June 2012

Over the last month I’ve been my devotions in the book of Jeremiah. He’s a favorite of mine for various reasons: his call story (Jer 1), his feeling that his call to ministry is like a “fire in his bones” that won’t leave him alone, and even his message have been good friends for a long time for me. I love the book named after him, and wanted to share with you my snapshot summary of the book as a whole. If your devotions have you hunkered down in one book this summer, give us a sneak peak of what you’ve been learning! Marty Troyer

Jeremiah is the story of God’s Lordship, Israel’s allegiance and rebellion, and one prophets life of faithfulness.

YHWH God will pluck nations, and plant nations, at will for YHWH alone is God. Radical ethical monotheism demands justice/righteousness and obedience from God’s people. We see God’s sovereignty being played out in the ministry and soul-wrestlings of Jeremiah; who has been swept up in the movement of God like a flowing river. Indeed, Jeremiah experiences God’s message of allegiance as a “fire in his bones” that, no matter how much he might dislike the messsge itself or fear its rebuttal, he cannot stop preaching.

Jeremiah 7 and 29 form two polls around which Jeremiah and God’s people are to perform. In his chapter 7 Temple sermon Jeremiah calls the people to allegiance, saying only justice will save: “Amend your ways and your doings, act justly, do not oppress the alien, the orphan, the widow or shed innocent blood (7:5-6).” God will act based on their response; either through blessing/salvation or curse/destruction. The kings of the earth are pawns under God’s lordship, coming and going to interact with Israel at God’s discretion.

But the people choose poorly, and God “breaks the pot” (Jeremiah 19:11) like he had earlier done with Shiloh (7:14), sending the people into exile. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles again demands justice and peace from God’s people. The only difference is that they are to seek the peace/welfare of Babylon, not Jerusalem. In preaching both these difficult messages, God functions for Jeremiah as a “fortified city, a bronze wall, and an iron pillar” (Jer 1:18) strengthening him for his message.

Our church sharing time is one of the most important elements in our worship. It opens space to be cared for and nurtured, to share our brokenness and needs. We value this gift so much we do it verbally and through unspoken candle prayers. This caring is at the heart of who we are as a people.

It is equally important for our sharing time to be broader than our individual concerns, to open space in our hearts for the other, and for God’s mission in our world. The quintessential Christian prayer –The Lord’s Prayer- can lead us in understanding why our prayers in worship our broader than individual concerns.

I absolutely love the phrase in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “Beware of practicing your justice before others.” It sounds odd because the work of justice is often very public; and Jesus doesn’t make it less odd when he then talks about charity, prayer, and fasting.

Apparently, in Jesus mind, practicing spiritual disciplines are necessary (though he’s not claiming they are sufficient) to our work for justice. Chapter 6 closes by Jesus encouraging us to strive for justice above all else.

And right in the middle, Jesus teaches us how to pray for justice. In doing so he’s teaching us to visualize an alternative future than we’re defaulted to achieve. As Walter Wink said before his recent passing, “History belongs to intercessors who believe the future into being.”

So Jesus, with his eyes on that alternative future says, ‘Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

Prayer begins as a pledge of ultimate allegiance to God alone. This is ethical monotheism rooted in the Sinai command “have no other gods before me” and the greatest commandment of loving God with all our being. “Dominion” the Psalmist says, belongs not to mayors and Presidents or corporations; but “to the Lord.” Making peace and doing justice requires such unchanging allegiance precisely because God is the God of peace and justice.

And thus the mission of God (God’s reign, God’s kingdom) is seeking the Holistic Peace of Houston. We pray that God’s intent for the world would become reality. Which is no small prayer, as the rumors of war and presence of poverty prove. Instead, it’s nothing short of a miracle. The miracle of God’s breaking into the present order to establish God’s reign. To this vision, Houston’s peace-makers add our voice to thePsalmists, “May righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.”

Jesus now pulls out his colors and paints a fuller picture of what God’s reign is.

Give us this day our daily bread. 

