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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2:1-11 OR Psalm 99:1-9, II Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

This is Transfiguration Sunday, a day that commemorates the experience Peter and James and John had with Jesus on top of a mountain.  (Matthew 17:1)  Something happened that changed the way they saw and experienced Jesus.  One of the definitions of “transfiguration” is “a dramatic change in appearance, especially one that reveals great beauty, spirituality, or magnificence.”  Matthew reports that, when Jesus was “transfigured,” “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  (vs. 2)  Moses and Elijah appeared there with them.  (vs. 3)

The story appears also in Mark (Mark 9:2-8) and Luke (Luke 9:28-36).  We could comment on minor variations in the telling of the story, but the main point (in my opinion---or at least my focus as of this moment) is about identity.  It is an identity story.  Jesus, and those with him, hear the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”  (vs. 5)  Wrapped up in those words are the struggle of the early church to define who Jesus was, and perhaps Jesus’ own coming to clarity about his identity and mission.

Much discussion (mostly a waste of breath) has speculated on when Jesus became aware of power of God within him.  When, some ask, did he become the Son of God, or was he born that way?  The same words were heard when he was baptized: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

I’m not going to add to the theological/philosophical speculation about how Jesus was fully human and fully divine.  We are told that, in some mysterious way, we share in his identity, told that we are to be like him, that we too are filled with the divine in the midst of our human existence.  What I suggest we might focus upon as we consider this story of transfiguration is the discovery and living out of that mysterious identity within ourselves.

Identity is expressed in us in a variety of ways.  For some, our identity comes to its fullest expression in the political arena.  For some, it is creating things with our hands.  Others thrive on the building of relationships or on teaching or writing or painting.  I’ve known people who found a great deal of fulfillment in tinkering with engines.  Some seem to be most at home in silent contemplation.  Even Jesus, during his time of temptation, faced alternative directions in which his identity could be expressed.

I believe that the punch line, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased,” which appears in three of this week’s lectionary readings, is ultimately meant for us as well as Jesus.  Before further comment on that, however, let’s look at the three other readings.

From Exodus, we have another mountaintop experience, this time with Moses.  The Lord invites Moses to “come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment . . .”  (Exodus 24:12)  Moses, like Jesus (or is it the other way around), is dazzled.  “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.”  (vs. 17)  Here we are coming to the close of the season of Epiphany and we are surrounded by illumination.

The stories lend themselves to recalling mountaintop experiences and moments in our own lives, a direction we took in some of our discussion at the lectionary breakfast this morning.  Many of us have experienced high moments literally from atop mountains.  We also came to the conclusion that not all “epiphanies” are grand, nor do they require presence on a literal mountain.  They may sneak up and surprise us in the everyday experiences of life, while crossing a bridge or noticing a child.

This story is another story about identity, not just Moses’ identity but the identity of a whole people.  What Moses is given on that mountain shapes and guides all of Israel in its development.  Congregations and families and nations need a sense of direction in their life and ministry together.  You might want to reflect further on where that comes from and how we nurture its development in our midst.

Some of us continue to be troubled by the sense of entitlement at work in some of present-day Israel’s actions in relation to Palestine.  It’s there in the Old Testament and, for some, it reaches across the centuries out of all proportion.  The first Psalm can be read through that lens.  It seems to set Israel above all other nations as the seat of power.  “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”  (Psalm 2:6)  I prefer to see it as a reminder that kings continue to plot with and against one another, forgetting that they are not the final word, that there is a higher power at work behind our human machinations.  “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?” the Psalmist asks, noting that “he who sits in the heavens laughs . . .”  (vs. 4)

There is an alternative to the kings and powers of this earth.  We are not to bow down to them and give them ultimate authority.  That’s why, in the New Testament, Jesus is such a threat.  He shows that there is an alternative to Roman oppression, another way to live empowered by love.

