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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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