United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds March 4, 2018

Third Sunday in Lent Year B


Lectionary citations:
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Worship resources for the Third Sunday in Lent Year B are at Worship Ways

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Psalm 19
Additional Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17
Reflection on John 2:1-13 for One Great Hour of Sharing

Weekly Theme:
Contemplate God's Glory

by Kathryn Matthews

Many years ago, when I had much more free time, I had the great experience of reading Will Durant's entire series, The Story of Civilization (actually, it took me many years to read it). To be honest, I can't recall much from those eleven very big books, but there are several passages that remain vivid in my memory even now, and this week's reading, Psalm 19, reminds me of one of them. In The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII in the series), Durant writes at length about Blaise Pascal, the 17th century writer whom he considers "the most brilliant defender of religion in all the Age of Reason."

It must have been really tough to speak of faith in an "Age of Reason," when everyone around you was feeling their intellectual oats, so to speak, throwing over the old patterns of thought and the lens through which they viewed their existence, more than a little like us today! Pascal didn't shrink from the challenge, but he was no dry theologian, either: he was more like a poet, and a defender of religion who wrestled with it all the while. I like that in a writer, especially one writing about faith.

Reading two books

Today's psalm feels like two meditations in one: the first on nature's magnificent witness to God's awesome power and glory, and the second suddenly bringing the focus down, from the farthest reaches of space to the law, if not printed on a page, then living in the human heart, given by God and guiding the life of the community of faith. However abrupt the transition, the two meditations are closely related, perhaps even two sides of the same coin, for many people of faith.

There are those who say that there are two "books," Scripture and nature, and we need to "read" both. Here Celtic spirituality is particularly helpful, in fact, it's where I first heard of the "two book" approach to listening for the still-speaking God. Philip Newell's beautiful work, The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality, is an excellent way to approach creation as a book that speaks to us of God.

A meditation on God's glory

With open minds and eager hearts, then, we read Pascal's marvelous meditation on the vastness of outer space, where our psalm begins, and listen for nature singing of God's handiwork: "Nature entire in her full and lofty majesty….let [us] regard that blazing light, placed like an eternal lamp to illuminate the world; let the earth appear to [us] but a point within the vast circuit which that star describes; and let [us] marvel that this immense circumference is itself but a speck from the viewpoint of the stars that move in the firmament."

Pascal challenges us to use our imagination, then, for all that is beyond our ability to see, for "this visible world is but an imperceptible element in the great bosom of nature," which is "an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. This is the most perceivable feature of the almightiness of God, so that our imagination loses itself in this thought" (from Pascal's Pensees, quoted in Durant's The Age of Louis XIV, Volume VIII in The Story of Civilization).

Infinity and anxiety

Getting lost in our imaginings is not always a pleasant or reassuring thing, of course. Even Pascal admits that "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me" (emphasis added). That was one line that has remained with me all these years. But so has his exquisite reflection on the polar opposite of the vastness of space, as Durant conveys it: Pascal, he says, pondered "another infinity--the infinitely small....Our reason wavers perplexed and appalled between the infinitely vast and the infinitely minute."

It is as if we live suspended between these two overwhelming realities, and in both cases, we feel so small and perhaps so…disorganized and aimless in the circumference of our own lives. Pascal shares our anxiety, and hopes that such a deep awareness will inspire humility in us as we "contemplate these marvels in silence" rather than "explore them with presumption" (Pensees, in Durant's The Age of Louis XIV, Volume VIII in The Story of Civilization). (That last line is a cautionary one to us today, in the age of science!)

How beautifully the psalmist speaks of creation telling, singing, crying out, proclaiming, bursting with God's inexpressible goodness and glory. No, there may no be words as such, but the "voice" of the heavens, of all creation, goes forth, "through all the earth" and "to the end of the world," and, we assume, far beyond, telling of God's majesty and glory. No words, but much joy, and the warm sun that no one can escape or avoid (indeed, we cannot live without it!) participates in that joy, running its course like an exuberant runner or an ecstatic bridegroom.

From outer space to the law within

And then, all of sudden, our focus draws in to the law of God, Torah: the decrees, precepts, commandments and ordinances of God, who has given them not as burden or taskmaster but as gift, perfect, life-giving, wise, simple, right, clear, enlightening and enduring. All these good things, and more, bringing us into a harmony with all the grandeur above and around us, from the immense but orderly courses of the sun and moon and stars to the infinitesimal and unfathomable minuteness of the atom and its inner workings.

