Actions have consequences

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

God is angry with the House of Jacob and the families of the house of Israel, Jeremiah tells us. “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.” This image of environmental degradation is followed by an account of how they have abandoned their Lord for other gods. And all for nothing. They have abandoned living water, and dug their own cisterns, which are cracked. A cracked cistern will not hold water, so vital in the desert. Without water, they will die.

The Psalm continues this theme. I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, but “my people did not hear my voice, and Israel would not obey me.” If they would listen, I would defeat their enemies, and feed them “with the finest wheat”. They suffer now, but if they would listen to God, they would not.

If our readings from the Hebrew scriptures focus on the outcome of abandoning God, the readings from Hebrews and Luke make it clear that following Jesus involves behavior that goes against what is expected. Paul asks us to remember prisoners as if we were in prison with them, those who are tortured as if we are being tortured with them. If such empathy might be reasonable, Paul’s instruction to “keep your lives free from the love of money” is definitely counter-cultural! If we do these things, however, the promise is that Jesus will always be with us.

Luke’s parable of the wedding feast proposes another counter-cultural approach: put yourself at the bottom, because it’s better to be moved up than to be moved down. Jesus is explicitly telling his followers not to be caught up in the hierarchies of the day, but to go against them. And then his advice to his host is more surprising: don’t invite the fancy people, as if you expect reciprocity. Offer hospitality to those who cannot give back: “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”. Repayment is not now, but “at the resurrection of the righteous”.

It is not surprising that the people of Israel failed to do what they were expected to do. We do too. It is one reason we say the confession on a regular basis. We live in a world that expects us to honor worldly hierarchies, where concern for money is considered a good. It is easier to worship worldly gods than to follow the Lord. Those of us with money and homes keep the hungry and the poor at arms length: we might help at a communal Thanksgiving, but we don’t generally invite the hungry and homeless into our homes.

But just because we fail a lot, it doesn’t mean we fail all the time. Here’s what everyone who has entered into relationship with the poor, or prisoners, or the hungry has come to know: we may start out thinking we are helping them, but if we enter into relationship and make ourselves vulnerable, we are served as much as we serve.

Actions have consequences, we teach children. But that is true for good actions and bad ones. The challenge to us is “hear the voice” of the Lord, to move outside our comfort zone, to enter relationship with those who are outside our worlds, and to let ourselves be changed. And as the psalmist and Paul both tell us, when we do that, God will be with us.

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