Epiphany 6A: Reordering

 

"The Sermon on the Mount", Fra Angelico, 1436-1443, Fresco, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Italy
“The Sermon on the Mount”, Fra Angelico, 1436-1443, Fresco, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Italy

OLD TESTAMENT:  Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

To read the Lectionary Old Testament passage, click here

Brought out of the land of Egypt, the Israelites are now given a depiction of what they should become—a people of obedience to the law and devotion to God.  This is their very life.  They are told to love God or perish.  If they devote themselves to God and to becoming the people that God called them to be, they will be blessed.  But this is not to be taken legalistically.  Rather, the people are being called into relationship with god, into the relationship that nourishes and feeds and gives them life.

The truth is, they have already been released from slavery, have already been redeemed from perishing.  Egypt means captivity; devotion to God means freedom.  It is a call to not yield to fear, to not cower into the past but rather to go toward God, to go into the future with devotion and obedience.  This reading is a sort of weaving together of the past and the present.  The past is part of them but it is not all there is.  God waits to take them to freedom.

And now they hear this call to renewal, a call to be who God calls them to be.  Think of them standing at the threshold of new life, ready to go on.  But first they must hear who they are.  It is not a promise of prosperity if one follows God, such as we often hear today; rather, it is a promise of life.

For us, too, obedience, going toward God, represents life.  When faith falters, self-centeredness takes over, fear and insecurities move in, and we forget exactly who we are and who we’re called to be.  Life is about choices.  Choices bring dignity to life.  God gave us the wonderful gift of free will, the gift of the power to choose.  (In fact, in giving us that, God gives us a small piece of the very Godself.  God gives up a part of God for us.)  But our choices affect us and they affect the world.  Some bring blessings; some do not.  Blessings are not rewards for a choice well-chosen; they are, rather, life-giving consequences of living and being the way were are created to live and be.

The Book of Deuteronomy is not merely a simplistic guide to health and well-being.  It is not merely rules.  That would be entirely too simple.  And this passage is not meant as a threat.  It is instead a way of teaching or instructing.  Some see it as a sort of summary of the entire Torah itself.  It is God’s love pleading with us to return.  These are not just demands, but something to which one can listen to guide him or her home.  It is the way to justice and righteousness, to the life that God has always envisioned we would have. 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What is difficult about it?
  3. What changes if we read it legalistically as opposed to life-giving?

  

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 3: 1-9

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Again, Paul’s letter is in conflict with the culture and society to which the Corinthians are accustomed.  Their loyalties are misplaced and because of that, disunity has set in.  There are those that have led them and, it seemed, have nurtured them.  They probably feel that they owe them something—at least some level of devotion and loyalty, if nothing else.

Paul doesn’t seem to be necessarily warning against false prophets or ineffective leaders here but rather displaced loyalty.  One human cannot “belong” to another (hence the misuse of the Scriptures about slavery 150 years ago).  Rather, we all belong to God.  It is God to whom our loyalty should be given.  And realizing this will unify us with one common purpose.

Paul sees this as true maturity.  And as long as these people don’t get that, they are mere infants, still needing basic instructions in the ways of God.  They see themselves as a spiritual and righteous people following devoted leaders.  But they have a long way to go.  For Paul, righteousness and spirituality comes with being “in Christ”.  Differing leaders, then, should not be in competition, but should be co-workers with God.  In other words, their ministries should be complimentary, not competitive.  For Paul, these divisions are doing nothing for spiritual growth and are, in fact, pulling the people away from what is right and good, away from their unity in Christ.

Perhaps, then, this is a call for us to take a good hard look at our leaders and the way we live as Christians in this world.  Divisions?  Quarreling?  Jealousy?  They are all indeed rampant in our world.  But Paul claims that if we see ourselves as one in Christ, all of these divisions, all of these misunderstandings would fall away, our divisions would be healed.  The question is “to whom do you belong?” 

The late Henri Nouwen often spoke about his journey to L’Arche, a community of mentally handicapped people and their assistants, trying faithfully and simply to live the Gospel together.  Nouwen, assigned to work with Adam, a twenty-four-year-old epileptic man who could not speak or dress himself, spoke of his real fears.  A university professor who was far more comfortable with matters of the head than of the heart, he was now assigned the task of bathing and dressing a grown man.  Over time, fear gave way to something new:

“Somehow I started to realize that this poor, broken man was the place where God was speaking to me in a whole new way.  Gradually I discovered real affliction in myself and I thought that Adam and I belonged together and that it was so important…I want you to understand a little better what happened between Adam and me.  Maybe I can say it very simply.  Adam taught me a lot about God’s love in a very concrete way.”  (In Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, by Richard M. Simpson, p. 355, noted as from Henri Nouwen, “Journey to L’Arche”.)”

I can’t help but read this passage and think of our own culture and even our own denomination.  I mean, if unity was important enough for Paul to call the Corinthian church out of itself and away from the false alignments that they had created, then what words would Paul have for us?  Paul doesn’t seem to be near as worried about the subject of the quarrels or who is right and who is wrong but that fact that there was disunity within the church.  No one is “right”; no one has the upper hand; no one can lay claim to the church.  The Church is God’s and God is the one with whom we are aligned.  Nothing else really matters.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I have never advocated just standing back and doing nothing.  There are things that are just wrong.  There are places where we are not the open and inclusive people of God who we are called to be.  But there is a way to talk; there is a way to act; there is a way.  Maybe when we remember that we are the people of God, we will look at things differently.     

  1. a.      What does this passage mean for you?
  2. b.      How can this be applied to our own cultural context?
  3. c.       What would be different if we actually heard what Paul was saying?
  4. d.      What does this passage say about Christian maturity, about, as we United Methodists put it, “Christian Perfection”? 

GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 21-37

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Once again, we have more wisdom from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  This is no pretty little story—just straightforward teachings.  You see, we really ARE supposed to do this.  There are contrasts with those teachings that are “usual” all through it. (“You have heard…but I say to you.”)  It’s a pretty radical way of looking at things.  And here, it is not just behaviors; it also applies to attitudes and emotions.  Indeed, it is about every aspect of our being.

Jesus acknowledges what the “usual” view of righteousness was (and perhaps is)—that a murderer will be judged, that those who leave offerings will be rewarded, that adulterers will be punished, etc.  Sure, we know all that.  Jesus is a good teacher.  He starts with what his hearers know and to which they can relate.  But Jesus’ whole point is that it’s not enough.  Jesus doesn’t frame his words as prohibitions but rather expectations.  It’s his way of not abolishing the law but fulfilling it.  Following God is not about following rules; it’s about going beyond them.

Once again, we are reminded that God came in Jesus Christ not to enforce the rules, but to reorder the world itself.  God does not have a checklist or a lucky-number scorecard.  Rather, God became flesh, dwelt among us, and showed us what it meant to live with an ever-present God in our midst.  Once again, the choice is life.  But abundant life demands a lot.  We are not called to be right or good; we are called to merely avoid sins; we are called to live as those whose God is in our midst.

Now, that said, we often get hung up on the specifics of this passage.  Murder we get.  But, then, anger is a little harder.  I mean, anger is a valid human emotion.  But when anger becomes destructive of the relationship, it needs to be stopped.  Maybe it’s a call to learn to talk to each other.  I don’t know.  The one about divorce always hangs us up.  So is that a call to stay in a marriage that is not good for those involved?  Well, keep in mind that in the first century culture in which this was written, a man could just divorce his wife for no reason, shutting her out and leaving her penniless and alone.  In effect, it was what we would talk about as abandonment.  So, Jesus is saying, “you owe her something.  She is a valued person.”  What it boils down to is that we need to learn to read these words of Jesus the way that Jesus meant them rather than the way our society looks at them.  Jesus’ words were calling us to be something more, calling us to be different.  And if something in our life keeps getting in the way of that, then we need to let it go.

This Way of Christ is, in effect, a reordering of everything we know.  It is the way to life abundant.  But it demands more and it promises more.  The laws are not about keeping us out of trouble or, for that matter, even statements on morality.  They have to do with relationships, with that Body of Christ embodied in our midst. So how does our community and our culture treat everyone?  Where are those places where we as a community fall short?  Where have we forgotten that it is not about rules and laws; it is about relationship, about unity, about living the Way of Christ? 

  1. a.      What does this passage mean for you?
  2. b.      What is the most difficult part of this for you?
  3. c.       Why is this so difficult for most of us to grasp?  What keeps our focus on “rules” so firmly in place?
  4. d.      What would it mean if we really listened to Jesus’ words?

  

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

When people get to invent their own gods, they invent gods that demand very little. (Steve Bruce, 20th century)

I discovered that in the spiritual life, the long way round is the saving way.  It isn’t the quick and easy religion we’re accustomed to.  It’s deep and difficult—a way that leads into the vortex of the soul where we touch God’s transformative powers.  But we have to be patient.  We have to let go and tap our creative stillness.  Most of all, we have to trust that our scarred hearts really do have wings.  (Sue Monk Kidd)

Whatever is honored will be cultivated.  (Plato)

Closing

God bless our contradictions, those parts of us which seem out of character.  Let us be boldly and gladly out of character.  Let us be creatures of paradox and variety; creatures of contrast, of light and shade, creatures of faith.  God be our constant.  Let us step out of character into the unknown, to struggle and love and do what we will.

