Sermon Seeds: Free to Grieve
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)
Worship resources for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time are at Worship Ways
Lamentations 1:1-6 with Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137 or
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 with Psalm 37:1-9 and
2 Timothy 1:1-14 and
Free to Grieve
by Kathryn Matthews
I confess that I was a little uncomfortable with the challenge presented by Psalm 137 as the focus text for this Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, as the lectionary, which often omits troubling parts of biblical passages, had no mercy this time: the well-known verses (8-9) at the end of the psalm, about dashing little ones against the rock, are included in our text for preaching. Those words have long offended me so much that I always went along with (and, to be honest, was grateful for) edited versions that left them out.
I was not alone. Kristin Swenson, in her commentary in the September 21, 2010 issue of The Christian Century, writes that these final verses “appall” her so much that she chooses not to “go where these texts would lead me. I will not follow them.” She sees her decision as “refusing to incorporate destructive ideas into the ways that we think and live, even when their source is the Bible.” While she’s “still working out the details,” she feels that the gift of “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline,” which we hear about in this week’s (perhaps much easier to preach) reading from 2 Timothy, “sometimes demands that we reject the very words of the Giver.”
Well. That certainly is one approach to Psalm 137, but could there be another way to read it, and to hear it, and even to pray it? After all, the distinctive thing about the psalms is that, unlike the rest of the Bible, they’re addressed to God; they’re prayers, and they come from deep within the very human hearts of a people who knew what it was to suffer and to question, to believe and then to doubt, to feel loss and devastation, rage and a desire for revenge.
Aren’t those all just as much at the heart of the human experience as feelings of joy, gratitude, and praise? And isn’t prayer the place and the way we can take those experiences, for better or worse, to the God who knows our inner hearts better than we do ourselves? Can’t a prayer, even a psalm in the Bible, be an outburst instead of a pious, proper, careful composition of words? The rest of the scholars I read favor this second way, rather than rejecting these words; they choose instead to consider several paths to understanding, and to spiritual growth, that might follow from a closer look at Psalm 137.
Wrestling with the text
By far the most helpful and eloquent commentator is Brent Strawn, whose fine reflection in The Lectionary Commentary: Psalms for Preaching and Worship provides excellent preparation for anyone stepping into the pulpit this weekend and wrestling with this difficult text, or reading it alone, at home. However, he gives fair warning that Psalm 137 illustrates the way that many of us “can’t stand the heat” of “the kitchen of Scripture,” and would just as soon flee from spending much time with difficult passages that offend our sensibilities or preconceptions.
This particular psalm isn’t just one of the “difficult parts” of the Bible, Strawn says, it “may well be president of the club,” perhaps the first example church people and critics alike offer as one they’d want to avoid: they “are tempted to dodge it in simplistic…fashion with ‘Well, that’s just the Old Testament.'” (In doing so, of course, they’re much like the Marcionites, who dismissed the Old Testament as less authoritative, and we know that they were heretics.) Of course, that’s all the more reason to preach on this passage, because, he writes, it’s “rated ‘PG'” because we “need Pastoral Guidance” when we approach it. He also reminds us that even “the most beautiful and beloved of psalms” (including, alas, my favorite, Psalm 139), contain harsh, even “gruesome” elements, as do both of the Testaments, not just the Old.
Not here, not now
Let’s begin with the historical context: six centuries before Christ, the Jewish people experienced the terrible disaster that is very much at the center of the Old Testament: Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed, and the leaders, the “cream of society,” were carried off in exile to Babylon. Scholars seem to agree that Psalm 137 is the only one that can be accurately connected with a specific historical event, because it’s clear what the psalmist is talking about when the people refuse to sing the songs of Zion, the songs of God, for the amusement of their mocking, tormenting oppressors in Babylon. No, they say, we’d rather hang up our musical instruments than entertain you, not here, not now, in this time and place of spiritual desolation–or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, “Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song in this wasteland?”
