October 12, 2014
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
(Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 23)
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23
Additional reflection by Elizabeth Leung on Exodus 32:1-14 and the Doctrine of Discovery for the Sunday before Columbus Day
Additional reflection on Exodus 32:1-14 by Laurel Koepf Taylor: "When Justice is Delayed in Coming"
Additional reflection on Philippians 4:1-9 by Kate Matthews Huey
Additional reflection on Philippians 4:2-9 by Deborah Krause: "Be of the Same Mind" in Ferguson
Additional reflection on Matthew 22:1-14 by Deborah Krause: "Ferguson and the Fire Next Time"
You're invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.
God Matters/People on a Journey
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
Many years ago, as a young newlywed, I used to have the most wonderful – and memorable – conversations with my new mother-in-law, a devout Methodist raised in Lower Alabama (or L.A., as her son called it) by a Primitive Baptist-preacher father. Virginia Huey was a college professor with a memorable way of speaking: from time to time, she would pause for emphasis just before quoting one of her favorite Bible verses, Galatians 6:7, in a low voice: "God is not mocked." A chill would run through me, because I knew she was speaking of matters of ultimate seriousness: God Matters.
This week's story about our ancient ancestors-in-faith breaking the very first Commandment while Moses is still up on the mountain, talking with God, inspires that same sense of ultimate seriousness. The people of Israel are on a very long trust-walk, an extended pilgrimage in faith, after escaping from bondage in Egypt and witnessing a whole series of remarkable events, great wonders that sustain them on their way. The sea parts for them and swallows up Pharaoh's chariots, and manna and water are provided (in rather spectacular ways) just when they need them most and in spite of their grumbling and complaining. They have a great leader who seems to walk with God, and the promise of a new home, a land flowing with milk and honey, to look forward to. And they are free, out from under the yoke of Pharaoh and his minions, Pharaoh and his burdensome system that extracted their lifeblood and took the lives of their children. God had heard their groans and their crying out, and had sent a leader, Moses, to bring them out of Egypt and set them on the path to the Promised Land.
But things haven't been easy, and the tests have come, one after another. And then there is the matter of how God wants them to live as "a priestly kingdom and a holy people" (Exodus 19:6). God has made a covenant with them, and their response, at first, sounded just about right: "Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do" (19:8). Promises have been made, then, on both sides of this covenant of faithfulness and care, a covenant one would expect to endure, even in the toughest of times.
Our text from the beginning of chapter 32 of Exodus, however, tells us what happens when God, or rather Moses, appears to be dragging his feet. The people at the bottom of the mountain do not like waiting interminably while Moses, at the top of the mountain, continues his long conversation with God. Perhaps they have other priorities and more pressing things on their minds. In any case, the scholars seem to agree that the people identify Moses' presence with the presence of God: if Moses is there, God is with them, and if Moses isn't there, well, obviously God has left them on their own. And most of us don't like to be left on our own, especially in the midst of a wilderness, without some clear goals and an action plan, not to mention a healthy dose of reassurance that everything is going to be okay. This is definitely an anxiety-producing situation.
An ancient version of what tempts us today?
Whether or not our image of what happens next is informed by the scene in the movie, "The Ten Commandments," or perhaps some vivid church-school texts, it's easy to think that the people suddenly fall into a loud and raucous orgy before their new, false and foreign god, a great golden calf, a work of human hands that they decide to worship instead of the God who has been with them since the days of their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, the One who heard their cries, freed them from slavery, provided them a leader, a covenant, and the promise of a new home. We might think that we would never do something so...primitive, so crazed, so uncivilized. So terribly, and clearly, wrong.
After all, we memorized those Ten Commandments a long time ago, including the one about having no other gods before the One True God, the one that forbids fashioning idols from anything on the earth or in heaven or in the sea (Exodus 20:4-5a). However, it's tempting to think that the first Commandment was more commonly broken in ancient times, back when idolatry was a big problem, so we focused more on the ones that follow it: about not taking God's name in vain, honoring the Sabbath, and so on. (Whether Christians actually pay much attention to the second and third Commandments is an entire sermon in itself: is the Sabbath kept holy? Is God's name not regularly taken in vain?) This week's text provides an excellent opportunity, however, to revisit that first Commandment, and to reflect on just how quickly, and how easily, we give in to the temptation to fashion, and worship, lesser gods of human making, especially in times of anxiety, and whenever we want what we want, right now.
