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Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 AND Psalm 79:1-9 OR Amos 8:4-7 AND Psalm 113:1-9, I Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Have you ever noticed that when one baby starts crying others around it often begin crying also?  Do they have empathy at that age?  Do they sense that someone is in distress or pain?  A farmer friend of mine, remembering the days when they used to slaughter animals for butchering right on the farm, once told me about how many of the other cattle cried out (in sympathy?) when the slaughter took place.

Where does all this crying come from?  I’m sure many profound studies have been published, but I’m not going to search them out right now.  I am going to talk about crying, since our current lectionary readings have us listening to Jeremiah, sometimes called “The Weeping Prophet.”  Beyond the crying, I see this week’s readings calling us to move beyond a perspective on life in which we cannot see further than our own self-interest.

Jeremiah is rarely a “fun” read.  He wore his pain on his sleeve and felt deeply the pain of those around him.  “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick . . . For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me . . . O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!”  (Jeremiah 8:18 & 21 & 9:1)

At least Jeremiah’s weeping is for other people.  He seems to identify with their pain.  The distress in Psalm 79 seems more self-centered, like a people just feeling sorry for themselves.  “We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us.  How long, O Lord?”  (Psalm 79:4-5)  They want compassion.  “Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.  Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.”  It is true that sometimes our crying is nothing more than self-pity.  It is true that our crying can sometimes be a way of saying, “I’m sorry,” but if our crying is not more it never really moves us out of ourselves.

While the other two readings from the Hebrew scriptures have a different tone to them, they suggest conditions that might elicit weeping and are in need of a word of hope.  In Amos it is trampling on the needy and bringing the poor to ruin.  (Amos 8:4)  Amos cries out for justice in response to such conditions.  (vss. 5-7)  Psalm 113 offers a word of hope, a God who “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap . . . He gives the barren woman a home . . .”  (Psalm 113:7 & 9)

I’ve wondered before about where this cry for justice that seems to stir the hearts of so many of us comes from.  Is it there in those crying babies?  Does it contribute to those fights among young children for a fair share of time with the toys?  We are frustrated with such behavior, but maybe it is the beginning of recognizing the importance of sharing and learning how to do it.  Is justice learned in the sharing of toys?  I’ve always been amused by an exchange, probably 25 years ago now, between my preschool son and his best friend.  They were negotiating a trade of some toys.  My son’s friend said, “I’ll give you this for that.” The response:  “No, I’ll give you two of these for that.”  I’m not sure he ever became a great negotiator, but did he have a higher sense of justice than his friend?  Whatever---they worked out the trade and moved on.  Wherever injustice exists there is occasion for crying and wherever justice and compassion prevail in relationships, personal, communal, and global, it’s time to rejoice.

Now, back to Jeremiah.  In Jeremiah 8:22 he asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  Some of us were quite young when we learned the words of an African-American spiritual:  There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole; There's power enough in heaven, To cure a sin-sick soul.”  We probably didn’t know what it meant, although I grew up close enough to dairy farming that I knew about “bag balm” and its wonderful curative powers for human skin problems as well as those on a cow’s udder.

To try to be precise about the history and location of Gilead takes me away from my expertise.  The name was used in a variety of ways in reference to people and places.  Here it is enough to say that it was part of the land taken when the wandering Hebrews occupied Palestine.  It has known multiple conquerors since, but presently is part of Jordan.  A shrub of medicinal benefit thrived here, its sap being made into a “balm” which was a major trading product for the Israelites.

(I add this aside, to what end I’m not sure---except you’ll learn something about my early years.  Lots of cascara (a tree) grew on my grandfather’s farm.  The grandchildren used to earn money by collecting cascara bark (not in a way that threatened the life of the tree, which would have destroyed our source of income) and selling it to companies which used it in the manufacture of medicine.  Like those in Gilead, we had a good thing going, except the product wasn’t “balm.”  It was a laxative!  Has to be a sermon in there somewhere!)

In Jeremiah 46:11, the Egyptians are advised, “Go up to Gilead, and take balm, . . . In vain you have used many medicines; there is no healing for you.”  Jeremiah’s point in referring to Gilead in this week’s reading is that they have this healing power at their disposal.  “Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”  (Jeremiah 8:22)  The healing power of Gilead is a metaphor for the soul-healing they can find in their relationship with God.  So often the source of healing is closer than we think, sometimes in plain site, but we are so busy feeling sorry for ourselves that we don’t notice.

The Gospel lesson seems to take us down another road.  It reports Jesus telling an incredibly puzzling parable.  A rich man receives reports that one of his managers is “squandering his property.”  (Luke 16:1)  He fires the manager. (vs. 2)  Before the manager actually has to leave his position he calls in all in his charge who owe the rich man money, calling for immediate payment at a reduced rate.  He hopes this will make them grateful enough to “welcome me into their homes” at a later date.  (vss. 3-7)  Although the rich man commends the manager for knowing how to look after his own interests, dishonestly, Jesus comment is “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”  (vss. 10-12)

Luke places this parable with a discussion of riches, this week’s Gospel reading ending with Jesus saying, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the others, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”  (vs. 13)  If we went on to the next couple of verses, this is what we would read:  “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.’”  (vss. 14-15)  The Pharisees, and the manager, are not unlike those in some of the earlier readings, moved only by their own interests and priorities.

One could move from this parable into a whole discussion of earthly riches, but, in the parable, the focus is upon “the true riches.”  (vs. 11)  Jesus is speaking of the riches of God’s love entrusted to us.  What kind of stewards are we going to be of that love?  Are we going to continue to be self-centered in our pursuit of our own interests or are we going to look outward and spread the love around?  It makes me ponder the values that we hold deeply, that we believe are worthy foundations for living.  How do we handle such riches?  How are the world and those around us influenced by those values at work in our lives?

That leaves the reading from I Timothy, about which I’m going to say little.  It has the controversial instruction to pray “for kings and all who are in high places.”  (I Timothy 2:1-2)  We need to notice three things about such prayer.  (1)  It is not just prayers of praise that are called for, but supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings---the whole range of prayer.  (vs. 1)  Good leaders, bad leaders, and all in between need to be held in God’s light that they might see more clearly.  (2)  These prayers are to be made for “everyone.”  (vs. 1)  It is an equalitarian instruction.  The lowest and highest and all in between are equally in need of prayer.  (3)  Finally, the reason is given:  “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  (vs. 2)  At the center of our prayer is to be a concern for peace and dignity.  Would that all of our leaders—and all of us---catch that vision.

The main thing I want to emphasize, however, in the epistle reading, is its outward focus.  The writer (“Paul”) sees himself as a steward of the riches of the Gospel.  He talks about doing what is “right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior . . . For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all . . .”  (vss. 3-6)  He was, the writer declares, “for this appointed a herald and apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.”  (vs. 7)

Our God is not into navel-gazing, nor does our God delight in any acts of self-centered egotism or self-pity.  The kind of compassionate God we see in Jesus is always reaching out to show the incredible inclusiveness of Love.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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