The other Psalm declares unabashedly, “The Lord is king . . . The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.”  (Psalm 99:1-2)  Note that this king is a “lover of justice,” one who has “established equity.”  (vs. 4)  Note also the connection of this Psalm with the Exodus reading.  It speaks of Moses and Aaron, “the statutes he gave them,” and calls the people to worship at God’s “holy mountain.”  (vss. 6-7, 9)

Psalm 2 was probably an identity statement for Israel, quite likely used at the inauguration of each new king.  The words heard at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration are spoken to each new king, and perhaps to the entire nation, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”  (Psalm 2:7)

The same words are recalled in the reading from II Peter as well.  Jesus, the writer says, “received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  (II Peter 1:17)  It catches our attention, doesn’t it, when God is referred to as “Majestic Glory”?  What a name for the mysterious and powerful Love at work among us!  It is written at this point as an “eyewitness” account. “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”  (vs. 18)

There are other intriguing phrases in this reading:  “cleverly devised myths” (vs. 16), “a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (vs. 19---epiphany light?), the contrast between “one’s own interpretation” and the movement of the Spirit (vss. 20-21).  Go for it, if they grab you in some way.

I’m going back to the focus on identity---Who are we?  Notice that in both II Peter and Matthew the words refer to Jesus as “my Beloved.”  That’s the identity that counts.  Who are we?  Like Jesus, we are ones who are loved beyond measure.  What a mountaintop experience it is to know that we are loved!  What more powerful truth and experience could be at the heart of who we are?  Moments when that truth bursts into our being are to be treasured.  Be alert to be awestruck by it at the most unexpected places in life!
Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48

Sometimes my reflections on the weekly lectionary readings bring to mind a verse, from elsewhere in the scriptures, which is not included.  That verse seems to summarize the themes I’ve been considering and the breakfast discussion that has taken place.

This week it was Philippians 1:6 (high on my list of favorite verses).  In the New Revised Standard Version which our congregation uses, it reads:  “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion . . .”  I first read and memorized it from the King James Version which makes it sound more individualistic:  “ . . . he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”  I also like the nuances of the New International Version:  “ . . . he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion . . .”  In all versions, God’s work in us, God’s purposes for us, have not yet reached completion.  That’s true whether we’re talking about us as individuals or as the community of God’s people together.  In popular discourse today, we may say, “God isn’t finished with me yet.”  We are all, individually and in our life together, works in progress.

So---how did I get to that verse?  The readings for the coming Sunday include two astounding exhortations.  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  (Leviticus 19:2)  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:48)  I began this morning’s breakfast discussion with the question, “What does it mean to be holy?”  (There was a second question which I’ll mention later.)  We explored a variety of answers, some wondering whether holiness is something attained by only some people, often thought of as saints.  The counterpoint was that we are all saints, partaking of some measure of holiness in every moment.  Mother Theresa was mentioned, thought of as a person of high holiness and sainthood.  Yet those who have read her writings know how deeply she struggled at times with being able to believe at all, falling into times of despair.  The thing we all agreed upon was that we haven’t arrived yet.  We are all works in progress.

Several of us were aware that the Greek and Hebrew words for “holy” mean “set apart.” By itself, it has been interpreted by some as a term which justifies an attitude of separateness from the dirty world and people around us.  It may lead to a sense of superiority.  “I am holy and you are not.”  Being holy is more than just being set apart.  It is being set apart to be used by God as God works in this world.  One Hebrew scholar suggests that the word used in Leviticus means “to be set apart for a special purpose.”  I would suggest that we have all been set apart to fulfill the purposes of the divine spark within, uniquely expressed in each one of us.  The Spirit of Christ is still at work in us bringing to completion what has been begun.  God isn’t finished with us yet; we are all works in progress.

Similarly, the word perfect is a word of movement, movement toward completion.  In fact, the Greek word used in Matthew 5:48 can also be translated as “complete.”  The call is to live up to the purposes for which we were created, and we’re still on the way.  God is still at work in us completing what has been begun.

With that background, let’s look at this week’s readings for further illumination.  They may also invite us to explore some other themes.

The book of Leviticus gets its name from the Levites, the tribe of Levi and its descendants.  The Levites were “set apart” as a priestly class among the Hebrews.  Among other things they were charged with the transcription and teaching of the Law.  We find references to priests and Levites together (see II Chronicles 34:30 & John 1:19).  There’s no need to sort out all the details and distinctions.  Some credit the Levites with recording the Book of Deuteronomy.  Leviticus is certainly the book of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) most focused upon a compilation of laws.

