All-Saints A: Thin Places

This Sunday we are using the Lectionary readings for All-Saints so that means that we are actually “skipping” the readings for Proper 27A this year.  The Feast of All Saints is one of the major festivals of the church. In our United Methodist tradition, while we have specific readings for this day, they do change between the lectionary years (A, B, & C)  All-Saints Day (actually dated November 1st), probably dates back as far as 373, when the festival was mentioned in the writings of Ephrem Syrus.  The original emphasis was to honor the saints and martyrs who had no specific commemoration day.  As the festival transitioned to Protestantism (who obviously do not have the plethora of saints of our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters), it became a time of remembrance of those who had passed away in the last year. 

cliffs051FIRST READINGRevelation 7: 9-17
The Book of Revelation, which, despite its name, is the most veiled text of all in the Bible, makes great demands on those who read or hear it.  There is usually a temptation to move too quickly to interpret or translate its imagery into something that is more accessible and more easily understood.  To attempt to “decode” Revelation, as if it were Morse code, fails to take the medium that way it was given.  This is not a narrative.  It is not prophecy.  It offers instead a new view of reality.  Those with whom the Revelation was originally shared were much more comfortable with it and the mystery that it holds than we are.  There was not such a need to “prove” or to “figure out” every detailed meaning.  They were satisfied, rather, with the idea that God has been throughout history and will continue to be and that God has a greater vision of what is to come than any one of us can even attempt to imagine.  Isn’t that enough?
Albrecht Bengel was an eighteenth-century commentator, wrote this about Revelation: 
The whole structure of it breathes the art of God, comprising in the most finished compendium, things to come, many, various; near, intermediate, remote; the greatest, the least; terrible, comfortable; old, new; long, short; and these interwoven together, opposite, composite; relative to each other at a small, at a great distance; and therefore sometimes as it were disappearing, broken off, suspended, and afterwards unexpectedly and most seasonably appearing again.  In all its parts it has an admirable variety, with the most exact harmony, beautifully illustrated by those digressions which seem to interrupt it.  In this manner does it display the manifold wisdom of God shining in the economy of the church through so many ages.
In verse 4 (prior to this reading), the writer speaks of 144,000 from the children of Israel who are sealed.  (Just as an aside, this is where the traditions such as The Jehovah’s Witnesses get their number and their notion of “sealing”. But the number is thought to possibly refer to the twelve tribes of Israel times twelve times 1,000.  It connotes an infinite number.)  So, this is a much larger group, a great multitude.  They are identified and distinguished by their relationship with the Lamb.  Clothed in white, they hold palm branches (a symbol of victory) and they sing of salvation.  God is described as “hovering over them”, where God tabernacles and envelopes the people, as the Spirit hovers over Jesus at his baptism.  They are protected with a new freedom from hunger and thirst and the heat of the sun.  (Isaiah 25:8 is fulfilled)  Now this inclusive vision of the eschaton (the end) was a challenge to many late first century believers (when this was probably written) and it continues to be a challenge to many of us.  But these are meant to be words of encouragement.  They are meant to remind us of the ever-present God who walks with us through whatever comes and walks with us to whatever is waiting for us later in our journey.   And who knows?  God has surprised us with who has shown up at the banquet before!
The graciousness of God is evident.  The passage injects a theme of tenderness and comfort, and God’s sustaining promise of enduring witness to Christ in the midst of death and destruction.  The inclusiveness of the vision is striking (which is why it is used as a lection for All Saints Day.)  The multitude includes Jews and all those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, thereby identifying themselves with the way of the Lamb.
For us, our struggle with Revelation probably has more to do with the fact that we are trying to “figure it out”.  It’s probably meant to be symbolic metaphor and as metaphor it is contingent upon the context in which it was written.  We do not live in the late first century.  Even those of us who are well-versed historians can not appreciate the nuances that existed politically, emotionally, and even spiritually during that time for those who were living it.  We have never met John of Patmos, or whoever the writer was.  It’s a mystery.  But in that mystery, in these things that we do not understand, that do not make sense to us, we might have the gift of ever-so-slightly brushing up against the holy and the sacred and experience even a momentary glimpse of what is to come.  That’s all it is.  And whatever happens between now and when whatever is to come is revealed to us, the Book of Revelation tells us that God walks with us.  The Ancient Celts would have called it a “thin place”, a place where the distance between now and what is to come, between our “earth” and “heaven”, between the ordinary and the sacred becomes so thin that one can almost see through it; indeed, that it is only thinly veiled.  It is those times when one realizes that he or she is indeed on holy ground and that eternity stretches before us. Now we just need to not worry so much about figuring it out and get on with the journey!
Where is God in this picture?  God is all over the place.  God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out, God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular and vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.  God is the web, the connection, the glue, the air between the molecules…As of God’s plan?  You know, whether God has a file I can break into and find out what I should be doing ten years from now?  The more I learn about chaos theory, the more I favor the concept of life with God as a dance instead of a blueprint.  God makes a move, humankind makes a move, then humankind makes a moved based on God’s move.  (From “Waltzing With the God of Chaos”, by Barbara Brown Taylor, in The Life of Meaning:  Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World, ed. by Bob Abernethy and William Bole, p. 47, 48)
a.      What does this passage mean for you?
b.      What image of God does this reading leave for you?
c.       What does the holy and the sacred mean to you?
d.      What are those “thin places” in your life?
NEW TESTAMENT:  1 John 3: 1-3
John Wesley said of the First Epistle of John, “How plain, how full, and how deep a compendium of genuine Christianity!”  Very little can be said with great confidence about the author of these three letters.  The First Epistle of John is written anonymously.  There is some similarity between these epistles and The Gospel According to John, but some point out that it lacks evidence of Semitic style characteristic of the Gospel and appears more “Greek” or Hellenistic in nature.  While most agree that 2 and 3 John are actually letters, the First Epistle of John is not as clear.  They really don’t know how to classify it.  It may even be some sort of commentary on the Gospel According to John itself.
The third chapter is part of a continuous expression of confidence in Christ’s coming.  It expresses a kinship in Christ, a relationship to God.  It encourages a present endurance as preparation for the future and a calling to become perfect in Christ.  There is clear evidence of God’s grace, bestowed freely and undeserved.  And, again, there is the reminder that we do not know everything about God, that we CANNOT know everything about God.  (I mean, really, would you want to?  Where would that leave God then?  Where would that leave our faith?)
There exists in this passage the notion that God’s presence and God’s love is both present and future, already realized and not yet revealed.  So which is it?  Yes…that is the point.  This is the Alpha and the Omega and everything in between.  It is the love that we know now and the love into which we are growing.  Again, don’t try to figure out which it is.  Just live it and live into it.  It has to do with who we are AND what we will be.  Those are not separate things.  In this passage, the writer reminds us that we are God’s children now and always.  God loves us and God wants to be with us.  The earth is God’s family.  We are all God’s children.  We are all growing into what we were created to be—the very image of God—pure and loving and holy.  And when we see that Love in which we were created and in which we live, then it all comes together.  THIS is the sacredness and the holy.  THIS is that wonderful “thin place” where we can see things the way they are meant to be seen.
a.      What does this passage mean for you?
b.      What does it say to you about that becoming perfect in Christ?
c.       So what are we called to know about God?
GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 1-12
Well, this is the only Scripture this week that we have even a remote idea who the author is!  Most scholars agree that the core of what is known as the Beatitudes goes back to Jesus.  It is essentially a reversal of the usual value system that was in place in the first century.  The Beatitude was present in the Jewish tradition as a form of proclamation found in wisdom and prophetic writings.  They declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act.  Here, the opposite of “blessed” is not unhappy but cursed.
