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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Lamentations 1:1–6; 2 Timothy 1:1–14 & Luke 17:5–10

Today’s first reading, from the Book of Lamentations, concerns the fate of Jerusalem and its inhabitants in the aftermath of the destruction of both the city and the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. 

The Book of Lamentation opens with the following verse, “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!” (Lam. 1:1a) The nation of Judah had been utterly defeated, the Temple destroyed, and many of the people taken away captive to Babylon. The second verse contains the phrase, “Among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her.” (Lam. 1:2b) The term lovers refers to nations such as Egypt, to whom Judah kept turning for help. As the Babylonians closed in on Jerusalem, the nation of Judah turned away from God and sought help and protection from other nations instead. But they left Judah to defend itself when the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem.

When the city was captured by the Babylonians, much of the population of Jerusalem, particularly the leaders, and those in positions of influence, together with the wealthy and educated people of the city, were sent into exile in Babylon. Verse 4 begins with the words,“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals.” (Lam. 1:4a) There were three annual religious festivals the Israelites were expected to observe: the Festival of Unleavened Bread (which includes Passover), the Festival of Weeks (or Harvest or Pentecost) and the Festival of Tabernacles. The people were required to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate these festivals. But now there is no city or temple to come to.

A key aspect of this passage is the fact that the people did not trust in God to save them. Instead they relied on human intervention from nations they believed were their allies, but who deserted them when it mattered most. What is clearly inferred in this passage is the lack of faith on the part of the people of Judah and Jerusalem. The obvious question this presents to us is: who, or what, do we put our trust in when we are faced with life-changing threats or challenges? 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Apostle Paul is in no doubt regarding what he believes the answer to that question should be. In Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, we basically have the “last words” of the apostle. Paul was facing death. Convicted as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul sat in a cold Roman prison, cut off from the world, with just a visitor or two and his writing materials. Paul knew that soon he would be executed (4:6), so he wrote his final thoughts to his disciple and student Timothy, passing to him the torch of leadership, reminding him of what was truly important, and encouraging him in the faith.

In spite of the suffering that might have caused Paul to despair, he affirmed his confidence in God’s protection. This was not a claim to strong faith; rather, it was a trust in a God so powerful that even a weak faith was sufficient. Paul based his confidence in Jesus on his intimate relationship with Jesus. Paul’s trust in Jesus came from his own personal experience of Jesus, and Paul believed there was no earthly experience that could break the bond of love that Jesus held him in. As a consequence of his faith in Jesus, Paul was telling Timothy that if your situation looks bleak, give your concerns to Jesus because you know him and love him. Realise that he will guard all you have entrusted to him until the day of his return. 

Jesus himself also taught how even a small amount of faith, such as that the size of a tiny mustard seed, could accomplish something extraordinary, as he answered the request of the apostles to increase their faith. The desire of the  apostles to be equipped with increased faith might have stemmed from an interest in improving their position in the community of disciples. Jesus teaches them that their concern should not be the securing of advantage, recognition, or reward but simply faithful service, reliable performance of the duties they have been assigned. 

Jesus invites his listeners to imagine a scenario, and to put themselves in the position of a householder with several slaves or servants. Jesus poses the question: Would a householder assume the slave’s role when his slaves have completed their day’s work, preparing their meal and waiting on them, hand and foot? And would a master thank the slave for doing his job? Of course not! 

Jesus makes it clear to the apostles, and obviously the other disciples who are present, that leaders of a community should not think they have a right to rewards or benefits simply because of their status or position within the community. To serve others in the name of God is, in itself, privilege enough.

Today’s readings remind us that when all hope seems lost, or when the future looks bleak, we can put our trust in God. And if we put our trust in God, for the right reasons and not for any personal gain, but then we have some doubts about whether God will be with us in our time of need, we can take confidence from the fact that even if we have just a little faith that God will support us in our time of need, then that will be more than enough to sustain us and get us through. 

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