Sermon Seeds: Beautiful Law

Third Sunday in Lent Year B

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

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Psalm 19
Additional Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17
Additional reflection on 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25 for One Great Hour of Sharing

Weekly Theme:
Beautiful Law

by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)

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

katehuey150.jpgIt must have been really tough to speak of faith in an “Age of Reason,” when everyone around you was feeling their intellectual oats, so to speak, throwing over the old patterns of thought and the lens through which they viewed their existence (more than a little like us today!). Pascal didn’t shrink from the challenge, but he was no dry theologian, either: he was more like a poet, and a defender of religion who wrestled with it all the while. I like that in a writer, especially one writing about faith.

Today’s psalm feels like two meditations in one: the first on nature’s magnificent witness to God’s awesome power and glory, and the second suddenly bringing the focus down, from the farthest reaches of space to the law, if not printed on a page, then living in the human heart, given by God and guiding the life of the community of faith. However abrupt the transition, the two meditations are closely related, perhaps even two sides of the same coin, for many people of faith. There are those who say that there are two “books,” Scripture and nature, and we need to “read” both. Here Celtic spirituality is particularly helpful, in fact, it’s where I first heard of the “two book” approach to listening for the still speaking God. Philip Newell’s beautiful work, The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality, is an excellent way to approach creation as a book that speaks to us of God.

With open minds and eager hearts, then, we read Pascal’s marvelous meditation on the vastness of outer space, where our psalm begins, and listen for nature singing of God’s handiwork: “Nature entire in her full and lofty majesty….let [us] regard that blazing light, placed like an eternal lamp to illuminate the world; let the earth appear to [us] but a point within the vast circuit which that star describes; and let [us] marvel that this immense circumference is itself but a speck from the viewpoint of the stars that move in the firmament.” Pascal challenges us to use our imagination, then, for all that is beyond our ability to see, for “this visible world is but an imperceptible element in the great bosom of nature,” which is “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. This is the most perceivable feature of the almightiness of God, so that our imagination loses itself in this thought” (from Pascal’s Pensees, in Durant’s The Age of Louis XIV, Volume VIII in The Story of Civilization).

Infinity and anxiety

Getting lost in our imaginings is not always a pleasant or reassuring thing, of course. Even Pascal admits that “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me” (emphasis added). That was one line that has remained with me all these years. But so has his exquisite reflection on the polar opposite of the vastness of space, as Durant conveys it: Pascal, he says, pondered “another infinity – the infinitely small….Our reason wavers perplexed and appalled between the infinitely vast and the infinitely minute.” It is as if we live suspended between these two overwhelming realities, and in both cases, we feel so small and perhaps so…disorganized and aimless in the circumference of our own lives. Pascal shares our anxiety, and hopes that such a deep awareness will inspire humility in us as we “contemplate these marvels in silence” rather than “explore them with presumption” (Pensees, in Durant’s The Age of Louis XIV, Volume VIII in The Story of Civilization). (That last line is a cautionary one to us today, in the age of science!)

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

From outer space to the law within

And then, all of sudden, our focus draws in to the law of God, Torah: the decrees, precepts, commandments and ordinances of God, who has given them not as burden or taskmaster but as gift, perfect, life-giving, wise, simple, right, clear, enlightening and enduring. All these good things, and more, bringing us into a harmony with all the grandeur above and around us, from the immense but orderly courses of the sun and moon and stars to the infinitesimal and unfathomable minuteness of the atom and its inner workings. There is order in all this, and glory and goodness, the psalmist sings, and our own lives participate in that glory and goodness, especially when we find our place and rhythm within the order God provides. Rather than fear or guilt, we feel amazement at how all this unfolds in the grand and sweeping vision of the Creator God.

