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Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15:1-5, I Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

The kind of Fundamentalism in which I grew up had some countercultural elements. I had a keen awareness that I was “different.” There were restrictions on my life that weren’t binding on most of my schoolmates. In many ways, we were defined by what we didn’t do than by what we did. We didn’t dance or attend movies, smoke or drink or curse. Girls and women didn’t wear make-up. One church I belonged to during some of my high school years didn’t believe in males and females going swimming together. Another kicked a family out because they went bowling—bowling being a problem because there was a bar in the bowling alley.

Some of you may find this outrageous. It certainly isn’t where I am today, but, at the time, there seemed also to be power in it. I learned early that I didn’t have to follow the norm. I didn’t have to be like the crowd. I learned that there was an inner source of identity and strength that allowed me to resist.

Part of that has stuck with me throughout life. I was in college long enough (because of work on graduate degrees) to have spent most of the sixties in settings where counterculturalism and revolutionary views were rampant. I lived in Berkeley, California, from 1962 to 1966, for goodness sake, and in suburban Chicago at the time of the riots following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and at the time the Chicago 7 (or 8) were active during the Democratic Convention in 1968. Two of them were graduate school class mates.

I spent a lot of time studying and visiting, living at times on the edges of, some of the alternative countercultural communities that arose in those days. They appealed to my instincts, reminding me that I didn’t have to live according to the general social norms.

There’s a strong thread of counterculturalism that runs through the Bible, and through the history of Christianity (and other major religions), I believe. We are called to live by a different set of values than those which often seem to prevail.

This countercultural thread is evident in this week’s Epistle and Gospel readings. I Corinthians, chapter one, speaks of it in terms of foolishness vs. wisdom. “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (vs. 25) Paul reminded the members of the Corinthian congregation that they were not among the social elite, not part of the “in” crowd. “ . . . not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are . . .” (vss. 26-27)

We could get into debate, as some of us did at breakfast this morning, about whether this means we are not to use our minds. Is this a statement against intellectual endeavor and achievement? While we can certainly overvalue the work of the mind, making it into a god, I think the point of this passage is quite different. The “foolishness” appears at the beginning of the reading. It is “the cross.” (vs. 18) The foolishness is the call to an alternate way of life, a self-giving way of living. The foolishness is the one who demonstrates for us the extreme of that self-giving, so deeply committed to the ways of peace and justice that he ends up dying on a cross because of the challenge he represents. He chose to live by values which were counter to the norm and calls us to do the same. Humble self-giving doesn’t seem to stack up well against aggressive competition for status, wealth, achievement, and success. It’s so countercultural.

The Beatitudes in the Gospel lesson are similar in tone. Those who are described as “blessed” are not the winning athletes, the wealthy tycoons, the beauty queens, etc. The “blessed” are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, etc. (Matthew 5:3-9)

The same tone is present in Micah 6 and Psalm 15, a bit more subtly (although not much) with a slight twist. The reading from Micah begins with a controversy between God and his people. He is not happy with the way they are living. (Micah 6:2-3) The people respond by saying, “What do you want from us, God? We come to worship every sabbath. We bring our offerings. We are generous givers. Do you want more from us? Maybe you want us to bring our firstborn children as a sacrifice? What kind of God are you?” (A free interpretation of what was probably the underlying tone of verses 6-7)

God responds with the words which are the basis for the little chorus we sing each week as an offertory. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (vs. 8) It’s not about right worship and ritual. It’s about the values that guide our lives. We would not have to search far to discover that God was, in part, upset with the riches they were chasing after, the mansions they were building for themselves, the mistreatment of the poor, etc. This verse is a call to countercultural values.

Psalm 15 spells some of those values out in terms of doing what is right, speaking the truth from the heart, not slandering, standing by one’s oath even if it hurts, not going along with a system based on bribes and excessive profits, etc. (vss. 2-5)

It’s pretty heavy stuff, easily inducing guilt—another topic of our breakfast discussion this morning. Many of us are well-educated, living comfortable middle or upper-middle class lives. We (including Margie and myself) struggle with our response to scriptures like these. That’s a start. Much of life is in the struggle. Wallowing in guilt can, and often is, paralyzing. Our church, and its members, respond with generous giving, with acts of compassion and service too numerous to list here. Perhaps these scriptures are simply a warning never to get too comfortable, a reminder to examine and re-examine the values we live by. Perhaps they are meant to summon our courage when other values seem to be winning. We are called to bear witness to another set of values, another way of living. Our view of it, our living of it, is never complete, but there is a cross to remind us and motivate us. In Jesus we will always see new possibilities of the lengths to which we can go in the name of Love.

A footnote on compromise: One could easily read into these passages a warning against compromise. Stick to your guns (Oops! Did I use that word?) no matter what, even it takes you to your death. It is good to be reminded to stand up for what we believe, but too often uncompromising spirits meet only to be staring into the barrels of each other’s guns. Much of political and social discourse these days seems to have come to that.

Let me suggest that compromise may also be seen as a way of self-giving. Compromise can be a bit countercultural. It requires actually listening to one another. If I compromise, it means I care enough about you to give up something of myself. Compromise can be an expression of humility. It’s just a thought, maybe even a bit of foolishness, but who knows what can happen when we get a bit foolish?

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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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