Fearful without a leader
If we read the story closely, we see that the people, growing restless and feeling vulnerable to attack, are worried about being without their leader, the one who stands in for God and should protect them from their enemies. Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson note that the term "go before" refers in Exodus only to YHWH or Moses (Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentary), so the people are really saying that they need someone or something new to stand in for God, since Moses appears to have disappeared on that mountain. In other words, scholars say that they didn't turn to foreign gods but simply wanted something to stand in Moses' place to reassure them; Walter Brueggemann, for example, finds it likely that the golden calf is "an alternative representation of God," and "not idolatrous, but simply a competitor to the ark of the covenant as a proper sign of divine presence" (Introduction to the Old Testament). And Frank Anthony Spina writes: "By identifying the calf with YHWH, the distinctive personal name of the Israelite God, Aaron shows that Israel is not actually turning its allegiance to another god. Rather, it wants a form of the deity that is simultaneously visible and portable" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). However, I'm a bit perplexed by the several times the plural "gods" is used in this passage (vs. 1. 4b, 8b), if they're referring to YHWH, who is, of course, One.
Gene Tucker describes the even more puzzling response of Aaron, Moses' brother, to the demands of the people: "Aaron as religious leader responds to a religious need with a religious solution: a cult object, an altar, and a festival" (Preaching through the Christian Year A). And that festival was a worship service that could be considered "kosher," Gerald Janzen writes, well, except for that golden calf (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). Frank Spina, however, notes the possibility of a "gross profanation of proper worship" in the phrase that Israel "rose up to play" (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts), although other scholars do not really focus on that point. It seems that there is room for our questions here as well.
Authority v. disobedience
Two important notes at this point: first, Walter Brueggemann observes, in several places, that it's possible that we are reading about a controversy about the legitimacy of one priestly tradition over another. Aaron thus represents a disobedient tradition with "enormous power, prestige, splendor, and wealth…suggesting that Aaron succumbs to the temptations of his office," while Moses represents the authoritative tradition. Brueggemann's reflection about "those who benefit too well from holy things, who lose critical self-awareness, and who begin to think they are the producers of the holy" (Exodus, New Interpreter's Bible) also brings a chill to the reader, and the great scholar echoes my mother-in-law several times, when he also reminds us that God is not mocked. In his Introduction to the Old Testament, then, Brueggemann proposes that we're not just reading about "a brotherly exchange, but competition and conflict between rival priestly groups with their competing interpretive voices."
Gene Tucker makes a second important point about the multiple sources or traditions in the text: the story itself comes from "older pentateuchal sources, most likely the Yahwist," with later deuteronomic additions that recall what happened in "1 Kings 12:25-33. When Jeroboam rebelled after the death of Solomon and established the Northern Kingdom, he set up golden calves in Bethel and Dan, saying, 'Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt' (v. 28; cf. Exod. 32:4)." Tucker explains the significance of the golden calf story many centuries later as a passionate critique of "the corruption of worship in the Northern Kingdom" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
What gods have we shaped?
Whether it occurs on the way to the Promised Land, centuries later in the Northern Kingdom, or today, in our own faith journey, there is still a very real and persistent human tendency to shape gods that we can manage and manipulate, and from which we can receive a strange comfort. Perhaps these false gods, these idols, represent something we long for, or long to be. Perhaps they provide spiritual junk food to feed our deepest hungers. Like the ancient Hebrews, we may think we are fashioning a better representation of the God we worship, perhaps even fashioning this God – ironically – in our own image and likeness. Or maybe we're longing for something and someone so much better than what we see around us, especially in a world full of human brokenness and sin. Beverly Zink-Sawyer sees in this story and in our own life today "the human longing...to worship and put our trust in something mysterious and greater than ourselves. Some might call this the human quest for spirituality. This story reminds us that not all objects of our spiritual longing are equal" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
There are many contemporary false gods, beginning with money, prestige, success, celebrity, and power. Like the ancient Hebrews, we may succumb, for example, to a foolish faith in military power and its symbols (some of which can be manipulated, and some seemingly having developed a fearsome life of their own). The bull calf fashioned by Aaron suggested not only fertility but also military might. Gerald Janzen observes that the people of Israel seemed to have absorbed a sorry lesson from their former oppressor, Egypt, for "they resort to the very 'wisdom' (1:10) under which they have been so long oppressed, a wisdom based in fear and expressed in overwhelming controlling and coercive force" (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). Consider, then, what makes us feel secure today. What do we place our trust in?
