The Common Good
September-October 2013

The Church of the Long Haul

by Martin L. Smith | September-October 2013

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

WHICH SCRIPTURES WILL our biases tempt us to sidestep this month? Perhaps 2 Timothy? Not usually the favorite of radicals. Whether actually written by Paul just before his death or worked up later by followers, the letter has a certain poignancy, suggesting the waning of Christianity’s pioneer phase. The church is in for the long haul. Its faith needs to find forms that can be transmitted across generations. It needs patient leadership that will be consistent in the face of inauthentic mutations of the gospel, religious imposters, and the distraction of futile controversies—hence the emphasis on sound teaching, the internalized treasure of the creed.

Let’s honor this recognition within scripture itself that the gospel needs institutions. The church must even risk banality in some of its teaching practices. A great interpreter of the Christian mystical tradition, Friedrich von Hügel, invites us to respect the way radical teachings have to be given forms that can be handled by regular folks, not geniuses. “Is there not a pathetic instruction in watching the insertion of the copper alloy into the pure gold ... that is, a metal sufficiently resistant to the clumsy handling of the multitude to be able to persist in the transmission of a value, and indeed a precise value, even though it be not the highest. There is surely a pathos here most thoroughly characteristic of the abiding limitations and homely needs of our poor humanity.”

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ October 6 ]
Faith Increased, Faith Infectious
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 37:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

"THE APOSTLES SAID to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith’” (Luke 17:5). In this week’s gospel passage, we see the salutary effect of Jesus’ constant goading of his followers, typified by his unflattering nickname for them—“the little-faiths.” Cruel, but ultimately an expression of love, if such goading might provoke them to let go of that conventional attitude that confines our spirits and religion within predictable, manageable limits. Here the disciples risk openness to a faith that expands to ever-widening horizons, that shakes off the pedestrian limits imposed by the status quo, that connects with the unbounded newness in the coming of God’s reign. Jesus creates by his presence the eschatological desire for the impossible. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (verse 6).

Psalm 37 reminds us that authentic faith (“Commit your way to the Lord, and put your trust in him”) reclaims the energy that dissipates when we burn it up fretting over the apparent successes enjoyed by those who prosper through evil scheming. If we would only “leave rage alone” and wait patiently for the Lord, then that energy would be available for true living, doing good, and taking “delight in the Lord.” It is true that those who are most capable of confronting evil display this delight; one thinks of the infectious spiritual merriment of Desmond Tutu.

In the reading from 2 Timothy, there is a valuable recognition that faith is infectious. We can catch it from one another; flame touches off flame. Timothy is reminded that his own sincere faith has been kindled by two remarkable women of God: his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice. Faith is intrinsically a phenomenon of communion.

[ October 13 ]
Ten Cleansed, Only One Healed
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

THE SCRIPTURES INVITE us to identify experimentally with the experience of the uprooted, the exiled, and the excluded. The oracles of Jeremiah are meant to prepare exiled Jews to live into their new existence as forced migrants in Babylon. Catastrophic as the devastation of their sacred homeland and Jerusalem has been, horrible as it might be to live in an utterly alien environment in Babylon, exile was to be a meaningful, even healing experience. If they would only reject the poison of resentment, then they could live and learn—and be prepared by God—for an eventual restoration. They must feel for and with their new neighbors. They must identify appropriately with the city that is now their provisional home, for all its overpowering paganism and strangeness. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).

The experience of a double exile is the focus of Luke’s story of the leper who retraced his steps after being healed in order to give thanks to God in Jesus’ presence. The victim of skin disease was doubly disqualified from the community of the faith: despised as a Samaritan and shunned as a pariah whose proximity could communicate ritual contamination. The one who is most alienated is most grateful, to Jesus’ wonder and delight. Disappointingly, the other nine have hurried on to get their certificates from the priests, preoccupied with the business of returning to normality. So the story vibrates with the issue of praise and thanksgiving. Praise is always an interruption in our preoccupation, a turning back in our tracks, a turning toward the source of life and newness. Ten were cleansed—only the one who turned to praise was healed.

[ October 20 ]
Prayer Makes Claims on God
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5; Luke 18:1-8


HEARING AGAIN JESUS' parable about the widow seeking justice who eventually wears down the unjust judge is a good occasion for asking ourselves whether our spirituality has bartered away a robust, evangelical understanding of prayer. It is quite common nowadays to understand prayer as primarily a “meditative exercise” whose real purpose is to cultivate good attitudes in ourselves, rather than to make claims on the action of God. Jacques Ellul, in his classic Prayer and Modern Man, exposes the evasion of the gospel behind this popular understanding:

Prayer in this view is a means of acting upon ourselves pedagogically, and of making ourselves to be what God expects us to be. ... [W]e are discovering the same desire to make prayer into a means, and instrument, a method, that is to say, to divert it radically from that which God ... has appointed it to be. ... Of the extraordinary, outrageous, astonishing act, we retain the system brought down to our own level. ... Our prayer, in the end, is only meant to be an action upon ourselves. It is self-instruction. With what seeming wisdom and humility we do in fact divert prayer hypocritically from its truth in which God is at the center, in order to put ourselves once again at the center of the operation. Thus to pretend that God is too great is a subtle way of recovering the principal role for ourselves.

Much of the impetus behind the pastoral epistles stems from the need to combat tendencies to conform Christianity to gnostic priorities, where the interest lies in timeless insights detached from our actual experience, our struggles in the real world of politics, economics, culture. The writer of 2 Timothy knows that the essential defense against the trend “to wander away to myths” (2 Timothy 4:4) is constant exposure to the prophetic scriptures. Christian life is genuine only in a state of expectation of the coming presence of Christ and the reign of God. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message” (2 Timothy 4:1-2).

[ October 27 ]
Pilgrimage to Our True Home
Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 84:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14


OUR READINGS INVITE us to reflect on the temple as the symbol of religion’s goal. In Jesus’ mordant parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector at their prayers, both go up to the temple. The goal of the Pharisee’s prayer is to keep things the same. No transformation is required or expected, so prayer can piously, reassuringly, review the status quo. He has met all spiritual requirements. The nasty tax collector in the corner even has his place as a foil, to add to spiritual contentment by furnishing a contrasting example of what it is to be in the wrong. The tax collector has no spiritual assets, but comes to the temple needy for transformation. God could change his state through the power and grace of mercy. But that yearning for transformation is the faith that God recognizes, and so the tax collector is changed by forgiveness. The Pharisee, wedded to the status quo of his own success, has unknowingly divorced himself from God.

Psalm 84 celebrates pilgrimage to the temple as the symbol of life’s movement. “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (verse 2). The life of faith is lived in a state of awakened desire. In this state of arousal, prayer and worship bring a deep sense of homecoming and belonging. Our actual apartments and houses can go a long way to satisfying this need for home, but never the whole way. Faith recognizes a homesickness for God. Only pilgrimage can lead us to that ultimate home in God. In this awakened state there is no need for strategies of denial and avoidance. Life is fraught with inevitable sufferings and losses. These can be integrated into the life of faith when we experience it as a pilgrimage. They do not separate us from the living God. “Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water. They will climb from height to height, and the God of gods will reveal himself to Zion” (Psalm 84:6-7, Book of Common Prayer).

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at sojo.net/ptw. September 2013 lectionary reflections are available here.

Image: Blurred text on vintage paper, Aleksandar Mijatovic / Shutterstock.com

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