It’s important to note that, for a people who have long seen themselves as chosen by God, as delivered by God from slavery in Egypt and led to a long-promised land of milk and honey, a people whose holy place was high upon a solid rock, the Temple Mount, this is not just one more incident in the unending story of conquests of smaller powers by mightier ones. The people of Israel had placed their faith in God to protect and preserve them. Brent Strawn recalls the assurance of Psalm 46:4-5 about the security of Jerusalem: “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.”
A crisis of faith in the face of defeat
However, Strawn writes, “Zion was moved…in 587 B.C. There was a morning when dawn did not witness God’s help–587 B.C” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Psalms). For the people of ancient Israel, their present reality was in harsh contrast to everything they had believed and understood about themselves, and what they had long believed about the God who would keep them safe and secure in the land they had been promised. They must have wondered how they had gotten to this new and terrible place in their story, where, John Hayes writes, the “past was separated from the present by the ashes of destruction, by miles of desert traversed under duress, and by the scenery of a land foreign and strange” (Preaching through the Christian Year C).
According to Walter Brueggemann, “The political-military experience of an ending is effectively transposed into a deep theological crisis” (The Word that Redescribes the World). It’s understandable, and only human, for such a massive defeat to precipitate a crisis of faith for the people of Israel. This disaster shook them to their core (where trust in God lives), and drew from them questions, cries of anguish, and a thirst for vengeance. Where was God now? And who was going to do something about these wretched Babylonians?
A strange and terrible land
The exiled Israelites were homesick in a strange land, alongside a strange river, and their captors were taunting them like bullies, commanding them to sing for their amusement. J. Clinton McCann helps us to imagine that a little better when he writes, “The ‘rivers of Babylon,’ including its system of canals between the Tigris and the Euphrates, must have been a prominent feature to people from Palestine.” That strangeness only made things worse: “It was nothing like home, and the geographical disparity may have exacerbated the grief that came when ‘we remembered Zion,'” and yet the people could not help but think longingly about their home. “As painful as it is to remember Jerusalem (v.1), it would be more painful not to. Indeed, it would be debilitating, deadly,” and they even invite God, McCann writes, to share in their pain by remembering Jerusalem, too.
Some of the most beautiful music arises out of the deepest part of the human soul when we are in pain, hauntingly beautiful melody and words of anguish and sorrow. The Babylonians, it seems, would have found that entertaining, even amusing. Is it any wonder, then, that the psalmist cries out for terrible, violent retribution against them? McCann says that anger has to be vented, and, just as importantly, it has its place, ironically, as a good thing, because these ancient prayers are coming from those deep places of anguish and, at the same time, trust in God’s love and care (Texts for Preaching Year C).
Anger is better than nothing
All of that makes sense, of course, but what can we “good” people of faith do with that gruesome cry for terrible, violent retribution visited upon “the little ones,” presumably the innocent ones in all of this tragedy? McCann claims that “The worst possible response to victimization would be to feel nothing,” he writes. And that’s why the psalms, as poems and prayers, are so important: they voice those deepest, most painful realities, and yet they express a trust that “God loves us as we are” (Texts for Preaching Year C).
In the midst of faith-testing devastation and anguished questions for God, then, we find the angry wish for revenge upon those who have “done us wrong.” For “nice” people–and isn’t it only human to want to think of ourselves that way?–the wrenching cry of Psalm 137 (“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”) is a shocking reminder that all of us, at one time or another, can thirst for the deepest wells of revenge. However, we might not want to think of it as “revenge,” but as “justice.”
In fact, McCann observes that the final wish of the psalm is really grounded in “a principle that most Americans routinely espouse–that is, the punishment should fit the crime. We are,” he says, “no less vengeful than the psalmist” (Texts for Preaching Year C). We might observe our own culture’s value system, then, and how we react when we feel that we are victims of oppressive forces and the people behind them.
