Epiphany 7A: The Shadow of Ideal

magical-art-of-shadow-photography-01OLD TESTAMENT:  Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18

Read the passage from Leviticus

Leviticus appears just this once in the entire Revised Common Lectionary cycle—and in most years, Lent begins before seven Sundays after Epiphany elapses.  This passage sounds a lot like the Ten Commandments.  There’s a good reason.  These are the Ten Commandments plus some additional guidelines as to how the people live as a holy people.  The laws of Leviticus as we know them come out of the story of the exodus.  Freed from slavery, the people have not yet entered the Promised Land.  But this looks ahead to that time when they will return home and how they should conduct their lives as residents in that land that was promised to them.

These are not really “laws”, per se, the way we think of laws.  They are not prescriptions for right behavior that includes the promise of punishment for those who fail to follow them.  They are rather a description of an ideal community, a people of faith, who are devoted first and foremost to God.  The beginning directive to “…be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” brings to mind the story of Creation in Genesis and the fact that we are “created in God’s image”.  As people of God, then, there is a calling to be a reminder of who God is, an image that brings God into people’s lives.  A holy people can remind people of the holiness of the ever-present God who created them.  Thomas Merton said that “your life is shaped by the end you live for.  You are made in the image of what you desire.” (in In the Beginning, God:  Creation, Culture, and the Spiritual Life, by Marva J. Dawn, p. 36)

But this holiness thing is often uncomfortable for us.  We tend to fault on the side of modesty and reserve the description of “holy” for the likes of Jesus, Mother Teresa, or the Dalai Lama.  Kimberly Clayton, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (p. 365), says that “as appropriately modest as this may be, it is also a way of letting ourselves off the holiness hook.  This is not biblical.”  Essentially, we are called to be holy.  That’s it.  We are called to be holy, rather than overly modest. (OK, I for one apparently have some work to do!)

Many times in this passage, we read the words, “I am the Lord.”  It is not a threat, but a reminder that God is always and forever present in our lives.  The law of God is not a list of rules; rather, it is connected with the character of God.  It is a depiction of who God is in the world.  And it is evident that God is first and foremost about relationships.  Part of the way that a people becomes a holy people is by dealing with others in the way that God would—with justice and mercy and love.  So, these “laws” call the people to be honest in their dealings with each other—financially, in the ways we deal with the earth that we share, and in the way we treat the poor.  As the passage goes on, you’ll notice that the “other”—the “poor”, the “alien”, or “another”—becomes your “neighbor”.  It is a reminder that we are all neighbors.  There is no one outside that definition.

And as neighbors, we are all part of one family, one “kin”, as the Scripture points out.  Our neighbor (whoever that may be) is one of us, one of “our people”, one who we are called to love just as we love ourselves.  We are marked as the people of God.  We are claimed by God.  We are one in God.

It is a reminder that we have been loved more than we can possibly imagine and that is the way we are called to love.  In The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris writes “God speaks to us…reminding us that by meeting the daily needs of the poor and vulnerable, characterized in the scriptures as the widows and the orphans, we prepare the way of the Lord and make our own hearts ready for the day of salvation.”

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What is hard for us to hear?
  3. What does it mean to be holy?  What do you think of the notion of our possibly being overly modest?
  4. So, who are our neighbors? 
    1. Who are those to which we’re called to be a neighbor? 
    2. Who are we called to allow to be a neighbor toward us?
    3. Which of these is more difficult?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23

Read the passage from 1 Corinthians

Just as in the readings over the last couple of weeks, this week’s Epistle passage is Paul’s way of continuing to try to unify the members of the church at Corinth who are distracted because of some misplaced priorities.  The community here is being torn apart by arguments and competing authority.  (In the chapters that follow, the heated discussions will escalate to the subjects of sexual morality and marriage, lawsuits, and behavior at The Lord’s Supper.)  So Paul is trying to guide them back to what is important, to their focus on God and their unity with each other as one body.

