There Is Still a Vision | Proper 26

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

1:1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. 2 LORD, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us. 3 Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 The Instruction is ineffective. Justice does not endure because the wicked surround the righteous. Justice becomes warped.

2:1 I will take my post; I will position myself on the fortress. I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me and how he will respond to my complaint. 2 Then the LORD answered me and said, Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet so that a runner can read it. 3 There is still a vision for the appointed time; it testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late. 4 Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly. (CEB)

There Is Still a Vision

 I’m sure we could all make a list of those terrible moments when we cried out to God for some desperate need but felt abandoned, forsaken, or alone. And we have been left questioning whether God is there or if God cares, or not. When a loved one is dying of cancer, we pray for miracles from the God who should be able to heal anything. When a loved-one dies in a tragic accident, we cry out to the God who should have been able to protect but didn’t. When war breaks out and entire populations are ravaged, when their people suffer indescribable violence and brutality that can only take our breath away and leave us speechless, we demand to know why the God of love allowed such evil to happen.

Sometimes our prayers escape us in such a raw, unfiltered, form that we recoil from their perceived impertinence. One of the wonderful things about the Old Testament is that we learn how to pray with a certain degree of impertinence, and understand that such prayers are not merely allowable, but necessary. In fact, lament is almost an art form that is best taught by prophets and Psalmists. Even a cursory reading of either will provide plenty of examples of people crying out to God about injustice and violence to the point that they confront God about the fact that it seems they are being ignored.

The beauty and paradox about prayers of lament is that there is no lament without the presence of faith. Faith is the very foundation of lament. Experiencing grief, sorrow, abandonment, despair, forlornness, and the like can make us feel like we lack faith, but the reality is that the argumentative nature of a lament assumes the God of the Universe is listening to us. We wouldn’t bother to argue with God in a lament if we didn’t believe God was available and listening. We wouldn’t offer a prayer of lament if we didn’t believe that, on some level, God is present and perhaps even active in a way we simply can’t see yet.

A lament is a cry of hope that God is, indeed, moving before us in ways we cannot yet see. If we can see the injustice, if we can see the violence, then surely God sees it too, and we wonder things like why? Why is God letting this happen? How long will God let this go on? We want an answer from the silence. We want action from the one who can put a stop to the nightmare.

In his book, Night, Elie Wiesel recounts one of the hangings he witnessed while a prisoner at Buchenwald concentration camp of two adults and a child. He says, “But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is he? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…’” (Night, Wiesel, 65).

We ask the same questions as the man who stood behind Mr. Wiesel in moments when we’re faced with evil beyond our imagining or tragedies and sorrows we simply cannot understand.

I have asked that question when hearing of the Yazidi women and girls who were taken as sex slaves in Iraq. I’ve asked that question when I heard about a student who was murdered on a college campus. When children are kidnapped and torn from the arms of their parents. When friends suffer and die from diseases leaving a broken-hearted family and friends behind. When kids struggle with daily life from disorders they were born with and adults display nothing but disgruntled contempt. When people go hungry. It’s in those moments when my prayers become impertinent; when I demand to know, Lord, how long?

These impertinent prayers are familiar to God. God has heard them and even prayed them. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, dying slowly in unimaginable pain, he cried out in lament, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Matthew 27:46, CEB). He, too, felt abandoned and alone. He, too, wondered why the Father would allow him to suffer so much pain even though he knew the plan. He knew he would come out in glory on the other side of death. But he still cried out in the midst of his suffering. When we’re hurting, it’s easy to question, it’s easy to forget that God has spoken of a victory in the end and God meant what God said.

Habakkuk sees the injustice happening all around him as his people act in violent ways. He sees the violence coming at the hands of the Babylonians. He dares to raise his voice in one of these impertinent prayers. “Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you don’t deliver us. Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife, and conflict abounds.”

