September 1, 2019
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Please pray with me for a moment.
Holy One, let the words of my mouth and the ideas they express make sense in the minds and hearts of my hearers. Beyond this, dear loving God, may these words strengthen our connection with you and with each other and support us as we seek to love and serve your broken world. Amen.
It’s been a real challenge for me working with our liturgical theme for the current season, which ends today. That theme, “Faith is Hard” has evoked for me a phrase my father used frequently in his preaching.
More than once I heard him tell his congregation that “it’s a harsh Gospel.” Usually this was followed by a kind of pregnant pause, to make sure his hearers didn’t mentally brush by the truth he was uttering: It’s a hard Gospel.
Glendale Burton was a Disciples of Christ pastor who, for 23 years, served a church in Arlington. Among other distressing, at least to me, aspects of his life and ministry was his blatant plagiarism of the preaching of other pastors. He quoted, without attribution, not just brief passages and illustrations, but fully developed ideas and multiple paragraphs of text as though they were his own, when they came from the published, or at least mimeographed, sermons of others. So I have no idea if “it’s a harsh Gospel” was original with him or not. But however that may be, the phrase catches the same spirit as our theme, “Faith is Hard.”
It is in the context of this theme that I want to look at our lections: Jeremiah’s prophecy about the faithlessness of his people and its consequences, Jesus’s exchange with his Pharisee host about the proper invitees to a dinner or luncheon, and the reading from Hebrews which “connects our relationship with God with our relationships with one another,” thus providing a context of community within which to deal with the “hard” issues.
The passage from the second chapter of Jeremiah is the second of six consecutive Sunday readings from that prophet. Last week Pat Conover reviewed the historical context against which Jeremiah worked and some disturbing parallels to our current cultural and historical situation. If you missed Pat’s sermon, it is posted on our website. This morning I would like to look at specifically at the passage from Jeremiah 2, which Fern read.
This passage is one of many in which Jeremiah denounces the faithlessness of the Hebrew people. They have forgotten the Exodus story, how God moved powerfully to deliver them from oppression in Egypt and stayed with them, providing food and water, for their seemingly endless trek through the desert. Having arrived in the Promised Land, they began to comingle and intermarry with the groups that were there, sometimes adopting their religious practices, worshiping their so-called gods. Jeremiah says, “They pursued hollow idols and became hollow themselves.” We could pause here to consider the “hollow idols” in our own lives which, when pursued, create a hollow place within us, but I want to move on to the conclusion of
our passage and another powerful image:
…they abandoned me,
the fountain of living water;
and they dug deep cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that hold no water.
(Jeremiah 2:13b, The Inclusive Bible)
Although we may not identify with the specifics of faithlessness that came out of the Middle East in the seventh century BCE, I, for one, don’t find it difficult to find examples in my life where my personal decision making is not consistent with my faith, where I in effect “pursue hollow idols.” As a citizen of this country, I am acutely aware of public policy that can be properly described as “a broken cistern that holds no water”, and I don’t mean only Flint and Newark, awful as those situations are. Although the idols are different, idol worship is as much a sin of our time as it was of Jeremiah’s.
Our Gospel reading provides us with examples of faithlessness and hard faith with which it may be easier, but less comfortable, for us to identify. Jesus was eating lunch or dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees. There are several accounts of such meals, and some evidence that Jesus himself might have been a Pharisee. Seating at these meals was organized to parallel the guests’ perceived social standings, and most of the guests chose seats as close as possible to the head of the table. I’m going to read again Jesus comment about this from The Inclusive Bible translation that we just heard. Jesus says:
“When you are invited to a wedding party, don’t sit in the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished has been invited. Otherwise the hosts might come and say to you, ‘Make space for this person,’ and you would have to proceed shamefully to the lowest place. What you should do is go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your hosts approach you, they will say, ‘My friend, come up higher’. This will win you the esteem of the other guests. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14: 8-11, The Inclusive Bible)
My financial resources, which have increased considerably since Jane’s will was settled, are invested in mutual funds in a variety of asset classes. This particular mix has years of history of producing modest returns in good times and being flat or taking only limited losses during economic downturns. This approach makes good sense to me and to my financial advisor.
