had been in existence at least since the ninth century (the history of type is three millennia long, but you need to define and describe each step along the way), Johannes Gutenberg's innovation of moveable type made it possible to quickly print bibles, tracts, catechisms, and other "print media."

In this ecumenical twenty-first century, it may feel unfriendly to observe the Reformation that split the church and restored the gospel, but despite differences and distinctions, contemporary theology and practice of most Christian traditions and denominations – including the Roman Catholic – align with Luther's insights and demands for change and renewal, so why not a special day for the Reformation, and also for a church that's always reforming? The phrase Ecclesia semper reformanda attributed to Karl Barth, became one of the catch-phrases of Vatican II.

But let's not celebrate Martin Luther! Don't celebrate Jan Hus, the Czech reformer whose life bridged 14th and 15th centuries (Luther said he stood "on the shoulders of Jan Hus"). Don't celebrate renewers of the church John Wesley and Pope John XXIII. Celebrate God's grace and freedom in the love of Jesus Christ. Celebrate the church's mission and future. Celebrate the first fruits of the new creation in the reign of the Pentecostal Spirit of Life.

Today's First Reading

I've heard Habakkuk pronounced with accent on the first syllable, and with accent on the second. Take your pick. Researchers haven't yet unearthed much of anything about this prophet.

At ease with God and deeply trusting God, Habakkuk begins with complaints to God against God! Notice he "saw" the oracle. In 2:2 God instructs Habakkuk to "write the vision." Words usually can be read aloud and heard, but before that happens, we first need to see them. And dense as humans sometimes can be, we often need to see the word writ large enough that someone running past them still will notice and read (and heed?) them.

Habakkuk becomes a sentinel at the lookout point that starts chapter 2; he has decided, "I will keep watch to see what God will say to me and what God will answer concerning my complaint." Watching to see God's words. What do you make of that?

In continuity with much of Isaiah, similar to Jeremiah's new covenant promise, God answers Habakkuk's How Long? complaint with counsel to wait for the newness that will arrive (4:3 "at the appointed time" – what we'd call kairos rather than chronos time), because death, violence, and injustice never lasts; God's final answer always is resurrection and newness.

Where We Live

These days few people obsess about sin the way Luther and his contemporaries did, but in many ways our context is similar to the Reformers'. New science and technology, social change, tumultuous secular and church politics, natural disasters, *even* a pandemic that killed more people than Covid has (so far). Since the Reformation the Western world has experienced the Enlightenment, American and French Revolutions, a production-related industrial revolution, an ongoing digital revolution … a comprehensive list probably doesn't exist.

We may not take sin and hell to heart as seriously as Luther did, yet in this ultra-rationalized world, even those of us active in church and synagogue make careers of adding up our achievements, comparing ourselves to others (or to our own potential), chasing the best life and technology upgrades. Wondering if there's any way we can help even a little to heal creation even a little.

We may not take sin and guilt as seriously as Luther did, but at least as much as Luther and his cohorts, we can trust the word of righteousness and life in Jesus Christ God declares to us and for us before God does anything in us: it's assuring to know the faith that saves us first belongs to Jesus Christ and not to us. And then, good works of service and of presence, generated by grace, become our response. Like all people everywhere, we need to know life first as gift, existence as graced.

To paraphrase a commentary I read, today's reading from Habakkuk is about God in the long run, God in the longest run. As it was for Abraham, for all of us it's about the journey. To walk by faith means trusting God as we keep on keepin' on putting one foot in front of the other even though we can't see the destination.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Pentecost 20C

Jeremiah 14:8-9, 21-22

8 O hope of Israel,
its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler turning aside for the night?
9 Why should you be like someone confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us,
and we are called by your name;
do not forsake us!

21 Do not spurn us, for your name's sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.
22 Can any idols of the nations bring rain,
or can the heavens give showers?
Is it not you, O Lord our God?
We set our hope on you,
for it is you who do all this.


Next week for Reformation I won't blog Jeremiah because I wrote about his New Covenant passage last week; I don't know if I'll reflect on another Reformation scripture or on one of the texts for Pentecost 21. That means today is the last Jeremiah for this lectionary year and calendar year.

Over the past couple of months we've studied only a very small portion of a very long, extremely dense book that Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch began writing before imperial Babylonian armies and authorities wrecked the city and the temple. Jeremiah continued with letters and oracles to the Judean (mostly) leaders exiled in Babylon (some of the "regular people" stayed behind). When we started what became a Jeremiah series in mid-August for Pentecost 10, via Jeremiah we heard God's reassuring, "Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? … Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord." (Jer 23:23-24) That first Jeremiah post also included a little of what scholars know about Jeremiah's background and ministry.

We've observed similarities among Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Luke. All three books emphasize living out God's call to distributive and procedural justice, and to loving kindness within the community in order to create a true common-wealth where no one has too much or too little. All of them are all about showing helpful (don't just tell me, please show me!) compassion to those who have only a little, especially to widows and orphans, who in that culture were particularly vulnerable in every sense. All have examples of treating strangers – whether passing through, displaced from their homeland, or otherwise recent arrivals – as if they were native-born, whatever their religion or ethnicity.

