Friday, September 24, 2010

Proper 24 Year C

Proper 24 C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Jeremiah 31:27-34;  Psalm 119:97-104; OR Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; II Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

At a low point in their long history with God-- humiliated and in exile-- God's people receive from the prophet Jeremiah a promise of not the renewal of the old covenant, but the making of a "new covenant...."  This new covenant will be different because "I will put my law within them, and I will write it in their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."  This new experience with God will not be mediated through human intervention, but directly to each person, "from the least to the greatest...."

In the first person singular, the psalmist offers personal testimony of the vital importance of the Lord's teaching in her life.  It is more direct than what she has learned from her teachers and elders and makes her "wiser" than her "enemies."  Her experience of the Lord has been direct and personal: "You Yourself instructed me."


(See also Proper 13A)   Told in a way that heightens the strangeness of the encounter, Jacob "wrestles" with "a man" "until daybreak."  The unidentified figure does not prevail and Jacob refuses to let go of him "unless you bless me."  He asks Jacob his name and the  tells him he will from henceforth be known as Israel, "for you have striven with God and with humans and you have prevailed."  Jacob/Israel asks the man his name.  Instead of disclosing a name, the man blesses him.  In honor of this transformative experience, Jacob/Israel names the place of the encounter "Penel," "because I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."  He also took from this experience another reminder-- a limp-- because "the man" had "struck him at the hip socket" during their tussle.

The psalmist testifies to his experience of the Lord, whom he knows both as "the Lord/Maker of heaven and earth" and as "My help...."
He has learned that the Lord's "guard does not slumber...."  The Lord protects from daily assaults around the clock, expressed poetically as under the light of the sun and of the moon.  The Lord guards your life, your going and your coming, "now and forevermore."

"Timothy's" mentor alludes to the fact that he was nurtured by believing parents in "the sacred writings...."  This scripture was "inspired by God" for human teaching, reproof, correction and training so that "everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work."  He then encourages Timothy to persevere in his own unique ministry, in every circumstance as a preventative for those times "when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires...."  "[D]o the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully."

Jesus tells a story only found in Luke's gospel.  Once there was a scoundrel judge who did not fear God nor respect others.  A widow relentlessly hounded him for justice.  He gives in, we are told, just to get rid of her.  Using a device he frequently uses of arguing from the lesser to the greater, Luke's Jesus asks his listeners to consider this question:  If a lousy judge will respond to a relentless petitioner, how much more eager is God to "grant justice to the chosen ones who cry... day and night?"  God will not dally.  God "will quickly grant justice to them."  But this episode ends with a disturbing, open-ended question:  "When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Jeremiah's relayed announcement of not just the renewal of a past covenant but God's initiation of a "new covenant" is more the striking because it is not only addressed to the whole community, but to individuals, "from the least to the greatest."  The psalmist (119:97-104) pays respect to her teachers and elders for teaching her about the Lord's ways, but comes to realize "You Yourself instructed me."  Out of the tussle between one man, Jacob, and God comes a new identity for himself and, subsequently, a whole nation.  The psalmist (121) knows God both as "the Maker of heaven and earth" and as "My help."  Timothy's mentor first honors the parents who immersed their son in "the sacred writings" but concludes with a charge which only Timothy can fulfill on his own.  Luke's Jesus tells a basic story about the persistent of one person and a lousy judge to encourage believers to pursue God who is "eager" to grant justice, but then asks a haunting question: in the end, if individuals do not pursue God, will there be any faith on earth?

Because Ludwig Wittgenstein was interested in the overbearing impact of Plato and Descartes on the modern Western imagination, he thought deeply about the dynamic between public, common knowledge and personal, individual "certainty."   On the one hand, he concluded, "... it isn't just my experience, but other people's, that I get my knowledge from."  (On Certainity, p. 36e)  But on the other hand, he also wrote: "'I know' has meaning only when it is uttered by a person." (p. 77e)  We rely on getting knowledge, information, wisdom from others  (teachers, parents as well as whole communities), but we claim "certainty" only when as an individual we live our lives based on these certitudes.  In his study, Theology after Wittgenstein, Fergus Kerr considered the dynamic between communal and personal this way:  "There is no world for me or anyone else other than the world that the language gives us.  It is a world that we have in common: the predicament of private worlds is an illusion.  And it is when I talk about the world that I appear on the scene, in the glory of my self if you like.  But until I speak or act, I am not to be found; and then it is this human being that you encounter." (p. 97)

We acknowledge the individuals and communities of all sizes who have told us about God's promises, but we also realize that that particular lineage of that heritage continues or ends with us as an individual.  So, if each does not persevere for herself/himself, that strange question is a legitimate question: In the end, will there even be one soul left with faith?