Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Way It Is

This week's lectionary passages are Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-15; and Luke 16:19-31. You can read these passages (which include two REALLY great, detailed, colorful stories!) here.

I think in terms of song. I can't help it; somehow this is the way my brain is wired. A word, a phrase, a story, an image, an experience--all of these can start a song playing in my head like a CD on relentless repeat at any given moment. As I've been sitting with these passages this week, the same song has been streaming through the waves of my mental radio station again and again: Bruce Hornsby's 1985 classic, "The Way It Is." (Fun Fact: Bruce (yes, I like to think that we're on a first name basis) graduated from my high school, and legend has it that my French teacher once called him out in front of the class and told him he was going to end up homeless on the street if he didn't do his homework. I have no idea if this is truth or myth, but I love the visual) In the
lyrics, Bruce sings about the gap between the haves and have-nots that persists in our society, the racial and economic divides that persist across the generations--things you don't often hear sung about in a thoughtful way on pop radio. Amidst a telling of these stories that could be discouraging, however, Bruce offers a challenge in the chorus: he follows the usual argument of "That's just the way it is/Some things will never change/That's just the way it is" with a plea to the hearer to think differently: "Ha, but don't you believe them".

I think this chorus would have been on replay in the heads of both Jeremiah and Jesus in the places where we meet them today, had Bruce composed his song 2000 (or, in the case of Jeremiah, 2600) years earlier. Take Jeremiah--he had been proclaiming doom for Judah for years now—decades even!—telling the people that Judah was going to be captured by her enemies and that if they did not repent, there was no way they could avoid it. Now, finally, it has become apparent that Jeremiah’s prophecies are about to be fulfilled—the Babylonian armies have the city surrounded and under siege, the people of Jerusalem slowly starving to death and watching the world they’ve built for themselves be dismantled brick by brick…quite literally. Now even the people of Jerusalem realize there is no way to escape—this is just the way it is. The Temple, the City, and the people are about to be destroyed.

Suddenly, however, Jeremiah changes his tune—this city is going to fall, this fact will not change; but that will also not be true forever. In a prophetic act of buying a worthless piece of land in a country that was about to be owned by the enemy, Jeremiah makes one of the first truly hopeful proclamations of his ministry—his act of “don’t you believe them.” Jerusalem will be destroyed…but not forever. Houses will be built and fields will be planted again in this land.

Jesus, too, tells a tale of “don’t you believe them.” It is a tale that starts by speaking of the status quo: of a descriptively painted gap between the haves (the unnamed rich man) and the have-nots (the poor man, Lazarus)—a gap between wealth and poverty that has always been true in most every human society. “That’s just the way it is,” we could say in response to this story that we see played out every day in our own communities; “Some things will never change.” But Jesus then tells another story: a story of the kingdom of God, where “the way it is” is turned upside down, where the poor and forgotten are comforted at the bosom of Abraham and those who were prideful are left in despair, their lives no longer a bounty of everything that they ever wanted; now, the only things the rich man truly wants are beyond his reach. This is the case, Father Abraham makes clear in this story, because the rich man failed to believe there was another way—he failed to hear the words of Moses and the prophets, failed to be changed and transformed by the story of the society God was looking to build among God’s people.

There is so much detail in these stories, so much to unpack and unravel; but most of all, they are stories of reversals…that show us “the way it is”—or the way it seems to be—and then encourage us, through visions of different possible futures, to believe that this will not always be so…that God is envisioning and working to build a different kingdom, and that God begins to build that kingdom through the things we decide to believe, the things we place our trust in, the choices we make in things as everyday as real estate transactions and how we share our wealth.

So much in these stories…so much. But join us on Sunday as we dive into them together…and if there’s a song rolling through your head as we do, then that’s perfectly okay.

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