October 03, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
As a college German major, I’ve known for a while of a curiosity in that language. In German if you thank someone by saying “Danke,” the person whom you are thanking is likely to respond with “Bitte,” which is the German equivalent of “You’re welcome.” Except that “bitte” is also the word for “please” and is further a cognate of the verb “bitten,” which means to ask for something, to make a request (it may even be an off-shoot of “beten” which is the German verb for “to pray”).
A few years ago we lived near an Italian family and so whenever the children of this family came over to play with my kids, I’d try to learn a little Italian. One day I asked the oldest girl in that family how to say “You’re welcome” in Italian. I already knew how to say “Grazie” (“thank you”) but didn’t know how to respond if someone said “Grazie” to me. She said to say “Prego.” She then said that curiously enough a form of that word (“prega”) can also mean “please” and that the verb form (“pregare”) can mean to ask for something or even to pray for something.
And a little linguistic light bulb went off in my head: in German and Italian “bitte” and “prego” as a way of saying “you’re welcome” loop around to words that have to do with asking for something in the first place. Linguistically both languages suggest a tight connection between the asking for something and the subsequent giving thanks for it in the form of what the thanked person says in reply to your word of gratitude.
Please. Thank you. You’re welcome.
Bitte. Danke. Bitte.
Prega. Grazie. Prego.
You ask for something and you perhaps say “Please.” You get what you ask for and after saying “Thanks,” the person whom you are thanking gives your original “please” a half-twist so as to turn it into “you’re welcome,” completing a kind of natural cycle, closing a kind of natural loop.
And make no mistake: it is a natural loop. When it is not closed, when the circle is not completed, things are out of joint. Unexpressed thanks is an insidious way to hurt someone. A sin of omission if ever there were one, a lack of thanks-giving is a passive form of verbal abuse. We all know how we can wound people through what we actively spew out of our mouths. But silence can have a heft all its own–failing to thank people is an emptiness with substance, a gratitude vacuum that suffocates. As Lewis Smedes reminds us, life is out of joint when we fail to give thanks. The insensate way by which some people receive and receive and receive yet without ever saying “Thank you” is a baffling phenomenon–baffling, it seems, even to God, as this brief story in Luke 17 makes clear.
“Didn’t I heal ten lepers? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to praise God except this foreigner?” That last question is the narrative time-bomb of this story: the only thankful leper was a Samaritan. The nine Jewish lepers didn’t say a word to Jesus. Only the “loathsome” (by Jewish standards) Samaritan comes back to render proper thanks.
Ingratitude little by little kills those who never receive the gratitude they deserve in life. But anything that kills others is not exactly healthy for the person who fails to say “Thanks” either. Failing to express gratitude sooner or later coarsens us even as it fosters an undue sense of entitlement. After a time, we don’t deign to say “Thank you” to various workers in our lives because we feel we deserve the service they’ve rendered. We’ve earned it. We’ve paid our dues, laid down our cash, slaved away at our own job to make this dinner out, this vacation, this shopping spree possible. To say “Thank you” to certain people would be to admit that maybe what we’re getting in life is less an accomplishment and more part and parcel of the larger gift of God. But for some people that is simply too demeaning.
In the film The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins plays a butler to a super-rich family. While researching this role, Mr. Hopkins interviewed a real-life butler. This butler told Hopkins that his goal in life is complete and total obsequiousness–a skilled ability to blend into the woodwork of any room like a mere fixture, on a par with table lamps and andirons. In fact, Anthony Hopkins said one sentence he will never forget is when this man said that you can sum up an excellent butler this way: “The room seems emptier when he’s in it.”
The room seems emptier when he’s in it. The goal is to do your work, fill your wine glasses, clear the plates and silverware without being noticed, much less thanked. But that’s just the problem with routine ingratitude: it makes people disappear. You are the center of your own universe and others don’t warrant entree into that inner sanctum of yourself.
