Epiphany 6A: The Reordered Way

crossing-the-roadOLD TESTAMENT:  Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

Read the passage from Deuteronomy

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

Read the passage from 1 Corinthians

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



GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 21-37

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Matthew

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 not only avoid sins, but 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. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What is the most difficult part of this for you?
  3. Why is this so difficult for most of us to grasp? What keeps our focus on “rules” so firmly in place?
  4. 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)




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]

Proper 27B: Redeemed

Ruth & Naomi (He Qi, 1994)
Ruth & Naomi (He Qi, 1994)

OLD TESTAMENT: Ruth 3: 1-5, 4: 13-17

Read the passage from the Book of Ruth

This is part of what is essentially the conclusion of the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. Leading up to this, we should note that it is the famine in Bethlehem that drives Naomi and her husband and their family away looking for food. While there, Naomi loses both her husband and her two sons, leaving the three wives to fend for themselves in a world that was anything but kind to women. Naomi’s other daughter-in-law returns to her own family but Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi. Eventually, they hear that they can return to Judah, which they do. But when they get there, there is a need to find food and make a living, so Ruth goes out into the fields to get the gleanings, eventually coming to a field that is owned by a wealthy relative of Naomi’s, Boaz.

“Gleaning” is a technical term in Israel. By some laws, found again in Deuteronomy, this time in 24:21 (the levirate marriage law that drove Naomi’s Bethlehem road fantasy was also found in that book), reaping a field in Israel always had to take account of the poor and disadvantaged in the land. Hired hands were to harvest the field of the owner, but any grain that they missed in the first pass through the field must be left in the field for the strangers, the orphans, the foreigners, and the widows. It was a meager and difficult way to survive, but at least it offered a tiny meal for those who had nothing.

The reading today picks up with Naomi telling Ruth of her plan to make the most of this opportunity. The plan involves the deception of Boaz. Ruth is to lie down next to Boaz when he has eaten and become drunk after the winnowing. To ‘uncover the feet’ generally has sexual connotations and the plan seems to be one in which Boaz is to be made to believe that he has taken sexual advantage of Ruth. At the same time the story does not indicate that anything in fact happened between the Ruth and Boaz. All that has to be achieved is to make Boaz think something has. Boaz, being an upright man and knowing Ruth’s reputation will ‘do the right thing’ by her, which means marry her even though such is not legally demanded of him. But one obstacle needs to be dealt with first. There is one, who remains unnamed in the story, who is closer in kinship to Naomi and Ruth than Boaz (perhaps a cousin or something), and who, according to law, needs to be given the first option of marriage.

In a way the whole story has focused around the issue of family heritage. The rest of Chapter 3 tells of the execution of Naomi’s scheme, of Boaz’s response and, in Ruth 4, of dealing with the unnamed relative, who in the end is not willing to take up his kinship responsibility for Ruth. In the second half of today’s reading Ruth marries Boaz and bears a son to him. The focus then shifts back to Naomi and her grandson. The women bless the Lord, who it is clear has been the silent mover behind the scene for both good and ill. They speak of one who will be ‘a restorer of life and a nourisher in one’s old age. It is unclear whether the women speak of the Lord or Boaz or the baby boy. Indeed, this ambiguity may well be deliberate. We see from the women naming the child and the small genealogical note in v. 17, that the child will be the grandfather of David, who in some traditions becomes the ancestor of a messiah to come. The sense of ‘a restorer of life’ is not only in terms of the immediate story, i.e. one who secures the future for Naomi and Ruth, but also of one who restores the future life of the nation.

Overall, the sense of mutual commitment between Naomi and Ruth is ultimately the source and mark of divine blessing. Only once in the entire story is the word “love” used and it is used to describe the relationship between these two strong and determined women. This is the kind of love that molds and drives the universe. If you look at the first chapter of Matthew, you will see the line of succession that is believed to end with Jesus, that includes “Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David…”

In the final analysis, the biblical women Ruth and Naomi are simply metaphors, models of all the women of the world who push and prod and guide and give support to the rest of us through all the trying moments of life, however momentous, however mundane.

