Planning - Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Jeremiah buys land in Jerusalem during the siege while he was imprisoned. This was a pledge and prophetic sign that "Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land."
Psalm Response: Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 (UMH 810).
Note the fine print beneath Psalm 91 (UMH 810) and consider using one of the alternative responses, especially "When the storms of life are raging" (UMH 846). As you prepare to pray or sing this Psalm, keep in mind its use as a response to the first reading. The "shelter of the most high" may involve no literal shelter at all for a time!
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Paul calls on Timothy not to pursue riches but to be content with the abundant grace and supply of God, whatever that may be. What he should pursue is "righteouness, godliness, endurance, faith, love and gentleness," and to teach the rich in the Christian communities around Ephesus to do likewise.
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Jesus tells the story of a nameless rich man and beggar named Lazarus.
Today is the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the Christian calendar.
The lectionary provides four streams to pursue during this month of September.
One is the Season of Creation, a month of focused attention on our relationship with the wider created world. This is now the final week of the Season of Creation, and this service includes a "Blessing of All God’s Creatures." Our United Methodist, lectionary-based planning helps and resources are available on our website. Topical resourcing from Australia and elsewhere is available at www.seasonofcreation.com.
The other three involve continuing to pursue one of the three "streams" of readings from Old Testament, Epistle or Gospel. These streams remind us of the vocation of prophets, our call as Christians to live in the world but not of it, and what it means to follow Jesus. The OT stream stays in Jeremiah. The Epistle stream scontinues in I Timothy. The gospel readings continue from Luke.
October holds a number of programmatic Sundays for United Methodists.
World Communion Sunday, October 6, is a time to celebrate our global connections as Christians, including our celebrations at the Lord's Table. United Methodists collect a denomination-wide offering to provide scholarships for for U.S. (racial- and ethnic-minority) and international undergraduate and graduate scholarships. GBOD Resources for World Communion Sunday also include our video, Living into the Mystery, available for free viewing online, or as a DVD. Royalty costs preclude our making it available as a download.
The original reasons for adopting World Communion Sunday in the 1940s no longer apply. Then, most Protestants celebrated very infrequently. Choosing one day when multiple Protestant denominations would celebrate was a major accomplishment. Today, 97 percent of United Methodist congregations celebrate at least monthly, typically on the first Sunday of the month, and most other Protestants do as well. And our latest data indicate a rapid increase in weekly celebration from a grand total of 17 congregations in 1992 to roughly 2500 in 2007. By all reports, those numbers continue to grow.
So today, the reasons to celebrate something like World Communion Sunday may have more to do with calling attention to the sacrament itself as we understand it than to a "rare" occasion when many Christians may be celebrating this sacrament on the same day.
Children’s Sabbath is observed October 13 in the UMC. Laity Sunday is October 20.
Start planning now how you will celebrate each of these days that come one after the other, so that worship does not become an occasion for the "cause du jour" (or "cause de la semaine"), but focuses always on our Triune God whom we encounter in Word and Table.
One way to provide an ongoing connection through these Sundays, in addition to following the lectionary texts, is to observe the whole month as A Season of Saints, leading up to a full celebration on all the saints on All Saints Sunday. In addition to the "overview" resourcing linked above, the Worship Planning Helps on this site will also provide additional resources for each Sunday during October and All Saints Day/Sunday. This year’s resourcing includes links to specific tracks from Martyrs’ Prayers, a multimedia project putting the prayers of Christian martyrs to music and video arranged and performed by United Methodist deacon, Michael Bell, with Episcopal priest and scholar, Duane Arnold, and a selection of well-known Nashville Christian musicians and singers.
As you plan for all of these coming Sundays, remember that every Sunday is first of all the Lord's Day, and that programmatic emphases should always find expression within that larger reality rather than set the tone or the focus for Sunday worship. (See The United Methodist Book of Worship, 422, 434).
This may also be the time the annual stewardship campaign begins to gear up in your congregation. An annual campaign is one component of a comprehensive and ongoing process of cultivating all the disciplines of stewardship in the lives of disciples of Jesus. The purpose of an annual campaign is to encourage the joyful, generous giving among church members and friends. Spiritually centered annual campaigns consistently focus the core of their efforts on this joyful transformation. Give careful thought to how this campaign can be an important dimension of the overall worship experience.
