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 22B: When The Journey Gets a Little Unfamiliar

Unfamiliar JourneyOLD TESTAMENT: Job 1: 1, 2: 1-10

Read from the Book of Job

The Book of Job is anonymous and it’s not really known when it was written, although historical Biblical scholars place it between the seventh and fourth centuries bce. Its purpose is not really known either, although it has a great deal to do with the way we see life and how our faith speaks through our lives. Contrary to what we may desire, Job offers no answers to the life’s suffering or life’s heartaches except faith. It takes all of those contrived images of God and shakes them at their core leaving nothing for us but a relationship with God instead. God is not here to “fix things” or to reward us or to punish us. God is here to welcome and love us.

In the beginning of our passage, Job is characterized as righteous and good, a man who sought God and turned away from those things that separated him from God. The passages following this depict his family as the same—righteous, blessed, and wealthy. Everything is perfect.

In the next part of our reading, the Lord and Satan have what is actually the second discussion before the heavenly court. Note that “satan” is actually the literal translation of the Hebrew hassatan and is not Satan, the devil of later times, but a member of the heavenly assembly. His task evidently is to inquire into the behavior of the human race and to bring back word to God. Ha-satan is considered more of an office or a function. Think of him as the accuser, the adversary; more of a prosecuting attorney but one who is operating on God’s behalf.

The satan has tested Job and Job has passed the test. It has been proven that Job’s integrity was not because of his prosperity and blessing; Job’s integrity is intact. Essentially, God can now say, “I told you so!”. But the satan claims that Job would give all of this for his life. He proposes a “skin for skin” challenge—what would Job do if YHWH attacks Job’s very life? (From Jewish midrash) In the bargain with Satan God outwitted that trickster with the command that Job’s life must be spared whatever else happened. This put a terrible pressure on the Adversary, since the command was like saying, “You may break the wine bottle, but you must not let the wine spill.” (Williams, 76)

So the satan afflicts Job with the disease of the sixth plague of Egypt (Exodus 9:9-11), foul boils that cloak his entire body. Keep in mind that this was more than just uncomfortable. Those with repulsive skin diseases were separated from the community and often found themselves living among the garbage. Job’s famous ash heap may be the ancient equivalent of a modern landfill, with its ripe smells and continuous burning. Into the scene, steps Job’s wife, urging him to let go of his integrity, already, and curse God. But Job remains steadfast.

The idea that God blesses the faithful, rewarding the righteous with what they deserve, and that the opposite, trials and tribulation, are signs of being out of sync with God—apparently the prosperity gospel is nothing new under the sun—is rejected outright by Job. It is rejected in the portrayal of the struggles of a genuinely “blameless and upright” man, and in Job’s response—both to his wife and to his situation.  Job comes to us as a warning against believing in a God who rewards piety and virtue with prosperity and success.  Job is us and with his story is a reminder that God never promised us ease and plenty but rather Presence and Grace and a Love more incredible than we can ever fathom—now, tomorrow, and every tomorrow thereafter.  Isn’t that better than worrying about whether or not we’ll be rewarded or punished in the future?

Back in the early 5th century, St. Augustine distinguished two kinds of love, in Latin, uti and frui. Uti love is love of use. I love money — not because I particularly enjoy looking at it or feeling it. I love money because I can use it to get something else I want. Uti. Now, frui love is different. I love — I’m not sure that’s a strong enough word — I love chocolate, not because of what I use it for, which really isn’t all that good. I get fatter, cholesterol count goes up. But it doesn’t matter. I just love chocolate. I’ll do anything to get it. Frui.

Augustine said we have this bad habit of loving God with uti love. We love God because we hope to get God to help us get whatever it is we want (blessing, prosperity, even eternal life). Lord, I’m after the good life, a better job, this or that success: so, bless me! But God prefers not to be used. God wants us to love God with frui love. We just love God, not because of what we get out of it, but just because God is God, and we would do anything for God. As the Westminster Confession put it, the chief end of humanity is to love God and enjoy [God] forever. (From “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People”, by Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, available at http://day1.org/890-why_bad_things_happen_to_good_people, accessed 22 September, 2009.)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this say to you about God?
  3. What does this say to you about righteousness or faith?
  4. How does this speak to our own world?
  5. If we can no longer ask the question, “what has God done for me?”, what question should we then ask?
  6. What does that mean to you to love God just for loving God?


NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12

Read the Scripture from Hebrews

Even though it’s called an epistle, Hebrews is not really written in the form of a letter but is rather a sort of address to which notes have been attached. We really have no idea who the writer was or in what setting he or she actually delivered the sermon. It is evident, though, that the future mattered and the author depicts God’s speaking through first the prophets in the past and now the Son (or Jesus Christ) in the present. Both of these points toward the future of what is to come.

The message of Christ is not so much in what Jesus said but in what he did and who he was. This is why the author goes right into the idea of Christ’s self-offering and his ascent to sit at God’s right hand. The idea of forgiveness of sins and the ongoing support that Christ offers is of paramount importance. The author is asserting that, despite the older claim that Jesus was a Messiah-King, Christ is instead above all imaginable powers. The ancients believed that angels were the invisible powers, usually good, but not always, who hovered above the world and had the power to determine destiny. You can see evidence of wisdom thought here in the depiction of Christ as the one more powerful than all other powers, the one through whom all power exists.

The second section asserts that not only is Christ above all other powers, but that he got there by traveling the same road on which we journey. Christ was human and, yet, was enthroned above the angels. Christ was the one who was just like us and experienced the same kind of vulnerability, temptation, and suffering and yet was placed “above the angels”, above all powers that be.

This is a message from a pastor urging his or her congregation to stay true to Christ. It affirms that wherever we may find ourselves, God speaks to us “at many times and in various ways”. (Perhaps it followed our reading from Job as their first reading that day!) Ultimately, though, God most fully reveals who God is and what God is feeling,, thinking, and doing in Jesus Christ: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of [God’s] being.” To demonstrate the deepest heart of God, Jesus shared humanity’s flesh and blood, was made like us in every respect, suffered like we do, prayed with “loud cries and tears,” died a violent death, “tasted death for everyone,” and in some mysterious way by his death “destroyed death itself.

In an interview with Anne Lamott, who is no stranger to pain, Linda Buturian asked her what she most wanted to convey to her son Sam about God. “I want to convey that we get to be human,” Lamott answered. “We get to make awful mistakes and fall short of who we hope we’re going to turn out to be. That we don’t have to be what anybody else tries to get us to be, so they could feel better about who they were. We get to screw up right and left. We get to keep finding our way back home to goodness and kindness and compassion. . . I want him to know that no matter what happens, he’s never going to have to walk alone. . . That’s what I’m trying to convey to Sam.” (From Shouts and Whispers: Twenty-One Writers Speak about Their Writing and Their Faith, Jennifer L. Holberg, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2006), quoted in “We Get to Be Human”, by Dan Clendenin, October 2, 2006, available at http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20061002JJ.shtml, accessed 23 September, 2009.)

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does it mean for you that Christ is above all powers?
  3. What does it mean for you that Christ was human?
  4. What does it mean for you that we get to “be human”?
  5. What stands in the way of our being “human”?

GOSPEL: Mark 10: 2-16

Read the Gospel passage

To be honest, the first readers of this version of the Gospel probably found Jesus’ statements about divorce and remarriage as challenging and counter-cultural as we do.  Divorce in the first century was a generally accepted part of life, both among Jews and perhaps more so within wider Greco-Roman culture. Some writers and public leaders spoke against divorce as bad for society, but for the most part people debated only details of its legal basis. Among Jewish legal experts, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was a key text, one that assumes divorce will occur and prescribes procedures for carrying it out.  So the Pharisees who ask Jesus about divorce do so “to test” him. As for the Pharisees’ intentions, they might hope their question will expose Jesus as dangerous to families and their society.

