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)

 

Closing

 

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 5C: Is There Really Room at the Table?

Photographer: Antonio Parente
“The Last Supper”, Tom Phillips, 2013, Flowers Gallery (Photographer: Antonio Parente)

FIRST LESSON:  1 Kings 17: 8-24

To read the passage from 1 Kings

The seventeenth chapter of 1 Kings begins the three-chapter account of the conflict between King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel and Elijah the Prophet.  After confronting King Ahab for his introduction of the pagan god Baal, known for insuring rain for crops, Elijah goes into hiding from Ahab.  (Actually, it was Ahab’s wife Jezebel that pushed for this affirmation of Baal.)  The passage that we read is included in a grouping of three stories of Elijah’s experiences while in hiding.  These stories serve to establish Elijah as a legitimate and God-sent prophet.

The main reading is the first part of our whole passage and the second of these three stories.  The story begins with YHWH’s command to Elijah to go to Zarephath where a widow feeds him.  Elijah obeys and finds a widow gathering sticks.  He requests that she bring him water to drink, which she does.  Elijah then asks her for bread.  This time she protests the request, explaining that she only has enough to prepare a last meal for herself and her son.  Elijah assures her that the supplies will not fail until YHWH sends rain again.  (Because, after all, it is God, not Baal, who sends rain.)  She obeys and they eat for days.  The point is that even in this land of Baal, God’s grace and extravagant generosity is present.  It’s a commentary on what can happen when we live a life of abundance, rather than hoarding our resources in a life of scarcity.

The second act that we read, the sons of the widow falls ill.  It was severe; he was near death, possibly, according to some commentators, already deceased. The widow blames Elijah for her son’s demise.  She believes that the illness has come about because of something that she has done and that Elijah’s presence as a man of God has turned God’s attention or, in her understanding, God’s wrath toward her.  Elijah offers a prayer of lament, complaining to God that God has caused this illness and brought it upon the child of a woman who had saved him at God’s calling.  Elijah petitions God to save the child. (If, as many commentators claim he was dead, this was REALLY an unimagineable request.)  YHWH hears Elijah’s prayer and the boy is revived.  Elijah takes the child back to his mother.  Her response is a confession of faith, an affirmation of Elijah as YHWH’s prophet.

On the surface, it seems that Elijah, just like the widow, doubted that God would provide, questioned whether or not God would come through after all this.  In fact, Elijah got downright angry at God:  “I did what you said and you give me this???”  That’s probably a normal reaction.  But Elijah kept going—he kept believing and praying and otherwise imagining.  And the text says that God listens.  This God to whom we are told over and over that we should listen has listened to Elijah.  Maybe that’s saying that this is more of a conversation, more of a relationship with God than we thought.  Maybe it IS about what we do.  Maybe when we do somehow learn to speak Truth, God listens.  The truth is that faith is not a blind, unquestioning embrace of God’s promises; we’re just called to imagine something beyond it, imagine what we cannot fathom, imagine what makes no sense at all.  We are called to imagine something beyond ourselves and then go there.  That is why Elijah is considered a great prophet—not because he knew how to preach and obviously not because he never swayed in his faith in God’s response but because he just dared to keep believing and imagining that there is always a resurrection—here, from scarcity to abundance and then from death to life.

How powerful it is to be reminded that sometimes we are part of resurrection, sometimes God works through human agents that dare to imagine something beyond themselves, dare to imagine what the Truth really holds, dare to imagine that God is offering us all the abundance that we need.

 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What most often stands in the way of our believing and imagining what God can do?

3)      How quick are we to blame God when our prayers are not answered in the way that we envision?

4)      What would it take for us to truly imagine resurrection in our lives or for our world?

5)      What stands in the way of our praying for the unimagineable?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Galatians 1: 11-24

To read the Galatians passage

Paul had founded the churches in the area in and around Galatia and then had moved on to do the same in other places.  But after he left, there were those who had questioned his authority, his “pedigree”, so to speak.  Instead, they were insisting that these new Christians had to first become Jews (or, in other words, be circumcised) or they were not really righteous at all.

So Paul begins by first re-establishing his authority not as a rabbi, a trained teacher, but rather as one called by God.  Paul doesn’t talk about his “conversion”, as if he is part of another religion.  Instead Paul refers to his experience as his “calling”, an experience in which his authority came not from human succession but from God.

This letter is odd.  It doesn’t begin with the normal salutation of the day.  Instead, Paul gets right to the point.  He is frustrated and angry that this newly-formed community seems to have gotten so incredibly off-course.

This is a difficult passage.  Paul is insisting that his calling, his authority, is divinely-received.  There is no tradition of the church or teachers.  There is no apostolic authority bestowed or any “laying on of hands” as Paul was ordained.  Paul, in fact, had never met Jesus and had actually spent years fighting against the very version of the Gospel that he was now so adamantly preaching.  This passage could very easily be interpreted as one in support of “non-organized” religion.  And yet, Paul is not completely denouncing Judaism; he is instead calling it to renewal.  (Hmm! It seems that most new denominations or new religions begin with a call of renewal for the ones that are already there.)  It’s not really clear if Paul sees himself as called to a revelation about Jesus Christ or a revelation given by Jesus Christ.  But Paul’s understanding of the faith was not one based on a set of rules or traditions but rather one that offered the tradition of faith to those on the outside.  Paul dared to believe that the revelation of God and the love of Christ is not limited by the bounds of our understanding of who God is.

In Feasting on the Word, Wendy Farley says it like this:

 

If this letter is bad news for authoritarianism, it can be good news for those committed to the constant renewal of Christianity.  It is good news for those outside systems of power who might see more clearly ways in which Christianity has cut off some of its own limbs in the name of tradition.  It is good news for all those oppressed by the church:  women, slaves, the poor.  It is good news for al those lovers of Christ whose wisdom about the Divine is distorted or repressed by leaders of the church.

Stepping back from the heat of this controversy, it seems that Christianity absorbed more of James than of Paul.  Though the Holiness Code and circumcision did not come to define Christianity, the rest of the Hebrew Scripture remains authoritative for Christians.  The authority of the church and its leaders has also survived just fine, but Paul reminds us that, as important as tradition may be it can never be adequate to the gracious and extravagant love God pours out on us.  For Paul, corralling grace in a particular community or in relation to particular practices will always violate the gospel.

I, personally, love the tradition of the church.  It keeps me grounded.  It gives me a springboard on which to start my journey of faith.  I don’t think Paul was against that.  He just didn’t believe that we should stop there.  So, Paul would probably contend that there was nothing wrong with holding the traditions of the faith and the traditions of the church close.  You just need to let them breathe into the present and leave room for the Holy Spirit to breathe into them a little.

 

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does holding too tightly to traditions do to the church?

3)      What does letting traditions go do to the church?

4)      Why is it that this balance is so difficult for us today?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 7: 11-17

To read the Gospel passage from Luke

This passage cannot help remind us of the passage from 1 Kings that we read earlier.  Elijah, which, of course was part of the tradition here, serves as an archetype for the growing understanding of Jesus.  But here, the widow never speaks to Jesus.  She’s really just a catalyst for the story.  Instead, the story draws attention to the character of Jesus and the character of God as one who embodies compassion for all.

There is something more here than Jesus raising the dead.  Remember that in this time, widows were typically poor and vulnerable.  They were the least of the least, the very margins of acceptable society.  And now this one has lost her son too.  Jesus probably didn’t even know this woman.  He heard about her dilemma from a bystander.  And, yet, he is filled with compassion for a total outsider.  Jesus, with compassion and inclusion, raises both to life.

Note that the people did not see this as Jesus looking favorably upon the woman, but being filled with compassion.  The woman didn’t even ask Jesus to heal her son.  There was no evidence of her faith.  It doesn’t say that she DIDN’T have faith; it’s just not an issue.  There’s not even any real gratitude when it’s all over.  This is the not the story that you would expect.  It’s not really about faith but, rather about grace—undeserved, unexpected, unimagineable.  The choice is whether or not to receive it.  It just depends on whether o not we’re ready to imagine the unimagineable.

The following is from a blog by R.M.C. Morley, “A Garden Path”, available at http://rmcmorley.typepad.com/a-garden-path/2010/05/proper-5c-thoughts-and-exegesis.html.

This was big. A solemn and holy moment. And, they had no idea. Jesus tells the man to sit up.  And he does. The son of the widow is brought to life again by the touch of Jesus and his spoken word.

… on Trinity Sunday we wrestled with a God that is so big and mysterious that we have great difficulty comprehending how [God] even exists. God’s very existence is a struggle for us. And that is troubling to the soul and mind. But, here, we wrestle with the closeness of God. We have a God, a Savior, who touches us – solemnly, profoundly, and with purpose. And, isn’t that just as troubling? Isn’t it so much more desirable to have a God who is at arm’s length? Maybe not a universe away separated from us by incomprehension, but certainly not a God intimately reaches out his hand and places it upon us. We don’t do that.

Unless we understand ourselves as hanging on the precipice of birth and death. Unless we realize that we walk a tightrope, and in the balance is life itself. Because this story isn’t just about some guy who is brought back to life. I mean, that’s great and all, but this story is about us.

As Luke crafts this story he saturates it in death. There’s a woman who’s a widow. She is now a grieving mother. The corpse of her son is there. It’s a funeral procession. This story has been dipped and coated in death. It wreaks of decay, despair, and grief. And the one who is dead, is us. And Jesus, reaches out his hand and touches us. And he tells us to get up. And do we? Do we even know we’re dead? Do we even know that there’s a lifeline? Do we even know that there’s a life that’s so much better, if only we get up as Jesus asks us to? We get so comfortable in life that we think that everything is just normal – that all is ok. We’re “fine.” We’re “good.”

We can even get comfortable in church-life, shuffling along making our way to our pew. Sitting attentively. Behaving. Going up for Communion when it’s time, and dropping our money in the plate when the nice man comes by. We’re “fine.” We’re “good.” But, no we’re not. We’re either dead, or we’re being birthed by God. And, when you put it like that, touching is just fine. Bring it on. Bring those calloused hands on, and stop the parade. This is big. And we have no idea.

This story is not like many of the other healing stories.  We’re accustomed to Jesus being approached and asked for healing.  And we’re used to Jesus attributing their healing to faith  (as if somehow they deserved their own healing because they had faith). But nothing is said here about faith.  The woman doesn’t even ask.  She just cries.  Maybe that’s the point.  Healing is not predicated on our faith.  God is present when we ask and when don’t, when we listen and when we wander off doing our own thing.  God is God; we are not.  But, here, Jesus had compassion for one who was hurting, whether or not she asked, whether or not she deserved it, whether or not she was the “in-crowd” or not.  God’s Presence is not because we have faith.  God is there through pure, unadulterated, undeserved, unwarranted Grace.  What faith gives us is the ability to every once in a great while, get out of ourselves and imagine the unimaginable.  And then, just for a moment, we will experience the Sacred and the Holy, God’s Presence that is always there whether or not we know.

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      Why is it so difficult to chalk something up to pure, unadulterated grace?

3)      Why are we uncomfortable with the closeness of God?

4)      What do you think of the idea that we are either “dead” or “being birthed by God”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Our spiritual famine is concluded—we are just beginning to restore the honor of the imagination. (Lauren Artress, Walking a Sacred Path)

 

Come not to discuss the words of others, but to listen…For in the sacredness of the moment Divine Grace is telling you alone all that is required.  (Jean Pierre de Caussade)

 

God is ready to give great things when we are ready…to give up everything. (Meister Eckhart)

 

Closing

Holy God of wind and fire;

Dance through this room today.

Holy God of [tornadoes] and illness;

Share our tears of sadness and pain.

Holy God of creation and new beginnings;

Show us again your vision of healing and wholeness. Amen.

 

(Katherine Hawker, “Outside the Box”, available at http://liturgyoutside.net/CPr5.html)