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  • Held by God in love

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  • Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost Year A
    Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 25)
    Reformation Sunday

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    Lectionary citations:
    Deuteronomy 34:1-12 with Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or
    Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 with Psalm 1 and
    1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
    Matthew 22:34-46

    Worship resources for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 25) are at Worship Ways

    Special resources for ministry during the Coronavirus Pandemic:

    Worship Resources:
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1E_RKfy_VOzelb5jbXV7UW5ytjmiI-_Md-W0H8UaRlaM/edit

    Digital Pastoral Care & Grief:
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sdalu3udRXIadlo9A_E0J2URF0EqzXHAFlQUhXl_esY/edit

    Living psalms are here, scroll down:
    https://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways


    Sermon Seeds

    Focus Scriptures:
    Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Psalm 90
    Additional reflection on Matthew 22:34-46
    Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
    Additional reflection on Matthew 22:34-46: "Is Love Still the Answer?" by Brooks Berndt

    Focus Theme:
    A Prophetic Vision's Power

    Reflection:
    by Kathryn Matthews

    Back in ancient times, long, long ago--when I was in high school--that was when I first heard of something called "Existentialism," a big word for an important kind of philosophy that I've struggled to understand for more than fifty years. There are, of course, different kinds of Existentialism, and it turns out that the differences are very important.

    On the one hand, you have atheistic Existentialism, which seems to describe the human person as a lonely, solitary but free decision-maker--in an indifferent, uncaring universe. No meaning, no eternity, no God.

    My dictionary, for example, says that Existentialism claims that the universe is absurd, and human life full of anxiety and alienation. This is a very depressing kind of Existentialism, which might explain why so many churches have condemned it. People of faith tend to be people of hope, of community, of promise.

    Existentialism and faith?

    On the other hand, there is also such a thing as religious Existentialism, even Christian Existentialism (which many trace to the brilliant 19th-century Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard). These philosophers and theologians talk a lot about the individual human person, too, and that person's freedom, but in a very different way.

    In this way of thinking, each human being is valuable, and each person's individual conscience is important, as well as every person's freedom to make authentic decisions. There is a God, and there is meaning in the universe after all.

    Looking at the Promised Land

    Our readings this week from the lectionary have something of an existentialist flavor: there's Moses, standing on the mountaintop, just as God commanded him, looking at the future home of the Hebrew people, the Promised Land. "The Lord showed him the whole land," the text says. The land, and freedom: what this long and perilous journey has been all about.

    We might wonder what Moses, the solitary leader but just one person in a great multitude, felt, looking out on that sweeping, majestic horizon of hope and promise. Satisfaction? Gratitude? Triumph? Accomplishment and glory, too, perhaps--and yet, and yet...a sense of limits, a sense of longing, a sense, perhaps, of loss.

    What Moses is denied

    Indeed, Moses, as we read more than once in the Bible, was denied the experience of actually entering the Promised Land, of realizing in his own lifetime the promises made to his ancestors.

    Here, in this final chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, the story of Moses comes to an end: Moses, the greatest prophet of all, unequaled in all of Israel because of the way God worked through him, the way that God was made known through Moses' "mighty deeds" and "terrifying displays of power." Moses dies, and is gathered to his people, just as God had promised.

    God as a dwelling place

    This week, we also read Psalm 90. What a mix of feelings there is in this psalm, and such beauty, too: "God, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God...a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night..."

    It's interesting to note that Psalm 90 is the only one with a heading claiming Moses as its author, so we might reflect on this psalm in light of Moses' experience there, on the mountaintop, as well as our own experience, thousands of years later, in our own lives.

    Eternal and everlasting God

    We can imagine Moses, like us, remembering, and holding fast to the memory of, God's help in ages past. "The mountains and the earth" stand for continuity and endurance, and yet, before the mountains and the earth ever existed, God was.

    The eternal, everlasting God: in contrast with the brief, fragile, almost momentary existence of humankind, swept away, like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning, flourishes and then, in the evening, fades and withers away.

    Sin, and God's anger, too

    The middle part of this psalm, which is often omitted, speaks of human sinfulness, and God's anger at human unfaithfulness to the covenant that had been established between God and the people. Then, in its ending, it moves into a prayer of petition, asking God for help and compassion: "Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days...prosper for us the work of our hands."

    Let our lives, then, no matter how brief, no matter how difficult, have meaning. Let there be meaning, and everlasting value, in our having lived.

    Looking back, and looking forward

    I hope, and I suspect, that Moses must have looked back as well as forward, that day on the mountain. He must have looked back on the incredible journey he had finally completed, since his earliest adventures in Egypt, rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, raised in privilege, then called by God to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in what we call the Exodus.

    It was all just the beginning of even more adventures and struggles and moments of glory, another mountaintop, and being given the Law, standing on holy ground and speaking with God. And there was desert time, too, the wandering and the doubt, and the wrenching back to God's path, and to God's ways.

    Forty years of desert wandering

    Forty years of wandering, and now, here, on the mountaintop, a vision. The text says that Moses was 120 years old, but his sight was unimpaired. I think that means not just his eyesight, as he gazed on the Promised Land. I think it also meant that Moses could see things as they are, that Moses knew that it mattered less whether he actually, physically entered a geographical place that people of faith have called "The Promised Land."

    Moses, I suspect, knew that, when he was an infant in a basket, floating in the reeds, or a prince in the palace, or a lonely prophet on a mountaintop, or a frustrated, wandering leader in the desert--in all those times, he knew that the place where he lived, his true "dwelling place," was God.

    More than his mighty deeds and terrifying works of power, it is the assurance that Moses had of God as his dwelling place that moves us today and touches us "where we live." From everlasting to everlasting, God is our dwelling place. That means that it is God who holds us, now and forever, no matter who we are, solitary individual or community of faith.

    God holds us in love

    I remember once, many years ago, when I was all worked up about some situation in my life, and a good and trusted friend of mine called me on the phone to tell me that he knew, in everything I was going through, that I was being held by God. Hearing those words--that reminder--brought me great peace, for we are each, it is true, alone in this world at different times and moments of our lives.

    I remember his words of reassurance, that no matter what situation I found myself in, the everlasting God was holding me in love. And today, in the midst of everything, we too are anxious and worried--of course we are, in the midst of Covid 19 and economic recession and turmoil in our society, and through it all, God is holding us in love.

    No matter what we're going through

    We may be worried about our jobs, our security, our future, our health--certainly our health, and the health and safety of our loved ones, our teachers, our health care professionals--we are worried and anxious, and still, God is holding us in love. God is our dwelling place, full of mercy and grace, peace and love.

    We may actually be sick, or tested positive, or awaiting tests, or unable to get tested; we may be receiving treatment, or unable to get treatment in a society of uneven care and concern; we may have sudden or chronic illness, or be experiencing injury, physical pain, fatigue, diminished abilities...and through it all, God holds us in love.

    Fearful and burdened, but held by God

    Whatever fear we live in, in our homes, our workplace, our neighborhoods, still, God is our dwelling place, and God is holding us in love. If we're loaded down with more work than we think we can handle, more responsibilities, more people who are counting on us than we think we can manage, still, God is holding us, always, in love.

    If we are grieving, and so many of us are, if we are aching with loss and disappointment and disillusionment, wrestling with betrayal and hurt from ones we have loved, God holds us in love. And if we are depressed, lonely, struggling, uncertain, filled with doubt, needing to forgive when we feel like we can't, and even if we think we are lost, no – God is holding us all the while, in love.

    God holds us in joy and peace

    And more: if we are happy today, if this is a day of relief from worry, of celebration, of accomplishment, of hope, of love and sharing and quiet joy, or even if this day only brings moments of such joy and hope, we know, too, that God is holding us in love.

    What does it mean, then, to live our lives, like Moses, held by God, with God as our dwelling place, the God who made promises to our ancestors, the God who is faithful, the God who is from everlasting to everlasting?

    For one thing, it means living in utter and radical dependence on that God, not on our own will or power, satisfied with and sustained by God's steadfast love each morning, rejoicing and being glad, all of our days, that we are each, individually, a precious child of God.

    A frame around our existence

    That seems obvious, but there is more. The psalm is true, of course: our days are brief, even fleeting, when you take the long view of thousands and millions of years gone by.

    However, taking a page from the existentialists, at least the Christian ones--it is death that sets a kind of frame around human existence. Death is a horizon of hope for people of faith, but it is a limit nevertheless, and it brings a measure of sadness when we think of it.

    Still, those very limits that we know are there, at the end of our life on this earth, invite us to live with a sense of urgency and responsibility and gratitude, to think of all the possibilities that lie on this side of death, and to exercise our own freedom, and to form our consciences, so that we might live authentic lives of faithfulness, lives of meaning, lives of justice, openness and joy.

    Held by God

    Experiencing ourselves as held by God also means gathering--God willing, one day soon in person again--as people of faith who recognize God as the source of our existence, as the One who sustains and satisfies us. We are a people who recognize that our dwelling place, our true home, is in the heart of God.

    Our faith then calls us to welcome each individual as a child of God, and as a gift. We do this when we baptize babies, for example. The tiniest, newest members of our community, so lately come from God, remind us in their loveliness just how precious every single individual is, just as Moses, on that mountaintop, reminds us that all of life, and all the earth, the universe and all that is within it, belong to God.

    Not only does the Promised Land belong to God, but the whole universe and all that is within it. It is there, in God, that we all find our meaning, and our home. Fear not. We are held by God, in love.

    PIcture_of_Kate.jpg

    The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 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:

    Mary Oliver, Upstream, 21st century
    "'Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view,' [Emerson] says, and suddenly that elite mystical practice seems clearer than ever before, and possible to each of us."

    Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 21st century
    "What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent with the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves."

    Job 12:7-10
    "Ask the animals, and they will teach you...in God's hand is the life of every living thing."

    Thomas Merton, 20th century
    "I will no longer wound myself with the thoughts and questions that have surrounded me like thorns: that is a penance You do not ask of me."

    Catherine of Siena, 14th century
    "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."

    Hafiz, 14th century
    "I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being."

    Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
    "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

    Additional reflection on Matthew 22:34-46:
    by Kathryn Matthews

    Our passage from the Gospel of Matthew is only one small piece of a conversation we're overhearing, between Jesus and the religious authorities of his own people. It's a little bit like listening in on a family argument, but with much higher stakes.

    The displeased leaders uncomfortably recognize Jesus' parables as "speaking about them": "They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet" (Matthew 21:45-46). Feeling offended and "disrespected" and perhaps threatened, they fight back with the only weapons they have: their learning, and their way with words.

    Tension below the surface

    Like our modern presidential debates, these exchanges appear polite on the surface, but the tension underneath is hard to miss. In Matthew's descriptive account in chapter 22, the authorities "plotted to entrap him" (v.15), and "Jesus, aware of their malice," calls them "hypocrites" (v. 18) and tells them that they "know neither the scriptures nor the power of God" (v. 29).

    Perhaps we might understand Jesus' hostility if we (as always) consider the setting: after his triumphal procession into Jerusalem, he immediately "cleansed" the temple and confronted the religious leaders who then questioned his authority to teach on their turf. Clearly, they're not fans.

    Jesus knows what he's talking about

    Jesus hasn't applied for a license to preach or passed their test of orthodoxy, and yet his answer today to a question about the heart of the law, the heart of his people's tradition, shows that he is an utterly faithful Jew.

    On round three of theological questions, the Pharisees have sent in their "big gun," as Beverly Zink-Sawyer describes this legal expert (New Proclamation Year A 2008), to get to that heart of the matter.

    Richard Swanson continues the image: "The Pharisees take their best shot and it misfires. Jesus fires back, and no one bothers to reload." The lawyer has asked a "Do-You-Have-A-Clue-About-Being-Jewish? question," Swanson says, and "Jesus clearly has a clue about being a Jew" (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).

    Trying to set a trap

    If we turn to a baseball metaphor instead, we might say that the Pharisees throw Jesus an easy pitch and he hits it out of the park. Even though the Pharisees want to trap Jesus in heresy (i.e., saying the other 612 laws are less important), scholars seem to agree that Jesus isn't the first to put together these two laws about loving God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).

    However, as always, there's a twist in the way Jesus interprets the tradition, a twist that turns our perspective around today just as much as it "confounds" his listeners long ago. (Isn't that one of the most important roles, and gifts, of a good teacher: to turn around the perspective of their listeners?)

    What the Law is about

    Instead of reducing the importance of the rest of the laws, Jesus paints a picture of them as a coherent whole that "hangs together." Even more, Thomas Long tells us that Jesus sees the law very differently than its experts do, and his response, rather than understanding the law "as rules and regulations," emphasizes "love"; the law is "about really loving God and one's neighbor, not about figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk" (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

    We might begin our closer look at these two commandments by asking how humans can indeed be "commanded" to love. Some of us might ask what kind of love it is if it's forced. And then we might look more closely at how we tend to define love mostly as a feeling that then causes us to behave in a certain way.

    When we don't feel love, it influences and even justifies our behavior, or our lack of right behavior.

    Love as a setting of the heart

    We claim that no one can force us to feel something we just don't feel, but Douglas Hare notes that Jesus is talking about "biblical love," a love that is marked not by "warm feelings" of gratitude but by "rather stubborn, unwavering commitment" (Matthew, Interpretation).

    And commitment can be seen as a setting of the heart, something we choose to do, a way we freely choose to live our lives. Commitment is that mysterious mingling of feeling and action, a beautiful dance between the two.

    This kind of love, a "setting of the heart," a decision to act that then affects how we feel, may involve giving generously to support our church (and finding that we then love it more), or faithfully prioritizing the needs of our spouse or children, no matter our mood or inclination at the time (and finding those relationships deepened), or perhaps learning to forgive as a spiritual practice that makes us more forgiving people.

    A thing of mystery

    It seems that when we decide to set our hearts in a direction, toward something or someone, and when we do the things that fulfill that commitment, our feelings often follow afterward. The laws of giving and Sabbath and loving, I believe, are God's way of getting us to do what we need to do, what's good for us; these laws give us the direction for setting our hearts. Again, it's a thing of mystery.

    The great scholar Marcus Borg has famously called these two commandments the "great relationships," and he even ends his excellent book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, with this "remarkably simple vision of the Christian life. It is not complicated, though it is challenging."

    It all comes to this, for "at the center of a life grounded in the Bible is the twofold focus of the great relationship."

    Two great relationships

    So at the heart of being a faithful Jew, and at the heart of being a faithful Christian, we have these two great relationships, intertwined in yet another mysterious mingling for people of faith.

    Beginning with the second, we know that we're called to love one another, not just the people we feel love for, but all of God's children, which is where justice comes in, what Borg calls "the social form of love" in the Bible (The Heart of Christianity).

    As Cornel West has said, "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public."

    A law crossing boundaries

    The tradition in which Jesus taught and lived called the people of Israel (as we are called today) to "justice, mercy, and faithfulness," Douglas Hare writes, "forms of behavior demanded by the prophets but beyond legal regulation" (Matthew, Interpretation).

    We know that Jesus interpreted this law of love to cross boundaries that were in place in his own culture, beyond family or group loyalties, and he ran into trouble for doing so.

    What boundaries do we draw?

    We might also ask what boundaries we have placed around our own commitment to love our neighbor: which of God's children live on the other side of those boundaries, what kinds of walls we have built to "defend" ourselves from having to love them, and how comfortably we live on this side of those walls, all the while thinking that we too are faithful to the two great commandment/relationships. God didn't mean for us to love those people, right?

    And yet Jesus made clear the reason we love even the stranger, even the "least" among us: later in Matthew's Gospel (the well-known Chapter 25), he said that we will be judged by whether we were able to see him, to see Jesus, to see God, in every single person we encounter, and he describes that love in what we do, not what we feel.

    Feeling unworthy of love

    We might also consider how it feels to be on the other side of that wall, when others judge or reject us, or find us unworthy of God's love and grace, and therefore unworthy of theirs. What is most tragically ironic--and a sin--is the mis-use of religion to justify these walls, this judgment rooted in hatred and bigotry.

    There is no way to reconcile the two Great Commandments with such abuse. And we wonder why young people, among others, are "turned off" by religion, when it exercises power and "authority" to create and justify those walls and that judgment, that exclusion. How well, for example, has the church addressed its long-time role in reinforcing the misogyny that thrives in too many settings of our lives?

    Jesus was a radical

    Turning then to the first and greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, we once again consider the orientation, or setting, of the very center of our being: "Within ancient Jewish psychology," Borg writes, "the character of the heart depended upon its orientation, what it was pointed toward or centered in…what mattered was the orientation of the self at its deepest level, its 'center' or fundamental loyalty" (Jesus: A New Vision).

    Jesus was a radical, Borg says, in teaching that we are to be centered in the Spirit, and not in the many other things that call for our loyalties, "rival centers" like "family, wealth, honor, and religion." (I have a feeling an entire Bible study discussion could be held on these sentences alone.)

    Demands on our loyalty

    Two thousand years later, it might be obvious to ask if nationalism, for example, has demanded our loyalty in ways that displace the primary importance of God. If God is indeed first in our hearts and our lives, that would be evident in the way we live our lives, personally and communally, as people of love and justice, not simply of symbols.

    However, Borg's list pushes us to consider values and loyalties that are, so to speak, closer to home, especially family and religion. Both of these values (family and religion) are certainly good, but isn't it possible for them, and our definition of them, to take on more fundamental importance even than God in our lives?

    Imposing our beliefs

    For example, religious wars/violence are the tragic but perhaps logical outcome of deciding that our loyalties and convictions require us to make others submit to our belief system. In light of our world situation and the tensions around religious interpretation of both texts and law, that particular "rival center" strikes me as especially pertinent.

    In response, we should be prepared to follow in the way of Jesus, to be called a radical, and to bear the price as well.

    God as love

    Two writers (among many) have provided exquisite reflections on these two great commandments. Stephen J. Patterson describes the "basic reality" of God as love, for "to love God is to love love itself."

    We have Jesus himself as a role model in that "radical" (perhaps even shocking) way of loving: "He loved prostitutes. He loved sinners, traitors, tax collectors. He treated the shamed with honor and declared the unclean clean. He loved the unlovable. He loved his enemies." (We should all be so radical.)

    That was Jesus' "fundamental" orientation (to combine Borg and Patterson's language): from the very center of his being, Jesus loved everyone he met.

    The meaning of life

    When we're trying to figure out the meaning of life, when we're trying to make sense of everything, Patterson points us toward this "reality that can give life its richness and ultimate meaning....beckons us to live better than we live....[and] exists as already present, an Empire 'within you,' that can be as powerful in the shaping of human life and relationships as we want it to be" (The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning).

    (I find his use of the word "empire" here so challenging: if we wrestle with whether "reign of God" conveys the same meaning as "kingdom of God," how does "empire" of God sound to our theological ears?)

    The mystery of God

    We're not surprised, then, that a mystic like Thomas Merton describes this love in terms of the mystery and hiddenness of God: "Love," he wrote, "is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name."

    Merton continues, "If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfillment, or joy. To find love I must enter into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God" (A Book of Hours, Kathleen Deignan, editor: I highly recommend this book!).

    The end of the debate

    The long and contentious debate between Jesus and the religious experts ends, fittingly, with a question about the Messiah, a question that is really about Jesus himself. Thomas C. Long writes, "Jesus challenges the completeness of the Pharisees' answer," for "He is David's true son, but he is more. He is Messiah and Lord" (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

    Perhaps this reminds us of the incompleteness of all of our understanding, and the human limitations of our ability to love.

    The power of love

    However, Patterson explores the mysterious power of love that comes from God: Jesus, he writes, "embraced that power, lived it, spoke of it, storied it into existence, and surrendered to it....This is how, even in death, Jesus could become an experience of God to others" (The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning).

    As Christians, as members of the Body of Christ in the world today (the world that God so loves), how can we each day become "an experience of God to others"?

    For further reflection:

    C. S. Lewis, 20th century
    "Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket--safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."

    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."

    J. C. Ryle, 19th century
    "All heaven and earth resound with that subtle and delicately balanced truth that the old paths are the best paths after all."

    John of the Cross, 16th century
    "In the evening, we will be judged on love."

    Henri Nouwen, 20th century
    "Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing….The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God."

    Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
    "Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being."

    Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, 20th century
    "I have decided to stick to love...Hate is too great a burden to bear."

    Mother Teresa, 20th century
    "I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, 'How many good things have you done in your life?' rather he will ask, 'How much love did you put into what you did?"

    Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 20th century
    "The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them."

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 20th century
    "It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important."

    Richard P. Feynman, 20th century
    "Physics isn't the most important thing. Love is."