One thing to note is that the form of these Beatitudes use two verbs:  are and will.  Each beatitude begins in the present and moves to future tense.  They are, then expressions of what is already true in the Christian community not, necessarily, for individuals, but in community.  The move to the future tense indicates that the life of the kingdom must wait for ultimate validation until God finishes the new creation.  There is a resistance, then, against Christianity as a philosophy of life that would make one healthy, wealthy, and wise.  It is not a scheme to reduce stress, lose weight, advance one’s career, make one financially successful, or preserve one from illness.  It is, rather, a way of living based on the sure and firm hope that one walks in the way of God and that righteousness and peace will finally prevail.
In Year C of the Lectionary (which we looked at last year), the Lukan version of the Beatitudes are used. There are several differences in the two versions.  In Matthew (the more familiar one), there are nine beatitudes; in Luke, there are four.  The Matthean beatitudes are spoken from a mountain, probably since, as one writing to the Jewish community, this would depict that it was something important.  (Reminiscent of Moses on Mt. Sinai.)  The version told by the writer of Luke is spoken from a “level place” (sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain.  Matthew’s beatitudes are spoken to a “crowd”.  When Jesus speaks in the Lucan version, he speaks specifically to his disciples.  Matthew’s version has no corresponding “woes”.  In Luke, there are four “woes” corresponding to four “blessings”. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:  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.
We read this in this week of All-Saints Sunday because it is about that New Creation that God has shown us.  It is a Creation that, again, is both already and not yet.  It has already begun and we are called to its work (to, as Bonhoeffer said, “get on with it”).  It is different from the things of this life—a Holy Reversal, of sorts.  And there is a future tense to it.  We walk in hope.  Blessing is just up ahead.  But blessing here is not meant to be something that we get as a reward for doing all these things.  As you know, God is much more nuanced than that.  It’s, rather, undeserved, unmerited.  Blessing is grace.  This is not God dangling some sort of treat in front of us to make sure that we run the right traps.  This is God revealing a vision of what will be—a life of comfort, abundance, mercy, and God’s ever-abiding Presence.  It’s what is here for us now and what we will always have.  We just have to learn to see things in a different way.  Once again, it’s about paradox.  We read it and we think we have it figured out.  In this world, “blessed” often means having wealth, or security, or ease of life.  It often means that things are going well.  But “blessedness” for Christ has nothing to do with the quality of this life at all.  It is about being one with God and one with others.  Perhaps being Christian, itself, is about being paradox, about looking at the world in a different way and being open to seeing things one has never seen before.  Perhaps being Christian is about daring to call oneself “blessed”.
                                                              i.      What does this passage mean for you?
                                                            ii.      What is the most difficult Beatitude for you to grasp?
                                                          iii.      How does this passage speak to our world today?
                                                          iv.      What does it mean to you to be “blessed”?
                                                            v.      Why do you think this passage is appropriate for our All-Saints reading?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
The saints are those who, in some partial way, embody—literally incarnate—the challenge of faith in their time and place.  In doing so, they open a path that others might follow.  (Robert Ellsberg)
The past takes us forward.  (Diana Butler Bass) 
Closing
As we discussed, All-Saints is about both today and tomorrow.  And we are thankful for those who have come before us, who have walked this same journey that we travel now.  We are all part of the same conversation that began when God spoke Creation into existence.  As we celebrate the memories of those who have gone before us, let us also honor their memories by journeying with hope and courage toward the one that we have been called to be and the One that calls us home.
For those who walked with us, this is a prayer.
For those who have gone ahead, this is a blessing.
For those who touched and tended us, who lingered with us while they lived, this is a thanksgiving.
For those who journey still with us in the shadows of awareness, in the crevices of memory, in the landscape of our dreams, this is a benediction.  Amen.
                                                                        (Jan L. Richardson, in In Wisdom’s Path, p. 124)

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]