                                    (Leunig, Common Prayer Collection]

Epiphany 5A: Worth Our Salt

SaltOLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 58: 1-9a (9b-12)

To read the Lectionary Old Testament passage, click here

The writings that we know as Isaiah probably span several generations and several writers.  The 58th chapter is in what we loosely call “Third Isaiah”, which was probably written around 520 BCE, as the Hebrews began trying to rebuild and reshape their community after the exile.  The passage that we read for this week is full of instructions for how to do just that.

The people seem to think that they are doing all the right things, living godly and pious lives that will please God.  After all, they are doing it all right.  Their worship services are standing room only.  They say their prayers.  They follow the ritual fasting days that will bring God’s favor upon them.  So, it must have been quite a shock to hear this prophet’s strong condemnation of these rituals.  They are called to take a hard and discerning look at why they are doing these things.  Is it to gain favor with God?  Is that the only reason that you practice your faith?  Is that what you’re called to do?  And then the prophet points to the seemingly endless stream of injustices that are part of their society—oppression, hunger, homelessness, poverty—the list is endless.  The question is how can a society or a people call themselves righteous, call themselves people of God, who would allow these things to exist?

The writer contends that this is the only way to have a relationship with God. The writer reframes what the fast itself means.  It is no longer the periodic fast days that are part of their religious life that “proves” that they are religious.  Rather, the fast to which God calls the people of God is a fast from domination, oppression, evil speech, self-satisfaction and self-preservation, blaming others, entitlement, and privilege.  God calls for justice to be lived and breathed by the people of God.  One cannot have a full relationship with God without having a full and just relationship with the rest of humanity.  You cannot disconnect piety from your everyday life.  It is lived out day in and day out.  God does not operate in isolation but calls the people into a partnership in building God’s vision.  That is what it means to be a child of God.  It is then that the light will break forth.

For us, we probably need to listen to the words, “Shout out, do not hold back!”  Deep down we all want to do something, to live out our faith in the way that God calls us.  But oftentimes, life gets in the way.  First we need to___________ [fill in the blank].  You know after we get ____________ [fill in the blank] in order.  That is the conventional wisdom of this world.  We know all about worship and prayer except how to let it change us.  But God calls us to get on with it, to begin living our life of faith in the fullest way possible without waiting until the time is right.  It is our own chance for healing.

How would your congregation respond to this call to worship?  “We hope you are not planning to go through the motions in worship, singing the songs but never engaging your hearts, hearing the Scripture but not listening for God, or giving an offering but not giving yourselves, because if so, you are not doing God any favors.  You do not get points for attendance.  If you really worship God today, then you will share with the poor, listen to the lonely, and stop avoiding those in need.” (Brett Younger, from Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 319) 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. In what ways does this passage speak to our own time and our own context?
  3. In what ways do we separate our piety from our works of justice and mercy?
  4. What happens when those two become separated?

  NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16)

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Paul continues his letter to the church at Corinth and the theme of competing wisdoms between the society in which they lived and their identity as children of God.  He is not trying to impress the Corinthians, who loved the Greek way of wisdom and knowledge, with flowery speech and rhetoric.  Paul just said it the way it was.  He preached Christ.  (And we then learn later that Paul struggled with some people who were still dismissing him because he was “unimpressive.”)

Paul uses the word “mystery” not to describe a wisdom that he attains but to describe the cross. And unlike the Corinthians, who viewed the notion of “spirit” as miracle and power, Paul’s concept of Spirit of course depicts the Spirit of Christ that is alive and lives because of the cross.  Paul is not preaching against being smart or intellectual.  I would guess that Paul would be a zealous advocate for deep and reflective study.  But for Paul, wisdom is something more.  It is the wisdom that one finds in relationship with God, the wisdom of the cross.

He sees the cross as God’s way of outwitting the powers of this world, the powers that divide the world and pull it away from what is right and good.  He is warning the Corinthian hearers that they are doing the same thing.  They need to decide which power they will follow, which value system is part of their lives, or they have, in effect, “killed” Christ all over again.  Those who love God, who follow Christ, who see the cross as God’s glory, will know the wisdom that is God.