    Additional reflection on Matthew 22:34-46: "Is Love Still the Answer?"
    by Brooks Berndt

    With a lawyer on the attack, Jesus answers by returning to his core message: love. The lawyer wanted to ensnare Jesus in a legal and rhetorical trap. By asking him to elevate one law above all the others, he was forcing Jesus to disavow the established view that all commandments should be ranked as equals because no human can presume to know the mind of God.

    Jesus' response was at once simple and radical: first, love God, and second, love your neighbor. "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (v. 40). While love as a guiding principle may still seem simple, is it still radical or even helpful in the face of matters as serious and as huge as white supremacy or climate change?

    Not the answer?

    Recently, as I scrolled through various Facebook posts, an article shared by a friend caught my eye. It had the provocative title, "Ibram Kendi, One of the Nation's Leading Scholars of Racism, Says Education and Love Are Not the Answer." I saved the article to read later. It would seem that as a minister of the gospel I had a lot riding on whether Kendi's argument was true. If love isn't the answer, then that means God and Jesus aren't the answer either.

    To be honest, part of me agreed with Kendi before I even read the article. The word "love" gets tossed around so much as the answer to everything that the word can easily be associated with countless clichés and simplistic prescriptions.

    Indeed, upon reading the article, I liked Kendi's core argument that racism is not about ignorance and hate. It is about policies driven by self-interest cloaked underneath racial rationalizations. Kendi's mission is thus to strategize about policies that could ultimately eliminate racism.

    The importance of faith

    But why strategize in the first place? Are debates over policy simply a matter of pitting the self-interest of some against the self-interest of others? Maybe. Or, perhaps, this is where faith becomes important for some of us.

    I certainly believe self-interest is a powerful factor driving the actions of many, but if life was all about self-interest, I wouldn't be interested in living it. I prefer to believe that life is made meaningful by something else, and that is love. Ultimately, this is why I choose to have faith in God, even in the face of seemingly intractable societal ills.

    The struggle for justice

    For such reasons, I find myself returning again and again to love in the struggle for justice. Specifically, I find myself focused over and over on the Three Great Loves: love of neighbor, love of children, and love of creation. I believe these comprise the heart of what will fundamentally motivate people to seek the policy level changes our society so desperately needs.

    In this way, I find that love is still indeed the answer as simple and as radical as that might sound.

    The Rev. Brooks Berndt serves as Minister for Environmental Justice at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

    Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8:
    by Kathryn Matthews

    This passage from Paul's first letter to the church at Thessalonica turns our attention to the courage it requires to live as Christians and to preach the gospel. The temptation is to strive to live safely, comfortably, even quietly, and to think that this is living not only as a "peaceful" people but as true Christians.

    And yet, we know from the example of Jesus and of Paul that preaching the good news will often provoke a negative, perhaps even violent, reaction.

    Preaching without regret

    Paul speaks here of the suffering he has endured for the sake of the gospel, but he speaks without regret. He sees his reward in the faith of the people of the church of Philippi. His words about motive remind us of Kierkegaard's definition of being "pure of heart" as "to want one thing."

    If Paul's preaching and our own as well have no motive apart from wanting to please God, we will be pure of heart in our words and in our goals.

    Authority rooted in care

    Paul does not come across as powerful and strong in this passage, in the sense of being overbearing, but his authority is rooted in tender care and generous sharing of his own life. He clearly cares about this little flock in Philippi, and we can imagine that he would care about our own little flock today, wherever we are the church.

    What are the oppositions that your church faces today in preaching the gospel? When are the moments of tender care, not only for the children but for each and every member of the church, and for those who come through your doors, in need of sanctuary and good news? In what ways are they embraced? In what ways does your church need to grow in its embrace of those in need?


    Lectionary texts

    Deuteronomy 34:1-12

    Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain--that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees--as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord's command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

    Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

    Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

    with

    Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

    O God, you have been our dwelling-place
       in all generations.
    Before the mountains were brought forth,
       or ever you had formed the earth
           and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting
       you are God.

    You turn us back to dust,
       and say,
    "Turn back,
       you mortals."

    For a thousand years
       in your sight
    are like yesterday
       when it is past,
    or like a watch
       in the night.

    You sweep them away;
       they are like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed
       in the morning;

    in the morning it flourishes
       and is renewed;
    in the evening it fades
       and withers.

    Turn, O God!
       How long?
    Have compassion
       on your servants!

    Satisfy us in the morning
       with your steadfast love,
    so that we may rejoice
       and be glad all our days.

    Make us glad for as many days
       as you have afflicted us,
    and for as many years
       as we have seen evil.

    Let your work be manifest
       to your servants,
    and your glorious power
       to their children.

    Let the favor of the Sovereign
       our God be upon us,
    and prosper for us
       the work of our hands--

    O prosper the work of our hands!

    or

    Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

    The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

    Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

    You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

    You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

    with

    Psalm 1

    Happy are those who do not follow
       the advice of the wicked,
    or take the path that sinners tread,
       or sit in the seat of scoffers;

    but their delight
       is in the law of the God,
    and on God's law
       they meditate day and night.

    They are like trees
       planted by streams of water,
    which yield their fruit in its season,
       and their leaves do not wither.
    In all that they do,
       they prosper.

    The wicked are not so,
       but are like chaff
    that the wind drives away.

    Therefore the wicked will not stand
       in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation
       of the righteous;

    for God watches over the way
       of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked
       will perish.

    1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

    You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

    Matthew 22:34-46

    When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

    Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
       'The Lord said to my Lord,
           "Sit at my right hand,
        until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
    "If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.


    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."


  • Radiant with God's love

    Read more

  • Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
    Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 24)

    color_green.jpg

    Lectionary citations:
    Exodus 33:12-23 with Psalm 99 or
    Isaiah 45:1-7 with Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
    1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
    Matthew 22:15-22

    Worship resources for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 24 are at Worship Ways

    Special resources for ministry during the Coronavirus Pandemic:

    Worship Resources:
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1E_RKfy_VOzelb5jbXV7UW5ytjmiI-_Md-W0H8UaRlaM/edit

    Digital Pastoral Care & Grief:
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sdalu3udRXIadlo9A_E0J2URF0EqzXHAFlQUhXl_esY/edit

    Living psalms are here, scroll down:
    https://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways


    Sermon Seeds

    Focus Scripture:
    Exodus 33:12-23
    Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

    Focus Theme:
    Known by Goodness and Mercy

    Reflection:
    by Kathryn Matthews

    During our seminary years, my classmates and I used to do an impression of our dean: we'd put the tips of our index fingers and thumbs together and pull them apart, as if we were stretching a band, and say, "Can you feel the tension?" That question arises a number of times within this text from the book of Exodus, about Moses' conversation with God after the incident of the golden calf.

    In this short passage from the much longer story of the people's impatience with God on their way to the Promised Land (and God's impatience with them), Moses and God are trying to put the pieces back together again, not unlike a couple in a marriage jeopardized by infidelity who wonder if there's a future for them after all that's happened.

    There are several obvious tensions within the text, with a few more between the lines. As with most lectionary passages, it really helps to read all of chapter 33, or better, all of chapters 32-34, in preparing to preach this text.

    A distant and difficult God

    While God, with Moses' help, is working on building a relationship with the chosen people of Israel, the people themselves have been busy doubting, demanding, and then dancing before the golden calf Aaron fashioned for them when they needed something tangible, something that would represent God, to "go before" them.

    Moses, after all, has an annoying habit of disappearing for long periods of time, and Yahweh is not a god that can be manipulated and managed--the kind of god that would make life, and religion, so much easier. Instead, the God who called their ancestor Abraham long ago, and heard their cries in Egypt, and brought them out here to the wilderness, is much too distant, much too mysterious, much too difficult to get a handle on.

    Speaking to God face to face

    And that mystery sets up one of the tensions, because we also read about "the tent," where Yahweh "used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend" (33:11). Yes, there is a pillar of cloud, and yes, the people have sense enough to "rise and stand" as they watch Moses make his way to these remarkable encounters. But the text says that God speaks to Moses "as one speaks to a friend," and is willing to do this quite often.

    And while God tells Moses that he cannot see God's glory and live (for God is way, way too much for a mere mortal to deal with), God also uses surprisingly anthropomorphic terms to engage Moses, covering him with God's "hand," and letting Moses see God's "back" as God's glory passes by, presumably on the rocky path along the mountainside, after God hides Moses safely in a little cleft in the rock.

    God, then, seems marvelously accessible and yet, at the same time, utterly unfathomable. Gene Tucker notes the impossibility of putting into words the human "experience of the encounter with the One who is both radically other and immediately present" (Preaching through the Christian Year A). "Radically other and immediately present": can you feel the tension?

    Immanence and transcendence

    Theologians talk about the tension between God's immanence and God's transcendence; it seems that we spend long periods in human history (and theology) out of balance between the two, refusing to live within that tension. Perhaps, for example, we lost our respect and appreciation for the goodness of creation when we "put" God up in the sky, out of reach and away from the gracious earth that supports us, that seems to breathe with a life of its own.

    For example, the ancient Celtic approach to spirituality sees "the Word" in creation, that is, God still speaking to us in the tender beauty and breathtaking majesty of creation. Perhaps even in the anger of creation as well, although I am not saying that God sends hurricanes to punish cities; it does however seem reasonable to see global warming, for example, as a result of, if not a reaction to, what we have done to the atmosphere, the oceans and the ground beneath our feet.

    Indescribable Otherness

    On the other hand, when we make God simply--only--a good friend that we can talk to, someone who listens to our troubles and takes care of us--and even wants us "to be rich"--that kind of God might too easily lose the indescribable, overwhelming Otherness that we call "The Holy." The Holiness so great that we fall speechless before it, rather than confidently presenting our laundry list of current requests and demands and questions.

    We know what it feels like to have an experience that makes us fall silent with awe and wonder: witnessing the birth of a child, or seeing a shooting star, or watching a hummingbird hover outside our window. Once, during a visit to a "dark sky" area in New Zealand, I walked through the living room of the house where we were staying and almost fell back from the sight of a sky brightly blanketed with stars, a sight denied to those of us in much of the United States. It was the kind of beautiful that stops you in your tracks.

    Responding to the inexpressible

    I'm also still thinking about the experience I had the summer when (like millions of others) I viewed the solar eclipse within the path of totality. When the sky went dark in early afternoon, people around us cried out and applauded, struggling to find a way to respond to the inexpressible.

    However, unlike a magnificently beautiful scene in nature, there was perhaps also, deep down, a kind of unsettling awareness of how small and powerless we are in the midst of creation's grand design. When I was a little girl, I read an article titled, "My Mother Taught Me to Love the Storm." Perhaps that mother was teaching her own children something about wonder and awe.

