Readings for (Proper 16) Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost 26th August 2007 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 16C / Ordinary 21C / Pentecost +13 Textweek

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

The readings today seem to confront us with the enormity of our faith. They invite us into a depth that lies beyond the shallows of the established church and its institutional practices. We are - each one of us and all of us - we are consecrated, commissioned, called, baptised and delivered, in and through the divine word. My guess is that like Jeremiah, our response to this consecration and calling is understandably cautious: in the first reading, verse 6, ‘Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only human, only a boy’.

‘I’m only human’ is a classic theological mistake; it’s a misunderstanding that continues to be perpetuated by the dominant Sunday School theology of the orthodox denominations. But there is a divine response to the excuse ‘I’m only human’, and it affirms a greater truth: in verse 8, ‘Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.’ ‘To deliver you’; ‘I am with you to deliver you’ - to bring you to birth, to bring you to birth into the fullness of life. And then it goes on, in verse 10, ‘today I appoint you’, ‘today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms’ – this is you he’s talking about – ‘I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’ It’s an amazing responsibility – no wonder we choose to stay in the shallows. But we can only choose to stay in the shallows if we push our energy into a delusion that tells us that by staying in the shallows we will live. By rejecting the divine consecration we become complicit in the undoing of creation rather than in the unfolding of creation. It says in verse 5, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.’ Our birth, our very being is formed in the divine; to declare ‘I’m only human’ is a weak excuse and we’ll hopefully, along with Jeremiah, discover that. Our faith takes us beyond the world of scientific rationalism into the wholeness of mystical truth. We are, as we say week by week, we are the Body of Christ; we are formed in the divine.
As we contemplate the opening words of Jeremiah – and we’re going to stay with - the first reading for the next few weeks will come from the Book of Jeremiah – as we contemplate those opening words, words about our formation and our being delivered, so too we can contemplate our birth, our delivery and our consecration, and as we contemplate our truth - ‘Who am I? Who really, really, really am I?’ – then we encounter our fears, our delusions. We realise that so much of our human journey is devoted to creating the delusion that we are in control. In fact we go beyond that, that we are God rather than participants in the divine unfolding of life and you can see, they’re so close together, you can see how easy it is for us to delude ourselves, to think of ourselves as God: ‘I know what I’m doing, where I’m going and I can control the whole lot. Not only can I control my life, I can control the generations that come in my wake’. We look like God: the mistake we make is, we fail to see that we are participants in the divine.

Paul in the second reading in the letter to the Hebrews seeks to illustrate that and at the same time to illuminate the movement from the shallows into the depth, from a simplistic cult-like worship of a god who stands outside ourselves to a divine in the image of a consuming fire. That’s the image of the divine that we’re left with today, a consuming fire. And that which is consumed by the fire becomes a part of the fire, just like the sacraments that we consume become a part of our being. It is fear and ego that keep us from the flames. But stay with the image of the fire and we realise that to stand and watch is to witness the fire dying. ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you’: you are part of the fire; this is our truth and our faith and only our fear can deny it.

The Gospel today then provides another illustration of the life that is to be found in our encounter with the divine, and as an opening aside, Luke provides in one line a purpose for being the church. In verse 10 it says: ‘Now he (Jesus) was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath’. The synagogue or the church is seen by Luke as a place of teaching and learning. I wonder how many churchgoers when asked why they go to church respond with ‘for learning and/or teaching how to become fully alive in the divine’. Another thing to appreciate from that one line is that Jesus was not on the staff. It’s a reminder of our consecration, our consecration and our responsibility one to another.

The incident that Luke then narrates is an opportunity for us to see ourselves, verse 11: ‘Just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight’. This woman is me, this woman is you. What is the spirit that cripples us, that keeps us bent over, weighed down, depressed? What is the spirit that takes away the playful energy of children, that orientates us towards death rather than towards life? As we see ourselves in this woman be aware that we too are unable to stand up straight, unable to reach our full height, to attain our integrity with the divine. If we pause there and look at the mirror within, some of us are still able to do the mental gymnastics that say, ‘I’ve reached my full potential, I’m doing quite well’. How do we do that? We look at others, it’s one of the reasons that we keep two thirds of the world starving, so we can delude ourselves into telling ourselves that we are all right, we stand up straight. But just scratch the surface and we know that there’s another truth, which is the truth that Luke provides when we see the image of this woman. We do not, and in fact we’ve got to own the fact that we choose not, to realise our full potential in the divine; we make another choice. Verse 12, ‘When Jesus saw her, he called her over’, and that’s the good news that the Gospel brings, for we too are called over by that same word. Are we open to hearing it? Can we see beyond our ego, beyond our fear and beyond our self-preoccupation to the divine calling us over? Verse 13, ‘When he laid his hands on her….’: she was touched by the divine. Our encounter with God is the encounter of touch, that’s how close it is. Luke presents a model of church that’s not the china-shop church where you look but don’t touch and it’s also not the sporting club church where you watch the game that others play; rather it is a church that is a place of encounter and of touching, and in that place, in verse 13, ‘immediately she stood up straight’.

God is a consuming fire. As we stand up straight reaching our potential, the divine potential within each of us through encounter, teaching and learning and participating with each other, so too we realise the activity and the potential of the synagogue. We become the Body of Christ, we become the fuel for the fire. We overcome our Jeremiah fears, leaving the womb to realise our consecration.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris