Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Luke 16:1-13

Information about the First Nations Version available here

One of my professors in seminary, Greg Mobley, used to tell us that the closest we, as modern minded people in the west could get to understanding where the Hebrew Prophets were coming from was to try to understand the Blues.

When I say the blues, I don’t mean simply being sad; but rather the genre of music born out of the African American experience in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1900s that eventually birthed almost all modern popular music: country, R&B, rock and roll, jazz, and hip hop all are descended from those Delta blues, by way of Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles, or Harlem.

Blues music, isn’t one note emotionally- it’s not all about sadness or despair; there’s anger, there’s joy, there’s bravado, there’s love and lust, there’s the whole range of human expression. What is unique about the blues lyrically is that it tells the truth. There is no idealism in the blues, and there are no easy answers, no tears that are easily dried, just the simple and hard truths of hard lives.

Likewise, our prophet Jeremiah felt the struggles of his people not from a distance but in a deeply personal way. I believe that he would have fit in nicely in the Mississippi Delta. Known as the weeping prophet, his words have provided voice for many who are suffering from pain, just as the words of BB King or Aretha Franklin have in our time.

Jeremiah said, “My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick.” BB King sang, “The Thrill is gone, the Thrill is gone for good.”

Jeremiah said, “Listen! The cry of the daughter of my people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” Robert Johnson sang, “Lord, I feel like blowing my old lonesome horn Got up this morning, my little Bernice was gone Lord, I feel like blowing my lonesome horn Well I got up this morning all I had was gone”

The Prophet, telling the truth, weeping over what has been lost, that Jerusalem has been defeated, her treasures raided, her temple torn down and her children exiled.

The Blues Singer, singing the truth, that their beloved is gone, left like a thief in the middle of the night. The thrill is gone, and the world is lonesome. All I had is gone.

The blues and the prophets like our Jeremiah, and our Jesus, are at times raw and real. Indeed, one of the hardest things for us to hear both in the blues and from the prophets- both ancient and modern- is that it might already be too late; Bernice is already gone, the harvest is past and the summer is ended, climate change is not a distant issue for the future, but a present lived reality.

The system has failed us. The famous balm of Gilead is noted mostly for its absence. There is no easy way out.

Thus we should not mistake vulnerability for stupidity. The truth is never foolish. Robert Johnson and Aretha Franklin knew exactly what they were doing. Jeremiah is not an idiot. Jesus is no dummy. Our gospel reading today reminds us that we are called to be discerning, to work the system- albeit to ends that the system might not reward. But even so, often those systems will fail us; our plans fall by the wayside. Sometimes there is little left for us to do but sing the blues.

But for a moment let us take a step back and learn a little more about our readings. Jeremiah was not actually a bullfrog, he was a Hebrew prophet that lived in the 7thth ish century BC in Jerusalem. He originally rejected being a prophet as he said he was too young, but as happens in the Bible, when he started complaining about it, God put the words in his mouth and sent him on his way.

The kingdom of Judah was in a precarious position at this point. Although King Josiah was vigorous and reform minded, doing good work reforming the operations of the temple and the state, he had just been killed in battle, and King Jehoiakim came to rule. He was no King Josiah; he undermined his predecessor’s reforms, and corruption abounded. The people of God were not in a good place, and Jeremiah saw that it would not get better.

Jeremiah is especially upset about the abrogation of the temple’s responsibilities; the temple was supposed to mediate between God and the people of God, atoning collectively for the sins of the people through ritual sacrifices and other good works.

Yet the men in charge of the temple preferred to preach about the easy lies instead of the hard truths. Healing becomes impossible when sins are not acknowledged, and they would not be able to find a balm in Gilead because there would not seek it. The temple authorities ignored their past and, refused to discern good from evil in the present, and ignored the future of the people in their care.

But this does not mean we are called to give up on our systems, our ways of doing things; indeed, how we engage with them is vitally important, as our gospel reading suggests.

This parable, often called the parable of the shrewd or dishonest manager, is one of the most widely debated parables of Jesus.

In the story, there’s a manager of an estate, a farm, a plantation, and he’s been made aware that once the owner’s coming back, he’s not going to have a job anymore. The manager says, basically, well, that’s no good- I’m too old to go back to digging ditches, and too proud to be a beggar, so to get a new job, I need to make folks like me.

There’s a concept in the business world you may have heard of: OPM- Other People’s Money; resources that aren’t ours personally. People tend to be a little more free and loose with those than their own. This manager certainly is. He starts making deals with people over their debt with his boss. When the boss comes back, he doesn’t punish the man; his attitude seems to be more of the “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” type.

People have often wondered who is who in this story metaphorically- is God the boss and Jesus the manager? Or are we supposed to be the manager?

I believe our translation today- the First Nations Indigenous American translation does a good job of getting us to the heart of the parable’s meaning; what is the meaning of success? Is there a way to interact with the system- especially the systems of wealth and money, that serve the Kingdom of God?

The shrewdness that Jesus alludes to is not about accumulating the most wealth; I made that mistake when reading it, so conditioned am I to looking for getting the most as shrewdness. What Jesus calls shrewd is the ability to give away as much as possible. He reminds us that there’s not much use for wealth beyond a certain amount other than to get more of it. This is especially true in the long run; we can’t take it with us.

Jesus prods us into asking the question: What if instead of us serving our wealth, our wealth served others. Help each other out, especially the poor and outcast, Jesus says; that way if you’re ever in need, they’ll help you out too.

Many of the concerns Jesus had were the same ones that Jeremiah had: How do we determine what can be healed and what is beyond repair? When are we called to work the system, and when is it too late? Is the system beyond repair? If so, what’s next? What should normal people do in the middle of this slow rolling disaster? When are we called to shrewdness, toward using wealth for giving it away? What about when is all we can do is sing the blues?

To sing the blues is not to give up; it is not to give up hope or fall into despair; it is to bare the soul to God and our fellow humans in a way that calls attention to the pain in the world. It is a recognition that the end has come and gone already. Yet the Good News is the singer is still here, and because of that, even through the tragedy and pain, God is still here. What more do we really need?

As we enter a moment of silent prayer and meditation, I invite to consider: when have we worked the system and made things better? When was a time that all we could do is sing the blues?

1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

So a sport that I’ve recently picked up is Sanda- Chinese kickboxing. If you’re not familiar with martial arts, it’s a full contact martial art that lets us use our hands, our legs, grappling, and to use throws.

My background is in fencing- I did it for a while and hope to get back into it once my gear fits again, and as a child and teenager I did some Karate, so the punching, kicking, and the footwork is familiar to me- this doesn’t mean I’m good at it, but it is familiar. What is new is the takedowns and the throws. If you’ve never had the experience of throwing someone or being thrown, oh boy, it’s wild. Throwing and being thrown is very different from the way we normally encounter the world. There are a lot of choices to be made when throwing someone, and some of those choices have some particularly nasty consequences. But there’s also things that you can do, especially when training or sparring, to make the fall easier and safer.

I will note for safety’s sake, kids, don’t try this at home, and no we did not go straight into this- we trained extensively on how to fall and how to roll- no i’m not going to do one right now, but trust me, I can. Key tips for everyone is to tuck your chin, don’t try to break your fall with outstretched arms, and engage your core muscles, and try not to let your head hit the ground.

I say this because a couple of weeks ago we had an exercise where everyone had to throw everyone else in the class. I was waiting in line when one of my fellow students was in the process of being thrown over someone’s shoulder and for a split second, he was on his back, parallel to the ground over this other guy’s shoulder. His eyes got wide for a second and he made a short gasp sound. The throw ended a split second later and he fell safely. Afterwards I went up to him and joked, “Nick, it looks like you saw God there for a second.” He replied, “Just wait until it’s your turn.”

And so I did. I think I understood; when you’re in the process of being thrown, there is very little you can do to change where you are. Of course, you can do work before it to not get thrown, and you can recover in different ways, including falling properly or rolling correctly, but in that moment, that split second, you are, at the mercy of your thrower. In a violent situation this can get very bad very quickly. It’s why the best means of self-defense is often to run away. Seriously.