There is order in all this, and glory and goodness, the psalmist sings, and our own lives participate in that glory and goodness, especially when we find our place and rhythm within the order God provides. Rather than fear or guilt, we feel amazement at how all this unfolds in the grand and sweeping vision of the Creator God.

A clear instruction

Thousands of years ago, the psalmist wrote about us as if they knew us, the inner workings of our hearts and minds and spirits, whether or not we admit to our "hidden faults," whether or not we are "insolent," or longing for blamelessness. The instruction of this songwriter is clear, and Lent is an excellent time to meditate upon it, asking God to keep us traveling on the right path, acknowledging who we are and to Whom we belong, and holding fast to the ways of God.

What then would our lives look like, lived this way? We live in an age, long after Pascal, that chafes at what we perceive to be limitations and curbs rather than freedom itself. We like to speak of grace, but we don't think about its effects so much (especially the uncomfortable or inconvenient ones). Yet that may be just the thing about which the psalmist sings, finding the law "life-giving," Dianne Bergant writes, "and not restrictive, ennobling and not demeaning. Reverence for the law seems to promise the best that life has to offer" (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B).

Law and grace, both

Still, the whole subject of law provokes mixed reactions, especially from us Christians. When we speak about salvation and grace, we often look back to the early arguments about the law, especially in the writings of Paul (the Pharisee, as we recall). Charles Wiley suggests that "Psalm 19 cries out for an account of law that can hold together Paul's expression in Romans 7 that the law 'held us captive" and the affirmation in Psalm 19 that the law is 'sweeter than honey'."

Wiley describes the three ways the early Reformer, John Calvin, described the law: as mirror, fence, and guide. The first reflects back and judges a person, and tells the cold, hard truth as it does; the second makes some kind of order possible in society, restraining bad human behavior; and the third, most important one, provides a guide for our living: "for those who have been called to salvation, the law is a gift, a guide to know how to live life as a Christian" (Feasting on the Word Year B Vol. 2).

A path to deeper spiritual growth

For the preacher who wants to encourage a congregation in its Lenten reflections, Psalm 19 suggests an entry point into deeper spiritual growth that may be unexpected in Lent, the season of repentance and self-denial: Thomas Edward McGrath suggests that we add wonder to our Lenten discipline. We are growing numb to the notion of "a billion" of anything, now that hundreds of billions of dollars are in the nightly news, every night.

But a dollar is not a galaxy of stars: "Can the human mind," McGrath asks, "imagine billions of galaxies? How much is a 'billion'? If you planted a thousand tulip bulbs each day from the day Jesus was born until today, you would still need to plant 1,000 bulbs every day for the next 750 years to reach one billion." (This may not be a good thing to think about too much while watching the evening news these days, considering things like the national debt, or how many hundreds of billions are spent on armaments. We have come to the point of speaking about "trillions"!)

Living in two universes

In a sense, we live in two "universes," the one with stars and infinite spaces, and the one down here on earth, the one that needs its own kind of order, God's law, which brings, McGrath writes, "order to the otherwise chaotic moral universe of human existence, no less than God's governance brings order to the heavens…the majestic realities of outer space may prepare us to encounter the majestic realities of inner space."

McGrath suggests that a preacher might unpack just one phrase, such as "enlightens the eyes," connecting it to the story of Jesus and the lawyer who asked about the law, and about who his neighbor was, the lawyer who needed to have his own eyes opened by the story Jesus told (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).

Repentance, wonder, awe

Wonder and awe do indeed provide a very different path in Lent, unexpected in a season associated with repentance and doing without. Do we hear the song of creation, the proclamation of the sun and stars? Do we join, at least with our hearts, in the song of praise, wordless but full of power?

Susan Marie Smith claims that nothing will stop nature from praising God: "Each sparrow is counted--and according to Psalm 19, even if humanity forgets the source of life and all good gifts, creation itself does not forget....the ironic hope is that deep in our own destruction, were we to prevent one another and other creatures from honoring God's longing for companionship, nonetheless, in the brilliant sun, racing across the heaven, making day and night--with neither chirp nor hum nor growl nor speech--God's glory would still be proclaimed, and God's word would still be imparted to the end of the world" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).

Does meditating on creation help you to see God's law as beautiful?


The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Albert Einstein, 20th century
"It is entirely possible that behind the perception of our senses, worlds are hidden of which we are unaware."

Howard Thurman, 20th century
"We must try to look out at the world through quiet eyes."

Jack Kornfield, 20th century
"Those who are awake live in a state of constant amazement."

Francis of Assisi, 13th century
"Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him....
Praise be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful."

C. S. Lewis, 20th century
"I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy."

Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting."

The Dalai Lama, 21st century
"Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life."

Additional Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17:
by Kathryn Matthews

It's common to hear the words, "It's all about relationship," whether we're talking about repeat customers or the trust we have in political leaders or how well we get along in our families. Our endeavors, we say, will be more successful if we tend to our relationships, and yet those same relationships, if we're not careful, can easily slip into being merely means to an end. Our readings in Lent speak often of covenant, of relationship with God, and God's care in shaping that relationship, including the gift of these commands in Exodus, here at the foot of the mountain.

We may think there are many laws from God in the Hebrew Scriptures, but we're told by scholars that this is the last time God speaks commands to the people; they are so frightened that they ask for Moses as an intermediary from then on. Walter Brueggemann's powerful writing on this passage places it at the heart of the exodus narrative, as it gives the people a sense of who they are because of what God has done for them, and continues to do for and with them.

Holiness and justice

Rather than being a short list of legalistic prohibitions and requirements, the commands give shape and expression to the people's relationship with the God who brought them out of slavery and away from Pharaoh's oppressive system. They speak of God's holiness and of love and justice for our neighbors.

In fact, Brueggemann asserts that, for Israel, "holiness and justice always come together." In this radical new community, rest is a sign of the promise and vision of a community at peace, for the Sabbath is "perhaps Israel's most stunning counter-cultural notion of justice.…Israel asserts that 'rest' for self, for neighbor, and even for God is the goal and quintessence of life....a kind of 'at-homeness' that precludes hostility, competition, avarice, and insecurity…and anticipates a community of peace, well-being, and joy" (The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant).

Hungry for goodness

We live now in a culture that finds morality old-fashioned, almost quaint. And yet, the people hunger for goodness. Brueggemann challenges us to hear the commands in terms of story, for "Our Story Tells Us What to Do." Remembering who we are and where we come from, the places (and the "bricks" of pharaohs) that God has delivered us from, enables us to hear and to re-tell the story in ways that lead us to recognize God's shalom in remarkable ways, in our own lives and the lives of those around us. Morality, Brueggemann says, "is sorting out the demands and claims that emerge out of the precious moments when life is whole and new" (Peace).

Where does your congregation get its sense of right and wrong, its sense of morality? What is the story that tells you what to do, how to live? In what ways have you experienced exodus and, in Christian terms, resurrection? Are these commandments rules from long ago that should be etched in stone, in our courthouses, for symbolic reasons perhaps more than practical ones, or are they etched deeply into our hearts, where we long for the wholeness and newness that God offers us?

Do you think our society sees these commands as matters of personal, private conduct, or of a public and communal morality that would indeed care, together, for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst?

A force for life

Rather than declaring our larger society a "Christian" one, perhaps we should see ourselves as a small, counter-cultural force, a community that has something to say to the larger forces pressing upon us, the militarism, the materialism, the greed and consumerism that set themselves up as rival gods to the God who brought us up, out of our own experiences of bondage and death.

Brueggemann speaks eloquently of the power of just such a community, long ago: "The little community that begins in pain and ends in dancing, that stops its life for Sabbath, that cancels debts for the sake of neighborliness, in the end this community has in its midst the force for life, and is the wave of the future" (Texts that Linger, Words that Explode: Listening to Prophetic Voices).

For further reflection:

Cecil B. DeMille, 20th century
"God gave us free agency, and then gave us the commandments to keep us free."

Arthur Schopenhauer, 19th century
"Compassion is the basis of morality."

Martin Luther King Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good."

Jonathan Sacks, 21st century
"We should challenge the relativism that tells us there is no right or wrong, when every instinct of our mind knows it is not so, and is a mere excuse to allow us to indulge in what we believe we can get away with. A world without values quickly becomes a world without value."

Reflection on John 2:1-13 for One Great Hour of Sharing
"Women's Empowerment and Persistent Action"
by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

The United Nations engaged in a process between 2014 and 2016 to bring as many voices as possible into the global conversation to identify goals for the betterment of the world. The goals of this process would follow the Millennium Development Goals and create a 2030 agenda for global Sustainable Development Goals. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals that emerged include the very comprehensive list.


The United Church of Christ has been one of the voices in the shaping of these goals and now acts with others in their implementation. The UCC emphasizes community health, sustainable food and water, grassroots education, equitable economic access, and justice, peace and human rights.

Throughout all of these goals, women's empowerment and acknowledgement of women's persistent action are central. They are important faith resources that the Christian faith brings to the implementation and shape of these Sustainable Development Goals. These are goals of God's abundance and fullness of life for all. Christian faith brings a qualitative content of love, justice, equity and wholeness to these areas of life.

