Invitations to Faith and Freedom

In the hot, "lazy" days of July and August-maybe just when we're ready for that vacation-God lets us know that there is no "down time" where faith is concerned. Our summer lectionary is a short course in the prophets: Elijah and Elisha, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah all appear, speaking with clarity and force about the demands of faithfulness. Above all, they sound a clarion call for justice.

Our gospel lessons are drawn from Luke, who had his own preoccupation with the sufferings of the poor. His summons to compassion and simplicity is complemented with the beautiful images of restoration and joy found in the Psalms. The texts are rounded out with the cosmic, poetic invitations to faith and freedom that dance through the Epistles.

Summer is a bold season. Though we may long mostly to retreat to the shade with a tall glass of lemonade and a good book, it's a time to plunge into deep waters and attack life with gusto. But if you must lose yourself in a book, try the Bible. These texts are as likely to refresh as to challenge.

July 2: No Turning Back
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20, 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, Galatians 5:1, 13-25. Luke 9:51-62

In today's Old Testament passage, the prophet Elijah dramatically rolls up his mantle and strikes water. The water parts, and he and Elisha cross on dry ground in their own miniversion of the Exodus. Then come the chariot and horses of fire to sweep Elijah in a whirlwind to heaven. What power and mystery we find in today's scriptures!-a God in marked contrast to the God of the still, small voice who visited Elijah at the entrance of the cave (1 Kings 19:12-13).

Trembling deep, thundering skies, lightning and whirlwind-creation on a rampage! God takes his people by the hand and leads them through the travail to freedom. God is ever-present, but unseen-invisible, except for her works. She leaves no footprints on the path through the sea, as the psalmist tells us so poetically.

We are invited to trust in this God of power. He leads the way to freedom. Come hell or high water, God will make a way out of no way. There is no turning back-not to bury the dead, not to bid farewell to those left behind; no looking back once the hand is on the plow, once the face is set to Jerusalem.

In July 1983, members of Jubilee Partners took their bus to south Texas and picked up 35 refugees fleeing the terror in Central America. Planning to carry these "illegal aliens" to their community in Georgia, they knew that they were breaking the law by doing so, but felt that their faith required this act of compassion.

The morning of their departure from Texas dawned with dark thunderclouds overhead. They headed north, toward the dreaded Border Patrol checkpoint that lay ahead. They watched four tornado funnels touch down just off the highway. Wind swirled around them, tension grew, and conversation stopped as they drew up to the barricade.

Yellow lights were flashing, and the area was full of Border Patrol vehicles, among them a bus with bars on its windows, used for hauling illegal refugees to a nearby detention center. The Jubilee members fought off the temptation to turn around and return the refugees to the hiding places from which they had emerged.

When they slowed at the checkpoint, there was not a human being in sight. A few seconds later they were past the barricade and moving up the open highway to freedom. The bus exploded with spontaneous thanks to God in Spanish. "Señor," said a refugee, "now I know what the children of Israel felt like when they were coming out of the Red Sea!"

The exodus from Texas remains a mystery. But it offers the same invitation as our scripture passages: Trust in the whirlwind power of God. Freedom lies ahead. No turning back.

July 9: Reaping the Harvest
Psalm 30, 2 Kings 5:1-14, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Last summer-my first in the country after 15 years of inner-city living-was the season of the priceless tomato. Despite a serious lack of experience, I decided to plant a garden. I read up on gardening, talked with veteran gardeners, and plunged in. I got seeds and seedlings, tools and tomato cages, truckloads of manure and topsoil and lime. But I planted late, in a spot that wasn't sunny enough, and quickly lost interest in weeding. And then the goat got loose.

I managed to salvage one scrawny tomato plant from the goat attack. I moved it to a pot on my very sunny porch, watered it regularly, and kept a close watch. A few weeks later I had one marvelous, plump, juicy, red tomato. I calculated that that tomato cost me $42.87.