But a simple word of thanks makes people visible again, it humanizes them. In the film Schindler’s List, the evil camp commandant, Amon Goeth, was known to deal with boredom by taking his rifle and randomly shooting passing Jews from his balcony. They weren’t human to him, they were just animals. All except for Helen Hirsch, who becomes his maid and for whom he develops affection. The startling moment when Oskar Schindler realizes this is when Helen quietly steals into the room and clears a plate of cookies. But before she is able silently to exit the room, Goeth says, “Helen, thank you.” He noticed her. He humanized her. And it showed because he thanked her. He thanked her by name.
“What is the chief goal of human life?” the Westminster Catechism famously asks in its opening question and answer. “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” is the answer. A chief way we do that is by thanking God moment by moment for the gifts that God has lavished upon us. That great big gratitude sounds a keynote and sets the tone for all of life, which means that Christians should just generally be the most polite, thankful people around. We are on the lookout for chances to say little words of thanks to all kinds of people as the natural, effervescent overflow of the thanks that constantly bubbles up in our hearts.
After expressing his wonderment at the fact that only 1 out of 10 had returned with thanksgiving, Jesus says to the Samaritan who did come back, “Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” Has SAVED you. That’s what it literally says in the Greek, although most Bibles translate it as “healed you” or perhaps “has made you whole.” All ten lepers were healed, but there is a hint in Jesus’ final words that maybe just the one who came back to say “Thank you” was also saved in some deeper sense. Perhaps we could guess that only those who properly respond to the goodness of God show that they “get it,” they understand how the universe works and so in that way show that salvation is operative in their lives.
In her novel, Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler introduces us to Delia Grinstead. Delia is a lovely, loveable, and utterly giving wife and mother who regularly does her level best to keep her household running smoothly. But as her children grow up, they become “great, galumphing, unmannerly, and supercilious creatures” who ignore Delia and who flinch from her hugs. What’s more, they expect that their favorite foods will always be in the pantry or the fridge, but they never thank Delia for purchasing these sundries (though they will complain loudly should she forget one day). Meanwhile Delia’s husband is so wrapped up in his medical practice that he, too, brushes past Delia day in and day out, regularly failing to notice the spic-n-span house, the clean laundry, the warm food set before his distracted face each evening.
After years of this neglect, Delia begins to feel like “a tiny gnat, whirring around her family’s edges.” Their ongoing lack of gratitude has killed something in Delia–not all at once, mind you, but day by day Delia dies a little, wilting like a flower that receives too little moisture. She doesn’t even realize how dead she has become until one day she meets someone who is kind, who thanks Delia for a little something. This stranger’s kind gratitude is like a few precious drops of water applied to her soul–a few little thankful droplets that reveal just how dry, cracked, and barren the landscape of her soul had become.
Finally the day comes when Delia just walks away from her family. She’s taking a stroll on a beach and just keeps on going. Once her family realizes she is missing, they have a curiously difficult time describing Delia to the police. They just can’t seem to recall the color of her eyes, her height or weight, what she was wearing when they last saw her. Of course, they’d never really seen her to begin with. They had been blinded by ingratitude.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Author: Doug Bratt
“You can’t go home again” is an old adage we sometimes address to people who aren’t where they long to be. Some of those “exiles” are homesick. Others have in some way grown too much to be fully comfortable where they grew up anymore.
You might say, “You can’t go home again – yet!” is the theme of the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Its preachers and teachers don’t have to guess its historical context. Jeremiah 29 lays it out. Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar has deported elders and other important leaders from Jerusalem to Babylon. Those deportations happened in 597, 586 and 581 B.C. It has left much of Israel far from her home in the land God had promised and then given her ancestors.
However, the even more immediate context of Jeremiah 29 is Hannaniah’s prophecy that the preceding chapter describes. There that false prophet raised the exiled Israelites hopes by promising that Babylon would release them from captivity within two years. While Jeremiah initially expresses his hope that that prophecy is true, he quickly learns Hannaniah has spoken not for the Lord, but for himself.