Paul reminds us that the foundation is none other than Jesus Christ.  The metaphor of a foundation is an interesting one.  If you think about it, there are a lot of things that can be changed and updated in a house.  Houses can look different from each other and individual houses can change over time.  But if the foundation is not solid, the house will not stand.  I don’t think this was Paul’s way of depicting our understanding of faith as inflexible or limited.  Far from it.  In our world of religious and denominational pluralism, perhaps the foundation becomes even MORE important.  It’s our starting point; it’s our unity.  As Christians, Christ is not merely the “way” we build the house, but is indeed the solid foundation on which our faith rests.  Christ is the center.

It should also be noted here that Paul is asking these first-century hearers to see the temple and to see themselves in a radically new way.  The temple had, for them, been the center of religion and the center of their very lives.  Following the return from Babylon, the temple had been rebuilt as the center of Israel’s worship and the center of their society.  The belief was that the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, contained the very presence of God.  In fact, only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was the high priest (and the high priest only) allowed to enter the inner sanctum to make sacrifices for the sin of the nation.  But here, Paul is saying that the church, the people, the Body of Christ, is now the temple.  This discombobulated, dysfunctional, and “disunified” group of people are now called to be one, are now called to be the Body of Christ, the very embodiment of the Presence of God in our midst. The temple exists where God’s holiness exists, in the people that are called the people of God.

So, once again, Paul is compelling them to be one, to let go of all of the arguments and the competition for “who’s on top”.  Again, have the humility of holiness.  Be the people of God.  This congregation, this people, this holiness of God, this good news of Jesus Christ, are not things to fight over.  No one owns or has a direct line to what is right and to the way that the church should work.  That belongs to God.  That belongs to the foundation that we find in Jesus Christ.

 

One of the joys of being a grandfather is getting to take your grandchildren to do special and wonderful things. Not long ago, I was called upon to take my two grandsons to their swimming lessons. I thought this would be the routine trip, but I was wrong. The pool was enclosed in a rather large building, and the sounds of all those excited children of different ages and abilities were deafening.

Upon further observation, I noticed something unusual. All the noise was coming from the shallow end of the pool. The only sound coming from the deep end was the sound of experienced swimmers swimming with discipline and confidence. There was no yelling, no crying, no complaining, no evidence of fear or frustration. They were following the instructions of their leader.

After a lifetime of parish ministry, I have concluded that all the noise comes from the shallow end of the pool from those who haven’t learned to swim with confidence or are not secure enough to venture into the deep water. Churches reflect that clearly. The noise comes from the shallow end, not the deep end. Look at current statistics. Church attendance is up. Excitement is up. We have gone into show business, but if you dig deep into those statistics, you don’t find discipleship being up, nor do you find godliness up. We find a lot of people who are attending but few people who are swimming in the deep end. There is not much Christlikeness or commitment. It’s easy to draw a crowd. The people of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus have taught us how to draw a crowd. But it’s tough to build a congregation. One pastor said to me with tongue in cheek, “Our people are deeply committed in every area except three: lifestyle, mindset, and values. Other than that, they are deeply committed to the Gospel.”…

 

In any city there are churches saying in like manner:

“Come to our church. Our preacher doesn’t wear a tie. Our preacher wears golf shirts and jogging shoes.”
“Come to our church! We wear shorts and sandals.”
“We’re fundamental.”
“We’re liturgical.”
“We’re liberal.”
“We’re moderate.”
“We’re denominational.”
“We’re mainline.”
“We’re dispensational.”
“We have video.”
“We have snare drums and screens.”
“We’re into political reform.”
“We have a religious superstar preaching today.”

Everyone is out front, just like the carnival barkers were, pushing their style, their religious product, but when we get inside we find-just like the carnival-that no one knocks out the balloons or knocks down the bottles. No one wins the prize. No lives are changed. The church of the big idea, the church of the big action, and the church of the big deal somehow leave us empty. Something is missing.

That is the issue Paul was addressing in this letter. Churches that are built only on ideas or actions or style are doomed to die. Paul said, and I paraphrase, “I gave you a good foundation, Jesus Christ. You build on Jesus Christ. And if you build with gold and silver or straw, it will fade. You must build on Jesus Christ.” Jesus earlier said in Matthew 16, “On this rock (the confession of Peter) I will build my church.” During his last week, he said to his disciples, “I am the vine. Ye are the branches.” In other words, stay connected to me, and you will bear fruit. If you get severed from me, you won’t bear fruit. (From “Swimming to the Deep End of the Pool”, by Rev. Dr. William L. Self, available at http://day1.org/808-swimming_to_the_deep_end_of_the_pool, accessed 16 February, 2011)

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. How can this be applied to our own cultural context?
  3. What does this image of the temple mean for you?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 38-48

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Matthew

More Sermon on the Mount…In this section, Jesus tells the disciples to turn the other cheek, not seek revenge, give more than what is required by law, give to all who ask things of you, lend without limits, love enemies, pray for persecutors, and welcome the stranger.  Well sure…Jesus once again frames his discourse in light of the accepted laws that were in place in that society.  For instance, the law allowed the notion of lex talionis, or fair retaliation.  If someone practiced wrong against you, you would be authorized to fairly and legally retaliate but only to the extent of your loss.  (i.e, “an eye for an eye”.)  As harsh as that may sound to us, the whole point was that that was the MOST you could do.  You could not retaliate against someone who had injured your eye by murdering them and get away with it.  But Jesus takes that accepted and acceptable way of thinking and remodels it completely.  If someone had injured your eye, the only thing acceptable is to walk away, to not seek revenge.  Essentially, retaliation and anger are not Scriptural.  Rather, we are called to overcome evil with good—to pray for those who harm us, to love those who threaten us, to welcome those we do not know.

Now, I don’t think Jesus expected us to just close our eyes to the threatening of weak and vulnerable members of our society.  We ARE called to speak out, to do something.  But maybe it will give us pause to ask if there’s another way to handle something.

Once again, we are asked to give more than what is asked, more than what is expected within the bounds of “acceptable” societal standards.  “Are you kidding me?” you’re probably asking at this point.  Don’t you think Jesus’ first century hearers were asking the same question?  Jesus’ words compel his hearers to love their neighbor—ALL their neighbors—the ones they did not know, the ones they mistrusted, the ones who did not practice the faith, the Samaritans, the Babylonians, the Egyptians.  For us, the message is the same.  We are called to love our neighbors—ALL our neighbors—the ones we do not know, the ones we mistrust, the ones who do not practice our faith, the ones who, in the name of Christ, choose to place themselves above others as moral or social superiors, the drunk driver who hit our mailbox, ISIS terrorists, and those persons who, because of a misguided sense of who God is and what God is calling them to do, flew planes into the World Trade Center years ago and killed so many of our neighbors.  It is not easy.  I’m pretty clear Jesus never promised that it would be.

The Greek word teleios is often used for this type of faith.  It means to be “perfect”.  (That’s also a notion that we United Methodists hold so dear as we pursue that elusive Wesleyan notion of “going onto perfection”.)  It does not mean perfect the way we think.  It does not mean without blemish; it means a maturity such that one gets it, a desire to be what God calls us to be—something completely different than what is “acceptable” or even “normal” in our society.  Now don’t get me wrong, Scriptural words are nothing if they are not relevant for today’s hearers.  We are called to a faithful reading of them in light of our own experience, reason, and historical tradition.  We are not in this alone.  Our lives and our faith are shaped by the wisdom and influence of others.  But if we don’t at least try to get it, why are we here at all?

This passage tells us to do some of the most difficult things imaginable.  They are things that don’t make sense.  They are things that sometimes get people hurt.  They are things that sometime get people killed. (Hmmm!  You kind of have to think about that one, don’t you?)  The truth is that the Sermon on the Mount is nothing less than a radical call for resistance—peaceful, non-violent resistance against the ways of the world, against the powers that we have allowed to become “acceptable”, against those things that we have allowed to sneak into our very lives and move between who we are and who we really are.  If you want to put this passage into a nutshell, perhaps the writer’s words might say, “Grow up.  You are bigger than that.  God is bigger than that.  You are kingdom people.  Live like it.  Be perfect. (or, for goodness sakes, at least try!).” St. Augustine said to congregants while presiding at the Eucharist: “Receive who you are. Become what you’ve received.”   

 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What is the hardest part of this passage for you?
  3. Is this even reasonable in today’s time?
  4. Is this even possible to do?
  5. What gets in the way of us being “kingdom people”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

The noblest prayer is when [one] who prays is inwardly transformed into what [one] kneels before. (Anglus Silesius, 17th century)

To be an acorn is to have a taste for being an oak tree.  (Thomas Merton)

Peace does not come rolling in on the wheels of inevitability.  We can’t just wish for peace.  We are to will it, fight for it, suffer for it, demand it from our governments as if peace were God’s most cherished hope for humanity, as indeed it is.  (William Sloan Coffin, Credo, p. 93)

 

 

Closing

 

The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class…Father, forgive.

The covetous desires of [humans] and nations to possess what is not their own…Father, forgive.

The greed which exploits the labors of [persons], and lays waste the earth…Father, forgive.

Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others…Father, forgive.

Our indifference to the plight of the homeless and the refugee…Father, forgive.

The lust which uses for ignoble ends the bodies of men and women…Father, forgive.

The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves, and not in God…Father, forgive.

 

Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.

 

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Amen..

                                    (The Prayer of Coventry Cathedral]

Proper 24C: Keeping Heart

new-jerusalemOLD TESTAMENT:  Jeremiah 31: 27-34

Read the Old Testament Passage

Last week, we talked about the setting in which the prophet Jeremiah lived and prophesied and much of Jeremiah includes words of judgment for the circumstances of that time.  The four chapters beginning with chapter 30 conversely pick up the theme of hope and comfort.  These words of hope come in three parts, the first of which includes chapters 30 and 31, which together are commonly called “The Book of Comfort” or “The Book of Consolation”.

The focus of the passage is a promise of the future, a future of fertility and prosperity in response to Jeremiah’s call.  The land will be full of people, and the animals will multiply, providing greater sustenance and support.  The call “to build and plant” (from last week’s passage) begins to be carried out.  No longer will the children suffer for the sins of their parents.  Instead, a community will be planted that is different from the one in the past and the sins of that community will be handled according to a new justice.

The whole idea of a “new community” was probably pretty foreign to the hearers of Jeremiah’s message. (Who are we kidding…it’s probably pretty foreign to us!)  The whole shape of their community had to do with the past and with the foundations from which they came.  We hear about this “new covenant”, the only reference to a “new covenant” in the Old Testament.  This is a covenant that holds divine forgiveness.  God will forgive the people and no longer remember their sins.  This covenant is written on people’s hearts.  There are no breakable clay tablets that can just be tossed aside.  We are presented with the imagery of a “new Jerusalem”, the holy city that the Lord will build in the future in the midst of humanity.  This is probably not intended to be a political city with physical boundaries, but, rather, a manifestation of God’s compassion and justice.  It is the place where shalom finally resides, the place of the peaceable Kingdom that God envisioned at Creation.

The vision of Jeremiah’s has an eschatological ring to it, perhaps one that we’re not accustomed to hearing in the Old Testament.  Because God has written the capacity for love and faithfulness into us, the days are surely coming.  In the meantime, we hope and trust, and we expose our hearts to God.

Much of this covenant has to do with divine forgiveness.  But inherent within this discussion is a call to forgiveness of each other.  Ernest Hemingway tells the story of the Spanish father who wanted to be reconciled with his son who ran away from home to the city of Madrid. The father misses the son and puts an advertisement in the local newspaper El Liberal. The advertisement read, “Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven! Love, Papa.” Paco is such a common name in Spain that when the father went to the Hotel Montana the next day at noon there were 800 young men named Paco waiting for their fathers! Hemingway’s story reminds us how desperate all of us are for forgiveness.

According to Walter Brueggemann, “In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”…means just for a moment, if only for a moment, you are wiped clean, you are renewed, the past is gone.  This, however, is not a destructive thing but, rather, a renewal of what was already there. It is the total and complete forgiveness of the sins of the world. Joan Chittister says that “perhaps forgiveness is the last thing mentioned in the Creed because it is the last thing learned in life.  Perhaps none of us can understand the forgiveness of God until we ourselves have learned to forgive.”  “For it is in forgiving that we are forgiven.”

Forgiveness is something freely granted, whether earned or deserved; something lovingly offered without thought of acknowledgment or return.  It is our way of mirroring the goodness in the heart of a person rather than raising up the harshness of their actions.  But, most of all, it makes us one with the human family and allows us to live in the sunlight of the present, not the darkness of the past.  Forgiveness alone, of all our human actions, opens up the world to the miracle of infinite possibility.  And that, perhaps, is the closest we can come, in our humble human fashion, to the divine act of bestowing grace.  (Kent Nerburn, Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace:  Living in the Spirit of the Prayer of Saint Francis, p. 120)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does the notion of this “new covenant” mean for you?
  3. What does it mean for you to think of this covenant “written on your heart”?
  4. What does it say about a “new community”, a leaving of the past ways behind?
  5. What does that have to do with forgiveness?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Timothy 3: 14-4:5

Read the Epistle passage

Remember that the pastoral epistle of 2 Timothy is focused primarily on establishing the “right” personal character of believers.  Today’s passage begins by laying out the idea that the main guideline achieving the wisdom and wholeness of God is the holy writings.  The writer of Timothy sort of looked upon these writings as sort of a textbook for the faith.

Now keep in mind that for Jewish boys (sadly, not girls) who were literally “schooled” in the faith, the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings provided the school curriculum as well as Israel’s law book and prayer book.  In this society, the way to achieve wisdom was to know them well.  For this writer, the holy writings had a targeted purpose “to make you wise for salvation”.  The purpose of Scripture, like the purpose of proper schooling, is to produce the well-instructed and disciplined adult, proficient and well-equipped in the graces and skills required for a positive role in church and society.

The beginning of chapter 4 leads into the final section of this second letter to Timothy and focuses on the teaching and preaching ministry of the congregation and whether or not it is properly preparing its hearers for what is to come.  The term “inspired by God” in this passage is essentially a translation of the Greek theopneustos, or “God-breathed”.  It should be noted that this would mean that the Scripture itself is “God-breathed”, rather than that the writer is merely inspired.

It is traditional to speak of Scripture as “inspired”.  There is a long history of unhelpful formulations of what that notion might mean.  Without appealing to classical attempts at formulation that characteristically have more to do with “testing” the Spirit than with “not quenching” the Spirit, we may affirm that the force of God’s purpose, will, and capacity for liberation, reconciliation, and new life is everywhere around this text…The Spirit will not be regimented, and therefore none of our reading is guaranteed to be inspired.  But it does happen—on occasion.

It does happen that we are blown in and through the text beyond ourselves.  It does happen—on occasion—that through the text the Spirit teaches and guides and heals so that the text yields something other than an echo of ourselves.  It does happen in prayer and study that believers are led to what is “strange and new.” (From “Biblical Authority:  A Personal Reflection”, by Walter Brueggemann, in Struggling With Scripture, by Walter Brueggemann, William C. Placher, & Brian K. Blount, p. 23-25.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What, for you, is meant by the call for “sound teaching”?
  3. Do you think the meaning of that has changed in today’s context?
  4. So what reactions do you have to this notion of a “God-breathed” Scripture? How does that notion play into current day literalism?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 18: 1-8

