Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A
1 Peter 2:19-25
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Living in Abundance
by Kathryn Matthews
Toward the end of the first century of this common era, what we usually call the first century "A.D.," the author of the Gospel of Luke wrote the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It is the second half, or Book Two, of his proclamation of the remarkable "things that had happened"--the good news of God's saving acts in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the continuation of Jesus' ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the early church.
We see this connection in the very first verse of the very first chapter of Acts, which says: "In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven..." and then Luke recounts the events that followed: the apostles getting themselves together and setting out on their mission to preach the good news that they had encountered in the person of Jesus Christ.
The "adventures" of the apostles
The Book of Acts tells us about Peter's early preaching, Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit (just as Jesus had promised), the conversion of thousands of people, healings and wonders, more preaching, meetings with the religious authorities, persecutions, the first deacons, more preaching, the stoning of Stephen, the conversion of Paul and his subsequent preaching, the growth of the church throughout the Mediterranean, more meetings and more preaching, escapes from prison, Paul's travels and adventures at sea, the council at Jerusalem, controversies, riots, trials, journeys, and, of course, more preaching.
This very brief description of the Book of Acts does not do it justice, so it would be helpful to sit down one quiet afternoon and read it from beginning to end. In between those stories and sermons are linking passages very much like this week's text, little summaries that come up from time to time along the way, and sound very much the same: in the midst of all these deeds--or better, in the midst of the Holy Spirit working through the apostles--the church flourished, counting more and more people as members, people who prayed together, shared their possessions, broke bread together, and devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.
How accurate is the picture?
The commentators do not agree about this passage from Acts and whether its description of the early Christian community is idealized or not. But does that matter? Long ago, in a far-off land, our ancestors in faith did the same things we do today: they bore witness by doing the things that followers of Jesus are called to do.
These marks identify us as distinctively Christian communities: devoting ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.
The church then, the church today
It would not be difficult to draw parallels between that first-century church and the church of the twenty-first century, to pull out our monthly church newsletters and find, here and there, the activities and programs by which we too strive to devote ourselves to study, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer.
This is how most of us have traditionally experienced church: through various gatherings of people, in person, engaged together in these pursuits.
This Bible study or adult education class or confirmation class or church school curriculum, that coffee hour or women's gathering or youth group outing or film series, this weekly communion service or that opening prayer, this Sunday morning service of worship, that Taizé service, this prayer at the side of one who is dying...these are the embodiments and expressions of our own, perhaps idealized but definitely shared life in faith.
How are we a people when we cannot gather?
At the center of the present global pandemic, of course, is the suffering of those who are most severely ill, the suffering of those who are dying (separated from the comfort of their families) and of those who care for them (often without adequate protection, rest, compensation or support - all pressing justice issues).
And then there are those grievously affected by the economic toll: those who have lost their income, their security, their childcare; those who are suffering from other illnesses, including mental illness exacerbated by loneliness and anxiety; those who cannot even hold funerals for their loved ones, let alone be with them at the end; in one way or another, we are sharing in an extraordinarily painful and challenging experience.
One of the concentric circles around that core of suffering is the harm done to our ability to gather, to be together, literally, to congregate as one would expect congregations to do. The need to quarantine and self-isolate and "social-distance" (a new verb?) by life-saving necessity over-rides our natural, human need and desire to come together, even though we are social beings by nature.
The ties that bind, even when we are apart
Our faith life expresses and embodies that deeply human need and aspiration, but these times call for flexibility, creativity and commitment from pastors and lay leaders alike, and the people who are not (at this moment) in the pews but are still, in very real ways, a people, a church, a "gathered community" that has to find new, alternative ways to experience "the ties that bind" us as one.
Rather than insisting on gathering in person and endangering those who are most vulnerable (isn't protecting the vulnerable at the core of the gospel?), pastors and church leaders (wtih a particular contribution by technically gifted members) are indeed finding ways even in the midst of the pandemic to "devote ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of prayer, and to prayer."
Those who are in need are receiving funds, food, assistance, compassion. During online worship, we experience the words "they broke bread at home" in a new light, as we each bring our own bread and juice and place it next to our laptop and wait for that moment when all of us onscreen share in the meal together.
The feeling of community from a distance
Granted, there are too many people who are not able, for myriad reasons, to share in that meal right now, including a lack of access to laptops, WiFi, etc. There are poignant images of residents in nursing homes with their hands on the glass of windows, and their families touching the glass on the other side; the question, "When will I hug my grandchildren again?" is never far from the minds of many of us.
