Sermon Seeds: Faith: Against the Odds
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 15
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Jeremiah 23:23-29 with Psalm 82
Worship resources for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time are at Worship Ways
Sample sermon on Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Additional reflection on Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 by Karen Georgia Thompson
Faith: Against the Odds
by Kathryn M. Matthews
Our culture loves superheroes. From comic books to movies and all sorts of paraphernalia, we find many ways to express our enthusiasm for “characters” (imaginary, of course) who can perform great deeds of courage and strength, always for the sake of others and with a sense of high calling. Our culture also loves great athletes, those who run the race and compete for the prize, and win. The very best, the gold medal winners if you will, are those who seem to have something extra, something mysteriously powerful that lifts them above the rest. Our popular culture holds these models up for us.
The Letter to the Hebrews holds up as examples and inspiration those ancestors in faith who endured much and accomplished marvelous things, all “through faith.” It was not through their own “super powers” but through the power of God that they were able to do these amazing things, from crossing the Red Sea on dry land to shutting the mouths of lions and quenching raging fires. These faithful ones have run the race and now are watching us as we run ours. Looking over the history of your congregation, of the United Church of Christ, of the whole church, what stories and examples of powerful faith have inspired you and your church?
A litany of saints
The long history of Israel by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews starts to sound very much like a litany, or a great sermon, as one example after another is given of amazing deeds done “by faith.” The “cloud of witnesses” includes martyrs and military leaders, prophets and kings, women and men who trusted in God and persevered, or were led, through the worst that life can send our way. What is our relationship with these pioneers of the faith? How does their story fit with ours?
Eugene Peterson’s translation of verse 40 in The Message offers one understanding: “God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.” That suggests that our faith is also not complete apart from theirs. Gary E. Peluso-Verdend describes this beautifully: “Imagine a race, staggered over time, that no one can finish until the last of the participants has entered.” He pictures a cloud of witnesses assembled near the starting line (New Proclamation Year C 2007). No wonder that they’re gathered there: they are watching a race that is still going on! The race, of course, is not a sprint but a long-distance one, perhaps like a Boston Marathon of Faith. And it is a race not for sport or entertainment but one with utmost importance.
Past, present and future faith
Walter Brueggemann describes a past/present/future view of the story of the faith community in which we share “a past of life-giving miracles, a future of circumstance-denying promise, and a present tense of neighbors in fidelity. This testimony matters. It matters to stay in this truth. It matters to practice this version of life” (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope).
The story of amazing deeds from the past, the story of immovable resolve and faithful following of God’s will, inspires us today to be faithful where we are, to keep on keeping on, no matter what is happening around us, no matter how things appear. Things are still unfolding, and just as last week’s reading (the passage before this one in Hebrews) spoke of things unseen, there is still much more of the story to be told.
Living our faith as part of the larger story
How are we going to participate in the unfolding? Are we telling the story, giving testimony about what God is doing right here, right now? Are we connecting our own story to that of the saints who went before us, as well as those who will come after us?
As we prepare to take our turn at running the race, we’re told to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” What sort of things might represent “weights” that we need to put aside? Are we carrying guilt, illusions, addictions, selfishness and greed? Are we carrying ambition and self-centeredness? Are we carrying heartaches and grudges that we could put down, and in so doing, lighten our load?
Keeping our eye on Jesus as we run
However, just laying aside whatever weighs us down in this race is not enough; we’re instructed to keep our eye on Jesus, who ran this same route before us and knows it well. Jesus, who has set the pace and made it clear that he doesn’t expect anything of us that he wasn’t willing to undergo himself.
Of course, a price has been paid for the amazing deeds accomplished by faith even by people in our own time. Many of us remember the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and some of us can remember the courageous sacrifice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Those are only two examples of such heroes, those without “superpowers” but possessing a kind of marvelous faith that sustained them in the worst of circumstances. It was as if they could “see” something with their hearts that their eyes could not yet perceive.
Who are the saints?