Paul is actually being a little sarcastic here by employing the Corinthians own “everyday” language in his letter.  He is usurping those words that the Corinthians hold so dear in their value system—mystery, wisdom, spirit—and bringing them into a new and certainly wise understanding.  Paul is also challenging the powers of that world and of ours.  Perhaps we have become entirely too comfortable with letting the powers of this world and the power and wisdom that is God “co-exist”.  Maggie Ross, in her book, Pillars of Flame:  Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity, writes that “if we emulate the world’s understanding of power, we cease to be the church.  We merely mimic the power politics to which we have grown so accustomed.  In discovering and rediscovering the “self-emptying, kenotic humility of God,” however, we not only find our voice as God’s people, but we are empowered to become the kind of community that brings healing and new life to the world.”  (Richard M. Simpson, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 331.) 

  1. a.      What does this passage mean for you?
  2. b.      We’ve asked this before but how does this depict “wisdom”?
  3. c.       Do you think we are too comfortable with letting the powers of this world and the powers of God “co-exist”?  What does that mean for us?
  4. d.      We have talked about the “humility of God”.  What does that mean in our world today?

 

GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 13-20

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Last week we read the Beatitudes, the well-known discourse that depicts life in the context of God’s grace.  You will notice that the final beatitude changes to second person.  Verses 13 and 14 continue with this personalizing effect. The emphasis is on “you”….YOU…YOU…YOU.  (You are the salt of the earth, as if Jesus is speaking specifically to each of us.)  And so, in the middle of these concerns, Jesus provides the image of “salt”.  Why salt?  Think about some of the uses for salt—seasoning, nutrition (an essential nutrient that the body itself cannot produce), deicing, as a preservative, as a purifier (antiseptic for wounds), as a cleaning agent, or to add buoyancy in water (ships float higher in salt water than in fresh water.)  Real Simple Magazine suggests that you put salt into pine cones and shake them in a plastic bag to get all of the dirt off before you use them to make a wreath.

So salt does not have just one use.  The idea, then, of “becoming salt” calls us to a deep and multi-layered existence with God and with our brothers and sisters on this earth.  The passage does not say “you should be” or “you ought to be” or “when you have time, you should try to be.”  It says “you are the salt of the earth.”  You are the essential nutrient that the world needs.

Salt was so valuable in the ancient world, that the Greeks called it divine.  There were times when Roman soldiers would even receive their salaries in salt. In fact, the Latin word for “salt” is the root word for “salary”. For the ancients, the two most important things in life were sol and sal, Sun and salt.  In this Scripture, the salt referred to the leveling agent for paddies made from animal manure, the fuel for outdoor ovens used in the time of Jesus.  Young family members would form paddies with animal dung, mix in salt from a salt block into the paddies, and let the paddies dry in the sun. When the fuel paddies were light in an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. When the family spent the salt block, they would throw it out onto the road to harden a muddy surface. (“trampled under foot”). 

Jesus saw his followers as leveling agents in an impure world. Their example would keep the fire of faith alive even under stress. Their example would spread faith to those mired in the cultural “dung.” But if their example rang empty, they were worthless; they would be dug into the mud under the heels of critics. Even today in Africa, workers request a portion of their pay in salt.  When one is presented to a chief, it is expected that you would bring a gift of salt.  Nelson Mandela once said, “Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all.”  So, to really understand this passage, we need to have an African view of salt.  When we are told that we are salt, we are told that we are of great use and value in society.  We must add flavor to everything we touch.

Why light?  That one is probably more obvious to us.  A light illumines, points to something, reveals, makes it easier to see.  We are called to be light—to be the ones that reveal Christ to and in the world.  We are called to be salt, to shape the world, and we are called to be light, to point toward Christ.  That is the way that everything that came before, the laws, the prophets, the wisdom, is revealed in its fullness.  The point is that we are always called to be something more.  Christians make a difference in the world by being different from the world.  

We have listened to the Sermon on the Mount and perhaps have understood it. But who has heard it aright? Jesus gives the answer at the end (Matt. 7:24– 29). He does not allow his hearers to go away and make of his sayings what they will, picking and choosing from them whatever they find helpful and testing them to see if they work. He does not give them free rein to misuse his word with their mercenary hands, but gives it to them on condition that it retains exclusive power over them.

Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

  1. a.      What does this passage mean for you?
  2. b.      Why is this sometimes so difficult for us to really grasp and live out in our lives?
  3. c.       What does it mean to you to “be salt”? To “be light”?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Without justice, what are kingdoms but great gangs of bandits? (St. Augustine of Hippo)

What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.  (Monica Baldwin)

There can be little growth in holiness without growth in a sense of social justice.  (Edward Hays)

 Closing

I want to pay the highest compliment anyone could ever pay:

You are the light of the world.

You are the salt of the earth.

You are the leven in the loaf.

So, go and be light.  Go and be salt.  Go and be leven.

                                    (From Marcus Borg, who admitted that he stole it from William Sloan Coffin]