Yet, thankfully, the folks in my class have a good rapport, and we work to not injure each other while training. Even if as a beginner I screw something up, my classmates won’t take it out on me. This is a profoundly Christian message.

So much of what we are called to do and show as Christians- forgiveness, grace, and yes, mercy, are a reflection of what God has already done for us. They are a recognition of our own powerlessness in the face of forces beyond our control; cosmic ones, yes, but also social ones, such as ignorance. In addition, I believe this is a calling for us to end cycles of retribution, violence, and exclusion as we can, following the example of Jesus. We are called to gather each other in, not drive each other out.

This is what drives the heart of our first reading. This letter, known as First Timothy, was traditionally understood to be a letter from the apostle Paul to Timothy giving some advice. Now we believe that this letter was probably not written by Paul, for many of the same reasons we don’t believe that Hebrews was not- the language used in this letter is different, than a letter like Galatians, Romans, or first Corinthians, and the church situations described in it are not the ones that Paul would have known of.

Instead scholars now believe it was someone else who wrote this letter- who we don’t know- probably around the year 150, although possibly as early as the year 100. They aren’t the theological masterworks of some of the other letters of the New Testament, and as letters of specific advice, this letter contains some things that are quite useful and some that aren’t.

Our section today is one of the nicer parts. It contains a phrase that is sometimes used as part of church services- I believe we have used it in our assurance of pardons after our prayer of confession on Communion Sunday- “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”

It also contains the phrase that you might recognize from the hymn “Immortal, Invisible”.

But the main thrust of this passage is not literary references, but mercy. That is, our author did not receive the punishment that perhaps he “should” have. As someone who was, in his words “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence”, he was not condemned by God or the fledgling Christian community, but rather, after he had turned away from his violence, accepted and eventually became a leader in it.

The story from Acts about Paul’s conversion, tells us that after Paul was knocked down from the heavenly light, he was blinded for a number of days, and left completely in the care of Damascus’ Christian community. Paul, once powerful, was rendered powerless. Yes, Paul had that same moment of helplessness that I had in the middle of being thrown. Yet his landing was made gentle. The community did not exact the justice that was rightly theirs to seek. They showed mercy instead.

Mercy happens when we pull back from retaliation, when we recognize that cycles of violence and exclusion do little more in the end then have us commit more violence and exclude more people. Just as God gathers us in, we are called to call each other into community, not call each other out, forcing each other out of community.

Perhaps Jesus’ parables are, for once, more straightforward. Jesus tells two stories in our Gospel reading; the first is a famous one for liberal and progressive Christians. Jesus tells the story of a sheep who wanders away. Instead of ignoring the sheep, shunning the sheep or even in more drastic terms, killing the sheep, Jesus goes to find the sheep, and return them to the flock.

Different commenters from different cultures have had much to say about this story. Some have noted the joy of the sheep at being saved. Others have focused on the joy of the community and the flock at being made whole. Today, going with the theme of being picked up, I relish the imagery of the sheep being carried on the shoulders of their shepherd. The sheep is totally helpless, yet trusts in the shepherd’s abundant mercy to not harm it. Instead of punishment for the sheep, the shepherd seeks only reconciliation and healing.

Let us go and do likewise.

As we begin our moment of silent prayer and reflection, let us consider the many ways we have been shown mercy, and how we might show it to others. Amen.

Updated: Sep 13

Psalm 1 ;Luke 14:25-33

I am often puzzled by things. Somethings just don’t make sense. How does a microwave work? Why does the Publix at 95th and Biscayne always feel like a zoo? Why do we keep believing that this is the year that the Dolphins have figured out their quarterback situation?

But one thing that has often puzzled me about the Jesus’ ministry is the seeming contradiction between two of these foundational statements: From Matthew Chapter 11: ““Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

And our reading for today: “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Is following Jesus something to give us rest? Or is there as, been famously said, a cost to discipleship?