    Awe and wonder

    Even so, we would have to multiply that feeling thousands of times over to begin to get a sense of the effect of God's holiness on us mere mortals. Great composers and painters have tried to suggest such a feeling of awe, and surely feel each time that they have fallen woefully short of what they aspire to convey.

    And yet, this is also the God who talks with Moses just like talking to a friend, and a God who hears our anguished cries, and our troubled questioning, and our deepest needs. Can you feel the tension?

    Seeing God face to face?

    Another tension arises in the commentaries about God's response to Moses' request to "see" God's glory: Gene Tucker observes that people in the Bible might hear God's voice, but this time a human actually gets to hear and "see" God as well (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

    However, Terence Fretheim seems to emphasize just the opposite when he writes that "Moses must not simply use his eyes, he must use his ears to hear the proclamation" (Exodus, Interpretation).

    Can't, or must not?

    Seeing God, or hearing God's Word: it is never, of course, an either/or. Scholars remind us that Moses and a number of other folks actually "saw" God back in 24:11, so it's not so much that we "can't" see God but that we "must not" look at God--or at least the people shouldn't expect to be doing so, after so great a sin.

    Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson find it "gracious and merciful of God to free us from having to look God in the face" at such times (Preaching the Old Testament). True enough, but the text is referring to Moses, whom God has repeatedly reassured as having "found favor" in the sight of God (33:17), not the "sinful" people waiting back in their own tents, excluded from this intimate little conversation.

    What makes them special

    The scholars press another point when they consider Moses' rather presumptuous request. Think about it. God has every reason just to leave those Israelites right there, in the wilderness, and move on to another people. (Remember that God even threatened to do exactly that, and to raise up another great nation from Moses, back in 32:10.)

    Moses is in the most delicate of negotiations--even more delicate because he is anything but a peer in this conversation, and acutely aware of what God can do when provoked.

    Moses presses the case

    So far, Moses has apparently been successful in pressing his case on behalf of his people, reminding God that they are nobody, no people at all, without God. Moses is expressing the heart of covenantal theology--to God!--and he meets with success when God responds, "I will do the very thing you have asked" (v. 17).

    Of course, Moses' case seems to rest on whether he himself has found favor with God, but he also reminds God that God's presence with them is what makes the Israelites God's chosen people, not their own "specialness." (Walter Brueggemann's entry on "election" in Reverberations of Faith is particularly helpful in wrestling with the question of "chosenness.")

    Seeing God, or knowing God?

    But then Moses pushes harder, having the nerve to ask God for an unbelievably extravagant favor: to see God's glory. However, Terence Fretheim finds it "more important to know what kind of God this is than to see that God" (Exodus, Interpretation).

    Or, as Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson put it, "God shunts Moses' question in a new direction," to "the awesome, momentous matter" of knowing God's graciousness: if anyone ought to be confident of God's presence, Moses should, but "God answers Moses' prayer to 'see' God by meeting Moses' deeper need; God gives us what we most need, not always what we most want" (Preaching the Old Testament).

    Seeing or hearing doesn't seem to be the question, then: knowing God is.

    Face to face with God?

    There are a number of rich themes for reflection in this text, including one more look, so to speak, at that question of "seeing God," and Moses' own conversations "face to face" with God. Beverly Link-Sawyer observes that we may be discouraged or dismayed by such stories about people long ago whose holiness apparently exceeded ours so much that they could have such encounters with God.

    However, she suggests that this owes "less to our holiness than to our ability to see beyond what we expect to see," for "in our scientific, skeptical age we are less willing or able than people who lived before us to see the hand of God in our lives and world" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

    Where might you be missing God in your own personal life, in the life of your church, and in the life of the world? Have there been times in your life when you saw God's "back," that is, when you realized after the fact that God has been present and active in a situation?

    A face shining with love

    John Goldingay has written a lovely reflection on this little story, reminding us that doing theology by telling a story works very well when grappling with difficult questions: "We do not so much answer such questions as walk around them and live with them."

    And so, as he walks around the question of God's presence, Goldingay teaches us, "The word for 'presence,' panim, literally means 'face.' A person's face tells us that the person is with us. It shines out with the person's love and concern" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

    Blocked from view

    One of the poignant "side effects" of the present pandemic is the need to wear masks that cover much of the expression on our face. If we consider how much this bothers us (in addition, of course, to everything else troubling about what we are going through), we realize just how important a person's "face," their "presence," is to us.

    In very real ways, we miss the presence of those we love and need for support and sustenance. Think of the elders in living situations where they cannot see their children and grandchildren, even as they near death. They are denied that "shining" with "love and concern" that the presence of their loved ones would provide. (Thank God for health care professionals who strive to step in and provide such presence, to the best of their ability.)

    The love of God

    Of course, no mask, no pandemic can keep us from the love and presence of God. What a beautiful thought: instead of seeing God as fearsome and terrifying, we understandably yearn to see the face of God shining upon us with love and concern.

    That is the deep longing we have for the beatific vision that, we hope, awaits us someday. But it also asks us, what does our presence bring to others? Does our face shine with love and concern for those we encounter, right now?

    The importance of a name

    Goldingay makes another observation, about the importance of God's name, Yahweh, I am Who am, or as has been said, "I will be Who I will be": it is regrettable, Goldingay writes, that "translations deprive us of the name that God graciously revealed and replace it by the patriarchal expression 'the Lord'"; after all, "Israel will see God's goodness and then…they will know God's name" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

    Have we lost our sense of awe and respect for the name of God, so much so that we have lost our sense of who God is?

    What is goodness?

    Another point of reflection is raised by Gerald Janzen on the word "goodness" in verse 19, "the most all-encompassing positive word in the language," and its tension with "righteousness," which is commonly used in religious circles but is not nearly as, well, good as "goodness," for "righteousness can fall short of goodness….Goodness calls for something more."

    Janzen then compares the hardness of heart of Pharaoh, who "couldn't want to" let the people go, once his hardened heart was too far gone (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).

    Prisoners of hurt and anger

    In the same way, we too can find it difficult to forgive when wronged, so much so that we become prisoners of our hurt and anger. "But where the wrongdoer has been so moved to repentance as to 'mourn' the wrong and the loss of relationship," Janzen writes, "moral and spiritual freedom manifests itself in the ability of the one wronged to be gracious and merciful" (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).

    We note that Janzen does not appear to address what happens when the wrongdoer has not been moved to repentance, and the wronged party has to summon the spiritual freedom to forgive anyway. That is a formidable challenge indeed.

    God's power for life

    Walter Brueggemann calls goodness "Yahweh's generous, friendly power for life" and "a synonym for shalom, and thus [referring] to the material blessings of creation" ("Exodus," The New Interpreter's Bible). These words remind me of our own desire to think of ourselves, individually and communally, as "good people." After all, aren't we created "in the image of God"?

    Our challenge, as people of faith, is to see the connection between this goodness and the "material blessings of creation" that we're called to share, especially with those in need. So many people are caught in an economic crisis that has destroyed their job, their business, their security (not to mention their health), while the billionaire class in the United States has grown in numbers and wealth.

    I wonder, in the midst of such injustice, how we might "act out" our desire to live up to our identity as people whose care and concern authentically shine on others, that is, how can we offer more than "thoughts and prayers"--as we are able--to those in urgent and pressing need. How do we participate in shaping a community that makes sure everyone has enough of what they need?

    Where do we find "The Holy"?

    Brueggemann also focuses on the Hebrew people's struggle "to host the Holy." This was true for the wandering ex-slaves and for the people in exile in Babylon (when these texts were probably put together), as well as the people in Jerusalem, with the Temple, and for us today, too: to experience God's "'glory' both as abiding presence and as traveling assurance."

    Whether the empire is Egypt or Babylon, or the modern-day empires of greed and militarism and materialism, Brueggemann writes that God's "presence is a sense of energy, courage, and divine accompaniment" ("Exodus," The New Interpreter's Bible).

    Our own golden calves

    This commentary by Brueggemann is particularly thought-provoking as it applies (uncomfortably) the painful lessons of the golden calf to us today, when we are just as vulnerable to "the destructive power of 'commodity fetishes,' of endless fascination with natural objects that are mistakenly supposed to enhance worth" ("Exodus," The New Interpreter's Bible).

    But it also reminds me of the times we struggle with our sense of God's presence in a particular way in our church buildings, or the way those buildings help us to focus on The Holy, even though God can be found everywhere, and perhaps more effectively if it happens that our church does not facilitate that sense of the sacred so well.

    Our challenge, it seems, is to "host the Holy" in our churches, but also in our lives beyond those walls. Can you feel the tension?

    Knowing where to set boundaries

    Another point that Brueggemann makes in this same commentary was particularly creative and enlightening for us today, in what has been called our "therapeutic culture." It also provides rich subject matter for feminist reflection, since women have traditionally been conditioned to be limitlessly giving of themselves, and it requires great care to know where and how to set boundaries.

    Brueggemann observes that God does just that when Moses asks to see God's glory: "God will not let even Moses crowd into the hidden core of God's own life." The great Old Testament scholar, then, articulates a tension between what people of faith have been taught about self-giving and our culture's ideal about "the complete keeping of self....We are called to imitate the God...who both holds and gives away" ("Exodus," The New Interpreter's Bible).

    How do you balance self-giving, and an appropriate "keeping of self"? Why do you think God set such boundaries for Moses?

    God's presence with us, always

    Scholars, of course, remind us of the core truth of this little story: James Newsome writes that "when justice and compassion clash within the heart of Yahweh, compassion prevails" (Texts for Preaching Year A).

    In the end, no matter what we deserve, God's heart is moved to mercy. In chapter 34, after this conversation, God renews the covenant and tells Moses to cut new tablets of stone for the same words that had been written by God on the former tablets, in a sense, giving Moses and the people a "do-over."

    A plea for mercy, and a response

    God's beautiful proclamation in verses 6-7a is the more formal response to Moses' pleading for mercy. Walter Brueggemann describes them as "a mouthful! Here is the sum of evangelical faith. Here is the substance of a radical theology of grace. Here is the primal warrant in the Bible for the claim that at its core, reality is concerned with healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and finally, inclusiveness" (The Prophetic Imagination).

    A personal note: whenever I read verse 14, I am reminded of a hymn by the St. Louis Jesuits that we sang at my mother's funeral mass, a hymn that she had loved for many years, since she sang it at her own father's funeral mass. The very biblical lyrics in its title, "Be not afraid," reassure us of God's loving presence with us, always.