Our scriptures today are about sowing and reaping. In the agricultural society of biblical times, these images were particularly rich with meaning. You cannot harvest what you have not planted. You receive only from that which you have carefully watched and tended. You reap only what you sow.

Those who sow violence, reap violence. Those who scatter peace will find peace springing up all over. Those who water the earth with tears of compassion will be embraced by a harvest of healing and love.

"So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up" (Galatians 6:9).

July 16: Measuring Up
Psalm 82, Amos 7:7-17, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

The psalmist cries out to God, "How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked" (Psalm 82:2-3). What anguish lies behind these words. And what comfort for us to hear them; have we not also prayed them-or been tempted to?

Why is there so much suffering for the poor? Why do houses and jobs and school lunches keep disappearing for those who so desperately need them? Why are the homeless despised, the refugees rejected, the helpless scorned? Why do the wicked keep winning?

The answer, of course, lies not in God's hands, but in ours. Justice will come if we love our neighbor, bear the fruits of righteousness, become the "saints of light."

God took up what is surely the world's largest plumb line to measure the people's commitment to justice. The people of Israel were found to be "warped beyond correction," as one commentator puts it. Thus Amos pronounced their doom.

The question for us today is not, Why do the wicked prosper?-but rather, How do we measure up? We may discover, to our dismay, that the answer to both questions might well be the same.

July 23: A Vision for Our Time
Psalm 52. Amos 8:1-12, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

The prophet Amos is a man of visions. The unfolding of the first two-a vision of God's judgment by locusts and then by fire-is withheld when Amos pleads for mercy on behalf of the people of Israel. The third is the plumb line of last week's scriptures, and the fourth today's basket of summer fruit. The ripe fruit is a symbol of the immediacy of Israel's destruction.

The reason for the judgment is clear: The rich trample the poor, practicing deceit with their measures and balances, "buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat" (Amos 8:5-6).

Israel's sin is a societal failure to care for those most in need. And more than failure, it is a purposeful oppressing of the poorest by deceit and betrayal-to expand the pockets of the well-off. Our psalm lays out a clear choice: One can take refuge in God or in riches. The choice applies to individuals as well as to nations, then as well as now.

The agonizing cry of last week's psalm has been transformed into bold confidence in the God who defends the poor and uproots evil-doers. The evidence hasn't changed; the poor still suffer. But with the eyes of faith, one can see what hasn't yet happened. May we be so bold! In these days of so much harshness toward the most powerless among us, may we follow Amos' example of courageous condemnation and quiet compassion.

July 30: Righteousness Will Look Down
Psalm 85, Hosea 1:2-10, Colossians 2:6-19, Luke 11:1-13

The life of the prophet Hosea is a parable of the life of the people of Israel: God commands Hosea to marry Gomer, a prostitute, as a sign of Israel's unfaithfulness to God. The children of this marriage are named "God sows," "Not pitied," and "Not my people."

But gratefully, God's wrath does not last forever. God is forgiving. After the judgment comes mercy-and a beautiful vision of what life can be: "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky" (Psalm 85:10-11).

All is restored; and all shall be well. We need only ask, seek, knock. The rampaging God of the whirlwind is also a God who welcomes and feeds and restores-the calm after the storm, who gently invites us back to faith and wholeness.

August 6: A Mother's Love
Psalm 107:1-9, 43, Hosea 11:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

What a tender passage Hosea offers us, a love like that spoken by a mother toward a son or daughter. God recounts that she loved Israel as a child. She taught the people to walk and took them up in her arms. "I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them" (Hosea 11:4).

What sorrow this God feels when her children turn from her. Yet, she asks plaintively, "How can I give you up? How can I hand you over?" A mother's love never dies. Her "compassion grows warm and tender" (11:8).

God grows angry, grieves, rejoices, loves. What comfort to know that the One who makes the planets turn and the flowers grow feels everything that we do.

Her children return, like trembling birds, to the source of love. For those who know God's redemption, there is one overwhelming response: "O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so" (Psalm 107:1-2a).