So the prophet demands an answer of the Lord. Habakkuk will take his post and stand in the fortress where he will keep watch and see what answer God will give. And God does answer. Habakkuk is told to write the oracle he receives on a tablet “so that a runner can read it.” Some have suggested this means the words were to be billboard-sized so someone running by could read it. (An unlikely scenario that assumes a lot). Others have suggested it was meant to be written on a small tablet so that it was portable enough for a runner to go from place to place and read the tablet aloud so everyone who could hear. (A more likely scenario).

However, our English translations flip the Hebrew word order, so it could also mean that Habakkuk is to write the oracle on a tablet so that whoever reads it can run. Whether it is hoped the reader will run away in sheer terror, or run in order that the warning of disaster might be spread to others so they can either amend their lives or escape the impending destruction by the Babylonians is uncertain.

God tells Habakkuk, “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late. Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly.” (CEB).

This verse, Habakkuk 2:4, is one of the most difficult verses to translate. At the same time, there’s an incredible amount at stake in it for Christians. Paul uses this verse in Romans 1:17 “God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.” (CEB). But the Hebrew word used here has a variety of meanings, including steadfastly, trustworthily, faithfully, loyally, reliably, conscientiously. Or, as the Common English Bible translates it, “honestly.”

Paul and the author of Hebrews use the word to highlight the role of faith for Christians. But, they only focus on one possible meaning of the Hebrew word. Habakkuk isn’t only talking about faith. The prophet uses a word with multiple meanings in order to contrast the righteous from the unrighteous. Habakkuk means all of these things. In fact, what Habakkuk is stressing is not the person so much as the trustworthiness of God and the vision God has given. The righteous person will live in trust of God’s vision, maybe even taking their place at the metaphorical watch-post alongside Habakkuk after crying out to God.

What if we became the people of prayer Habakkuk exemplifies? What if we took our place and yelled at God about the devastation we see? What if we refused to turn away, refused to ignore, refused to stay silent and, instead, waited with determination for God’s reply? What if we prayed with the same determination as the woman who badgered the unjust judge in the parable Jesus told:

“‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.’ The Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?’” (Luke 18:2-8, CEB).

When Jesus comes, will he find people standing at the watch-post, expectantly anticipating God’s reply? There is still a vision for the appointed time. Yes, to our finite human selves, it seems to be tarrying, delayed by some unfathomable reason. We want God to fix the horrors of the world that seem insurmountable to us. But that’s why we pray. That’s why we raise our voices in lament. That’s why we demand God to answer us and ask, “How long?”

Habakkuk assures us the vision of God will be fulfilled. Every injustice and act of violence will be accounted for and set right. What we choose is how we live here and now: like the proud and audacious who don’t do what’s right, or like those who trust in God’s vision and cry out for it every day with prayers: even the impertinent prayers of lament.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Hope Amid Suffering | Proper 25

Joel 2:23-32

 23 Children of Zion, rejoice and be glad in the LORD your God, because he will give you the early rain as a sign of righteousness; he will pour down abundant rain for you, the early and the late rain, as before. 24 The threshing floors will be full of grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and fresh oil. 25 I will repay you for the years that the cutting locust, the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust have eaten– my great army, which I sent against you. 26 You will eat abundantly and be satisfied, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has done wonders for you; and my people will never again be put to shame. 27 You will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God– no other exists; never again will my people be put to shame. 28 After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. 29 In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves.

30 I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth– blood and fire and columns of smoke.  31 The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 32 But everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be security, as the LORD has promised; and in Jerusalem, the LORD will summon those who survive.  (CEB)

Hope Amid Suffering

Some people struggle with reading and understanding the prophets. While I love to preach on them, part of that love comes from trying to make sense of what is, at times, my abject confusion. The prophets require study, in one sense, because the context is often needed to make sense of what’s being said in the oracles.

So, here’s some context. The prophet Joel lived in the Post-exilic period of Israel’s history, sometime between 500 and 350 B.C. At this point in time, Israel was a small sub-province of the great Persian Empire. The Babylonian Exile is in the past, but the people still had no king or real ruling class. Their leaders were mostly priests and elders. They had no army to defend themselves, they had no political power, and they had a meager economy almost entirely based on agriculture.

