Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 23)
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23
Worship resources for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 23) are at Worship Ways
Special resources for ministry during the Coronavirus Pandemic:
Digital Pastoral Care & Grief:
Living psalms are here, scroll down:
Additional reflection on Philippians 4:1-9
Additional reflection on Exodus 32:1-14 by Brooks Berndt
Living as a Liberation Community
by Kathryn Matthews
Many years ago, as a young newlywed, I used to have the most wonderful--and memorable--conversations with my new mother-in-law, a devout Methodist raised in Lower Alabama (or L.A., as her son called it) by a Primitive Baptist-preacher father. Virginia Huey was a college professor with outstanding delivery whether quoting Shakespeare, Yeats--or the Bible.
From time to time she would pause for emphasis just before quoting one of her favorite Bible verses, Galatians 6:7, in a low voice: "God is not mocked." A chill would run through me, because I knew she was speaking of matters of ultimate seriousness, and the unique place God holds at the center of our lives, personally and in the community of faith.
This week's story about our ancient ancestors-in-faith breaking the very first Commandment while Moses is still up on the mountain, talking with God, inspires that same sense of ultimate seriousness.
The people of Israel are on a very long trust-walk, an extended pilgrimage in faith, after escaping from bondage in Egypt and witnessing a whole series of remarkable events, great wonders that sustain them on their way.
Just when they need it the most
The sea parts for them and swallows up Pharaoh's chariots, and manna and water are provided (in rather spectacular ways) just when they need them most and in spite of their grumbling and complaining. They have a great leader who seems to walk with God, and the promise of a new home, a land flowing with milk and honey, to look forward to.
Most of all, they are free, out from under the yoke of Pharaoh and his minions, Pharaoh and his burdensome system that extracted their lifeblood and took the lives of their children. God had heard their groans and their crying out, and had sent a leader, Moses, to bring them out of Egypt and set them on the path to the Promised Land.
How should we live?
But things haven't been easy, and the tests have come, one after another. And then there is the matter of how God wants them to live as "a priestly kingdom and a holy people" (Exodus 19:6). God has made a covenant with them, and their response, at first, sounded just about right: "Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do" (19:8).
Promises have been made, then, on both sides of this covenant of faithfulness and care, a covenant one would expect to endure, even in the toughest of times.
God is taking God's time
Our text this week, from the beginning of chapter 32 of Exodus, however, tells us what happens when God takes God's time--or rather, when Moses appears to be dragging his feet. The people at the bottom of the mountain do not like waiting interminably while their divinely appointed leader, at the top of the mountain, continues his long conversation with God.
Perhaps they have other priorities and more pressing things on their minds. Perhaps they are restless and hot and longing for their new home.
Where is Moses?
In any case, the scholars seem to agree that the people identify Moses' presence with the presence of God: if Moses is there, God is with them, and if Moses isn't there, well, obviously God has left them on their own.
And most of us don't like to be left on our own, especially in the midst of a wilderness, without some clear goals and an action plan, not to mention a healthy dose of reassurance that everything is going to be okay. This is definitely an anxiety-producing situation.
A very bad reaction
Whether or not our image of what happens next is informed by the scene in the movie, "The Ten Commandments," or perhaps some vivid church-school texts, it's easy to think that the people suddenly fall into a loud and raucous orgy before their new false (and foreign!) god, a great golden calf, the work of human hands.
They decide to worship this idol, this false god, instead of the God who has been with them since the days of their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, the faithful God who heard their cries, freed them from slavery, provided them a leader, a covenant, and the promise of a new home.
An ancient but current problem
We might think that we would never do something so…primitive, so crazed, so uncivilized. So terribly, and clearly, wrong. After all, we memorized those Ten Commandments a long time ago, including the one about having no other gods before the One True God, the one that forbids fashioning idols from anything on the earth or in heaven or in the sea (Exodus 20:4-5a).
However, it's tempting to think that the first Commandment was more relevant in ancient times, a law more commonly broken in those days, back when idolatry was a big problem, so we focus more on the next Commandments, about taking God's name in vain, honoring the Sabbath, and so on.
Worshipping lesser gods
Now, whether Christians actually pay much attention to the second and third Commandments is an entire sermon in itself: Is the Sabbath indeed kept holy? Do we not regularly take God's name in vain?
This week's text provides an excellent opportunity, however, to revisit that first Commandment, and to reflect on just how quickly, and how easily, we give in to the temptation to fashion, and worship, lesser gods of human making, especially in times of anxiety, and whenever we want what we want, right now.
Fearful without a leader
If we read the story closely, we see that the people, growing restless and feeling vulnerable to attack, are worried about being without their leader, the one who stands in for God and should protect them from their enemies.
Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson note that the term "go before" refers in Exodus only to YHWH or Moses (Preaching the Old Testament), so the people are really saying that they need someone or something new to stand in for God, since Moses appears to have disappeared on that mountain.
A need for reassurance
In other words, scholars say that they didn't turn to foreign gods but simply wanted the reassurance, the comfort, of something/someone else standing in Moses' place; Walter Brueggemann, for example, finds it likely that the golden calf is "an alternative representation of God," and "not idolatrous, but simply a competitor to the ark of the covenant as a proper sign of divine presence" (Introduction to the Old Testament).
And Frank Anthony Spina writes: "By identifying the calf with YHWH, the distinctive personal name of the Israelite God, Aaron shows that Israel is not actually turning its allegiance to another god. Rather, it wants a form of the deity that is simultaneously visible and portable" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
(However, I confess that I'm a bit perplexed by the several times the plural "gods" is used in this passage, in vv. 1. 4b, 8b, if they're referring to YHWH, who is, of course, One.)
A religious need
Gene Tucker describes the even more puzzling response of Aaron, Moses' brother, to the demands of the people: "Aaron as religious leader responds to a religious need with a religious solution: a cult object, an altar, and a festival" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
And that festival is a worship service that could be considered "kosher," Gerald Janzen writes, well, except for that troubling golden calf (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).
Spina, however, notes the possibility of a "gross profanation of proper worship" in the phrase that Israel "rose up to play" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts), although other scholars don't really focus on that point.
The clash of traditions
Two important notes at this point: first, Walter Brueggemann, in several places, observes that it's possible that we are reading about a controversy about the legitimacy of one priestly tradition over another. Aaron thus represents a disobedient tradition with "enormous power, prestige, splendor, and wealth" (which seem to tempt religious leaders in every age), while Moses represents the authoritative tradition.
In his Introduction to the Old Testament, Brueggemann notes that we may not be reading, then, about "a brotherly exchange, but competition and conflict between rival priestly groups with their competing interpretive voices" about, we note, those matters of ultimate concern.
Brueggemann's words about "those who benefit too well from holy things, who lose critical self-awareness, and who begin to think they are the producers of the holy" (Exodus, New Interpreter's Bible) also brings a chill to the reader, and the great scholar echoes my mother-in-law (and, of course, Galatians) several times, when he too reminds us that God is not mocked.
The soothing of our souls
We might also, as a community of faith, consider the problems caused by our own sincere desire to meet the deep needs of others, spiritual and otherwise, often under stressful conditions (certainly Aaron was operating under stress!), when our judgment might not always be optimal and the results and consequences even less so.
In a well-intentioned desire to keep the peace in a congregation, for example, do we avoid shining the light of the gospel on an issue before us? Do we place our authority and our responsibility to "produce the holy" and the perceived needs of the institution above greater goods?
A very ancient story
Gene Tucker makes a second important point about the multiple sources or traditions in the text: the story itself comes from "older pentateuchal sources, most likely the Yahwist," with later deuteronomic additions that recall what happened in "1 Kings 12:25-33. When Jeroboam rebelled after the death of Solomon and established the Northern Kingdom, he set up golden calves in Bethel and Dan, saying, 'Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt' (v. 28; cf. Exod. 32:4). In the deuteronomic tradition of the seventh century and following, if not earlier, one of the functions of the story of the golden calf in the wilderness was as polemic against a concrete problem, the corruption of worship in the Northern Kingdom" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
Preachers and Bible study leaders, then, have the opportunity this week to provide a thought-provoking and instructive reflection on the historical setting of the text and its sources.
Longing for better
Whether it occurs on the way to the Promised Land, centuries later in the Northern Kingdom, or today, in our own faith journey, there is still a very real and persistent human tendency to shape gods that we can manage and manipulate, and from which we can receive a strange comfort to soothe our souls.
Perhaps these false gods, these idols, represent something we long for, or long to be. Perhaps they provide spiritual junk food to feed our deepest hungers.