And so, Brent Strawn calls us to reflect, however painfully, on our own feelings after the attacks of September 11, for “587 B.C. was 9/11 on an even more massive scale.” The terrible events of that day in 2001, followed by seemingly endless suffering and threats of more suffering ever since, surely evoked in many Americans a desire for vengeance, and many would say that we took that vengeance into our own hands.
Scholars observe that the prayer here is for another, perhaps God, to exact justice, because we can’t be trusted with such anger, and such power. Doesn’t that explain the need for courts, rather than vigilante “justice”? Strawn also makes the poignant suggestion that the psalmist’s own child may have died in the terrible way that she wishes upon the Babylonian children: “This too may not baptize the violence in the psalm, but it reads differently when read as a cry for justice on the part of a parent who saw her own little one killed by Babylonians who threw it against that rock that she cannot get out of her memory and that haunts her every dream” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Psalms). Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the captivity of Israel by Babylon was not a bloodless event.
Entrusting God with justice
Strawn then draws on the work of Ellen F. Davis, who takes a larger view that covers our own lives and ancient ones as well, and “God’s…healing of the whole moral order. Through these psalms we demand that our enemies be driven into God’s hands. But who can say what will happen to them there?” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Psalms). We are entrusting God with the justice, and the vengeance, and knowing the difference between the two. In any case, Walter Brueggemann, assures us, “Humans, as Israel knows, do indeed thirst for vengeance, and that thirst is itself never censured. The theological question is how to manage that thirst. One may act out the thirst, deny it, or cede it to YHWH in prayer” (Reverberations of Faith).
When I read these scholars’ weighty words, I’m struck with the thought that we spend so little time (perhaps none) in our public life wrestling with the moral question of vengeance, and how little time we spend in deep biblical studies to seek guidance before establishing our shared values about things like military strikes, let alone war. Our “religious culture” almost always focuses on issues like LGBT right, reproductive issues, prayer in public gatherings and (God forgive us) the “war on Christmas.” (Is it any wonder that so many people, especially the young, are turned off by religion?) How might our public life–and the life of the world–be affected if people of faith prayed and studied together about the morality of violence and vengeance, and the best path to justice for all? How might we share the deepest human feelings that are found, for example, in the psalms, and find understanding and perhaps even a path to peace, together?
The poetry of suffering
If we approach this text as a poem or song expressing the human experience of deep longing, grief, and even rage, we might listen again to the poetry of people who suffer today, whether it’s sung (or perhaps rapped) in music, or scrawled on posters, or chanted in demonstrations. If there is injustice, it’s no wonder that people today feel the same outrage and long for things to be made right. We’ve mentioned our desire to strike back at those who struck out at us on 9/11, but there is longer, slow-motion striking out, too. Can we imagine what it must feel like not to be able to get decent health care for our baby when she has an infection, or an illness that threatens him just as acutely, if not as suddenly, as a violent act?
Or what about those whose children suffer from violence itself? We can’t help being haunted by the image of one young boy, dead on a beach because of a futile attempt to escape a violent homeland, or another young boy, dazed and bleeding, waiting for help from courageous aid workers. What good comes from our cries of anguish over this suffering? (Perhaps, in a way, photography is a form of poetry if it evokes deep feeling–and action–on our part.)
Brent Strawn urges us to read this text today whether we can relate, from our own experience, to the suffering–and rage–it voices, or whether we can better understand through it the suffering of others, to better understand those who need to give voice to deep pain and outrage, because pain and the anguished prayers it produces are at the heart of the life of faith, both individual and communal. Even more uncomfortably, he says, we might ask ourselves when we might actually represent those in the psalm who are seen as oppressors, and the cause of others’ suffering: are there indeed “people in the community (or beyond) who would wish to pray such a psalm against us?” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Psalms). Our honest reflection and response might lead to a profound conversion in the way we live our lives, not just to giving voice to our own pain and outrage at being wronged.
