The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16-C), 25 August 2019


August 25, 2019

Reading 1Reading 2Reading 3Reading 4Reading 1 AltReading 2 Alt
Jeremiah 1:4-10Psalm 71:1-6Hebrews 12:18-29Luke 13:10-17Isaiah 58:9b-14Psalm 103:1-8

by Nichole Torbitzky

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Historical Background:
About three hundred years after the split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah was prophesying for Judah. The Northern Kingdom had fallen to the Assyrian empire, and many of the people of the ten Northern tribes were sent into Assyrian exile, never to return to Israel. The name Judah comes from one of the twelve tribes of Israel, after Jacob’s fourth oldest son, Judah. Not coincidentally, the words “Jewish” and “Jew” derive from the word Judah.

Jeremiah’s prophesy, directed to the Southern Kingdom, comes just before the fall of the Southern Kingdom, Israel, to the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s career begins during the reign of King Josiah, as the great neighboring nations of Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt jockey for power in the region. Josiah’s story is told in 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35. By all accounts, Josiah was a good ruler and a faithful servant of God, interested in instituting religious reform. It appears that Jeremiah and Josiah had a good working relationship and perhaps a true friendship.

The book of Jeremiah opens by telling us that the prophet comes from the priest class and had a long career, serving God under the rule of three different kings. When these verses were written, the Kingdom of Judah enjoyed relative peace and stability, even with tensions rising between Assyria and Babylon. This did not last long, but for a few brief years at the beginning of Jeremiah’s career, life was pretty good.

Setting:
These verses tell us little about exactly where Jeremiah was. These could have come while Jeremiah was in his hometown of Anathoth in the hills just north of Jerusalem. This location is often assumed because Jeremiah protests in vs. 6 that he is only a boy. It stands to reason then, that Jeremiah is still at home with his parents. It should also be noted that this kind of protest is often not meant literally, as Solomon, a man of full age, makes nearly the same protest in 1 Kings 3:7. Taking this into account, it is possible that Jeremiah has already landed in Jerusalem by the time his call comes as a young man.

Omniscience and Other Theological Mistakes:
Charles Hartshorne titled one of my favorite books on process theology, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes[1]. In his book, Hartshorne makes an understandable, pastoral, and deeply well-reasoned argument for why attributing both omnipotence (all-powerful) and omniscience (all-knowing) to God is a mistake. These opening verses in Jeremiah are often cited as proof of God’s omniscience and in many circles as proof of predestination. According to Hartshorne, omniscience and predestination are mistakes we should avoid attributing to God in our preaching for today.

My apologies to Hartshorne for over-simplifying his thoughtful and elegant argument. Determinism, omniscience, and predestination are theological mistakes because reality is continually in the making. Future events simply do not exist yet as anything more than possibilities. God can and does have perfect knowledge of all of the possibilities. God also has a really, really good idea about the choices each of us will make in the present that will affect what choices we can make in the future. But, since the future is indeterminate, God only knows what can be. Since we have the free will do make real choices among those available to us[2], it is our actions that make the possible future a determinate now.

So, how do we preach it?
God might not be omniscient and omnipotent in the traditional Greek understanding, but God is not impotent or ignorant. God has plans. God has good plans. God, who knows everything there is to know, and all possibilities and contingencies, has a really good—to near perfect idea of who each of us is and the choices we will make. Since God knows us so well, and God has good plans, and God will not coerce, God works with us to bring about God’s good will. Sometimes, some certain people are better at listening to God. Jeremiah appears to be that kind of person. Sometimes, some certain people, who are just right for the job, get to help God in particular ways. These people are often called prophets, and Jeremiah is one of them.

Jeremiah had a particularly important job, but the principles of working together that apply to Jeremiah and God’s relationship apply to every person. This is good news. Some people may find it unsettling to think that God has not predetermined every move we make and choice we pick, others find that kind of determinism creepy at best and soul-killing at worst. Determinism means that I have no real choice, and no actual participation. For many people, determinism robs them of hope. The idea that I cannot change my situation for the better is isolating and nihilistic. Process thought offers a way to trust that something significantly more powerful than us has a plan, but that our active participation in that plan is essential to making it work. This is a hopeful, connecting, and validating way to look at the world and our relationship with God.

Our reading of Jeremiah lends itself to this view of God’s relationship with us. Implied in the conversation between Jeremiah and God is the need for Jeremiah’s consensual participation. God gives commands, but Jeremiah has to volitionally follow those commands. Otherwise, God would not need to give the command; Jeremiah would just do what God wills like a robot with a program. What we see here is a relationship, a lopsided one to be sure, but one where Jeremiah has to be willing to participate.

