The prophetic voices of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Jesus continue to disturb and overturn what we think we know. (RCL Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; [or Isaiah 58:9b-14 & Psalm 103:1-8] Hebrews 12:18-29; and Luke 13:10-17) They are also voices that can excite and energize us with the call of truth and life abundant. The life giving spirit of God is not a nice extra in life but the very essence of life. Let us rejoice and be outrageously hopeful.
The readings set for this week provoke us to continue our exploration of disturbance and destruction as part of the process of transformation and growth. Last week I explored with you Richard Rohr’s model of the Wisdom pattern as Order, Disorder and Reorder primarily from a primarily individual perspective. This week I think we need to broaden our scope and reflect on the ways in which we need to participate in the breaking down of the world as we know it so that there may be a new building up of a more just and merciful world.
Let me first say a little about what I understand to be meant by disturbance. I think disturbance and division and destruction as used in Scripture include the personal - as when we are disturbed by change and loss, uncertainty and weariness in everyday life – but are also very much about disturbance in the community particularly related to issues of justice and injustice, faithfulness and disobedience, as consequences to behaviour and attack from outside. It is a very common human reaction and is not of itself good or bad but an opportunity to respond with faithfulness and courage. It is often portrayed as being due to an intervention by God is response to disobedience. However it is not necessarily so and the gospel story this week does not blame the woman’s ill health on her or her family.
In a week in which I am celebrating the seventeenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood (with twenty five years as a day time social worker and weekend lay leader in faith communities before) it is a provocative gift to have the call of Jeremiah the reluctant prophet (Jeremiah 1:4-10) as one of the readings. Jeremiah’s call is during turbulent times and he ends up going with his people into exile not a peaceful old age. His call was to speak as told and “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Whilst personally I prefer building up and planting I recognise that in order to work with current reality toward transformation and growth we must often, if not always, also engage with turning over the soil of previous crops, pruning and ‘destroying’ some of what has been before. (I am not advocating anarchy but I do think that we who are fairly comfortable need to open our eyes and ears to the cries of those who are not and participate in the dismantling of protected privilege so that all might experience God’s goodness and abundance).
This leads me to reflect that we are called as people of faith to discern what in our time needs plucking up and pulling down and what needs planting and building so that justice might prevail and the faithful remnant might survive, even if in exile. Like Jeremiah we may well not feel comfortable or qualified for this calling and yet we are fortunate or unfortunate enough to be born into a time of great disturbance and opportunity and as people of faith we cannot be separate to the turmoil and tasks of this age for faith, survival and salvation are not simply private individual matters but inheritantly community and planetary imperatives. That is, yours and my personal transformation, growth and salvation is important but doesn’t really make sense outside of the community of which you and I are part or indeed separate to the planet we form part of.
Secondly our engagement with the processes of plucking up and planting may lead to social reform and great improvements in our community such as the work of some of our forebears of faith like William Wilberforce, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jrn (although they were mightily resisted in their own time because of course the improvements they sought cost those who were benefitting from the disadvantage of others). Our involvement however might not be ‘successful’ in our own time and we may find that our calling is to go into exile with our people. Many of the giants of the Hebrew Bible did not live long enough to reach their particular promised land and many social reformers did not see the realisation of their mission in their own time. In an age of individualism it is counter cultural to be reminded, as we were last week in the letter to the Hebrews, that we are part of a faithful chain of being that stretches back and forward and part of a cloud of witnesses rather than singular heroes of faith. Like Jeremiah we are called to faithful work without necessarily being promised success.
This takes great courage and obedience and quite frankly can be very disheartening. Reflecting on my years as a parish priest brings meaning and gratitude but also the painful awareness that I am not sure what I achieved in any conventional sense if very much at all. Some places grew while I was there, some continued to shrink; some people responded and grew spiritually and flourished, others resisted and either left or out waited me; my denomination seemed to make progress on matters of significance to me such as women’s roles and recognition of people of different gender identity and sexual orientation but then in recent years threatens to split along such concerns. Toward the end of my priestly ministry I am not sure what I have achieved and yet I have sought to be faithful and to take courage and preach plucking up and tearing down when called upon even as I have preferred to concentrate of planting and building up. I am not even sure that my denomination will survive (and some days I’m not sure it deserves to survive) and yet I pray and trust that like those women named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel that my faithfulness, no matter how chaotic and out of step to others, may have kept the chain of faithful being and becoming unfolding long enough for the remnant to survive and come to thrive in a future age.
And thirdly the wonderful gospel story of Jesus’ healing the woman trapped in ill health on the Sabbath tells us why it is important to go through the disturbance so that others can be set free, released from bondage and disadvantage, and gifted with new life (surely the true purpose of Sabbath). We are not called to confront our own hypocrisy (that is, mere acting the part of a religious person rather than full hearted engagement) simply to be better and better religious folk but so that the life giving spirit of God can be unleashed from the constraints we try and enforce and thus be experienced by all, especially those most in need. This may sometimes be confusing and confounding for us on the inside of religion but it will ultimately be for our good and enjoyment too. Firstly because we may find ourselves part of a more vibrant, just and flourishing community. And secondly because we are not always the ones doing the ministering and giving, we too need to belong in communities where we can be set free, released from what binds us, and gifted with new life.
While I feel the disturbance and inconvenience of the prophetic voices of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Jesus, I also feel the excitement and energy of the call of truth and life abundant. The life giving spirit of God is not a nice extra in life but the very essence of life. Let us rejoice and be outrageously hopeful.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, grant us courage and desire to pluck up and to plant, to release and to belong, that we might know your grace in times of plenty and times of exile.