Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Harvest Time in the Realm of God -- A Lectionary Reflection




Isaiah 66:10-14

Galatians 6:1-16

Luke 10:1-11, 16-18


Harvest Time in the Realm of God


            An old revival hymn -- written by Knowles Shaw, who hails from the Stone-Campbell Movement (my tradition) -- carries a harvest theme, which permeates the passages for the week (especially the reading from Luke).   There is an abundant harvest out there, but are we ready to bring it in?  As you consider that question, ponder for a moment these words:  
  

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

There is a harvest out there, so will we come rejoicing by bringing in the sheaves?  Those bundles of grain that have been harvested. 

            In this week’s reflection on the lectionary texts I’d like to begin and end with the Gospel reading, for it invites us to participate in this work of God.  Our reading from Luke shares the story of the seventy-two disciples whom Jesus sends out with the message of the kingdom of God.  The seeds have been sown – seeds of kindness and grace – and the promise is that they will bear fruit so that God’s abundance might be realized in our midst.   
           
            In the word from Isaiah 66, we hear a closing word from Third Isaiah that is directed to a post-exilic community trying to make a new life in their homeland.  After years of exile and oppression, the question that they must deal with concerns whether they will again know the blessings of God.  This passage offers an answer to their questions, for the prophet brings to them a promise of a new age – a kingdom age – of peace and prosperity.  I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that in the voices left out of the lectionary reading there is a word of judgment on those who refuse to embrace this promise of grace. 

Isaiah brings us an eschatological vision, which has two sides to it – one of grace and the other of judgment.  Many of us, me included, are uncomfortable with this word – which is why the lectionary stops short of this word – but even in our discomfort we know that there is need of judgment.   There are powers and principalities that stand contrary to God’s purpose, and even if we proceed with a universalist vision of reconciliation, we must also recognize that there is a place for God’s refining fire.  Therefore, it might behoove us to hear this word from interpreters Ron Allen and Clark Williamson: 
The Torah and the prophets make clear that we have a choice between a way of live and blessing or, alternatively, a way of death and destruction.  If the nations do not make for peace, they get war, lots of corpses and worms.  There is, however, a choice, and we could, thanks to God’s grace, live lives conducive to peace and well-being. [Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentarypp. 250-251].

            What will be your choice?  As we ponder this question we come upon this word of celebration and promise.  Those who have mourned over a desolate Jerusalem now have reason to rejoice.  There is a new day ahead.  As I think about the devastation that faced the returning exiles I think of the cities of our world that have suffered so much from poverty and economic decline.  I’m especially cognizant of the situation facing the city of Detroit, which is in my own backyard.  What promise does God have for this once great city?  Does it have a word of abundance to empower it?  

The promise here is that God will come with compassion to provide nourishment for the people.  These verses are incredibly powerful because they are some of the most overt descriptions of God in feminine terms.  The people can rejoice because they will be “satisfied from her comforting breasts, that you may drink and be refreshed from her full breasts” (vs. 11 CEB).  I’ve never been a nursing mother, so I can’t completely identify with the message, but it is a powerful reminder of God’s abundant provision, and it invites us to allow our imaginations catch a new sense of the nature of God.  Isaiah 66 disabuses us of the idea that God is male, an idea that many Christians fail to grasp.  But, as pioneering feminist theologian Mary Daly reminded us -- if God is male, then the male is God.   That is, however, not the biblical message.  It is much more varied than this, reminding us that when we try to conceive of God we must remember that God transcends our abilities of comprehension.  [See Marjorie Suchocki’s reflections in Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, p. 313.]  

If we’re able to let our imaginations go free, we can hear this message of divine abundance, so that we might “nurse and be satisfied from her comforting breasts” and be “refreshed from her full breasts.”  It is this promise of abundant nourishment that offers the people comfort.   This is a good word for our day, when people on both left and right of the political/religious spectrum seem content to live with a vision of scarcity. 

            From these words of the prophet we turn to Paul’s Galatian letter.  Like many concluding chapters of Paul’s letters, this has a kitchen sink sense to it.  Paul wraps up a number of issues in the course of a few verses, seeking especially to bring home his point that circumcision ultimately is of no consequence in the realm of God.  He’s not rejecting the Jewish sense of identity that circumcision represents, but sees no need to impose it on Gentile Christians, who are brought into the family through baptism (Gal. 3:27-28).   The key to the chapter is found in verse 15, where Paul declares that what is important is the New Creation.   As in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul lays out a picture of this New Creation, where the people of God stop using human standards of judgment.  Instead, they will turn to the wisdom of God for guidance.   In this New Creation relationships are defined by mutuality.  Bear one another’s burdens (vs. 2).  Don’t think too highly of yourself.  Be content with your status.  Don’t pursue a competitive way of life – no dog eats dog understanding of reality.  Even though one carries the burdens of the other, one shouldn’t expect the other to carry one’s burdens.  Do your share. 

Going to the beginning of the passage, setting up this discussion, Paul offers a word of wisdom concerning proper discipline.  If one strays, restore them on the right path with all gentleness, and watch that one doesn’t fall into temptation.  Even here there is this sense of mutuality – watch out for each other so that together we can stay on the right path, the pathway of the New Creation.

Oh, and in a word that warms the hearts of all who serve the church, Paul reminds the people that “those who are taught the word should share all good things with their teacher” (vs. 6 CEB).  But, before those who teach get too caught up in this, Paul admonishes them (us) to not just plant for their own benefit, lest they harvest devastation.  So, instead, plant and harvest for the benefit of the Spirit and your reward will be eternal life.  This is the way of the New Creation.

            In the Gospel reading we hear again a word about harvests.  Those who labor to bring in the harvest (bringing in the sheaves) –like the seventy-two disciples Jesus sends out in pairs – are commissioned to preach the Gospel.  The harvest, he says, is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  In other words there’s no lack of work for those who take up the call.  

Jesus sends the disciples out on a journey in a manner that would be taken up by the Franciscans centuries later.  He sent them out with just the clothes on their backs – not even sandals to cover their feet.  They are to subsist on the kindness of those to whom they share the message.  They should be grateful recipients of these acts of hospitality – eating whatever is set before them.  And if there are those who reject message and messenger – well, they should shake the dust off their feet in witness.  In any case – know that the realm of God has come.  That is the message they take with them.   In fact, they embody this message. 
           
            When the disciples return from their journeys, they do so with great joy.  They have seen great things occur.  God has been quite active in their midst.  Even demons obeyed their commands.  Jesus was pleased – yes, he “saw Satan fall from heaven like lightening.”   He’d given them authority to deal with the snakes and serpents – they had exercised divine power, and they were excited by this.   But, before they get too caught up in the euphoria of the moment – in the opportunity to exercise this power, Jesus tells them to rejoice not in the fact that the spirit’s obeyed them, but because their names “are written in heaven.”  Rejoice, in other words, not in the acts of power but in God’s gracious welcome to each and every one of them. 


Such is the way of the New Creation – the Realm of God.  Let us come rejoicing as we bring in the sheaves!

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