All of us experience a similar kind of relationship with God. God enlists us in ways great and small, subtle and overt to participate in God’s grand vision. In every moment, God calls and commissions us and promises to be with us. Here would be a good place to talk about how God has been steadfast in your life. I know that is sometimes easier said than done. I live such a normal life, God has never reached out and touched my mouth to put words in it. Or… maybe I shouldn’t be so hasty. Maybe God has worked in my life. Here is my illustration. In my long and convoluted journey to today, I earned an M.Div. right out of college and started parish ministry before the ink was dry on my graduate diploma. Seeds planted in my M.Div. work took root when I was accepted to my Ph.D. program where I earned a doctorate in Philosophy of Religion and Theology. So, there I was, over-educated for parish ministry and with a ‘practical’ master’s degree that made me a bad fit for academia. The nasty voice in my head mocked me for my stupid decisions that saddled me with loads of debt and made me basically unfit for either profession. What was I going to do? I finally found a job adjuncting at a small, private university. One day, the tenured faculty approached me with their newest job posting. They were looking for someone to serve as both University Chaplain and Faculty. They needed someone with both an M.Div and ministry experience as well as a Ph.D. Did I know anyone like that? Umm… yes. Yes, I do. Mine is a happy ending.

I like to think that all of those years of struggle and hard work were a partnership between God and me. I made the decisions to get ludicrous amounts of schooling. God saw the potential in me. Somehow, at every step a door opened, a path emerged, a way to serve appeared, a way to pay the bills appeared. Is my path supernaturally miraculous? Absolutely not. No laws of nature were broken, no bush burned unconsumed, no giant fish spit me out on the steps of a university. God and I worked together. God saw my potential, offered a way, I responded. Often my responses were less than stellar, but God offered a way again. I responded. God offered, I responded. The days and weeks and years flowed on in a lovely dance between us that has, so far led me to a wonderful place. God is not done with me yet, I suspect. I look forward to the adventure.

Hopefully my story has sparked your thinking about God’s movement in your life. But, if you’d like another illustration this one might help too:

Writing in the journal Nature, Benjamin Zuckerman, a professor of astronomy at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that one factor contributing to Earth’s ability to sustain life is the size of the largest planet in our solar system: Jupiter. Jupiter, the next neighbor to Earth after Mars, is a giant gaseous planet, with a mass that is 318 times greater than that of Earth and thus a much greater gravitational force.

It is that gravitational force that benefits Earth. When massive objects that could do great harm to our planet hurl through our solar system, Jupiter acts as a sort of vacuum cleaner, sucking comets and asteroids into itself or causing them to veer away from Earth. Without Jupiter, says Zuckerman, Earth would be a sitting duck. Zuckerman says massive gaseous planets like Jupiter are rare in the universe.[3]

Funny how coincidences work.

 

Here’s a little humor to help illustrate how God could ‘know’ who we are without determining who we are:

The Bricklayer

A young bricklayer was having difficulties with his insurance company. He responded to them this way. “I am writing in response to your request for additional information. In block number three of the accident reporting form, I put “poor planning” as the cause of my accident. You said in your letter that I should explain more and I trust that the following details are sufficient:

I am a bricklayer by trade. On the day of the accident, I was working alone on the roof of a new six-story building. When I completed my work, I discovered that I had about 500 pounds of bricks left over. Rather than carry the bricks down by hand I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley, which fortunately was attached to the side of the building at the sixth floor.

Securing the rope at the ground level, I went up to the roof, swung the barrel out and loaded the bricks into it. Then I went back to the ground and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 500 pounds of bricks. You will note in block number 11 of the accident reporting form that I weigh 135 pounds. Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rather rapid rate up the side of the building.

In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming down. This explains the fractured skull and broken collarbone. Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent, not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulley. Fortunately, by this time I had regained my presence of mind and was able to hold tightly to the rope in spite of my pain.

At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground – and the bottom fell out of the barrel. Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighed approximately 50 pounds. I refer you again to my weight in block number 11. As you might imagine, I began a rapid descent down the side of the building.

In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles and lacerations of my legs and lower body. The encounter with the barrel slowed me enough to lessen my injuries when I fell onto the pile of bricks and fortunately, only three vertebrae were cracked. I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the bricks in pain, unable to move, and watching the barrel six stories above – I again lost my presence of mind.

I let go of the rope!”[4]

Like the poor bricklayer, in the struggles of our lives, we often make some questionable choices. God, like the listener, can tell what is coming just from the clues and cues. This is, of course, an imperfect illustration! I would advise not pressing this humor into more service than it can bear. But, it could be a lighthearted way to ease into a subject that some people can have very strong feelings about.

