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Tuesday, August 03, 2010
WHAT’S IMPORTANT IN OUR RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE AND EXPRESSION?—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR AUGUST 8, 2010, THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 and Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23, Genesis 15:1-6 and Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40

Sociologists recognize various dimensions of religious experience and expression. Among them are belief systems (creeds, theology, etc.), ritual (the ways we worship, etc.), ethics (the way we live, the standards of right and wrong, etc.), the mystical (inner experiences of awe and connection with mystery among other things), as well as a number of others. Religious groups sometimes argue about the relative importance of the various dimensions, sometimes claiming one or another is the most important of all. If you just ascribe to the right creeds, for instance, everything will be okay. If you just worship in the right manner, that’s what it’s all about. If your live right (whether in your personal ethics—not lying, for example—or in your social ethics—working for peace and justice, for instance), then you have it. It’s all a matter of making a heart connection so that you sense God’s loving Spirit at work within, others would say.

Such distinctions and debates can be seen in and beneath many scriptures, including the lectionary passages for this week. Let’s take a look at them, reflecting on our own experience and asking what is it that is really important to each one of us as we participate in a church which is part of the Christian tradition. What dimensions of religion matter to us? What are the various ways in which we experience and express our faith?

The reading from Isaiah, chapter 1, makes a distinction between right ritual and right living. The rituals of the day involved the sacrifice of animals on the altar. The people Isaiah was addressing seemed to be doing a good job of that, but God says to them, “I have had enough of burnt offerings or rams and the fat of fed beasts . . . Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates . . .” (vss. 11-14) What God wants instead is right living. “ . . . remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (vss. 16-17)

Psalm 50, while disturbing in its judgmental tone, includes the same message. God is rebuking his people “not for your sacrifices.” They are “continually before me.” (vs. 8) That’s not the problem. The problem, the basis upon which judgment is made, is whether our hearts are filled with thanksgiving and we are walking in “the right way.” (vs. 23) In both these passages right living seems to trump right ritual.

In the story from Genesis, chapter 15, however, right belief (trusting in the Lord), seems to be as valuable as right living (righteousness). It’s one version of the story in which Abraham (at this point called Abram) hears the preposterous promise that, in his old age, one who is “your very own issue will be your heir.” (vs. 4) “Look toward heaven and count the stars . . . So shall your descendants be.” (vs. 5) Abram has given up and is ready to leave all he has to one of his slaves. (vs. 3) Amazingly, Abram believes. And then this verse which is repeated in the epistles and used by Paul as he lifts up the centrality of grace and faith: Abram “believed the Lord, and reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The fact that he believed, not what he did, becomes the basis for Abram being considered righteous.

In both Romans and Galatians, Paul discusses faith in the context of the ritual laws and practices of his day, including circumcision. In Galatians 5:5-6, he concludes, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (See Romans, chapter four, for a fuller development of Paul’s thinking.) It is verses like these that became important to Martin Luther in his protest against the Catholic ritual practices of his day. His cry was, “Sola fide.” It is “only faith” that matters.

The reading from Hebrews 11 takes us further into the discussion of faith, offering this definition: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) The chapter enumerates the many people of faith who have gone on before us and died and not yet received, while living, the fullness of all God’s promises. They saw from a distance, as “strangers and foreigners on earth.” While on earth they were “seeking a homeland . . . a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (vss. 13-16)

I’m not going to try to get into a discussion of heaven here. What I want to point out is that, in talking about the faith of these people, the writer lists, as examples of their faith, the things they did, the way they lived. Abraham, by faith, “set out, not knowing where he was going . . .” (vs. 8) Many are listed “who through faith . . . administered justice . . . won strength out of weakness . . . were tortured, refusing to accept release . . . suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.” (vss. 33-35) We need to note here that, while faith looks to the future, it also is demonstrated in right living and in trustful response to God’s promises and God’s leading where we are now.

Then there’s the Gospel lesson from Luke, chapter 12, which comes at the question of what’s important from a slightly different angle. It reminds us that the treasures that matter are treasures of the heart, that we should sell our possessions and give alms.” (vss. 33-34) It sounds like an emphasis on social ethics, showing our concern for the poor. It is that, but it is more. Again we have the emphasis upon being ready for the moment when God breaks through in an unexpected way. We must be ready. However we might describe such events, the underlying focus on living in the moment, not being caught up in the accumulation of “things” as a means of securing the future, is worth taking seriously.

I believe all of the various dimensions of religious experience and expression are important, that we are called to hold them together, that one pursued apart from the others ends up missing part of what God intends for this life. I like these words found in the Epistle of James: “ . . . faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead . . . someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:17-18)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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