So, for some of us, communion may have to be experienced in other ways, like meals delivered by caring neighbors, food banks distributing much needed supplies, or volunteers providing children the food they're missing because there's no school. Those are very real ways to experience "church" under these trying circumstances.
Reports from our churches
One of my two best friends, Mark Suriano, is the pastor of First Congregational UCC in Park Ridge, New Jersey, in an area that has a high number of Covid-19 cases and, sadly, many deaths. Each morning, he posts a reflection on his Facebook page that reaches out not only to his congregation but to the world beyond, and many of us listen faithfully for the spiritual nourishment it provides, day by day by day.
Mark's words are an antidote to the fearful, angry protests that loom too large in our news coverage, as he lifts up "the best of ourselves," those reliable, giving parts of ourselves that, for example, remember those who live in care facilities and are especially vulnerable to this illness. Yes, with great care he remembers those who have died, but he also urges his congregation to dig deep and find that "best" in themselves, for "when we are caught up in the truth and we are caught up in compassion not to hide from the suffering" we will "create space and openness in our hearts and lives" for people "around" us (maybe not so nearby, but still, there).
Poetry from a locked closet
Mark recalls the inspiring example of Saint John of the Cross, who was locked away by his brothers in a tiny closet with no light for a year - can we imagine that? - and what did he do? He wrote beautiful poetry that continues to bless us, five hundred years later. Mark speaks, then, of "the flowering of one's own humanity," and "an expansion of holding all things in loving gaze," remembering as people of faith that we trust that "God holds all of this in compassion," that "we ourselves can find our hearts expanding to begin to hold the world if not literally at least figuratively and graciously in love and to pray for and work for the best within us because in the end compassion is the hallmark of every person of faith..."
To me, this sounds like church, like community, like a people called by God to be a sign of God's love and compassion and faithfulness no matter what we are experiencing around us.
An illustration: On his way to his church office today, Mark stopped by the food pantry. Rather than constricting into anxious hoarding, the people are coming together and sharing: they have many more contributions, and volunteers are able to help twice as many people as normal, a sign that we know what needs to be done - we might say, we know what it means to be the church, like those early Christians, sharing God's abundance generously.
An abundance of sharing
Mark isn't alone, of course. My other best friend, Laurie Hafner, is a pastor in Florida, and she posts a daily meditation that consoles and inspires and provides the kind of pastoral care especially needed right now. Another friend in an online gathering expresses joy and amazement that her church's giving has actually gone up, as the people remember that the work and ministry of the church not only goes on but is especially needed right now, even if it's done in different ways.
Still another pastor in Pennsylvania takes his Facebook friends on a walk to ring the church bells on Easter morning - there may not be a gathered community in the sanctuary, but the whole town hears the proclamation that "Christ is risen!" And there is joy in his face as the bell resounds. "Are you in the area?" he asks. "You are hearing our bells among all the rest, telling the good news."
A different kind of wonder
Luke's text tells of those "ordinary activities" of being church - the worship, teaching and learning, the fellowship, communion and prayer - but it also speaks of something deeper, underneath it all. And that something deeper is underneath the different life of the church just as much today: awe.
We might not think of it that way, but our challenge is to turn our attention, our focus, so that we might stop in the midst of everything that is coming at us (including bad news and scary predictions), and take notice of the wonders and signs before us.
Focus on awe
Every church, in its own way, experiences wonders both large and small that merit our time and attention. But so often, in times both ordinary and extraordinary, the many activities of our life as a congregation get added to our busy calendars as more and more stress, rather than as something different, something qualitatively different from "ordinary daily activities": ministries.
Do our ministries feed us, or do they drain us? These early Christians, clearly, were fed by the things they did and the way they lived.
Time for sustenance and rest
More than one observer has asked whether this time of "enclosure," as I call it, might be experienced by many of us as a time to stop, take stock, and begin afresh (one day, we hope in the not too distant future) in our shared life so that those "things" we are about actually nourish rather than consume us.
Years ago, our church "took a nap" in January, which is easy to do in cold and snowy Cleveland; the only things on our schedule were gatherings for prayer, learning and worship, but no regular meetings were held.
A taste of what is possible
Many people are taking this time to consider ways we might make major changes, not small ones, in the way we live, both individually and communally. When we see that the air over New York is clearer, the waters in Italy are cleaner, the animals are ambling through formerly congested areas...don't we feel a pang of both guilt and longing for the world to be more at rest, for the earth to be less taxed, by the way we humans live?