Making God manageable
We might also take an even closer look at the God we consciously and intentionally worship in our life of faith. Brueggemann writes thoughtfully about the Israelites in their fear and longing for "an available, produced God" when both Moses and God seem absent: "The people who seek to reduce faith to palpable certitude are intensely religious, hungry for god(s) (v. 1)" (Exodus, New Interpreter's Bible). While they fall to the temptation to worship a fixed, finite object in God's place, we too are prey to the same temptation, it seems, when we make God too manageable, too comfortable, and even too fixed, one might even say "monolithic," since that word itself suggests a large, stone block. Brueggemann provides a challenge to the church to encounter a God who is not monolithic but instead is dialogic, and therefore a God of movement and change (and risk as well). What if God is in dialogue with us, just as God was in dialogue with Moses in the latter part of our text? Brueggemann writes that "the church, summoned, formed, and empowered by the God of all dialogue, has in our anxiety-driven society an opportunity to be deeply dialogical about the most important issues," and this is directly connected to the kind of God we worship: "When God is reduced to a settled formula, the notion of God in dialogue seems weak and inadequate. But from the perspective of the covenantal traditions, the lust for absolutism eventuates in idolatry, a flat, settled God without dialogic agency who cannot care or answer or engage or respond" (Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture, and the Church).
Radical trust and audacious faith
We close with that mountaintop dialogue, then, in which Moses boldly steps between the weak, fearful people and the God who reacts like the parent of a teen-ager who has finally gone too far. (As the mother of three former teenagers, I know, just a little bit, how God feels. Just a little bit.) Scholars write beautifully about this scene, beginning with Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson, who describe the kind of faith Moses had in the face of this God of dialogue: "Radical trust in God evokes an audacious faith; it not only permits but requires questioning" (Preaching the Old Testament). Beverly Zink-Sawyer finds a kind of comfort in the thought that we have been made "in the image of a God who feels as deeply as we have been created to feel – and feels not only the negative emotions of anger and disappointment expressed in this text but positive emotions such as love and forgiveness" (New Proclamation Year A 2008). And Gerald Janzen writes most evocatively of the way Moses addresses God: "Moses 'implores' God. (The Hebrew verb means, literally, 'make someone's face sweet or pleasant.' I remember the sight of a little child reaching up with her hands to push her mother's angry face into the shape of a smile.)" (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).
Walter Brueggemann also sees a tender and "parental compassion" in God's response to Moses' imploring on behalf of the people, but he also sees the larger picture in the way "YHWH's covenant with Israel is recurringly broken and remade, broken in recalcitrance on the part of Israel, remade due to YHWH's generosity and compassion," and calls this "the pattern of the long-term drama of faith in the Old Testament" (Introduction to the Old Testament). We turn to Frank Anthony Spina, however, for closing words, about an ancient promise that was unconditional: "This startling behavior on God's part was not a function of divine weakness, but of divine grace," he writes, and he reminds us that "judgment is never God's final word" (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts). Thank God for that! Amen.
For further reflection:
David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, 21st century
"Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 19th century
"Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers. (Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains.)"
Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 20th century
"There is no avoiding the fact that we live at the mercy of our ideas This is never more true than with our ideas about God."
Colin S. Smith, The 10 Greatest Struggles of Your Life, 21st century
"Saint Augustine defined idolatry as worshiping what should be used or using what should be worshiped."
Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, 20th century
"The absolutely alienated individual worships at the altar of an idol, and it makes little difference by what names this idol is known."
Joe Thorn, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself, 21st century
"Keep yourselves from idols." The warning isn't given to them because it wasn't a real danger or because there was an off chance someone might fall into idolatry. It was given because this is our root problem on any given day. It is what we, especially as followers of Jesus, must fight against."
N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 21st century
"When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what's more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sex objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch."
Additional reflection on Exodus 32:1-14: "When Justice is Delayed in Coming"
by Laurel Koepf Taylor
What do the people of God do when justice is delayed in coming? As we reflect on Exodus 32 and the long road to justice for Mike Brown and the residents of Ferguson, this same question rings true: what do the people of God do when justice is delayed in coming? The people of the Exodus narrative, waiting for Moses' return from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Law grow anxious and impatient. They call upon their leaders to do something now. The text describes Aaron making a rash decision under pressure. He caves to the community's anxiety, their fear that Moses' delay means that he is not coming, nor is the word from God they await. His rash decision is to cave to the temptation to create a false substitute for God, something bright and shiny and new, something that looks strong, and most importantly something you can see and touch and know is there with you right now.
The problem is that there is not and cannot be a substitute for God any more than there can be a substitute for justice. God, like the justice we seek, may be intangible, but is irreplaceable. The golden calf of Exodus 32 may calm God's people in their anxiety, may bring Aaron peace from their impatient words of complaint, but it is not a peace that can last. No golden calf can speak to and inspire God's people, and no quick fix can bring true justice.
What can the people of God do when justice is delayed in coming? They can give in to their own anxiety and settle for a quick fix, an easy peace. But we know from our scripture and our experience alike that this would be a bright and shiny distraction from the work that needs to be done, easing our minds when they should stay unsettled. The people of God have a choice: they can choose ease or they can choose faith. They can resist the urge to make a golden calf and instead stay in their discomfort, not knowing when Moses will return from the mountain, not knowing how long justice will be in coming, but letting their faith drive them to continue working toward the true justice that is a long time coming, but for which there can be no substitute.
