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Thursday, September 26, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 AND Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 OR Amos 6:1a, 4-7 AND Psalm 146:1-10, I Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

The word “heart” is mentioned 743 times in the Bible, although not in any of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  Nevertheless, I want to suggest that they are all about “heart.”  Frequently “heart” in the Bible refers to a person’s will or desires.  A person’s “heart” reveals his true nature and motivation.  In Luke 12:34 (not in our readings for the week) Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Dictionary definitions of “heart” from our day, after they move beyond the physical organ that pumps blood, include:  “the vital center and source of one’s being, emotions, and sensibilities,” “the repository of one’s deepest and sincerest feelings and beliefs,” and “the most important or essential part.”  One meaning focuses upon “courage, resolution, fortitude, firmness of will.”

So---when I ask where your heart is, I am asking, “What is your vital center?”  “What are your will and desire focused upon?”  “What do you treasure?”

The people to whom Jeremiah spoke had plenty that demanded their attention---attacks on their holy places, the eventual fall of their beloved Jerusalem and being carried away to live in a foreign land.  It was like the very center of their values was under siege.  It knocked the breath of God right out of them.  Everything they valued and treasured seemed to be disappearing.  Throughout, Jeremiah tried to help them focus on a vital center and maintain hope.  It happens in a variety of ways in today’s upcoming readings.

In Jeremiah 32, Jerusalem is under siege and Jeremiah himself is “confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah”  (Jeremiah 32:2)  He receives a message from God that he is to buy a field which will be offered to him by his nephew.  (vss. 6-7)  It seems like a strange time to be buying property.  I might find it difficult to focus my attention on anything but the walls falling down around me.  One worries a lot about the immediate future when every few months our congress people throw us into a debt crisis or leave us uncertain about our health care.

The property is offered and Jeremiah buys it.  (vss. 8-11)  The deed documents are duly witnessed and stored “in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.”  (vss. 13-14)

The punch line comes in verse 15 when God tells Jeremiah, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  The people’s heart is clinging to what seems to be slipping away.  The destruction going on around them is distracting them from what really matters.  They are losing their ability to trust the possibilities of a new future.  Jeremiah says, "Things will not always be this way.  Don’t give up hope."  Find the heart to live no matter what circumstances come your way.

Psalm 91 reminds the people that God will be with them even in troubled times.  “ . . . he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge . . . You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday . . . I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.”  (Psalm 91:3-5, 15)

Three of the remaining readings speak of riches, which often occupy a central place in human endeavors.  For many, wealth and ease and luxury seem to be the primary source of motivation---at the heart of their existence.

Amos, long before the time of Jeremiah, is troubled by gap he sees between the rich and the poor among the people of Israel.  He abhors those who claim to be on God’s side yet abuse the poor.  (See Amos 5:7-12)  Their hearts are in the wrong place, and eventually it will lead to their destruction, i.e., their country, all that they value, and they, will end up in exile.  (See Amos 6:7)  “Alas,” cries Amos, “for those who are at ease . . . for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches . . . who sing idle songs . . . who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils,” but do not grieve over the fact that they are on the road to ruin, and taking lots of others on it with them.  (vss. 4-6---In chapter 4, verse 1, he says, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan . . . who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’”)  Riches and power seem to put people out of touch with the cries of those in need---in every age.  They distract the heart from things that matter.

The writer of I Timothy talks about “the love of money” being “a root of all kinds of evil . . . in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”  (I Timothy 6:10)  In the King James Version from which many of us first read this verse it says “the” root of all evil.  A couple of other translations are worth noting.  The Contemporary English Version:  “The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain.”  I like the way it reads in “The Message”:  “But if it’s only money these leaders are after, they’ll self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith completely and live to regret it bitterly ever after.”  Perhaps this version should be posted around the halls of Congress!

Notice that the focus is not specifically upon the money, but upon the heart---the “love” of money.  Later in the reading, rather than specifically condemning those who are rich, the writer ways, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (vs. 17)  What kind of riches have we set our heart upon?  This reading offers some alternatives:  “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” (vs. 11)  It instructs us “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”  (vs. 18)

Our breakfast group struggled a little with the final verse about storing up treasures of a good foundation for the future. (vs. 19)  Coupled with verse 12 (“Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life . . .”) the whole passage sometimes gets interpreted in a heaven and hell framework.  Do good so that you can get into heaven.  Remember that “eternal life” is in the here and now.  The writer is talking about a dimension of life as we move forward in this life.  Some also wondered if there was a selfish dimension here in that we are storing up treasures for ourselves.  The key however is in the final phrase:  “so that they may take hold of the life that is really life.” (vs. 19)  What is “real” life?  Not riches, living to accumulate for oneself.  It is living for others so that we all find fulfillment (“treasure,” “riches”) together.  Our discussion even tried to think about ways to move beyond “helping” the “needy” to finding a way in which we can all “help” one another find “real” life.

The Gospel lesson from Luke gives us the story of a rich man and a poor man.  The poor man was “covered with sores” and sat at the gate of the rich man begging.  (Luke 16:20)  Both of them died.  The poor man ends up with Abraham at his side and the rich man experiences fiery torment in Hades.  (vss. 22-23)  Pretty much fits some of our images of heaven and hell, but the parable itself is not primarily about heaven and hell.  The rich man cries out to Abraham for some water.  (vs. 24)  When that is not possible, the rich man thinks of his five brothers and asks that the poor man be sent to warn them.  (vss. 27-28)  Abraham responds that Moses and the prophets already warned them and many ignored them.  They won’t listen “even if someone rises from the dead.”  (vss. 29-31)

The basic message seems to be that when our hearts are set on riches, building our lives on the accumulation of wealth, we lose sight of anything else.  We’re not even going to be moved by a resurrection---even the “real” life revealed in Jesus.  Abraham says to the rich man, “You got what you went after.”  That’s all there is to riches.  “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”  (vs. 25)

It’s a little stark for our liking, and the implied heaven and hell framework may not work for many of us, but all these scriptures combined call us to consider where our hearts are.

My comments on Psalm 146 become sort of a footnote.  Verse 3 is key in considering where our hearts are.  “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”  Is our heart drawn by political solutions?  Certainly issues that help focus the “heart” need to be addressed in the political arena, something that seems very difficult to do.  There is even perhaps some guidance in that God is presented as one “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry . . . sets the prisoners free . . . opens the eyes of the blind.  The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down . . . watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow . . .”  (vss. 7-9) Should we and our politics not do the same?  The warning, however, is that we cannot give our hearts wholly to political leaders or the political process.  Unless our hearts are inspired by a higher power and spirit, we will always find ourselves living in a sort of exile.

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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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