Can we fashion something "better"?
Like the ancient Hebrews, we may think we are fashioning a better representation of the God we worship, perhaps even fashioning this God--ironically--in our own image and likeness. Or maybe we're longing for something and someone so much better than what we see around us, especially in a world full of human brokenness and sin.
Beverly Zink-Sawyer sees in this story and in our own life today "a longing to worship and put our trust in something mysterious and greater than ourselves. Some might call this the human quest for spirituality. This story reminds us that not all objects of our spiritual longing are equal" (New Proclamation Year A 2008). Again, sobering words.
False gods today
There are many contemporary false gods, beginning with money, prestige, success, celebrity, and power. Like the ancient Hebrews, we may succumb, for example, to a foolish faith in military power and its symbols (some of which can be manipulated, and some seemingly having developed a fearsome life of their own). Indeed, the bull calf fashioned by Aaron suggested not only fertility but also military might.
Gerald Janzen observes that the people of Israel seemed to have absorbed a sorry lesson from their former oppressor, Egypt, when they turn to "a wisdom based in fear and expressed in overwhelming controlling and coercive force" (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).
Consider, then, what makes us feel secure today. What do we place our trust in? What soothes our souls? What "sorry lessons" have we absorbed, and from where?
Reducing God and faith to manageable proportions
We might also take an even closer look at the God we consciously and intentionally worship in our life of faith. Brueggemann writes thoughtfully about the Israelites in their fear and longing for "an available, produced God" when both Moses and God seem absent: "The people who seek to reduce faith to palpable certitude are intensely religious, hungry for god(s) (v. 1)" (Exodus, New Interpreter's Bible).
While our ancestors in faith fell to the temptation to worship a fixed, finite object in God's place, we too are prey to the same temptation, it seems, when we make God too manageable, too comfortable, and even too fixed, one might even say "monolithic," since that word itself suggests a large, stone block: the epitome of an idol, strong and immovable and so reassuring.
No wonder we use it metaphorically for our financial security, among other things.
A God who moves
Brueggemann provides a challenge to the church to encounter a God who is not monolithic but instead is dialogic, and therefore a God of movement and change, and risk as well. What if God is in dialogue with us, in conversation with us, just as God was in dialogue with Moses in the latter part of our text?
Brueggemann writes that the church's willingness to be "deeply dialogical about the most important issues" reflects the kind of God we worship: rather than a sign of weakness, a God who is willing to be in dialogue with us overcomes our "lust for absolutism [that] eventuates in idolatry, a flat, settled God without dialogic agency who cannot care or answer or engage or respond" (Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture, and the Church).
Obviously, we ourselves need to be willing to be in dialogue with God, to respond to God's initiative.
Up on the mountain
We close with that mountaintop dialogue, then, in which Moses boldly steps between the weak, fearful people and the God who reacts like the parent of a teen-ager who has finally gone too far. (As the mother of three former teenagers, I know, just a little bit, how God feels. Just a little bit.)
Scholars write beautifully about this scene, beginning with Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson, who describe the kind of faith Moses had in the face of this God of dialogue: "Radical trust in God evokes an audacious faith; it not only permits but requires questioning" (Preaching the Old Testament).
Radical trust and audacious faith
Beverly Zink-Sawyer also finds a kind of comfort in the thought that we have been made "in the image of a God" who has deep, deep feelings--"not only the negative emotions of anger and disappointment expressed in this text but positive emotions such as love and forgiveness" (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
And Gerald Janzen writes most evocatively of the way Moses addresses God: "Moses 'implores' God. (The Hebrew verb means, literally, 'make someone's face sweet or pleasant.' I remember the sight of a little child reaching up with her hands to push her mother's angry face into the shape of a smile.)" (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).
As a mother and a grandmother (and a daughter), I love that image.
A tenderly compassionate God
Walter Brueggemann also sees a tender and "parental compassion" in God's response to Moses' imploring on behalf of the people, but he also sees the larger picture in the way God, throughout the biblical narrative, lovingly remakes the covenant with the people each time it is broken (Introduction to the Old Testament).
And Frank Anthony Spina closes our reflections well by reminding us that the ancient promises of God flow from God's irrepressible grace, with "judgment...never God's final word" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). Thank God for that! Amen.
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.