For more resources and help with stewardship, visit the stewardship section of the GBOD website at www.gbod.org/stewardship.
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The texts for this week happen to have a common motif of money and its uses or abuses. though they were not selected for that reason. You could easily theme the service to focus on issues related to money, drawing insights from all the texts. Or you may celebrate the final Sunday in Season of Creation. Or you may continue with whichever stream of texts you may have been focusing on up to now. Choose wisely, based on the particular needs and opportunities of your congregation.
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Old Testament Stream: Prophetic Ministry—Calling and Working for Justice, Righteousness and Peace
Week 6: A "Crazy" Sign of a "Future with Hope"
Jeremiah has taken us all over the map emotionally: Two weeks ago, winds of destruction. Last week, tears of grief and pain. This week, we watch him make a property transaction in an already besieged land doomed to conquest as a sign of hope for a resettlement some day.
God tells him the transaction will be offered to him, and that he is to purchase the land. Then his cousin shows up offering him the transaction exactly as the voice of God had said. What else can he do but purchase the title? It appears he understands why God has told him to make this purchase only after he has done so. It is not until the "deed witnessing ceremony" that Jeremiah says that God has told him this purchase will be a sign that houses and lands will again be bought in Judah one day.
This week’s reading is perhaps the least emotionally intense and most "reasonable" of any we’ve seen in Jeremiah so far. Yet on the surface of it, hearing a voice telling you to buy property in a land being destroyed at the time by enemy invaders seems crazy. Actually doing it, as Jeremiah does, without any apparent reason given for doing so, seems even more crazy.
So it is with prophets. They speak and act at the promptings of God.
So it is, perhaps, with more of us than may be willing to speak openly about it. Some of us do hear God directing us. Sometimes it’s through feelings. Sometimes it’s more like a voice or thoughts. Sometimes it’s insistent in a moment. Sometimes it persists, quietly in the background, for years. But we hear it; we sense it.
And many of us wonder whether we are crazy. Some of us have buried the awareness of these experiences, or found ways to filter them out when they happen to us. For some of us, church is the last place we’d feel safe to talk openly about these experiences. Maybe with a few trusted friends. For some of us, though, with no one at all.
Jeremiah was not crazy. Most of us who hear such voices, or experience such direction are not crazy either. What we need is not dismissal, but help with discernment. How do we know what to do when we hear God asking us to do something crazy or odd like God asked Jeremiah? Or perhaps, more basically, how do we know whether what we’re hearing or sensing is God, or just in our heads?
We may not know without a community of others with whom we can share what we’re experiencing, a community of others who do accept the possibility that indeed God speaks to us still, not only in Scripture, but in more direct and directive ways as well.
Listening first, then obeying, and then only later understanding is part of the way of prophets. It is also part of the way of many Christians in the power of the Holy Spirit. Today presents an opportunity for those who do hear from God to be supported in hearing from others how they’ve learned to listen and follow, even when the direction seems a bit odd, and what they, like Jeremiah, have learned and been able to share with others because they have done so.
This text may provide an opportunity for people to have a safe place to say, "Yes. God speaks to me, too." Give room for such testimony. And if you're aware of it beforehand, and have the permission of those who have shared their stories with you, use images from their stories and descriptions of hearing God speak with basic, practical guidance. Or if some of these people are artists or musicians or dramatists, invite them to use their art to tell those stories.
In Your Planning Team
Your chief concern for the service today may be around finding people who have heard from God and obeyed, even when the advice seemed odd (though not only such cases) and who are willing to share a story or testimony about such experiences.
To do this, you may first need to address this whole issue within your planning team.
Here are some questions to share and help you listen to one another.
How do you respond to people who say they hear from God?
Have you heard from God? What was that like? What did you do? What happened when you did?
Have there been times when you weren't sure, or when others led you to wonder, whether you were hearing from God, or something else was going on? How did you come to discern whether it was God's voice or not? Who was helpful in that discernment? What good advice did you receive?
Who among you is willing to share your story more broadly? Whom else do you know who might be willing to share their stories more broadly— stories both of hearing from God, and figuring out when what they're responding to may not be God?
Send willing team members to gather those stories, and gain permission to share them to whatever degree those from whom they hear them may be willing, up to and including an invitation to share the story by audio, video, or in person during worship in consultation with the pastor.