In the Old Testament being holy is directly related to obeying God’s commandments or laws.  The second question I asked the breakfast group was, “What rules do you live by?” inviting the participants also to share thoughts on the significance of rules in general.  Rules, of course, can be used in rigid and judgmental ways.  At the same time, we all, I believe, live by certain principles or rules that we have accumulated through experience, learning, etc.

It can be eye-opening for those who have not dug deeply into the laws of the Old Testament to see what is included.  They are not all a part of a right wing political agenda, and, in most cases, they are seen as emanating from an inner attitude of the heart.

In Leviticus the call to be holy is followed by a list of laws, including a version of some of the Ten Commandments.  “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest . . . you shall leave them for the poor and the alien . . . You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another . . . You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal . . . You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind . . . You shall not render an unjust judgment . . . You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people . . . You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kind . . . You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people . . .”  (Leviticus 19:9-11, 13-18)  Take care of the poor and those with disabilities; be honest and fair and respectful of persons and property; don’t seek revenge.  Makes a lot of sense to me.  Then, the punch line, words we sometimes seem to think originated with Jesus’ as part of his summary of the law:  “ . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (vs. 18)  That, says the writer of Leviticus, is what it means to be holy.

Psalm 119, 176 verses long, extols the law as the basis of holy living, every verse contain a word that refers to the law.  “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”  (Psalm 119:34)  In Psalm 119, the heart is an important element in living according to the Law.  Earlier, in verse 11, it has spoken of treasuring the law in one’s heart.  It’s a verse some of us learned in childhood, speaking of hiding God’s word in our hearts.  As this week’s selection continues, its petition is, “Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.”  (vs. 36)

The Gospel lesson continues with Jesus' reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments.  They are not just rules to be obeyed literally and minimally.  One is to get behind them to a deeper intent.  Instead of revenge, we are to go further than the demands of those who would do us harm.  Turn the other cheek.  Go the second mile.  (Matthew 5:38-41)  Don’t just love your neighbors (the focus in Leviticus).  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  (vss. 43-44)  Read the passage again and notice the details and commentary that are part of each section.  Remember also that the context was one where the oppressors, the enemies, were those who wielded and abused Roman power.  There were specific rituals of relationship underlying these teachings of Jesus.  He was teaching the power of nonviolence, a kind of cooperative resistance that undermined the authority of those whose intent was to harm.

This time, though, the punch line is “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  It's as if Jesus were saying, "The things I’ve been talking about are ways to be perfect, to fulfill the purposes I have for you in this life.  These represent the high road I would have you take."  What a call!  We’re not there yet, but we can be a work in progress.

Finally, there’s the reading from I Corinthians.  It continues some of the themes in that epistle as we’ve been following it for a few weeks.  There’s the matter of divisions caused by loyalty to one or another leader.  Paul wants the congregation in Corinth to see their life together as a building project.  “ . . . like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.”  (I Corinthians 3:10)  The foundation in Christ, to whom they belong, “not to Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future,” and “Christ belongs to God.”  (vss. 11, 22-23)

There is the related theme of wisdom and foolishness.  The rules we live by, the leaders we follow, are not measured by what the world calls wise.  “If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God . . . ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’”  (vss. 18-20)

Today, however, I particularly notice the words of verse 16.  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  It was a verse pounded into some of us in our early years.  It was used to teach us respect for the holiness of our bodies, to give rationale among other things for not drinking alcohol or smoking.  That interpretation was very individualistic.  It is more likely that Paul was referring the entire fellowship of believers, what he sometimes called the Body of Christ, as the temple.  The words could also be read as a warning to those who place too much emphasis on a temple made from bricks and mortar, as if God has abandoned those when a beautiful sanctuary or towering temple is no longer available.  The temple that matters is within.

In any case, the point is that the work in progress is a temple.  We are all in the process of living in to our sainthood, our holiness.  Notice that verse 17 says, “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”  Imagine!  What’s being built is a temple!  We haven’t arrived yet.  God is still at work.  God is still speaking.   Can you believe it?
Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Sirach 15:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, I Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

I’m the cook in our family.  Sometimes I ask Margie (my wife), “What do you want for dinner tonight?”  She may get cute and just say, “Something to eat.”  A little more seriously, she may ask, “What are my options?”  It’s equally likely that I may come to her initially with choices.  “Do you want chicken or pork?”  “Do you want it glazed or breaded?”  “Do you want cauliflower or beans with it?”  “Rice or baked potato?”