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

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

Law and grace, both

Still, the whole subject of law provokes mixed reactions, especially from us Christians. When we speak about salvation and grace, we often look back to the early arguments about the law, especially in the writings of Paul (the Pharisee, as we recall). Charles Wiley suggests that “Psalm 19 cries out for an account of law that can hold together Paul’s expression in Romans 7 that the law ‘held us captive” and the affirmation in Psalm 19 that the law is ‘sweeter than honey’.” Wiley describes the three ways the early Reformer, John Calvin, described the law: as mirror, fence, and guide. The first reflects back and judges a person, and tells the cold, hard truth as it does; the second makes some kind of order possible in society, restraining bad human behavior; and the third, most important one, provides a guide for our living: “for those who have been called to salvation, the law is a gift, a guide to know how to live life as a Christian” (Feasting on the Word Year B Vol. 2).

For the preacher who wants to encourage a congregation in its Lenten reflections, Psalm 19 suggests an entry point into deeper spiritual growth that may be unexpected in Lent, the season of repentance and self-denial: Thomas Edward McGrath suggests that we add wonder to our Lenten discipline. We are growing numb to the notion of “a billion” of anything, now that hundreds of billions of dollars are in the nightly news, every night. But a dollar is not a galaxy of stars: “Can the human mind,” McGrath asks, “imagine billions of galaxies? How much is a ‘billion’? If you planted a thousand tulip bulbs each day from the day Jesus was born until today, you would still need to plant 1,000 bulbs every day for the next 750 years to reach one billion.” (This may not be a good thing to think about too much while watching the evening news these days, considering things like the national debt, or how many hundreds of billions are spent on a given war.)

In a sense, we live in two “universes,” the one with stars and infinite spaces, and the one down here on earth, the one that needs its own kind of order, God’s law, which brings, McGrath writes, “order to the otherwise chaotic moral universe of human existence, no less than God’s governance brings order to the heavens…the majestic realities of outer space may prepare us to encounter the majestic realities of inner space.” McGrath suggests that a preacher might unpack just one phrase, such as “enlightens the eyes,” connecting it to the story of Jesus and the lawyer who asked about the law, and about who his neighbor was, the lawyer who needed to have his own eyes opened by the story Jesus told (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).

Repentance, wonder, awe

Wonder and awe do indeed provide a very different path in Lent, unexpected in a season associated with repentance and doing without. Do we hear the song of creation, the proclamation of the sun and stars? Do we join, at least with our hearts, in the song of praise, wordless but full of power? Susan Marie Smith claims that nothing will stop nature from praising God: “Each sparrow is counted – and according to Psalm 19, even if humanity forgets the source of life and all good gifts, creation itself does not forget….the ironic hope is that deep in our own destruction, were we to prevent one another and other creatures from honoring God’s longing for companionship, nonetheless, in the brilliant sun, racing across the heaven, making day and night – with neither chirp nor hum nor growl nor speech – God’s glory would still be proclaimed, and God’s word would still be imparted to the end of the world” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). Does meditating on creation help you to see God’s law as beautiful?

For further reflection:

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

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

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

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

C. S. Lewis, 20th century
“I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.”
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
“God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.”

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

Additional Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17:

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

We may think there are many laws from God in the Hebrew Scriptures, but we’re told by scholars that this is the last time God speaks commands to the people; they are so frightened that they ask for Moses as an intermediary from then on. Walter Brueggemann’s powerful writing on this passage places it at the heart of the exodus narrative, as it gives the people a sense of who they are because of what God has done for them, and continues to do for and with them. Rather than being a short list of legalistic prohibitions and requirements, the commands give shape and expression to the people’s relationship with the God who brought them out of slavery and away from Pharaoh’s oppressive system. They speak of God’s holiness and of love and justice for our neighbors.

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

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

Where does your congregation get its sense of right and wrong, its sense of morality? What is the story that tells you what to do, how to live? In what ways have you experienced exodus and, in Christian terms, resurrection? Are these commandments rules from long ago that should be etched in stone, in our courthouses, for symbolic reasons perhaps more than practical ones, or are they etched deeply into our hearts, where we long for the wholeness and newness that God offers us? Do you think our society sees these commands as matters of personal, private conduct, or of a public and communal morality that would indeed care, together, for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst?

