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Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Lamentations 1:1-6 AND Lamentations 3:19-26 OR Psalm 137:1-9 OR Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 AND Psalm 37:1-9, II Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

Some of us grew up in a family and/or culture of reward and punishment.  Such people often come to believe that all behavior merits reward and punishment, sometimes learning to hand out reward and punishment themselves.  Success and failure are viewed as reward and punishment.  In school and on the job we are measured and marked for merit and demerit.  Entire religious groups and theologies seem to relish such a perspective on life, heaven and hell being the ultimate reward and punishment.

Such a perspective on life has its limits.  I’m not going to suggest today that we abolish all reward and punishment, although the idea is worthy of discussion.  Even behavioral science has determined that reward has its place and that reward is more effective than punishment as a motivator.  When reward and punishment dominate, however, any experience of hardship may invoke guilt and feel like punishment.  One may become dependent upon reward and feel that one’s good work is validated only if someone notices and pats you on the head or thanks you.  Thanking people, and God, in my opinion are simple common decency, a recognition of our interdependence, but appreciation by others is not sufficient reason to do what is right, doing one’s basic job, carrying one’s weight in society.

Now to our texts for the coming Sunday.  Our readings in recent weeks have taken us through a bit of weeping, mainly thanks to Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. Many of the texts for this week cover the same ground, especially in the readings from Lamentations, often attributed to Jeremiah.  The name “Lamentations,” attached to these writings somewhere along the way, means “expressions of grief.”  Probably a collection of poetic works rather than the direct writings of Jeremiah, many are written from the same era and experience that brings tears to Jeremiah’s eyes.

This week I don’t want to focus on the crying, but let’s feel it a moment by hearing some of the words and phrases from several of this week’s lectionary readings:

The first chapter of Lamentations has the city of Jerusalem weeping “bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks . . . Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude . . . The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.”  (Lamentations 1:1-4)

The second reading from Lamentations begins, “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!,” but quickly turns to one of the few moments of light and hopefulness in the book.  “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  (The source of inspiration of a hymn known by many:  “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” which specifically includes the phrase, “Morning by morning new mercies I see.”)

“By the rivers of Babylon---there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion . . . there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? . . . Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.  Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down!  Tear it down!  Down to its foundations!’”  (Psalm 137:1, 3-4, 6-7---Note that the overall tone is a longing for a return to a time when things were better, sort of a wallowing in sorrow, an ultimately nonproductive response.  Do we ever get caught up in such responses?)

Some at breakfast this morning wondered about the Babylonians request for song.  Perhaps they were tormenting the exiles by turning to them as a source of “amusement,” not unlike the history of white America looking to black slaves for song and dance which forced them into a caricature.

Without getting into questions of who wrote Habakkuk and when, we note that it also addresses a time of suffering and trouble.  “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help . . .?  Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?  Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.  The wicked surround the righteous---therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”  (Habakkuk 1:2-4)  Do we ever look around us in our day and feel this way?

Habakkuk climbs a watchtower to search the horizon for hope.  (Habakkuk 2:1)  The Lord tells him, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”  (vs. 2)  Does this imply that we will only glimpse hope while on the run?  At the same time, God’s message, through Habakkuk, is to wait.  (vs. 3)

The same emphasis upon waiting appears in Psalm 37:  “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.”  (Psalm 37:7)  The whole of the reading from this Psalm is about not letting it get to us when the “wicked” and “wrongdoers” seem to be able to get away with anything.  “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers . . . do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.  Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.  Do not fret---it leads only to evil.”  (vss. 1, 7-8)  Waiting seems to have something to do with not fretting.  Is it advice as we watch the self-destruction taking place in the halls of Congress these days?  Waiting, biblically, is not so much about the passage of time as it is about the focus of attention.  Pay attention to, stay close to, God.  Hurling accusations of blame at one another will simply destroy you all.

How am I connecting all this weeping with reward and punishment?  Only this, that much of the weeping arises out of a feeling that all their troubles are sent upon them as punishment by God.  I don’t think it’s quite that simple, but when we operate with a reward and punishment theology at the center of our belief, a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth is likely to occur.  I’m not anxious to perpetuate that kind of reward and punishment framework.

So where do I find anything to do with reward in this week’s texts?  That’s a good question!  I find it in the Gospel lesson which is another of those strange and difficult bits of commentary about and by Jesus.

First the context.  In the verses just before this week’s reading, Jesus says, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!  It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.  Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.  And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  (Luke 17:1-4)

No wonder the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”  (vs. 5)  Jesus’ immediate response is familiar.  It isn’t about how much faith you have, but about putting it into practice.  With even a mustard seed’s worth of faith, you can move trees (vs. 6---Matthew 17:20 says, “mountains”).  There follows a puzzling parable about a slave, that seems to reinforce a slave’s inferior position.  When the slave comes in from the field, don’t invite him to sit down and eat with you.  Instead send him to the kitchen to prepare supper.  He can eat after he has served you.  (vss. 7-8)  Substitute servant or employee if you wish, but the tone still seems harsh.

Slavery was part of the culture of Jesus’ day.  The point here seems to be about doing the job we are called to do without looking for a reward, without expecting people to go around saying, “Good job!”  “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”  (vs. 9)  Jesus' then says to his disciples, and us(?), although I don’t much like thinking of myself as a “worthless” slave.  “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.’” (vs. 10)

So here we are---back to the question of reward and punishment.  Why do we do what we do?  Are we motivated by reward and punishment, or do we do it just because it is right, it is part of our contribution to the well-being of the whole?  I still believe that saying, “Thank you,” is an important gesture of grace, but religion and faith that depends only on reward and punishment the soil in which it grows is not even likely to sustain a mustard seed.

Finally, we have a reading from II Timothy which doesn’t seem to have much connection with the theme.

The overall tone in the reading, though, is one of being faithful to one’s tradition.  It was written during the time the early church was beginning to try to consolidate the wildly diverse interpretations that were abounding.  It was moving toward a “creed” and “orthodoxy.”  It’s a troubling period for those of us who affirm the abundance of diversity in the Christian movement, but it is still important to be aware that we function as part of a tradition and a heritage.  “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”  (vs. 5---Isn’t it interesting that there is no mention of a grandfather or father?)  “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you . . . Do not be ashamed . . . of the testimony about our Lord . . . For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher . . . Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me . . . Guard the good treasure entrusted to you . . .”  (vss. 6, 8, 11, 13, 14)

We can read into these verses an instruction to keep on keeping on.  It’s what we do, without regard to reward or punishment.  It’s an expression of who we are.  We’ve just doing our job, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love and of self-discipline.”  (vs. 7)

Yes, we enjoy being rewarded for good deeds, but isn’t it also deeply rewarding to be able to express the God-given gifts that are in us, using them to build up those around us, seeking peace and justice for all?

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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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