Actually, all my life my family has known me as one who offers options.  “Do you want to go to the zoo or to the beach?”  “Do you want to go to Denny’s or Burger King?”  It meant they felt like they were participating in the decision and kept their choices within the bounds I felt were appropriate for the occasion.

Talking about options is another way of talking about choice.  One of the definitions of “option” is “something that may be or is chosen.” Of course, the word has made its way into the financial world as well where an option is an agreement to buy or sell an asset before some future date at a price specified now.

Although I’m not specifically writing about finances today, we could look at options and choice from a number of different angles.  We are a nation of choices.  Immigrants are sometimes overwhelmed by the varieties of foods available in our supermarkets.  Just take a stroll down the cereal aisle:  Kellogg’s, General Mills, Post.  Each has its rice and wheat and, corn cereals, flakes or bite-size with or without raisins or dried peaches or blueberries.  I didn’t count the different varieties of mini-wheats yesterday when I was at the grocery store.  Too many, for sure.  I had a coupon which gave me a discount on two boxes, so I came home with “frosted” and “brown sugar.”  Okay, so I didn’t make the healthiest choices.

Some of us may even suffer from choice overload.  I don’t want to have to make so many decisions.  I recently saw a report on some research recently about grocery stores which put up stacks of some products at the end of two different aisles.  Did you every fall for that?  It’s called “impulse buying.”  One stack had more choices than the other.  Things sold better from the stack which had fewer choices.

While we are surrounded by choices, some of them probably quite trivial, we may overlook the more basic values that underlie our choices.  This week’s lectionary readings challenge us at the most fundamental level of choice.  Are our choices life-affirming, life-giving, life-enhancing, or do they deal in death, literally or figuratively?  Do we choose that which blesses or that which brings a curse?

Deuteronomy means “second law.”  It may be the book found by the priest Hilkiah during the repair of the temple in Jerusalem in the 7th century before the common era. (See II Kings 22:3-10)  The Law had been missing for many years, so King Josiah stood before the people and read this book (Deuteronomy?) in its entirety and based major reforms on it.

Whatever its exact history, Deuteronomy retells the history of the people who escaped from slavery in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, and are now about to occupy a new land.  It is written as if it were three speeches spoken by Moses.    

We could dwell upon this occupation which became something of a “conquest.”  We still live with the consequences.  We can’t undo or avoid this part of biblical history, nor should we glorify it or use it to justify current injustices resulting from occupation.  Wringing our hands and living in guilt and/or being appalled are not going to move us forward.

Encountering the reading this time , it made me think of immigrants who enter into a new land.  They bring with them customs and values, some fearing that those customs and values may be lost.  They may lose their identity, especially if they are entering a land with glittering lights and a tempting plethora of choices.  Moses was addressing such people.  It may help also to think of it as a book that became the basis for reformation, calling people to remember their roots.

Whatever your take on the overall writing and its context, this week’s portion comes from the third speech, a speech which challenges the people as they enter into this new place.  Moses isn’t going to be allowed to go with them. (See Deuteronomy 31:1-2)  He is putting before them the possibility of blessings and curses that await them. (See chapter 28 and 30:1)  The reading before us begins, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  (Deuteronomy 30:15)

Behind all choice is the contrast between life and death.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you . . .”  (vss. 19-20)  Joshua, whose story was told as part of the continuing “history” recounted in Deuteronomy, also emphasizes choice as he addresses the people after they have occupied the new land.  “ . . . choose this day whom you will serve . . .; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  (Joshua 24:15)

Sirach, a reading in Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox Bibles, probably comes from the third century before the common era.  It may have been written in Alexandria in Egypt, meaning that it too can be read in the context of a mix of cultures.  It is another of this week’s readings that emphasizes choice.  “He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.  Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.”  (Sirach 15:16-17)  Before this, the writer has said, “To act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” (vs. 15)

Too often this contrast between life and death has been part of an approach which tried to scare people with threats of a fiery hell.  One doesn’t have to go that route to realize that choices can be life-affirming or death dealing.  I once owned a book by J. Kenneth Shamblin, Life Comes As Choice.  It is impossible to live a single day without being faced with choices, big or small.  While we can hardly agonizingly analyze every choice, they all have consequences.  They build up or tear down, again in large or minuscule ways.  I believe that the loving heart of the universe wills us to make decisions that are attuned to that love, choices that contribute in even the little things to the building up of love and justice and peace in this world.

