The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, 6 October 2019

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

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

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

Background: The Lament

The lament was the province of women and was common to all the cultures of the ancient near east. Using music, poetry, or song, women would make dramatic expressions of their grief and often represent some of the earliest forms of writing and literature. They first make their appearance in Mesopotamia, most notably Sumer and Ur, and date back at least to 4000 years ago. We know them in the Iliad and the Odyssey. They are also known in Scandinavia, and in the Hindu Vedas as well. Finally, especially pertinent here, we know them in the Hebrew Scriptures in the Book of Lamentations, Job, or in some cases in the Psalms, as well. 

Track One:

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,
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 book of Lamentations is most likely a response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Tradition has Jeremiah as the author, but most recent scholarship recognizes in the poetry of the book a style quite different from that of Jeremiah. Four of the five chapters are acrostics, and the third chapter is a triple acrostic. The fifth chapter is not an acrostic but is composed of 22 lines of poetry, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the chapters have some stylistic differences which have led some to think that they are the product of different authors. 

Our reading begins with a solitary figure, a woman grieving at the city gate. This location puts her at not only the entrance of the city, whose fate we shall soon learn in the body of the lament, but also at the seat of judgment. It is a subtle comment on the cause of the lament – God’s judgment on Judah. The poet continues to describe the woman, “how like a widow she has become”, “she weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks.” Despite the comments above about the possibility of authorship by Jeremiah, verse 2 smacks of Jeremiah – the lovers being all the allies that Jeremiah inveighed against. Describing them as “lovers” follows a prophetic tradition of Judah as the unfaithful spouse of YHWH. Even the temple is gone, “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals.” The author continues a descriptive path regarding the woman noting the absence of her children (her future) as well. 

Breaking open Lamentations:
1.        What have you lamented in your life?
2.        What must our country learn to lament?
3.        Whose lament have you not heard?

Response: 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.

The speaker is Israel, and it might be helpful in studying this text to read the entirety of chapter 3. The speaker laments his position in an internal conversation about his situation, “But this I call to mind.” The situation is deplorable but yet there is hope in the steadfast love that always gives evidence of God’s presence and intent. Thus this chapter and this reading seem to be a response to what we heard in the first reading. The trial is that one “should wait quietly.” That is a difficult task.

Breaking open Lamentations:
1.        What hopes do you have for our time?
2.        What impossible hopes have you had in the past?
3.        How were they realized or not?


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!

There is beauty and quite horrid violence in this psalm, lament-like in its verses. Here, again, as we read in the first reading there is sorrow at the despoiling of Jerusalem by Babylon. Here, now in Babylon, the exiles remember their homeland in sorrow. The waters of Babylon make reference to the matrix of canals that watered the city from the Tigris and the Euphrates. There is an emphasis on the “thereness” of Babylon – of being in a foreign land. It is there that remembrance of Jerusalem is so difficult, it is there that the harps are hung up, it is there that foreign people wish to hear the song of a conquered people. Most likely the song was requested from those who were formally members of the Temple chorus in Jerusalem. The request would have then profaned their liturgical song.

What follows are the consequences of forgetting Jerusalem – the literal loss of one’s right hand, and the use of one’s tongue, both crucial to communication and the word. What follows is a vitriolic exchange about Edom. You can get a sense of the emotions that surrounded Edom’s betrayal of Judah in Obediah 1:8-15. There is vengeance on the mind here, “happy the one who pays you back.” The sentiments of verse nine bear witness to the grim details of war, and are difficult to read.

Breaking open Psalm 137:

1.            Where is the bittersweet beauty of this psalm?
2.            Have you ever had such a sense of loss?
3.            How do you deal with the violence of the last verse?


Track Two:

Track Two:

First Reading: 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 prophet Habakkuk seems also to be reacting against the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, but we cannot be certain. Regardless he addresses the despair of a people, and then in the second part of the reading the hope to which they are called. The first section, 1:1-4, is an oracle that is seemingly addressed to an absent God, or at least a God who is not hearing the prophet’s cry. God is accused of forcing the prophet to look upon the destruction of his land by the Chaldeans (see verse 6).