Read the Gospel passage

The Gospel passage for this week begins with Jesus telling a parable about “not losing heart”.  The parable ends with a challenge about faith.  Essentially, this is one of the few parables in which we are actually told the point before we hear the parable.  The parable that is in between may sometimes be a little uncomfortable.  Here, the unjust judge is the one used to make a statement about God.  Well, we know that God is not unjust, so how does this work?  The point is in the response.  If this kind of judge, unjust as he was, was willing to respond justly to the widow who asked, don’t you think God will respond to us? (And don’t you think that we are called to respond to each other in the same way?)

Remember here, that the force of this parable heavily depends on the social status and religious duties of the roles of the characters.  In ancient Israel, the duty of the judge was to maintain harmonious relations in society.  He would have held a very prestigious position.  Widows were deprived of the support of a husband and could not inherit their husband’s estate.  That instead passed on to sons and brothers.  True to Luke’s version of the Gospel, the widow was typical of the “least” of society.

Now the fact that the judge (who held a high position in Jewish society) was not faithful to God actually meant that he was totally unfit for his post.  But the widow calls upon the judge for justice.  Perhaps she has a legitimate grievance.  But the response comes probably because he wanted her to leave him alone.  The judge finally does what is right, whether or not it is for the right reasons.  In truth, the widow was not just a believer; it was not that she was just faithful.  She yearned for a change.  She yearned for justice.

Essentially, there is a two-part question raised here.  Have we become so calloused that we turn a deaf ear to those who cry out in need?  Or have we given up hope that God will hear our own cries for help?  Both involved the prospect of “losing heart”.  Faith requires a different response to each of these questions.

In some way, it is a reminder that justice alone is hard and cold and calculating.  The heart gives justice passion and compassion; the heart is the way to God’s vision of justice.  “Pray always and do not lose heart.”  As William Willimon said, “if we really believed in the power of prayer, if we really believed that prayer can effect world peace, if we were truly convinced that prayer changes things, heals broken lives, and restores severed relationship, then we would be praying constantly.  You couldn’t keep us from praying.  But isn’t the problem with prayer the one that Jesus addresses here?  We simply lose heart.

Why is that?  What does it mean to not lose heart?  What does it mean to, putting it in the positive, keep heart?  You could translate it as staying focused, as persistence, or even as faith—not blind faith, mind you, but a realization of who and whose you are.

      Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told a story of teaching a confirmation class years ago in which he outlined the meaning of the Mosaic Covenant. He went step by step through it, explaining the promise of God, that God would rescue the Hebrew people from slavery and that they would worship only God and then act in ways that show themselves to be liberated people. And he showed them how that principle showed up in the teaching of Jesus later on. When finished he asked them as a review to tell him what he had just said. He got a variety of attempts, some close, some not. Then one little boy raised his hand and put it better than any theologian could have. He said (quoting God), “I saved your butts, so now you go behave.” (From “Written on Their Hearts”, by Dr. Stan G.B. Duncan, available at http://homebynow.blogspot.com/2013/10/written-on-their-hearts.html, accessed 14 October, 2013.)

Maybe keeping heart is the desire that compels us to be something more, to be new, to become new, to be open to God’s recreation of our very lives.  And in the meantime, the prophet weeps for something more.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this parable say about justice for you?
  3. What does this say about faith? About prayer?
  4. What do you think of the statement from Willimon about what would happen if we really believed in the power of prayer?
  5. What is it that stands in our way of “keeping heart”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The best success I can dream for my life: to have spread a new vision of the world. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

The mediocre teacher tells.  The good teacher explains.  The superior teacher demonstrates.  The great teacher inspires.  (William Arthur Ward)

 

Perhaps our real task in prayer is to attune ourselves to the conversation already going on deep in our hearts.  Then we may align our conscious intentions with the desire of God being expressed at our core. (from Soul Feast:  The Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life,  by Marjorie J. Thompson, p. 31.)