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)

 

 

Closing

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

                                    (Leunig, Common Prayer Collection]

Easter 4A: To Know the Shepherd

shepherd-sheep-10OLD TESTAMENT: Acts 2:42-47

To read the Lectionary Acts Passage, click here

The early chapters of Acts include several important summaries of the community’s life and mission in Jerusalem. While many would say that the primary purpose of the Book of Acts is evangelistic mission to those who are not part of the faith community, the primary purpose of these summaries was probably more focused on nurturing the Christian community into being the Christian community. Here, believers who share a common geographical address should also share a common religious life, including teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. “Fellowship” (koinonia) is used only here in Acts, but Paul used it repeatedly as an important part of the community.

Commonality suggests a transforming presence of the Spirit of God. The phrase “all things in common” implies friendship, which means that “fellowship” is more than just being similar to each other; it means having a deep and abiding regard for one another’s spiritual and physical well-being. The religious practices laid out here bring about a steady and lasting obedience to God through the faith community. And the most distinctive act of the community is the sharing of goods. The assumption was that in order to achieve lasting unity, no inequality can exist.

There is some speculation that this portrayal may have been idealized a bit. Surely the first century believers had similar lapses in obedience as we do. The way of life depicted here would be positively awe-inspiring. Maybe, though, that’s the whole point. Maybe this is not an historical account at all but a goal to which we aspire. They had, in fact, probably as many disagreements and conflicts in their church as we do. They were real human beings trying to make their way through this journey of faith. And they were positively awed by what they had been shown. Maybe what is missing is a little awe in our lives—even a little awe at what we could become.

 Our story doesn’t have to say that we were perfect. We already know we aren’t. But someday, someone will tell someone else who needs to hear it, that [our church] strove mightily to live out the gospel. There will be stories about different people and the things that happened to them – not just the pastors but the many people who are this church and who work faithfully to live out the gospel message of love, justice, mercy and peace. The story will be about the people who started this church, and the way it reached out to the surrounding community from its earliest days. The story will tell about the openness of this church throughout its history, expressed even in the architecture and art and capabilities of this building. The story will be about the people who kept this church open through lean years, faithfully tending the fire of its mission and vision until its renewed growth and vigor in the later years of the twentieth century. The story will be about the children who came through these doors, hungry to hear good news in a hostile and dangerous world. The story will be about a courageous decision to become an Open and Affirming congregation, and a steadfast faithfulness to living out that commitment in every way possible. The story will be about struggles against the effects of economic injustice, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and greed.  
It will be a story about a commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and hospitality. And if the world truly does survive another 40,000 years, the story will include efforts to tend this good earth more lovingly and responsibly than we have in the past. Thousands of years from now, the story will say that we prayed together, grieved together, worked together, celebrated together, learned together, comforted and challenged one another, shared what we had, and gathered together every chance we could to eat – to break bread in remembrance of Jesus, to recognize the risen Christ here in our midst.
(From a Sermon by Kathryn Matthews Huey, available at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/may-15-2011-fourth-sunday.html, accessed 11 May 2011.) 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. How does that relate to our world today?
  3. What of these practices do you think are the most difficult for us today?
  4. What does awe have to do with faith?
  5. How do you think our faith community would be described?

 NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Peter 2:19-25

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage from 1 Peter begins an excursus on living honorably in the household, which fits with our Acts reading for this week. The concern with the Christian’s “right conduct” before God reminds us of two things: (1) The eschatological hope that Christians’ behavior would convince unbelievers of the rightness of their cause and (2) The reminder that all Christian submission is undertaken not for the sake of the authorities, but for the sake of God.

The phrase translated as “it is a credit” is often translated as “grace” (or charis), although rather than it being the rich meaning that we find in Paul’s writings, it’s more a sense of it being “added to one’s account.” So, suffering for the sake of righteousness represents a credit with God. In this concern, then, for the approval of God, the sense of God’s immediate presence (the consciousness of God) and God’s final judgment (the visitation of God) sort of come together. There is also a reminder here that the status of Christian is not a decision but a response to a calling. They have been called to be who they are, written into a story by God.

Keep in mind that this is written in a time when it was not expected that you were Christian. There was no talk of this claim that they were living in a “Christian nation”. In fact, that whole idea would have been laughable at best and downright illegal and blasphemous at the worst. Suffering for one’s faith was an everyday occurrence.

Suffering for what is right, suffering for one’s faith is not about “proving” righteousness. And I don’t believe in a God who “only gives you what you can handle.” I don’t think God hands out suffering. Suffering just happens. Life happens. But God is there with us, sometimes pushing, sometimes pulling, and sometimes scooping us up when we cannot stand alone. In that we trust. Maybe suffering has more to do with trust than with anything else. 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What, for you, does this mean to be called by God to be Christian?
  3. What meaning does this hold for your life, personally?
  4. What would it mean to you to suffer for your faith?
  5. What does trust have to do with faith?

 GOSPEL: John 10: 1-10

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The image of Jesus as the good shepherd is a familiar one to us. If we read this passage with just this image, we tend to get this image of God as someone that we should follow or emulate. If, however, we read it in conjunction with the image of the gate, we see Jesus as the Way to life, the Way toward God. Jesus is revealed through the relationship with the community and the identity of the community is then linked with the image and identity of Jesus. The passage indicates that the shepherd, Jesus (God) knows each of us by name. The “thief” or stranger warns us of dangers in our times, dangers that pulls us away from that identity with Jesus. (Keep in mind that sheep will not follow a strange voice.)

Jesus was anything but “pro-status quo”. So think what that says about how we follow. The pasture is the metaphor for life—abundant life with God. The abundant life, for John, is not one born out of fear but out of love.

But…why sheep? Most people agree that they’re not the smartest animals in the farmhouse. After all, all they do is stay connected to their flock and follow their master around. Hmmm…so, why sheep? Well, you see, sheep know who they are and to whom they belong. They do not wander off from the path down which the shepherd is leading them. Sheep know how to listen for their master’s voice. And, in turn, the shepherd knows each sheep by name.

Jesus was an incredible storyteller. In this relatively few verses, he both reveals to us the essence of his own being as well as the relationship that each of us is called to have with God. Jesus is the good shepherd, the one who walks as we walk and leads us to God. But he also reveals himself as the actual gate, the divine. Both shepherd and gate, both human and divine. That is the essence of Christ. And at the end of this passage, Jesus dispenses with all of the metaphors of sheep and gates and shepherds and tells us once again who he is—the one that lays down his life for us and picks it up again. Jesus is the good shepherd leading us to the divine and the God that calls each of us by name if we will only listen. Because it’s who we are and it is who we are meant to be.

There is a story of a famous actor who was invited to a function where he was asked to recite for the pleasure of the guests. Having recited a few common verses, he asked if there was anything in particular they wanted to hear. After a moment or two, an older man asked to hear Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. The actor paused for a moment and then said, “I will, but with one condition—that you will recite it also, after I have finished.”

The man was taken by surprise. “I’m hardly a public speaker but, if you wish, I shall recite it too.”

The actor began quite impressively. His voice was trained and his intonation was perfect. The audience was spellbound and when he finished, there was great applause from the guests. Now it was the old man’s turn to recite the same psalm. His voice was not remarkable, his tone was not faultless, but when he finished, there was not a dry eye in the room.

The actor rose and his voice quavered as he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I reached your eyes and your ears; he has reached your hearts. The difference is this: I know the Psalm but he knows the Shepherd. (Charles Arcodio, in Stories for Sharing, (1991), p. 71)

In other words, following Christ is not about learning the right words, or doing the right things, or meeting some set of rules or expectations on which you check off at least 80% or so to pass. Following Christ is about becoming, about knowing, about entering a relationship with God and God’s people. It is about being who God envisions you to be. 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What image of Jesus or of God does this bring about for you?
  3. What does that mean for you as part of the faith community?
  4. What gets in the way of our following Christ?
  5. What is the most difficult thing about it?

  

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

An earthly kingdom cannot exist without inequality of persons. Some must be free, some serfs, some rulers, some subjects. (Martin Luther)

 

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand it and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. (Scott Peck)

 

God is closer to me than I am to myself. (Meister Eckhart)

  

Closing

Close by praying with Psalm 23 (KJV—Grandmother said that you can’t read this Psalm from any other translation!)

 

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.