The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

One of Madison Avenue’s favorite words is ‘instant’. This is not new; I grew up on commercials with jingles like Alka-Seltzer’s “Relief is just a swallow away.” Over time, these shape our expectations of how things should work, even of how God should work. Our increasingly urban environments don’t help, where milk is something you get at Quiktrip (notice the name) rather than from a cow whose health requires long-term care. But today’s lessons: they give us multiple opportunities to recalibrate our expectations. Let’s walk through them.

The first reading from Jeremiah is an excerpt from the collection of announcements of salvation in chapters 30-31. Of the three announcements in today’s text, the third, the one about the new covenant, is probably the best known.

Prophecy often blends God’s long-term and short-term intentions—like here. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” That sounds like some sort of spiritual surgery, something that contrasts with continual teaching. Many usually discerning readers have read it this way. Gerhard von Rad in the last century: “in the new covenant the doubtful element of human obedience …drops out completely.” But if that’s the case, whatever we’ve got now, it isn’t the new covenant, as Paul’s instructions to Timothy in our second reading remind us. Better, I think, to hear “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” as the goal of a rather long process.

It’s no accident, I think, that it’s precisely in this book that we find Jeremiah’s anguished complaints: what is God up to? What does it mean to be the servant of this God? These complaints are, I think, one of our clearest pictures of what putting the law within them, writing it on their hearts looks like.

In studying any text it’s useful to ask how the text was subsequently heard. In the case of this text, what we encounter are individuals and groups claiming that text: yes, this is what we want! So, subsequently in a text that is now part of Isaiah:

Listen to me, you who know righteousness,
you people who have my teaching in your hearts;
do not fear the reproach of others,
and do not be dismayed when they revile you. (Isa 51:7 NRS)

And we encounter this in the Psalter, particularly in Ps 119, a portion of which we read this morning:

Oh, how I love your law!
all the day long it is in my mind.

In other words, God’s people, hearing Jeremiah’s words, understood that their role wasn’t simply passive, and were actively claiming those words, with all the continued reflection that Ps 119 implies.

“I will put my law within them;” “Oh, how I love your law!” In both cases the word in question is tôrâ, which can as properly be translated by ‘instruction’ as by ‘law’. And that points us toward the description of “the sacred writings” in Paul’s letter to Timothy:

“useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

And here our, well, addiction to the instant tempts us to hear this text saying we read Scripture once, and, having learned what it says, go on to other issues. The word we’re gliding over is ‘training.’ So in both the Jewish and Christian traditions our engagement with Scripture is ongoing.

The easiest way of unpacking this is to recall Anaïs Nin’s “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” As God succeeds in healing us, transforming us, changing us, what we see in both Scripture and the world will change, and we have new questions, or new ways of coming at old questions. “What does it mean to live humanly?” Hopefully I keep getting better at answering that question. And, note, the question isn’t answered in the abstract but in my daily choices as I interact with the folk around me. Jesus saves! OK, what does he save me/us from? What does he save me/us for? Hopefully our answers to those questions haven’t ossified!

By the way, this is not a call to stay up-to-date with the current shibboleths of either the left or the right. One of the lovely things about Jesus’ teaching is how he normally cuts diagonally across the entrenched positions. Taxes to Caesar or not? Well, whose head’s on the coin? Stone her or not? Well, who here’s without sin? It takes serious training to even see the diagonals.

Bottom line, God’s work is more interesting, more life-giving, than I can imagine, and God desires that I be increasingly free to appreciate it. (That passion for our freedom is the motor for the training Paul highlights, and is picked up in the chorus of our closing hymn: “Let my people go!”)

So, at the center of what Cranmer was doing in the creation of the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th century was sketching out a form of parish life so that “everyone who belongs to God” could daily drink from the deep wells of Scripture. Those multiple monastic offices for hearing Scripture and prayer? He reduced them to two so that everyone in the parish could participate—and put them at the beginning of the book.

So while the recovery of the Holy Eucharist as the weekly Sunday celebration was one of the positive gains of the 1979 BCP, that the dirty pages start there is not a sign of parish health. In sum, it’s too easy for us—also the clergy—to assume that we know what we need to know and simply need to get on with it.

“Relief is just a swallow away.” Hard to find a clearer contrast with that than today’s Gospel, with that widow who finally wears down the unjust judge. Jesus is talking about prayer, and his parable assumes a noticeable period of time between when we make our requests and when we receive an answer. The wicked judge is simply no match for this persistent widow. If that judge responds to the widow, how much more will God respond to those who pray!

What is remarkable about the parable is that Jesus is uninterested in defending God’s justice. That’s something Israel periodically wondered about. It’s something the psalms regularly complain about. We wonder and complain about it. Jesus leaves that question on the sidelines and responds pragmatically: be like the widow, keep praying. And this is a classic Old Testament response. Recall Isaiah:

You who remind the LORD,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth. (Isa 62:6b-7 NRS)

“Be like that widow” isn’t the only take-away from our text; the other is more subtle. There’s an inherent tension between Jesus’ “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them” and the set-up, the “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” If we experience God acting quickly, then losing heart isn’t an issue. And having introduced the tension, Jesus does nothing to resolve it.

What’s in play here is, I think, the logic of friendship. Each of us is different, and friendship requires accepting that difference, not trying to ignore or remove it. The Bible thinks what we’re invited to is friendship with God. “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exod. 33:11). Jesus to the apostles: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (Jn. 15:15). And from the Wisdom of Solomon: “in every generation she [Wisdom] passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets” (7:27). And one of the obvious differences in this friendship is our experience of time. This God does time differently, so part of friendship with this God is living with that difference, a difference that can be periodically profoundly unsettling.

Now, with Paul’s words about Scripture and Jesus’ “be like that widow” we’re looking at the two main elements in Cranmer’s Morning and Evening Prayer, the daily offices. So while this sermon didn’t start out to be an invitation to use these weeks before Advent starts as an opportunity to explore these first hundred or so pages in our prayer book, here we are.

So, two things, briefly. If you work with your smartphone as happily as with the printed page, if you aren’t using it already, check out the Mission St. Clare website whose address is in the bulletin. It has apps for both the iPhone and Android systems that insert the scheduled readings into the various offices automatically, so no page turning! If you prefer the printed page, remember the single-page condensations of the offices on pages 137-140 of the BCP.

Listening regularly to this Friend, talking regularly with this Friend: nothing instant about it, but if we want freedom we’ll make time for it, and, as often as it gets stale, change it up.

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