Jeremiah 29 provides the basic heart of God’s response to the false prophet. It begins with God’s assertion that it was God, not King Nebuchadnezzar or Babylon that had carried Israel into exile. Verse 4 asserts it is “the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel,” not the most powerful sovereign on earth, who is in charge of Israel’s destiny. God, not Nebuchadnezzar, determined when Israel’s exile began and will determine when Israel’s exile ends (in seventy years, as verse 10 promises).
In the meantime, however, the exiled Israelites seem to wonder how they should live outside of the land of promise God had given their ancestors. To use another adage my own parents used to use on me, God challenges them to “Bloom where” they “are planted.” The Lord invites the exiled Israelites to accept their predicament.
God has carted them, after all, off to Babylon for the long haul. So Jeremiah says the Israelites may as well do all they can to flourish in their temporary home. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce, he says. “Marry and have sons and daughters … seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (5-7).
So God doesn’t want Israel, in Michael Lindvall’s evocative words, to withdraw from the world of Babylon and retreat into a Jewish ghetto. God doesn’t tell Israel to foment revolution in Babylon. God doesn’t even invite Israel to camouflage her religious identity so that she may fully blend into her new, if temporary home.
No, the Lord calls exiled Israel to fully invest her energy and herself in the well being of the nation to which God has exiled her. God invites her to live well where God has planted her, to do quotidian things like get married and have children. In Scott Hoezee’s words, God challenges the Israelites to remain healthy so that they not only flourish in exile, but also are also fully ready for the time when God sends her back to the land of promise.
Walter Brueggemann summarizes God’s message as, “Even in exile, Judah is to multiply, just as the old, enslaved community of Exodus 1 multiplied. Even in displacement, Judah continues to be the people over which God’s promise for the future presides with remarkable power.”
Perhaps the most striking of Jeremiah 29’s commands is verse 7’s “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” “Seek,” in other words, “the shalom, the well-being of the Babylon to which God has sent you.” The heathen Babylon. “Because if it prospers,” the prophet adds, “you too will prosper.”
Here God calls God’s exiled Israelite people to pray not just for their own well-being, but also for the well being of their Babylonian captors, their enemies. In it we hear a kind of precursor of Jesus’ own “Love and pray for your enemies.” Not that they may succeed in their goals of harming us, but so that together we may flourish.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, Jeremiah 29 is a fertile field for its preachers and teachers to harvest. It presents all sorts of possible themes for preaching and teaching. Few of our hearers will consider themselves exiles like Jeremiah’s audience did. Yet many of us feel displaced in other ways. Some of us don’t live where we’d like. Others find ourselves in families and relationships, in workplaces and situations in life where we feel displaced. Those who preach and teach it may want to ask how Jeremiah 29 speaks to those situations. What are this text’s challenges for its audiences? Where is its comfort for all sorts of exiles?
What does this Old Testament lesson say about seeking the common good of all of our neighbors? For whom does it invite us to seek that welfare? We tend to be people who want to do something to advance the peace and prosperity of our communities. What does Jeremiah 29 say about the role of prayer in that seeking?
It’s regrettable that the Lectionary cuts this Sunday’s reading off before we reach verses 11-13. After all, those famous words in some ways anchor this reading. “’I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’.” The prophet’s message is that God’s Israelite sons and daughters can make themselves physically at home in the Babylon to which God has sent them. After all, while God has been angry with God’s people, God still has plans for them to prosper.
Jeremiah 29’s call to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you” (7) invites preachers and teachers to reflect with their faith communities on how they’re carrying out that mission. It summons those communities to share just how they perceive themselves to be seeking that peace and prosperity. Jeremiah 29 also invites faith communities to explore how they might even better seek the peace and prosperity of their communities.
The church I serve is suburban. Most of its members commute at least 15 minutes to church. Yet I’m deeply grateful for their commitment to the well being of the community in which God has put it.
For many years we’ve participated in feeding hungry people in downtown Silver Spring, MD. In the past few years we’ve begun ministries of mentoring at-risk schoolchildren as well as serving our hungry neighbors through a monthly food pantry. We’ve also prepared ourselves to co-sponsor a refugee family.