For further reflection:
David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, 21st century
"Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 19th century
"Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers. (Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains.)"
Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 20th century
"There is no avoiding the fact that we live at the mercy of our ideas. This is never more true than with our ideas about God."
Colin S. Smith, The 10 Greatest Struggles of Your Life, 21st century
"Saint Augustine defined idolatry as worshiping what should be used or using what should be worshiped."
Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, 20th century
"The absolutely alienated individual worships at the altar of an idol, and it makes little difference by what names this idol is known."
Joe Thorn, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself, 21st century
"'Keep yourselves from idols.' The warning isn't given to them because it wasn't a real danger or because there was an off chance someone might fall into idolatry. It was given because this is our root problem on any given day. It is what we, especially as followers of Jesus, must fight against."
N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 21st century
"When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what's more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around."
Additional reflection on Exodus 32: 1-14:
"Climate Connections: From Scripture to the Pressing Issue of Our Generation"
by Brooks Berndt
Those who know me know that I love to talk about root causes. If we don't know the causes, we won't know the cures, and we will be forever pasting teeny band-aids on huge, festering wounds. I am also a firm believer that when it comes to the damage done to our climate there are multiple causes that cannot be intellectually reduced to a single culprit. Systemic racism is one cause. If white communities suffered from as much pollution as communities of color, wouldn't much more be done to regulate and reduce pollution?
The corporations that comprise the fossil fuel industry are another cause. If these corporations were not so driven to maximize profits without concern for the resulting costs to public health and the environment, wouldn't we now be making a rapid shift from dirty energy to clean energy?
The corporate mainstream media is yet another cause. If news outlets adequately covered and conveyed the impacts of climate change, wouldn't the citizenry of our nation demand that the government serve public interests over corporate interests?
I could continue to mention more root causes, but I want to dwell here on one more in particular, and that is idolatry. Perhaps, for many Christians, the most common Biblical image associated with idolatry is that of the golden calf. For modern sensibilities, such idolatry might seem absurdly foolish. "Who would do such a thing?!" I could say that today we have turned the black gold of oil into our modern golden calf, but I believe there is more to our present predicament than that statement suggests.
Corporations worship profits, while the media exalts celebrities for the rest of us to adore. Meanwhile, the church on one side of the street bows to a God bent on wiping out gays and Muslims, while the church on the other side nuzzles into the arms of a God content to soothe and comfort the privileged.
The end result of such idolatries and countless others is that our entire collective way of life--with all of its endemic oppression, injustice, and violence--has led us to a place so diametrically opposed to the will of God that we might as well be worshipping gold-plated hamburgers.
One scholar has noted that a reoccurring phrase in the story of the golden calf is "who brought you out of the land of Egypt." Somehow we have to get back to the liberating God who places us on the path to the Promised Land. That will mean continually recognizing root causes and continually discerning God's will. Otherwise, later generations will remember us as the ones who were absurdly foolish.
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ.
Additional reflection on Philippians 4:1-9:
by Kathryn Matthews
For several weeks now, we have been journeying with the Israelites, as they travel from bondage in Egypt toward the Promised Land, spending forty years wandering in the desert. This Sunday, we have the opportunity to reflect as well on the Letter of Paul to the Philippians.
However, even though we're "fast-forwarding" into the New Testament for this reflection, there's a continuity between Paul's writing and the things the Israelites have been learning out there in the wilderness. The tender love and care, the deep wisdom and many gifts that guided Israel in the desert and nurtured the young church in Philippi have been passed on to us today to strengthen and guide the church on its way, two thousand years later.
An elegant love letter
Paul's Letter to the Philippians is soaringly beautiful. While there were many important lessons to learn out there in the desert with the Israelites, this week our spirits are also lifted by Paul's elegant love letter to a church for which he obviously cares deeply.
The challenge of lectionary study is to capture a sense of the joyful spirit, the message of the whole letter, from one short passage.
All he really wants to know
In the case of Philippians, it's worth our time to sit down and read Paul's message from beginning to end. (I've found Eugene Peterson's versions of the Epistles in The Message to be particularly helpful for such an overview.)
Our passage comes from the last chapter of the letter, but there are many parts of Philippians that will sound familiar, including the magnificent hymn that ends with "every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (2:10-11).
