The book of Deuteronomy, which means “second law”, is broadly described as the components of the terms of the covenant that was given through Moses at Mt. Sinai between God and the people of Israel. The book begins with a narrative that summarizes the story of Israel’s life in the wilderness and then presents the “law code” as the framework of the remainder of the book. The book was probably not written, though, by either one person or even in one setting or time. It is rather sort of a compilation through which we can understand one of the most formative periods in the development of Israel’s faith.
Up until the time of the passage that we read, there have been essentially three classes of leaders—royalty, priests, and power structures. The passage that we read introduces the idea of public leaders, prophets who would arise from time to time to bring a new word from God that could affect both the national and the private lives of persons in Israel. At this point, they were used to Moses and his particular style of leadership. But someone else would soon be in the leadership position. Essentially, it’s a reminder that true and effective leadership is not about the leader; it’s about the people being led and the message that those people receive.
For the Israelites’ religion, prophets were very prominent. They were usually eloquent speakers and claimed authority that was given by God. They gave expression to the Word of God and were intended to be heard by the people. They effected change. And here, there is an implicit warning against “false prophets”. It is interesting that in this time prophets, who were known to often speak to not only religious issues, but also social and political ones. Prophets spoke for change in the world—the whole world. They were acutely political (of or pertaining to citizens or citizenship.) An interesting question for our time is to ask who our prophets are. Who are the ones calling for total and complete change in the world? Who are the ones calling for justice or peace? To be honest, in both Old Testament times and now, prophets were never that popular. Their message was too harsh, too biting, to close to home. Their message called us to change our lives. But, contrary to the way perhaps I try to imagine God, God is not a perfectionist. I don’t think there’s some static master plan of what the world should someday be. Instead, it’s about listening. It’s about the Creator and the Creation growing into each other. It’s not about keeping up with God. It’s about following wherever God goes. Our faith informs our lives and our lives inform our faith.
William Sloane Coffin said that the final end of life lies not in politics, but the final end of life is concerned with the proper ordering of power to the end that it may enhance and not destroy human life. Only a fool hasn’t learned in the twentieth century that the political order in which people live deeply affects the personal lives they lead…The separation of church and state is a sound doctrine, but it points to an organizational separation. It is not designed to separate Christians from their politics. For our faith certainly should inform our common life, as well as our personal, more private lives.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What parallels for our time do you see?
- Do you think there is a prophetic word of God in play today?
- How does this speak to the separation of church and state?
- How do you think we know when it IS the Word of God?
- What is the cost of following a prophetic voice?
- So how does this passage depict leadership? Is that the way we usually think of it?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13
In this passage, Paul attempts to answer a question about eating meat offered to an idol. He takes their question, though, about a specific practice and gives a much wider explanation of moral reasoning and community relations. Eating, then, becomes a metaphor for the larger issues of living as a person of faith within the community. The point is that there is always more to it than just being right. The question is whether we follow knowledge or love.
Typically, the widespread practice of the community was to sacrifice an animal to a deity, burning some of the flesh on an altar, and then eating some of it in a cultic meal, which was always a festive, social occasion. (Yeah, that’s MY idea of a party!) The remainder of the sacrificial animal was sold to the meat market for resale to the public. So believers would have the chance that they might be eating meats that had been sacrificed. The question here is essentially how one honors and protects holiness, lives set apart for God, while one is living in the world with all of the worldly customs and norms.
But, of course, Paul is much more concerned with how believers relate to others and how believers claim to whom they belong. It is not what you eat, necessarily, but what controls and takes over your life. When something takes over your life, begins to run it for you, causes you to change who you are or what you do or how you live before God, then, according to Paul, you have idolatry. You will not be of any good for yourself or for the building up of the faith community. It is not a question of eating holy or unholy meat; it is a question of faithfulness or idolatry.
There’s actually quite a bit here for us. Who is it we follow? (Again, what constitutes leadership for us? It is issues? Beliefs? Power? Do we follow (or vote!) for the one who will change society for the better or the one who will do the most for our lives?) What issues, or causes, or beliefs control our lives? What is so important to us that we might risk the community relationships surrounding us? Are we more affected by knowledge than we are by love?
The point is that faith is about relationships. It is about relating to the world around us. We are not called to hold ourselves up in some tiny holiness-filled environment so that we can be pure and undefiled. Rather, we are called to go into the world, sometimes with reckless abandon, and take the message of love. It has nothing to do with telling people about God; it has to do with revealing God’s presence in their lives.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What are the “idols” that consume our lives today?
- How does that affect ourselves and others around us?
- What message does this hold for today?
There is a scene in Tom Hanks’ movie, Forrest Gump, that came to mind when I read this text in 1 Corinthians. As a young boy, Forrest has to wear these clumsy, heavy leg braces. For the most part, he doesn’t care. In fact, the braces become so much a part of his life that he doesn’t even realize much how they have trapped and confined him. And then one day, some bullies chase Forrest and he has to run away but the braces slow him down. As the bullies get closer and closer and Forrest struggles to run faster, the braces finally break, fall off his legs, and suddenly he is set free to run fast. The point is this, Forrest never knew what it felt to be free or how fast he could run until he took that step or, in a better sense, was forced to break out of braces, and live differently, to live beyond himself. He never went back to the braces.
