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Thursday, October 17, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:27-34 AND Psalm 119:97-104 OR Genesis 32:22-31 AND Psalm 121:1-8, II Timothy 3:13:4-5, Luke 18:1-8

This week’s reading from Jeremiah is a watershed in religious history.  It has often been taken as a declaration of individualism in religion, the declaration that each one of us is accountable, individually, before God.  I suppose there’s something in that.  When I, as a seminarian, was invited to preach in my home church one Sunday, I chose this text as a declaration of my own independence from my parents’ religion.  I had to decide for myself what I believed.

At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with rampant individualism and an overemphasis upon a personal relationship with God that ignores any political implications in religion.

Before we return again to Jeremiah’s context, let’s see what he had to say that is so earthshaking.  He records a depiction of God describing a time to come when “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts . . . 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 . . .”  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)  He refers to a saying, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” saying that, in this time to come, “the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.”  (vss. 29-30)  You will no longer be responsible for the sins of other (including your parents).  You will each be responsible for your own sins.

God, through Jeremiah, puts it into the context of a “new covenant,” so that many have seen this as a foreshadowing of the new covenant of which Jesus is reported to have spoken during his last meal with the twelve disciples:  “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”  (Luke 22:20)  The reading can certainly illuminate our understanding of Jesus and the “new covenant,” but I don’t believe it is best seen that specifically.  It needs to be read as words spoken to a people whose faith was deeply rooted in a location and community, a location and community which now seemed lost.  The time was right for them to find a new perspective on faith, one which made it all personal.  They could lose their beloved city and its temple; families could be broken up; the influence of new powers and new religions could be strong; but what was in their heart could not be taken from them.  Jeremiah was the prophet to see and proclaim that truth, a message intended to give them courage to stand, to stand even in the presence of their God.

Do you notice that that’s a very political truth as well?  It means that wherever we live, whatever paths the powers try to force upon us, we have an inner power that is up to the task of resisting, of living an alternative truth.

Without comment, I note a couple of other important phrases in this reading from Jeremiah”  God says, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)  God says, “ . . . for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  (vs. 34)  Note also that this new covenant says, “ . . . they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”  (vs. 34)  Sounds like a political statement to me!

The other readings for the coming Sunday are not as clear in their expression of a “personal” perspective on religion, but there are connections to be made.

The first reading from the Psalms has the heart meditating on God’s “law” (Psalm 119:97), a theme throughout this longest chapter in the Bible (176 verses).  Although not specifically attributed to David, this reading from Psalms reflects the sometimes arrogant attitude David could show.  “Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies . . . I have more understanding than all my teachers . . . I understand more than the aged . . .”  (vss. 98-100)  That, in my opinion, is the dark side of much of modern individualism.  I alone am the measure of things.  I know better than everyone else.  Is that part of what drives the congressional stalemate we so often experience?  (Note: Because of upcoming vacation, I am writing this on Sept. 29, without knowing what may have happened in Congress by the time you read it.)  At the same time, it depicts one with a strong inner spirit based on meditation (vss. 97 & 99), a spirit that is able to find focus in the midst of the many voices the surround all of us.  I have always been moved by the words, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (vs. 103)  They are words that are personal to the core!

In the reading from Genesis, the personal relationship becomes one of wrestling.  The context is a story of sibling rivalry and alienation, Jacob (with the help of his mother) having tricked Esau of his birthright blessing (see Genesis, chapter 27) and stolen flocks from his Uncle Laban (see Genesis, chapter 31).  Now Esau is coming to meet him.  (Genesis 32:6-8)  As he attempts to sleep, he dreams that he wrestles all might with an unknown man who throws his hip out of joint.  (vss. 24-25)  Jacob perceives that it is God and hangs on for dear life:  “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  (vs. 26)  The relationships we can trust the most are those in which we can contend with one another without becoming alienated.  Jacob goes for more.  One’s name is the most previous guardian of one’s identity.  The stranger in the dream wants to know Jacob’s name and Jacob says, in return, “Please tell me your name.”  (vss. 27 & 29)  He never gets it, but he declares, “ . . . I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  (vs. 30)  To talk of meeting face to face is to declare the most intimate of relationships.  Many thought meeting God that way would result in death.  Jacob lives through it, and more.  He gets a new name, Israel, a name that provides identity to a whole nation, and a blessing.  (vss, 28-29)  Again, the personal and the political meet.

The second Psalm depicts a protecting personal presence, ending with the words, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  (Psalm 121:8)  In the context of today’s theme it speaks of the bond of faithfulness that connects the best of friendships forever.

The epistle reading seems to move away from the individualistic perspective.  It instructs young Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings . . .”  (II Timothy 3:14-15)  Stick with what you have learned from me and scripture.  It’s almost as if it the words were intended to discourage this young leader of the early church from thinking for himself---and that’s what was happening in the early church. They were trying to consolidate the factions around on “orthodoxy.”

At the same time, the earlier reality that gave rise to this letter was a personal relationship between Paul and Timothy.  One wonders whether the writer is truly faithful to that relationship.  When the political agenda overtakes the personal relationship, the chains can begin to tighten.

The passage, at its core, is about the use of scripture, with verses 16 often being grasped by Fundamentalist.  “All scripture is inspired by God”---which is where they usually stop.  First, we need to note that “scripture” here does not refer to the Bible as we have it today.  It would only include what the early church considered “scripture”---mainly the law and the prophets, and some other “writings.”  The important thing to notice is its use:  “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, as that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”  (vss. 16-17)  It is not a weapon or lawbook.  It is something to be written on the heart to give us strength and courage to do “good work.”  A different tone than that of Jeremiah, but some of the same intent.

The passage also speaks of an ability to stand strong in the midst of the babble of many voices.  “ . . . be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable . . . For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”  (II Timothy 4:2-4)  We can run from such words which can be abused by those who would impose rigid creeds upon us, or we can let them encourage us to listen to the dictates of our hearts, which, for many of us, beat to the tune of a mind-stretching inclusive God.

Finally, we have another parable of Jesus recorded by Luke.  It is somewhat similar to the story from Genesis in that it involves a person who is willing to contend for divine blessing.  The person is a widow seeking justice before a judge who is unwilling to grant it.  (Luke 18:2-3)  She persists and finally wears him down.  “I will grant her justice,” the judge says, “so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  (vss. 4-5)  Jesus then says, “ . . . will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”  (vs. 7)  We are invited to persistence in our pleas for justice.  A persisting personal connection with God is presented as significant in the search for justice.  And notice that the reading begins with an instruction “not to lose heart.”  (vs. 1)  It’s “heart” religion from Genesis to Jeremiah to the Psalms and II Timothy and now in Luke---and the personal and political meet in that heart, in all aspects of the divine-human relationship.  Let’s make it personal!


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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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