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If one takes this week’s readings in the order the lectionary uses, the first verse and the last verse are astounding, challenging, maybe even seeming to be a little unrealistic. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:26) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Let’s take a minute first to look at the meaning of the biblical words. The word “holy” is the word for “saint.” The instruction is to “Be a saint!” That’s not much help, is it? At the same time, who has not said, “Oh, isn’t she a saint?” Still, when we say that, we tend to be putting the person on a platform above most people, making him or her a little “holier than thou.” Remember, though, that Paul speaks of all the followers of Christ as saints. (Look at Philippians 1:1, for instance, which is addressed “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi.” Other letters are sent “to all God’s beloved . . . who are called to be saints.” See Romans 1:7, for example)
To be holy, or to be a saint, means to be set aside for, or dedicated to, God’s use. What if we thought of being “holy” less as some specialized state of being and more as our lives being something to be used in the service of God, in our nitty-gritty everyday living?
I have a long-time ambivalent relationship with law---not that I’ve ever thumbed my nose at it or been a scofflaw. My basic predisposition is toward obeying the law, as well as the mores and social customs of the society in which I live. I was thought of as a “good” boy, and was comfortable with that designation. Because of a death of one who graduated from high school with me, I recently pulled my senior yearbook out and was looking through it. Remember all the messages that got written on the pages of that keepsake? In entry after entry I was referred to as “a good kid.”
Nevertheless, underneath the conformity there has always been a little bit of a rebellious spirit. I’ve long believed in peaceful civil disobedience in the face of injustice. I participated in marches and demonstrations for peace and racial justice in the 60’s and 70’s---never resorting to violence, I must add.
Furthermore, I’ve always been uncomfortable allowing the legal system to define who I am, the essence of right and wrong, and the meaning of life. There’s more to life than can be transcribed in a legislative act. In theological discussions from my earliest memories, on through seminary, and in years of ministry, I and others have struggled with the balance between works (or obedience to law) and grace. Is it our conformity to law (our works) or grace (the fact that God simply loves us) that “saves” us? I am not comfortable with either extreme. James reminds us that faith, without works, is dead. (See James 2:14-18) Actually the whole notion of behavior that gets us into or keeps us out of heaven has become somewhat alien to me. Rather than talk about being “saved”, I want to talk about living a life full of meaning, finding fullness of life in my day-to-day routines and in the shaping of societal structures that promote and support and enable that. So, part of the question is whether or not strict obedience to the letter of every law contributes to that kind of fullness and meaning.
Most of this week’s texts address the question of obedience to the commandments, or laws, of God.
Epiphany is, among other things, the season of light. Three of this week’s readings specifically mention light. In Isaiah, it is linked with justice. The passage begins with a complaint by the people that God ignores their faithful fasting. (Isaiah 58:3) God responds: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers . . . you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” (vss. 3-4) Instead, we are told, God chooses a fast which includes loosing “the bonds of injustice,” undoing “the thongs of the yoke,” and letting “the oppressed go free.” Is your fast “not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them, . . .” (vss. 6-7) And now comes the light. God says that if you observe this kind of fast, “then your light shall break forth like the dawn . . . if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like noonday.” (vss. 8 & 10)
The Psalm exults over those who are righteous, saying, “They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright,” going on to say, “they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.” They “deal generously and lend,” conducting “their affairs with justice . . . They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor . . .” (Psalm 112:4-5, 9)
I suppose what most caught my attention in this week’s readings was Matthew 5:16, a verse familiar to many. It is preceded by two verses about light. “You are the light of the world.” (vs. 14) “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (vs. 15) Verse 16 tells us, then, to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The verse has, at times, sounded as if it were encouraging a kind of pride in good works, sort of showing off how good I am. Jesus, in fact, shortly, in the same Sermon of the Mount, says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” (Matthew 6:1)
I think the distinction here is about the contrast between worship which is undertaken for show only, without demonstrating any behavior consistent with the values lauded in that worship. And notice, letting one’s light shine is about “good works,” not about right ritual.