Jesus, however, turns the conversation with the Pharisees away from the legal foundation for divorce to God’s design for marriage. That is, he dismisses the law as a concession to human weakness and offers a different perspective rooted in creation. His brief argument describes marriage as a strong and unifying bond between two people. It is because he sees marriage in such a way that he speaks against divorce as he does.

In essence, Jesus DOES disapprove of divorce, not because it is against religious rules, but because it is destructive, because it affects relationships and peoples’ lives.  Keep in mind that the in the ancient world, marriage was primarily a means of ensuring economic stability and social privilege.  A woman’s sexuality was the property of first her father and then her husband.  (Hence, the old language in the marriage ceremony about “giving away” the bride, which has since been removed from our Book of Worship.) Divorce could happen just because a man finds something objectionable about his wife, leaving her penniless, destitute, and shunned from society with no recourse.  Jesus seems to be speaking specifically against the custom of a man leaving his partner for another woman.  Jesus’ point is that divorce, even if allowed by Mosaic law, was not created to justify adultery or to satisfy one’s desires or ambitions.  Jesus is giving women a greater equality in the marital relationship.

There are obviously cultural differences for us today, to be sure.  Marriage is less about economics and more about people seeking mutual fulfillment.  Jesus describes marriage as something that transcends contracts, as something rooted in identity. Perhaps that is the message that we should take—not that divorce is wrong, necessarily, but that any relationship should be rooted in identity and treated with the seriousness that entails.  I don’t think the concern here is right or wrong but rather to heighten our awareness of our connectedness.  Relationships and commitment and love are not and should not be conditional.  They are part of who we are.  And when a relationship ends, there is an offering of healing and return to wholeness in a new and recreated way.

As for the last part, remember that children were treated like women.  They were not protected, they were not honored, and no one was concerned with them at all.  But while the disciples were listening to Jesus haggling with the Pharisees over the “legalities” of marriage, these bothersome children were shooed away.  But not only did Jesus welcome the children, he said that we should be like them, we should be curious enough to explore and vulnerable enough to depend on someone else.  We should be open to imagining what we do not know and trusting enough to rest ourselves in God.  After all, isn’t that what matters?  Jesus was both welcoming the unwelcomed and reminding us to open our lives to God.

Perhaps this whole sort of discombobulated passage that we read today is more about not following the rules and following Christ.  Jesus didn’t care about rules; he cared about showing us the way to God. He cared about showing how to relate to each other, how to relate to God, and even how to relate to ourselves.  We were never promised that it would be easy or that things would always come out alright.  We were just promised that we would be loved and welcomed and always have somewhere to go.  We were promised something new—we just have to open ourselves enough to imagine it.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What, then, does this say about relationships? About wholeness?
  3. What does this say about the “rules” that we create?
  4. What does it mean to become like a child for you?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. (G.K. Chesterton)

Where the heart does not reside whole, there is only duty, not fidelity. (Joan Chittister)

My ego is like a fortress. I have built its walls stone by stone. To hold out the invasion of the love of God. But I have stayed here long enough. There is light over the barriers. O my God…I let go of the past, I withdraw my grasping hand from the future, And in the great silence of the moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman)





This Sunday is World Communion Sunday.  It is the day that the whole world remembers, renews, and is recreated and refashioned into something new.  As the time zones click through the orbit of the earth, there is table seating after table seating after table seating until all of us are seated together.  THIS, my friends, is the Kingdom of God.  It is something that we must imagine.  The Eucharist gives us that glimpse if only we will allow ourselves to imagine it and see it. (Invite persons to go around the room saying what they envision, what it is that they glimpse, that is God’s Kingdom. Close with “THIS, my friends, is the Kingdom of God.”  And all the people said…Amen.)