Has your congregation been a safe place to share such experiences? With whom or in what settings is it a safe place? How are you, as a worship planning team, willing to be part of making your congregation a safer place for such sharing so more people who have these experiences may be supported and guided well -- both to discern the voice of God in their lives and to follow where God leads?
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Epistle Stream: Mission in the World but not of It
I Timothy, Week 3: How Disciples of Jesus Pursue Wealth
We've reached the end of the first of the two letters addressed to Timothy with this week's reading. If you are spending more time in I Timothy looking at the "controversial" texts about church order, feel free to transpose this text to a later time.
For those who are following the lectionary's selections, this text provides a healthy way to talk frankly about how we live with money as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Mission in the world requires that we deal with money. Mission in the world but not of it requires that our disciplines with money reflect the priorities of the kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of the world.
The stories of the wealthy "piercing themselves with many pains" are regular tabloid headlines on newsstands, on television, and on the Internet. The entertainment media of U.S. culture provide a steady diet of the many ways some of the rich are badly hurting themselves and others.
And perhaps we secretly enjoy "their" hurts. "They" are not like "us," after all. They live and move in a fast lane, inaccessible to most of us. What hurts them out there won’t likely harm the rest of us ordinary folk, at least not as dramatically, right?
Not so fast, Paul reminds Timothy and through him the Christians living around Ephesus. We have a charge to keep, a calling to fulfill regarding money. That others do not know this charge or follow this calling doesn't excuse us from doing so ourselves.
And our calling, according to Paul, is more than a little countercultural in twenty-first century North America. In first-century Turkey (Asia Minor), there may have been enough of a deposit of Greco-Stoic teaching in the culture to provide some plausibility for what Paul teaches here. But one would be hard pressed to find any in twenty-first century North America.
Here’s why. Paul says we are called not to pursue riches at all. What we are to pursue are qualities of character: "godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness." Rather than taking hold of a career path that leads us to more money, we are called to take hold of the "good confession," a term Paul associates with the confession of Jesus before Pilate. In Timothy's world, the language of the good confession was "Christos Kyrios" (Christ is Lord) and "Christos Soter" (Christ is Savior). This good confession was also a potentially dangerous one, conflicting directly as it did with the confessions expected of all loyal Romans as part of the emperor worship that occurred in major cities, including Ephesus: "Kaisar Kyrios" (Caesar is Lord) and "Kaisar Soter" (Caesar is Savior).
So this first part of the reading from Timothy (verses 6-16) may not be so much about the money, after all. But second part (verses 17 ff) is.
Having wealth for Paul was not a moral problem, per se. In the culture he inhabited, wealth most generally simply happened, either through inheritance or luck. That is very different than in much of the current scene and capitalist economics, where the vast majority of wealth is obtained and built through individuals and then companies pursuing it.
While their wealth may make the wealthy in Paul’s day more prone to the temptations of those pursuing wealth, they may not actually have been pursuing it at all. So Paul has nothing bad to say about wealthy people per se. Instead, Paul admonishes Timothy to guide wealthy disciples of Jesus to "do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share."
Does the church today still have a significant role to play in helping wealthy people in its midst live this out here and now? Do you have ways in your worshiping community that regularly encourage and support this?
Studies in patterns of philanthropy consistently show that while the rich give a much larger percentage of all dollars given to charitable causes, the less wealthy and the poor consistently give a larger percentage of their own resources. That the wealthy give a larger percentage of overall charitable contributions is because the wealthy have so much more to begin with. For them a much smaller percentage is still a much larger gift.
Wealthy or not, no Christian is to "pursue" wealth for the sake of having wealth, and those who have wealth are never to become ensnared by it, but rather use it and share it to bring about as much good as possible for others. Hence John Wesley’s dictum in his sermon, "On the Use of Money": "Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can."
But for all of us, wealthy or not, our lives are to be focused and centered never on money, but on Jesus Christ, blessed and only Ruler of All, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, immortal, invisible, Wisdom and Being of God (verses 15-16).
Pursuing wealth was a relative anomaly in Paul’s world. It happened or it didn’t, often through what seemed to be forces beyond one’s personal control. In our world, especially in the Global North and West, it is the expectation and constant enticement that all should pursue wealth by all means at nearly all times. We are deeply and constantly enculturated to believe that our future depends on our own capacity to pursue wealth, or at least own what the wealthy own and to desire it above nearly all things.