 

Luke 13:10-17

Setting:
Back at the end of chapter 10, Jesus visited Martha and Mary, who were most often said to be located in the town of Bethany (John 11), about two miles southeast of Jerusalem. He went from there to pray, have dinner with some Pharisees, and to cast out a demon, and to teach a gathered crowd. This Sunday’s text tells us that Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues. Verse 22 tells us that Jesus was traveling on his way to Jerusalem. No mention is made of the specific geographic location since the mention of Martha and Mary’s house. It is probably safe to say that he was in Judea during the events of our text for this Sunday, slowly headed toward Jerusalem.

Historical background:
Teaching in the synagogue: Each town and village of any size had its own synagogue. The Temple in Jerusalem is where people went for the big festivals, to make sacrifices as necessary, and to dedicate newborns (among other things). Going to Jerusalem was a big deal and relatively rare. Weekly worship, held on the Sabbath, would have happened in each town’s synagogue. The synagogue was a center of life in a town. Not only did worship take place there, but it also served as a town hall, a school, sometimes as a courtroom or as a hostel. Generally, each synagogue had a leader who took care of the building, organized the Sabbath services and lined up the readers and speakers. This person would have been a well-respected member of the community and would often help lead worship. The synagogue structure was pretty democratic. Any male, who was of-age and had the ability, could participate in leading worship by reading/reciting Scripture and giving a teaching (kind of like a sermon). It would have been common for Bible study to take place on the Sabbath at the synagogue after or before the official service. It would also have been possible for small debates to break out even during worship about a teaching (Judaism is known for its healthy respect for debate).

Jesus was Jewish and was apparently an active participant in religious life. He would have been comfortable reading Scripture, teaching during the formal worship, and teaching in small groups after the official service had ended. In today’s text, we do not know if Jesus was teaching during the formal worship service or an informal group after worship, but it would have been common for prayer, study, and scholarship groups to meet there.

Keeping the Sabbath: The rules around keeping the Sabbath in Judaism are pretty strict and involved. These rules mostly revolve around doing no work. Since God rested, the people are to rest too. That means that people were not to go to work, work in the fields, open their business, or buy/sell anything, clean house, prepare a meal (although eating was fine, it just needed to be an already prepared meal or a cold meal), or make/put out a fire.[5] These rules were gleaned from the Scriptures and elaborated upon in a book now called the Talmud. A few things that do appear to be work could be done, especially when it came to caring for other living things, like one’s livestock. It was permissible to take one’s animals to drink or to save the life of an animal in danger.

People in Jesus’ day (just like today) were more and less faithful in their adherence to those rules. Some would have been strict sticklers for the rules, but some would have been more lax in their observance. People are people no matter where or when they live. As you well know, dear preacher, life happens and often gets in the way of our best intentions. This was true in Jesus’ day too. It should also be noted that if one broke a rule around the Sabbath (and almost any rule), sacrifices to atone for that sin could be made at the Temple in Jerusalem, and God would forgive and forget.

Healing:
When my sons were little, they liked to ask the question, “If you could have any super-power what would it be?” At first, I steered the conversation back to them, wanting to help them explore their answers and hear about what they were dreaming up in their lovely little boy heads. As they grew, I would turn the conversation back and ask harder questions like, “Why would you want to be invisible? What good would it do?” Generally, they wanted to be invisible so they could get up to no good without consequences. We had some good talks about ethics, privacy, and consent. Finally, as my youngest approached his teen years, they stopped accepting my evasive, “Oh, I don’t know,” and pressed me for an answer. They were not just curious, after all this time, they were serious. Then, I really did have to think about it. I asked for a reprieve of a few days to think about it.

A few days later at dinner, my oldest brought it back up. I had thought about it. I thought about wanting to fly or teleport. Those were deeply attractive since I had an hour-long commute between work and home every day. I thought about reading minds, then I’d know when someone was lying to me. I thought about super strength, super speed or time travel; they certainly would be handy. If I could only have one super power, what could I do that would do the most good?

The evening before our dinner conversation, I had been to a student led panel discussion at my university about the hot-topics of the day. Representatives from various students groups sat on the panel and each was given the opportunity to answer questions taken from the audience, offered by a moderator. Questions ranged from, “What does your group think about legalizing marijuana?” to “What does your group think about our nationally supported healthcare?” It should be noted that each and every group including the Young Republicans, Evangelical Christians, and LGBTQ unequivocally supported legalizing cannabis. We almost had a kum-by-yah moment. But, then, the healthcare question ruined that good fellow-feeling. As you can imagine, the Republican and Libertarian groups opposed nationally supported healthcare, and the Democratic and Social Service groups supported the idea. What about the Christian group?