If we followed the example of our ancestors in faith and shared more and used less, significantly so, how might this terrible time yield unexpected wisdom and blessing?
Lives will be changed
Our reading from Acts is short and yet, if we pay close attention, if we sit with it for a while, and if we're brave enough to share it with others, we may find that many of us "good Christians" would feel uncomfortable with what it's implying. (How ironic that this discomfiting text is read on Good Shepherd Sunday, when we hear the beloved and most comforting Psalm 23.)
Do you think we even begin to share our possessions with those around us so that everyone has enough? And is such sharing seen as justice-based, rooted in the gospel, not simply as something that warms our hearts?
Life "beyond" church?
Indeed, there are implications for the life we share beyond the walls of the church building, for our hope is that lives are affected by our ministries, changed in ways that may be imperceptibly small and yet quite powerful. Maybe, for some, transformation is sudden and dramatic and even long-lasting, but for others, it's incremental, born of everyday faithfulness and grace.
And yet, the experience of church, of being church in whatever way is possible right now, right here, can resound through their lives, after they return to the wider community, if they are filled with the Spirit and sent to share God's love and forgiveness with a world in need of both.
How does this sound to modern ears?
It isn't just individual lives that need to be transformed, we hear in this text, but the life of the community, the way we share the goods that God has given us all (because we are all God's children!). How does this reading sound to our 21st-century, capitalist, private-property ears, especially in a nation that (however correctly or incorrectly) claims to be Christian?
Perhaps the better question is how well the Christian majority has contributed to shaping a nation that shares with "glad and generous hearts." It seems that our shared fears and vulnerability during this pandemic have in fact softened the hearts of many toward those in need.
Maybe, just maybe, we will remember these lessons and keep our hearts and minds open to generosity and justice and the joy that they bring.
Frustration and thoughtfulness
The lessons we learn in church, in sermons and Bible study and the life we share, are a lens, a filter through which we experience the news that comes at us 24/7 from multiple sources, about the accumulation of property to excess, the movement of wealth upward in disproportionate and disgraceful ways that have profoundly threatened the middle class and endangered the poor.
We ought to feel frustrated when attempts by many in government to help those most affected by the pandemic are thwarted or unfairly redirected toward those who need that help less.
How will this affect the poor?
I always hear the voice of one church leader who said that we should ask, before each decision, "How will this affect the poor?" What would it look like, as we consider our shared national resources, if our leaders asked that question, and then re-shaped policies to protect those most in need, those most vulnerable to the actions of the wealthy and the powerful?
This includes not only "the poor," but our children, for example, and people with disabilities, veterans, and people who are older. It includes health care workers who are working in ICUs without enough personal protective equipment. It also includes God's beautiful creation and the animals and plants that inhabit it and have no voice in its mis-use and destruction.
Is there some way out?
What is your sense of how your own church would respond to a close reading of this text? We're probably tempted to side with those scholars who call this an idealized description of the life of those earliest Christians, a way of living that even they weren't really able to achieve. That certainly makes it easier to let ourselves off the hook.
And even if they were somehow able to live that way, we of course live in a very different world, with different economic systems, larger populations, different problems and challenges, and so on, and so on. Would a close reading of the text and a challenge to live in the same way as our ancestors in faith be simply "too much" for us?
New opportunities to give
Of course, today we also have different methods of sharing that those early believers didn't enjoy. I'm thinking of the multitude of charities around us, with more popping up on the Internet each day.
Rather than sharing only within one faith community and perhaps with those "at our door," we can respond with generous (and sometimes broken) hearts to the needs of refugees far away, to those who are hungry around the world, and even farther away, to generations we will never see but who will be affected by our actions and decisions concerning the care of the earth.
Remaining true to the ideal
In a very different time and place, where the right to private property is actually called "sacred," the challenge is to imagine how we can remain true to the heart of this ideal. Indeed, it will require the power of the Spirit to transform the way we live together, to make us more and more generous and less and less focused on our own security. Courage will be required of us, and creativity and a lively religious imagination just as much as a passionate commitment to justice.
Of course, the sharing of our possessions, including the generous support of God's mission through the church, isn't limited to the church: we can hold up the ideal of this passage from Scripture each time we vote or consider school levies, poverty programs, and issues of economic justice. Our lives reach and impact others, even beyond our sight, in ways never imagined when this account was written down.