In the meantime, we live our lives in the church with other aspiring saints, sisters and brothers who share these ancestors and these hopes. Walter Brueggemann preached a moving sermon at the 100th anniversary of his boyhood church, and he used part of this passage as one of his texts. He speaks of the “saints” of the past as being those “through whom the light has shown….that is, who are kind and generous toward others and who respect people not like us,” those who “stay present in love and mercy where there is dying and illness and violence.”
Like many others, Brueggemann describes faith as trust in a God who has made promises that are true. While the text takes the long view of things, we too, in our day, are part of the story, and our struggle, and our deeds, matter as well. Like many others, Brueggemann describes faith as trust in a God who has made promises that are true. He also speaks of the “intergenerational mystery” of the church: “How their lives count depends on our lives. How well they did is determined by how well we do” (Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).
Are we listening? How will we respond? There is cost to all of this, of course, yet there is of course “a joy” that is set before us, too. What is the source of that joy, and what glimpses have you had of its beauty?
My niece is raising her children in the Jewish faith of their father, who is a plastic surgeon specializing in pediatrics. She tells a story about their son, Summit, whose teacher at their Jewish nursery school was talking one day about the great heroes of their faith — Moses, Samson, Joshua, Esther, Daniel, and so on. The teacher compared the ancient heroes to our popular superheroes, like Superman, and then she went on to say that even today we know some superheroes in our own lives, like Summit’s daddy who is a superhero because he helps children who have been hurt to be all fixed up again. Summit seemed anxious when he heard this comparison, and he came up to the teacher very quietly, tugged on her arm, and in a worried voice, said, “Teacher, my daddy can’t fly.”
I’m reminded of Summit by this passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, which is really more like a sermon than a letter; it sounds like a pastor working very hard to encourage his little church, an early Christian community that had already endured persecution and hardship but was starting to falter in its enthusiasm and faithfulness. They were tempted to go backward instead of forward, so the writer, or preacher, of this text wanted to exhort them to keep on keeping on…and to draw inspiration from the great heroes of their faith.
The most important thing, the author says, is to keep your eyes on Jesus — after all, he already traveled this road ahead of us — like a pioneer of faith who blazed a trail for us, and he’s reached the goal we’re aiming for — heaven — the “far better country” that we all hope for. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, seated at the right hand of God, he preaches, and root your faith in the assurance that God’s purposes will unfold right before our eyes, unfold in our own lives.
God, the preacher says, will surely and ultimately reign in heaven and on earth. And that reign, which we long for and pray for each time we say the prayer that Jesus taught us, will surely come. Now, in the meantime, along the way, there’s going to be some difficult times, and we’re going to be challenged, and we’re going to face hardship, he says, just as Jesus’ own path to God was by way of a cross. But we must never give up.
After all, the writer says, look back on those folks who came before us — our ancestors in faith — look at what they endured — and they persevered: the Hebrew slaves escaping Egypt, crossing over the Red Sea like dry land! Joshua and his forces surrounding the intimidating walls of Jericho, which came a-tumbling down, just like the song says; Rahab, who risked her own life to help Joshua’s spies; and there were lots more, the writer says, who has already spoken at length of Abraham and Moses — there were also Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets: by faith, they endured and accomplished great things; by faith — by trust in God’s purposes, they suffered stoning and the sword; they went about destitute, persecuted, tormented; but — by faith — they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. You get the idea. They were superheroes.
Or were they? I think that’s where Summit’s cautionary note is helpful. What makes these stories so powerful is remembering that these folks were not super-human. They were human beings, flawed, weak, and sinful, all those things that we are. Do we need to be reminded that even Moses himself was not permitted by God to enter the Promised Land, because he had “broken faith” with God? And these other great heroes: they are known not only for great deeds, but for other things as well: we’ve heard of Samson and Delilah, and David and Bathsheba. If you haven’t, then you’ve missed most of the Hollywood movies about the Bible.
So, if these great ancestors of ours could be deeply flawed yet deeply faithful, I find that very, very encouraging when I have to run such a long, long race. Maybe we need some great coaches, coaches who understand that it’s not by our own power — let alone any super-powers — that we endure or accomplish or even live — no, we do all these things only and always by the power of God within us that is able, as the letter to the Ephesians says, to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (3:20).