Doesn’t Jesus say that our duty is to care for the sick, the poor, and the prisoner? Didn’t Jesus run around healing people left and right? Didn’t the Good Samaritan take the injured man to an inn for healthcare and to recuperate? Didn’t Jesus stand up to the leader of the synagogue, calling him a hypocrite, accusing him of treating his livestock better than a human being? Isn’t part of the mandate to be Christian caring for those who need healthcare? Didn’t the representative from the Christian group just insist that America is a Christian nation and therefore the Ten Commandments, Nativity scenes, and prayer to Jesus should be proudly displayed in government spaces and public schools? Didn’t he just insist that this is a Christian nation? Then, did he just oppose national healthcare as un-Christian? I was speechless.

At that point, I knew what I wanted my super-power to be. So, when my son asked me the next night at dinner, I was ready. I had been toying with time-travel as my answer. I had been toying with the idea of going back to save Franz Ferdinand, avoid World War I, thereby averting the Shoah[6] and World War II. Maybe I could talk Gavrilo Princip out of his terrible decision, or maybe I could give the Archduke’s driver the proper directions so Ferdinand’s car would never have stalled in front of the café Princip was in that day, or maybe I’d just throw myself in front of the bullet if all else failed. Remember, I had a long commute and plenty of time to think about such things.

If I could, I told my sons, I want the power to heal. I want to be able to heal any illness, at a distance, at the snap of my fingers, the blink of an eye, the movement of a synapse. Process theology has a propensity toward an ethic of the ‘good of the whole.’ This is because the process is one of relationality and interconnectedness. When others are healthy and happy the world gets better, the Realm of God comes near. When the world gets better, my world gets better, God’s ability to offer better and better opportunities expands. A better world means more and better possibilities. The suffering, misery, and financial burden placed on the world through expensive healthcare and lack of access makes the world a worse place. It restricts the good possibilities God has to offer us. Jesus reminds us that what we do to ‘the least of these’[7] we do to him.  What we do with our choices is create the world that we inhabit. When we choose to turn a blind eye to the easily alleviated suffering of millions, is to create a world of callousness to suffering. The lucky and wealthy may be lucky and/or wealthy enough to avoid the worst of the repercussions of that world. Nevertheless, I have seen average, middle class, families devastated by healthcare costs. It could happen to you. It could happen in this “Christian” nation. It does happen in this nation.

This Sunday’s text calls us to stop the hypocrisy. The rules are not more important than the people. It is time for Christians to demand a solution. If that means changing, strengthening, and supporting our current system or scrapping it for something even more ethical that lives up to Jesus’ call, I would be open to suggestions. It is time for our good Christians and our churches to behave like Christians and demand the good, work for the good, elect those who stand for the good, and be the good we want to see.

Illustration:
Here is a lovely example of Christians living out their mandate and building the Realm of God in the here and now. A Florida church raised $153,867.19 to help pay off the healthcare debts of 6,500 people. They contracted with a non-profit that buys healthcare debt from dubious collection agencies. Their non-profit partner bought $7.2 million in healthcare debt from collection agencies with just over $150,000. The healthcare and debt collection industries as so complicated, corrupt, and unregulated that it is possible for $150,000 to pay off $7.2 million in debt. This story shows just how sinful our healthcare system is. It also shows that we are not powerless to make a difference. Creativity and a little generosity can change the lives of thousands.[8]

If one Florida church can do it, other churches can too. Your church can too. This is good news.

 

 

Endnote:

[1] Hartshorne, Charles. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984).

[2] A certain amount of determinism exists in that only certain possibilities can be actualized.  For example, no matter how hard I try, or how much I will it, I cannot choose to eat dinner on Mars tonight. But, I can choose to eat at home or eat out. My choices are limited in certain ways, but in the ways that open to me, I am free to choose.

[3] Craig Brian Larson, 750 Engaging Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers & Writers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 97–98.

[4] https://alphausa.org/alpha-jokes

[5] An interesting look at the Sabbath rules and the reasons for them, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbats-work-prohibition/

[6] The Holocaust.

[7] Matthew 25:31-46

[8] https://www.newsweek.com/florida-church-pays-off-72m-medical-debt-6500-low-income-central-floridians-god-loves-you-1448631

 


Rev. Dr. Nichole Torbitzky earned her BA from Truman State University and her MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate University. Before joining the faculty in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Lindenwood University, Dr. Torbitzky worked as an adjunct professor at LaVerne University. 

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