A tale of two cities
In a way, this is a text about two cities: Jerusalem and Babylon, and several scholars approach these historical cities as metaphors. For example, Babylon, Strawn writes, was revisioned in the Book of Revelation as a sinful city that God punishes, not as the literal, ancient Babylon but as “a symbol for all that stands opposed to God, God’s ways, and God’s people.” Today, as people of faith in another place and time, we have our own “Babylons”: illness, oppression, economic injustice, violence, prejudice and poverty–and God must feel righteous indignation over all these sufferings. So Strawn says that Babylon can represent not only public sins, but the things that torture each of us personally as well (The Lectionary Commentary: The Psalms).
Walter Brueggemann lifts our hearts and opens our eyes with the vision of Jerusalem as that bright, shining city of hope, as a metaphor for all of God’s promises coming to reality. That’s why people of faith around the world “pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for when Jerusalem has peace, the world will have become more fully the world YHWH intended from the outset,” leaving “God’s people in unutterable joy” (Reverberations of Faith). Yes, the prophet Isaiah will one day speak evocatively of Jerusalem and its people as a joy, and our faith draws us to words of consolation and promise. But for now, we are indeed, free to grieve, to pour out our hearts in anger at injustice and suffering and in longing for all things to be made right, and we are free to put all of that into the hands of the God who loves us, and listens to us, and looks after all things, great and small.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Eugene H. Peterson, 21st century
“Isn’t it interesting that all of the biblical prophets and psalmists were poets?”
Ovid, The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters, 1st century b.c.e.
“Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 19th century
“Angry people are not always wise.”
Maya Angelou, 20th century
“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”
Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, 21st century
“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”
Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton, 19th century
“Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness; and concealed often hardens into revenge.”
Colin Powell, 21st century
“Get mad, then get over it.”
Bede Jarrett, 20th century
“The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.”
Robert Brault, 21st century
“Take no revenge that you have not pondered beneath a starry sky, or on a canyon overlook, or to the lapping of waves and the mewing of a distant gull.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.”
If First Timothy reads like by-laws of a church, Second Timothy almost makes us feel as if we’re reading someone else’s mail or intruding on a private conversation. Of course, all the epistles could be called “someone else’s mail,” but they function well on two levels, the personal and the communal, and that includes this deeply felt letter from a teacher to his student. The message is from and to “real” people, individuals in the early church: the author writes in the name of Paul (there may actually be authentic fragments from Paul within the text), and Timothy was known elsewhere in the New Testament. The message, however, is for all of us.
By the time this letter was written, probably the first part of the second century, at least one generation of early Christians has passed from the scene, and the church is struggling with issues of right teaching and perhaps a bit of discouragement. The author exhorts Timothy (this is one of those cases where “exhorts” is definitely the right word; “encourages” or “asks” just don’t say it strongly enough), in a sense, to “remember where he came from.”
Remember your mother and grandmother
Or we might say, “who” he came from: his mother and grandmother were the ones who helped to make him who he was, a follower of Jesus. If Simba, in The Lion King, was exhorted to remember who he was, Timothy is reminded of who his mother and grandmother were, and how important that is to his faith. How ironic it is that women have often been the ones to pass down the faith to other people’s children as well as their own, even though the letter preceding this one (First Timothy) instructs women to “learn in silence with full submission” and says they shouldn’t be permitted to teach.”
There are several lines in this reading that are familiar and particularly inspiring, including verse 7, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Sometimes the beauty of the King James version of a passage seems to stick in our minds, and since this is one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture, I remember it that way in my head: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” I think there are few more powerful verses from the Bible for people who are struggling with anxiety and depression. It reassures us that we need not be afraid of anything or anyone, and pastors and friends may find it helpful when walking with someone struggling with fear and discouragement.