Encountering the Text

Such women's empowerment and persistent action is present in the story we encounter in John 2:1-13, the first of Jesus' public signs that reveal his glory and the kind of reality that is his glory. It is part of the drama that unfolds at the wedding at Cana. Mary, Jesus' mother, is present and makes things happen. Jesus and his disciples join the wider family and community to celebrate together. This was a wedding that not only brought together two people and two households, but whole communities. As it ends up, this also was a wedding that brought together the ordinary everyday and the extravagant mystery that is Jesus' ministry.

Jesus, in his first public sign, turns water into wine. He turns the content of the purification jars from water, meant to limit and wash away things perceived not to belong, into wine that embodies the creation of something new (wine) out of something old and fermented (fruit). It points to who Jesus is and what he does. Jesus transforms the disruption of community into wholeness.

It is not clear in this text whether Jesus knew at the beginning of the day that this would be the setting of this sign. Mary figures prominently in the action of the story as it unfolds and seems to know what is going on both behind the scenes and in the public space of the setting. We get a sense that mother and Son are communicating at a deeper level than just the words recorded.

Mary is fully present at that wedding to which Jesus was also invited. She is involved in the behind-the-scenes work of wedding hospitality, knowing what is going on in the kitchen when neither the other wedding guests nor host have any idea that the wine has run dry. She also seems to know there is greater significance to Jesus' presence in this place than just empty wine vats. Mother and Son have some moments of interpersonal tension. She thinks he should do something for which he doesn't think he is ready. We can almost see her giving him the "mother" look. "You know what you need to do." From her persistence, even without words, he must have indicated that he sees her point and changes. She turns back to the kitchen to set the stage for Jesus' action--giving instructions to the servants. "Do whatever he tells you."

Mary will not be deterred in doing what she needs to do for the sake of Jesus fulfilling his purpose of abundance for the world. This action is not unlike women experiencing situations of poverty or displacement, who will not be deterred in their prayer and actions for the well-being of their children. These are women who constantly are figuring out how to get food and clean water and health and education, not only so their families will survive, but will thrive.

When the chief steward certifies that the jars are filled not with water, but with wine, the wedding celebration at hand is saved. The chief steward continues to praise the host for the generosity and abundance of this good wine served even after the guests have imbibed and may not be paying attention. But those who are paying attention--the servants and the disciples--experience the amazing that comes out of the ordinary and gain a glimpse of Jesus' glory. Jesus now is ready to go public with his ministry. Mary made all that happen.

Interacting with the Text

The Marys of the world, empowered and persistent in action, help their communities survive and thrive. We see women's empowerment and persistent action in villages in the Gran Chaco Region of South America that includes some of the most desolate and isolated areas of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Women would not give up until a water collection system brought a consistent water source into their village. This water not only filled their physical needs, but also produced a greater sense of community among the villagers that leads now to cooperative work in other areas of need.

We see women's empowerment and persistent action in East Timor. Women in this southeast Asia region, work diligently to create a consistent and clean water supply through newly dug wells and protected springs. Village hygiene and sanitation systems, including public latrines now give households increased access to improved sanitation.

You are part of all of this empowerment and persistent action through your participation in the UCC's One Great Hour of Sharing Offering. Your empowerment and persistent action join others to set the stage for signs that point to Jesus' glory.

The Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss, Ph.D., serves as Team Leader for Humanitarian and Development Ministries at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (BlaufusM@ucc.org).

One Great Hour of Sharing resources are found at: www.ucc.org/oghs_resources.

Lectionary texts

Exodus 20: 1-17

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Psalm 19

The heavens are telling
   the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims
   God's handiwork.

Day to day
   pours forth speech,
and night to night
   declares knowledge.

There is no speech,
   nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out
   through all the earth,
and their words to the end
   of the world.

In the heavens God has set
   a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a beloved
   from a wedding canopy,
and like a strong athlete
   runs its course with joy.

Its rising is from the end
   of the heavens,
and its circuit
   to the end of them;
and nothing is hid
   from its heat.

The law of God is perfect,
   reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure,
   making wise the simple;

the precepts of God are right,
   rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of God is clear,
   enlightening the eyes;

the fear of God is pure,
   enduring forever;
the ordinances of God are true
   and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they
   than gold,
even much fine gold;
   sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover by them
   is your servant warned;
in keeping them
   there is great reward.

But who can detect their errors?
   Clear me from hidden faults.

Keep back your servant also
   from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion
   over me.

Then I shall be blameless,
   and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth
   and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O God,
   my rock and my redeemer.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!

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