The lectionary readings have skipped around Jeremiah in a crazily random way, but as we wrap up this week, in chapter 13 verse 9 the people remind God of what chapter 23 later echoes, "…you, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name."

In Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Luke to know God is to act in ways that fulfill the ten words or commandments of the Sinai covenant and embody the divine image God created us in. To know God means acting to create the reign of heaven on earth: to demonstrate to the world that God is a God near by and not far off—God indeed is in the midst of us, God is present in the people called by God's name.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Pentecost 19C

Jeremiah 31:27-28, 31-34

27 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28 And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord.

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.

33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.

More Jeremiah

Amidst destruction of their homeland/promised land, in the midst of exile to a strange land, through Jeremiah God assures people of both the southern kingdom Judah (location of Jerusalem and the J-Temple) and the long-defunct northern kingdom Israel that future life will emerge from death.

On the last Sunday of October, we'll celebrate Reformation Sunday. Texts for Reformation are the same every year and include Jeremiah 31:31-34. Luther and other theologians very accurately found God's incarnate Word Jesus Christ throughout the Spirit-breathed Hebrew scriptures we share with our Jewish siblings. The apostle Paul assured us, "…in Jesus Christ every one of God's promises is a 'Yes.'" (2 Corinthians 1:20)

Martin Luther famously discovered and uncovered Jesus Christ in almost every Old Testament passage, and we often refer to Jesus as bringer of a new covenant, as the fulfillment of all God's promises, yet God announced this particular hope for a living future to Israel and Judah, not to the church.

To some extent we cannot help but interpret scripture through the perspective of twenty-first century individualism with its assumption of autonomous individual actors. As much as this passage is about the God who covenants with each of us in baptism, the culture where it originated could not have imagined a solitary person unbound and unresponsive to a community, along with a community that was protection and refuge for the individuals that formed it.

New Covenant

Over the past few years this blog has talked about neighborology: the word about the neighbor, the other than us. I've mentioned strong similarities in worldviews of Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Luke; theologies of all three books insist our love of God best becomes embodied in service to our neighbors. Despite the Common Lectionary being compiled a half century ago, it's no surprise they included quite a few readings from Jeremiah and Deuteronomy for this year C, Luke's year.

Very loosely, a biblical or ancient near eastern covenant is an agreement or pact; biblical covenants all are covenants of grace. Creation itself was the first covenant recorded in scripture; then covenants with Noah, with Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah, ten words – a decalogue – at Sinai via Moses, later on with King David.

However, in substance this suddenly new form of the law is no different from the good news of the ten commandments of the Sinai Covenant. The new covenant God promises through the prophet Jeremiah was (and still is!) a deeper, more internalized, more fully responsive way of living with the covenant of promise that binds God to people, the covenant of obedience that binds people to God and to each other.

Where We Live

Our modern tendency to equate heart with emotion and feelings is another difference between Jeremiah's world and ours. Because in Hebrew biology the heart is the seat of will and intention rather than emotion, a covenant inscribed on hearts would lead everyone to obey instinctively. Our scripture even claims, "No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me." In short, people won't need to think so hard about their next move.

If "no longer shall they teach … for they all shall know me," does that mean no more God-talk? Not exactly! In that day we'll absolutely continue to proclaim and re-enact salvation history in liturgy and sacraments. If we don't keep remembering, for sure we'll forget. We'll also keep on keepin' on reading and studying scripture, but for everyone "in those [future] days" it will be reminder more than instruction.

Saturday, October 08, 2022

Pentecost 18C

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

1 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

5 "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
Jeremiah 29 Build Houses Seek the Well-being
Covid-induced Exile

The entire bible witnesses to God's way of being and living together, but (maybe particularly) the books of Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Luke emphasize what we've referred to as "neighborology," or the word about the neighbor.

Covid Is Not Over, but there are many signs (1) Covid probably will stay with us for longer than the foreseeable future; and (2) now that many social and other restrictions have been modified or lifted, it's time to imagine, explore, and try on for size necessarily different and updated … everything.

Aspects of our current situation aren't very different from the dislocation God's people felt when Jeremiah wrote to them. They'd literally been picked up and relocated from their promised homeland onto turf of yet another empire. When "life happens" unexpectedly, it's not necessarily negative to simultaneously focus on where and how we'd been, along with imagining the future we'd wanted or expected.

However, like exiles in Babylon, we still need to live right now, and in Wendell Berry's famous words, Jeremiah basically advises them to "practice resurrection," to live as if the disapora already was producing and enjoying fruits of the new creation. Our interdependent global community keeps showing us if we're thriving and healthy where we live, that well-being will ripple and radiate around the world.

The ongoing pandemic has taken us from the expected familiar, removed a lot of the expected from our everydays. As absolutely everyone encounters frustrations and probably some elations during this phase of rebuilding and revival, my Five Minute Friday free write this week on the prompt "become" reflects on living together into wellness.

Here's the complete Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry.