Sermon Seeds: Our Whole Selves

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

Sermon Seeds

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

Focus Theme:
Our Whole Selves

by Kathryn Matthews Kate_SS_2017.jpg

During seminary, we 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.

A distant and difficult God

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. 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 easily loses 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 beautiful.

Responding to the inexpressible

However, I’m still thinking about the experience I had this 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.

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).

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.

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.

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).

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. But it also asks us, what does our presence bring to others? Does our face shine with love and concern for those we encounter?

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,” commonly used in religious circles but 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).

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.

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,” 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”? Do we see any connection between this goodness and the “material blessings of creation” that we’re called to share, especially with those in need? I have the people of Puerto Rico on my mind as I work on this reflection, and I wonder how we might “act out” our desire to live up to such an identity, that is, in sending more than thoughts and prayers–as we are able–to those in such urgent and pressing 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, God’s “presence is a sense of energy, courage, and divine accompaniment” (“Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible).  

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. 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 our therapeutic culture. It also provides rich subject matter for feminist reflection, since women have traditionally been conditioned to be 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.”

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.

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired last year 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:

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.

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 something 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.

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.

He 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. But 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.

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, 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.

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, 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.”

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, and few politicians, even 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, 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.)

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: “beauty that fades, on perishable pharaohs who know Joseph, on antiquated perceptions, on supposed truths that last for but a season.” 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, and at times 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 the Stillspeaking 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.


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 (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

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

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

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

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