Sunday, October 24, 2010

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 30
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 or Sirach 35:12-17
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: They will be still praising thee.

One of my favorite places to visit when I lived in England was Ely Cathedral. Ely is located about fifteen miles from where we lived, and was a lovely town with a good fresh food market and several shops I liked to visit. The cathedral is beautiful, and was the site of many events for the local American community, including an annual Thanksgiving Eve service. I attended several special worships, heard amazing choirs and visited the cathedral with people who came to visit us in England.

A question on the website for Ely Cathedral asks, "Why was such a large church built in such a small town?" The reality is that the cathedral was there long before the town. It was originally built as a monastery by St. Etheldreda, a Christian woman who was queen of Northumbria until she gave up he power and position to become a nun. Her abbey lasted for two hundred years until it was destroyed by the invading Danes, and then when it was rebuilt as a Benedictine monastery, it was second only to Glastonbury in wealth. The wealth is obvious when we wander through the building, with incredible stone carving and state of the art building techniques. Unfortunately, the reformation in England manifested as a destructive force, and most of the statues and windows were destroyed. But the beauty of Ely is still apparent, and it is still known as "The Gateway to Heaven."

Ely was built in the middle of a fen, which is a grassland covered in water with high mineral and nutrient content. The cathedral was built on a hill in the middle of the fen, on solid ground that was like an island in the middle of a grassy sea. It is still called "The Ship in the Fen" though the fen has long been drained to take advantage of the rich soil for farming. In the early days of the cathedral, the looming presence of the building was a comfort and source for hope for those who were traveling in the harsh countryside. Today, Ely is still a source of hope in the region.

There were several roads I could take when driving to Ely. My favorite, though less convenient, path took me on a circuitous route to the city. The cathedral appears throughout the drive as the car reaches a rise in the land or turns a curve toward the city. Almost as soon as it appears, the curve turns back or we drive through a village. As you drive the route, you find yourself watching for it to appear. "There it is!" we would cry. It was one of the most beautiful drives in a country that is beautiful everywhere. It became more difficult to see the cathedral as you drove through the city, but then you knew that it was close. Since the market was close to the cathedral, I always managed to stand in the shadow of this magnificent building, and I always found it a comforting experience.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for those travelers who couldn't drive there in fifteen minutes or who didn't have to work their way through the busy city streets to get to the door? They would be able to gaze on the structure as they drew closer, trying to stay on the high ground, out of the water, and trying to avoid the pitfalls of the road. Imagine then, what it must have been like to finally reach the door of this place that would provide a hot meal and a warm bed, along with a word of hope and a prayer.

The traveler may have sung today's Psalm. "How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Jehovah of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of Jehovah; My heart and my flesh cry out unto the living God." After a long journey, the Israeli pilgrim finally reaches the gates of the Temple, the closest they might come to the gates of heaven in this world. Imagine standing in front of that impressive structure after making a hard and dangerous journey. It is truly a place of hope, especially as they probably caught glimpses of the Temple along the path.

It is thought that the psalm was written by someone who had been cast out of the Temple, perhaps a priest that was exiled or even David when he was in hiding. There is something very special about the dwelling place of God. Though I have never visited the site of the Temple, and I certainly can't experience God's presence in that place, I have had that type of experiences elsewhere, like in Ely. I remember visiting the cathedral on the day that a choir of students from Cambridge University was performing in the Lady Chapel, a perfectly designed acoustic marvel. Though there were only a couple dozen singers, it sounded as if the room were filled with all the angels of heaven. God is truly in all places, but there are special places where His presence is felt and experienced in a totally different way. To the psalmist, the Temple was that place. The singer has a deep longing to be there, to experience that presence, to know God in that intimate manner that comes with worship in God's house.

Our Gospel lesson is preceded by the question, "Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" This leads into the parable in today's Gospel lesson about two men: one man, a Pharisee, and the other, a tax collector. Each man approaches the altar of God, desirous of being in the presence of the Most High. They approach with very different attitudes. The first, the Pharisee, thinks he belongs there. He thinks he deserves the grace of God. The second, the tax collector, approaches God with a humble, repentant heart. He knows that he does not deserve God's forgiveness, but he asks in faith knowing that God is merciful.

The tax collector was a man who was reviled not only for his vocation but also for his religious impurity. He was a sinner and as a sinner he had no right to stand in the presence of God. He was not even good enough to be in the presence of the righteous Pharisee. Jesus tells them, “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” It was the sinner that humbled himself before God that was found to have faith. It was he that was granted forgiveness and was justified before God.

God is not fooled. He knows the heart. He knew the heart of the people in Jeremiah's day. Jeremiah lived at a difficult time for the people of Judah. They felt secure. Who would think that security is a bad thing? The problem is that the people were comfortable in their circumstances and were not able to see the reality of their future. They believed the false prophets that preached peace and ignored the word of warning sent through Jeremiah.

The message of Jeremiah was unpopular because he preached doom and gloom. He constantly warned that Judah and Jerusalem would fall. This was hard for the people to believe because they knew the promises of God that had been given to their forefathers and passed down through the generations. However, they had allowed the foreign gods to become a part of their lives. Jeremiah preached that God would not protect them because they had come to rely on the false gods. He left them in the care of gods that could not do anything to save them. They thought they deserved God's grace, but God did not protect them because they turned their backs on Him.