Faith, deep in the heart
The later verse (12a) is even more powerful as a source of reassurance and provides a reason for this fearlessness: “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.” Marcus Borg wrote beautifully in The Heart of Christianity about faith as trust rather than as right belief, up in our heads. Faith is really a deep-in-the-heart thing, and Paul’s whole letter here seems to be a heart thing, too. If he’s portrayed as writing at the end of his life, then his ministry will end soon in execution. He has plenty of reason to be afraid, it would seem.
We might think such a thing–execution–had a kind of glory attached to it that made Paul and the other apostles heroes, much as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, has been in our own time. But there was no public funeral and no honor bestowed on these martyrs in those days. That would come later. At the time, all this dying and being executed (including and especially Jesus’ crucifixion) were an embarrassment for many potential converts. Perhaps they wanted a more respectable religion, a more pleasant and comforting one. They really wished the Christian life weren’t so messy, with all that suffering and struggle.
Rekindle the gift!
Timothy himself must have wrestled with such issues and might have showed signs of wear and tear in his ministry. He might have been tempted to listen to voices that led him in other directions, or to conform to the culture around him in ways that would let the precious gift of his faith, handed down from his mother and grandmother, be extinguished. No, Paul says, instead, “rekindle the gift,” another beautiful line from this passage and one that is especially significant to us today in the United Church of Christ. We lift up our historic firsts, which is good, but doing so serves to remind us of the call of a Stillspeaking God in this new day to speak the truth and live lives faithful to the gospel we have received, even if it causes us discomfort and even embarrassment. Has our understanding of religion dwindled into only a source of comfort and feeling good, or is God “the one in whom we have placed our trust,” even in the midst of loss and despair?
At first, the “family values” feel of the reading from Timothy may seem to portray a more peaceful, even easier, faith, the “sentimental” faith of our mothers and grandmothers, until we read of joining Paul in his suffering for the gospel, and remember the challenges faced by first-century Christians. How can we know what Lois and Eunice may have faced and endured? And then, in our Gospel reading, in response to what sounds like a spontaneous outburst from the apostles (“Increase our faith!”), who seem daunted by Jesus’ instructions about forgiveness and protecting the faith of “the little ones,” Jesus tells them, “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith” (The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson).
Faith, or no faith
A good friend used to say that there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” taste–there is simply taste or no taste; perhaps the same can be said of faith! If we have it, then we will experience the power of God in us, able to do “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), even commanding a tree to uproot and fling itself into a lake. Perhaps that includes bringing a church back from the brink of closing to being a thriving community, reaching the goals of a capital campaign, or responding effectively to the needs of our neighborhood, despite whatever obstacles we encounter on the way.
Mustard seeds and flying mulberry trees are images that vividly depict the power of faith, as are the suffering and endurance of Paul. But, as we turn the diamond of faith around and around, what facets more do we see? Do we see the faith that is handed down from generation to generation as a lockbox of doctrines and statements, or do we see it as a living thing, a fire that is re-kindled in each one of us by necessity (how else do we make it our own)? Is this faith best described as trust, trust in the steadfast love and mercies of God, “new every morning” (Lamentations), “God’s own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy), or the vision that “will surely come” (Habakkuk)? If this faith is experienced as trust, perhaps we can more readily feel the spirit of power and love and self-discipline that God has granted us.
God’s mercies in every generation
We might consider how the reading from Timothy is heard by those in our congregation who suffer with anxiety: if God truly has not given us a spirit of fear and cowardice, then there is hope for those who struggle with fear that often paralyzes and debilitates, those who need to know that there is a power available to them in God’s love and care. One translation of “self-discipline” as “a sound mind” may be especially helpful to someone who suffers from anxiety disorder. It is a poignant and powerful statement on the human condition that depression and anxiety are so prevalent today, even in a society of relative security, especially compared to the days of Timothy and his mother and grandmother. How do we in the church respond to the needs of people who are struggling with these illnesses?