By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is equipping us to seek the welfare of the community in which God has planted us. Yet that same Spirit is also constantly prodding us to ask how we can do that even better.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 111 introduces a series of Hallel Psalms (111-117), so named because the Hebrew of each Psalm begins with Hallelu Yah, “Praise Yahweh.” Indeed, Psalm 111 and 112 are twin Psalms, almost Siamese twins, because they are connected in so many ways. Any casual reader can see that the last verse of Psalm 111 is directly tied to the first verse of Psalm 112. For a more detailed examination of the connections, see my piece on Psalm 112 in the August 22 Sermon Starter Archive on this website.
The uniting theme of the two Psalms seems to be righteousness. Psalm 111 describes the righteousness of God, while Psalm 112 shows how that righteousness should be reflected in the life of those who fear that righteous God. Although the Lectionary separates these Psalms by almost two months, they would make a great two part series on righteousness.
The focus on God in Psalm 111 is immediately introduced in the first verse. “I will extol the Lord with all my heart in the company of the upright (righteous) and in the assembly.” As is often the case in the Psalter, even the most personal of the Psalms is spoken in a communal setting, first of all in the smaller circle of “the upright” and then in the larger assembly of God’s people. Purely private praise (“just Jesus and me”) is virtually unknown; a solitary believer, “spiritual but not religious,” was an oxymoron in Israel. Who could survive all alone as a child of God in a world filled with challenges to faith? Though a minor point in Psalm 111, this is surely a word worth speaking as you preach on the praise of God.
The NIV uses an interesting word to express praise. “I will extol….” Other version speak simply of “thanks,” but it will pay to focus on “extol” for a moment. Indeed, an entire sermon could be built around that word. We all know how to thank God for his gifts to us. And we know how confess our sins. And we know how to ask God for blessings that will satisfy our needs and wants. But how many of us know how to extol God, to simply praise him for himself? Ask someone to pray a prayer of pure praise and you will always hear instead a prayer of thanksgiving that will lapse into confession and supplication.
Psalm 111 is a primer on praise. It shows us how to praise God because God is worthy of praise, that is, simply because of who God is. It focuses on the attributes of God, primarily his righteousness, but also his grace and compassion, his glory and majesty, his faithfulness and holiness, his awesomeness and power.
But, interestingly, the Psalmist doesn’t attempt to praise God for those attributes in abstraction, as ideas about God arrived at simply by reflection. Rather, those attributes are descriptions of God as God is revealed through historical acts. His attributes are demonstrated in his mighty works on behalf of his people. So, four times the Psalmist praises God for his “works” or “his deeds.” As John Calvin often said, “We do not know God apart from his works.” That is, we come to know God not simply by thinking deeply about God, but even more by reflecting on his actions in history.
On what mighty deeds is the Psalmist focused? Verse 9 gives us a clear clue. “He provided redemption for his people.” Psalm 111 is not a creation Psalm; it is a redemption Psalm. A careful reading reveals that the act of redemption in view here is probably the whole Exodus event, including the wilderness wandering, the giving of the Law, and the conquest of the Promised Land.
The reference to “wonders” in verse 4 could well be an allusion to such miracles as the Ten Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. God’s provision of “food” is probably not a general reference to daily bread (as in the Lord’s Prayer), but an acknowledgement of the manna and quail that sustained God’s people for forty years in the wilderness. The trustworthy “precepts” in verse 7 may be a shorthand way of referring to the entire Torah given at Mt. Sinai. And it seems very clear that verse 6 is talking about the conquest of the Promised Land by the power of the Lord. “He has shown his people the power of his works, giving them the lands of other nations.”
Interestingly, all of those mighty deeds are rooted in God’s covenant of grace. The redemption provided for his people was “ordained [in] his covenant.” No matter what happens to his people in history, the Lord “remembers his covenant forever.” Indeed, that emphasis on the reliability of the covenant runs throughout the Psalm. Four times, the Psalmist praises God not only because he has acted in the past, but also because those past actions are rooted in the character and covenant of God. His “righteousness endures forever;” “he remembers his covenant forever;” his works and words “are steadfast forever and ever;” “he ordained his covenant forever.” What God has done for his people is not only “once for all (ala Hebrews), but also once forever.”