The Rev. Dr. Laurel Koepf Taylor serves as Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.
Additional reflection on Exodus 32:1-14 on the Sunday before Columbus Day:
by Elizabeth Leung
What would Exodus 32:1-14, a narrative about how our ancestors-in-faith turned to false gods of their own making during a time of anxiety in the wilderness, have anything to do with the upcoming observation of Columbus Day? Here, the Doctrine of Discovery, which the General Synod repudiated in 2013, may provide one sobering lens for theological connections.
As the Western Hemisphere approached the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ 1492 landing, the National Council of the Churches of Christ (NCC) in the United States adopted a resolution stating that celebration would be inappropriate. Instead, it called the churches to a committed plan of action to discontinue the perpetuation of paternalism and racism into our cultures and times (Transforming Columbus Day).
"[W]hat some historians have termed a discovery in reality was an invasion and colonization with legalized occupation, genocide, economic exploitation and a deep level of institutional racism and moral decadence," said the resolution. "What represented newness of freedom, hope and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others."
"[T]he Church, with few exceptions, accompanied and legitimized this conquest and exploitation. Theological justifications for destroying [Indigenous] religious beliefs while forcing conversion to European forms of Christianity demanded a submission from the newly converted that facilitated their total conquest and exploitation."
The question has often been asked about the Protestant settlers of this continent, who are also our ancestors-in-faith: how could the Christians who fled from their religious oppressors in the old world, and their descendants, who have the freedom to worship in this continent, have allowed the decimation of American Indians? Some think that the religious, cultural and racial senses of superiority were the false gods of those generations, and that it has nothing to do with us today.
In Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years (eds. Bill Bigelow & Bob Peterson; Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 1998), there is an effective demonstration to help elementary school children to understand the problem of Columbus' "discovery." A teacher picks up a student's backpack that is lying on the classroom floor, and announces that because he "discovers" it, the backpack belongs to him; and he further proves it by showing all the things he has inside the backpack. The children respond, "Wait a minute!"
The word "discovery" used in describing Columbus' landing masks the theft of Indigenous lands. But why is that theft not recognized as such, when it is so obvious that even elementary school children can see it? Here is where the Doctrine of Discovery comes in - as the legal principle with theological justification for European and American settlers to perpetrate injustices and suffering upon Indigenous peoples and their lands for five centuries. Today in 2014, it remains as international law and is being cited in U.S. federal laws and policies impacting American Indian communities.
In Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska, 2008), Robert Miller points out ten elements of discovery, and its adoption and use in North America by European colonists and by the U.S. to create the theory of Manifest Destiny. Some of those elements of religious, cultural and racial ideas of Euro-American superiority feed into a theological justification of conquest:
* Christianity is a significant religious aspect of the Doctrine of Discovery. Non-Christian [Indigenous] peoples were not considered to have the same rights to land, sovereignty, and self-determination as Christians. The Christian European nation which discovered them held the power of preemption over their lands, and the rights of Indigenous peoples to their lands are limited to occupancy and usage, but not full property rights and ownership.
* Culture is defined according to European and American standards. Miller contends that the theory of Manifest Destiny grows out of the Doctrine of Discovery in that Euro-Americans thought that God had directed them to bring civilized ways and education and religion to Indigenous peoples and often to exercise paternalism and guardianship powers over them. (Do you see any of this in our education systems, child welfare policies, and other cultural standards of excellence today?)
* Land, the object of the Doctrine of Discovery, was then also defined according to the standard of Euro-American legal system. Lands that were actually owned, occupied, and actively utilized by Indigenous peoples were often considered to be "empty lands," terra nullus. Colonizers could claim that they were not being "properly used" according to European and American laws. (How would this illuminate the history of Indian removal and the meaning of land today?)
* Conquest as an element of Discovery was specifically defined by the Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. M'Intosh. Originated in Europe, conquest referred to the principle that the property rights of conquered people were not taken away following military conquest. The U.S. Supreme court modified that principle and determined that the same theory did not apply to Indigenous lands here "because of the different cultures, religions and savagery" of its peoples!
Norman "Jack" Jackson, a UCC theologian at the Eagle Butte Learning Center in South Dakota, has observed that the Euro-American belief of one true faith was supported by their powerful and superior weapons in their conquests throughout the world, which in turn confirmed their belief in their superiority. [When Euro-American faith slips into ideological systems where walls are metaphorically built around their beliefs, it becomes a fort from which they attack others. So, their belief system allowed, even encouraged, them to decimate Indigenous populations as an act of faith.]
