Sunday, February 16, 2014
The following is an excerpt from a contemplative prayer service and includes a Guided Meditation
EPISTLE READING I Corinthians 3: 1-9
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION “Ready for Solid Food?”
- Would Paul’s rhetorical strategy have affected you positively?
- As you think about your own spiritual journey, do you feel yourself becoming hungrier for “solid food”?
- What does “solid food” look like in your own spiritual life and in your relationships with others?
- Does jealousy, quarreling, or some other unhealthy way of relating invade our faith community at times?
- If you were Paul writing to Open Table, how would you fill in this blank: “Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is _______ among you, are you not of the flesh?”
SONG “Where Charity and Love Prevail”
*GOSPEL READING Matthew 5: 21-37
One: 21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’
Many: 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
One: 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Many: 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
One: 27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
Many: 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
One: 31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’
Many 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
One: 33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’
Many: 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
SONG “First Born of Mary” p. 25 in songbook
GUIDED MEDITATION “An Evolving Ethic: Lessons on Relationship
As a preacher, I have a lot to learn from Jesus’s preaching. His Sermon on the Mount, probably a paraphrased compilation of Jesus’s best loved teachings, spoke to people right where they lived. He was not developing doctrine. He was not pontificating about theology. He was simply teaching us how to get along with one another.
His first sermon (according to Matthew) started gently enough with “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and maybe that’s the starting point for ushering in God’s way of living together. The theme of right relatedness continues through this long “sermon” about God’s realm, but hyperboles in the beatitudes (Rejoice when you’re persecuted? Be the light of the world?) turn more shocking. To emphasize harmonious relationships, Jesus exaggerates his point by claiming that getting angry is tantamount to murder; saying that just looking at a woman with lust is equal to adultery; recommending that you rip out your own eye rather than look at a woman in the wrong way.
Upon hearing the beatitudes, we may yearn for the blessedness of the idyllic kingdom of heaven. But by the time we encounter the verses that follow, we may recoil from the horror of what it is to live outside the kingdom’s ethic of love. Relationships characterized by murderous anger, destructive lust, faithlessness, and deception are the anti-beatitudes. And it sounds like hell, doesn’t it—to live in angry, selfish, unfaithful, and deceitful relationships? Some of you may have, unfortunately, glimpsed what that kind of relationship is like.
In contrast to the way God’s kingdom works, this hellacious way of relating to one another is the antithesis of peacemaking and mercy and meekness and selflessness.
Today’s Gospel lection may or may not have anything to do with Jesus’s notion of an afterlife. It most certainly offers wisdom about relationships right here and now that are blessed or cursed.
But Jesus is not merely contrasting the blessed and the doomed way of living. He’s also contrasting an earlier ethic with a new way of living. He’s raising the ethical bar here. It’s not enough, he says, just to refrain from murder. It’s not enough, he says, just to avoid adultery. It’s not enough to avoid swearing falsely. This more evolved ethic says that attitudes and intentions matter. What’s in my heart (anger or lust or cold indifference) can keep us estranged—not just my behavior.
We can say the right words and avoid egregious offenses—yet still not love, still not be in right relationship.
Pause now to call to mind some current relationships that, though polite, are superficial and distant, maybe even strained. Of course, we can’t have deep relationships with everyone. But maybe there are people in your life you wish to know in more than a Facebook sort of way. What’s preventing that?
We cannot know what Matthew calls the “kingdom of heaven” until we have known the beauty and blessedness of rich and real relationships.
And here, my friends, is the best and worst thing about being church together. We are both the students learning right relatedness and we are the textbook on right relatedness. We as a church are the school in which reconciliation is learned and practiced. We as a faith community become—through our messy lives and complicated relationships and godly aspirations and embarrassing failures—I say, we become the best curriculum for teaching what it means to live as imperfect creatures trying to love one another—and failing—but continuing to try.
God did not set us down here with a step-by-step manual on how to love one another. The Bible is not a simplistic “how to” book on anything. It’s a storybook about how people have tried and failed at forming the beloved community. The Bible may illustrate how some have related to one another. But our real curriculum is found right here—within a faith community that uses the very challenges of human relatedness to learn how to love.
The trouble is that when the messiness begins, some folks run off. “I hate the hypocrisy of the church” or “This is too much effort,” they say as they close the church door behind them, glad they can now claim not to be part of that failed experiment in human relatedness. Just when relationships get complicated or frustrating or disillusioning or downright heartbreaking, some folks leave. Like the Corinthians to whom Paul wrote, some hit the first big challenge and bail from a marriage, from a friendship, from a faith community and thus miss the opportunity to learn the love lessons that can only be learned in tough circumstances.
Pause now to think about an important and enduring relationship in your life. Has it been devoid of conflict and disappointment? How have some challenging moments strengthened the relationship?
Give thanks to God for the difficulties that brought you new insight and brought your relationship new depth.
Let me add here that I don’t think all relationships are salvageable. Nor do I believe God sends us painful events in order to teach us lessons. If God designs tragedy to teach us, then that’s sick. But I do think that we can learn from failure and challenge, by God’s grace.
When the church council meets—as we did at Ann’s house yesterday—we may seem to be doing the “business” of the church: deciding on how to spend our budget, planning events for the church. But in the process we are—often without being conscious of it—learning how to love . . . learning how to listen . . . learning how to consider the good of the whole . . . learning how to pray together with a unified spirit . . . learning how to fail and not feel we ourselves are failures . . . learning how to speak with direct honesty yet kindly . . . learning how to take responsibility for our actions without being responsible for another’s feelings. . . . learning how to live in community.
Too often churches plug people into leadership slots in order to accomplish necessary tasks—and forget that every time we work together we are accomplishing tasks and we are being formed spiritually and we are creating the beloved community.
You can stick around and show up for worship occasionally and probably avoid ever having to develop a relationship that gets complicated.
Or you can roll up your sleeves and get to know us better and even get involved in a project or attend a council meeting or show up for a Family Promise night. If you choose to be more involved, you’re sure to have a frustrating or disappointing experience with someone at some time. And when you do, I hope you’ll remember to thank God for the chance to learn a love lesson in the process.
SUNG PRAYER “In Love You Summon” p. 37 in songbook
1. Storytelling about reconciliation
Let the painting by George Tooker titled “Embrace of Peace” speak to you about moments of human connection. Does this picture tell a story about forgiveness and reconciliation after a painful event? About reunion after separation? About welcoming of new members into a group? Something else? It might remind you of a story of human relatedness from you own life or it might help you get inside this painting to imagine what has brought these characters into this communal embrace. Use the notebooks beside the painting to write a brief story, true or imagined, that this painting brings to your heart and mind.
2. Giving offerings after we have given up a grievance or anger
Imagine what our lives would be like if we followed Jesus’s advice to “first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift [at the altar] (Matthew 5:23). Before bringing your offerings to God, spend some moments considering if you may be shortchanging some relationships in your life. Then as you place your monetary gifts in the offering plate, resolve to give more of yourself to someone in your life who needs more from you—more forgiveness, more time, more patience, more listening, more gentleness, more honesty . . . .
3. Receiving communion in communion with our church family
Let the milk on the table remind you that we are choosing solid food, the Bread of Life, out of a maturing commitment to follow the demanding ways of Jesus.
4. Praying with your pastor
The pastor will come forward to kneel in prayer at the altar railing. You may take turns coming alongside her to ask for prayer for yourself or others.
FORMING A PRAYER CIRCLE