Are our hearts glad and generous today?
Just as awe seems to be in short supply (no matter how much we over-use the word "awesome" in conversation), so are "glad and generous hearts" rare in our time. The rise in the number of people diagnosed with anxiety and depression, for example, and the number of medications brought onto the market to treat it, are puzzling in a time when the standard of living, and the possibilities for "happiness" (depending on how you define it) are so much higher than ancient times.
What has our society done or become that presses down our hearts and minds even in the midst of incredible affluence, for depression does not care about income or class? How might we imagine our lives re-shaped and re-directed, even significantly, so that we might experience "glad and generous hearts"? Do you have stories of people who came to your church, whose lives were transformed? Have we passed by, and failed to notice?
The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."
Ruth Reichl, 21st century
"Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious."
Brian Tracy, 21st century
"Love only grows by sharing. You can only have more for yourself by giving it away to others."
John Wesley, 18th century
"Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?"
Pythagoras, 6th century B.C.E.
"Friends share all things."
Tom Stoppard, playwright, 20th century
"To me, the trick in life is to take that sense of generosity between kin, make it apply to the extended family and to your neighbor, your village and beyond."
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."
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 20th century
"If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
Sr Joan Chittister, 21st century
"The death of Jesus left a fledgling faith community bereft until they themselves rose out of his grave to begin life over again, wiser for what they knew, stronger for what he was, determined now to finish what had already been begun. All things end so that something else can begin."
"Who We Really Are: In community we work out our connectedness to God, to one another, and to ourselves. It is in community where we find out who we really are. It is life with another that shows my impatience and life with another that demonstrates my possessiveness and life with another that gives notice to my nagging devotion to the self. Life with someone else, in other words, doesn't show me nearly as much about his or her shortcomings as it does about my own…. In human relationships I learn that theory is no substitute for love. It is easy to talk about the love of God; it is another thing to practice it."
The very first Christians studied the Scripture they had, what we today call the "Old Testament," or Hebrew Scriptures. But here, in the first century, it took some time for the Gospels to be shaped and written down, and gathered together with the epistles that Paul and others had been writing as they traveled around, spreading the Good News and planting new church communities in cities all around the Mediterranean world.
When Luke wrote the book of the Acts of the Apostles, he was reassuring his audience that the teaching that had been handed down to them from the apostles--what they had heard--was reliable. Luke's purpose was to confirm the faith of Christian believers a generation or two after the apostles, helping them to see the link between the power of the Holy Spirit and the tremendous growth and vitality of the early church.
Absorbed in "the Way"
So, as Luke told his story, he held up for his audience a wonderful picture of the earliest church, describing in somewhat idealistic terms a community that had several important characteristics: they were absorbed in religious teachings, exploring what the good news of Jesus Christ meant in their daily lives.
They had regular fellowship in both social and religious settings: the experience of koinonia, or sharing their life, was central to their faith life, so they saw each other often in worship and in eating "the sacred meal," and they shared their possessions with those in need.
They also continued steadfastly in prayer, which nurtured their spirit of unity, and they showed a proper sense of awe before God, witnessing the power of the Spirit in the many wonders and signs that continued in the life of the community. Is it any surprise, then, that they grew and flourished?
It's a little more complicated
I use the word "idealistic" about this passage from Acts not just because all the authorities seem to, but because it's important for us, many centuries later, to understand that, right in the Book of Acts, in between the summaries that exuberantly, joyfully recount the rapid growth of the early church, are those stories of very real, very human differences and conflicts.
For example, the early church had to deal with that important question of whether to let the Gentiles in on this good news. That was a really big problem that required a special council, in Jerusalem, lots of work on Paul's part, and a dramatic dream for Peter to get the message that God's plan included all of God's children.
Challenges and problems
There were some other problems: right after Luke says that everyone shared what they had, two people are found to have held back some of the profits on the sale of their property. In a dramatic story, each of them drops dead when confronted with what they had done. This must have caused at least a little talk in the church afterward.
And then there was grumbling among the Greek converts who complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. So they had a big meeting, and they decided to designate seven people to be deacons who would distribute the food fairly; that way, the apostles could continue to preach, teach and pray.
Of course, right away one of the deacons, Stephen, starts to preach, teach and pray--the apostles' job! Nobody can convince me that that didn't hit somebody the wrong way. Today's short passage doesn't include those controversies and conflicts, but holds up for us a wonderful model, a memory and ideal for the Christians at the end of the first century, and for us, too, here in the early twenty-first.