The people were not in a stable, secure situation. And now they have suffered the blight of locust swarms, which have destroyed their crops. These locusts have swarmed not only the crops but also the people in their homes (1.4, 2.3-9). Verse 25 suggests the locust swarms had invaded the land for more than one growing season. Not just a year, but years. Things have gotten bad for the people of Israel.

On first reading, the book of Joel may give the impression of being a narrow, nationalistic work that glorifies Israel at the expense of other nations. Some have even suggested it’s an attempt to explain away God’s apparent weakness and inability to protect the people from the plague of locusts in the first place. Joel says God sent the locusts. If God sent the locusts, there’s no inability to protect. It almost reads like an apology to the nations to prove that the people have not been put to shame by worshipping a weak God.

In fact, this text is what Peter uses to interpret God’s powerful action on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. Peter says, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Paul, also, makes Joel 2.32 the heart of his Gospel: “For, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Romans 10.13).

There are few better examples of the enduring nature of God’s grace than the prophet Joel. For Joel, the ruinous visitation of locusts is representative of the judgment of God. Joel draws on the concept of The Day of the Lord, first sounded by the prophet Amos (5.18-20). Joel sketches the need for the people to repent and to cast themselves on God’s mercy when he says, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2.12-13).

We aren’t given the details of the people’s response to his call to repentance, but it seems to have been favorable. With the coming of the autumn rains the prophet begins to speak of a new crop, which will take the place of the one the locusts destroyed. This new crop will fill the lives of the people with plenty again. Jews back then were kind of like Methodists, in a way, their lives tended to revolve around food.

Just as the locusts had served as a paradigm of God’s judgment, the autumn rains now symbolize God’s mercy. It is interesting to note that God goes so far to say that he will repay Israel for what they had missed out on due to the punishment being meted out in the form of locust swarms. Imagine a judge giving a just sentence to a criminal, then when the criminal’s time is done the judge gives the criminal everything he or she missed out on during the time of their punishment! God promises that “the threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil…You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.”

Do we, the people of God, remember where it all comes from? Everything we have is from God, and we have received nothing on our own. It’s a travesty that we could possibly take even the smallest of God’s gifts for granted.

Then, almost without our noticing it, Joel’s language begins to suggest an eschatological perspective by focusing on the future Day of the Lord. The prophet’s anticipation over a newly sprouting crop is transformed into a promise concerning the people’s ultimate redemption. In verse 26, Joel moves from the promise of eating plenty and being satisfied to “my people shall never again be put to shame.” The significance of this enduring promise is emphasized by its repetition in verse 27. The reason the prophet is so confident is because God is abiding in and with the people of Israel. God indwells Israel’s life.

The move toward the eschatological is then pushed even further be verses 27 through 32. “Then afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.”

Joel’s choice of the words, “Then afterward” is an unmistakable pointer toward some moment beyond the present restoration of the people. When Peter quotes this text in Acts 2, this phrase becomes, “In the last days.” In this “after” time, the Spirit of God will endow all conditions of people: young and old, women and men, bonded and freed—“all flesh” will be bathed in the Spirit of God.

The frightful portents are similar to the ones Joel used earlier in chapter 2, but they are made even more frightening. The moon is not just darkened here, it’s turned to blood. Indeed, blood, fire, and smoke characterize this dreadful time. God’s judgment, painfully described in the earlier passages of Joel, is here revisited with heightened intensity. The great and terrible day of the Lord is surely coming.

Yet, Joel’s words concerning being saved have not been spoken idly. Even in the midst of judgment, there is deliverance for all who invoke the name of the Lord. There is, in fact, to be a mutual invocation: just as those who call “on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” there are also “among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.”

