Reflections on the Lectionary Passages for Oct. 19
2008-10-13 by Buran Phillips
Reflections on the Lectionary Passages for Oct. 19.
I want to comment on each of the four lectionary passages individually and then conclude with some reflections about all four together. At the outset, I am struck by the theme of identity which manifests itself throughout these passages. Who are the people of God? What is the nature of this God who calls people into community? Further, how does this community “see” or experience the presence of God, and what does that mean for its continued life?Exodus 33:12-23 – Rock of Ages Cleft for me
Moses and the people are leaving Mt. Sinai and continuing their journey toward the Promised Land, a journey that has so far been filled with setbacks and lessons learned the hard way but also divine guidance and miraculous provisions. Moses wants to be assured that for the continued journey the divine guidance can be relied upon. So Moses asks for God’s presence, knowing that without God’s presence and guidance the journey stands no chance. God assures Moses of God’s presence by reminding him of the unique relationship between God and Moses and the people, for “I know you by name” says the Lord. Moses wants more, however. Moses wants to see God face to face. “Show me your glory.” God informs Moses that he will make his “goodness” pass before him but that Moses cannot see the face of God and live. So he is asked to stand in a crevice of a rock as the glory of God passes by. All Moses gets a glimpse of is the “back” of God.
Moses wants presence, but is given a lesson on God’s identity so to speak. What is the nature of this God who is leading and guiding Moses and the people? This is a God of goodness. In fact, God’s “glory” is not something one sees so much as one experiences through the goodness of God. Is that how one “sees” God? This is also a God of mercy and graciousness, who will show mercy and grace to whom God desires to show mercy and grace.
It is interesting that passages like this have often been used in my tradition to speak to the issue of election or predestination, but in a very exclusive way. The “chosenness” of those who receive mercy and grace seems to spring from a kind of arbitrariness on God’s part. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious. However, in the present context, it would seem to speak more to a rather all-encompassing inclusive grace; “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy” because this is a God who cannot be grasped fully by human beings, a God that cannot be contained or captured or possessed by any one person or people or nation (or political ideology, thinking ahead to Matthew). This is a sovereign and free God who gives enough of the divine presence to call forth trust, but not so much that we can think that we have the presence fully and completely in an absolute kind of way.
What Moses sees is the “back” of God as God “passes” by. Perhaps that is as it should be. Are God’s people those the divine glory passes by and “through” as they live out and proclaim the goodness and graciousness of a merciful Lord? Moses sees the back of God. As Fretheim notes in his Interpretation commentary, the “back” is what one would see of a God leading people on their journeys. God’s works through God’s people and is always leading God’s people. And all we get is a glimpse. As Luther has reminded us, even when God reveals himself, God remains hidden.
God’s word is hidden within human words.
God’s power is hidden in the weakness of a cross.
God’s very being is hidden in a little baby born in a manger.
A glimpse of God’s presence is all we get; just enough to leave room for faith.Psalm 99
This is a wonderful Psalm which speaks very powerfully to the identity of the one Israel acknowledges as their King. One could preach on this Psalm by itself, or allow it to more fully draw out the identity of God and what it means to live as God’s people in the world. This is a great and holy and awesome God, says the Psalm, and deserving of our worship. For this mysterious God, this cosmic Lord, enters into the concreteness of our lives. This God is both a “forgiver” of wrongs and an “avenger” of wrongdoings. This God is a lover of justice and righteousness, a God who is concerned with equity and fairness between peoples, but also that God’s own people, those who call upon the name of the Lord, are themselves doers of justice. Is this a way that God is “seen” both by others and by those claiming to be God’s own? Thus, not only do we grasp something important of God’s identity in this Psalm, but we also glean something important about the nature of Israel and her life before God and before the world.I Thessalonians 1:1-10
If one were beginning a series of sermons on this particular letter it would be fascinating to draw attention to the three phrases here which describes the Thessalonian community of faith, and then allow the rest of the letter to build on that. Their life together is described as a “work of faith” and a “labor of love” and a “steadfastness of hope,” and one might here recall the words of the apostle Paul in Corinthians, “faith, hope, love abide, these three…etc..
It is interesting, however, how of theme of identity comes back into play here, particularly that of the community of faith. After his initial greetings and words of thanksgiving, Paul reminds the community of their “chosenness.” The message of the gospel has come to them and is at work among them. This “chosenness” apparently is not some kind of static status, but is actively manifesting itself in their life together. Guided by the Holy Spirit, they are living into their identity as the people of God. Part of that living involves “imitation” of the apostles and the Lord (What would Jesus do?), a concept that could really be developed further. What might it mean to “imitate” the Lord? Part of that living also involves receiving the word with joy, a joy that persists in spite of persecution. Thus, again, the Thessalonian church is living out its identity as God’s own in very concrete, practical ways. And as their faith is becoming known throughout the regions, they are making God known. Just as they once turned away from idols and toward the true God, so their life together now, even the very existence of this community itself, is a means of “witness” by which others might “see” the presence of God. The imitators are now an “example” to others, as God’s glory/presence/spirit has passed by and through them.Matthew 22:15-22
It is difficult to read this classic text from Matthew and not be drawn to reflections about issues of church/state, faith/politics, God/country. And it certainly raises questions in precisely those areas. And, with an election season upon us, it would be naïve and perhaps irresponsible to think that such issues are not on the minds of our congregants in various kinds of ways. Particularly in an election season it seems that the lines of church and state, faith and politics are either drawn so sharply so as to make constructive communication impossible, or they become blurred and confused in an unhealthy manner. While I’m convinced that this passage may indeed address these kinds of issues, I’m not convinced that we get the definitive guidance that we might be looking for in these areas. What we do get is a call for self-reflection upon our identity as the people of God and what it means to live as God’s people in the world.
The Pharisees try to trick Jesus with a question about paying taxes. But notice the question is framed in the context of lawfulness, that is, is it in accordance with the Law, with the Torah, for us to pay taxes? Again, the identity questioned is raised. Jesus, taking a coin, responds with a question of his own; whose image is on the coin? Interesting isn’t it? Only the emperor’s image is on the coin. What does it say that on our coins we have both Caesar and the phrase In God We Trust? When the Pharisees give the obvious answer that it is indeed the emperor whose image is on the coin, then Jesus of course retorts with the memorable line, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
How does one distinguish between the two? Is it supposed to be self-evident for Matthew? For us? I wonder if Jesus really answered the question. Should we pay taxes or not? Well, whose image is on the coin? The emperor; but again, should we pay taxes or not? Uh….give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God. Okay, but should we pay taxes or not? It would be easier to get a firm yes or a no to that one. But we are left with the ambiguity of deeper reflection upon our lives in the world. And I'm not sure, again, that this text give us the kind of definitive answers we might seek.
I have a dear friend who opposes abortion. He takes some very complicated steps to ensure that his denominational pension dues not be used for what he considers an unethical stance on this issue by his denomination. Another friend rails against and has tried to do something about the use of her tax dollars to currently support a war which she feels is immoral and never came close to meeting the criteria for a just war. I know both to be persons of deep faith and persons given to serious reflection. They both struggle with what it means to claim their identity as the people of God.
Does it help to look at Jesus’ answer from the other side and ask, what does “not” belong to the emperor? Are we talking matters of loyalty and allegiance here? What are the things to do not belong to God? I thought everything belonged to God. But if it is about images, then perhaps we are called to ask, in whose image were we created? Is that what this is about?
I had a wonderful professor in college who asked a question that grew out of this passage. “Name,” he said, “one thing the church does that is not political in nature.” Some poor student near the back (not me) said, “Uh, communion. That’s a spiritual thing. It really has nothing to do with politics.” I don’t have space here to give the full and unfiltered response, but it went something like this: “Are you kidding me? Communion? You mean when the community of faith comes together and affirms that the present world order is already in the process of passing away? You mean when the church comes together and affirms that God’s great cosmic vision of justice and righteousness inaugurated through the shed blood and broken body of the Christ, who has defeated even death, has already permeated our world and made relative all the kingdoms of this world? Son, nothing could be more politically subversive that for a group of people to come together and celebrate communion.”
Perhaps the Jesus we encounter here in Matthew’s gospel wants to engage us in a process of self-reflection about what it means to be God’s people in the world, and we should engage our folks in that same self-reflective process. It does mean living with tension and ambiguity in matters where we might want or need more clarity, particularly in the political realm. On the other hand, seeing this passage in the context of our identity as God’s people might give us more guidance that we think. Note that Matthew’s entire gospel has been leading us toward what it means to be disciples, what it means to follow Christ in the world. Let us note also where Matthew is headed, toward the final judgment showdown between the sheep and the goats where we see the “things” with which God is ultimately concerned; food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, care for the least of these, these, by the way, who are created in God’s image and who belong to God. There is no ambiguity here. To borrow a phrase from the prophet Micah, we experience God and the presence of God through our actions when we do justice and love kindness.Sermon Directions
Obviously one could move in a number of directions for the sermon. It might be fun to take Exodus as the primary text and play with the idea of “seeing” God and noting where and how we see God at work in our world and in our lives. While Moses didn’t get to see God face to face, he did get to “see” that God was present with him and his people. In the process we “see” something inherently wonderful about this one who both guides us and protects us by the divine presence. We experience God’s presence in the present.
One could certainly play with the idea of being chosen and what that entails. Matthew’s passage could lead one to reflect upon our loyalties and allegiances in so far as it relates to our identity as the people of God. What are the “things” that are God’s? Given the nature of what is revealed about our God, what are the “things” with which God’s people ought to be concerned? It is difficult to preach on all the texts of course, but it is interesting how all of our passages supplement one another. The gracious and merciful God of the Exodus, the God whom the Psalmist reminds us loves justice and righteousness, the God in whose image we are created, calls us to embody justice and compassion. In fact, the fledgling church in Thessalonica is lauded for living their faith, for they have been “giving to God the things that are God’s” in their life together, as they continue to be guided by God’s presence through the Spirit and continue in their labor of love to witness to the Lord Jesus Christ who is the source of their hope; a joyful hope that will sustain them until he comes again.
The Intersection of Lectionary and Life
2008-10-10 by Frank Lewis
If your life is anything like mine, a lot has happened since I started looking at this Sunday’s lectionary texts. I watched a documentary on John Lennon last night and listened as the former Beatle said “Life is what happens while you are planning for your future.” Don’t know if that’s original with him or not, but life certainly happens to each one of us as we plan for Sunday.
On Tuesday night, my city played host to the Presidential Town-Hall Debates at Belmont University. As I listened to two men who love our country, both of whom aspire to lead us toward a new day, I found myself thinking about Moses as a man and a leader. In a country filled with golden calves and stiff necked people, how can anyone be expected to move us forward? Why would anyone even want to try? I didn’t hear anything Tuesday night to convince me one way or another about either candidate, but I am committed to pray a bit harder for the eventual winner come Election Day. If anything, America needs some intercessors and I need to be better in this role as a spiritual leader.
On Thursday my annuity statement arrived showing that for the fourth quarter in row, my losses were greater than my contributions. I may never be able to retire. I’m not usually an anxious person, but my anxiety level is rising. The words from Philippians continue to scroll across my mind “Be anxious for nothing…” but it’s hard to be confident right now. If I feel this, I can’t imagine how others must feel. I’m young enough to recover from most of this, I think, but many are not. I imagine that as we preachers stand to offer words of hope this Sunday, we’ll be standing before people who have lost significant portions of their financial portfolios, their jobs, their dreams, and their confidence. I think Sunday matters more right now, than it ever did. So do our words as God uses them to bring comfort and assurance to worshippers.
In just a few hours I’m leaving with my wife and son to attend “parent’s weekend” at my daughter’s college. She’s a freshman this year. Without her in our home, life has certainly changed. It’s a lot quieter. There’s less laundry and fewer things to pick up in the kitchen. But I miss her terribly. She has a laugh that sounds like music to my ears. I can’t wait to hear it again. I just hope that we can all get along. We’re all related to Euodia and Syntyche when it comes to our feelings, expectations, frustrations, and opinions. I hope that we can remember who we are (parents, children, siblings, etc.) and act like a family who’s aware of the treasure we have in one another. If I were preaching this Sunday, I think I’d want to remind my congregation that in difficult and uncertain times, it’s probably more important to be family to one another than ever before. We need each other, and we need to get along for the sake of the Gospel.
Add to this the pastoral needs of a congregation. Like you, I’ve been made aware of too many hurts this week. Family members have passed away. A husband has left his wife and children. One family is four weeks into the grief of a suicide, another has just learned they are pregnant after trying for six years to conceive, and it’s risky. A faithful deacon who leads young adults in Bible study came to the end of his severance package this week and there is nothing in sight as he seeks to find employment. I’ve seen three ministry colleagues from our staff retire or leave for other ministry opportunities in the past twelve months, and their positions are still vacant. The church is anxious. They fear change. They look at me and wonder if I’ve got what it will take to navigate us forward. Some have already inked the drawings for a golden calf just in case.
Yet above it all I still hear the music from the other side of the castle wall. The lyrics are true, and the music is noble, just, pure and lovely! It’s the music of a celebration. A king has extended an invitation to join in the wedding celebration for his son. I don’t know how I ended up on the guest list, but I did. I’m blessed. I’m favored. I’m graced. And so are you. If percentages were intended by this week’s parable, the odds are pretty good that most who hear God speak through us will gladly put on new robes and join in the festive dance. They’ve heard the dirge of despair and they have known the refrain of regret, and they are ready to embrace a better song. So let’s preach it boldly!
Praise the LORD!
Oh. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good!
For His mercy endures forever.
Grace and Peace!
Frank R. Lewis
Euodia and Syntyche Running for President
2008-10-09 by David von Schlichten
I've been thinking about the quarrel between Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4 and how that dynamic reminds me of the nastiness between Obama and McCain.
Also, Euodia means something like "good journey" and Syntyche something like "fortunate," so one could say that these people need to live up to their names. Likewise, God calls us to live up to the name conferred upon us. To put this point another way, we are wedding guests, so we need to act accordingly, not to earn salvation, but because we're at a party.
Thank you to all for the blogging entries this week, and a special thanks to our guest blogger.
Be sure to go to Share It! to read Ron Allen's thoughts about preaching on the election.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
2008-10-08 by Frank Lewis
This Sunday’s gospel reading contains one of those “hard sayings of Jesus.” A traditional interpretation tells us that Jesus is drawing a clear line in the sand. On one side, ancient Israel has rejected God’s anointed in the person of Jesus. On the other, the good news of the Kingdom continues to be extended beyond the people of promise as may be illustrated in the parable when the second wave of invitations is extended into the highways and byways. In the end, one has come into the presence of the king robbed in his personal best, which isn’t much. We imagine a ragged and dirty man looking for a free meal at the church picnic. Suddenly he’s surrounded by a couple of security guards and removed. We’ve all seen it. End of story.
I’d like to make this part of the lection line up with the verses in Exodus and Philippians. To do so, I need to find an intercessor in the crowd. But this parable isn’t about the Good Intercessor, although it would have possibly made for some great preaching along that theme. Imagine if Jesus had included an Egyptian tailor and his wife who saw and befriended the wedding guest before the king laid eyes on him. Together they could have found a pair of drapes hanging in an ante-room of the palace and stitched, tucked, pinned and pleated his way into some first class party clothes. After spraying some first century odor cover upper toward his direction, they would have joined hands and sung “You’ve Got a Friend.” Later in one of Paul’s letters there would be a reference to Omar and Mervadt’s Drapery to Formalwear business where Paul wintered and put his tent making skills to work creating a new line of missionary attire. We’d connect the dots quickly and end by encouraging our people to be on the lookout for the dirty rag wearing wedding guests in our midst for they may just turn into the Bishop of some modern day excavation site. We preachers love to spin such stories, but that’s not possible with what Matthew records.
My commentaries and preaching books are pretty slim on this parable. Most resemble what I’ve mentioned in the first paragraph, but I don’t want it to end there and the discipline of romancing the texts won’t let it.
If we take this Sunday’s texts in chronological order as the events unfold, we could possibly script a worship plot as follows:
We Baptists love to sing that old hymn “The Solid Rock” written by Edward Mote. (The Baptist Hymnal, 1991 p. 406) It helps me wrestle with the parable as the final stanza proclaims
When He shall come with trumpet sound, Oh, may I then in Him be found;
Dressed in His righteousness alone, Faultless to stand before the throne.
I think this is how I would treat the passage this Sunday. First, it’s a parable. Maybe a little exaggeration is employed by Jesus to give the story the punch it needs. Get your robe on, clean yourself up, and start living like someone invited to the party. Don’t expect God to accept you on your terms. God is God, you are not. Yet everything you need has been provided. You have no excuse. There’s nothing more you need to do. Get dressed, and come on in. (It’s been suggested that the King even provided robes for the guests to wear since they didn’t own anything fit for such a celebration. What an image of the gospel!)
Second, I’d remind the congregation that while there is trouble in the texts (restless travelers in Exodus, quarrels and anxiety in Philippians, and a crisis for a man who chooses to stand in the king’s presence improperly attired) God has provided good news for us. God relents of anger, surrounds us with people to help us on the journey of faith, and forever holds out the invitation to come and enjoy the celebration of the kingdom. We don’t have to devise substitutes. We don’t have to let bitterness or anxiety drag us down. We aren’t left outside looking in at the party of grace, unless we choose to stand outside or insist on the garb of our fallen humanity.
The parable is bleak if the focus is on the rejection of the king’s invitation. And while we need to be clear about the seriousness of not taking God’s invitation lightly, it seems to me that the balance is in the invitation itself. A king has invited us to share in the celebration of his son’s wedding. The best food awaits us inside. A robe is hanging with our name on it. None of this is ours because we earned it or deserve it. It’s all a gift. Let’s celebrate.
Frank R. Lewis
No Holding Back
2008-10-07 by Steve Schuette
The Matthew themes continue on…the insistence that violence leads to more violence and that the ending isn’t always “…and they lived happily ever after.” And while Luke records that those invited find excuses not to come, going to their business and farms (Luke 14:16-24), it’s Matthew who includes the bloody killing of slaves. The “slaughter of innocents” never seems to end. And for Matthew the camera always seems to shift to the one who is thrown out rather than all the invited guests who get to rejoice and celebrate the wedding banquet.
And yet Matthew does bring the point home: rejoicing is not an option, just one choice among many. Either we live into this or we don’t. Either we fully give ourselves over to the occasion or we hold a part of ourselves back, coming in but not fully dressed for the celebration. Anna Carter Florence is on to it, I think….either you fully own the joy of God in your life – which is connected in a real way to who you are, what God made you for – or it moves on. And Paul’s joyful, peaceful letter from prison becomes an example of living in a way that is so rooted in these spiritual realities that the circumstances are secondary.
John Shea quotes the mystic poet Kabir in reference to this text: “If you do not cut the ties that bind you now, do not believe that death will do it for you.” Maybe the crises we’re facing are calling us back to a clearer perspective on what is of real value and worth….that the things we are anxious about (business/farm), as Frank suggests, are in the way.
Question: is there any justification for imagining the wedding gown as connected with the baptismal gown?... “put on Christ Jesus?”….that owning one’s call in Christ and one’s identity in baptism is key to fully being oneself and fully participating in the community banquet (communion)?
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