Are we "the early church"?
I was taught that the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once said that, if the world goes on another 40,000 years, these will be considered "the early days" of the church. This is definitely taking the long view of things. Our imaginations have to expand to the point that we see ourselves as giving hope and providing a model of Christian community to the church that will live and thrive thousands of years from now.
Our story, the story of each congregation, doesn't have to say that we were perfect. We already know we aren't. But someday, someone will tell someone else who needs to hear it, that we strove mightily to live out the gospel.
There will be stories about different people and the things that happened to them--not just the pastors but the many people who are/were this congregation, who have worked faithfully to live out the gospel message of love, justice, mercy and peace.
Generations of generosity and faithfulness
The story will be about the people who started the church, and the way it reached out to the surrounding community from its earliest days. The story will tell about the openness of the church throughout its history, expressed even in the architecture and art and capabilities of this building.
Perhaps the story will be about the people who kept the church open through lean years, faithfully tending the fire of its mission and vision until its renewed growth and vigor in a later time.
The story will be about the children who came through its doors, hungry to hear good news in a hostile and dangerous world. The story will be about courageous decisions to stand up for justice even if the surrounding culture heaped on criticism and sometimes, much worse, and about a steadfast faithfulness to live out those commitments in every way possible, fighting economic injustice, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and greed.
What will they say about us?
The story will be one of commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and hospitality. And if the world truly does survive another 40,000 years, the story will include efforts to tend this good earth more lovingly and responsibly than we have in the past.
Thousands of years from now, the story will say that we prayed together, grieved together, worked together, celebrated together, learned together, comforted and challenged one another, shared what we had, and gathered together every chance we could to eat--to break bread in remembrance of Jesus, and recognizing the risen Christ here in our midst.
Stories that will inspire
Our story will inspire those who hear it. Just as Luke so long ago strengthened the faith of those second- and third-generation Christians, reminding them that the same things nourished them that fed the faith of the first-generation believers--prayer, the breaking of bread, works of mercy and justice, and gathering for all of these--so we, too, are nourished by these same things two thousand years later.
But we are nourished here in church so that we can go forth from this place and bring God's love to the world in our daily lives. That is where ministry happens: in our homes, our workplaces, our street corners, wherever people are hurt, lonely, afraid, despairing, and in need. And all of us are called to that ministry.
Living by "service excellence"
For two years before I went to seminary, I had the privilege of working for the American Red Cross Blood Services. Part of my training during my very first week on the job was a course called "Service Excellence." We were taught the Red Cross ideal of striving to provide to every person we met the very finest service we could give that person, whether he or she was a blood donor, a volunteer, a nurse or other co-worker, anyone we met in the course of our work.
Being an idealist, I loved this idea. It wasn't easy to live up to, of course. But I held it somewhere in my subconscious mind each day at work. This wasn't too hard to do, since they had the words "Service Excellence" posted all over the place. But still. I remember it even today with a hint of irony. Aren't we, as Christians, called to "Service Excellence" in our lives?
Dreaming of God's reign on earth
Are we not called to speak to one another lovingly, to share our gifts with one another, to bear with one another patiently, to respect one another, to serve one another? They didn't say anything about forgiveness at the Red Cross, but of course we're called to that, too, as Christians. So let us hope that the story they tell about us is one of service excellence, too, and how much we loved one another.
Whatever ways the church has failed in the last two thousand years--in religious wars and persecutions, inquisitions, and hypocrisy--it has still passed on the message of God's saving love, God's forgiveness and grace, God's new life and hope in Jesus Christ. The church has held onto the dream of God's reign on earth, when every tear will be wiped away, when hatred and war and violence will be no more, when love and justice and mercy and joy and peace will fill all the lands.
Today, we have received this dream, and we dare to dream it not only with our ancestors in faith, but with our children, and our children's children, and all those who are to come.
For further reflection:
Wendell Berry, 20th century
"The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life."
Stanley Hauerwas, 20th century
"Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God."
William Shakespeare, 17th century, "King Lear"
"...and we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies,...
And take upon 's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies..."
In several of his books, Walter Brueggemann provides beautiful commentaries for preachers on this Fourth Sunday of Easter whose text is this most familiar, and usually most favorite, of psalms. While it's often associated with funerals, the psalm sings of God's tender care throughout life, and so it describes an approach to trustful living just as much as it provides comfort in the face of loss or the unknown.
Brueggemann contrasts "psalms of celebration" and "psalms of complaint," the latter focusing on enemies and threats, and the former lifting up God's awesome power and gracious care. With that kind of shepherd, why should a little sheep worry, indeed?
What is security?
I remember a Peanuts cartoon (by Charles Schulz) from many years ago, in which Charlie Brown is asked what "security" means. He describes the experience of riding in the back seat, while your parents are in the front seat, driving. You can sleep worry-free, because they're taking care of everything.
That might be another way, in our culture, to describe the feeling of utter trust and security provided by a reliable, loving, all-powerful figure. (Of course, Charlie Brown ends with the gripping realization that the day inevitably comes when "you grow up and can never ride in the backseat again." But that's another sermon.) In the case of Psalm 23, this reliable, loving, all-powerful figure is a good and gentle but strong shepherd.
Lavish food as a sign of well-being
While the psalms of complaint use tears as a metaphor, Brueggemann writes, the psalms of celebration use a feast to convey God's goodness and power, a goodness and power that Christians experience in Jesus: "There is no gesture as expressive of utter well-being as lavish food--as every Jewish and every Christian mother knows. Thus the feeding miracles of Jesus and the Eucharist are gestures of a new orientation that comes as surprising gift and ends all diets of tears."
The table is at the heart of who we are as Christians, a community that blesses, breaks, and shares bread, a feast that remembers Jesus' sharing long ago and looks forward to that heavenly feast when all of God's children will have more than enough. The image of table, Brueggemann says, thus stands for "all the good tables at which you have ever sat and the experiences of joy that happened there and the subsequent vibrations you have from them" (Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit).
Shepherding like a mother
In another book, Brueggemann focuses more closely on the shepherd, who "leads and feeds" the vulnerable sheep, an image full of "tenderness, gentleness, and attentiveness." While we may think of a shepherd as a man, Brueggemann hears in the psalm a suggestion of the "maternal qualities" and activities of such a God.
And in doing "what a mother does," God turns situations of fear around, into situations of joy. The metaphor of the caring shepherd goes beyond herding or even leading to tender, life-giving care as God "does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live" (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy).
John Hayes goes into more descriptive detail about the work of a shepherd, reading the expression "to set the table" as "preparing fields for grazing" by "uprooting poisonous weeds and thorns and clearing the area of the sheep's enemies, such as snakes and scorpion's nests. In the evening, as the sheep were corralled, the injured or sickly ones were separated from the others and treated with oil and a curative drink made of fermented material and herbs sweetened with honey" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
Feeling like vulnerable sheep
Why do you think our tradition gives us a metaphor for ourselves that puts us in such a powerless position, a sheep that cannot do much at all for itself? How do you think that image fits us particularly well in our day and age? Does it clash with our sense of self-determination, or does it touch our most vulnerable and fearful places, or does it bring us back to where we belong in relation to God?
Brueggemann helps the individual claim this text as well as the gathered community (the flock). Each little sheep, each believer receives the gift of faith, the gift of life that "begins...in God's good intent and God's utter reliability. Our role is to receive, accept, trust, and respond."
This is no stranger but one whose voice we know and trust, one who knows each one of us by name. "Sheep need three things for well-being: good pasture land, adequate water, and safe paths," but cannot secure their needs and or defend themselves. In a dangerous world, the assurance that the shepherd is there and will never leave the sheep to fend for itself means that it can graze and rest in peace (Texts for Preaching, Year A).
From shepherd to host
Of course, we can shift from the image of shepherd to that of host, too, and this host really knows how to treat a guest: there's nothing perfunctory about the table-setting or the hospitality offered. It meets the needs of the guest who may be in danger, in need of vindication before an enemy, in need of rest, comfort and healing.
It's all there, in this compact and elegant song. No wonder it is so loved and familiar, if it touches those deepest longings and needs of our bodies and spirits. But Brueggemann doesn't leave it there, in a place of comfort and peace.
As usual, he challenges us to read the text in light of our own situation, a world full of things we want and expect and often demand. We focus on what God can (and does) give us instead of on God, but the psalm "[affirms] that Yahweh is the true heart's desire of human persons, the true joy of human life, and the sure possibility of life lived in hope" (Theology of the OT: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy).
What is our true heart's desire?