As individuals, what are times in our lives that felt like devastation and loss that could never heal? When have members of your church needed to sit by the river and refuse to sing? And yet, when has the power of God enabled them to rise up in hope to a new day, to the promises of God that greet them? As a nation, we have known devastation and anxiety in dramatic ways, not just in our generation but also in our mothers’ and our grandmothers’ generations. How have we experienced God’s mercies in every generation? When and how have we thirsted for revenge? How has our faith risen to the occasion?
The exiles today
God is still speaking today, as God spoke to and through Lois, Paul, Timothy, Eunice, and the people of ancient Judah, carried off to exile. What are the exiles, the persecutions, the cost of discipleship in this new day? How is God calling us out of our desolation and anger to new heights of joy, empowered not by a spirit of fear–or revenge, or despair–but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline? In what ways are we being called as individuals and as communities of faith and as the United Church of Christ, to “re-kindle the gift” of faith, the trust that lives and breathes and empowers us to walk in hope in this new day?
Several commentaries mention the importance of family in this text, as Timothy’s mother and grandmother were the ones who taught him the gospel. Today, in many United Church of Christ congregations, if you had a show of hands, the majority of folks would have come from another denomination. (It’s true that most of them were already Christian, but perhaps in a very different way.) Many of us don’t belong to the same church our parents–let alone our grandparents–attended, and some of us come from very different traditions but have found a home, a welcome, and a place to grow here.
Singing those old family hymns
However, there is much to be said for what we have received from our family of faith and the fire it can kindle, or re-kindle, within us. Sometimes this gift comes in unexpected and unusual ways. One member of the United Church of Christ who left her childhood church and spent years without a church home, remembers as a child having watched a movie in which a trainload of soldiers bound for war sang “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Even though the hymn was not part of her tradition, she found it moved her deeply in inexplicable ways. Today, it is her favorite hymn and she sings it often in her new church home.
Another UCC member, who came from the Catholic tradition, feels that way about “Abide with Me,” and is deeply moved each time it’s sung in her “new” church family home. We can inherit and nurture a deep and abiding faith that is experienced as a relationship of trust, but it must be re-kindled, whether by hymn or letter or personal presence, in every generation. Perhaps, each time we gather around the table as one family, despite many differences, we will experience unity in the gift that we have received from those who have gone before us.
For further reflection:
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 21st century
“Youth can not know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.”
Alex Haley, 20th century
“In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.”
Abraham Lincoln, 19th century
“All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
Helen Oyeyemi, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, 21st century
“I remember Mum repeatedly telling us we had good hearts and good brains. When she said that we’d say ‘thanks’ and it might have sounded as if we were thanking her for seeing us that way but actually we were thanking her for giving us whatever goodness was in us.”
Maya Angelou, 21st century
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
“I have decided the two choices open to me are (1) to torment myself or (2) to trust the Lord. There is no earthly solution to the problems that confront me. But I can add to my problems, as I believe I have done, by dwelling on them. So, no more of that.”
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, 20th century
“Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys.”
For many, many reasons I am deeply grateful for my Roman Catholic roots, for being raised in such a rich tradition of deep spirituality and beautiful faith practices. For example, throughout each year, we observed something called “holy days,” special days on the calendar that reminded us of an important event or teaching of our faith. We memorized the names and dates of these holy days and what they were for, although I admit that I went to Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception long before I knew what “conception” meant, and sometimes I confused the holy days marking the Assumption of Mary and the Ascension of Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, those “holy days” were meaningful to us–they brought texture and color to the practice of our faith. I’ve noticed, in recent years, a greater openness on the part of Protestants to some of the spiritual practices of the Catholic tradition, like the blessing of animals in the tradition of Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, whose feast day is this week, on October 4.
In the Catholic Church, however, we never celebrated World Communion Sunday. I have vague recollections of hearing about it, but thought it was sort of a Protestant holy day, and therefore one that we didn’t observe. When I became a Protestant, I had to ask around to find out what it was all about. No one could tell me much, and it was hard to find much written about it. I don’t know about you, but I think we Protestants had better work on this holy day concept. World Communion Sunday is such a great reason for a feast day, don’t you think?