Each of us can look back on the women who were Naomis for us—older women because of whom our lives were changed.  Each of us remembers with concern—with pride—the young Ruths in our lives who poised to take one step and then, despite our best advice, took what became for both our sakes an even better one.

The Ruths and Naomis of the human estate make the world go round.  Not one of us can get through the phases of our separate flowerings without their promptings.  Without them growth is static, the worst happens, all of life’s inevitables look impossible.  The Ruths and Naomis of the world take the measure of what we think we cannot surmount alone and show us that it is vincible…

In the Book of Ruth the whole world is new again.  Relationships have been righted.  The outcastes have been taken in.  The lowly have been raised up.  A new generation of men—represented by a boy-child—comes to inherit a cosmos where women are its co-creators.  In Ruth, we get a glimpse into God’s world and find that it runs just the opposite of ours.

The implications of the Ruth story for women today pale whatever assumptions, cemented by generations of custom, may still cloud their lives in any institution, in every part of the world.  It is the spiritual Magna Carta of women.  Ruth lives on in Hebrew Scripture to remind us that origin and destiny are not the same thing.  Naomi lives on to call generation after generation of women to begin again, whatever our ages, to make life for ourselves, to refuse to wait for someone else to swoop down to makes us happy, to fear nothing, and risk anything that develops the dream in our own hearts, to learn to believe in ourselves as women, to find ourselves in one another and in that way to become of more value to the world around us than we have ever been before, to see ourselves as carriers of the Word of God still to be said, still to be heard…

The Book of Ruth is about redemption, indeed, but it is as much about the redemption of Boaz and the nation, about the family and the culture, about the next generation of men and the generation of women, about the righteousness of religion and the salvation of religiosity, about us and the disjointed world we take for granted, as it is about the redemption of Ruth and Naomi.  It is a book about women helping women to break the isolation of powerlessness that affects every other man, woman, and child alive.

It is a book to be written into every woman’s—and man’s—spiritual life.  And the book is incomplete until every woman writes the rest of it herself. (Excerpt from The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Women’s Life, by Joan Chittister, p. ix, 88-89, 90)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this story say to you about God and about our relationships with each other?
  3. Is there anything that is bothersome in this story for you?
  4. Where do you find yourself in this story?



NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 9: 24-28

Read the passage from Hebrews

In this passage, the author depicts that Christ has done whatever and all things necessary so that we may know that we are forgiven and look confidently toward salvation. Keep in mind that, just as we are, the first century Christians were trying to make sense out of what had happened to Jesus. People began to hail Christ’s death not as a defeat but as a victory that released life for others. In other words, “He died for us.” This was not meant, as some modern interpretations would suggest, to be an understanding that God somehow schemed up this violence in order to satisfy rules about payback for our sins but rather the notion of Jesus intentionally taking the suffering unto himself.

The writing in Hebrews is, to say the least, complicated. It was complicated even when it was written. It represented a total shift in how people viewed the access to the Divine. Since the writer’s intended audience consisted of “the Hebrews,” or Israelites of a time after Christ, the arguments would have been quite profoundly powerful, because the listeners were well versed in the old ways that the writer compares unfavorably with Christ’s way. (This is why Hebrews is often interpreted as being a bit “anti-Semitic”. I don’t think that’s what the writer intended. It’s just the way some seemingly well-meaning Christians take it. Perhaps instead, the writer was exhorting his or her readers to take what they know, to take what was important for them in their religious and spiritual life, and go farther with it, go toward the Encounter with the Divine to which it points.)

So being part of the redeemed body of Christ today means we can experience eternal reality in its fullest, richest, clearest, most profound way even now, without anything else really happening. We have been set free from worrying about whether or not we relate to God and whether or not God has a place for us in the ongoing Creation. We are set free to live in the presence of Christ. We are, though, engaged in constant and intentional spiritual waiting for what God will do next. Part of being Christian is being called to a wonderful sense of hopeful expectation. Hebrews challenges our somewhat narrow focus of what Christ and being with Christ holds and calls us to something new, perhaps calls even us to go a bit farther toward a true encounter with the Divine.


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does that sense of “hopeful expectation” mean for you?
  3. Do you think we really grasp the idea that what Christ has done is once and for all? How does that play into various Christian understandings today?
  4. What does this say about our images of God?

GOSPEL: Mark 12: 38-44

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Mark

Once again, the writer of The Gospel According to Mark is making a statement against the corruption for which judgment will come for the old system.  It is in effect a warning against the way that we often allow the sacred and the holy to become corrupted and instead turn toward our way of doing things rather than God’s.  Interestingly, in this passage, the hero is not Jesus but the woman.  The scribes exploit and grab from their seat of wealth, but this woman gives everything from her poverty.  Comparatively, those well-versed in the ways of the faith are spiritually poor and this poor, probably uneducated woman is rich beyond all measure.

This woman would have been seen as pathetic, probably a beggar, the poorest of the poor.  The Greek is ptoche, which would mean “extremely poor”.  It hits us in the face in several ways.  First, those clergy and elevated laity, being greeted with respect, getting the best seats in the house, so to speak, are presented not only as bad leaders but as out and out hypocrites.  After all, what do these things of honor mean for our discipleship?  And then the woman…while those respected leaders carefully count out their tithes, proud of their giving patterns, she gives everything she has.  She walks home to nothing.  The blessing comes in the realization not that we cannot have nice things or reap respect but in an awareness that everything that we have, everything that we are, is of God.  It is not a test of how much money we have in the bank, but what that money means for us.  The question is on what do we depend?

Where previously we connected dependence with oppression and depression, Jesus shows us that our dependence on God leads to joy and thanksgiving. If God is running the universe and ruling my life, I no longer have to save myself, prove myself or justify myself. I’m the work of God’s hands. I rest and work in those hands and I shall die in those hands. To be free of those hands would be death to me, because in them is life abundant.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is your personal reaction to this passage?
  3. How does this speak to our society and our way of thinking about money, about leadership, and about one’s place in society?
  4. How do we look upon poverty in this day? What does that say about us as a society and as Christians?
  5. What would it mean to give not out of our abundance but out of our need?
  6. What does this say about gratitude?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


Gratitude is the intention to count-your-blessing every day, every minute, while avoiding, whenever possible, the belief that you need or deserve different circumstances. (Timothy Miller)

The problem is that contemporary Westerners have a very fragile sense of their identity, much less an identity that can rest in union with God.  Objectively, of course, we are already in union with God. (Richard Rohr)

Change your ways, give yourself a fresh coat of paint, convert yourself.  Do all this and you’ll find the cross before it finds you. (Thomas a’ Kempis)





You are the giver of all good things. All good things are sent from heaven above, rain and sun, day and night, justice and righteousness, bread to the eater and seed to the sower, peace to the old, energy to the young, joy to the babes.


We are takers, who take from you, day by day, daily bread, taking all we need as you supply, taking in gratitude and wonder and joy. And then taking more, taking more than we need, taking more than you give us, taking from our sisters and brothers, taking from the poor and the weak, taking because we are frightened, and so greedy, taking because we are anxious, and so fearful, taking because we are driven, and so uncaring.


Give us peace beyond our fear, and so end our greed. Give us well-being beyond our anxiety, and so end our fear. Give us abundance beyond our drivenness, and so end our uncaring. Turn our taking into giving…since we are in your giving image: Make us giving like you, giving gladly and not taking, giving in abundance, not taking, giving in joy, not taking, giving as he gave himself up for us all, giving, never taking. Amen.


(“We are Takers”, from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Searcy, p. 33)