I believe that the answer is both, but with some nuance and reframing.

As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, Jesus’ call to lay our burdens down is an important one. Some Christians are fond of the phrase, “Giving things up to God”, recognizing that certain situations are outside of our control, or that worrying about them will not add to them.

Unfortunately, this has sometimes been read as a call for an abrogation of responsibility, and I don’t believe it is. If there’s anything we have an inclination toward, it’s to maintain control over everything we can. To give up control over something we hold dear is hard. Everyone who has seen a child move toward adulthood knows that to relax control over something is as hard- or harder- than asserting control over something.

So what burdens are we called to give up to God? Much of what we are called to give up is in the realm of the spiritual/emotional; we ought to give up the burden of sin; our uncontrolled anger, our egos, our selfishness, our greed. We are called to give our desire to absolutely control our future. We are called to give up our sense of surety that we are the ultimate authority in our lives.

Yet this might not be all that we are called to give up. Our Gospel reading ends with a call to give our material wealth- “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

What are we to make of this? Surely we see this among the apostles; they leave their fishing boats and farm tools behind to follow Jesus.

Yet not everyone who is counted as faithful does so. There are numerous others counted as faithful followers of Jesus who do not do this. We know this through our gospels, the letters of Paul and the history of the early church.

Yet we should not give up so easily on this idea. We know that one the great sins of the church throughout history has been the wealth that it has horded for itself, often at the expense of others, often the poor that Jesus told us to give and serve.

There’s some evidence that monasticism – monasteries and people living as monks and nuns- started as a counter cultural movement in its earliest days to follow these words of Jesus- one of the vows monks and nuns take is a vow of poverty. Unfortunately, monasteries themselves would eventually become centers of horded wealth, with some of the most egregious examples owning slaves or being partners to genocide, especially of Native Americans and Africans.

Our tradition doesn’t really do monks and monasteries all that much; the catholic church does, and its big in the orthodox church. You might not know that the episcopal church has monasteries. A good note is that some have become more explicitly ecumenical, welcoming into community, though often not the full experience, people from different traditions. If you want to find out more about that, talk to Brad- one of his happy places is a monastery up in Wisconsin.

But what about the rest of us; those that can’t, or won’t, because of our obligations- to our families, our communities, heck, just because we aren’t spiritually ready for it?

If we cannot fulfill the entirety of Jesus’s command to the letter, at least we can fulfill its spirit. We can have healthier relationships with our money, our possessions and wealth, especially those of us who have more. Even if we can’t give up all our possessions, we can give up our love of money and desire for ever more of it. Although we cannot be perfect in this life, this is no excuse not to strive for it.

But what of the flip side of this? What of the crosses we are called to bear? Those who first heard this message must have been puzzled and troubled by the language of crosses being the burden to bear.

I will note here that the burden of the crosses we bear is going to be categorically different from the burden of Jesus’ cross; The crucifixion and resurrection were singular events, good enough for the redemption and reconciliation of humanity. I do not believe this is a call for martyrdom, physical or metaphorical. It is not our duty to bear the sins of humanity or whatever else you believe happened on the cross.

But I also believe this is a call to responsibility toward one another; although we do not need to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders, like Atlas of old, we are called to be there for one another; to recognize that we are, against all odds and whether we like it or not, one body in Christ. We are, in fact, our brother’s keepers. When one part of the body is suffering, the whole body suffers.

Our lives are interconnected with one another- we have a common origin and share a common destiny. This is not just for those we hold most dear. Last week, we were reminded that we called to widening circles of concern; those close to us, the strangers in our midst and nearby, and to remember prisoners and those being tortured as though we were being tortured.

So yes, we are called to lay down our burdens- our anxieties, our sins, our greed and egos and all those things that tear us apart from one another. And we are called to bear new crosses, new responsibilities; toward one another, caring for each other and for the world we inhabit. Let us do things in hope, in faith, and most of all, in love with one another and with our God. Let us contemplate these things in a moment of silent prayer and meditation.