    Even though the verses speak about crossing a barren desert, I never associated this song with the Old Testament but with the New, that is, with following Jesus. Knowing how much my mother hoped to "see" God's face shining upon her with love, I am comforted in a new way by reading this text from Exodus, and being reminded of God's gracious compassion, not only for my mother's sake, but also for all of us who long for the More that stirs our souls and shapes a persistent hope within our hearts.

    PIcture_of_Kate.jpg

    The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 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:

    Hafiz, 14th century mystic
    "An awake heart is like a sky that pours light."

    Huston Smith, 20th century
    "Might we begin then to transform our passing illuminations into abiding light?"

    Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book, 21st century (one of the best books I've ever read)
    "When she thought of the letter beit, it was not of the thickness of lines or the exactitude of spaces. It was of mysteries: the number two, the dual; the house, the house of God on earth. 'They will build me a temple and I will dwell in them.' In them, not in it. He would dwell within her. She would be the house of God. The house of transcendence. Just a single, tiny letter, and in it, such a path to joy."

    Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, 21st century
    "When they have contemplated the world, human beings have always experienced a transcendence and mystery at the heart of existence."

    Dag Hammarskjöld, 20th century
    "In a dream I walked with God through the deep places of creation; past walls that receded and gates that opened through hall after hall of silence, darkness and refreshment--the dwelling place of souls acquainted with light and warmth--until, around me, was an infinity into which we all flowed together and lived anew, like the rings made by raindrops falling upon wide expanses of calm dark waters."

    Albert Einstein, 20th century
    "Never lose a holy curiosity."

    Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 21st century
    "The thing about light is that it really isn't yours; it's what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself."

    Dag Hammarskjold, 20th century
    "God does not die when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason."

    Meister Eckhart, 14th century
    "Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature--even a caterpillar--I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature."

    C.S. Lewis, 20th century
    "It was when I was happiest that I longed most...The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing...to find the place where all the beauty came from."

    Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10:
    by Kathryn Matthews

    These introductory words to Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians are probably the oldest words in the New Testament. That statement might startle many folks in our pews who assume that the Gospels were written first, and then Paul went around sharing them with the churches that he planted.

    (That's what I believed for many years, but then I also thought that Peter went to Rome to be the first pope, although I wasn't sure how he could have built St. Peter's Basilica!)

    However, scholars generally agree that Paul's letters are the earliest of the writings we have from the very first Christians. As such, they provide invaluable insights into the life of the early church.

    Sharing the good news

    We might approach this text in several ways, but each one takes us down the path of evangelism, of sharing the good news. This first chapter of the first letter to the church at Thessalonica expresses Paul's deep appreciation for the powerful experience he and his co-workers, Silvanus and Timothy, have shared with the people there.

    The evangelizing that went on in that ancient city was a two-way street, as it should be in every age: "Paul and his co-workers found themselves to be different because of the relationship that was established. Evangelism involves a mutual exchange," Beverly Gaventa writes. "Because of their deep involvement with the people at Thessalonica, Paul and his colleagues find themselves vulnerable" (Texts for Preaching Year A).

    Embracing the good news

    Years ago, I read the writings of Paulo Freire about the "banking deposit" approach to learning, where one person in effect transfers a body of information to another person (see his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed). In that case, "information" is a better word than knowledge, because in evangelism something much deeper happens, when you "know" something, really embrace and believe a truth, a good, so that it becomes part of who you are.

    That's what this text describes: a true embrace of the gift of the good news brought by the evangelists Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, but an embrace that was mutual, a sharing that transformed the evangelists as well as those who heard the gospel they preached. Freire, of course, would consider this kind of learning and knowledge superior to the banking system we so commonly employ in our sharing of the faith.

    The power of the Spirit

    We might reflect, then, on the "preaching part" of evangelism, once we understand that it's only one part: however eloquent, how powerful the words or delivery of the preacher, he or she is the bearer of good news, not the good news itself.

    And that eloquence can't be equated with the power of the Holy Spirit, who is really at work, Carl Holladay reminds us, for "the gospel should be construed as the Divine Voice resonating through the human voice, as the Word of God reverberating through the human word. The preached word of the messenger of God provides an occasion for the Spirit to act and to do so in the power of God" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

    When the Spirit of the Stillspeaking God is truly at work, it's no wonder that the preacher is just as likely to be changed as are the people who listen.

    Affirming their endurance and hope

    Paul begins his letter with affirmation of the deep faith and exemplary spirit of the Thessalonians, who "get it" that faith isn't just saying that they accept certain intellectual statements (an easy trap for us when we misuse creeds and statements of faith, or, for that matter, misunderstand "faith" itself). He affirms the "work" that they do because they embrace the gospel, their everyday living out of its message.

    Paul also affirms their endurance and steadfast hope in the face of opposition and persecution by a surrounding culture that has no use for fringe movements that undermine the program of the Empire. Thessalonica was a Roman city, and there were many benefits to being one of those: security, prosperity, enjoyment of "the good things of life," as long as one was willing to go along with the imperial program, to accept Caesar as lord, not some humble Jewish teacher who had been executed by that same Empire.

    Paul's words, hitting home

    John Dominic Crossan has written extensively about this conflict between gospel and empire as the good news was received in cities and villages across the Mediterranean in those first centuries of Christianity. Two thousand years later, we may think we live in very different circumstances, far away from the Roman Empire and its demands and allegiances.

    However, we would be mistaken, for our pharaohs and emperors are alive and well in the systems and values that claim our allegiance and even our whole lives. In the midst of consumerism, materialism, nationalism, rampant greed and self-centeredness, we too struggle with just who is "lord" in our own lives. Paul's letter, then, hits home for us, too.

    Reading between the lines

    We are blessed with scholars like Crossan who can read between the lines for the subversive message we might otherwise miss. For example, Crossan says that these opening verses are full of anti-empire expressions, beginning with the word ekklesia, translated as "church," which "originally meant the citizens of a free Greek city officially assembled for self-government decisions. Maybe that was perfectly innocent, but also maybe not."

    Even the simple and beautiful word "peace" has hidden meaning, Crossan writes, as "anyone familiar with Judaism would have heard in his 'peace' the content of the Jewish shalom of justice and not that of the Latin pax of victory" (In Search of Paul, with Jonathan L. Reed).

    What kind of peace?

    I'm not sure exactly who said, "If you want peace, work for justice"--Pope Paul VI? H. L. Mencken?--but for once a bumper-sticker slogan seems helpful. In any case, Crossan's work illuminates the difference between these two kinds of peace, and our lives today are still lived in the tension between the two.

    Whenever we in the church succumb to the temptation of peace through victory instead of proclaiming, and living, a peace of justice, wholeness, and healing, we have fallen off our center. Worse, we have left behind us the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    The core message

    Crossan continues his word study by focusing on those beautiful and familiar words, "grace and peace," which Paul uses so often in his letters that we may think they are simply conventions, like our use of "warm regards" or "sincerely."

    On the contrary, in these two words we find "the core of Paul's message and mission, faith and theology. The usual salutation in a Greek letter was chaire or 'greetings,' but in a novel, clever, and profound wordplay, Paul switches that to the similar-sounding but theologically more significant term charis, 'grace' or 'free gift.'"

    While Paul affirms the call of the people of Thessalonica and all Christians, it's a call to share this free gift with the world that God loves, Crossan writes, for it "is a free gift that God offers peace to everyone, everywhere" (In Search of Paul; as one who has always struggled to understand Paul's writings, I especially appreciate this book).

    Evangelism as an ongoing process

    Perhaps we've not only lost our understanding of evangelism as a two-way street but also as an ongoing process, growing our faith deeper and our discipleship closer to Jesus. And spiritual practices could be seen as ongoing evangelism; consider, for example, the Christian practice of charity, or better, of justice.

    The Thessalonians long ago shared our own struggle to live the gospel faithfully, day in and day out, in every circumstance. Crossan expresses this beautifully when he discusses Paul's meaning of the word "love," or better, of sharing, because the life of the community, the "assembly," is about a love that is expressed as sharing, but "from want to want rather than from plenty to plenty."

    Distributive justice

    However, Crossan notes--and this may be hard for us to hear--that we should not give out of charity what we think is ours but instead should see ourselves as participating in "divinely distributive justice, a necessary sharing of God's stuff," because we are family, and families share (In Search of Paul).

    How vividly I remember my own parents telling their nine children over and over about the requirement, the need, the call to share. If we are all children of God, then Crossan's argument makes great and compelling sense.

    What are we afraid of?

    Could this be the truly counter-cultural message of a post-modern Christianity? The phrase "redistribution of wealth" in our very affluent nation is anathema, including to many Christians; few politicians, even (especially?) those claiming the name Christian, would dare speak, let alone support, it. This is the tension, then, for Christians today who want to grow into more faithful disciples of Jesus, in spite of the pressures of the surrounding culture and what it calls "normal" and "right" and even "just."

    As Paul and all Christians look forward to the day of Jesus' return and a "new creation," we might miss the new creation already happening in our midst because of Jesus Christ. Crossan asks, then, "What better deserves the title of a new creation than the abnormalcy of a share-world replacing the normalcy of a greed-world?" (In Search of Paul).

    Read in this light, then, evangelism is about justice just as much as it is about preaching, and conversion affects the world around us just as much as it effects a change of heart.

    Are we driven by numbers?

    Abraham Smith's excellent commentary on this text (in The New Interpreter's Bible) is helpful for preachers in churches where the surrounding culture and its measuring-sticks assess our church life (and success) by their own consumer-oriented, profit-driven, numbers-obsessed standards.

    Granted, there are churches in settings where this is not an issue, but for many of our congregations and our pastors, the pressure is intense and worrisome, and discipleship can lose its joy.

    Nurturing, not numbers

    Smith declares the chasing of numbers worthless: "The quality of our witness to the larger world, however, depends not so much on our numbers as on our nurturing, not on our statistics but on our stability as people of God." Smith says that we should follow Paul's example in "inculcating convictions, aiding spiritual growth, and helping people to develop endurance to deal with life under pressure" ("First Thessalonians" in The New Interpreter's Bible).

    Indeed, the pressures that the church feels are the same pressures that many of our members feel, even if their lives appear easy. Evangelism, then, nurtures in an ongoing way the growth in trust and love that eases the pressure and the burden of the culture around us and frees us to express our love as sharing not only ourselves and our stories but the goods that we have as well.

    What is the center that holds?