In other words, those who look to God for help will experience God’s response. We should also note that to “call on the name of the Lord” means, in the scriptures, to tell others what God has done (Psalm 105.1, Isaiah 12.4)—to be witnesses of a worldview that sees everything in the context of God’s deeds and character; to be evangels—messengers—of the glad tidings that God is the ruler yet; to announce to everyone who will listen that he or she too is offered salvation on the day of the Lord. As Paul explains when he uses this verse from Joel, no one can believe unless he or she has heard, and no one will hear unless Christ is proclaimed. And, so, saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ will come from what is heard, and what is heard will come from our word about Christ (Romans 10.14-17). This is a call to be evangelists to the world around us. And that doesn’t mean standing on a street corner, holding a sign that says “Prepare to meet your God” while yelling at people. It’s about forming relationships and loving people into the kingdom. It’s about serving others, caring for others, praying for others, acting on behalf of others, and talking to people about what God has done for us.

No matter how dark the present moment, no matter how real the justice of God—and for Joel it was very real—judgment does not have the final word. God’s final and gracious word is one of redemption. This is something for us to keep in mind as we come to the end of the Church’s year and approach Advent: a season that is wholly concerned with the call to repentance and the Second Coming of Christ. It’s also not a bad thing to keep in mind with the pending presidential election. God saves, not political leaders. God provides. God sustains. God redeems. God calls. God upholds. The great Day of the Lord is close at hand. It may be upon us at any moment; yet in Christ we will stand.

So go out there and tell someone.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Build and Plant | Proper 23

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

1 The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.

4 The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare. (CEB)

Build and Plant

There is something vexing about the Gospel. The word, itself, comes to our modern lexicon from Old English where it was Godspel. God meaning good, and spel meaning tale or tidings. In Middle English, they dropped the d, and it became Gospel—Good News.

The difficulty is that God’s Good News—God’s word—is not always welcome to our ears. It’s not always the kind of news we want to hear. There’s proof enough of that in how the messengers who carried that word have been treated throughout history. The people murdered almost every prophet God has ever sent. Tradition holds that the Prophet Isaiah was sawn in two. John the Baptizer was beheaded. Jesus was crucified. God’s word can be so difficult to hear, at times, that it’s unwanted and outright rejected. Sometimes its truth can leave us baffled, thinking: surely there’s been a mistake. That’s probably what the exiles in Babylon thought when they received Jeremiah’s letter.

These exiles were likely part of the first and second waves who were taken from Jerusalem. They were from the middle and upper classes of society. They were members of the royal family and court officials, artisans, craftsmen, and warriors. The prophet Ezekiel was also one of those carried off into exile. Here’s how Second Kings describes the capture of Jerusalem and first waves of exiles:

Judah’s King Jehoiachin, along with his mother, his servants, his officers, and his officials, came out to surrender to the Babylonian king. The Babylonian king took Jehoiachin prisoner in the eighth year of Jehoiachin’s rule. Nebuchadnezzar also took away all the treasures of the LORD’s temple and of the royal palace. He cut into pieces all the gold objects that Israel’s King Solomon had made for the LORD’s temple, which is exactly what the LORD said would happen. Then Nebuchadnezzar exiled all of Jerusalem: all the officials, all the military leaders– ten thousand exiles– as well as all the skilled workers and metalworkers. No one was left behind except the poorest of the land’s people. Nebuchadnezzar exiled Jehoiachin to Babylon; he also exiled the queen mother, the king’s wives, the officials, and the land’s elite leaders from Jerusalem to Babylon. The Babylonian king also exiled seven thousand warriors– each one a hero trained for battle– as well as a thousand skilled workers and metalworkers to Babylon.” (2 Ki. 24:12-16, CEB).

The Jewish historian, Josephus, also records the events in his book Antiquities of the Jews, though his perspective is from hundreds of years later. His figures are 3,000 exiles for the first wave, and 10,832 for the second wave. (Antiquities, 10.6.3 & 10.7.1). So, the number of exiles is fairly close to twice the population of Mount Vernon.

The message the displaced Jews receive from Jeremiah is essentially the same message he had given to those remaining in Jerusalem and Judea in chapters 27 and 28. If you want to live, submit to the king of Babylon and serve him. Don’t resist like some of the false prophets are telling you to do. Jeremiah encouraged the captives in Babylon to settle into life there, and pray in a new way.