Religion, culture, land, conquest – these are the elements that made up the theological justification for discovery, exploitation and genocide. They also bring to mind the same elements that are found in the story of ancient Israel from Abraham to Joshua, who led the invasion of Canaan to claim the Promised Land. (For detailed analysis from the perspective of settler colonial studies, see Pekka Pitkänen, "Pentateuch-Joshua: A Settler Colonial Document of a Supplanting Society" in Settler Colonial Studies (2013); see also idem, "Ancient Israel and settler colonialism," Settler Colonial Studies, 2014, vol. 4, no. 1, 64-81.) Just as the Church struggles with biblical texts that support slavery, it is necessary for us to struggle with similar texts and elements of our theology that support conquest and invasion.
Rosemary McCombs Maxey, another UCC theologian at Eagle Butte Learning Center, encourages us to explore and engage what it means to "repudiate" the Doctrine of Discovery by: (1) rethinking our theology, our Bible study, our faith symbols; (2) rethinking our relationship with each other where we live as well as globally; and (3) rethinking how we can be church together.
The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Leung serves as Minister for Racial Justice with Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
Additional reflection on Philippians 4:2-9: "Be of the Same Mind" in Ferguson
by Deborah Krause
The letter to the church at Philippi is widely known as a part of Paul's prison correspondence. This letter was written while Paul was imprisoned (likely in a home) under the auspices of Roman imperial authority in the coastal city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. This context of Roman colonial occupation and Paul's particular location within it as against the law provides a striking location for his teaching in Philippians 4:1-9. Early in the letter Paul outlines how his imprisonment is "for Christ" (1:13), and "for defense of the gospel" (1:16). The implications of his leadership are clear – proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ the crucified and risen one is an activity that stands boldly in the face of the domination systems of Roman imperial power. While the boldness of his witness inspires faith and courage in many (including those among the imperial guard, 1:13), the threat to his life is palpable. In his arrest the caprice and violence of Roman colonial power is mediated through a network of Ephesian officials and Roman guards. The dynamics are complex and mercurial. What Paul seems to experience as favor one day, may well result in condemnation the next. It all depends. Without rights he is subject to any official's whim. [These dynamics are reminiscent of the experience many in North County of St. Louis have shared about their experience within the system of municipal courts. See the excellent research paper of the Arch City Defenders on this subject: http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/1279541/archcity-defenders-report-on-st-louis-county.pdf]. To remind ourselves of his vulnerability in this letter, all we need to remember is that his next imprisonment in Rome (likely under similar circumstances) resulted in his execution.
The admonition to Euodia and Syntyche that they "be of one mind" (4:2) comes toward the conclusion of the letter after Paul has offered the Philippian Hymn in the body of the letter as a call to "be of the mind" of Christ (2:5) in contrast to the mind of Rome. In this teaching Paul maps out the power of the gospel as that which is conformed to love rather than violence. To have the mind of Christ is to choose God's power of love over Rome's power of domination. It is to this way of living that he summons two women of the church, Euodia and Synthyche in Phil 4:2.
The text does not offer detail as to what presently divides the women, or why they need this particular encouragement. That Paul calls them to "be of one mind," and suggests they need the "help" of his companion (perhaps Timothy or Epharoditus), may indicate that they are in a conflict. Whatever the case, the fact that Paul names two women and claims them as "those who have struggled in the gospel" with him as "co-workers," indicates their importance in the movement. Paul's authority from the context of his own imprisonment is as one who has chosen the way of the "mind" of Christ. In this his encouragement to "rejoice in the Lord always" (4:4) is far from a Pollyanna cheerfulness, it is a bold and courageous testimony to the power of Christ's way – the way that pours itself out in love and thereby transforms the world (2:5-11). It is in the spirit of this testimony, and all that is at stake within it that Paul calls the Philippian church to "think about" (to choose to align one's mind) with all that is just, pure, pleasing, excellent, and worthy of praise (4:9). To align oneself this way is to align oneself with Paul's example and ultimately to align oneself with Christ.
The threat of arrest and the palpable presence of violence and domination at the hands of the police is an enduring reality for the Ferguson protesters. They chant "A-1 from Day 1" as a marker of their enduring commitment to the witness against the "mind" of Empire that executed Mike Brown and left him in the street for four and a half hours on August 9. They cry "Arrest one, Arrest us all" to claim the courage and solidarity they feel in their bold witness to stand nightly in the face of police brutality, violence, and threats. This is not a "death wish," but a conformation of mind, a choice to stand in and for a power alternative to the power of domination. To be clear, the Ferguson protesters are not making an explicitly Christian, or faith-based witness, but their choice to stand against empire and for justice hearkens to what I understand Paul calls having "the mind of Christ."