As we rest peacefully in the reassurance of this psalm, perhaps we might examine our hearts to see what has taken root there, what we have let ourselves long for, what paths we have wandered away from our "true heart's desire." Do we even know our "true heart's desire"?
We might explore the possibility that God has become "instrumental" to our hope. What does this mean about our sense of God's awesome and providential power, and our place in the scheme of things?
In a way, we move between two poles: on the one hand, as loved individuals, known and precious to God, and on the other hand, as sheep struggling to take our own path and expecting the shepherd to handle all the difficulties and to smooth the way. How does "powerless" feel?
A season of new life
We preach this text right in the middle of the Easter season, after the long weeks of Lent. O. Wesley Allen, Jr., offers a beautiful reflection on this timing: "Given its association with rituals surrounding death, Psalm 23 can offer a powerful message in the midst of the season celebrating new life." He suggests that the images in this psalm ("the valley of the shadow of death") offer rich material for preachers as we stand at the empty tomb.
Christians focus on the image of the empty tomb, and a tomb is not a happy, sunshine kind of place but one of death and hopelessness. It's the "empty" part that matters, the promise of resurrection and new life even in an image of death. Perhaps, then, this psalm is so loved precisely because it doesn't paint a rosy picture of reality.
The psalmist (the sheep) faces dangers and threats, as we do, but it is God's presence at all times, good and bad, that's being celebrated in the psalm of celebration, and in our preaching, writes Allen: "At the center of the psalm are the words, 'for you are with me.' This should be the center of the sermon as well" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
The church as a threatened sheep
Indeed, we can read the psalm privately, as individuals alone in our room, or in small groups over a grave, so often that we almost become de-sensitized to its beauty and power. But that beauty and power are even more encompassing, as the church itself relies on those assurances. The church feels threatened, too, and there are plenty of dangers to our life as a community of faith.
The church can long for abundance, for a feast, for more than enough, for reassurance that everything is going to turn out well in the end, no matter how discouraging or overwhelming the situation.
Our past and our future
This isn't just a promise about "the end," however; it says something about how we live our life today, says Brueggemann: "a community that regularly yields its past to a memory of generous origins in God's good power, and that regularly yields its future to the buoyant intentionality of God's promises, a community that breaks out of amnesia and despair will unavoidably live differently in the present" (Texts under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination).
This "present-tense" trouble the church experiences, Brueggemann says, must not throw us off the paths of obedience and trust. God is with us always, and will not abandon us.
The "sub-version" of reality
But that's not what the world says. In Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church, Brueggemann provides another pairing for our consideration, the contrast between the dominant version of reality and the "sub-version" of reality.
We all live and breathe and even participate in, and benefit from, the dominant version, he writes. A sermon might explore Brueggemann's suggestion that what we see around us, what we're told and what we think we want and need may not be the real truth that underlies everything.
Relying on that sub-version
In fact, as people of faith, don't we claim and rely on that sub-version, at some level of our souls? The difficult thing is that, for many of us, the dominant version has been very good, very reassuring, very comforting. The sub-version might be uncomfortable.
Still, Brueggemann says, this is the "counter-truth that surfaces in Christian worship. It is a small counterpoint without great voice or muscle. It has been a minority perspective for a very long time…a poetic, elusive, delicate alternative even while the dominant voice of reality prevails in its facts on the ground" (Mandate to Difference).
Faith as trust, even when we're a separated community
That's why we come together in worship, in wider mission, in fellowship, but it's in worship especially that we make that claim about the sub-version of reality that may seem "vulnerable and foolish and exposed." Here the understanding of faith as trust (rather than acceptance of intellectual propositions) is the foundation of our shared life just as much as it informs our private relationship with a comforting God.
What a wonderful irony that "sub-version" and "subversion" are so close! How are they related in your mind, and in the life of your church, to the needs of your community and the suffering of the world?
For further reflection:
George Eliot, 19th century
"It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them."
Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century mystic (Matthew Fox, in The Feminine Mystic)
"I am the breeze that nurtures all things green. I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits. I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life."
"Ask the animals, and they will teach you... in God's hand is the life of every living thing."
Marilynne Robinson, Home, 21st century
"There's so much to be grateful for, words are poor things."
and from Gilead
"Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life."
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
God is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
God makes me lie down
in green pastures,
and leads me beside
God restores my soul
and leads me in right paths
for the sake of God's name.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff--
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of God
my whole life long.
1 Peter 2:19-25
For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."