We imagine that, as we warm up, train, get suited up, as we run the race, lap after lap, mile after mile (a timely image during this Olympics season) toward tht ultimate goal — that far better country that we long for — we can picture that we’re not all alone in this effort. No, we don’t run this race in vain, and we don’t run it alone. According to this letter, we can take courage, find strength, seek inspiration, let our spirits be lifted by the assurance that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” who are watching us and who are wholeheartedly cheering us on. You know that they know where the power comes from.
Of course, that cloud of witnesses holds a lot more people than Barak, David, Gideon, and Samson, people who lived long ago and far away. The ancient preacher who wrote this sermon to a struggling congregation seems, in his own time, to be saying, “God is still speaking.” I think about the stories, then, that the nuns used to tell us about the great heroes of my childhood faith.
I remember reading about Father Damien, who went to Molokai in Hawaii to minister to the lepers and became one of them; I remember hearing about Catherine of Siena, the great doctor of the church who wasn’t afraid to lecture the pope (I especially loved that she was my patron saint and lectured the pope); I think it was Vincent de Paul who traded places with a man condemned to the galleys, just like Father Maximilian Kolbe many centuries later who took the place of a young man condemned to be executed in a concentration camp; and of course I remember my favorite saint of all (probably everyone’s favorite), Francis of Assisi, who not only loved animals but also went to Rome and gave the pope something to think about (maybe this is the job of saints, telling the powerful where things have gone wrong, as prophets do often do).
Francis was instrumental in the beginning of the renewal of the church after the corruption of the high Middle Ages, but apparently it wasn’t enough because we still needed the Reformation; and speaking of the Reformation, in our corner of the church we have our saints, too, our pilgrims, our abolitionists and missionaries, our Antoinette Brown, the first woman ever ordained, our Lemuel Haynes, the first African American person ordained by a mainline church, our Bill Johnson, the first openly gay person ordained (Bill is still alive, but he’s a saint who has cheered on many a fellow Christian, many of them in authorized ministry who continue to bless the church with their gifts): in any case, this letter tells us that even those who have died are still with us. They still care about us; they’re watching us, and they’re cheering us on.
Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage speaks about those who have gone before us: “God had a better plan for us: that they faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours” (The Message). That means that we do, matters, not just to us, but to those who have gone before and are now watching us as we run the same race.
And it matters to us that those who follow us will have examples of faith to fortify them as they, too, run the course. Not only because we tell them these stories about people long ago, but because we will have added our own stories as well. Our faith is not “apart from” the faith of our great-great-grandchildren. We’re part of something greater than ourselves, a bigger picture, a more ancient story.
As we hunger and thirst in this day for the coming of God’s reign, for God’s shalom, for peace and healing in the world — in places close to us, like our homes and families and neighborhoods, and in places far away, like the Sudan and Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; in France and Turkey and Germany — we know that the race we run is long and hard, that wholeness is so often a faraway place. So much of the time, peace and justice are “things unseen,” and yet faith, according to the author of this same letter, faith is the assurance of things unseen.
We may stumble, we may even fall, on our way, just like those heroes and saints long ago. But we know we’re not alone, that our eyes are fixed on Jesus and, if we listen closely, we can hear and feel the encouragement of those who have gone before, those who are still watching the race that is not over yet.
I remember once hearing an interview of a member of the United States Olympic women’s gymnastics team who was asked, “Is it hard to be a team when you’re also competing against one another?” The young woman never hesitated: “When I’m up there competing,” she responded, “all I hear is my teammates cheering me on, and it makes me do my best.”
Remember that song from Carousel, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”? It may bring a tear to the eye, but isn’t it saying the same thing? God does still speak through musical theatre, too, after all. The father who made lots of terrible mistakes still, still loved his daughter so much and wanted her to know that she was not going to live her life without his presence watching over her, and I suspect that if you asked people why the song moves them so much that they’ll say that it helps them to feel that spiritual presence of a God who loves them, and the people who love them who are now with God, watching over them and cheering them on until they reach that great goal that lies before us all, the goal we share just as we share this road together. They’re not going to leave us to run this race alone, or in vain.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July 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:
Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, 21st century
“Scripture is much more full of hope than of journalism….”
