Proper 6C: Unauthorized Faith

RulesFIRST LESSON:  1 Kings 21: 1-21a

To read the Old Testament passage

Throughout several chapters in this First Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah opposes King Ahab, ruler of the Northern Kingdom of Israel because of his support of the Canaanite god Baal.   From that point on, Ahab and Elijah are in constant conflict over what is right in the eyes of the Lord.  In this passage, Ahab tries to secure the vineyard owned by Naboth.  Naboth refuses, since the vineyard is part of his family land, his inheritance.  There doesn’t seem to be any real coercion, since Ahab first offers to give Naboth a “better vineyard” or to pay him what the vineyard is worth.  Now you have to understand that a vineyard was a prize property.  The thought of turning it into a vegetable garden probably would have been a slap in the face for Naboth.  In fact in Deuteronomy 11, Egypt was likened to a vegetable garden while Israel was depicted as a vine (as in a grapevine).  So, with this tradition, the idea of a vegetable garden would have been particularly insulting.

Ahab becomes depressed because of Naboth’s refusal.  So Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, prods him to step up and claim it.  After all, Naboth is in charge; he is the king with all of the power that comes with that.  Then Jezebel devises a plan to bring false charges against Naboth and take him out of the picture.  When the plan is carried out and Naboth is killed, the elders let Jezebel know of their success.  Once Jezebel’s plan is accomplished, Ahab moves in to take possession of the vineyard.  The rest of the passage depicts Elijah’s condemnation of Ahab for his actions.

The whole story could be likened to the tale of King Midas, who was destroyed by his insatiable desire for more and more wealth in spite of the fact that he already had more than he needed.  It doesn’t even seem that Jezebel really even cares about the vineyard; she just wants Ahab to stand up and exercise his power; she just doesn’t want to lose.

The story is a reminder to us of what unbridled and corrupt power can do.  It is a story of the powerful over the powerless.  Keep in mind here that Ahab was the king over Naboth.  As king, he was entrusted with Ahab’s care, responsible for what happens to him.  The story is also a reminder to us that whether or not we intend to hurt others, if we allow them to be hurt for our gain, then we are complicit in the crime.  The ending may seem to be a little discomforting for us.  Because of what Ahab did, Elijah is pronouncing judgment—disaster, if you will.  Ahab has brought disaster; he will reap disaster.  It is a reminder that nothing good comes from trying to hurt others, trying to elevate oneself and one’s position at the expense of others.


1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What does this say to us about power?

3)      In what ways do we identify with this passage in today’s world?

4)      What is your feeling about the pronouncement of disaster in response to disaster?

5)      What does this say about the gifts that God has given us?  Why was Naboth so adamant about not relinquishing the land?

6)      What does it say about our responsibility and care for those over whom we intentionally or unintentionally have power?  Who are those in our world?  Who are the Ahabs and Jezebels?  Who are the Naboths?  What part do we play?





NEW TESTAMENT:  Galatians 2: 15-21

To read the Epistle passage

Paul has had lots of problems in Galatia.  He saw that he was called to evangelize Gentiles and he did so without requiring circumcision or keeping the food laws as they were laid out in the Torah.  Essentially, he was telling them that they could have a relationship with God without having to follow all of the rules that had been in place for so long.  When questioned, he declares his own authority to be independent of any human being or human construction.  Well, of course, there were those that were unhappy with this.

Paul is trying to set everyone straight.  He is trying to clarify the relationship between law, faith, justification, and the cross.  For him, the works of the law do not affect justification.  Justification is not a “turning back of the clock”, so to speak, but about change, about the reckoning of who we are before God.  Paul is not just interested in creating righteous and right individuals; he wants to create justice for all.

Paul doesn’t have a problem with the law, per se; in fact, he was a zealous follower of it prior to this.  He’s just realized that there is something more.  He’s realized that God is not calling us to separate the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the “haves” and the “have nots”, the “rule-followers” and the “rule-benders”.  Paul understood faith as joining oneself to Christ, to share in his death of what we know, and to share in his rising to new and eternal life, rather than merely following a checklist of rules.  Paul saw this as available to all.

Paul saw the “rejection” of the law as a source of righteousness.  His view of faith and righteousness would become the way all is measured, the lens through which we view many of the other stories in the Bible.  His “rejection” was not a shunning of the law but a way of carrying it beyond what we know.  Paul’s contention was that if life was only about the law, it would be nothing and Christ’s death would be meaningless.

You can’t help but look at this as a commentary on the church, even on today’s church.  Lest we chalk this up to a sermon from Paul against Jewish legalism, think again.  Perhaps we need to read it not as a statement against Jewish legalism, but rather against ours.  What “rules” do we impose?  What do we require so that everyone essentially looks and thinks like us?  In other words, how open was the church to that first uncircumcised, non-Jewish follower that wanted to join the first century church?  And how open are we today?  What ranting from Paul would we hear?  The truth is that the rules and the dogma are not bad.  They give us a framework, sort of help us “stay on track” if you will.  But when they become exclusionary, they need to be reworked.  After all, it’s not about doing the right thing.  It’s about grace.  And perhaps God is not the only one who should be dispensing unlimited grace.  The rules aren’t bad; they are just not in finished form.  Continued circling back or circling around them just doesn’t work.


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What, for you, is the difference between following the law and living a life of faith?

3)      What does faith mean for you?

4)      What message would Paul have for our modern-day church?



GOSPEL: Luke 7: 36-8:3


To read the Gospel passage

This passage is either the third or fourth time we’ve read an account of this in this Lectionary year.  You can talk about the woman’s faith or the woman’s love or the woman’s extravagant generosity.  Or you could turn it around and talk about rules.  In this Gospel passage, we are given lots of rules.  It starts at the beginning when it tells us that Jesus “took his place at the table.”  He took his place as if there was a designated place where he was supposed to sit.  It was probably, you could surmise, toward the head of the table to the right of the host.  Isn’t that what the rules of etiquette usually tell us?

And then this woman enters—a woman already defined by the community and now by Scripture as a “sinner”.  Somewhere along the way she had apparently broken some rule of conduct and violated what would be considered an acceptable way of living and being.  And now she is apparently interrupting what is probably a perfectly-choreographed event in the home of one of the most respected religious leaders.  She desires to anoint Jesus’ head with oil.  But standing nearer Jesus’ feet, she is suddenly overcome with emotion and begins to weep.  She begins to wash his feet with her tears, takes down her hair to dry them and then kisses them and pours the anointing oil on them.  What a spectacle that must have been!  And right here in the home of this respected Pharisee!

And so the Pharisee not only pronounces judgment on the woman, but also on Jesus.  After all, they had both broken the rules!  Women of questionable reputation did not act like this and if Jesus was really who he claimed to be, he would have known better.  But Jesus’ response is not the apology that the Pharisee and his “respectable” guests probably expected.  Instead Jesus challenges Simon’s pronouncement of both of them by launching into a parable about forgiveness.  And woven through the parable are reminders of what the woman did.  She openly and generously gave of herself, more than anyone else at the table had done.

Jesus is trying to make them realize that there is something more than rules, there is something more than religion, and there is something more than doing the “right thing”.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “the faith that stands on authority is not faith”.  I think that is what Jesus is trying to get across.  Faith is not about rules.  The woman’s intense act of love beyond all reasonable expectations and all acceptable actions becomes a means of grace.  It leads us to God.  It shakes us out of our comfort zones of what is normal and expected and even acceptable because, when you think about it, Jesus was very seldom normal and expected and even acceptable.  Instead he showed us how to step out of our boxes and live a life of faith—real faith that is untamed and uncontrolled and virtually undefined, a faith that rips open our carefully-sewn-together lives just enough to let God’s presence spill into them.

Religion and faith are not the same thing.  Religion is about what we believe and why we believe.  It is about tradition, the institution, the system, and, yes, the rules.  When you think about it, our religion has been constructed over centuries.  It has given us creeds and liturgy and definitions of God.  It gathers us and grounds us and reminds us of a world to come.  It gives us commandments and rules that guide the way we live so that we can become what we seek, so that we can journey toward a oneness with God.  It is meant to lead us to God, not pave the way or drive us there.

Somewhere in the midst of those rules we, like Jesus, have to do a little bending.  We have to at some point move beyond and transcend the rules and rituals.  We have to look beyond where we are to that place to which God calls us.  That is where faith comes in.  That is where God, greater than any religion, meets us.  In her book, Called to Question, Joan Chittister says that “in order to find the God of life in all of life, maybe we have to be willing to open ourselves to the part of it that lies outside the circles of our tiny little worlds.”  She goes on to tell a Sufi tale of disciples who, when the death of their master was clearly imminent, became totally bereft.  “If you leave us, Master,” they pleaded, “how will we know what to do?”  And the Master replied, “I am nothing but a finger pointing at the moon.  Perhaps when I am gone you will see the moon.”  The meaning is clear:  It is God that religion must be about, not itself.  When religion [or rules] makes itself God, it ceases to be religion.  But when religion becomes the bridge that leads to God, it stretches us to live to the limits of human possibility.”  (Joan Chittister, Called to Question:  A Spiritual Memoir, (Lanham, MD:  Sheed & Ward, 2004), 19-20.)

Chittister maintains that “religion ends where spirituality begins.”  From that standpoint, these rules, these dogmas, all of these things that make up our religion are not our faith journey, but they lead us through it.  They are, from that standpoint, a means of grace.

And as we change, as our journey changes, as our context changes, perhaps we are sometimes called to the act of bending rules.  It doesn’t mean that we’re dismissing them or ignoring them.  It means that we are allowing the conversation about God to continue.  But more important than that, it means that we are becoming part of the conversation.  We are becoming part of the journey.

Jesus wasn’t shunning the rules that had been a part of the faith tradition for as long as anyone could remember.  He was just bending them a bit, making them a bit more pliable, a bit more nimble, a little bit more transcendent, a little bit closer to what God had in mind.  The rules are meant to be foundations on which we can stand and through which God is revealed.  But when they become boundaries that control who is welcome and who is accepted, that is not what God is about.  So, Jesus didn’t really follow the rules.  In fact, Jesus often got himself in trouble with those rule-followers.  Jesus just loved God and wanted to reveal that love for everyone else.  And here was this woman—a sinful woman, the Scriptures say—shunned by the rule-followers and welcomed by God.  Because you see this woman did what we are called to do—love generously and extravagantly, love the way that God loves.  G.K. Chesterton said that we should “let our religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”  There are really very few rules—except to love the way God loves.


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What, for you, is the difference between religion and faith?

3)      What do you think of the idea that “religion ends where spirituality begins”?

4)      What would it mean to allow your religion to be a love affair?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

A religion without the element of mystery would not be a religion at all. (Edwin Lewis)


Christianity is not being destroyed by the confusions and concussions of the time; it is being discovered.  (Hugh E. Brown)


The way of faith is necessarily obscure. We drive by night. (Thomas Merton)




We will be your faithful people—more or less;

We will love you with all our hearts—perhaps;

We will love our neighbor as ourselves—maybe.

We are grateful that with you it is never “more or less,” “perhaps,” or “maybe.”

With you it is never “yes and no,” but always “yes”—clear, direct, unambiguous, trustworthy.  We thank you for your “yes” come flesh among us.  Amen.


“With You It is Never More or Less”, from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, p. 139



Proper 28B: Yearning

Longing for GodOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Samuel 1: 4-20

To read the Old Testament passage

The household of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Penninah does not look promising at first. It looks instead like a figure for all Israel: Elkanah comes from a distinguished line, and he is pious according to the order of the day, but the household is marked by internal conflict. Penninah has children, but Hannah, whom Elkanah loves, has none. The LORD has “closed her womb.” For this Penninah “provoke[s] her severely,” year after year. Like Israel, the household is torn by rivalry. And like Israel, its future – at least through Hannah – is in doubt.

In this crisis, Hannah models a faithful response. She weeps. She rejects her share of sacrifices that have been handled by the sons of Eli. And she silently refuses her husband’s attempts to console her. Hannah will not accept the half-comforts of the present order. She goes instead to present herself “before the LORD”.  Hannah weeps, prays, and makes a vow. She prays for God to see her. And she prays for God to remember her – as Israel might pray for God to remember the covenant. She prays within the frames of the old order of the judges, promising, like Samson’s mother, that she will dedicate the boy as a Nazirite. But her prayer also reaches beyond the present order. Hannah asks God to do a new thing.

Hannah’s prayer is heard by Eli, the aging priest who embodies whatever is left of the virtues of the old order. He rebukes her, thinking she is drunk – if Eli is not corrupt, like his sons, he still cannot quite recognize the new thing that is already emerging in Hannah’s prayer. But Hannah answers him sharply, “No, my lord…” . No! And Eli hears her. He can still recognize Hannah’s faith. He blesses her and adds his endorsement to her prayer. Hannah departs as if her prayer were already answered. She eats and drinks and shares the company of her husband. And, “in due time” – in God’s time – she conceives and bears a son. She names him Samuel.  Samuel would end the time of the judges and usher in the monarchy.  God was doing a new thing in Israel.  Hannah’s name, which means “grace”, is fitting for someone who would essentially birth the beginning of the monarchy with a bold act of faith.

Now the notion of infertility is not new in the Bible—think of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, even, later, Elizabeth.  But barrenness was a source of shame.  And it was always thought to be the fault of the woman.  So, taunted and rejected, Hannah enters a long line of women who suffered because of this.  And, on top of it, Hannah was part of an unjust system that didn’t even acknowledge her pain. But rather than folding into it, she stood up and prayed. Her tears and her songs point to this injustice.  It becomes a song of revolution.  The mighty will fall and the poor will be raised.  Over and over we are told that God “opens wombs”, birthing new life.  But perhaps the story is not merely about God answering prayers but rather the story of one who yearned for God.  Maybe her yearning, her way of “returning grace” to God, was the answer to the prayer itself.  Our deepest longings themselves often reflect this “upside-down” kingdom that God envisions.  And in those longings, God will open wombs and new life will come to be.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does “returning grace” look like in your life?
  3. What does prayer mean for you in your life?
  4. What would it mean for us to yearn for something better?


NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 10: 11-14 (15-18) 19-25

To read the passage from Hebrews

An intimate and frank relationship with God, openness with one another, and bold public witness that perseveres in the face of opposition – these are the characteristics of the confident community portrayed in today’s Scripture reading. The text invites us to a frankness of speech that deals confidently with the barriers of guilt and shame that often divide communities, and with the barriers of timidity and fear that hinder our public witness to the transforming power of the gospel. Such boldness and confidence is grounded in what Christ has done, dealing with the condemning power of sin once-for-all, and what Christ will do, establishing justice on the earth. The word, parresia, (“confidence”), means being free to speak one’s mind, not being ashamed. It means boldness, courage, fearlessness, and joy. It is those things that belong to freedom. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise that boldness. But in the society of God, we are free to have confidence and to be assured of God’s presence with us.

Even if we do find its elaborate imagery of Jesus as high priest and sacrifice somewhat strange, we can affirm what it clearly intends: God’s Presence is enough. And even if we cannot join with the argument that such once and for all-ness came only with Jesus and was not present earlier, we can affirm that this is the truth which we celebrate in Jesus: his life poured out in compassion for others was indeed the pouring out of God’s life, the life we recognize as being active  wherever people are attuned to it – in the church, in ancient Israel, in many and various ways throughout the world and throughout history where God has been before and beyond us.

In some ways, the Letter to the Hebrews is a treatise on organized religion. But it is not that religion of rules and memberships and those who are in and those who are out. It tells us how to be a community—a loving, encouraging community in the name of Jesus Christ. 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said “the spiritual life is, for the most part, the obstacle to a life lived in the Spirit.” The writing does not tell us how to be religious; it doesn’t teach us how to be spiritual; it talks of how to live within the Spirit of God, within that “upside-down” Kingdom. It teaches us how to be the worshipping Kingdom of God together. It teaches us how to experience God’s Presence, speak in boldness, and encourage each other.


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What would a church that encourages each other look like?
  3. What does it mean to you to live within the Spirit of God?
  4. What does this boldness in Christ mean?

GOSPEL: Mark 13: 1-8

To read the Gospel passage

The disciples were apparently in awe of the temple.  It was magnificent in structure.  Supposedly it covered an area five football fields long and three football fields wide and was covered in white marble and gold, to put it in perspective.  There is debate as to whether the Gospel according to Mark was written before the destruction of this great temple or just after.  Regardless, it was a time of great political crisis and out of this apocalyptic literature began to flourish.

And Jesus is warning the disciples to hold their course, to be faithful, even in the face of suffering, even in the face of the cross.  It is a reminder to be aware of what it is and who it is in which you put your trust.  On what are you building your faith?  What cost of discipleship are you willing to bear?

Elie Wiesel in his book Memoirs: All Rivers Lead to the Sea talks about his childhood in Eastern Europe and the suffering of the Jews even before the Nazis came. His rabbi used to say, “Abraham, the first of the patriarchs, was a better Jew than you. He was a thousand times better than all of us, but the Midrash tells us that he was cast into a burning furnace. So how do you expect to breeze through life without a scratch? Daniel was wiser than you and more pious, yet he was condemned to die in a lion’s den. And you dream of living your life without suffering?”

Here, Jesus was not merely proclaiming destruction. He was prodding those listening to him to change the script, to change that which gets their attention, that which gets their loyalty. He was reminding them to live their life but to yearn for something more. He was pushing them to look beyond what they saw, beyond the stones, beyond the buildings, beyond the beautiful paraments and the other articles of worship, beyond what people are wearing or where they were schooled or what they do for a living.  None of that makes sense in God’s vision.  It is meaningless.  God’s vision is about us, all of us together.  Jesus was telling them that “everything will be alright”, not in a trite, sappy sense where he pats his followers on the head and then walks away, but with a promise of something better just up ahead.

Like any apocalyptic writing, it is trying to make sense of that which really doesn’t make sense.  It is trying to bring comfort to people who are suffering and scared.  It should not be read as a way of “figuring out” when the world will end, or Jesus will return, or whatever you believe will mark the next phase of existence.  It is, rather, about hope, about learning to live, as Hannah did, with that yearning for the new life that God holds.  “Apocalypse” is the Greek word for “revelation”, for seeing.  Jesus was trying to open the door to a vision of what could be.  And, when you think about it, if these are the “birthpangs”, then the journey has only just begun.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How do you think most people would read this in today’s world?
  3. What does the image of the “birthpangs” mean for you as it relates to this Scripture?
  4. What vision are we called to see that we are perhaps missing?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


Countless writings underlie the urgency for our modern world, with all its bustle and noise, of rediscovering the value of meditation, of silence of prayer, of devotion.  I preached it before I practiced it.  If one is to help the world towards its rediscovery, one must practice it oneself.  The religious life must be fed.  We devote years to studying a trade or profession.  Ought we show less perseverance in acquiring the presence of God? (Paul Tournier)

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)

Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.  But if you hold it up against the light of God’s goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright.  And then you ask yourself in amazement:  Is this really my own life I see before me? (Albert Schweitzer)





O God, who out of nothing brought everything that is, out of what I am bring more of what I dream but haven’t dared; direct my power and passion to creating life where there is death, to putting flesh of action on bare-boned intentions, to lighting fires against the midnight of indifference, to throwing bridges of care across canyons of loneliness; so I can look on creation, together with you, and, behold, call it very good; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.


(“Bring More of What I Dream”, from Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Ted Loder, p. 109)