The single word “our” changes everything for the person of faith, demanding that we consider the whole. There is no room for “us” or “them” in Jesus inclusive “our.” There is just we, a noun large enough to cover the entire system that is Houston. And large enough to cover those Houston City Council has just made it illegal to share food with. It’s missionally impossible to pray this prayer and criminalize food-sharing at the same time. For only a dead faith separates prayer from action. James says you cannot see a person in need and say, “Go in peace! Keep warm and eat your fill” and not share your resources with them. Christ’s prayer breaks the bonds of selfishness and individualism, freeing us to pursue the common good.

God’s Shalom picture for Houston is proved remarkably relevant with his next brush stroke.

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

God cares about debt and prefers Jubilee to oppressive lending and imbalanced economy. When Jesus re-members our imagination to Jubilee (the ancient concept of economic and social justice where everyone has enough) he invites us to lead the way in the incredibly earthy, financial terms of debt forgiveness. After all, God has forgiven us our debts, and we’re called to be like God.

Fleshing out the insistent “our” still further acknowledges the powerful bonds, thongs, and yokes that forbid debt forgiveness in our world. Breaking these in prayer and action is the discipline to which we are called.

Doing so would radically change our landscape and skyline. After all, Houston’s two tallest buildings are architectural celebrations of these same bonds, thongs, and yokes. But imagine the beauty of Harris County’s landscape if we traded our skyline for the building blocks of Jubilee, Generosity and Enough! Or the character-creation if we traded our Education budget for our Entertainment budget.

Of course, there is much in us that is resistant to such a vision for Houston. So Jesus closes his prayer with:

And do not bring us into temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.

The prayer itself defines our temptations.  We’re tempted by idolatry, to pledge allegiance to someone or something other than God. We’re tempted to work for a public vision disconnected from our faith, and by an other-worldly faith disconnected from real life. We’re tempted to hoard and exclude, to separate and segregate, to function as individuals, families and tribes rather than a whole. We’re tempted to riches at the expense of others.

We end where we began, with a summons to allegiance that cuts right into the overt individualism of the American Dream,

For yours are the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.

Last week in our sermon (which you can read online, houstonmennonite.org, sermon tab) we heard about God’s Counter-Cultural Mission which invites us to “Seek the peace of the city where you live, and pray to the Lord on its’ behalf.” Again we see the connection between action and prayer in bringing shalom justice to Houston just like it is in heaven.

For this, God promises we will indeed have everything we need!

When you pick up a Bible what exactly are you holding? The Bible is several things. It’s a library filled with stories. A collection of events from dozens of authors in numerous contexts spread out over more than a thousand years. There’s absolutely nothing like it in human history, and in this regard it’s fascinating. This is how many of us have been taught to see the Bible, as a “What?” question. What is the Bible? It’s a bunch of really great stories!

This is how I viewed the Bible when I went off to college, a precocious Bible trivia nerd enrolled as a Bible major at age 18. It’s also precisely why I did NOT know that the same David who killed Goliath as a little kid grew up to be King David. Because no one had ever told me the story of David; only stories about David.

That’s embarrassing to admit, but true. Which leads me to a second, more important, answer to the question What is the Bible? It is ONE story: the story of God’s Mission in our world. These 66 books (39 from the time of the Hebrews, 27 from the era of the early church), this enormous cast of characters, these numerous concepts in dialogue with each other tell us GOD’S STORY.

And when we answer the question that way, everything changes. The “what?” question drifts into the background (along with the “how?” question) to be supplanted by a much more meaningful – if not odd sounding – question, Why the Bible?

The Bible is precisely because it reveals to us God’s story, clarifying who and how God is, and what God is up to in our world. The Bible is because it invites us to see ourselves as characters in that story. Ordinary you and normal I are as much a part of the story as Abraham, Esther, Nebuchadrezzar or Mary. This summer we’ll look at God’s Story in 5 Acts. Our place in God’s story is in Act 5, a context which calls for a specific way of being that differs from the other 4 Acts in God’s story. Join us for Worship this Sunday as we Enter God’s Story, celebrating that this is where we are.