I live at Collington, a continuing care retirement community, or CCRC, in Prince Georges County. My living unit, inappropriately called a “villa” is part of a triplex. It is located near a wooded edge of Collington’s 125 acre campus, with buildings no taller than three stories. I have a view from my living room window that resonates, at least for me, with the view from the porch of the Lodge at Dayspring. My amenities include all my utilities, two bedrooms and a den, an attached garage, and a gas fireplace. The CCRC financial arrangement assures me that if (more likely, when) I can no longer live independently, I will receive assisted living or skilled nursing care on the Collington campus and not pay any more for it than I would pay if I were still living independently. My financial advisor assures me that, given reasonable spending by me, these arrangements will work financially well into my nineties. I really don’t expect to live that long. I just don’t have the genes for it.
So, by the standards of our culture, I am in good shape for the rest of life, much like the Pharisees whom Jesus was addressing. But am I being faithful? Am I following the radically counter-cultural Jesus way? Or should I bail out of Collington, get a part-time job while I still can, live much more inexpensively, give more to Seekers and to worthy charities, and not worry about my future health care needs? I could pay far less in rent or mortgage payment than I am now. That, when added to utility and food costs, would still be less than what I am paying Collington every month. I could set part of that savings aside for future needs and spend the rest on whatever, probably travel. But wait! Am I not in effect rearranging the deck chairs on my spiritual Titanic? Is this arrangement, although definitely less comfortable, any more faithful than my current one? Am I truly “humbling” myself or would this new life style simply be “exalting” myself in a different way? If I were being truly faithful, would I not use as little money as possible to live on, not save any at all, and use the remainder to support Seekers and non-profits that are doing good work? A harsh Gospel and a hard faith, indeed.
Honesty and transparency now require me to tell you that I am not seriously, at least not right now, considering the lifestyle change I just described. I do at least my share, and perhaps a bit more for building and nurturing the Body of Christ both here at Seekers and elsewhere. I may be something like the church member who said “I’m being Christian to the best of my ability, and I’ve got the receipts and tax returns to prove it.” While I’m sure that the Pharisees would have offered a comparable defense of their lifestyle, I am willing, at least for now, to leave it at that, with some dis-ease, while feeling thankful and blessed with the gifts that I have been given.
Next Sunday will be the first in our annual Recommitment Season, when we are challenged anew to examine our commitments to Christ and to this community. The issues that I have just raised will certainly be among those that I will be sitting with in the weeks ahead. Kansas pastor and blogger Tim shuttle put it well when he asked, “Do we truly embody a genuine alternative to the way of being we find in the culture at large? “. To that question I remain uncertain of the answer.
I want to turn now to the reading from Hebrews 13, which in the words of former Wesley faculty member, current Cape Cod pastor and blogger, Bruce Epperly, “connects our relationship with God with our relationships with one another.” In doing so Hebrews generally and our passage in particular, provides a context of community within which to deal with the hard issues.
There is a great deal that we do not know about the Letter to the Hebrews. Written after 65 CE and before 90 CE, it had no name until Second Century scribes called it the “Letter to the Hebrews”. This is confusing because it is more of an exhortation, or sermon, than a letter, and it is clearly addressed to struggling Christian churches, not necessarily to Jews. We do not know who wrote it or specifically to whom was addressed. The Harper Collins Study Bible editors point out that “ the audience, members of the church’s ‘second generation’ (2:3), had experienced persecution (10:32-34) and had perhaps become disappointed that Good’s promised kingdom had not yet come. Some members may even have begun to abandon the community.” For these Christians, whoever they were and wherever they lived, faith was hard for them as for us.
The author of Hebrews responds to these issues specifically elsewhere in the letter. In our passage he offers a generic approach, actually a series of bullets. for dealing with difficult problems and a hard faith:
Continue to love each other as sister and brothers. Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
Keep in mind those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them. And be mindful of those who are being treated badly, since you know what they are enduring. (Hebrews 13:1-3, The Inclusive Bible)
There is another sermon in this passage alone, but for the moment I would like to highlight the context that it creates. Epperly notes that this context is one of community, including the care of members for one another, and of equal or greater importance, care for strangers, prisoners, and more generally, “those who are treated badly.” In this context of mutual caring and service to the broken world, we are able to live with the hard parts of our faith, and, as Hebrews also notes, we might be entertaining angels unawares. So, as we conclude our Summer Season, and more into Recommitment, let us remember that we stand in a tradition dating back to our origins, a hard faith shared and lived out in a loving community. Amen.