I read a Facebook post last week from someone who had attended the protests for the first time. The post offered impressions and was processing the experience – one of which read: "this movement is not organized, the protesters are arguing amongst themselves, they need to be disciplined and more efficient." This is a familiar chide. When I set Philippians 4:2-9 and this sentiment alongside one another I hear Paul's call to "be of the same mind" not as a command for a false unity, but rather as a reminder that Euodia and Syntyche are on the same side. As such he calls them to engage with one another against the power of Rome with the mind of Christ. Additionally, let us notice how Paul makes that plea. First, he makes it from the context of imprisonment where he is authorized by his own experience to challenge them. Second, he follows his summons to the women to have "the same mind in Christ," with remembrance of their ongoing struggle and important witness in the movement. He acknowledges that they are in the struggle – they are on the street - and that the street is hard. To be on the street is to be bathed in the mechanics, optics, and rhetoric of domination and violence. It is in this reality that Paul makes the call to "guard your hearts minds" with the peace of God (Phil 4:6-7). Such guarding is in and of itself an act of resistance – one that chooses in the face domination and dehumanization to see the presence of a more enduring power in that which is true, honorable, just, pure, beautiful, and excellent. Joining the struggle – no matter when or from whence we come -- means joining in the hard work of daily seeing this way in the face of all that seeks to separate, divide, and destroy who we are as God's people.
The Rev. Dr. Deborah Krause serves as Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.
Additional reflection on Matthew 22:1-14: "Ferguson and the Fire Next Time"
by Deborah Krause
Why would anyone choose to preach on Matthew's version of the Great Banquet parable? Luke 14: 16-24 and GThomas 64 offer versions of the story that reflect themes of open invitation, and the subversion of social hierarchies in building the reign of God. Matthew's version of the parable, on the other hand, seems to reflect a later allegorization of the banquet scene away from a vision of inclusive community and toward a representation of salvation history around a "wedding banquet" for the King's son. Moreover, Matthew's version adds elements that highlight judgment (the demand for vigilance about how one is dressed at the "banquet" coupled with the specter of condemnation, weeping, and gnashing of teeth). And do not forget the seizing, the humiliation, and the killing, and the burning of the city all thrown in for good measure (Matthew 22:7). It is as if Matthew's version of the story got taken hostage in the Jewish War with Rome and was held in a cell with the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46). All the joy is wrung out of the party, and in its place Matthew builds in anger, violence, destruction, dread, and eternal damnation. Matthew's story seems to bear the trauma of Matthew's context – a devastated, colonially occupied, religiously chauvinistic people (e.g., the distinctive vitriol toward the Pharisees, Matthew 23) who are trying to figure out what is next.
But for such a time as this – in the midst of an apocalypse of racism and white supremacy and their legacies within our cities and communities (such as Ferguson, MO) - Matthew's text may be completely appropriate. [I use the term "apocalypse" here in its double-edged sense of both "unveiling," and judgment.] Far from offering a utopian vision of an egalitarian banquet, perhaps the gospel comes to us this week via the lectionary bearing language, structures, legacies, and wounds we are challenged to face as we work for justice and seek the presence and purpose of God.
Last week I read an interview in Medium.com with my former teacher, the revered Hebrew Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann. In that interview, a Medium editor, Micky Jones, asked Brueggemann to ponder how the language of the prophets spoke to and in a context like Ferguson. Brueggemann argued that prophetic speech has an honesty that can challenge contemporary North American interpreters out of their "bourgeois cocoon of niceness" [Mickey Jones, "Models and Authorizations: An Interview with Walter Brueggemann” ]. I would argue that in much the same way, Matthew's parable holds up a mirror to our structurally violent, dominating, white supremacist culture and demands that we account for it. How does Matthew's language of hierarchy, slavery, violence, devastation, and rage challenge us to examine how our communities are built, and at what human cost we have ordered our economy, our security, our sense of "home," and "belonging?"
How can one imagine "the Good News" in a text like Matthew 22:1-14? It certainly does not come in the form of a slogan of inclusivity and abundance such as "still there is room," as is in Luke 14:22. Instead the language of Matthew's text might call us out of such a "cocoon of niceness" and into something of a difficult recounting of a history of slaves, murders, and war and an honest accounting of the costs (human and otherwise). Such a history and accounting would demand a loss of innocence of the Reign of God as a table that is passively set for us, and might challenge us to be about the work of dismantling and rebuilding communities in which we demand structural justice and wellbeing for all. This kind of challenge to innocence and call to honesty evokes for me the apocalyptic call at the conclusion of James Baldwin's 1963 essay on the legacies and traumas of white supremacy for black people in white America.
Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on or create, the consciousness of others – do not falter in our duty now we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time" [James Baldwin, Go Tell it on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, and If Beale Street Could Talk, (New York: Black Expressions, 2004), pp. 105-06].