In the readings, choosing for life is connected with following “the commandments of the Lord your God.”  (Deuteronomy 30:16)  The reading from Sirach begins, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments,” and later observes, almost tongue in cheek (?), “He had not commanded anyone to be wicked.”  (Sirach 15:15 & 20)  Psalm 119 celebrates the Law (commandments?) throughout its 176 verses.  The lectionary portion for this Sunday does not specifically speak of choice, but it is implied.  “Happy are those . . . who walk in the law of the Lord . . . who seek him with their whole heart.”  (Psalm 119:1-2)

Emphasis on commands and law can lead to a legalistic judgmentalism.  The Gospel reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount emphasizes that the Law is more than outward behavior.  It is rooted in an inward attitude of the heart.  Repeatedly Jesus says, “You have heard it said . . . But I say to you . . .” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 33-34)  Being angry, even calling someone a fool is put right up there with murder.  (vss. 21-22)  Looking at a woman with lust in one’s heart is linked with adultery.  (vss. 27-28)  No amount of swearing, even by heaven, can add to the purity of a simple “Yes” or “No” from the heart.

Choosing life starts in the heart, in one’s inner attitudes.  Even the other readings which emphasize the commandments and Law move below the surface.  Psalm 119:2 speaks of those “who seek him with their whole heart.”  Deuteronomy 30:20 defines life as “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”  The prophet Jeremiah (not one of this week’s readings) tells of a time when the Lord says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts . . .” (Jeremiah 31:33)

The Epistle reading is less clear on the topic of options and choice.  There is the implication that choice requires a maturity that the church in Corinth had not yet reached.  (See I Corinthians 3:1-2)  I spent much of my life among the Baptists who frequently spoke of “the age of accountability,” the age at which a person is able to make an informed choice for himself or herself.  Of course, there was much disagreement about the age at which that was achieved.  Much is sometimes made in the political and legal arenas of “informed choice.”  Choice is not simply a blind knee-jerk response.

The Epistle reading also reminds us that our choices can separate us as well as unite us.  Just look at the political debates of almost any age!  In Corinth they were choosing this leader over that leader and it was leading to “jealousy and quarreling.”  (vss. 3-5)  Paul’s call was to focus on God, not their loyalty to this or that leader so that they could “have a common purpose” and work together. (vss. 8-9)  Choices can unite or choices can divide.  They can be life-giving or destructive.

What are our options?  In all things, may the Spirit within guide us to choose Life!
Thursday, February 06, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10, I Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

Some of this week’s readings triggered images from the religious worldview of my childhood.  Many Christians are prone to draw lines between those who are in and those who are out.  In some of my childhood churches we actually thought we could see the difference.  It was sort of a game to sit on the train and decide which of the passengers were Christians and which were not.  Don’t laugh!  We were serious.  Of course, it was mostly based on things like lack of lipstick and makeup (prohibited for Christians), etc.

Several of today’s readings are about faith which shows also.  This time, though, it’s not about them and us.  It’s about us and how our faith is expressed. In my earlier experiences we also believed that faith made a difference, but it was often shown in a narrow morality rather than in terms of the broad commitment to peace and justice we see in the prophets.

In thinking about those earlier years, I also remembered that many women wore slips under their dresses.  Okay, call me warped.  Sometimes the layers of clothing shifted so that the slip was showing below the hem of the dress, a breach of proper decorum.  Hence, the phrase, “Your slip is showing.”  One might offer a hint to the offender by saying, “It’s snowing down south.”