    Smith writes eloquently, poignantly, about the plight of many people today, believers and non-believers alike, as they hunger for something to count on. He recalls the image evoked by W.B. Yeats in his poem, "The Second Coming": "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." Smith then reflects, "A meaningful life requires reliable resources--not a round of fads and fashions or words that fail to hold up under the heat of struggle."

    As we know, our human impulse is to count on what is, ironically, unreliable: on "beauty that fades," Smith writes, "on perishable pharaohs who know Joseph, on antiquated perceptions, on supposed truths that last for but a season."

    God's unfailing promises

    What is the "reliable resource" that we share in our evangelism? Smith replies, not surprisingly, that we must count on "the unfailing truth of God's promises" ("First Thessalonians," The New Interpreter's Bible).

    There is, however, one awkward "catch" to this counter-cultural stance. We may be surrounded by pressures to conform to very anti-gospel values, pressures that tempt us to barricade ourselves figuratively from the world. And yet, can we in communities of faith assume that we are always "better" or "ahead of" culture in every way?

    Have we been true to our calling?

    When the culture preaches consumption, excess, and prestige, it's easy to contrast it with the gospel message of generosity, humility, justice and love. However, honesty requires us to admit that culture is sometimes ahead of the church: for two thousand years, the church has often been the tail light rather than the headlight in social progress (didn't Dr. King note that?), and at times it has had to be dragged (kicking and screaming, perhaps) into a new day.

    The surrounding culture is also ahead of the church on justice for women, too; in fact, the church's teachings have often buttressed arguments against the full equality and participation of women in society. Slavery is another example, as the pope apologized three centuries after his institution participated not only in supporting the slave trade but actually owning slaves itself.

    How do we discern when God is speaking through culture, and when we are called to preach a counter-cultural word?

    For further reflection:

    William Blake, 19th century
    "Mercy is the golden chain by which society is bound together."

    Jean Baptiste Lacordaire, 19th century
    "We are leaves of one branch, the drops of one sea, the flowers of one garden."

    Michael W. Smith, 20th century
    "I think if the church did what they were supposed to do we wouldn't have anyone sleeping on the streets."

    Paul Wellstone, 20th century
    "Never separate the life you live from the words you speak."

    Dakota/Lakota saying
    "May you walk in the center of your life in balance and abundance."


    Lectionary texts

    Exodus 33:12-23

    Moses said to the Lord, "See, you have said to me, 'Bring up this people'; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, 'I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.' Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people." He said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." And he said to him, "If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth."

    The Lord said to Moses, "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." Moses said, "Show me your glory, I pray." And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, 'The Lord'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." And the Lord continued, "See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."

    Psalm 99

    God is ruler;
       let the peoples tremble!
    God sits enthroned
       upon the cherubim;
    let the earth quake!

    God is great
       in Zion;
    God is exalted
       over all the peoples.

    Let them praise your great
       and awesome name.
    Holy is God!

    Mighty Ruler, lover of justice,
       you have established equity;
    you have executed justice
       and righteousness in Jacob.

    Extol the Sovereign our God;
       worship at God's footstool.
    Holy is God!

    Moses and Aaron
       were among God's priests,
    Samuel also was among those
       who called on God's name.

    They cried to God,
       and God answered them.

    God spoke to them
       in the pillar of cloud;
    they kept God's decrees,
       and the statutes that God gave them.

    O Sovereign our God,
       you answered them;
    you were a forgiving God to them,
       but an avenger
    of their wrongdoings.

    Extol the Sovereign our God,
       and worship at God's holy mountain;
    for the Sovereign our God
       is holy.

    or

    Isaiah 45:1-7

    Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
       whose right hand I have grasped
    to subdue nations before him
       and strip kings of their robes,
    to open doors before him —
       and the gates shall not be closed:
    I will go before you
       and level the mountains,
    I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
       and cut through the bars of iron,
    I will give you the treasures of darkness
       and riches hidden in secret places,
    so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
       the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
    For the sake of my servant Jacob,
       and Israel my chosen,
    I call you by your name,
       I surname you, though you do not know me.
    I am the Lord, and there is no other;
       besides me there is no god.
    I arm you, though you do not know me,
       so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
       and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
       I form light and create darkness,
    I make weal and create woe;
       I the Lord do all these things.

    Psalm 96:1-9, 10-13

    O sing to God
       a new song;
    sing to God,
       all the earth.

    Sing to the God,
       bless God's name;
    tell of God's salvation
       from day to day.

    Declare God's glory
       among the nations,
    God's marvelous works
       among all the peoples.

    For great is God,
       and greatly to be praised;
    God is to be revered
       above all gods.

    For all the gods of the peoples
       are idols,
    but God made the heavens.

    Honor and majesty
       are before God;
    strength and beauty
       are in God's sanctuary.

    Ascribe to God,
       O families of the peoples,
    ascribe to God
       glory and strength.

    Ascribe to God the glory
       due God's name;
    bring an offering,
       and come into God's courts.

    Worship God
       in holy splendor;
    tremble before God,
       all the earth.

    Say among the nations,
       "God is ruler!
    The world is firmly established;
       it shall never be moved.

    God will judge the peoples
       God will judge the people
    with equity."

    Let the heavens be glad,
       and let the earth rejoice;
    let the sea roar,
       and all that fills it;

    let the field exult,
       and everything in it.
    Then shall all the trees
       of the forest
    sing for joy before God;

    for God is coming,
       for God is coming
    to judge the earth.

    God will judge the world
       with righteousness,
    and the peoples with God's truth.

    1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

    Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

    Grace to you and peace.

    We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

    Matthew 22:15-22

    Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.


    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."


  • How well shall we live together?

    Read more

  • Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
    Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 23)

    color_green.jpg

    Lectionary citations:
    Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
    Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23
    Philippians 4:1-9
    Matthew 22:1-14

    Worship resources for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 23) are at Worship Ways

    Special resources for ministry during the Coronavirus Pandemic:

    Worship Resources:
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1E_RKfy_VOzelb5jbXV7UW5ytjmiI-_Md-W0H8UaRlaM/edit

    Digital Pastoral Care & Grief:
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sdalu3udRXIadlo9A_E0J2URF0EqzXHAFlQUhXl_esY/edit

    Living psalms are here, scroll down:
    https://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways


    Sermon Seeds

    Focus Scripture:
    Exodus 32:1-14
    Additional reflection on Philippians 4:1-9
    Additional reflection on Exodus 32:1-14 by Brooks Berndt

    Focus Theme:
    Living as a Liberation Community

    Reflection:
    by Kathryn Matthews

    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 outstanding delivery whether quoting Shakespeare, Yeats--or the Bible.

    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, and the unique place God holds at the center of our lives, personally and in the community of faith.

    Ultimate seriousness

    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.

    Just when they need it the most

    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.

    Most of all, 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.

    How should we live?

    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.

    God is taking God's time

    Our text this week, from the beginning of chapter 32 of Exodus, however, tells us what happens when God takes God's time--or rather, when Moses appears to be dragging his feet. The people at the bottom of the mountain do not like waiting interminably while their divinely appointed leader, at the top of the mountain, continues his long conversation with God.

    Perhaps they have other priorities and more pressing things on their minds. Perhaps they are restless and hot and longing for their new home.

    Where is Moses?

    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.

    A very bad reaction

    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, the work of human hands.

    They decide to worship this idol, this false god, instead of the God who has been with them since the days of their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, the faithful God who heard their cries, freed them from slavery, provided them a leader, a covenant, and the promise of a new home.

    An ancient but current problem

    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 relevant in ancient times, a law more commonly broken in those days, back when idolatry was a big problem, so we focus more on the next Commandments, about taking God's name in vain, honoring the Sabbath, and so on.

    Worshipping lesser gods

    Now, whether Christians actually pay much attention to the second and third Commandments is an entire sermon in itself: Is the Sabbath indeed kept holy? Do we not regularly take God's name 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), 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.

    A need for reassurance

    In other words, scholars say that they didn't turn to foreign gods but simply wanted the reassurance, the comfort, of something/someone else standing in Moses' place; 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 confess that I'm a bit perplexed by the several times the plural "gods" is used in this passage, in vv. 1. 4b, 8b, if they're referring to YHWH, who is, of course, One.)

    A religious need

    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 is a worship service that could be considered "kosher," Gerald Janzen writes, well, except for that troubling golden calf (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).

    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 Old Testament and Acts), although other scholars don't really focus on that point.

    The clash of traditions

    Two important notes at this point: first, Walter Brueggemann, in several places, observes 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" (which seem to tempt religious leaders in every age), while Moses represents the authoritative tradition.

    In his Introduction to the Old Testament, Brueggemann notes that we may not be reading, then, about "a brotherly exchange, but competition and conflict between rival priestly groups with their competing interpretive voices" about, we note, those matters of ultimate concern.

    Brueggemann's words 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 (and, of course, Galatians) several times, when he too reminds us that God is not mocked.

    The soothing of our souls

    We might also, as a community of faith, consider the problems caused by our own sincere desire to meet the deep needs of others, spiritual and otherwise, often under stressful conditions (certainly Aaron was operating under stress!), when our judgment might not always be optimal and the results and consequences even less so.

    In a well-intentioned desire to keep the peace in a congregation, for example, do we avoid shining the light of the gospel on an issue before us? Do we place our authority and our responsibility to "produce the holy" and the perceived needs of the institution above greater goods?

    A very ancient story

    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). In the deuteronomic tradition of the seventh century and following, if not earlier, one of the functions of the story of the golden calf in the wilderness was as polemic against a concrete problem, the corruption of worship in the Northern Kingdom" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

    Preachers and Bible study leaders, then, have the opportunity this week to provide a thought-provoking and instructive reflection on the historical setting of the text and its sources.

    Longing for better

    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 to soothe our souls.

    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.

    Can we fashion something "better"?

    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 "a 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). Again, sobering words.

    False gods today

    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). Indeed, 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, when they turn to "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? What soothes our souls? What "sorry lessons" have we absorbed, and from where?

    Reducing God and faith to manageable proportions

    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 our ancestors in faith fell 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: the epitome of an idol, strong and immovable and so reassuring.

    No wonder we use it metaphorically for our financial security, among other things.

    A God who moves

    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, in conversation with us, just as God was in dialogue with Moses in the latter part of our text?

    Brueggemann writes that the church's willingness to be "deeply dialogical about the most important issues" reflects the kind of God we worship: rather than a sign of weakness, a God who is willing to be in dialogue with us overcomes our "lust for absolutism [that] 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).