Leading up to this week's passage, after listing his many achievements and qualifications as a righteous man of faith, Paul declares, "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ" (3:7). All he really wants now is to know Christ, to draw on the power of Christ's resurrection, to share in his sufferings and to become more like him.
What proves our worth?
In our achievement-oriented society, in business, academics, and public life, there's much discussion of qualifications and experience, much evaluation, and intense (and not always good-spirited) conversation in our political life, for example, about the things a person brings to their job, presumably for the greater good and not just their own.
That kind of striving fills our lives, from our first accomplishments in nursery school to the most recent achievements on our resumes. Perhaps we feel our accomplishments prove our worth. Perhaps we feel more secure if we can look back on what we've done to earn the rewards we enjoy, including the financial ones. Perhaps we enjoy the esteem that comes with achievements.
It would be hard to count all this as "rubbish," and yet Paul does exactly that. Even more than humility, such a movement of the heart requires tremendous trust in God, who, Paul says, "is at work in you" (2:13a).
"Make my joy complete"
The letter is full of love, but also joy: "make my joy complete," Paul writes: "be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (2:2). This week's passage describes what that might look like, how to achieve such unity, beginning with encouragement to "stand firm," to be reconciled when we disagree, and always, always, to rejoice. After all, "the Lord is near," so we don't have to worry about anything.
This powerful theme runs through Scripture: don't be afraid, and don't worry. God is with us, close at hand, and "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding," will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (4:7). Concentrate, Paul says, on the very best things, the true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy things. Keep up the good work, he says: keep the faith.
An infectious happiness
Eugene Peterson calls Philippians "Paul's happiest letter. And the happiness is infectious." But here's the irony underneath that claim: Paul is writing this letter from prison, as he faces death for preaching the gospel, for disrupting the empire and its values.
He's not writing it on an especially good day, when things are going well and he's surrounded by friends. No, he writes from an even deeper joy, springing from his knowledge of, and relationship with, Jesus Christ.
Peterson describes the source of Paul's joy, and ours, too: "Christ is, among much else, the revelation that God cannot be contained or hoarded. It is this 'spilling out' quality of Christ's life that accounts for the happiness of Christians, for joy is life in excess, the overflow of what cannot be contained within any one person" (The Message).
"Joy is life in excess." What an interesting way to describe joy! Paul, like any joyful person, does seem to overflow with a powerful need to share what he has. Isn't that what generosity, and evangelism, and warm hospitality are about--sharing an overflowing joy, "life in excess"?
Peterson's version of Paul's words conveys this so well: "Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life" (The Message).
What is at the center of your life: worry, or joy?
Our need for joy
In the midst of this protracted pandemic and the losses and suffering it has brought (and will continue to bring), the anguish of the long-overdue racial reckoning in this nation, the destructive horror of environmental disasters like the wildfires out west, intertwined with a most unpleasant election season, it would be understandable if the word "joy," let alone spending time reflecting on it, sounded almost quaint.
And yet our need, our hunger, for joy is exposed, if you will, by our reaction to experiences that touch us in ways we can't express with words, and perhaps only with tears. (Ironically, with tears.)
For all the people
I have found that to be true, for example, each time I watch this (very carefully made, with Covid precautions) recording by the magnificent Cleveland Orchestra of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy": Beethoven 9 Project by The Cleveland Orchestra.
What an incredible gift, and aptly reminding us to care for "the benefit of all the people, forever," as Jephtha Wade said. That is one path to joy, we believe.
And now, back to Paul
The first part of this passage in Philippians, however, is poignantly familiar to church folks in every age and setting: from a distance, Paul tries to resolve a church fight. (The saying goes that no one wins a church fight.) Two women, esteemed church leaders and workers, need to resolve their differences (which Paul doesn't specify, interestingly, perhaps because he doesn't want to get that involved).
It would be interesting to hear the reaction of modern experts in conflict resolution who hear Paul's exhortation to "be of the same mind in the Lord." That brief reference leaves us hungry for more information, and more help, in our own painful church conflicts and personal relationships.
To become more like Jesus
After urging the feuding women to reconcile, Paul begins to bring his letter to a close with a litany of exhortations. This is more than a laundry list of instructions; it's a sketching out of what it looks like to begin to become more like Jesus.
Earl Palmer contrasts small, everyday choices and the "large, grand goals, such as peace and justice," which "are easy to embrace and admire with the rhetoric of abstract beauty and perfection." He remembers an excellent Peanuts cartoon from many years ago, in which Linus says, "I love mankind, it's people I can't stand" (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).
