The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 22, 6 October 2013

Lamentations 1:1-6
Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-10
II Timothy 1:1-14
Saint Luke 17:5-10


Background: Lamentations

The accepted wisdom of the past held that Jeremiah was the author of Lamentations.  It was assigned to him due to a comment in II Chronicles 35:25, however that is a specious connection at best.  The form of the book is that of a funeral dirge for a city – here Jerusalem – at its defeat in 586 BCE having fallen to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar.  It follows a theme common in the prophets about G-d’s abandoning Israel due to their unfaithfulness.  There are five distinct poems in the book, and the themes are consistent with the “dirge” form.  Chapter One uses the image of a weeping widow.  Chapter Two the sins of the nation are connected with the misery of the central character.  Chapter Three sounds a note of hope, while Chapter Four is a lament on the ruin of the city, and temple.  Chapter Five is a prayer of repentance.  Some of the poems are acrostic poems based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The fifth chapter is not an acrostic although it is constructed with 22 lines. Christians might be familiar with the language of Lamentations through its use in Tenebrae.

Lamentations 1:1-6

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into exile with suffering
and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter.
Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the LORD has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
From daughter Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like stags
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.

The setting for this Lament is the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE; a full decade after the Babylonians had begun its siege of the Kingdom of Judah.  Zion, or Jerusalem, is described as a woman that is bereaved.  The Davidid king, Jehoiachin had been deported to Babylon, and so the lament is full of emptiness and longing for those who are now gone.  Under the preceding kings and princes, Jerusalem was the urban hub, the central city of the region.  Now it is nothing – “she lives now among the nations” – there is no longer any distinctive nature to the ruined city.  The images of the lament, the widow, the abandoned woman, the slave, enfeebled stags, are all eloquent comments on the difficult reality that the author wishes to put into a nation’s memory and song.

Breaking open Lamentations:

1.     Have you ever grieved deeply?
2.     What were you grieving?
3.     How was your grief healed?

Responsorial Psalm: Lamentations 3:19-26

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
"The LORD is my portion," says my soul,
"therefore I will hope in him."
The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.

Track 1 offers a reading from Lamentations as a responsorial psalm.  Here it is the ruined city is not the focal point but rather the emotional reaction of the author – The thought of my affliction.  The circumstances of the lament, however, are insufficient to still his hope – But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.  The image now turns to G-d and G-d’s endless steadfast love.  The author finds evidence of that love at all points of the day and in all times.  The theme of waiting is introduced as a virtue, a necessary behavior and attitude in attending to the ever-faithful G-d of Israel.  The closing line is a summation of the author’s thinking; “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of YHWH.”  Preachers might want to save this one for Advent.

Breaking open Lamentations:

1.     In your grieving have you ever found hope?
2.     How would you describe the hope that healed you?
3.     What do you hope for now?


Psalm 137 Super flumina

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
when we remembered you, O Zion.

As for our harps, we hung them up *
on the trees in the midst of that land.

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth: *
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."

How shall we sing the LORD'S song *
upon an alien soil.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, *
let my right hand forget its skill.

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you, *
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O LORD,
against the people of Edom, *
who said, "Down with it! down with it!
even to the ground!"

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, *
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!

This psalm is especially appropriate to the Track 1 first reading.  It is set in Babylon, where the exiles have been situated and remember and long for Jerusalem.  Here the emotional psalm is not the product of an individual’s lament but rather the corporate emotion of a nation in exile.  Robert Alter translates the second verse as: “On the poplars there we hung up our lyres.”[1] The emphasis is on the “there” – the “there” as opposed to the emotional “here” that represents Jerusalem, or the preferred place for life.  The lyres are no longer appropriate for there can be no song other than a dirge or lament – so they are rendered useless by hanging them up on the trees where they will be subject to the elements.  The request that the exiles sing “a song” is not appropriate, for the people’s song are the songs of worship and of the temple.  How can such liturgical music be sung in the city of Marduk, in the land of those who do not know YHWH? 

The reference to the people of Edom is a remembrance of their alliance with the Babylonians and Edom’s joy at Jerusalem’s destruction.  The final prayer of the psalm is a grim remembrance of the realities of war in the ancient near east.  It is raw emotion that pleads with G-d to return to Babylon that which they have dished out to Judah, even to having their children “dashed against the rock!”  It is a hard saying that underscores Jerusalem’s grief.

Breaking open Psalm 137:

1.     Do you ever sing sad songs?  When?
2.     Is singing an expression of joy for you?  Why?
3.     What kind of songs are you singing now?


Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous--
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

We don’t know much about Habakkuk.  It is surmised from his writings that he was, perhaps, a member of the temple choir (cf. 1:2-2:4).  This reading features a dialogue of some bravado between the prophet and G-d.  The argument is about the nature of sin, namely the sinfulness of Judah, and the greater sinfulness of the invaders.  Which is greater?  Where is G-d’s justice?  There is an accusation on the part of the prophet that is directed to G-d, “you will not save?” He sees the law as blunted and justice as absent, with wickedness surrounding those who are righteous. 

In the second half of the reading, 2:1-4, the prophet waits for an answer from G-d, standing at his watch post.  Although this is a private conversation between G-d and the prophet, the answer is intended for more than the prophet’s ears.  G-d asks that he write the vision and make it plain on tablets.  It needs to be clearly incised so that a runner may see it.  The message is similar to the reading from Lamentations in Track 1 – wait for it.  G-d seems anxious that the people wait and seek after G-d.  The component that is necessary is not right action necessarily but rather faith – a faith that is revealed in faithfulness.  Righteousness is seen on this waiting attendance upon G-d and what G-d will reveal. 

Breaking open Habakkuk:

1.     Have you ever had the temerity to argue with G-d?
2.     What was your argument like?
3.     Who won?

Psalm 37:1-10 Noli aemulari

Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; *
do not be jealous of those who do wrong.

For they shall soon wither like the grass, *
and like the green grass fade away.

Put your trust in the LORD and do good; *
dwell in the land and feed on its riches.

Take delight in the LORD, *
and he shall give you your heart's desire.

Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, *
and he will bring it to pass.

He will make your righteousness as clear as the light *
and your just dealing as the noonday.

Be still before the LORD *
and wait patiently for him.

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *
the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *
do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.

For evildoers shall be cut off, *
but those who wait upon the LORD shall possess the land.

This psalm is an acrostic, with two lines devoted to each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  The psalm is written as a wisdom psalm with the notion that though the wicked seem to be better off – do not be jealous of those who do wrong – they will soon get their just reward – for evil doers will be cut off.  There are striking images in the psalm, the withering grass, the fretting of the righteous, dwelling in the land and feeding on its riches.  There must have been a great deal of looking at the successful cultures that surrounded Israel.  It appeared that their gods allowed for Canaanite prosperity.  The psalmist asks the people to repent of (turn away from) such gazing over the fence, and to focus on the land that G-d has given them, and to enjoy the riches of the land.

Breaking open Psalm 37:

1.     Are you waiting for something?  For what do you wait?
2.     How do you wait?
3.     What does the prophet mean about being faithful in waiting?

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,

To Timothy, my beloved child:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I am grateful to God-- whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did-- when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

We have moved from the first letter to the second letter to Timothy.  Much of what we discussed about the authorship of first Timothy (a writer writing in Paul’s name, using some of his structure but using a different style and vocabulary, giving evidence of a more evolved organization in the church, and commentary on movements that are clearly products of the second century) obtains here as well. The introduction is in the style of Paul, and has some similarities with I and II Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians.  In fact the second verse is a repetition of I Timothy 1:2

Paul gives thanks for what exists between him and the church, and between him and his protégé, Timothy.  He rehearses the history – Paul’s personal history that leads him to Christ, but that does not necessarily cause him to completely abandon his past (you might want to review what Paul has to say about the Jews in Romans).  Paul sees Christianity and Judaism as in continuity. 

What follows is an exhortation on what Timothy both possesses and is called to do and be.  “Paul” reminds him of his laying hands on Timothy (ordination) and of the courage that is now his.  The exhortation to be not ashamed might indicate some timidity on Timothy’s part.  The author urges him to eschew such a stance.  If this indeed is a letter written at a later time, then the “Timothy” being addressed might be leaders in the church of the second century.  These leaders are being encouraged to be strong in the face of those who are diluting the Gospel, or teaching strange interpretations of the Gospel.  The author emphasizes Paul’s grounding in the faith and encourages the leaders to do likewise. 

Breaking open II Timothy:

1.               How is Christianity in continuity with Judaism?
2.               What is the continuity of faith amongst members your family?
3.               Are you courageous or timid in your faith?

St. Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" 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.

"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

The reading is from a series of instructional comments, which Jesus addresses to the disciples.  Themes that stand out in this series are loyalty and service.  If you want to see the full context of this instruction, you may want to review the initial verses 1-4.  What follows next seems to be an answer to the disciples’ request to “increase our faith.” The answer begins with the notion of obedience – outrageous obedience.  Jesus provides the example of a mulberry tree obeying the command to transplant itself in the sea.  (See verse 2 for another sea reference).  The disciples hopefully will see the connection of obedience and faith (review the comments on faith in Habakkuk, above).  In fact, this instruction is filled with hyperbole – the tree, the mustard seed.  What is their obedience like (a Mulberry tree) or their faith (a mustard seed – small)?  Jesus is placing their request, increase our faith, in a social context.  Is their discipleship a competition or a seeking after wisdom?  Jesus explains what kind of service they have volunteered for – the service of a slave.  This is a theme that Paul will develop in his own letters to Christians who wish to follow Jesus.  Jesus and Paul have the advantage in using a social reality to discuss faithful service.  Do we have a similar device in our time?  Is it the coercion that Jesus is pointing out or the expectation?  What models of expected service are typical of our time? 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Has your faith ever caused you to do something outrageous?
  2. What was it that you did?
  3. Are you a slave to Jesus?  How?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller

[1]    Alter, Robert, The Book of Psalms, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2007, page 473


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