Thursday, October 25, 2012

When Wilt Thou Save the People? A Lectionary Reflection

Jeremiah 31:7-9

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

When Wilt Thou Save the People?

The title of my reflection comes from Godspell, because it expresses the longings present in this week’s readings.   There is a longing, a desire, to see God’s reign fully realized, the day of salvation, that permeates our hopes and dreams.  We look forward to that day when lion and lamb lay down beside each other, when the peace of God is truly embodied.    Such is the message embedded in the opening stanza of “God Save the People”

When wilt thou save the people?
Oh God of mercy when?
The people, Lord, the people
Not thrones and crowns,
But men
Flowers of thy heart 
O God are they
Let them not pass like weeds away
Their heritage, a sunless day
God save the people 

Not the powers and principalities, but the people, men and women, who are in the words of the song, “flowers of thy heart.”  Don’t let them pass away like weeds.  Instead, save the people.   
            The texts of the day speak of an ingathering of the people, of a high priest who can bring us into perfection, and a Lord who brings healing to bodies and spirits.  They express the hope of God’s realm, the hope of salvation. 

            Jeremiah knows a lot about the suffering of a people.  He understands a nation’s sense of brokenness.  He’d watched as Judah fell and fell again, its people carried off into exile and its Temple destroyed.  He had tried to call on his people to do what is right.  He opposed the false prophets who misled the people, making promises they couldn’t keep.  As Jeremiah looked around, there was little to find joy in.  And if one knows Jeremiah, one knows that he often wept for the nation and for his people.  The book of Jeremiah is full of laments.  But here, Jeremiah calls out to the people and offers them an alternate vision.  Jeremiah knew that if the people put their trust in God and not this alliance or that alliance, that there would be a positive future for them.  In Jeremiah 29, we have a letter from Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon, and Jeremiah relays God’s message:  “For sure I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you . . . I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, . . .”  (Jer. 29:11-14 NRSV). 

It’s that theme of hope, of God’s promise fulfilled, that emerges here in Jeremiah 31.  It’s this promise that allows Jeremiah to call on the people to “sing joyfully” and to “raise your voices with praise and call out:  The Lord has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!” (vs. 7).  God will remain true to God’s promises, even when we fail to respond accordingly.

Jeremiah, like the exilic prophecies in Isaiah, envisions God’s gathering up the people from wherever they had been scattered, and would restore them to the land.  They will come from the ends of the earth, Jeremiah proclaims.  And who will be gathered?  Among those in the crowd will be the “blind and the disabled, expectant mother and those in labor.”  Yes, God will gather in those whom society deems weak or needy.  And God will make their paths smooth and quiet.  The journey home won’t be difficult or painful.  It will be a journey full of joy, and all the people will share in it.  Yes, on that day God will be Israel’s parent, and they will be God’s oldest child – and thus the heir of God.  What a beautiful image, especially in context.  In Jeremiah, there is much lament and words of judgment are often present, but there remains this hope – a hope of restoration.  But as we hear earlier in Jeremiah – this doesn’t happen overnight.  In Jeremiah 29, the Lord tells the people living in exile to settle in, build their homes, and plant their gardens – until the day of ingathering the people, the day of salvation!  There is hope, but there is also a call for patience.  Everything in its time.

            The reading from Hebrews seems to take us in a different direction, but it too seeks to envision the day of salvation.  It does so in the context of this continuing discussion of Christ’s holy priesthood.   There is a contrast here between the perfect and the imperfect, the priest who not only offers up sacrifices for the sins of others, but must also offer them for himself.  Such priests are impermanent and unable to fulfill their calling without attending to their own sense of inadequacy.   Such is not the case with Christ, who lives eternally so as to speak with God on our behalf.  This is the one who goes before us, bringing us into wholeness, who makes peace for us and in us.  This priest is “holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from sinners, raised high above the heavens” (7:26).  And yet, this is the same Christ who has encountered temptation as we have – though without sin.     The offering made by this priest doesn‘t require repetition.  Just once is enough, for offers himself.  Now, we can read this in light of a rather traditional substitutionary atonement understanding, where  God demands payment for sin, and Jesus makes the payment with his blood.  But this needn’t be our interpretation.  Instead, it’s Jesus’ obedience to the call that overcomes sin and brings perfection, a perfection that is shared with all who embrace this path.  It is a path that leads to wholeness, such as the one Jeremiah envisions. 

            Our Gospel reading from Mark is brief, and the story familiar to many.  Yes, many of us grew up hearing the name Blind Bartimaeus, whom Jesus heals of his blindness.   It’s a story that even gave birth to spirituals that embrace both the physical and the metaphorical forms of healing.  

In the reading, Bartimaeus sits alongside the road outside Jericho.  I expect that he sat there every day, hoping to receive alms that enabled him to survive.  But on that day, he heard something much more hopeful.  He heard that Jesus would be passing his way.  Bartimaeus must have heard about this miracle-working teacher, because when Jesus came near, he cried out:  “Jesus, Son of David, show Me Mercy!”  Mark wants us to hear in the cry of the blind man, the recognition of Jesus’ true identity.  Bartimaeus understands – Jesus is the Messiah, the hoped for deliverer.  And he seeks a blessing of this one come from God to save the people.

Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, despite attempts to silence him.  How often do we stifle the cries of those who need to encounter the Living Lord?  How often do we place decorum ahead of wholeness?  The crowd tried to silence him, but Bartimaeus wouldn’t be deterred.  He only cried out with greater volume.  For he understands, as others seemingly didn’t, that hope was present in their midst.  Bartimaeus’s persistence is rewarded.  Jesus hears his voice and calls out to him, inviting him to come, even as God would call forth the people from the nations, to come and be healed.  And as a result, of this healing, which in this case is physical, Bartimaeus now becomes a disciple, a follower, who joins Jesus on the way of salvation. 

Our readings invite us to seek the one who brings wholeness, even as Bartimaeus did.  God will lead us into the land of peace, and the one who leads us will be the perfect high priest, who calls forth our commitment to the journey, even as Jesus did with Bartimaeus.

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