The second section (2:1-4), is a response to the prophet’s cry. He is prepared to hear it, standing at his watchpost, positioned upon the wall of the city. The Lord answers. The answer is obvious, readily understood, written so that “a runner may read it.” The vision is of “the appointed time.” That is the time when the Babylonian domination will end, and the treaterous times would be over. It may take time to be made manifest – there will need to be a vigil of waiting for it. There are those, the proud (although Robert Alter suggests “the callous”[1]) who will not perceive the obvious message, for “Their spirit is not right in them.” It is the faith of the righteous which will understand the message.

Breaking open Habakkuk:
1.        Does God listen to you?
2.        What do you do with a silent God?
3.        What is the message that God wants you to read?

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

We have here a wisdom psalm that reflects the reading from Habakkuk. It’s theme is very simple and straightforward – the wicked will be defeated, and the righteous will be rewarded. The psalm begins with images of the fate of the wicked, who are like grass that withers. Given that, there is another more fruitful way – “Put your trust in the Lord, and do good.” There are several verbs that indicate the deeds of the righteous: trust, dwell in the land, feed, take delight, commit, and again trust. Even in this described land of promise there are those who will do better and will not follow the way of the Lord. How shall we deal with them? The psalm has a quick answer, “Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers.” Anger at their success should be put aside, for in the long run they will “be cut off.” Those left in the land are the righteous.

Breaking open Psalm 37:
1.        What aspects of your life are wicked?
2.        Where is righteousness found there?
3.        What is the promise of your life?

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.

Here is the situation that invites the composition of this letter. Paul is in prison, and soon all will be over. This is, if you will, a last will and testament to Timothy sent from a very lonely Paul. In the first paragraph he blesses and then gives thanks for the history and persons shared between them. The greatest gift that is shared is seen as the gift of faith – “the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.” 

What Paul wants to leave with Timothy is not an attitude of fear and cowardace but rather a spirit of pride in the message that both he and Paul had made efforts to proclaim. Paul has pride in his callings, “for this Gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.” Another calling is present as well – Paul suffers. It is the sound teaching that Paul has striven to deliver that he wishes to hand off to Timothy. Paul calls it “a good treasure.” All of this is enabled by the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

Breaking open II Timothy:
  1. What gifts have been given to you by the Bible?
  2. Who in your life has given you spiritual gifts?
  3. What have you been moved to give to others?

The Gospel: 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!'"

In the initial four verses of this chapter, Jesus speaks to the fears of the disciples. There fear is of making a mistake, doing wrong. Jesus says, “Occasions for stumbling are unavoidable, nevertheless…” What follows is a demand that no offense is caused, or that the disciples should not cause someone else might stumble. You might want to read the initial verses to understand why the disciples (now apostles) ask for an increase of faith.

The great request is followed by a little example – the mustard seed. In this we can see the full spectrum of being a “sent one”, the multiple demands, sensations, emotions, and responsibilities that follow. Of interest here is the second part of the parable which begins, “Who among you would say to your slave.” It goes against what we have been served in Sunday School art and so-called Bible Stories. Could these disciples, apostles, have known what it meant to have a slave. I think I grew up thinking that they knew more about what it was like to be a slave. Yet, Jesus asks them to apply a real life situation so that they might understand. Did they understand the “turning of the tables” that he suggested, the slave being served by the master? Jesus wants those who follow him to fully understand what is being demanded of them – the seemingly impossible.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        How big is your faith?
2.        How do you increase your faith?
3.        In what ways are you a slave to Christ?

General idea:              Grieving the loss, rejoicing in what remains

Example 1:                  The loss of a spiritual place (First Reading – both Tracks)

Example 2:                  Knowing your place and hope (Response – Track One, Psalm 37, Track Two)

Example 3:                  What is the gift that is given even at the end (Second Reading)

Example 4:                  Knowing that mission will be difficult (Gospel)

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Alter, R. (2019), The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 71031.


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