It was a time of political and military unrest. Babylon was right around the corner. The prophecies of Jeremiah could very well have happened at any moment. The people of Judah thought they had no need to worry, but they were apostate. They no longer relied on God. Jeremiah warned them that their apostasy would be their undoing. God would allow Babylon to destroy Judah. Though Jeremiah’s message included a promise for restoration, he preached about the need for repentance and humility before their God. God would be faithful, but the hope would only come after the destruction. This message made life very difficult for Jeremiah. He was hated and threatened. He was ignored and rejected. The people listened to the words of the false prophets and they refused to believe that Jeremiah was the true prophet.

In today’s passage we hear Jeremiah crying out to God for the sake of the people. He was begging for mercy for Judah, reminding God of His grace. I can understand Jeremiah’s case before God. What good will it do to have Judah destroyed? He reminds God that the destruction of Judah will dishonor Himself, because the destruction of Judah would mean breaking a covenant. In the verses we do not read for this day, God tells Jeremiah not to weep for Judah, that they will receive the just reward for believing the false prophets and worshipping the false gods. The Jews thought they had a special wealth as the chosen people of God. They thought they were guaranteed protection and prosperity based on their ancestry, but they had turned their backs on God. Though they still claimed to believe, they also worshipped false gods and believed the false prophets. They would soon learn that the Lord God Almighty is the only God and that it is only in Him that they will have peace.

Can you imagine hearing God say, "Don't pray for those people"? We learn that we should pray for everyone, the people we love and our enemies. And we shouldn't pray an agenda: when we pray for our enemies, we should pray blessings upon them. Yet, God says, "Don't pray for those people." The people of Judah and Israel had to know the loss of God's blessing before they could turn back to Him. They had to know without a doubt that God was not going to continue to take care of them if they were not going to worship Him and Him alone. It was tough love to the extreme. God is merciful, and He hears the prayers of the faithful. And so, He asks Jeremiah not to pray for the people or else He might have to relent and turn back the Babylonians.

In the second half of today's Old Testament passage, the nobles who were speaking confess that they have failed God. Or do they? Is their confession real, or is it more slick talk with a hard heart? Will they really abandon their false gods? God knew that exile was the only way for His people to realize their sinfulness. They had to suffer the consequences of turning away from Him.

It is easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that God is blessing us for something we've done or something we are. The Israelites and Judeans believed that God blessed them because of their history. The Pharisee believed that God blessed him because he did all the right things. Many in the church today believe that there are those in our society that will receive God's grace just because of the circumstances into which they have fallen. Will a poor man be blessed just because he is poor? This is as poor an assumption as the first two.

The lectionary gives us the option of using text from the book of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, a book of wisdom. Today's passage is a message about generosity, remembering that God has given everything we have and we don't deserve His grace because we are so generous. The writer says, "Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford." This means that the call for generosity is for all people, whether they are wealthy and can give vast amounts away or if they are poor and can only share a few pennies. Sometimes we think that the poor are blessed just because they are poor, but they are called to live the life that trusts in God along with those of us who are wealthier. The writer says, "He will not show partiality to the poor…"

Now, the sentence continues, "…but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged." In other words, justice is not about spreading the wealth around, it is about making everything right. Some people, especially widows and orphans, are poor not because they have done anything wrong but because they have been cheated by someone more powerful. Is it just to take the house away from a hard working person who has earned it to give it to a lazy bum who has done nothing with his life? No, certainly not. But it is just for a judge to order a dishonest salesman to refund the money lost by someone who believed a false sales pitch.

God looks at the heart. He gives justice and forgiveness to those who humble themselves before Him and admit that they deserve nothing He has to give. When we do, when we admit our sinfulness and accept His judgment, we'll find that though we may suffer the consequences of our sin, we'll be blessed in the end. The nobles in Jeremiah's day confessed their sinfulness, but expected God to protect them without any real repentance. The Pharisee thought he was righteous and expected God to see how much better he was than the tax collector.

Paul was at the end of his life when he wrote the second letter to Timothy. He knew it was time to pass the baton to the next racer. He felt abandoned in the end, by all his friends and co-workers. Despite all his hard work for the Gospel and his generosity to his Christian friends, they left him to face the end alone. Of all the people who deserved to be given the respect of the community of believers, Paul was left to face it without them.

Yet, even then Paul knew he had not been totally abandoned. God was with him. God gave him the strength to go from grace to grace, to preach the Word even when it was dangerous. Paul was like the pilgrim going from spring to spring as he traveled through dangerous territory to get to the Temple, anxiously awaiting the chance to see it again and to worship God in His house. He gave the glory to God, never taking credit for the good that he did.

Will we approach our God with the same awe I felt when driving toward the cathedral in Ely? Will we pray with true humility, seeking God's grace despite our sinfulness? Will we give to God what is God's? Will we remember that we are not blessed because of anything we are or do? Do we long to dwell in the presence of God with such a desire that we would travel a dangerous path just to see it? Will we trust in ourselves or will we trust that God will stand by us through everything, giving Him the glory for ever and ever?

A WORD FOR TODAY
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