"A Good Foundation for the Future”Dr. David Rutledge Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91.1-6, 14-16; Psalm 146; Amos 6.1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6.6-19; Luke 16.19-31. Year C: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
“Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed…”
No matter how fortunate our personal situation seems, it can be hard to maintain hope over a long period. A dangerous and unpredictable illness, or a suddenly troubled marriage, or an addiction that seems stronger than one’s effort to overcome it – such suffering reminds us that trouble never sleeps forever. And when these moments come, we can find ourselves drained of energy, out of options to solve our problems, sinking daily into a darker, smaller place.
And it’s not only personal dilemmas that cloud our future: sometimes we are stymied by large historical events that we can’t control or avoid – wars, economic depressions or recessions, natural disasters. We can even remember periods when society seems to have lost its moorings – we can think of the Terror during the French Revolution, Germany under Hitler, or the Cambodian or Rwandan genocides – when formerly rational people began to engage in behavior that simply seems mad after the disaster has passed.
I’m afraid that this sermon will not provide a solution to this problem of a loss of hope, but we can find wisdom in some of today’s scripture readings that can serve as a lifeline when despair and confusion strike us. There are varied ways, of course, that people try to cope with despair and confusion — help from friends, family, doctors and ministers, prescriptions drugs or new therapies on the internet – and none of these sources of help should be overlooked. When one needs a life preserver, you do not care who threw it to you. For ‘People of the Book,’ however, scripture offers an additional resource that may bring unexpected but lasting help.
Though the great complexity and fast-changing nature of our modern age leaves us breathless and bewildered much of the time, we should remember that ancient Israelites and early Christians faced huge challenges that no longer worry us. Modern medicine has removed the dangers of many diseases and injuries that filled life with anxiety and pain.
Some years ago, while living abroad I had a tooth cavity filled without the benefit of Novocain, which was a vivid reminder of what our ancestors suffered routinely! If we remove from our lives all of the pain relievers, insect repellants, healthy foods year-round, conveniences of travel, and labor-saving tools and machines, we can scarcely understand how people reached adulthood or old age in the biblical period.
If we consider further the brutality of life 2,000 years ago, when wars resulted in the total destruction of a losing culture, including the killing of male combatants and the enslavement of women and children, we can understand the cry of the psalmists, “How long, O Lord?… let thy compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low” (Psalm 79.5, 8).
Or, a bit further on in the psalter: “How long, O Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever? For all our days pass away under thy wrath, our years come to an end like a sigh….their span is but toil and trouble;….O Lord! How long? Have pity on thy servants!” (Psalm 89.46; 90.9-10, 13).
Things were little better in the New Testament period, when Roman violence replaced that of the Assyrians or Babylonians, and travel for early Christian missionaries was riskier even than that of modern immigrants trying to sail from Africa to Europe. One scholar has even calculated that the bedbugs alone encountered in the simple hostels where travelers would have stayed might have ended the Christian experiment, had it not been for the hardiness of Paul and his associates!
And yet, the biblical writers managed to surmount all of the pain and suffering around them to give thanks, to refuse despair, and to stubbornly insist that God’s last word would not be pain, but joy:
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,
Who abides in the shadow of the Almighty,
Will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
My God, in whom I trust.’”
In what does hope consist? Is it simply wishful thinking that ‘everything will be fine’ despite the evidence? Sometimes — after all, Jews and Christians are just human. But the catalogue of suffering that fills the prophetic books (see the books of Amos, or Jeremiah) make this ‘explanation’ sound trite and unconvincing.
Hope is trusting in the future despite seeing no evidence that trust is justified; it is choosing to go on even though one’s experience is full of disappointment. In Ps. 91, God is called “my refuge and my fortress,” one who delivers from danger, “a shield and buckler,” one who protects, rescues, and gives satisfaction (vss. 2, 3, 4b, 14-16). But there is also a deeper motive: speaking for God, the priest or prophet promises
“Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name….” (Psalm 91.14)
Hope is based not simply on external evidence, or some kind of neutral calculation (‘Surely these troubles have to end sometime…’), but on a deeply personal, intense relationship of caring between God and the believer. Because there is love between God and believer – they know each other’s name, and they call to and answer one another – there is trust between them. There is a degree of intimacy and involvement that bridges the gap between the Master of the Universe behind creation, and the ordinary, struggling individual person of ancient Palestine.