For those who have made the "good confession," however, those who are baptized into Jesus Christ, are to be enculturated very differently about what true wealth is and focus their lives on obtaining it. True wealth, Paul teaches, is "righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness" (verse 11). It is in pursuing these, not money itself, and yes, not pension plans, that both rich and poor alike lay a good foundation for the future, for that life that truly is life (verse 19).
In Your Planning Team
There is a lot you may focus on in this text alone. Pastors, if you haven't come to your team meeting with a clearly focused plan, spend the first part of your meeting helping your team focus on which elements of this teaching you will address directly in worship, and which you will simply allow to be heard when the Scripture is read. Less with tighter focus may yield far richer dividends!
Once you have your focus, consider which of the following questions will be most helpful for you to pursue in planning this service.
Discuss in your team the culture in which you live in all its aspects—the kinds of people you know, the kinds of places you go, the kinds of things you do in a typical day, and all the media messages and other messages you most regularly encounter or consume. Make a list of all of these cultural elements and ask, based on this list, "Who is clamoring to be Lord or Savior among the people in your congregation and community?"
How do you experience your congregation and others around you supporting a thoroughly Christian culture, one that consistently confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior, in the midst and in contrast to your surrounding culture? How is this influencing the ways people in your congregation are being enculturated to approach money and wealth?
How is your congregation actively enculturating its participants to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness Be specific for each of these traits. If you find yourselves lacking, ask, "What are we willing to do to help our congregation and one another pursue these things better?" And also ask, "Who among us IS pursuing one or more of these things well and bearing fruit?" Go talk with these persons, and find ways to include their stories in worship today.
What wealthy people do you or your team know who do not pursue wealth but instead pursue doing good, being rich in good works, being generous, and being ready to share? Consider especially talking with persons who serve in charitable foundations connected to large for-profit businesses, if you know such persons. How might you incorporate their testimony in worship today?
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Gospel Stream: Learning from the Master
Today’s story from Luke, "Lazarus and the Rich Man," is probably a very familiar one, even to persons with only marginal associations with the Christian faith or the Bible. You may have heard it told in different ways. Maybe you heard class warfare or resentment in this story, and so a rich man getting his due. Maybe it was told as a warning about riches. Or maybe it was told as a way to justify a particular set of doctrines about how heaven and hell work.
A little distance from the story as usually told may help. Consider immersing yourself in artwork depicting this story, and see what it illumines for you. And have your worship planning team do the same. And perhaps your congregation as well—as a bit of "cultural homework" to do in advance of this service.
For me, the painting at the heading of these helps is particularly illuminating. Lazarus is seen just outside the door of the rich man’s kitchen. He’s literally right there, not a full step away. But you have to look for him. The painting is so full of the riches of this kitchen, that Lazarus, though right at the door, is hard to see at all. If this painting is illuminating for you, use it (it is in the public domain!). Otherwise, see what you and your worship planning team can find where you are.
Don’t read further until you’ve taken time—at least 30 minutes-- with the artwork or other ways of re-seeing or re-hearing this text.
I mean that.
This is your homework, pastor. Please do it! You can’t expect your team or your congregation to do so if you have not.
One of the things that becomes evident to me when I’ve done this "time away with art" has been how physically close Lazarus was to the rich man, and so how terribly ironic (even humorous) any talk of a "great gulf fixed" between the two had to be then, and still is now. Indeed, a key to this story is its use of irony.
Have artists in your congregation or community created anything about this story? Often artwork on such familiar texts can help illumine aspects of the story that might be less obvious to our hearing or memory.
And if you aren’t aware of or can’t find anything locally, immerse yourselves in the work of other artists and musicians to get other perspectives before you re-enter it to plan worship for today.
And plan on helping your congregation take that time, too.
The finale of the story isn't a blow simply to "the rich." Jesus has no interest in class warfare. It strikes against any who read Scripture to privilege themselves above others. The Law and the Prophets were until now, Jesus says (verse 16, not in this week's text, but important to its interpretation). But from now on, it's about the kingdom of God. And in God's kingdom, as even Moses and the prophets were saying to those who had ears to hear, the poor are blessed, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the sick are cared for and healed. If you're not doing that, and thinking you can justify yourself by your social standing or theological knowledge, you must be in some other kingdom so removed from the new reality that even someone rising from the dead might not be able to convince you otherwise.
In Your Planning Team
1. Before your meeting, assign some homework! Have all team members view several examples of artistic depictions of this story and to record what they learn. Spend the first part of your planning time for this service discussing how the artwork helped each person see aspects of the story he/she hadn’t noticed before.
2. Do you have artists in your congregation or community, or on your team, who might create one or more depictions of this story for this service? If so, invite them to do so, and create a gallery of their work near or around your worship space. If not, find other ways (projections, links in email or Facebook posts, slides in worship, etc.) to expose as many persons in your congregation as possible to these artistic depictions before, during and after this service.
3. Name in your team the Lazaruses in your congregation and community and who is caring for them. Send team members to learn the stories of these Lazaruses and their caregivers. Be sure to incorporate the Lazarus stories in worship above all. As in the painting above, sometimes we only see the world through the lenses of the powerful or those in a position to "provide" care, and not, as this story clearly calls us to do, through the lenses of the poor. Remind team members who talk to "Lazaruses," they’re not looking for stories of want and loss, but stories of life and skillful survival and gifts they share with one another, the "rich," and other creatures. Likewise, in the stories of the caregivers, do not fail to listen not only for how they feel good about what they’re "giving," but also, and especially, what they’re receiving. A key failure of the rich man was his inability to recognize not simply he had plenty to give to Lazarus, but also that Lazarus might have something to give to him!
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If you are continuing to focus on Jeremiah during these coming weeks, consider looking ahead to the RCL readings for the next three Sundays. The text two weeks from now moves "backward" in the book, but it’s actually moving "forward" in chronology (Jeremiah as we have it is not presented in chronological order. Next week’s reading from Lamentations is ahead of this week’s text, chronologically, and just behind the text for the following week. These readings, combined with this week, span a period from siege to devastation to exile and to fresh promise in the future that Jeremiah's odd land deal today foreshadows. By taking the long view in terms of the Lectionary, you and your team may have a better context for planning with this text.
In I Timothy, Paul is trying to give spiritual direction to the rich and to those aspiring to be rich. Many churches are gearing up for a fall stewardship campaign to develop and fund the budget for the coming year. What are your plans for worship during the next few weeks in relationship to the ministry of money? How will you present the readings in ways that are about stewardship (using God’s gifts to generate greater love, compassion and holiness) and not simply about fundraising?
Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man in the Luke reading. This is great storytelling, and your worship team should think about how to tell this story rather than give a flat reading of it. Certainly, a reader who internalizes the text and pours it out with its full vitality is one way to go. But it could be dramatized with:
A narrator and parts for Lazarus (acting but not speaking-- a powerful symbol of the way the rich and privileged do not hear the cry of the poor and marginalized?)
The rich man
Click here for one dramatic rendering of the text.
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Embodying the Word: Post-Communion Prayers for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2013
We are your body, O Christ:
Broken with you, poured out like you.
We are your body, O Christ:
Teach us to live your truth.
We are your body, O Christ:
Led by your voice, sent to the world.
We are your body, O Christ:
Send us to reap your fields.
We are your body, O Christ:
Servants of God, open to all.
We are your body, O Christ:
Move us to bless the cursed.
We are your body, O Christ:
Eyes opened wide, death overcome;
We are your body, O Christ,
Show us the way of life.
We are your body, O Christ:
Fed with your flesh, slaked by your blood.
We are your body, O Christ,
Call us to feed your lambs.
Abundant love you give us:
Flesh in our hands,
blood of your flesh,
changing our flesh to yours.
Godliness here you show us:
Breaking the chains,
captives set free,
binding the power of death.
Gentleness here you teach us:
healing the sick,
finding the lost,
seeking the kingdom of God.
Faith to endure you grant us:
One with you, Christ,
one with these friends,
one working, waiting for you.
Bridge of heaven,
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body of Christ,
crossing all gulfs,
linking all ways:
River of life,
blood of Christ,
cleansing all wrong:
Spirit of fire,
presence of Christ,
UMH 6 (General)
BOW 332 (Jeremiah, Luke)
BOW 457 (Psalm)
BOW 424-425 (Luke)
Prayer of Confession (and Pardon)
The invitation (UMH 7) and pardon (UMH 8) should be included, especially if there will be Communion.
UMH 7-8 (Invitation, Confession and Pardon)
BOW 493 (Jeremiah)
BOW 490 (1 Timothy, Luke)
BOW 428 (Luke)
Response to the Word
Concerns and Prayers
Prayer of Great Thanksgiving
BOW 70-71 (Season after Pentecost, Luke)
BOW 76-77 (1 Timothy, Luke)
Thanksgiving if no Communion
BOW 395 (Jeremiah) Use the first part of the prayer and exclude the intercessions
BOW 558 (Psalm)
Dismissal with Blessing/Benediction
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How do you hold on to hope in a hopeless situation? How do you live when you have no freedom, no hope that things will get better, and no dreams to look forward to? How do you go on when the future entails only a lifetime of violence and injustice and oppression that will continue until the day you are finally set free through death. It’s hard to imagine how you would keep going, isn’t it?
I can’t help here but think about all of the places in the world where people live in these conditions every day.
I think of incarcerated persons. I know that many of the people in prison need to be there, but I can’t imagine the sense of hopelessness and despair the incarcerated must feel.
Individuals living in countries that are torn apart by war, poverty, joblessness, lack of food, water, housing, and education.
Those suffering from physical or mental illness.
Persons who live with abusers.
Who would you add to this list?
What do people do when they become so desperate they begin to lose hope?
This is pretty much the situation we see in the story of Israel during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. We know the circumstances well by now. Jeremiah was called by God to deliver a difficult message to the people of Israel: because they had been disobedient and unfaithful to the Lord their God, they were going to be punished. An enemy from the north was going to conquer them.
I wrote in previous notes about how Jeremiah didn’t want this job, how he begged God to choose someone else to deliver God’s message.
And last week I wrote about how, even the midst of having to deliver this bad news, Jeremiah had a heart of compassion, so much so that he wished his head were like a spring and his eyes a fountain so he could cry day and night for his people.
So now, after all this, we come to the part in the story where all that Jeremiah has prophesied is coming true. Jerusalem is going down. The armies of Babylon are closing in, the city is under siege, and the enemy is literally at the gates. The situation is desperate. The people have lost all hope, and they don’t know what to do.
Jeremiah himself is in a bind. He is confined to the palace, where the King, Zedekiah has locked him up for prophesying that Judah was going to fall to Babylon. So there he is, in jail.
And the word of the Lord comes to him and tells him that his cousin, Hanamel, is going to come to him and offer to sell him a piece of land in the nearby town of Anathoth. This land is family land. It has been in the hands of Jeremiah’s kinfolk for generations. And the Lord says that when Hanamel comes, Jeremiah should buy the land.
Almost immediately Hanamel shows up at the court of the palace where Jeremiah is being held and offers to sell him the land, and Jeremiah, acting on the prompting of God, agrees to buy it.
I think this is an amazing caveat to the story.
At this moment of greatest desperation and hopelessness, Scripture tells us that the prophet Jeremiah buys a piece of land in Anathoth, outside of Jerusalem, which is under siege. Land in Anathoth which has already, mind you, been CONQUERED by the Babylonians and is thus no even longer held by Judah.
Why in the world Jeremiah would do such a crazy thing? Why, when he knows he’s about to get hauled off into captivity, does he decide to close on a real estate deal?
Well, at first glance we might say it’s because that’s what God told him to do. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? He did it because, even under these dire circumstances, he must have still had some hope. He did it because he believed that even as bad as the situation was, someday, SOMEDAY, things would get better.
Today, Babylon was at the gate of the city. But someday, they wouldn’t be there. Someday, God would restore Israel to the chosen people. Someday Jeremiah would be able to return to his home. And when that day came, if he bought this piece of land in Anathoth, he would have a home to go to.
So his willingness to purchase this land, to invest in an unknown future, is a clear and tangible sign of his faith that God would one day redeem Israel.
It’s like the rainbow that God put in the sky to remind Noah of the promise never again to destroy the people of the earth in a flood. It’s a sign of hope.
What do we cling to when life begins to spin out of control and we feel like we are hanging on by a thread? To whom do we turn? Where can we go to look for a sign of God’s promise that one day things will get better? Where can we find some hope?
