Proper 20

September 23, 2001
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Reading 2: 
Psalm 79:1-9
Reading 3: 
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Reading 4: 
Luke 16:1-13
By Barry A. Woodbridge

We reflect on these lectionary readings and prepare our sermons during the second week following the national tragedy of terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001.

The Hebrew Bible lessons from Jeremiah and the Psalter speak of the same national lament most of us feel while still numbed and processing the grief of our nation’s tragedy.

Jeremiah’s opening words "My joy is gone, my grief is upon me, my heart is sick" (8:18) will be difficult to hear as anything other than autobiographical. Verse 20 "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved" proposes a haunting vision of this very time of the year. The week before this tragedy, I was driving through farmlands in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Utah. On Labor Day I was struck by how many wheat fields already had been completely harvested and how few farmers (I counted only three in two states) were still out harvesting and laboring in their fields. Although the summer is not technically ended for another few days, the landscape reminded one of the verses of the great thanksgiving hymn "all is safely gathered in."

I was enjoying that rare sense of completion. It was joyful. I was reminded of my favorite verse from Rilke, "The leaves, they fall with limp gestures of renunciation," meaning nature participates in a rhythm of transformation, which is healthy and appropriate.

Soon after the morning of September 11 dawned, the last proposal in verse 20 now struck a new dimension of reality: "…and we are not saved." Summer is ended, nature’s transformation has run its course, but there is no wholeness in our land. Instead, the human world stood opposed once again to the non-human world as it enacted violence against itself. By contrast to the gentle falling of the leaves with limp gestures of renunciation, we witnessed giant icons of modern architecture falling with deadly impact on those within and below.

And we are not saved. In ancient Israel not being saved meant that the nation itself, not individuals, was not in shalom with its God. Might we help our people reflect here on how we are as nation were "not saved"? The text does not mean we were not spared, though that was also true. Rather, we were not at one with God and neighbor, and being disassociated from the divine aims for our world, we felt the consequences of our separation more acutely on that day than most others. The "terrorists," whomever they may have been, were one possible tragic consequence of our disunion with humanity. They struck back at a nation who has literally absconded with a disproportionate distribution of the world’s resources. In a process view of concrescing occasions of experience, this event was not "irrational" or inexplicable without reference to historical antecedents. It showed a canalization of the human tendency toward entropy and disintegration, if not revenge.

There are those voices among us who suggest these acts were a divine judgment upon us for harboring in our nation persons of dissenting viewpoints and minority lifestyles. We process-oriented thinkers have found that an abhorrent aberration of theology used opportunistically to inflict further suffering upon the already grieving. We should rightfully do everything within our persuasive powers to correct that dysfunctional theology.

And yet, the summer is over and we are not yet saved! Is there some sense in which lures for justice and equality had been calling to us as a nation incessantly; yet because of the abundance of our immediate harvest, we had neglected to heed those proposals requiring more radical redistribution of our wealth?

Jeremiah asks, "Is there no balm in Gilead" (v. 22) We might as well ask, "Is there no salving balm which will not too quickly heal our woundedness while transforming our social consciousness?" Flag waving lasts for a time; faith requires a steady long endurance in a more difficult direction.

Process theology focuses on hope in creative transformation. Where is that in our text? It is not apparent at the surface. It even gets worse. Verse 21 "For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me." "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people" (9:1).

This weeping itself may bear the healing catharsis if it brings about a cleansing of the distortions of our national soul, if it causes us to see our selves and our choices more clearly. Just when we are vulnerable, pricked in conscience, and less confident of our armed defenses as the security we have imagined as impenetrable, we may become more receptive that kind of power which alone calls us forward from the dust and ashes into the light. For that, we depend upon a theology of the cross, where death and destruction stand in continuity with resurrection, as surely as the ruins of our disunion with our brothers and sisters in third world countries bid us rebuild a different city, a city of hope.

(All texts quoted are from NRSV)