Confession of 1967, Presbyterian Church USA
“Life is a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage.”
John Philip Newell, 21st century
“[W]e need to find ways of sharing our intimate experiences of the Mystery, for we are one. It is through one another that we will know more of the Life that flows within us all. It is through sharing our fragments of insight that we will come to a fuller picture of the One who is at the heart of each life.”
Mother Teresa, 20th century
“Profound joy of the heart is like a magnet that indicates the path of life.”
Franz Kafka, 20th century
“Even the merest gesture is holy if it is filled with faith.”
William Sloane Coffin Jr., Credo, 20th century
“I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.”
Gordon B. Hinckley, 20th century
“Our kindness may be the most persuasive argument for that which we believe.”
Is it well?
In a few brief minutes of watching the news there are several contemporary reminders that all is not well. The news of the past weeks and months brought reminders of an economic downturn that has caused many to lose jobs, home, and financial stability. While there are indicators and indices that say we are on the road to economic recovery, many people are still “under-water” financially, grappling with the challenges of life in these economic times while taking care of the basic needs of eating, sleeping, and having a roof over their heads. They may be crying for God in their midst.
I watched as past reports continued with updates regarding the effects of the spread of oil in the Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The presence of these millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico has endangered life for a long time into the future. Pictures of wildlife covered in muck and videos of birds laboring to breathe as their feathers and nostrils were covered in oil were everywhere. Pictures of white sand beaches in stark contrast with the globs of oils remain in our memories. There too are cries for God’s presence.
Most recently, we have been inundated with the loss of lives of our youth and young people. The massacre of children in Newtown, Connecticut, brought the sad reality of death and violence to the many families whose children and loved ones went off to school but never returned. They cried for the presence of God to be felt in their midst.
In Florida, the country watched and grieved once again at the death of Trayvon Martin. The outcome of the trial riveted the nation. Opinions were split and many were left wondering at the crisis in the judiciary system. In the midst of it all was a family grieving the loss of a child, a community grieving the loss of a citizen, and a country mourning the grief of long held prejudices. They too are crying for God to be present.
Crying out to God
There are those who continue to grieve the loss of life that occurred at the beginning of the disaster in each of these situations. Those lives are not forgotten. Left in their wake are women, men and children wondering why their loved ones are gone? Where is God in the midst of all this? Creation cries out. People cry out. Our souls cry out, as we too wonder where God is. Does God not see? Does God not hear the cries of God’s people?
After reading the words of the psalmist, I paused and looked at the world around me with new eyes, with a different lens that embraced the angst of the psalmist looking at the pain of a suffering community. The words of the psalmist bring to mind an unnamed truth, unpleasant realities that provide very few words to describe the angst brought on by community suffering. Has your heart ever been so burdened that you had no words to explain how you were feeling, and wanted to cry out in anguish?
Sorrow and loss in every age
Little is known about why Psalm 80 was written, but considering the context for the pain, suffering and hopelessness presented by the psalmist would help us understand how an entire community could think God is not present with them. There are those who speculate that the psalm was written in response to the war that brought about the destruction by Assyria of the Northern Kingdom of Israel more than seven hundred years before Jesus was born. Yes, war could do that to a people. The loss of their country and the occupation of the land by others could really bring about the sort of questioning and response that the psalmist expresses here.
But what if that were not the reason? What if we never really know why the psalm was written? Do we really need to know what caused the pain and suffering of the people and what would drive them to the place of coming together to beseech God’s presence to be with them? What then do we do with this unexplained suffering and questioning of God?
I have to admit, I found places where I could understand the plight of the people. The psalmist recollects their past experience with God. God was present with them as they were liberated from Egypt. God was present with them as they sought a new home and made a new life for themselves. God was present with them as they found a place in a new community, a new territory and began to flourish as a community. Given their experience with the presence of the Divine in the past, is it no wonder they were confused with what they were experiencing in their present?
Vine-keeper and shepherd
As far as the people were concerned, God was no longer listening to them. This God that they understood and knew as shepherd, as vine-keeper, was absent. Truly, the God they knew could in no way, shape, or form be present and watch while they suffered as they were suffering. The images of God as shepherd and vine-keeper were images the people cherished. Both were caring, nurturing images. Both images evoked a tenderness and concern they were not experiencing. Where was God? Why was God no longer present? Why did God leave them to suffer?
“Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (vv.3, 7, 19). The cry for restoration occurs three times. The cry comes after the psalmist implores God to “give ear” and “come to save us” (v.1). The cry for restoration comes again as the psalmist states the people’s case of suffering (vv.4-6) and the refrain occurs again at the end of the psalm (v.18) after the psalmist again points out the plight of the people. Oh that I could write a psalm or two, they would be community prayers, songs of communal lament.
I want to think the psalmist writes from a place of unrest and dis-ease brought about by the plight of the community. The burden on the heart of the psalmist produces this plea to the Divine on behalf of the people. I find that there are moments when my heart is burdened. There are times when what I hear and see make me want to cry out before God.
Where is God now?
I too want to know where God is amidst devastation of flood, famine, violence and industrial accidents. I too want to cry out asking for Divine intervention for communities that are broken in heart and wounded in spirit. I want to write my own words of lament to God on behalf of those who seek to understand and want to know: How can God be present amidst the hurt, pain and suffering of entire communities? I too want to cry: Restore us, O God! Let you face shine that we may be saved! In those moments I know my soul is not well. I experience a sense of loss, pain and even anger. My soul is not well. I want to know: Where? Where is God? Where is Divine presence?
The psalmist offers a place to question and wrestle with the juxtaposition of caring God and community devastation, shepherd God and injured sheep, vine-keeping God and broken vines. The psalmist does not end by naming an absent God who is uncaring, but instead rests in a hope that God who was deemed present in a turmoil-filled, change-driven past, can be counted on to be present in every situation.
The psalmist understands that life happens. The walls are broken down. The enemy is laughing. The people are eating bread of tears and drinking tears to full measure. The boar from the forest ravages the vine. The vine is vulnerable to all that can devour it. Return O God; take care of your people. Return O God; protect your people. Return O God; heal the brokenness of your people. Return O God, come back, help, save, restore your people. Do we dare write our own psalms of lament in our contemporary setting, where we live our lives now? Does our theology leave room for imploring God’s presence on behalf of those who suffer?
Well with my soul
I must confess that I am the product of a Christian tradition that has left me with a long list of “old’ hymns that come and go at will depending the occasion. Among my favorites is Horatio Spafford’s “It is Well with My Soul.” The first stanza of that hymn is familiar to many of us:
When peace, like a river, attends my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
The story is told that Spafford wrote the hymn following two major traumatic events in his life. The first was the Chicago Fire of 1871 which brought him to financial ruin. The second was the death of his four daughters who died at sea when the ship they were on with his wife collided with another ship as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It is said that Stafford wrote the hymn as his ship passed the spot in the Atlantic where his daughters lost their lives. I am of the opinion that this is Stafford’s own version of the psalm of lament. Stafford does not question, he manages to find peace in knowing God is present even in his moment of grief and suffering.
There are those moments when we rant and rave and express the sickness that we feel when we view injustice and devastation in our world. When we cry out for justice on behalf of people and community because our souls refuse to be well amidst the devastation and injury we see that is the psalm of lament. After the lament, maybe, just maybe we too can sing, “It is well, it is well, with my soul,” as we appreciate the presence of God with us in time of trouble.
The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as the Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in the Office of General Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
For further reflection:
William Shakespeare, 16th century
“My grief lies all within,
And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul.”
Margery Allingham, 20th century
“Mourning is not forgetting…It is an undoing. Every minute tie has to be untied and something permanent and valuable recovered and assimilated from the dust.”
Augustine, 5th century
“The desire is thy prayers; and if thy desire is without ceasing, thy prayer will also be without ceasing. The continuance of your longing is the continuance of your prayer.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, 19th century
“The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 20th century
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
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 watchtower 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!
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim,
shine forth before Ephraim
and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
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 on it.
Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted.
They have burned it with fire,
they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke
of your countenance.
But let your hand be upon the one
at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life,
and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back – those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal.
Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the LORD. Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
God has taken God’s place
in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods
God holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
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.”