Now all this may sound a bit like a cliché – ‘God loves us, so we can be hopeful that everything will be all right.’ But there is more beneath the surface here than first appears. Some years ago, there was a minor revolution in Christian thought when Theology of Hope was published by German thinker’ Jurgen Moltmann.
In contrast to traditional Christian perspectives on God, Moltmann argued that God was a God of the future, not the past; that the Divine, through a kind of sacred attraction, pulled or lured all of creation into a new and largely unknown consummation. Christians had become so accustomed to thinking of ‘the mighty acts of God’ in terms of creation, exodus, conquest, and incarnation that God was virtually confined to the past. “God” was a power present a long time ago, but no longer, and so could only be apprehended today in memory, through ancient texts and the findings of archaeology.
If instead we think of God’s activity in terms of promise – of covenant, of liberation from captivity, of return from exile, and pre-eminently for Christians in the Messianic feast in which Jesus Christ will preside over the fulfillment of creation, as all things are unified in God (see Revelation, 21-22), everything is changed. “Eschatology” – the study of the future, or the end of time, is brought back to the center of Christian life.
Such a re-casting of Christian theology has opened up a new understanding of the human place in the Divine economy: “fulfillment” is no longer understood simply as individual souls getting into heaven, but as all of creation being brought to consummation, every part of the universe achieving its proper place in the whole, a whole in which ‘every tear shall be wiped away, and death shall be no more’ (Revelation 21.4).
The divisions between humanity and God, between humans and nature, between races, sexes, and nations will be overcome in this vision, establishing the biblical story as a comedy – that is, not a tragedy, but a story with a positive, joyful ending. Thus, Christians are introduced to an understanding of God that affirms the reality of goodness, removing the pain and suffering of life from the center to the periphery, from the ultimate position to the penultimate. Hope, then, can be seen as the Christian’s native ground, as a gift which, like God’s own self, we can trust even in the darkest times.
We have a glimpse of this way of thinking in the sixth chapter of 1 Timothy, when the writer urges his contemporaries to “aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (6.11), virtues which will lay up “a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed” (6.19). Such qualities may seem naïve in a world where wolves roam, and serpents lie on every hand. They do grant, however, concrete and practical access to the biblical vision of hope that can withstand even the death of a people, as Israel saw, and the death of God on a cross, as Christians saw, for resurrection is real because God “makes all things new.”
About the Writer:
Dr. David Rutledge retired from teaching at Furman University as the Reuben B. Pitts Professor of Religion. He is an elder in Westminster Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC (PCUSA), and a former board member of the Phillis Wheatley Association, and the Interfaith Forum of Greenville. Rutledge received his A.B. in philosophy from the College of William and Mary, his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School, and his Ph.D. from Rice University.
He is the author of Humans and the Earth: Toward a Personal Ecology(Peter Lang), numerous journal articles, and chapters in books. He is past President of The Polanyi Society, an international scholarly organization. His religious interests are in religion and science, religion and ecology, classics of spiritual devotion, and the work of Michael Polanyi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wendell Berry, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dante.
Scripture and Music:
Jeremiah 32:1-3; 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6; 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus
It Is Well with My Soul
Take My Life, and Let It Be
Are Ye Able
When the Church of Jesus
Jesus Is Lord of All
On Eagle’s Wings (Michael Joncas)
Take My Life that I May Be (Robert Hobby)
Poor Man Lazarus (Jester Hairston)
Majesty (Jack Hayford)
O Be Joyful (John Rutter)
On Eagle s Wings (Michael Joncas)
Jesus Is Lord of All (McClard)
Offertory (John Ness Beck)