These are the questions that are raised by this text.
The communities in which we serve may not be like the nation of Israel with the enemy standing right outside the gate. We may not be living in a place where just surviving to the end of the day makes it a good day. We may not be directly serving people who are in prison facing life without the possibility of parole.
But we are all serving people who from time to time find themselves trapped in a moment of desperation, a moment when the stresses of life are crashing down all around them, a moment when one of our members just doesn’t know how he or she is going to make it through another day.
Maybe they are trapped by some kind of financial mess that they have created for themselves, which they just can’t see a way out of.
Maybe they are trapped by a terrible family situation that they absolutely can’t figure out how to resolve without causing even more problems.
Maybe they are trapped by the fact that they have to face five more treatments for cancer, or they are living in pain every day, or by their obligations to care for someone else who is in trouble, or by the grip of depression.
Maybe they are trapped by an addiction to something that has taken such a hold on their life that every single day has become nothing more than an hour-by-hour struggle to resist.
Maybe they are trapped in a job that they hate, but that they can’t leave because they have a family to support and quitting isn’t really an option. So every day, they have to go and somehow find a way to make it through to the end of another day.
I don’t know what has closed in on the people in your community and made them feel as if there isn’t any way out. And maybe in the grand scheme of the world, the problems that some of them face aren’t as terrible as the problems that people who live with so much less must face. But that doesn’t make the troubles, struggles, pain, suffering, and feelings of desperation any less real or overwhelming to them, or to the God who loves them.
All of us are serving real people with real problems that imprison them, just like the people who are literally in prison, just like the people who are literally trapped in countries under siege, and just like the people in Jerusalem in the days of Jeremiah the prophet.
Every single person faces times when he or she just does not know howhe or she is going to make it through the day.
What do they do? How do they go on? Where can they look for a sign of God’s promise that one day, ONE DAY, things will be better? The land will be restored to God’s people. Israel will be redeemed.
Ask your study group or worship planning team to share with you where they find strength and hope to go on in the midst of crisis. Where do they see tangible signs of hope from God?
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A word of warning: If you choose to preach on one of the New Testament passages today, it is going to be hard to avoid the money theme (see comments below on Luke).
So as we come to the homestretch of this letter, Michael G. Reddish’s comments in Feasting on the Word on this passage provide some insight into understanding the context and finding a place of focus. He begins by pointing us to the verses just before the start of today’s passage:
“Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Timothy 6:3-5)
One of the accusations leveled against those in the community who are spreading false teaching is that they assume that "godliness is a means of gain" (1 Timothy 6:5), that is, that the practice of their faith is the way to financial success. This problem leads the author in verses 6-10 and 17-19 to address the issue of money and wealth. The advice on riches is interrupted by the exhortation addressed to Timothy in verses 11-16. The author of the Pastorals has earlier stated that indeed godliness is beneficial; it holds "promise for both the present life and the life to come" (4:8). In 6:6 he reasserts that godliness can be rewarding, but not in the materialistic way the false teachers are claiming (Mitchell G. Reddish, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3).
Who are these false teachers and what exactly are they claiming? The letter doesn’t say. I’ve mentioned in previous preaching notes that in the late first and early second centuries there were many individuals who traveled around to different Christian communities claiming to be apostles. As these early churches developed, one of the enduring problems the communities faced was how to discern a true prophet from a false prophet. The Didache and other early church documents help to provide some guidance. (See my Preaching Notes on Hebrews from September 1, 2013.) The letter to Timothy, likely composed around the year 90 A.D., is dated very close to the dates of composition for the Didache, Perhaps it should not be surprising then that both writings speak to this issue.
What is at issue in both cases is compensation. In the Didache, if the apostle stays too long or asks for money, that is a dead giveaway that she or he should be looked at with suspicion. In the letter to Timothy, if the apostle or “teacher” imagines that godliness is a means of gain, she or he is suspect.
Imagining godliness as a means of gain? I can think of a few pastors who don’t just preach that message, but who seem to think that imagining “godliness” actually ENTITLES people to gain!
“It's God's will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty,” writes Joel Osteen in his best-selling book, Your Best Life Now.
“God wants us to be wealthy,” says Taffi Dollar in the introduction to her Bible Study, The Origin of Biblical Wealth.
And Kenneth Copeland explains on page 51 of his book, The Laws of Prosperity, that, "You must realize that it is God's will for you to prosper. This is available to you, and frankly, it would be stupid of you not to partake of it."
Prosperity Gospel quotes aside, in this letter, the focus is not so much on godliness as a means to gain, financial or otherwise, as it is on cultivating a proper attitude toward wealth. Again, Michael Reddish is helpful here:
“Wealth is still seen as possessing inherent danger; one can wrongly place ultimate value on material goods, rather than on God, who is the source of all things. Those who have riches are to make proper use of them, which means they are to use their wealth "to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share" (v. 18).”
Those who do possess some wealth are urged to use it for the common good, to be generous and share it, thereby laying a foundation for future happiness in this life and in the life to come. This is not to suggest that we can buy our way into heaven through adequate charitable giving. Rather, it is to reiterate the consistent teaching in the Scriptures that the money and possessions that we have are not ours; they are God’s. As such, what has been entrusted to our temporary care is to be shared generously with other members of God’s family.
Living in a culture driven by marketplace values, where we are told both implicitly and explicitly every day that increasing wealth is the way to happiness makes this kind of a message extremely difficult to hear, let alone live out. But we have to preach it. We have to preach it. We have to preach it.
As this season in the church year pounds away at this essential Christian teaching again and again, let us not fail to bring this good word to the people we serve!
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Can I just start by saying that the worst time to be moved into a new appointment is during year C? You make the transition into your new place and then BAM!, you are confronted with teaching after teaching about money.
And let’s be honest: people in the church don’t want to talk about money unless, maybe, we preach the prosperity gospel. Unfortunately, if you deal with Luke, that’s not what you get. In Luke, serving God and serving Mammon are constantly in contrast.
So here again in this text, as in the Epistle lesson, we have yet another teaching about the temptation to serve wealth rather than God.
There is a rich man who is portrayed as the type who likes to parade his wealth around before others. I picture Michael Cain as he appeared in the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but you can pick your own image to hold in your mind as you imagine this story on the Big Screen.
Since he wore purple, this man may have been some sort of noble or held an office. He lives in a gated community in Jerusalem’s most prestigious suburb and he loves to host big, fancy parties.
Playing opposite the role of Michael Cain as the rich man is Nick Nolte as Lazarus. He is broken in body, mind, and spirit, and has to fight the dogs off for the bread that the rich man throws out. Those same dogs lick his sores.
Both of our characters die. Lazarus lands a place in the heavenly realm next door to Father Abraham (brilliantly portrayed by James Earl Jones), and within eyeshot of Michael Cain, who has unfortunately suffered a role reversal in the afterlife and taken the place of Lazarus outside the security gates.
In the climactic moment, Michael Cain falls down on the ground before James Earl Jones and begs him for water while ignoring the presence of Nick Nolte. I can just hear James Earl Jones at this moment intoning from a distance, “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. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
The great divide between the rich and the poor that existed on earth apparently continues in heaven. The story does not conclude with a happy ending. Even though the rich man is finally able to look beyond his own self-centeredness for just long enough to make a plea for his brothers, Abraham does not offer much in the way of encouragement about their fate. Just like the rich man, if his brothers cannot reach past the cultural norms and heed to the calls to justice made by Moses and the prophets, they have sealed their futures. Nothing can help them now.
It is a tough story to hear, even with great actors playing all the lead roles. Most people avoid seeing movies that don’t have a happy ending, and this one just doesn’t. If Hollywood decides to film this thing, I have a feeling it will not be a box-office smash.
There is just no way to soften the blow here. “The ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor is one of the most important issues of our day. The intrepid “moral of the story” expressed in this parable is that if you do not cross the chasm between the rich and the poor in this life, you surely will not be able to do it in the next. ” (G. Penny Nixon, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4).
As followers of Jesus Christ, we simply cannot ignore the gospel mandate to end the economic disparities that exist in this world. Can we preach this? Maybe not the first year in an economically affluent community, but at some point this message needs to be boldly preached, not just as a word of hope for those who are suffering now, but also as a very clear word of caution for those who would take even an economically modest lifestyle for granted -- ESPECIALLY those who would take an economically modest lifestyle for granted.
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