Monday, September 26, 2016

Faith as Vision – 2 October 2016 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost/ Lectionary 27/ Proper 22

We speak of faith in many metaphors. Here are some. You’ll think of others.

  • Faith is a commodity that we own. We “have” faith like owning a car.
  • Faith is a prize to be achieved through prayer and devotion.
  • Faith is a dividing line, a reason to dislike some people and like others.
  • Faith is an ethical principle on the basis of which we make choices.
  • Faith is a conviction that determines public policy.
  • Faith is a mysterious gift that inexplicably comes to some people and not to others. 
Jesus is asked by the disciples to give them more faith, as if he can hand it to them, like a birthday card or a piece of candy. Instead, he tells them what faith can accomplish. Then he speaks of action. He connects “having faith” with following what is commanded of us and not thinking we’re terrific because we’ve done our job.

Curious, isn’t it. He often doesn’t seem to have answered the question. And yet...

Luke 17:5-10

When the apostles' request that Jesus increase their faith. . . he gives them a lesson on fidelity, on how they are to relate to God, view their service to God.

Faith, in Greek, pistis, is thus more than mere belief or intellectual assent to doctrines and dogmas. Pistis in the translation of the biblical books used by Greek-speaking Jews. . . regularly translated the Hebrew word emun, or emunah (in English translated as “faithfulness,” or “fidelity”). Faith, then, is not at all about some spectacular assurance that Jesus is for real; on the contrary, it has to do with fidelity to God in the daily round of life, recognizing ourselves as servants doing our duty.

However, Jesus assures us that it only takes just a tiny bit of faith, the size of a miniscule speck of a seed, to accomplish what, without any faith at all, would seem utterly impossible, perhaps even pointless. – Lisa Marie Belz

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

The people’s situation in Habakkuk’s time is one of fear. They are about to be invaded by the Chaldeans. God, where are you? cries the prophet. And God’s answer is: “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.” (v3)

The greed of Judean society will ultimately lead to its own ruin as its deep divisions will make it vulnerable to outside forces. Ill-gotten wealth, affluence obtained unjustly, become Judah's newest idols. Indeed, the human condition, Habakkuk observes, is like a fish attracted to bait on a hook; humans worship what will ultimately ensnare and destroy them.

Although God may seem distant, yet does the prophet stubbornly persist in his prayer, and through his persistence is able to discern God's response and God's action in the world and in contemporary political events, even in Judah's enemies, even in the much-dreaded and impending invasion of the Babylonians. It is this vision of God's action in Judah's darkest hour that gives Habakkuk reason to hope and warn about how societal divisions can lead, to a nation's collapse. At the same time, Habakkuk assures us that God is at work, even in the vagaries of history. Those who persist in prayer will be able to perceive God's action in the midst of calamity, drawing greater good from horrific tragedy, and greater life from the ashes of defeat. – Lisa Marie Belz

2 Timothy 1:1-14

A similar faithfulness is evident in the confidence of 2 Timothy 1:6: “God has not given us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” The entire passage overflows with confidence and encouragement, bringing to mind a stanza of the old hymn: “Just as I am, 'though tossed about,/with many a conflict, many a doubt...” The writer of the hymn, and the author of 2 Timothy, know. . . the need to provide encouragement that fear and doubt do not come from God.

If we consider the ways that fear drives our personal and public life, from locks, guard systems and gated communities, to weapons systems and increasingly punitive prison sentences, we begin to see that a life not motivated by fear is deeply countercultural. . . .

Jesus' teaching invites us to exercise the freedom in giving that God demonstrates, not motivated by either reward or fear of punishment, but rather by the gracious call of God. – Susan Grove Eastman

Lisa Marie Belz, an Ursuline Sister from Cleveland, Ohio, is assistant professor of religious studies and graduate ministry at Ursuline College, Pepper Pike, Ohio.  

Susan Grove Eastman, ordained in the Episcopal Church, is associate professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC.

Homily Service 40, no. 11 (2007): 3-11.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Thanksgiving & Lament as Key to Just Living

In Liturgy 31, no. 4, guest-edited by Thomas Schattauer on the general topic of Liturgy & Mission, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda writes about the power of the sacraments, especially the eucharist, to form us in faith that cares about Earth. Here is the second of a two-part abbreviation of her argument beginning with taking note in the Eucharist of who gives thanks and for what.
Are the people gathered around the table giving thanks to God for “my” blessings and for saving me for life after death? Or do we offer gratitude to God for creating this magnificent world; for liberating it from sin (both societal and individual); and for creating, gathering, and sending the church to “participate in God’s mission?” Do we sing out in gratitude that God has called human creatures to be God’s hands … that “through faith in Christ and through our eating, we … have Christ abiding in us”?
If our thanksgiving in the Eucharist is for this plentitude, then the Eucharist is nothing less than the celebration of all creation’s redemption and of our calling to “dedicate ourselves to the care and redemption of all that God has made.” To thank God for abiding in us (Jn 6:56), so that we may be God’s “rusty tools” in “striv[ing] for justice and peace in all the earth,“ is to receive God’s gift of the indwelling Christ as moral-spiritual power to repent, change direction, and re-form society. 
. . . As I remain convinced that gratitude is a bedrock disposition of Christian faith, I realize a troubling paradox. Many of the material goods for which I give thanks became mine because they were “taken” from others (through complex economic, political, and military systems) whose loss may have been devastating, even deadly. Were the diamonds in my wedding ring mined by what is essentially slave labor in South Africa? When I give thanks for a meal, am I thanking God for food that generated vast quantities of greenhouse gases in its production, transport, and packing? Did I fund my children’s education with investment returns from companies that do not pay all employees a living wage? To what extent are the monies that pay my salary produced by companies that supply the weapons and airplanes used to bomb Iraq? 
. . . Does thanksgiving among materially well-off people hide how our wealth is linked to the impoverishment of many? If so, how could our practices of gratitude in the Eucharist spur us to the work of creating more equitable and ecologically healthy economic relationships? 
Christian ethicist Emilie Townes claims that for people living in covenant relationship with God, social healing begins with communal lament. Lament was integral to the ancient Hebrews’ covenant relationship with God, she suggests, drawing on the work of Walter Brueggemann. A loss of lament meant “also a loss of genuine covenant interaction with God.” Communal lament, as Townes explains, is a cry of sorrow by the people gathered, a cry of grief and repentance and a plea for help in the midst of social affliction. . . Perhaps for “us” too, lament is integral to thanksgiving. 
. . . The crucified and risen Christ present in bread and wine reminds the people why they can lament without drowning in despair. In the sacrament, we taste and see that the power that can heal this beautiful and broken world is present with, among, and within the stuff of earth.
More of Moe-Lobeda’s ideas are offered in the full essay.

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda is professor of theological and social ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary of California Lutheran University, and Core Doctoral Faculty at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. 

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “Liturgy Re-Forming Society,” Liturgy 31, no. 4 (2016): 19-27.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Great Chasm – 25 September 2016 – 19th Sunday after Pentecost/ Lectionary 26/ Proper 21

Those of us who live in the First World hear a hard and challenging word today. For some of us, Lazarus is at our door, next door, down the street, across the ocean, living without enough food while those of us whose cupboards are full fix our eyes on other matters. Some of us are Lazarus.

It is commonplace to say that preaching aims to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and indeed that is the gist of Amos (“alas for those who are at ease in Zion” – 6:1) and of the Lukan Gospel’s story of poor Lazarus and that awful rich man.

The rich man thought only of his immediate family. His imagination did not wander outside of his own property lines, his own line of descent. In this world, he served himself and his own, never looking beyond his privacy fence for someone else who might be in need. And he continued to focus on the family in the next world. He wanted to spare them from a similar fate—that of the powerful Israelites, as described by Amos. Those Israelites feasted like the rich man: in oblivion, without thought of their judgment to come. Unawares, they celebrated their own funeral.

Next to our immediate families, however, stands the family of Abraham. This is how the parable pictures family in the next world. Lazarus was by Abraham's side. The rich man called Abraham “Father” and Abraham called the rich man “Child.” [But the rich man] also wanted something out of him.

. . . Adherents to three religions in the world regard themselves as children of Abraham: Jews, Muslims and Christians. We three, like Lazarus and the rich man, call Abraham “our father.” But do we treat one another as family?

Luke 16:19-31

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus uses narrative reversal to challenge the inclination of the comfortable to overlook the poor. This turn-around is implied even in the characters' naming. Like Nemo (Latin for “no one”) in Charles Dickens' Bleak House . . . the disenfranchised and dispossessed are frequently nameless. Loss of identity follows closely upon lack of wealth.

It is then striking that in this parable Jesus names the poor man (Lazar is the rabbinical abbreviation for Eleazar, “God has helped”) but not the rich. As this goes against our social inclination, tradition has found a name for the rich man: Dives (Latin for “rich”). But the sharp challenge of this parable is not so easily blunted. – Fritz West

Amos 6:1a, 4-7

[T]he comfortable and the wealthy in the “first of all nations”. . . fancied themselves secure because of their military prowess. But Judah. . . and Israel. . . were no more secure than cities around them. . .  which, though once powerful, yet had fallen (1 Kings 14:25).

Amos captures their self-absorbed oblivion with the image of a marzeath, a ceremonial meal known for centuries throughout the Mediterranean basin. These meals often accompanied funerals and, ironically, this is one: the funeral for the very world they had thought to be secure, for “the ruin of Joseph” (v 6). Instead of feasting in oblivion (like the rich man of the parable), the powerful of Israel would have done better to anticipate the coming exile, when they were the first to suffer. – Fritz West

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Although the focus of this passage is false teaching, it. . . touches upon wealth: the temptation of teachers to acquire wealth and reputation by seeking to please their hearers (6–10). Ironically. . . the unsound teacher sacrifices the true gain that does: peace and contentment with what one has.

. . . Not wishing to imply that a Christian cannot be both pious and rich, the author closes with basic instructions for wealthy Christians (17–19). – Fritz West

We might cheer for Lazarus at last receiving help, and we might smugly note the rich man’s hopeless plight in Hades. But the great majority of us in Zion are caught in the awful truth of our riches. By many measures, we ought to be grieving “over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:6): We contribute more per capita toward global climate change than any other nation. We compete only with the Seychelles (holding many Somali pirates) in having the highest rates of incarceration per capita.

The gospel of God’s love for all creation must strive this day not only to show us our failing as a people but inspire us to live with greater love toward God and for our neighbors. That was Augustine’s goal for preaching. The remedy for our great fortune is the admonition in the letter to Timothy: “take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Tim.6:19).

Fritz West, a liturgical author and retired pastor of the United Church of Christ living in Minnesota, serves as the Presiding Member of the Association for Reformed & Liturgical Worship Steering Committee.

Homily Service 40, no. 10 (2007): 50-58.