While slips were to remain hidden, today’s scriptures call us to consider faith which shows.  The Gospel reading from Matthew instructs us, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)  It’s not about doing good just to show off, so we can say we are better than those “worldly” people out there.  Jesus condemns such pomposity and hypocrisy.  The point is that we are light.  “You are the light of the world . . . No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”  (vss. 14-15)  In this epiphany season of light, we are reminded that the light of God is part of our very nature.  It doesn’t make sense to hide who we are.  We are to let the light that is within shine.

Our faith is not just something to be kept within.  It is to radiate outward.  It is to bring flavor to life as if it were salt.  The reading begins, before moving on to light, with the words, “You are the salt of the earth,” warning Jesus’ hearers about being “salt that has lost its taste” and, therefore, “is no longer good for anything.”  (vs. 13)  Much has been written about the place of salt in Jesus’ day.  For now, it is enough to see it as another image of faith which makes a difference.  In another place, Jesus speaks of “the Kingdom of God” as “leaven,” offering an image of living in such a way that our light is mixed into life around us, leavening the whole thing.  (Matthew 13:33 & Luke 13:21)

Jesus continues with some troubling comments about “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter” passing from the law.  (vss. 17-19)  Those of us who believe that Jesus looked on life as something larger than the letter of the law tend to want to pass over such sayings.  While I’m not going to try to offer a simple way out here, it is important to note that these words are addressed to those whom Jesus condemned as “hypocrites,” those who held everyone to a strict standard, but didn’t live up to the higher standards of justice and mercy.  He affirms that living rightly is important, but that even the righteousness of “the scribes and Pharisees” is not enough.  He is calling us to a higher vision of what it means to live rightly.

The prophetic vision is often addressed to similar audiences, those whose strict adherence to certain practices misses what is more important in expressing our faith.  The prophets sometimes took note of the gap between the rituals practiced in their day and the lives of worshippers beyond the altar.  They asked what right worship was.  Last week Micah put it this way:  “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  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?” (Micah 6:6-8)  The contrast was between worship expressed through rituals of sacrifice and the worshippers' failure to practice justice and kindness and humility in a daily walk with God.

This week Isaiah turns to the ritual of fasting.  God says, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist . . . Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them . . .” (Isaiah 58:3-7) this is not about trying to divide the world into them and us.  It’s about us living the faith we profess.  It’s about what it means to worship and where worship takes place.

Through the years I’ve watched theologians try to develop a worldview that approaches the understanding and living of life through one particular doctrine.  Sometimes it is evangelism; sometimes it is community or fellowship.  For me the overarching doctrine has often been worship.  Worship is not a narrow segment of our walk with God in this human realm.  Everything we do and say is a form of worship, infused with the possibility of grace.  Working for peace and justice are part of the worship we offer to God.

In this season of light, Isaiah also speaks of that work as “light.”  “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness.”  (vss. 9-10, sees also vs. 8)

The Psalm also speaks of those who “rise in the darkness,” saying, “It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice . . . They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor . . .”  (Psalm 112:4-5, 8)

The bearing of the epistle reading on the question, “Does it show?”, is less direct.  It continues last week’s distinction between God’s wisdom (which seems like foolishness) and the wisdom of this world.  (See I Corinthians 1:18-25)  Paul is concerned that our “faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”   (I Corinthians 2:5)  “ . . . it is not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age . . .”  (vs. 6)  Without digging into the deeper biblical meanings of “wisdom” and Paul’s emphasis upon “secret and hidden” mysteries (vss. 7-10), it is sufficient to note that the wisdom of which Paul speaks is spiritually discerned (vs. 13).

Is it not foolishness to suggest that the focus of our worship should be justice and fairness in our dealing with the people and systems around us?  Whoever heard of such a thing?  Isn’t going to worship on Sunday enough?

I’m certainly not ready to give up on Sunday worship.  I find life and renewal there, but it is not an end unto itself.  It is simply a place where the wind of the Spirit is given an opportunity to blow upon the light of God within so that I may go forth renewed to continue to worship in a way that hammers out peace and justice in the world.  Sunday morning worship is a place where the spiritual discernment of which Paul speaks may occur so that my faith somehow shines below and beyond my outer clothing in a way that may, at times, make me look 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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