The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, 2 October 2016

Track One:
Lamentations 1:1-6
Lamentations 3:19-26, or Psalm 137

Track 2
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-10

II Timothy 1:1-14
Saint Luke 17:5-10

Background: The Oracle

Often we will have readings from one of the prophets, which will declaim a message from God, or even an oracle from the prophet himself, or from a leader, such as king David.  Oracles are not unique to the Hebrew Prophets, and we have examples from early on of ecstatic women in Mari, or later in Assyria and Egypt. The whole of the Mediterranean basin seems to have been home to a culture of oracle bearing men and women who served as messengers of the God. Thus in both Roman and Greek culture these oracles (both the speakers and the prophetic material itself) were held to be of great value. In 83 BCE, the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill burned down, and with it the Sibylline Oracles. They were of such value that in 76 BCE, the Roman Senate sent out deputies to collect oracular texts from the Greek World. The originals were obtuse enough that replacements needed only to suggest a divine origin and meaning.

The Hebrew experience is different, however, at least in its classic forms that are preserved for us in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are some truly ancient/pagan experiences, such as the oracle of Balaam, but most of what is recorded is a record of judgment against Israel or Judah proclaimed by the prophets. The word for oracle in Hebrew is the word massa, or “burden.” The image is one of the burden of a message is placed upon the prophet for delivery to the people for whom it is intended.  Some oracles were international, such as oracles against Assyria or Babylon. These pronouncements were strictly separated from the experience of the “diviners” in other cultures who delivered messages from the gods or the dead. The proscriptions against sorcerers seek to set aside a practice that seemed antithetical to the genuine oracle of the prophet – a word from YHWH.

Track One:

Note: The sentiments in Track One and Two seem to be of a similar mind. You may want to read both sets of readings to see a more complete context for the readings.

First Reading: 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,
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.

We have two readings from Lamentations this morning, one serving as the First Reading in the Liturgy, and the other serving in place of a responsorial psalm. The first reading is from Poem 1 (Chapter 1:1 – 22) in which the author laments the loss of Zion. The reading begins with the exclamation and question, “How!?” Its drama is blunted a bit in the translation used here, but we need to understand this first word as posing the initial question that the poem seeks to answer. We are given an image of Jerusalem as a princess, and what follows are descriptors of her desolation. This depiction follows the traditions of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in which Jerusalem, or the entire nation, is seen as the adulterous wife of YHWH. In the response that follows we will see that this is not a one-sided conversation but that the woman speaks back.

God seems to occupy several roles in this reading – first as accuser and judge. Beyond this, however, is the lament that God no longer serves as a comfort to Jerusalem, ‘She weeps bitterly in the night, among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her.” The loss of a husband is more than just a personal loss in this culture, but is a loss of status and security. It is the loss of a future. These connections between the fate of Jerusalem, and the childless or husbandless women would not have been lost upon the original hearers.

Breaking open Lamentations:
  1. What do you think of God in each of the roles God takes on in this reading?
  2. How is Jerusalem like a wife?
  3. Who needs to comfort Jerusalem?

Responsorial: 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.

Poem Two comprises a violent reaction on the part of the suffering Jerusalem against God’s judgments against here, and Poem Three (which includes our responsorial this morning) begins by voicing a grievance against God (3:1-18), and then quickly appeals to the relationship that is seen in the covenant that God has made with Israel. In spite of the present difficulties, the speaker calls something else to mind, “Therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.” This is the hope that is sandwiched in between the utter despair, for in Poem Four, we will return to language of accusation and judgment.

Breaking open Lamentations:
  1. Why is the covenant important here?
  2. What kind of hope might the covenant bring?
  3. What is Habakkuk’s grievance? 
Psalm 137 Super flumina

     By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
when we remembered you, O Zion.
2      As for our harps, we hung them up *
on the trees in the midst of that land.
3      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."
4      How shall we sing the Lord'S song *
upon an alien soil.
5      If I forget you, O Jerusalem, *
let my right hand forget its skill.
6      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.
7      Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord,
against the people of Edom, *
who said, "Down with it! down with it!
even to the ground!"
8      O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, *
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!
9      Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!

What a difficult choice the presider at this Liturgy must make – a truly wonderful lament that matches the First Reading in its intensity, and the stunning beauty of Psalm 137. If I were using Track 1, I’d be tempted to fold in the First Reading and the Responsorial as one reading, and do the psalm as well.

Our psalm comes well after the laments of the First Reading. It’s first person remembrance of the psychological pain of losing Jerusalem in almost palpable. The “waters” of Babylon refer to the canals that connected the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and that served as economic lifeblood to the city and its culture. Here it is not God who abandons, but rather the people themselves who abandon their songs, and the instruments upon which their psalms were sung. There seem to be layers of meaning as we hear of the appreciation that the locals have for the beauty of the songs of Zion, or is it a hidden message about the beauty of God and the covenant still held with the people. There are other abandonments as well, “let my right hand forget its skill,” or the loss of speech itself, “Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

The psalm also gives us a glimpse of the realpolitik that existed at the time. The Edomites are singled out for their own condemnation as ones who aided and abetted the Babylonian invasion. The appeal to God is stark, “pay them back,” along with a horrific depiction of wartime atrocities against children. These are the emotions of a defeated people.

Breaking open Psalm 137:
  1. What images of grief do you hear in this psalm?
  2. Beyond Jerusalem, what has Judah given up here?
  3. What is not beautiful in this psalm?


Track Two:

Note: The sentiments in Track One and Two seem to be of a similar mind. You may want to read both sets of readings to see a more complete context for the readings.

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

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
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.

The initial verses briefly introduce us to Habakkuk, and then are followed by the argument that will inform the remainder of the oracles recorded here. What the prophets observe is the injustice of Judean culture, and he complains to God that he is forced to witness it. Verse one of the second section, could almost be read sotto voce to the audience – what will God do? You may want to go a read the whole of chapters one and two, for the initial complain of Habakkuk is followed by a response from God in which he reveals his plans for the punishment of Judea. That, then, is followed by another complaint on the part of the prophet.

There is a subtext here, one of waiting. The prophet must stand on the wall and await God’s word to him. What follows is to be committed to writing, so that more than casual hearers to understand. There is a desire for clarity, for God urgently wants the people to understand the entirety of his vision. The vision retains a certain hope – and it is valuable enough that one should wait for it. The audience is seen as two types of individuals – the proud and the righteous. We should, however, not leave off at the descriptor; “the proud” for there is a further definition as to their true makeup. “Their spirit is not right in them.” One commentator described this as a “faintheartedness” a weakness that would abandon any waiting upon the Lord. The word that is connected to the righteous one is the word “faith.” This one will wait for what God has purposed.

Breaking open Habakkuk:
  1. What is Habakkuk’s grievance against God?
  2. What is God’s grievance against Judah?
  3. What is Judah’s hope?
Psalm 37:1-10 Noli aemulari

    Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; *
do not be jealous of those who do wrong.
2      For they shall soon wither like the grass, *
and like the green grass fade away.
3      Put your trust in the Lord and do good; *
dwell in the land and feed on its riches.
4      Take delight in the Lord, *
and he shall give you your heart's desire.
5      Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, *
and he will bring it to pass.
6      He will make your righteousness as clear as the light *
and your just dealing as the noonday.
7      Be still before the Lord *
and wait patiently for him.
8      Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *
the one who succeeds in evil schemes.
9      Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *
do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
10    For evildoers shall be cut off, *
but those who wait upon the Lord shall possess the land.

This is a psalm of recommended attitudes. We left the reading from Habakkuk with an image of the “fainthearted” and “the weak”, and we have that same image in the second verse of the psalm, where “evildoers” are compared to withered grasses, unable to stand up to the desires of God. Here are the behaviors in verbs: “trust”, “take delight”, “commit”, “be still”, “wait patiently”, “do not fret”, and “refrain from anger”. It’s a list worthy of Saint Paul, and provides some direction to the one who desires to patiently follow God.

Breaking open Psalm 37:
  1. What do you fret about in life?
  2. How is God central to your life?
  3. How do you wait for God?

Second Reading: II 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.

Paul rehearses for Timothy Timothy’s own journey in the faith and lifts up the faithful example of his grandmother and mother. Here we get a sense of a tradition that is being handed down to the next generation. The reminder of the “laying on of my hands” is poignant and telling. Timothy is not only given the message, but the authority to transmit that message to others. Paul characterizes his situation as a holder and transmitter of the tradition. He calls himself a “prisoner”, and reminds Timothy of his suffering. These are the badges of honor that Paul wishes to make known to Timothy. And now he wants Timothy to do the same work, and to take on the same burden.

Breaking Open II Timothy:
  1. Why does Paul talk about his suffering?
  2. What does the “laying on of hands” mean?
  3. What is Timothy’s burden?

The Gospel: Saint 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!'"

Jesus’ instruction of the disciples continues. The initial verses of the chapter, not included in the liturgical reading for this morning, set up standards of behavior belief that may have staggered the disciples. The make a quick demand, “Increase our faith!” What follows are impossible examples of faith, challenging images of what it means to follow Jesus, and difficult expectations of life and discipleship. It all comes down to having a master, and Jesus provides a little vignette about the master coming home after a day of work. Will the slave be treated to special favors, or will he be expected to accomplish his role in life? Jesus applies these everyday expectations to the disciples who desire faith. It turns out to be more than something noetic and cerebral. It seems to involve living a life of service.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. In what ways are you a slave to God?
  2. How do you wish your faith increased?
  3. What might that mean for how you live life?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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