A thousand little choices
Paul's list, Palmer writes, might help us to "practice these virtues just as we practice an athletic skill in order to make it a regular and natural part of our daily lives." In that way, things like peace and justice and love and healing "become reality in a human life on the basis of the day-to-day, small-scale choices that we make in supermarkets, on the freeway, in crowded workstations, at home, and in a thousand other forks in the road where we make the real choices that either express or diminish the grand goals...."
Perhaps we can learn to love "humankind" better by better loving the people we encounter each day. (But Palmer's list is a challenging one, I admit.)
A restless drive
None of this, though, is possible without the Holy Spirit. Many years ago, at a Jesuit university, I studied the work of the great Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner. Geffrey B. Kelly has provided commentary (and much-needed explanation; Rahner is difficult reading!) on a collection of Rahner's thought, including something called "the fundamental option."
"God's grace," as Kelly describes Rahner's thought, "is an inspiriting of the world of God's making, stirring in people a restless drive to be fulfilled in their humanity through a variety of options and movements, all subsumed in the one fundamental option, the choice to accept and act out their orientation to the Holy Mystery of God."
Moved by the Spirit
Paul's letter and his striving to leave everything else behind as he yearns to be more like Christ, reminds me of the way Rahner describes this work of God's Spirit moving "the human person to be more Godlike."
Kelly says that this striving, this movement, this regular spiritual practice, "becomes, in a way, a mysticism of everyday life" (Karl Rahner: Selected Texts). Few of us would claim to be mystics, and yet this is our invitation to mysticism in the everyday choices we make.
Feeling small in a world of empires
Remembering that Paul writes from a prison cell may affect how we hear his words, as he encourages the little flock there in its shared life of faith. The words he uses apply just as well to churches today, especially if they are feeling small and overpowered by the various forms of "empire" around them, pressured by a culture that preaches a very different message from the gospel, discouraged or confused about what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ.
That description could fit many of us, and many of our churches, at one time or another. We may feel intimidated by mega-churches that preach a gospel of prosperity, or worried about the financial or physical challenges facing our own congregation.
In response, Paul writes words that are both stirring and gentle: "Rejoice...do not worry about anything...pray...the peace of God will guard your hearts...keep on doing the things you have learned and received...."
Who are the guides on this path?
What are the challenges your church faces, and the questions that arise about God's call and direction in the life you share as a community of faith? What are the "true," "honorable," "just," "pure," "pleasing," and "commendable" things that you think about, together?
What or who are the "guides" for your congregation that give you direction and vision? How often do you think long-term and big-picture about these values? Do the everyday, month-to-month, and year-to-year activities and programs sometimes lose this focus?
What are moments when you could feel "the God of peace" in your midst, in both recent history and in the shared story of your congregation? How can you tap into that source of peace as a means of hearing God's voice, still speaking to your church today, through these words of Paul addressed to a small, struggling, counter-cultural church long ago?
For further reflection:
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls."
Richard Wagner, 19th century
"Joy is not in things; it is in us."
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy."
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
"The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world's joy."
Helen Keller, 20th century
"Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow."
Joseph Campbell, 20th century
"Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy."
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." Aaron said to them, "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord." They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, "O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, 'I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'" And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
O give thanks to God,
for God is good;
for God's steadfast love endures
Who can utter the mighty doings
or declare all God's praise?
Happy are those who observe justice
who do righteousness
at all times.
when you show favor
to your people;
when you deliver them;
that I may see the prosperity
of your chosen ones,
that I may rejoice in the gladness
of your nation,
that I may glory
in your heritage.
Both we and our ancestors
we have committed iniquity,
have done wickedly.
They made a calf at Horeb
and worshipped a cast image.
They exchanged the glory
for the image of an ox
that eats grass.
They forgot God,
who had done great things
wondrous works in the land
and awesome deeds
by the Red Sea.
Therefore God said
God would destroy them—
had not Moses,
God's chosen one,
stood in the breach
to turn away God's wrath,
that it not destroy them.
O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
God is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
God makes me lie down
in green pastures;
and leads me beside still waters;
God restores my soul.
and leads me in right paths
for the sake of God's name.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table
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
my whole life long.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, 'Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.' But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen."
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."