    Obviously, we ourselves need to be willing to be in dialogue with God, to respond to God's initiative.

    Up on the mountain

    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).

    Radical trust and audacious faith

    Beverly Zink-Sawyer also finds a kind of comfort in the thought that we have been made "in the image of a God" who has deep, deep feelings--"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).

    As a mother and a grandmother (and a daughter), I love that image.

    A tenderly compassionate God

    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 God, throughout the biblical narrative, lovingly remakes the covenant with the people each time it is broken (Introduction to the Old Testament).

    And Frank Anthony Spina closes our reflections well by reminding us that the ancient promises of God flow from God's irrepressible grace, with "judgment...never God's final word" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). Thank God for that! Amen.

    PIcture_of_Kate.jpg

    The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 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:

    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."

    Additional reflection on Exodus 32: 1-14:
    "Climate Connections: From Scripture to the Pressing Issue of Our Generation"
    by Brooks Berndt

    Those who know me know that I love to talk about root causes. If we don't know the causes, we won't know the cures, and we will be forever pasting teeny band-aids on huge, festering wounds. I am also a firm believer that when it comes to the damage done to our climate there are multiple causes that cannot be intellectually reduced to a single culprit. Systemic racism is one cause. If white communities suffered from as much pollution as communities of color, wouldn't much more be done to regulate and reduce pollution?

    The corporations that comprise the fossil fuel industry are another cause. If these corporations were not so driven to maximize profits without concern for the resulting costs to public health and the environment, wouldn't we now be making a rapid shift from dirty energy to clean energy?

    The corporate mainstream media is yet another cause. If news outlets adequately covered and conveyed the impacts of climate change, wouldn't the citizenry of our nation demand that the government serve public interests over corporate interests?

    I could continue to mention more root causes, but I want to dwell here on one more in particular, and that is idolatry. Perhaps, for many Christians, the most common Biblical image associated with idolatry is that of the golden calf. For modern sensibilities, such idolatry might seem absurdly foolish. "Who would do such a thing?!" I could say that today we have turned the black gold of oil into our modern golden calf, but I believe there is more to our present predicament than that statement suggests.

    Corporations worship profits, while the media exalts celebrities for the rest of us to adore. Meanwhile, the church on one side of the street bows to a God bent on wiping out gays and Muslims, while the church on the other side nuzzles into the arms of a God content to soothe and comfort the privileged.

    The end result of such idolatries and countless others is that our entire collective way of life--with all of its endemic oppression, injustice, and violence--has led us to a place so diametrically opposed to the will of God that we might as well be worshipping gold-plated hamburgers.

    One scholar has noted that a reoccurring phrase in the story of the golden calf is "who brought you out of the land of Egypt." Somehow we have to get back to the liberating God who places us on the path to the Promised Land. That will mean continually recognizing root causes and continually discerning God's will. Otherwise, later generations will remember us as the ones who were absurdly foolish.

    The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ.

    Additional reflection on Philippians 4:1-9:
    by Kathryn Matthews

    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.

    An elegant love letter

    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 also 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.

    All he really wants to know

    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 versions 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).

    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.

    What proves our worth?

    In our achievement-oriented society, in business, academics, and public life, there's much discussion of qualifications and experience, much evaluation, and intense (and 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).

    "Make my joy complete"

    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.

    An infectious happiness

    Eugene Peterson calls Philippians "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).

    Overflowing joy

    "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 version 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: worry, or joy?

    Our need for joy

    In the midst of this protracted pandemic and the losses and suffering it has brought (and will continue to bring), the anguish of the long-overdue racial reckoning in this nation, the destructive horror of environmental disasters like the wildfires out west, intertwined with a most unpleasant election season, it would be understandable if the word "joy," let alone spending time reflecting on it, sounded almost quaint.

    And yet our need, our hunger, for joy is exposed, if you will, by our reaction to experiences that touch us in ways we can't express with words, and perhaps only with tears. (Ironically, with tears.)

    For all the people

    I have found that to be true, for example, each time I watch this (very carefully made, with Covid precautions) recording by the magnificent Cleveland Orchestra of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy": Beethoven 9 Project by The Cleveland Orchestra.

    What an incredible gift, and aptly reminding us to care for "the benefit of all the people, forever," as Jephtha Wade said. That is one path to joy, we believe.

    And now, back to Paul

    The first part of this passage in Philippians, however, is poignantly familiar to church folks in every age and setting: 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.

    To become more like Jesus

    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 from many years ago, in which Linus says, "I love mankind, it's people I can't stand" (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).

    A thousand little choices

    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...."

    Perhaps we can learn to love "humankind" better by better loving the people we encounter each day. (But Palmer's list is a challenging one, I admit.)

    A restless drive

    None of this, though, is possible without the Holy Spirit. Many years ago, at a Jesuit university, 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."

    Moved by the Spirit

    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.

    Feeling small in a world of empires

    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.

    In response, 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...."

    Who are the guides on this path?

    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 God's voice, still speaking to your church today, through these words of Paul addressed to a small, struggling, counter-cultural church long ago?

    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."


    Lectionary texts

    Exodus 32:1-14

    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.

    with

    Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

    Praise God!

    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.

    or

    Isaiah 25:1-9

    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.

    Psalm 23

    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.

    Philippians 4:1-9

    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.

    Matthew 22:1-14

    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."


    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."


  • God's Wisdom for Our Lives

    Read more

  • Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
    Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 22)

    color_green.jpg

    Lectionary citations:
    Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 with
    Psalm 19 or
    Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:7-15
    Philippians 3:4b-14
    Matthew 21:33-46

    Worship resources for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 22) are at Worship Ways

    Special resources for ministry during the Coronavirus Pandemic:

    Worship Resources:
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1E_RKfy_VOzelb5jbXV7UW5ytjmiI-_Md-W0H8UaRlaM/edit

    Digital Pastoral Care & Grief:
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sdalu3udRXIadlo9A_E0J2URF0EqzXHAFlQUhXl_esY/edit

    Living psalms are here, scroll down:
    https://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways


    Sermon Seeds

    Focus Scripture:
    Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
    Additional reflection questions on Philippians 3:4b-14

    Focus Theme:
    Words for Living

    Reflection:
    by Kathryn Matthews

    Every once in a while, the Ten Commandments provoke a measure of controversy in our public life: not about whether we actually obey them and keep them at the heart of our life together, or how they might change the way we live if we observed them. That really would be an excellent controversy.

    No, our national argument tends to be about their display, engraved (ironically) in stone and practically worshipped not for their content but for the message they are assumed to convey, that we are a "nation under God," specifically, in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    A reminder to others

    The prominent display of these commandments serves to remind people in other faiths, and atheists as well, about who "we" are, whenever "they" walk into public buildings, regardless of the separation of church and state that was intended to protect all of us, however futilely, from religious wars of one kind or another.

    And yet, we are apparently the ones who need to be reminded of who we are and what it means to live faithfully, for "in recent polls of the American public," Gene Tucker observes, "although the majority affirmed that the Bible is in some way the word of God, only a small percentage could name as many as four of the Ten Commandments" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

    If we don't even know what they are, how can we obey them, and let our lives, personal and public, be shaped by them?

    Domesticating "the living words of God"

    Indeed, the deep significance of the gift of the Ten Commandments has been obscured if not lost in our domesticating them or, as Gary Anderson writes, in making them "into a cultural icon."

    As a consequence, we lose the sense of "religious awe" that we find in this story from Exodus, and we lessen our understanding and receiving of the commandments as God's own revelation: "These are not ten good maxims for the good life," Anderson writes, but "the living words of God" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

    Of course, it's quite a different thing to receive the commandments, as most of us did, in a church school class or by reading a print Bible, than it must have been for Moses, high on that mountaintop, practically thrown about by the awesome, focused presence of God.

    God's "peculiar treasures"

    Barbara Brown Taylor has written a sermon on the text in chapter 19 of Exodus that sets the scene for today's passage, when Moses went up high on the mountain at Sinai, and an extraordinary (and very long) conversation began. She titles that sermon, "Peculiar Treasures," because that's what the people were to the God who had brought them out of bondage, out into the wilderness on their way to a new life: they were peculiar treasures.

    One is reminded of treasures in the way she describes the story of this people: "God's covenant with their grandfather Abraham had three shining jewels in it: descendants as plentiful as the stars in the sky, a special relationship to God, and a land of milk and honey all their own." But "something was still missing," she writes, "something Moses went up the mountain to get" (Gospel Medicine).

    The law and the promise

    Taylor reflects beautifully on the relationship between the law and the promise, and about how much we might think that we like the promise better than the law, and how much we appreciate just being loved, unconditionally. She then uses the metaphor of a tent (a good metaphor for people in the wilderness!) to explain how it all works together, because "promise without law is like a tent without tent poles."

    The scholars seem to agree that the law would shape the life and identity of the people of God, and be a force that would preserve it against every threat. Again, Taylor as she imagines God giving the gift of the law: "Sink these ten posts in the center of your camp, hang a tent on them, and together you may survive the wilderness….Guard your life together. Guard your life with me" (Gospel Medicine).

    Rather than leading to the conclusion that we somehow earn God's love and care, this understanding affirms God's love first in giving the law, and casts obedience as a loving, grateful response to all that God has done and continues to do.

    Relationships aren't easy

    This is a relationship, after all, not a one-time thing at one moment in the history of Israel. And every self-help book and marriage therapist will tell us that relationships aren't easy, that they require work and commitment and tender care.

    Gary Anderson describes love as "a precious and fragile seedling. Only with constant care and attention to its details will it grow to a mature and healthy tree" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

    A sermon series perhaps?

    An entire series of sermons might be preached on this text, thoughtfully and reverently unpacking each commandment. Or perhaps we could focus on the first one only, which makes a lot of sense since many people see all the others springing from it.

    It seems to me that Israel's number one commandment reminds them of who they are only in light of who God is. When Walter Brueggemann says that it's "likely that Torah is peculiarly aimed at the young, in order to invite them into this distinct identity of wonder, gratitude, and obedience," we notice that those words--wonder, gratitude and obedience--are all responses to "Another."

    No Other like this One

    And this "Another" is not like anyone else, no human, no god, nothing and no one else. Our domestication of God and the Ten Commandments may make us feel safer, down here at the base of the mountain, away from that fearsome, awe-filled nearness of God.

    It may keep things on an even keel for us "down here," waiting for a word from heaven. Meanwhile, we go about our business of building our own little (manageable, and not too scary) idols to worship, knowing somewhere deep inside that these are not God at all. No wonder we are so spiritually hungry.