So---my title this week is “Shedding Some Light on . . .,” leaving a blank to be filled in. On something? On the matter? On some person?
Speak the truth from your heart.
Do not slander.
Do no evil to our friends, nor take up a reproach against our neighbors.
Stand by our oath even when it hurts.
Don’t lend money at interest, or take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers, who are persecuted for righteousness sake, are called “blessed.”
Well, how do we measure up---in our personal lives, in our social relationships, our business dealings, our national life?
I write this on a day when we have supposedly witnessed the “peaceful” transition of power that is supposed to be characteristic of our democracy. Whether it has been peaceful or not I leave you to judge.
The reading from I Corinthians seems relevant to the day. The church in Corinth was full of divisions. They disagreed about how to deal with sexual immorality, about marriage, about clean and unclean foods, and on and on. They even brought lawsuits against one another. Very early in the letter, Paul writes, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (I Corinthians 1:10)
Christianity, and some other religions, pay a lot of attention to a spiritual power which can transform one’s life. In our tradition that power is embodied in Jesus and present in the work of the Holy Spirit. Romans 12:2 offers this exhortation: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds . . .”
In the early 1960s there was a Gospel musical called, “For Heaven’s Sake,” full of catchy tunes in a contemporary style. It provided great discussion for the youth at Lakeshore Ave. Baptist Church in Oakland, California, where I was assigned while in seminary. I had an old reel to reel tape for many years, which was later transferred to a cassette, but I can’t find it anywhere. I’m unable to find the lyrics on the internet, although I found a list of all the songs. Reading over the list was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me: “The Inchworm,” “Man-in-Box,” “The Rap,” “Aim for Heaven,” “Gimme God Blues,”---only a few of the titles. What sent me down this road to start with was a song whose refrain had one of the characters reluctantly realizing that “He’s Makin’ Us Over” (actual title of the song: “The Repair Job”)
The process has sometimes been called “conversion,” although that term has become cluttered with all kinds of connotations. In the tradition of my childhood and youth, the churches of which I was a part were good at manufacturing or manipulating or inducing “conversion” experiences, which were sometimes not all that heartfelt.
I’m also aware that often the primary focus of transformation has been upon an inner individual experience and a change in personal ethics and behavior. One of the biblical themes I have come to love has God caring about the transformation of the society around us, its organizations and institutions.
The coming Sunday takes us into the season of Epiphany. It comes two days after he Day of Epiphany when we celebrate the coming of the Magi bearing gifts for the young child Jesus.
I suppose we should begin with a few words about the meaning of “epiphany.” The word “epiphany” means “appearance” or “manifestation.” In popular usage, it means “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something,” “a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you.” It may refer to “a powerful religious experience.” I sometimes think of it in terms of that popular image of a light bulb popping on over a cartoon character’s head indicating an “aha” moment.
Given those definitions we might ask how those who put together the liturgical calendar saw the story of the Magi as providing an “aha” moment. Is there an “aha” moment in it for us? Or, we could broaden the discussion and ask what have been the “aha” moments in our lives.
That “aha” moment didn’t come to me as I considered a focus for this week’s blog entry. I could suggest several different topics that are in one or more of the texts, but experienced no epiphany saying, “Here is the way to go”---no star leading me to an altar beside a manger or in a home or on a road to Egypt.
In our breakfast discussion, we got into some of the historical issues as “progressive” Christians are sometimes prone to do. Such discussion can sometimes be a bit unsettling. What do we really know? Then, someone popped up and said, “Whatever the details of history, I’m glad all these texts are part of our tradition, our history, my history.” I asked what it was about them that made her glad. I won’t try to give a faithful report of her answer here, but it gives me a handle for the rest of my comments, some of which were touched upon in her response.
The title for this blog entry is “A Wondrous Heritage.” The topics that come before us in the lectionary texts each week are truly awesome! What are some of the things in our religious heritage that are so powerful, and that empower us for living in difficult times?