Rather than declaring our larger society a “Christian” one, perhaps we should see ourselves as a small, counter-cultural force, a community that has something to say to the larger forces pressing upon us, the militarism, the materialism, the greed and consumerism that set themselves up as rival gods to the God who brought us up, out of our own experiences of bondage and death. Brueggemann speaks eloquently of the power of just such a community, long ago: “The little community that begins in pain and ends in dancing, that stops its life for Sabbath, that cancels debts for the sake of neighborliness, in the end this community has in its midst the force for life, and is the wave of the future” (Texts that Linger, Words that Explode: Listening to Prophetic Voices).

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (

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Additional reflection on 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25 for One Great Hour of Sharing
“God’s Foolishness is Wiser than Human Wisdom”
by Mary Schaller Blaufuss

The World Humanitarian Summit is asking for the input, particularly of those affected by disaster, to shape the world’s systems of response. We live at an interesting time in world politics where international economic organizations and governments are seeking out the wisdom of faith communities. For example, the World Bank and the U.S. State Department are realizing the power, influence and wisdom of faith communities and have created new staff positions to relate specifically to diverse faith communities. It seems important to me that faith communities use these openings to help shape the world’s agenda for who, how and what humanitarian assistance will be put into place – shaping a world response guided by the foolishness of God’s power in Christ crucified and God’s weakness in love for all.

Mary_Schaller_Blaufuss.jpgWe have an example that has emerged again during the last year as the Ebola virus has vehemently struck people and communities in countries of western Africa. The U.S. media included this as front page stories for several weeks – especially as the threat of movies such as “Contagion” seemed to mirror potential reality of affected people getting on an airplane to spread the disease around the U.S. as well as that “far-off place” of nations in the western part of Africa. Richard Preston’s New York Times bestseller, The Hot Zone, seemed more than an isolated incident.
But to me, the real story of the U.S. faith communities’ involvement in Ebola existed long before The Hot Zone became a NY Times bestseller or the U.S. media fueled fires of global pandemic as it affects the U.S., almost without reference to those it really is affecting in other parts of the world. That story is one of on-going support provided by faith communities in those very countries in western Africa now finding themselves at the center of a frightful pandemic; it’s also a story about the connections for local knowledge-sharing we can support and accompany.

ebola_oghs.jpgWhen people became unexplainably sick in Nigeria and Liberia with widespread fear – with the disease of Ebola they had never before experienced, those who cared directly for the sick were often people from local churches caring for their family members and neighbors. Global faith communities could see to it that they received personal protection equipment and personal training on how to use it effectively. When people in villages, suspect of outsiders, refused to admit them into their communities or to listen to their advice, it was local and trusted insiders who could share knowledge of how to contain and treat the disease. Christian health organizations in other parts of the African continent such as the Congo, that had already battled Ebola since the early 1970s, could assist neighbors in strengthening health systems to respond appropriately. Global faith communities could help encourage and facilitate the actual visits and trainings for this knowledge sharing.    

ebola_2_oghs.pngGlobal organizations of the non-profit and government entities are recognizing this impact of faith communities as local, as trusted, as relationship building. It is foolishness that actually is powerful. Faith communities will need to be wise and not be taken over by the goals of other sectors – another reason why we need each other globally – to always keep our perspectives diverse and to continue to seek the vision of what God’s community of well-being and abundance really is. God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. And God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.

The Rev. Dr. Mary Schaller Blaufuss serves as Global Sharing of Resources Team Leader and Executive for Volunteer Ministries in Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

Lectionary texts

Exodus 20: 1-17

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

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

Psalm 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

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

John 2:13-22

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

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors

Lent and Easter

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.

There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.