    The one we avoid

    If the Torah provides "the lovingly drawn boundaries of a Creator bent on reminding creatures of their size," as Taylor says, then the first of those commandments makes it very clear that, as my seminary professor often reminded us, "God is God, and we're not." (Actually, she usually said, "God is God, and you're not," a much-needed reminder to seminary students!)

    As much as the other commandments are conveniently and erratically invoked as a way to judge and even condemn others, this is the commandment we rarely hear sermons on.

    Surrounded by many other gods

    Our culture, with those engraved stones we value more highly than the mysterious, less tangible treasures of our faith, also offers us many other "gods," and many ways to "worship" them, to organize our lives in a kind of subjugation to them, putting them above all others, whether we would like to admit it or not. We just don't recognize them as gods.

    The first commandment was given at a time when the Israelites were perfectly aware of the other gods of the cultures around them. We assume that we've progressed past such "primitive" ways, ignoring the many idols that draw us toward them and away from being the people God has called us to be.

    What are our temptations?

    Brueggemann writes powerfully of these temptations; "In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh, that these are not gods who have ever wrought an Exodus or offered a covenant" (Exodus, The New Interpreter's Bible).

    Bacchus, Mars, Eros: what good are they, indeed?

    Faithfulness to the heart of the law

    Marcus Borg helpfully reflects on faith as "fidelity," and faithfulness to the heart of the law. We remember that Jesus, when asked, summed up all of these commandments into two great commandments, and Borg translates those as "The Two Great Relationships" (see his beautiful work, The Heart of Christianity, for more on faithfulness): To love God with one's whole being, and to love one's neighbor as oneself.

    The first relationship, with God, leads to the second; Brueggemann says that "the second true desire of our life, derivative from the first, is to have 'good neighbors,' that is, to live in a neighborhood." And if both of our great relationships were healthy and strong as they should be, "our energy might be redirected toward neighborly matters like housing, education, health care..." (The Covenanted Self).

    What is the lesson for us?

    This is an especially powerful message for us, in today's highly polarized and rancorous political and social climate, when we're trying to figure out how to live one with one another--even with other Christians!--and how to witness to our core values, believing them to be a wise and good foundation for our lives.

    But we also have to admit that our values can be either gift or burden to those affected by our actions and our decisions (assuming those are actually based on our core values), including the way we shape our institutions and provide for our most vulnerable "neighbors."

    Where is our strong foundation?

    As people of communities of faith who share these two Great Commandments, and the Ten Commandments of this story, as well as the time in the wilderness and the many lessons learned there, why is it so difficult to find that strong foundation on which to offer a compelling message, an attractive way of life, that draws more people to its light rather than leading them to dismiss us as judgmental, harsh and narrow-minded?

    At the same time, why does the image of laws carved in stone provide justification for a number of us to simplify God's message not into a rule of love and caring and compassion, of seeing each one of us as a beloved child of God (and as our neighbor), but as either "us" or "them"--and it is definitely not good to be "them"?

    We are not hemmed in

    If we truly want to be faithful and obedient to God's law, if we truly want to be challenged to think and live creatively and generously and generatively, why do we see these laws, on stone or on our lips, as hemming us in rather than expanding and energizing the way we organize our lives, personally and communally?

    Let us consider what Brueggemann means when he connects these laws to "neighborly matters." Certainly the word "neighbor" appears enough times in this passage from Exodus (and in the teachings of Jesus) to warrant our attention and careful reflection.

    A different lens for decision-making

    It's understandable that many of us cringe when we hear the word "political," especially through yet another rancorous and unending campaign season, so what if our communal decision-making, especially how we will share resources, were thought of in "neighborly" terms, instead of "political" ones?

    Sometimes I think we (in the United States) romanticize the idea and memory of a time in our history when neighbors looked after neighbors, when neighborhoods and communities were strong and blessed, aglow with the light of prosperity and friendliness.

    Who are our neighbors?

    Have we lost that dream because we have forgotten who our neighbors are--perhaps the most unexpected and surprising persons of all, just as Jesus told the story, and just as he taught us that lesson?

    I suspect, though, that we have always struggled with living that dream; our history is a long story that includes not only the highest ideals and aspirations but also prejudice, suspicion and worst of all, the treatment of indigenous people and slavery itself, all of which dehumanize and "de-neighbor" those we consider "other" and therefore not deserving of respect, not wholly entitled to their fair share of God's abundant gifts.

    We certainly do not love them as we love ourselves.

    Making a different choice

    We know, however, that we have the freedom to make a different choice, to shape and live in communities that embody God's love for all of God's children and for God's beautiful creation. Will we choose love and justice, healing and compassion when the world around us may do just the opposite in pursuit of "goods" that are really false idols?

    For us, in the church, Brueggemann connects all of this with our baptism, "the dramatic form of making a God choice, in which receiving a new name and making promises is choosing this liberating-covenantal faith against any other life....living by a single loyalty among a mass of options" (Exodus, New Interpreter's Bible).

    Overwhelmed and distracted but still, remembering

    Perhaps we're overwhelmed by the options and possibilities before us, and "distraction" is a mild term for what we suffer.

    Remembering our baptism, and who we are, and most importantly, who God is, up on that mountain, or down by the river, in the inner recesses of our hearts and in the life we share together, makes us grateful that God has given us such beautiful tent posts, these Ten Commandments, that we might find strength and shelter in a wilderness of our own.

    Even in the wilderness, we are never alone. Amen.

    PIcture_of_Kate.jpg

    The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 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:

    Walter Brueggemann, The Covenanted Self, 20th century
    "Imagine what would happen if the church talked honestly about deabsolutizing all our quarrelsome addictions of mind and heart that tend to make all sorts of things absolutes that draw our life into knotted stomachs, clenched fists, and stern speech!" (Note from KM: I would add "angry social media posts" as well.)

    Dorothy Soelle, 20th century
    "God dreams for us today. Today, at this moment, God has an image and hope for what we are becoming. We should not let God dream alone."

    Immanuel Kant, 18th century
    "Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law."

    Calvin Coolidge, 20th century
    "I sometimes wish that people would put a little more emphasis upon the observance of the law than they do upon its enforcement."

    Isadora Duncan, 20th century
    "We may not all break the Ten Commandments, but we are certainly all capable of it. Within us lurks the breaker of all laws, ready to spring out at the first real opportunity."

    John Adams, 18th century
    "The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my religion."

    Additional reflection questions on Philippians 3:4b-14:
    by Kathryn Matthews

    On what do you base your confidence? We live in a culture that tells us our "net worth" in terms of dollars and asks us for our resume so that we can line up our degrees, our accomplishments, our credits in order to be evaluated as worthy or qualified. We're told that we must earn our rewards and that we somehow deserve recognition, security, and money based on things we do.

    Sometimes we even think that certain practices will bring us inner peace, a variation on the doing/reward system. Of course, in our culture, "who we are" also matters. There's no question that being born into the "right" family or having the "right" connections--through no doing of our own--can bring even more rewards.

    Our "ducks in a row"

    Of what do you "boast"? What does it mean in our culture, or in your own life, to "have all your ducks in a row"? Did you ever try to do that in your spiritual life, or in any of the areas of your life?

    When have you felt like you had finally "made" it? In what ways can you relate to Paul's description of his past accomplishments? How does your experience of faith relate to that kind of confidence?

    What would it feel like to consider all those degrees and accomplishments, our resumes and our permanent records from school, as "rubbish"? What about the folks in your church: would they be able to relate to their achievements as "loss" and "rubbish"?

    Faith as a gift

    Many of us have been "raised in the faith," and perhaps haven't stopped to think about it as a gift that transforms our lives, or even to think of our lives as needing transformation. Do the members of your church think of faith as something we have or hold or live with, or do they think of themselves as being held by God, as being grasped by Christ, as being Christ's "own"?

    How might the folks in your church relate to the feeling of striving toward a goal that is "not yet"? What are the "not yet" experiences of your life, and in the lives of the people of your church? How is God still speaking today, encouraging you and your church onward toward "the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus"?

    What are our prisons today?

    Paul wrote this letter from prison. What are the prisons in which we live today? In what ways do we find joy and vision even through "bars" and "walls" that enclose us?

    What are the twists and turns that our lives take, in the midst of this journey or race that Paul (and all people of faith) run? In what ways does a life of relative comfort affect our perception and understanding of the life of faith?

    Paul has gone from comfort and security and, in many ways, righteousness rooted in himself to the righteousness of God. How can we relate to that today?


    Lectionary texts

    Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

    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 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. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 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.

    When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."

    with

    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 an 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.

    or

    Isaiah 5:1-7

    Let me sing for my beloved
       my love-song concerning his vineyard:
    My beloved had a vineyard
       on a very fertile hill.
    He dug it and cleared it of stones,
       and planted it with choice vines;
       he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
          and hewed out a wine vat in it;
    he expected it to yield grapes,
       but it yielded wild grapes.

    And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
       and people of Judah,
    judge between me
       and my vineyard.
    What more was there to do for my vineyard
       that I have not done in it?
    When I expected it to yield grapes,
       why did it yield wild grapes?

    And now I will tell you
       what I will do to my vineyard.
    I will remove its hedge,
       and it shall be devoured;
    I will break down its wall,
       and it shall be trampled down.
    I will make it a waste;
       it shall not be pruned or hoed,
       and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
    I will also command the clouds
       that they rain no rain upon it.

    For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
       is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah
       are his pleasant planting;
    he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
       righteousness, but heard a cry!

    with

    Psalm 80:7-15

    Restore us,
       O God of hosts;
    let your face shine,
       that we may be saved.
    You brought a vine
       out of Egypt;
    you drove out the nations
       and planted it.

    You cleared the ground
       for it;
    it took deep root
       and filled the land.
    The mountains were covered
       with its shade,
    the mighty cedars
       with its branches;
    it sent out its branches
       to the sea,
    and its shoots to the River.

    Why then have you broken down
       its walls,
    so that all who pass along the way
       pluck its fruit?
    The boar from the forest
       ravages it,
    and all that move in the field
       feed upon it.

    Turn again,
       O God of hosts;
    look down from heaven,
       and see;
    have regard
       for this vine,
    the stock that your strong hand
       planted.

    Philippians 3:4b-14

    If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

    Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

    Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

    Matthew 21:33-46

    [And Jesus said:] "Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.' So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."

    Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures:
       'The stone that the builders rejected
            has become the cornerstone;
         this was the Lord's doing,
            and it is amazing in our eyes'?
    "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."

    When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.


    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."


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