In these references to an historical redemption and an everlasting covenant of grace we find legitimate connections to Jesus Christ. In him, Yahweh has “provided redemption for his people.” In him, the covenant of grace has been fulfilled completely. In the Eucharist, he has provided food for his people; indeed, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” It is no wonder that the Western Church has chanted Psalms 111-113 every Sunday evening for hundreds of years. After the mini-cycle of redemption history beginning with the betrayal by Judas on Wednesday and the culmination of salvation in Christ’s resurrection on Sunday morning, the church ends every Sunday praising God for the way he has redeemed his people in Christ.
That is the true source of all praise—God’s mighty deeds of redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, we see God’s glory and majesty, his power and his holiness, his righteousness and justice, his faithfulness and trustworthiness, his grace and compassion. To know God we must focus on Christ. When we do that, we will say, with the Psalmist, “holy and awesome is his name.” And we will “extol the Lord with our whole heart.” One of my favorite old hymns is “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The second line in that hymn asks God to “tune my heart to sing thy praise.” That is exactly what Psalm 111 is designed to do—tune our hearts to sing God’s praise.
You will be doing your congregation a huge favor by preaching on this Psalm, just because our hearts are so badly out of tune. As I said before, we know how to beg for blessing; we know how to cry out for mercy; we even know how to give thanks for all the gifts. But pure praise is hard to come by.
I wonder if that’s because we don’t do what the NIV translation of verse 2 says. “Great are the works of Yahweh; they are pondered by all who delight in them.” That word “pondered” is a real key. It can mean to reflectively examine and it can mean to seek or respond to. We will not praise God if we don’t ponder (like the Virgin Mary) what the Scripture says about our redemption in Christ and then eagerly seek to live in the light of what God has done for us in Christ. In a world saturated with information and frantic with activity, we will not praise the Lord with our whole heart unless we pause to ponder the works of Yahweh in Christ and then earnestly focus all our efforts on living for Jesus.
If we stop to think about it, we do know what it means to extol the attributes of God as revealed in his works on our behalf. We extol the virtues of god-like figures in our society all the time. We praise sports stars for their hitting abilities, for their jump shots, for their speed. We praise entertainment figures for their beauty, for their acting ability, for their voices, for their performances. We even praise preachers once in a while for a good sermon, for compassionate pastoral work, for their leadership ability. We know how to praise mere humans for their performance. We just need to pay more attention to God’s performance in Christ and become as avid in our devotion to Jesus as we are in our adulation of our human heroes.
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Author: Scott Hoezee
By the time the Pastoral Epistles were written, there had been enough development in the Early Church that Paul was able to quote back to Timothy and Titus various “faithful sayings” that had gained currency among believers. These appear to have been pithy gospel summaries of key points. Since anything a person knew back then had to be carried around in their heads, short theological summations were a handy way of conveying key points of the Christian faith that did not require a person to memorize huge chunks of material. When Paul quoted these faithful sayings back to these pastors and declared them worthy or accurate, it was his way of putting his apostolic stamp of approval on them. “Here’s a good one” Paul as much as wrote. “Have people keep repeating this one because it’s true.”
In the case of 2 Timothy 2, the faithful saying in verses 11-13 almost looks like a poem and is often laid out in stanza format in various Bible translations. It’s also one of the longest of the faithful sayings in the Pastorals. Most are only a short sentence but this one divides out into about 4 stanza-like pairs of phrases. And mostly this all represents good news and hope-filled sentiments with one glaring exception smack in the middle.
If we die, we will live. If we endure, we will reign. If we are faithless, he stays faithful anyway. That’s all pretty positive.
But then: If we disown him, he will disown us. That’s less upbeat!
It also seems oddly undone by the following couplet that even if we are faithless, Jesus will remain faithFUL because he cannot disown himself, which seems to be another way of saying that since faithfulness is a part of Jesus’ DNA, he cannot let us go even if we let him go. But if so, how does this square with the prior couplet that as a matter of fact he WILL disown us if we do likewise to him? Which is it? Can we abandon Jesus somehow and in fact then actually be deserted by him or does he stick with us even when we fail or deny him or cave in to some fear when given the chance to witness to the gospel?