Fortunately, I eventually stumbled on a good explanation of this Protestant holy day by a colleague of mine at Pilgrim Church, Pastor Craig Schaub: “We celebrate World Communion Sunday on the first Sunday of October, as a recollection of the universal church gathered at table in celebration of the presence of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit….When we gather at table, we celebrate a number of core components that the ecumenical community agrees are manifest in the Eucharist (the Greek word for ‘giving thanks’). Holy Communion is an act of God’s grace. It is an act of thanks for all God has done in creating and saving. It is an act of remembering the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. It is the work of the Holy Spirit who prompts our remembering, our thanking, and our hoping. It is a family meal of nourishment, justice-seeking, and inclusion. It is an act that makes visible our future hope with God and all of God’s people.”
The whole church gathered at the table as one–a powerful image. Each one loved and valued and accepted. It reminds me of those childhood suppers around the table at my home. There were eleven of us around that table every night, and no matter how late my father came home from work, my mom always managed to have a delicious, hot meal prepared for us. It was really amazing, when I look back on it. Anyway, my parents often talked about the family business at supper, and we kids mostly ate. But at some point my dad would go around and ask each one of us, “How was your day?” And sometimes, without warning, maybe when he was quietly eating and appearing to be very, very serious, he would say, slowly, “Everyone who is glad we have…Libby, raise your hand.” Another time, it would be, “Everyone who is glad we have…John, raise your hand.”
And each one of us, all of us, every time, would raise our hands, partly because we were probably glad we had that sibling, but also because we wanted everyone to raise their hand when Dad said our name. Sooner or later, our turn always came. I remember those times often when we’re gathered here at this table, when I think about how grateful we are for one another in this church family. It’s good, isn’t it, to think about the whole church the same way, all the churches around the world this morning remembering one another and thanking God for every single one gathered around the table, each one loved, valued and accepted. That is the dream of God.
Maybe that’s enough said, and we should just get on with our feast. Maybe not. Before we celebrate our feast day too quickly, I’d like to reflect for a moment on those who are too often not found at the table: those who are not loved, valued and accepted by our churches, our communities, our world. It’s not that we should feel constantly guilty, but we should be always mindful of those who are not here with us. When we save a place for the forgotten, the excluded, and the poor, we are saving a place for Jesus himself.
We really don’t have to think very long or very hard to come up with examples of people who aren’t included at the table, do we? I think of a person I once encountered in San Francisco, while we were there on vacation. It seemed like everywhere we went, there were so many homeless and hungry people begging on the streets, desperate people with anguished looks on their faces, waving signs that said, “I am so hungry, won’t you please help me?”
However, one person in particular remains vividly in my memory. We were walking down a street of shops near Castro Street, where many gay and lesbian runaway youth take refuge, when I heard a quiet voice and turned to look back. There, on a low brick wall, sat a young girl, a teenager. She looked up at me and spoke softly, so softly that I had to concentrate to hear her. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I get confused. I didn’t mean to bother you.” She almost looked afraid that I would be angry at being distracted from my walk. “I didn’t mean to bother you,” she said. The memory of her has bothered me ever since.
It’s true that the world is far from perfect, and people often say that “the poor we will always have with us.” We listen to today’s reading from the prophet Habakkuk, as he questions God in the name of the people’s suffering, seeing violence and injustice apparently triumph–and we feel those words ringing true for us today. We live in a wealthy nation that seems to find it too much of a challenge to make sure that all of our children have food, shelter, good schools, and health care. Not an X-Box or HDTV for every child, just the basics of life.