One might rightly wonder more than 50 years after Baldwin's challenge if the window of "now daring everything" has passed, but Matthew's parable with its long view of history and its promise of the outer darkness for those who are passive and unengaged seems to suggest that conscious collaboration for justice remains the only viable choice. Granted this is not the utopian open table, but rather a calling to join the struggle. The good news this Sunday may be that we can hear the call and work to "achieve our country."
Why protest? Because we can imagine an America that is better than this. Because blackness is not a weapon or a crime. #Ferguson
The Rev. Dr. Deborah Krause serves as Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.
Additional reflection on Philippians 4:1-9:
For several weeks now, we have been journeying with the Israelites, as they travel from bondage in Egypt toward the Promised Land, spending forty years wandering in the desert. This Sunday, we have the opportunity to reflect as well on the Letter of Paul to the Philippians. However, even though we're "fast-forwarding" into the New Testament for this reflection, there's a continuity between Paul's writing and the things the Israelites have been learning out there in the wilderness. The tender love and care, the deep wisdom and many gifts that guided Israel in the desert and nurtured the young church in Philippi have been passed on to us today to strengthen and guide the church on its way, two thousand years later.
Paul's Letter to the Philippians is soaringly beautiful. While there were many important lessons to learn out there in the desert with the Israelites, this week our spirits are lifted by Paul's elegant love letter to a church for which he obviously cares deeply. The challenge of lectionary study is to capture a sense of the joyful spirit, the message of the whole letter, from one short passage. In the case of Philippians, it's worth our time to sit down and read Paul's message from beginning to end. (I've found Eugene Peterson's translation of the Epistles in The Message to be particularly helpful for such an overview.) Our passage comes from the last chapter of the letter, but there are many parts of Philippians that will sound familiar, including the magnificent hymn that ends with "every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (2:10-11).
What matters most?
Leading up to this week's passage, after listing his many achievements and qualifications as a righteous man of faith, Paul declares, "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ" (3:7). All he really wants now is to know Christ, to draw on the power of Christ's resurrection, to share in his sufferings and to become more like him. In our achievement-oriented society, in business, academics, and public life, there's much discussion of qualifications and experience, much evaluation, and lively (if not always good-spirited) conversation in our political life, for example, about the things a person brings to their job, presumably for the greater good and not just their own. That kind of striving fills our lives, from our first accomplishments in nursery school to the most recent achievements on our resumes. Perhaps we feel our accomplishments prove our worth. Perhaps we feel more secure if we can look back on what we've done to earn the rewards we enjoy, including the financial ones. Perhaps we enjoy the esteem that comes with achievements. It would be hard to count all this as "rubbish," and yet Paul does exactly that. Even more than humility, such a movement of the heart requires tremendous trust in God, who, Paul says, "is at work in you" (2:13a).
The letter is full of love, but also joy: "make my joy complete," Paul writes: "be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (2:2). This week's passage describes what that might look like, how to achieve such unity, beginning with encouragement to "stand firm," to be reconciled when we disagree, and always, always, to rejoice. After all, "the Lord is near," so we don't have to worry about anything. This powerful theme runs through Scripture: don't be afraid, and don't worry. God is with us, close at hand, and "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding," will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (4:7). Concentrate, Paul says, on the very best things, the true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy things. Keep up the good work, he says: keep the faith.
Because I'm happy....
Eugene Peterson calls this "Paul's happiest letter. And the happiness is infectious." But here's the irony underneath that claim: Paul is writing this letter from prison, as he faces death for preaching the gospel, for disrupting the empire and its values. He's not writing it on an especially good day, when things are going well and he's surrounded by friends. No, he writes from an even deeper joy, springing from his knowledge of, and relationship with, Jesus Christ. Peterson describes the source of Paul's joy, and ours, too: "Christ is, among much else, the revelation that God cannot be contained or hoarded. It is this 'spilling out' quality of Christ's life that accounts for the happiness of Christians, for joy is life in excess, the overflow of what cannot be contained within any one person" (The Message).
"Joy is life in excess." What an interesting way to describe joy! Paul, like any joyful person, does seem to overflow with a powerful need to share what he has. Isn't that what generosity, and evangelism, and warm hospitality are about – sharing an overflowing joy, "life in excess"? Peterson's translation of Paul's words conveys this so well: "Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life" (The Message). What is at the center of your life?
Church fights then and now: no one wins
The first part of this passage, however, is poignantly familiar: from a distance, Paul tries to resolve a church fight. (The saying goes that no one wins a church fight.) Two women, esteemed church leaders and workers, need to resolve their differences (which Paul doesn't specify, interestingly, perhaps because he doesn't want to get that involved). It would be interesting to hear the reaction of modern experts in conflict resolution who hear Paul's exhortation to "be of the same mind in the Lord." That brief reference leaves us hungry for more information, and more help, in our own painful church conflicts and personal relationships.
After urging the feuding women to reconcile, Paul begins to bring his letter to a close with a litany of exhortations. This is more than a laundry list of instructions; it's a sketching out of what it looks like to begin to become more like Jesus. Earl Palmer contrasts small, everyday choices and the "large, grand goals, such as peace and justice," which "are easy to embrace and admire with the rhetoric of abstract beauty and perfection." He remembers an excellent Peanuts cartoon (by Charles Schulz) from many years ago, in which Linus says, "I love mankind, it's people I can't stand." Paul's list, Palmer writes, might help us to "practice these virtues just as we practice an athletic skill in order to make it a regular and natural part of our daily lives." In that way, things like peace and justice and love and healing "become reality in a human life on the basis of the day-to-day, small-scale choices that we make in supermarkets, on the freeway, in crowded workstations, at home, and in a thousand other forks in the road where we make the real choices that either express or diminish the grand goals..." (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles). Perhaps we can learn to love "humankind" better by better loving the people we encounter each day.
A restless drive toward fulfillment
None of this is possible without the Holy Spirit. Many years ago, I studied the work of the great Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner. Geffrey B. Kelly has provided commentary (and much-needed explanation; Rahner is difficult reading!) on a collection of Rahner's thought, including something called "the fundamental option." "God's grace," as Kelly describes Rahner's thought, "is an inspiriting of the world of God's making, stirring in people a restless drive to be fulfilled in their humanity through a variety of options and movements, all subsumed in the one fundamental option, the choice to accept and act out their orientation to the Holy Mystery of God." Paul's letter and his striving to leave everything else behind as he yearns to be more like Christ, reminds me of the way Rahner describes this work of God's Spirit moving "the human person to be more Godlike." Kelly says that this striving, this movement, this regular spiritual practice, "becomes, in a way, a mysticism of everyday life" (Karl Rahner: Selected Texts). Few of us would claim to be mystics, and yet this is our invitation to mysticism in the everyday choices we make.
Remembering that Paul writes from a prison cell may affect how we hear his words, as he encourages the little flock there in its shared life of faith. The words he uses apply just as well to churches today, especially if they are feeling small and overpowered by the various forms of "empire" around them, pressured by a culture that preaches a very different message from the gospel, discouraged or confused about what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ. That description could fit many of us, and many of our churches, at one time or another. We may feel intimidated by mega-churches that preach a gospel of prosperity, or worried about the financial or physical challenges facing our own congregation. Paul writes words that are both stirring and gentle: "Rejoice...do not worry about anything...pray...the peace of God will guard your hearts...keep on doing the things you have learned and received...."
What are the challenges your church faces, and the questions that arise about God's call and direction in the life you share as a community of faith? What are the "true," "honorable," "just," "pure," "pleasing," and "commendable" things that you think about, together? What or who are the "guides" for your congregation that give you direction and vision? How often do you think long-term and big-picture about these values? Do the everyday, month-to-month, and year-to-year activities and programs sometimes lose this focus? What are moments when you could feel "the God of peace" in your midst, in both recent history and in the shared story of your congregation? How can you tap into that source of peace as a means of hearing the Stillspeaking God's voice, still speaking to your church today, through these words of Paul addressed to a small, struggling, counter-cultural church long ago?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey serves as Dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
For further reflection:
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls."
Richard Wagner, 19th century
"Joy is not in things; it is in us."
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy."
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
"The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world's joy."
Helen Keller, 20th century
"Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.'
Joseph Campbell, 20th century
"Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy."
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." Aaron said to them, "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord." They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, "O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, 'I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'" And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
O give thanks to God,for God is good;
for God's steadfast love endures forever.
Who can utter the mighty doings of God,
or declare all God's praise?
Happy are those who observe justice always,
who do righteousness at all times.
Remember me, O God, when you show favor to your people;
help me when you deliver them;
that I may see the prosperity of your chosen ones,
that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation,
that I may glory in your heritage.
Both we and our ancestors have sinned;
we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.
They made a calf at Horeb
and worshipped a cast image.
They exchanged the glory of God
for the image of an ox that eats grass.
They forgot God, their Savior,
who had done great things in Egypt,
wondrous works in the land of Ham,
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
Therefore God said God would destroy them—
had not Moses, God's chosen one,
stood in the breach before God,
to turn away God's wrath, that it not destroy them.
O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
God is my shepherd, I shall not want.
God makes me lie down in green pastures;
and leads me beside still waters;
God restores my soul.
and leads me in right paths
for the sake of God's name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of God
my whole life long.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, 'Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.' But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen."
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.