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Reading While Running

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Oct 06

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Lamentations 1: 1-6, Habakkuk 1: 1-4, 2: 1-4, Luke 17: 5- 10

It’s been a crazy week.  Maybe you’ve noticed the same thing?  Most all of the media attention has been on the federal government and the partial shutdown as of October 1st, since our FY14 budget had not yet been approved.  Depending on which sound bites you listen to, the blame rests either on the 10% of Congress who are members of the Tea Party Caucus, or President Obama, or House Speaker John Boehner, or the Democrats, or the Republicans, or the Affordable Care Act.  Meanwhile, families are having to adjust to life without a paycheck, and others are either inconvenienced, or could be harmed by the closure. 

 It’s not just the federal government that’s crazy.  My partner, Linda, has been on call for the University of Massachusetts this week and has had triple the regular number of calls for students in some kind of crisis.  Then a good friend of ours was carjacked at knifepoint in broad daylight in what I would have said is the safest area of New Bedford.  They got their car back a few days later, and a young man was arrested after the police found the car parked on the street a half-mile from where it was stolen.  At least Tropical Storm Karen appears to be fizzling out, which is a good thing, since 86% of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is furloughed, and the noaa.gov (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website) is shut down.  Sometimes I feel like it’s all falling apart.  Everything we worked so hard to build – jobs, infrastructure, community, schools, families – everything seems at risk these days. 

 I know it’s not even remotely like what the Hebrew people experienced in the sixth century BCE when King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem, and the Hebrew people were forced to leave their homeland.  On the other hand, I think we all know the feeling when we just can’t bring ourselves to sing in a land that feels so foreign.  How did we get here? 

 It depends, again, on who you listen to.  Some would say it’s because of gay marriage.  Or feminism.  Or violent movies.  Maybe it’s the lack of faith.  Or immigrants.  Or technology.  Or guns.  What all of these have in common is the observation that the world is not the same as it used to be.

  I read something about nostalgia recently – it was on the Science page of the NY Times.  After noting that “nostalgia had been considered a disorder ever since the term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss physician who attributed soldiers’ mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home — νόστος in Greek, and the accompanying pain, άλγος”, the study quoted one man who said that “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity.  It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.” [1]  Nostalgia like that is not a problem, but a solution.  So is there a way that nostalgia can help us to transform our anxiety about the state of the world into a sense of rootedness and community?

 What insights do today’s lectionary texts provide?  Our opening reading from Lamentations offers a poetic response to the destruction of Jerusalem.  There is a long tradition of lament in the Hebrew Scriptures –psalms and pleadings to God to save those who suffer.  My brother-in-law sent me a link to a thesis he found on the internet on the subject of lament.  Unfortunately, it was 318 pages long, and I only had time to skim through it.  But it brought up the point that when Judaism and early Christianity encountered the Stoic philosophy of the Greeks, the place and purpose of lament shifted, and it’s not as obvious in the New Testament.[2]  Each culture and subculture, each generation, and even each person handles the pain of loss differently.  Some mourn and grieve publicly and visibly and audibly, while others remain silent.  Some suck it up and carry on. 

 Some approach loss more prophetically.  From the depths of such despair, Habakkuk openly challenged God’s wisdom.  He reprimanded God for not listening and not saving: God, when are you going to respond?  And God did respond: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”  That made me think … what’s the modern-day equivalent of that ancient communication method of chiseling a notice on a tablet, and then sending a runner to deliver them to the next city?  It would have to be brief, or else the tablets would be too numerous and too heavy for the runner to carry.  Were these the first documented “sound bites?”  Or “tweets?”  Did the ancients have as much trouble with sound bites as we do when we try to shorten a message to just a few essential words?  There’s never enough information to get the whole picture, and have even a chance of forming a reasoned opinion on a matter. 

God continues: “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.”  This totally reminds me of one of my favorite singer-songwriters, David Wilcox, he sings:

You say you see no hope,

you say you see no reason we should dream

that the world would ever change. 

You’re saying love is foolish to believe …

Look, if someone wrote a play

just to glorify what’s stronger than hate,

would they not arrange the stage

to look as if the hero came too late? [3]

No matter what our opinions, or what we think the hero might look like in our situation, we can relate to the feeling that the hero might come too late. 

Let’s turn to our gospel text:  Jesus asks “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?”  And I’m expecting Jesus to say, of course you would say that.  The last will be first and the first will be last.  Or go out to the streets and invite everyone into the banquet.  Or welcome the tax collectors and women and sinners to your table.  Or I came not to be served, but to serve – as Lindsay and I can recite in our College’s Latin motto: non ministrari, sed ministrare.

 But that’s not what Jesus says at all.  Here in the 17th chapter, there is a basic order of things, and Jesus knows it and lives within it.  There are slaves and there are masters, there are those who have resources and luxuries, and those whose purpose it is to serve them.  And they would never sit and eat together.  If that’s where the gospel ended, it wouldn’t be the good news that it is.  Despair, sound bites, and classism would win.  But that’s not the message.

 I’ve always thought of Jesus as one who challenged this kind of thinking.  By the end of the gospel, Jesus was overturning the moneychanger’s tables, upending society’s ideas about who is first and who is last, who is the greatest and who is the least.  Jesus started it, and his followers have continued it to this day.

So I invite you to read these texts, read the newspaper, listen for the word of God -- keep on pleading with God for salvation, communicate with each other, with your family and your friends, and be open to changing your mind and your message as Jesus did.  Look for the moments in your life when you have felt delight. 

Stop trying to read on the run!  Take the time to sit down and read a bit more about a topic you hear about in the news.  Don’t be afraid to fact check and form your own opinion.  Don’t be afraid to disagree – politely, of course -- because community is built one relationship at a time. 

 So it’s been a crazy week in many ways.  It is a big deal that the US President and the Iranian president speak for the first time in more than 30 years.  And it’s a big deal when people are able to sign up for health insurance that they can actually afford, and it is a hopeful moment, when even some Republicans are beginning to admit that they are pleased with some aspects of the plan, especially when they find out how many thousands of dollars per year they will no longer be spending on health insurance.  “Do your little bit of good where you are;” Because as Desmond Tutu told us, “It is those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” [4]

May God be with us as we contemplate God’s word in our time and our place and our community, as we each do our part to build that community, one relationship at a time.  Amen.

[1] “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” New York Times, July 8, 2013, Science page.

[2] Rebekah Ann Eklund, Lord, Teach Us How to Grieve: Jesus’ Laments and Christian Hope, Duke Divinity School, 2012

[3] David Wilcox, Show the Way

[4] Desmond Tutu



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