Proper 17

28th August 2022 – readings are below


Jeremiah asks an interesting question: what wrong have we found with God? In other words, where do we feel God has let us down, or where God has messed up? 

Certainly there are times when I feel God is aloof, that I am on one side of a high wall and God is on the other. There are times when I feel that prayer is a pointless exercise and that its consolation is minimal. There are times when bad things happen and I question why God didn’t intervene. Jeremiah’s follow up question is also interesting: when did we last vocalise these thoughts? When do we ask these sorts of questions with our friends, or in our family, or – indeed – in church? Have we ever asked these questions of God? Are we too frightened to ask? Are we scared that we might find that our faith is superficial? Are we afraid that others will look down at us for being so unfaithful?

It seems to me that if we can’t ask those questions, if we can’t plumb the depths and scale the heights to find answers, then our faith is pretty pointless. Because to be honest bad things do happen. We do feel abandoned by God. We do pray without seeing results. What Jeremiah is suggesting is that it may be we who have ignored God, we who have tried to do things under our own steam,  we who have not wanted the input God offers. I am not sure that this is the complete answer. Often our individual actions are rendered fruitless by more powerful systems and institutions. This perhaps is why Jeremiah is addressing his words not individuals but to both nations – Judah and Israel – and to a groups – the priests and the law makers. Would that they had all followed God’s law!

As ever we come back to those two key laws: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself. The writer of Hebrews is spot on: let mutual love continue! But the writer goes on to demonstrate that this is not fulfilled by merely saying, ‘I love my you’. Rather you need to imagine that you are there with your neighbour in their plight or situation. Before we can genuinely say ‘we love you’ to those asylum seekers who reach our shores on barely seaworthy boats, we need to empathise with what has pushed them to take those risks, to understand what fears they feel arriving unwanted in an alien land. When we can do that, then we will better know to actually express the love they need. Before we can genuinely say ‘we love you’ to people in war zones – whether in Ukraine or Ethiopia – we need to empathise with what their fears are, what it is that is their greatest loss, what their hopes are. Before we can genuinely say ‘we love you’ to people facing poor harvests in Zimbabwe, we need to understand how it feel to loose your crops, to understand what the effects are on their lives, how they hope to come through the tragedy.  Before we say simply mouth concern for the people of small islands states like Vanuatu, we need to understand how they feel about the future, about rising sea levels and the constant warming of the ocean, and how they feel about the response of the developed nations, whether they feel empowered or patronised by the rest of the world.

The writer of the Hebrews then shows how our love for our neighbour turns out to be the means by which we show our love for God. To do good, to share our wealth,  is to offer a sacrifice that pleases God.  And the writer of Hebrews suggests that it is in this way – eschewing love of money and  being content with what we have – we will feel close to and protected by God. 

In a similar vein, Jesus tells us that if we only invite those who can repay us to our feasts, we have fallen short. Rather it is in inviting those who cannot return the complement, that we are blessed. If we only provide for people who can afford to pay – whether that is food or fuel or education or healthcare or climate adaptation – then we will simply be adding to the suffering in the world. But if we provide for those who cannot afford it, we will transform the world bringing in God’s heavenly rule here on earth. If we hear and desire the Word of God, then, as the psalmist says, we will be filled with good things.

Jeremiah 2:4-13

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,

and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?

They did not say, “Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,

who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,

in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?”

I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.

But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.

The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
Those who handle the law did not know me;

the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.

Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.

Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.

Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?

But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.

Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,

says the Lord,

for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,

the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,

cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

Psalm 81:1, 10-16

1 Sing with joy to God our strength *
and raise a loud shout to the God of Jacob.

10 I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt and said, *
“Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.”

11 And yet my people did not hear my voice, *
and Israel would not obey me.

12 So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their hearts, *
to follow their own devices.

13 Oh, that my people would listen to me! *
that Israel would walk in my ways!

14 I should soon subdue their enemies *
and turn my hand against their foes.

15 Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him, *
and their punishment would last for ever.

16 But Israel would I feed with the finest wheat *
and satisfy him with honey from the rock.

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.

What can anyone do to me?”

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour , in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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