His words were almost inconceivable. They were certainly not what they hoped to hear from a prophet of the Lord. These captives were in deep distress from their ordeal. Psalm 137 recounts their sentiments.

Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres up in the trees there because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: ‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said. But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil? Jerusalem! If I forget you, let my strong hand wither! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy. LORD, remember what the Edomites did on Jerusalem’s dark day: ‘Rip it down, rip it down! All the way to its foundations!’ they yelled. Daughter Babylon, you destroyer, a blessing on the one who pays you back the very deed you did to us! A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!” (Ps. 137:1-9, CEB).

You see, the people had endured defeat, the devastation of their city, and they were now prisoners whom the Babylonians forcefully removed and resettled. They thought their lives had been destroyed. They were angry and full of spite. They probably wanted to rebel and go back home. If they rose up, surely God would protect them and help them find a way out! Surely, God would crush the Babylonians for the crimes they had committed! That’s the word from God the people wanted to hear.

Yet, through Jeremiah, the Lord tells this captive people to build and plant and get married. The significance of these instructions is that they are the exact activities which exempted men from military service in Deuteronomy twenty.

“The officials will also say to the troops: ‘Is there anyone here who has just built a new house but hasn’t yet dedicated it? He can leave and go back to his house; otherwise, he might die in the war and someone else would dedicate the house. Or is there anyone here who has planted a vineyard but hasn’t yet put it to good use? He can leave and go back to his house; otherwise, he might die in the battle and someone else would use the vineyard. Or is there anyone here who is engaged but not yet married? He may leave and go back to his house; otherwise, he might die in the battle and someone else would marry his fiancée.’” (Deut. 20:5-8, CEB).

God’s word through Jeremiah told the people not to rebel. God told them to settle into this new life. And it was a hard word to hear. The people are also told to “Increase in number there so you don’t dwindle away.” (CEB). This word, increase, is a covenantal word which affirms God’s promise. It is used several times in Genesis. Adam and Eve are told, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it.” (Gen. 1:28, CEB). God told Noah’s family, “Be fertile and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Gen. 9:1, CEB).

When the Israelites were about to enter into the promised land, they were told to offer a sacrifice and say the words, “My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous.” (Deut. 25:5, CEB). The connection of that covenantal word, increase, to the days of their forebears in Egypt reminded the exiles that they could survive and grow in a foreign land. “Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away.” (CEB).

One of the interesting things about this letter is that the expected greeting “peace to you” is absent. Instead, the Hebrew word for completeness, soundness, welfare, and peace—Shalom—comes in verse seven where the exiles are told to “Promote the welfare [the Shalom] of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare [its Shalom].” (CEB).

Jeremiah’s words are a first in the Biblical narrative. This is long before Jesus said things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” (Matt. 5:43-48, CEB).

The exiles are told to pray to the Lord for sake of Babylon: the city of their enemies! Pray for the city whose king and whose army crushed and defeated their own city, Jerusalem, and razed the Temple of the Lord to the ground! They were to be the intercessors for this pagan city. God would be with them and hear their prayers. The exiles had holy work to do on behalf of Babylon. If they heeded this uncomfortable word of God, then they would thrive in a place that seemed inhospitable and threatening.

They weren’t only to pray for the city’s welfare. They were to be active participants in that endeavor. They were told to seek it, promote it, invest in it. As distasteful as these words from Jeremiah were to the exiles, it’s exactly what they did. They put down roots. They made it their new home. They carved out a positive existence for themselves and increased as a people. They made the city’s welfare their own. In fact, many of the descendants of the exiles stayed in Babylon after King Cyrus allowed them to return home. Their community in that land lasted until the 1950s when most of the descendants returned after the formation of the modern State of Israel. They invested themselves fully into the place they lived, and they prospered.

That is, in part, what stewardship means. It’s about so much more than money. We aren’t living in exile. Many of us live in Mount Vernon because we chose to move here or because we were born here and we chose to stay. If God’s people can invest themselves in a hostile place like Babylon and increase, how much more can we do in a place we’ve chosen for ourselves?