In this age of abundance and excess, why are so many of God’s children excluded from our tables of abundance and so excessively deprived of their basic necessities? Habakkuk waits in the silence and listens for an answer: “I will keep watch to see what God will say to me”–he needs a fresh word from the Lord, to hear from the Stillspeaking God. And God’s answer to the prophet rings true for us today: there is a vision, God’s vision of justice and caring–write it down plain and clear so that even a person running by can read it–even if it seems to delay, the vision will surely come. In the meantime, the righteous live not by greed, or arrogance, or pride, but by faith, by trust in God.
Now, if we put these things together, we see that God’s vision for us is one of a great feast in which all of us share the bounty of God’s good creation. We often hear about those who suffer the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic injustice. Today, let me trouble you one more time about another person excluded from the tables of too many families and too many churches in our society. One reason there are so many people on our streets, without decent clothes or enough to eat or a roof over their heads, is our failure to provide for our sisters and brothers who suffer from mental illness.
Our political and religious institutions don’t seem to want to deal, know how to deal, with this situation, and often abandon people who are mentally ill and their families and caregivers. The problem overwhelms us, and we say that we don’t know what to do. That’s what I felt and thought when I was in San Francisco: this is too big for me. I’m just one person. Well, maybe I am just one person. But together, our congregation and the whole United Church of Christ, are many more than just one person. If each of us, if most of us, make a commitment today to learn more about the suffering of the mentally ill and their families, and to work for change in the way our society and our churches respond to their needs, we can make a real difference in their lives. Together, if we live by faith, trusting God, we can move closer to that vision that will surely come, the vision that speaks of the end and does not lie, the vision of God’s justice and caring for all of God’s children.
That vision is the dream of God. It’s the vision that we all hunger for. Is it so surprising, then, that our practice of faith draws us back, again and again, to this table? Habakkuk’s ancient vision of God’s justice comes down to us today, and so does the practice of the early Christians of gathering around the table and celebrating God’s love for them, the love Jesus showed them.
This is our heritage of faith. It is our treasure: we’ve been entrusted with it, and instructed to rekindle this gift in every generation, including our own. It comes from both our Jewish and our Christian ancestors, just as Timothy received the gift of faith from his Jewish grandmother Lois and his Christian mother Eunice. So we live our lives here, remembering the promises of God and the gifts of our ancestors, longing for the dream of God: we live here, between memory and hope.
In my childhood, before Vatican II, there were a lot of divisions between Catholics and Protestants. I experienced this in my own family, because my mother was Roman Catholic, but my father was Presbyterian. Although the walls between our churches lowered significantly after Vatican II, there has always been one wall that remains: we do not share communion. This was true throughout the 71 years of my parents’ marriage, although my father joined my mother’s Catholic parish in the last year of her life, so he was able to receive Communion with her for a few months before she died. Still, the churches live in the tension between that which divides us and that which unites us. In that sense, the vision is delayed. But it will come. The vision will have its time. In the meantime, we live between memory and hope.
So we rekindle the gift of this vision, God’s dream of love and grace for all of us, and then pass it on to our children. Let all our children’s children hear the story one day that on this World Communion Sunday, we dreamed of that vision for them and gathered here around this table to break bread and to share the cup, just as our ancestors did so long ago. Let us guard the good treasure entrusted to us, with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, and then pass it on. Amen.
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 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.
By the rivers of Babylon–
there we sat down
and we wept when we remembered Zion.
And so we hung up our harps,
there upon the willows.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth,
saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing God’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Remember, O God, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down!
Tear it down down to its foundations!”
O city of Babylon,
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
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 wrongdoing
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 watch-post,
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.
Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.
Trust in God,
and do good;
so you will live in the land,
and enjoy security.
Take delight in God,
who will give you the desires
of your heart.
Commit your way to God;
trust in God,
and God will act.
God will make your vindication shine
like the light,
and the justice of your cause
like the day at noon.
Be still before God,
and wait patiently;
do not fret over those
who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger,
and forsake wrath.
Do not fret–
it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for God
shall inherit the land.
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.
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 ploughing 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!'”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”