August 13: Keeping the Faith
Psalm 50:1-8; 22-23, Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40

The last three Sundays in August bring us the marvelous passages on faith from the Letter to the Hebrews. The best definition of faith I've ever heard begins the 11th chapter: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

Today's passage goes on to recount the faithfulness of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob. It includes these disturbing-and comforting-words: "These all died in faith, not having received what was promised" (11:13). Disturbing, because these ancestors in the faith never reached the promise but only "greeted it from afar." Comforting, because we know we have company in our efforts, which, like theirs, aren't always "successful" by the world's terms.

Penny Lernoux was a journalist who was converted by the deep faith of the suffering people she met in Central America. These are the closing words of her last book, People of God:

The People of God will continue their march....And the Third World will continue to beckon to the First, reminding it of the Galilean vision of Christian solidarity. As a young Guatemalan said, a few months before she was killed by the military, "What good is life unless you give it away?"-unless you can give it for a better world, even if you never see that world but have only carried your grain of sand to the building site. Then you're fulfilled as a person.

We're building a new city-one where justice and peace replace hatred and violence. I may only add the 57th brick in the third row of the left wall of the garage for the second house from the corner. It may seem like little. But if we all work together-and keep the faith-a world more grand than our greatest imaginings will one day appear.

August 20: Cloud of Witnesses
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19, Isaiah 5:1-7, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56

Today's passage from Hebrews lists more of the history of the people of faith: the Red Sea crossing; the tumbling walls of Jericho; the valor of warriors up against enemies and lions; suffering of the faithful by torture, jail, and death. These also did not receive what was promised. This passage adds an interesting twist. It tells us why: "Since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect" (11:40, emphasis mine).

Cleo Fields of Louisiana, who at 25 was the youngest state senator in the country, said during the 1988 presidential campaign: "Booker T. Washington started to teach so Rosa Parks could take her seat. Rosa Parks took her seat so Fannie Lou Hamer could take her stand. Fannie Lou Hamer took her stand so Martin Luther King Jr. could march. Martin Luther King marched so Jesse Jackson could run."

Each step forward in the civil rights struggle depended on the faithful step of someone else. The same could be said of every movement for freedom and justice everywhere. Those who take the initial and middle steps may not see the promise, but they have moved the world that much closer to it.

And their perfection depends on us. The vision only keeps moving forward as long as we pick up the ball and run. The efforts of all those who went before us end in failure if we don't do our part. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (12:1).

Historian Vincent Harding describes these witnesses as "a great cheering squad for us. In the midst of everything that seems so difficult, that seems so powerful, that seems so overwhelming, they are saying to us: 'We are with you,' and 'There is a way through'....Don't give up!'

"No excuse for drooping-at least not for long. No excuse for not running-or at least walking strong....'Cause we are surrounded, folks. So, let's...get down with some real long-distance walking and running-and maybe even some flying like eagles, in due time. That's our tradition. That's our destiny. That's our hope. So go right on, brothers and sisters....There is a city to build."

August 27: An Unshakeable Truth
Psalm 71:1-6, Jeremiah 1:4-10, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

The story of Jeremiah echoes that of several other prophets. Called by God, he talks about his inadequacies for the job. "I am only a boy," he says. But God has a ready retort: I will put the words in your mouth; I will be with you.

This God has known each of us before we were conceived in the womb. She can be trusted from the first gasp of life until the end of time. This God, as the psalmist reminds us, is rock and refuge and fortress.

The reign that God proclaims and that we receive "cannot be shaken" (Hebrews 12:28). Whatever we may or may not see, whatever we may or may not accomplish, this promise is true. We can trust it.

So we are invited to step forward with boldness and confidence, trusting that God will overcome whatever inadequacies we feel; knowing that we preach a truth that is far greater than our weaknesses and doubt.

We join a long line of people of faith. And they are waiting for us to build a new world with them.

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a former associate editor and now a contributing editor for Sojourners, writes, leads retreats, and works with survivors of domestic abuse in western North Carolina. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

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