Today, we’re presenting our commitment cards which represent our financial investment in our congregation and the ministry we provide within Mount Vernon, across our nation, and throughout the world. Yet, I want to encourage us to do more. Pray for our city. Let us seek and promote the welfare—the Shalom—of this place and pray to the Lord on its behalf. For in its welfare we will find our welfare.

That doesn’t mean everything will be perfect. It doesn’t mean we’ll never encounter difficulties. It certainly doesn’t mean God will make it rain flakes of gold.

It does mean that we work side-by-side to build up our church community and seek good things for every person around us within these walls and outside of them. The welfare of our church community is inextricably linked to the welfare of our city and the people in it. So give. Pray. And be active. Build and plant. Marry and have children. Live and pray in ways that seek the prosperity of the world around us, even for those people with whom we disagree, don’t like, or identify as enemies. That’s the difficulty of God’s Good News. It’s a message that seeks goodness for all. We have a holy work to do. Let’s get to it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Doing What We Ought | Proper 22

Luke 17:1-10

1 Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to trip and fall into sin must happen, but how terrible it is for the person through whom they happen. 2 It would be better for them to be thrown into a lake with a large stone hung around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to trip and fall into sin. 3 Watch yourselves! If your brother or sister sins, warn them to stop. If they change their hearts and lives, forgive them. 4 Even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I am changing my ways,’ you must forgive that person.”

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7 “Would any of you say to your servant, who had just come in from the field after plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come! Sit down for dinner’? 8 Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Fix my dinner. Put on the clothes of a table servant and wait on me while I eat and drink. After that, you can eat and drink’? 9 You won’t thank the servant because the servant did what you asked, will you? 10 In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.'” (CEB)

Doing What We Ought

This text causes me to suspect that Jesus was probably not a dog owner. Besides the fact that Jews considered dogs to be unclean animals—a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree—I don’t think the theologian in Jesus would have been able to take a dog’s constant need for praise. Dogs are, by and large, the kind of creatures that need constant approval from their masters for doing the most basic of daily tasks. If you let your dog out into the yard and tell him to go potty, he’ll go out, finish his business, and come back to you proudly wagging his tail as if he had just solved the problem of world hunger. Dogs look for praise simply because they did what they were supposed to do: even what they already needed to do before you told them.

To be fair, I doubt Jesus was a cat owner either. My wife and children own a cat and a dog, so I can speak to this. Cats think they deserve the worshipful attention of the world for simply gracing us menial humans with their benevolent presence. They’re rather tiring creatures.

It’s obvious Jesus says some difficult things in Luke 17. While he acknowledges that people trip and fall into sin, he also says that it’s awful for the people who sin and for those who cause others to sin. Jesus says about those who entice others to sin that it would better for them to be tossed into a lake with a millstone hung around their neck rather than cause another person fall into sin.

This doesn’t exactly sound like our dear, sweet, loving Jesus here. If we stop reading right here, it sounds like Jesus is tough as nails when it comes to sin. And Jesus IS tough on sin. There are repercussions for all sin that reach far beyond what we can often imagine. The disobedience of Adam and Eve has had repercussions that we all feel. Because of one act of disobedience, the human race knows death, sickness, pain, and sorrow. Our sin, too, affects others in ways we seem incapable of imagining.

But then Jesus says, “Watch yourselves! If your brother or sister sins, warn them to stop. If they change their hearts and lives, forgive them. Even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I am changing my ways,’ you must forgive that person” (Lk 17:3-4). That’s tough stuff. Jesus is telling us that we must forgive as often as forgiveness is sought. It’s not always easy to forgive, but it is important for us to forgive.

We pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, but have you ever really paid attention to what we’re asking of God in that prayer? It’s a dangerous prayer to pray. In one of the lines, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are asking God to forgive us according to the same measure that we forgive others. Conversely, we’re essentially saying to God, do not forgive us in the same measure that we withhold forgiveness from others. The Lord’s Prayer is a frightful prayer to pray, and we ought to examine ourselves to make sure we have forgiven or are actively trying to forgive those who have wronged us before we pray it. That’s why we pray the prayer of confession before we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We need to let go of our grudges against others. We need to confess to God our sins and our struggles, even our struggles to forgive others because forgiveness is not always easy.

Sin has disastrous effects for those who are touched by it. We are called to forgive, but forgiveness is a difficult thing. Many of us gathered here know this first hand. It’s no wonder that the response of the disciples seems to be almost a cry of exasperation, “Increase our faith!” Surely we would need super-human faith in order to forgive as Jesus is saying we need to forgive. We’re going to need more faith if we’re going to live this way.

After all, we think of size and quantity as being directly related to strength. More is better because more is stronger. An army of a thousand should easily defeat an army of 10. Goliath should have kicked David’s skinny little rear end. Ask any child and they’ll tell you that a bag of candy is better than a piece of candy. A king-size chocolate bar is better than a “fun-size” chocolate bar. So having more faith should be better than having less, right? We just need an increase if we’re going to be able to forgive like this.

Well, Jesus doesn’t seem to think so. He tells us that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could command a tree to jump in a lake and it would obey you. Now, the unfortunate part of this saying is that most of us have never accomplished this successfully. I mean, who here hasn’t tried to command a tree to go jump in a lake at least once? So, because it didn’t work, we’re left thinking that our faith isn’t even the size of a mustard seed. We don’t even have a big enough faith to do the tree thing, so how can we do anything else in faith?

But again, when we think that way, we’re falling into the same trap of thinking in terms of size. It’s not about size. It’s about putting our faith into action. We don’t need more faith, bigger faith, or any other kind of quantitative description. We just need to use the faith we have.

At this point, Jesus launches into a part of the text that most of us modern people don’t like very much because it uses a Greek word that can be translated as slave, servant, or subject. “Would any of you say to your servant, who had just come in from the field after plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come! Sit down for dinner’? Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Fix my dinner. Put on the clothes of a table servant and wait on me while I eat and drink. After that, you can eat and drink’? You won’t thank the servant because the servant did what you asked, will you? In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.’

So let’s put it in a more modern context. Let’s say we’re a group of women and men business executives and we’re in a business meeting together. Would you say to your Office Interns who just walked in the door, “Hey! Make yourselves comfortable! Let me get up and get you some coffee and a Danish! Here, one of you take my chair, and someone else get up for the other one!”

Or might you instead ask your Office Interns to serve the coffee and Danishes to you and your fellow executive colleagues? The Office Interns can share the leftover Danishes after the meeting.

Then, after the meeting, do you seek out your Office Interns in order to thank them for serving the coffee and Danishes and tell them what an exquisite job they did placing the Danishes exactly in the center of each plate? What wonderful service! No. They simply did what was expected of them. It’s written in their job descriptions that they serve the coffee and Danishes at Executive-level business meetings. They didn’t do anything special. They simply did their jobs with the excellence that is expected of them. They’ll get a paycheck for the time they put in.

There are similar expectations for those who follow Jesus. We are expected to forgive those who wrong us, not because God wants to lay something difficult on us, but because we have been forgiven for our sins by God through the redemption of Jesus Christ. God forgives us every time we ask to be forgiven, even if it’s the hundredth time for the same sin. Forgiveness is something God does, and so it’s something God expects us to do.

We don’t expect praise for doing what is expected of us. After all, we aren’t doing these things in order to earn God’s love. We can’t earn God’s love, or anything else, because we already have it. From the beginning of time and throughout all of eternity, we already are loved by God. God forgives us because God loves us. And so we, following God’s example to us, do what is right and good—as God expects of us—as an appropriate response to the love and grace already given to us by God. Forgiven people learn to forgive.

The expectations of Jesus were quite simple: We should do no harm, we should do good, and we should attend to the ordinances of God. When we mess up, we ask for forgiveness and we receive forgiveness. And we must forgive because we have been forgiven. Even though forgiving others can be a difficult struggle, when we do forgive we are doing our duty as Christian people by living out the example of love that we have received from God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!