To my mind the answer to those questions is not clear in this context. Commentators have about as many opinions on this as there are commentators to render said opinions! But insofar as Paul was lending his approval to this particular faithful saying that was circulating among folks, it seems clear that for Timothy’s sake in the Ephesian context of his ministry Paul wants to emphasize the overwhelming goodness of the gospel and of the Jesus at the gospel’s bright center while at the same time being just stern enough to warn people that none of this is to be trifled with either.
The wider context here makes it obvious that there were all kinds of quarrelsome distractions in Timothy’s church. Squabbles arose over subjects for which Paul has not one lick of patience. Silly disputes, verbal shenanigans, endless speculations over this or that myth or old wives tale: no one should have time for such things, Paul urges. All they tend to do is tug at—if not outright ruin—our wider unity in Christ. “If you get caught up in some of that foolishness,” Paul as much as writes, “you might find your focus gets distracted from Jesus and that might make it easier for you to deny him in actions if not also by your own words. So stop it!”
As is often true of Paul, what you get here is warmth and gospel encouragement side by side with a deeper desire to inspire people to some holy seriousness. The gospel is the greatest news and the greatest story ever told. Jesus Christ raised from the dead is how this section begins—and curiously Paul calls just that one tidbit of information “my gospel”—but precisely because that is true, you cannot just willy-nilly mix that all up with silliness and myths and fruitless arguments among believers. There is more than one day to deny Christ as Lord so watch out! Major in majors and let the minor stuff fall away. And remember that you serve a Savior who never takes his eyes off of you so don’t get so distracted that you take your eyes off of him and his shining example of humility, sacrifice, and abiding love.
Paul’s ability in 2 Timothy 2 (and so many other passages) to strike that balance between warm encouragement and sober warning is probably instructive for us preachers today. Often we are under so much pressure to be inviting to newcomers and avoid negative, “downer” talk about sin and guilt that we do indeed end up being ever and only upbeat, non-offensive, cautious. But as Paul demonstrates, it is fully possible to do all that and yet be honest enough to proffer words of warning as well. We can do both. We need to do both lest the Christian faith get reduced to bumper sticker sloganeering that cheapens the depths of the gospel.
Earlier we also noted that there may be more than one way to deny Christ or his gospel, and for us preachers it is fully possible that one such current way to distract from the majors and get lost in the weeds of the minors is through the pressure we are under to preach what I call DIY sermons. A lot of North American preaching these days seems to spend a lot of time in the “How To” end of the rhetorical pool by delivering up more Good Advice than Good News. Whole sermon series get devoted to how to raise successful children, how to run profitable businesses, how to inject new life into marriages, how to be a real Christian man or woman, and so on. Some of the advice might be good but is dispensing such tips for happier living the main business of the church?
The “faithful saying” Paul quotes approvingly back to Timothy represents a fine balance between profoundly good news about the life-giving faithfulness of Jesus and a somber warning not to lose sight of all that by anything that distracts from or de facto denies Jesus. That’s not an easy balance to strike but it may well be the theological deftness we preachers are called to imitate.
In various lectures over the years Rev. William Willimon has often feared that what some congregations post on their church signs may reflect what happens inside the church in sermons too. Church signs that advise “Put on a Happy Faith” seem to trivialize the seriousness of what it means to bear the cross even as “We’re Too Blessed to Be Depressed” sends a signal that hard things and being a Christian just cannot coexist. Slogans like “Virtues Are Learned at Mother’s Knee, Vices at Some Other Joint” are more cute than helpful. And the main problem, Willimon once said “Is that some fool is going to drive by that church and conclude that THAT stuff is the Gospel.”
Paul warns Timothy to warn his people not to engage in silliness and conversations that have nothing to do with the gospel. What might change in some of our churches if we passed some of what we do, say, and present to the world through that filter?