In 1 Corinthians, the issue was dietary laws. When Paul was asked in Corinth about eating meat sacrificed to idols he said, “This is not a problem. We know that those idols are made of stone or wood. There is no god there. The sacrifice meant nothing. Pass the steak sauce and eat.” There is complete freedom in the gospel to eat meat sacrificed to idols because we are not saved by what we eat or don’t eat.
Forrest could have kept those leg braces on his whole life and he wouldn’t have known it. All he would know is what he couldn’t do. He couldn’t run, can’t swim, couldn’t dance, couldn’t play ball, couldn’t cross his legs, couldn’t put his foot behind his head, or couldn’t do yoga. He would spend his life defining himself by what he couldn’t do. There are Christians like that. They define themselves by what they can’t do. Can’t drink, can’t smoke, can’t dance, can’t play cards, can’t watch movies. Oh, we are long past talking about circumcision and dietary laws but the same issue is at stake. Freedom. What am I allowed to do? If I am saved by grace, then am I free to do as I please? There is an old, subtitled movie called Babette’s Feast. It is the story of a woman, Babette, who has escaped the French Revolution with nothing but the clothes on her back. She ends up in a very small, parochial Danish village where she is employed by two spinster sisters whose minister father founded the village. The town has no joy. Religious rules are overbearing. Pleasure, music, laughter, and frivolity are vices to be scorned. There is a deep, heavy shroud of weariness blanketing all the people. Babette is an accomplished chef but is told to prepare each day a thin broth with bread. When she suggests some variation in the meal, she is quickly told that such pleasures are not of God. This is a place defined by what they cannot do. One day, Babette receives news that she has won the French lottery. The amount of money that she now has will enable her to move from that dreary village and reestablish her life wherever she wants. Faced with all of this freedom, she makes her choice. Babette takes all of her winnings and purchases the most extravagant food from live quails and turtles to unusual spices and seasonings. For the next week, she prepares the most exquisite feast that this village has ever had. And they come. They come hesitantly at first but then through this feast, open up with conversation, laughter, and joy that they have never before experienced. The only problem is that Babette is once again penniless. She has used her freedom as a servant to her neighbors. But in doing so, she not only set herself free but allowed this small village to taste the true freedom of life in the Spirit.
(Excerpt from “The Struggle for Freedom”, by Scott Suskovic, available at http://www.sermonsuite.com/free.php?i=788031597&key=h4Nhveasvp1vrfaL, accessed 23 January, 2012)
GOSPEL: Mark 1: 21-28
After Jesus called the first disciples, which we read last week, they made their way to Capernaum. He enters the synagogue there and astonishes the crowd with the authority of his teaching—teaching that brings him constantly in conflict with the scribes, who were the resident “experts” in interpreting the Law. For the scribes, Jesus’ activities and teachings posed a threat to their traditions.
As for the man who Jesus healed, the whole idea of someone with unclean spirits (or who was essentially “impure”) entering the synagogue was against the law as it existed. This person was an interruption. He didn’t fit. He didn’t belong. But not only did Jesus acknowledge him but he also healed him. For the writer of Mark, this was a great depiction of Jesus’ authority; after all, this is the authority to which even the impure, even the unclean, even the demons listen. You will remember that in The Gospel According to Mark, the heavens were ripped open upon Jesus’ baptism, upon the beginning of his ministry. The world as it was known was ending. Continuing that understanding, for the Gospel writer here, the end of these demons, the end of evil, signifies that the worldly age is coming to an end. Evil is being broken and redeemed. This whole idea of exorcism is odd for us, but the point is that God is bringing everything into the Kingdom of God. All of earth, with everything that is wrong, and all of the earthly power structures are being recreated and redeemed.
So, really, was it a demonic possession or just a voice competing with the one to which the demoniac should have been listening? And if that’s the case, then where are we in this story? Jesus brought an unquestioned authority to his teaching. What was that? Well of course, it was the word of God? But what does that mean? It was not an overpowering; it was not a violent overtaking; it was a silencing. Maybe that what we’re called to do. Maybe that’s how God speaks—in the silences, when we’re listening. Shhh! Can you hear me now?
You see, Jesus’ teaching was not just about words; it was instead about transformation. It was about taking that which we perceive did not belong and speaking Creation once again.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- How does this relate to our world today?
- How are we called to silence the voices of this world?
- What voices are we called to silence?
- What voices are we called to empower?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction. (E.F.Schumacker)
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
My ego is like a fortress. I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God. But I have stayed here long enough. There is light over the barriers. O my God…I let go of the past. I withdraw my grasping hand from the future. And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman)
“Silence! frenzied, unclean spirit,” cried God’s healing, holy One. “Cease your ranting! Flesh can’t bear it. Flee as night before the sun.” At Christ’s voice the demon trembled, from its victim madly rushed, while the crowd that was assembled stood in wonder, stunned and hushed.
Lord, the demons still are thriving in the grey cells of the mind: tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind, doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason’s sight, guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.
Silence, Lord, the unclean spirit, in our mind and in our heart. Speak your word that when we hear it all our demons shall depart. Clear our thought and calm our feeling, still the fractured, warring soul. By the power of your healing make us faithful, true and whole.
(Thomas H. Troeger, 1984, The United Methodist Hymnal # 264.)