Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; Luke 16:19-31
Key words: hope, vineyards, houses, land, redemption, salvation
After a rocky month with Jeremiah, we have finally come to a hopeful moment. God tells Jeremiah to buy some property from a relative. The prophet does it all legally, with witnesses and a sealed deed put in a jar for safekeeping. He buys it through “right of redemption”: the owner sells it to a relative, so it stays in the family.
Two weeks ago, Jeremiah brought us to the middle of a disaster: the earth was devoid of plants and animals; the sky was dark; quakes shook the earth; cities lay in ruins; and once-fruitful land had become a desert. Now God is saying that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Renewal of earth and community is coming, as God also promises in the immediately preceding chapter. The people left God and ignored God’s warnings and disregarded reminders that they could still return. Once they experienced the desolation of life outside the covenant, they finally repented. Though the people took a long time to do so, God in eternal love accepts them back and pledges the renewal of their lives and the reestablishment of the covenant between them.
In the church, we are in the midst of Ordinary Time. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost have prepared us to live as disciples in the workaday world. What tempted the people of Judah tempts us too. We get bored, distracted, and more interested in our own comfort than the demanding work of loving God and neighbor. (This sounds simple, but we know it is not!)
Now we are getting ourselves back to the garden, “a plentiful land” where we can “eat its fruits and its good things” (v. 2:7). We are broken and scarred for our experience, yet also remade by the potter-God who broke down the clay in order to refashion it into a pot “as it seemed good to him” (v. 18:4). Being led back to the land God promised, we are going home.
In addition to welcoming the faithful, God is also renewing the whole earth. This balm of God is greater than what one would find in Gilead. This balm heals the community of the faithful as well as the rest of creation.
The psalm for the day reinforces this reason for hope. Speaking for God, the psalmist says, “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation” (vv. 91:14-16).
A new start requires a response. Just as God recommits to the covenantal promise to care for the people, the people can recommit to keeping the law, which requires caring for others, particularly the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. We adopt the posture of humbleness, know we have the same worth, no more or less, than anyone else; that we are woven into the same fabric as the community and the rest of creation.
Bruce Epperly suggests that Desmond Tutu’s ubuntu theology describes well this interconnectedness.
Ubuntu reflects the grace of interdependence in which we recognize that our lives are completely dependent on others: institutional structures, the accidents of birth, family of origin, national origin, the hard work of others, including forgotten and impoverished people, the love of parents, grandparents, and teachers, and the gentle—yet persistent—providence of God.
(Bruce Epperly, "The Adventurous Lectionary," patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2016/09/the-adventurous-lectionary-nineteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-september-25-2016/)
Experiences of recklessness, darkness, and rebirth still happen in our day, to our churches, towns, and individuals. My friend Richard was driving home late one night after a raucous party where he had too much to drink. He accidentally drove into a pedestrian, who died of her injuries. It was a horrible time. I went to court when his sentence was read. The mother of the victim had a time to speak, and she said, “I forgive him.” I was floored. Richard was imprisoned for a time, and the experience was terrifying. He knew, however, that he still had a second chance and vowed to change his ways. A church prison ministry provided him spiritual support, and when he was released, he was baptized. His life changed forever. He had turned from responsible living and ended up in a dry and hostile place, but through the help of a caring church, his life was renewed and he committed to a life of spiritual growth, self-care, and responsibility toward others. This is a dramatic story. Have you seen this pattern in your neighborhood, church, or parishioners—perhaps in less dramatic ways, but still significant?
The Luke passage for the day also ties back to the one we read on September 1. We find ourselves back at a dining table, and a rich man and a poor man are also featured. Once again, we must ask, who is at the table? Who is kept away?
Jesus tells of a rich man who feasted sumptuously every day. Just outside his home, at the gate, lay a poor man named Lazarus, who was covered with sores. He hoped for some scraps from the rich man’s overly bountiful table, but apparently none was offered.
Eventually the two men die. Lazarus is carried away by angels to Abraham’s side, a place of honor. The unnamed rich man, however, is buried and ends up in Hades, which was imagined to be a place underground where all the dead go. In Jesus’ story, he is being “tormented” in a hot place of flames, presumably for his failure to be compassionate when he walked the earth. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool the rich man’s tongue. In this place of destruction and heat, he longed for something like the living water mentioned in September 1’s readings.
Abraham tells the rich man that this is impossible. The man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, to warn them about what the future held if they did not change their ways. (Apparently, he still had not changed his perspective much; he still considered Lazarus to be a lowly servant.) Abraham tells the rich man that Moses and the prophets have already delivered this warning. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead,” Abraham said (a statement seeming to foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection).
This makes me think of Charles Dickens’s story A Christmas Carol. However, in this case, no spirit returns from the dead to warn the rich man who has no compassion. The man and his brothers had plenty of warning already.
I would be careful not to use this story to suggest that God does not allow repentance; this would contradict the Jeremiah story. It has the same message as the parable of the dinner guests who pushed their way to the favored seats. Jesus leads us to rethink who is “important” and whom we should honor (and they will not likely be those whom the world honors).
In this ordinary time, we do well to take stock. Are we fulfilling our side of the baptismal covenant? Are we secure enough in God’s love that we readily give preferential treatment to the overlooked and underappreciated? How can we as individuals and as a church “show we are Christians by our love”—not just for one another but for our neighbors as well? If you are preaching to a congregation you have served for a while, you can point out opportunities the church has to serve the community, particularly those who get the least amount of attention. Further, your people probably have some good ideas about that from their workplaces, recreational activities, schools, and other locations in which they interact with others.
Questions for reflection:
- When has your congregation experienced some kind of renewal, even if in a small way?
- Whom do your church members treat with deference, and why?
- Does someone in your congregation participate in a social-service activity that other members can support in some way?
Rev. Victoria Rebeck is a deacon and member of the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She has combined her theology and journalism background in appointments to The Christian Century magazine, United Methodist Publishing House, Minnesota Annual Conference, and the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Her ministry has focused on pointing the church to the world's needs for compassion and justice. She is a board member of Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides quality legal assistance to immigrants, particularly those receiving lower incomes.