Jer. 29:1, 4-7; 2 Tim. 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-17;
Some of us are old enough to remember when Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was written in memory of John F. Kennedy and commissioned to open the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 1971. People were expecting a beautiful lyrical mass like those of Mozart or Bach. This one was shockingly different. Against the back drop of the assassination of John Kennedy some 7 years earlier, and of Robert Kennedy and ML King Jr. just 3 years earlier, and the ongoing protest of the war in Vietnam, one writer suggested that Bernstein’s subject was not the usual “holy order” of a mass but the frightening disorder of unholy times.
I thought of Bernstein’s mass for unholy times because it incorporates this morning’s lesson from 2 Timothy, and because it is eerily appropriate for the unsettling terrorism of our own unholy time. The relentless drumbeat in Bernstein’s treatment of 2 Timothy– you cannot imprison the Word of the Lord, you cannot scuttle the Word of the Lord, and you cannot abolish the Word of the Lord - calls us, like the Apostle Paul calls Timothy, not to a spirit of cowardice but to a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6J89mYwQOaQ
All the assigned lectionary texts speak to this reality. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon urged them to settle down there against everything they thought Jeremiah would tell them to do. 2 Timothy reminds us that even when ministers of God’s word are in chains, the Word of God itself remains unchained. And the Gospel story of the 10 lepers healed by Jesus tells of a Samaritan who returned to say thank you, and received something he didn’t expect.
As people of faith we gather each Sunday to have an encounter with the Word of God. That Word always stands above us, and we are called to live under its watchful eye. When it is the Word of God we hear – and not just words from a book or from a preacher – it always confronts or confirms us. If we aren’t confronted or confirmed in our spirit, we may have heard words of God, or words about God, or even words from God. But we haven’t heard the Word of God for us. Sometimes people say to me, “you really spoke to me this morning in your sermon.” I ask them what impacted them. When they tell me what they heard, it’s rarely what I intended to say. That’s when I know that the Word of God has been heard. No matter how hard we try to lock up the Word of God in dogmas or concepts or opinions or forums or fine ideas, the Word of God always breaks the chains and does its work.
I’ve spoken before of the weekly Bible Study I had with a group of women in Mexico City leading a process of community transformation in the squatter community where I lived and worked. These women had not been schooled beyond the elementary level; they’d never read the Bible for themselves; never been to Sunday school. But week by week as we opened the Bible to study a passage of Scripture, these women opened my eyes and ears to the Word of God in ways that always confronted us about our work. Just when we were beginning to get proud of ourselves for doing something right, the Word confronted us about a distortion in our perspective or some complacency in our action. When we felt like we had failed, the Word confirmed that it wasn’t failure but faithfulness.
This is what happened to the exiles in Babylon when they received Jeremiah’s letter. They might have wished to believe it was okay to settle down and get a life. But they were sure their religion would teach them to remain separate, to maintain their religious and racial purity. Anything else would have meant being unfaithful. What a surprise to receive Jeremiah’s letter saying that at least part of what they wanted – to settle into life in exile – was God’s invitation. But since God’s Word both confronts and surprises, Jeremiah not only invited them to build houses and plant gardens, but to seek the welfare of the enemy, believing that in his or her welfare they would find their own welfare. That wasn’t something they had wanted to hear.
To hear that word is to unchain the word from my own presuppositions. When should the people of God resist tyranny? When should they adapt to their circumstances? There’s not a single answer for all circumstances. Each tyrannical situation must be evaluated on its own. Faithful listening to the Word of God doesn’t involve memorizing certain interpretations of Scripture. It involves being willing not to know what a particular passage of Scripture means for me today. The Word of God will never remain chained to our interpretations.
The faith community that received the epistle of 2 Timothy was struggling with what it meant to be faithful to the Word of God. Some had left because they were ashamed of the Gospel, ashamed of the apostle who had brought it to them, and ashamed of the community that believed that Gospel. Some had begun a campaign to get others to leave the church because they were ashamed of Paul’s imprisonment, and of a Gospel that might lead to their imprisonment. The new teachers espoused the view that the resurrection had already taken place and that there is no future resurrection. We have new life now. Their gospel guaranteed everlasting life for individuals, including life after death, but didn’t offer what Paul preached: the transformation of all humanity; the vision of a transformed society, rooted in social justice and the kingdom of God. Theirs had become a prosperity gospel, a spirituality for the soul alone. So Paul clarifies that being a Christian means suffering with Christ and sharing in Christ’s future. It envisions not a blessed immortal soul, but a community in which the cries of the poor have been heard and there is justice and peace.
We move away from Jesus when the Gospel just means we are individually victorious, even though that view has arisen in the church through the centuries. Teachers like Paul, who refuse to let the word be imprisoned in a theology of private salvation or in an unjust status quo, often end up in prison themselves. They get recognized eventually; but in the moment those in power imprison them and the general populace is ashamed of them.
This shouldn’t surprise us anymore. Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa after spending 27 years in prison for being a subversive. An African woman named Wangari Muta Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for founding the Green Belt environmental movement in Kenya, after being arrested and beaten to unconsciousness by police. Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident imprisoned after the Tiananmen Square uprisings, was also awarded the Prize in 2010. The Word of God will not be imprisoned.
In this season of deep divisions about what is true in our country it’s helpful to remember the power of God’s Word both to confront our over-confident knowing, and to make us act on what we do know. When I’m honest with myself the Word of God challenges some of the beliefs I espouse, or at least the way I hold or defend them. And when I allow the Word of God to do its number on me I always end up acting on my convictions, rather than simply saying I believe something while doing nothing about it. I suggest those two criteria for faithfulness to God’s word: does it confront me? And, does it lead me to act? May God continue speaking to us, and may we continue to respond. Amen.
It might surprise Martha Stewart, who went to prison this past week, to meet some of the people she will encounter there, even though she recently declared that "good people go to jail," offering Nelson Mandela as a case in point. She won’t have to look far for confirmation. Among the women there is Carol Gilbert, a Dominican nun who last year began a 33 month imprisonment. Along with Sisters Ardeth Platte and Jackie Hudson, Gilbert cut through the fence surrounding a Minuteman III missile silo in Colorado. The three then poured blood on the massive concrete lid that covered the nuclear warhead. This provoked charges of "sabotage" from the federal government, and the attendant imprisonments.
Yet even here faithfulness to the truth of the Gospel forces the author of the letter to waver on the matter of the consequences of unfaithfulness. It would behoove the argument to say that if we are faithless Christ will not be faithful to us. That would be a convenient threat to hold over those who were falling away. But the truth wouldn’t allow it. The very Gospel of grace taught something different: “if we are faithless, Christ remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.” This is tantamount to saying: Christ will not cease to be Christ. Christ will not cease caring, even if we stop caring. It is a way of speaking about constancy of compassion.
So the letter goes on to argue that faithfulness is not a matter of salvation but of leadership. The right way of leadership includes the right way to interpret scripture. In the tradition of Paul this is not in parroting its commands and prohibitions. On the contrary, to the ire of Paul’s opponents, it was sorting out what is central and what is not, what remains applicable and what is to be discarded in the interests of the radically inclusive message of grace. It got Paul into deep trouble with those whom we might call the fundamentalists of his day, who refused to contemplate that the word could be rightly discerned and critically engaged like this.