Mysteries of the Image

Year A, Pentecost, Proper 24

Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99                         

Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) 

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

The texts this week hold strong images of God as a fierce God, of a God not to be taken lightly. And Jesus, in God’s image, is not to be taken lightly either!

The mysterious sovereignty of God is present in each of the texts though made manifest in different ways. These texts invite us to stop and simply sit in the mystery of this God who we find in these scriptures – the Creator of all, giving hidden treasures from the riches of darkness, at once more mighty and more forgiving than we can imagine. This is a God who knows our names, knows our fears and foibles, who is a lover of justice and the wisest of guides. God leads the people, speaking from the mystery of a cloud and through the messages of prophets and apostles. God’s words and deeds transform individual lives and whole communities. God’s tremendous glory is ever-present and yet we can only, with Moses, take in a glimpse of God. In our humanity we cannot comprehend the fullness of God’s face, the immense abundance of God’s complete presence.

In Jesus, attested to in the gospels as Word of God made flesh, Son of God, we glimpse God in a human form like ourselves. Jesus has so embodied the love and wisdom of God that he is a full expression of God’s image that we can take in and still live. In I Thessalonians (our earliest extant Christian text) Paul testifies to the transforming power of Jesus who was “God with Us” for the salvation of the world. He reassures the struggling church in Thessalonica that he has seen this power at work in their lives as they welcomed the message brought to them by Paul and his companions.

Jesus also brings God’s larger than life love and challenge to live in God’s ways through the gospel writer’s report in Matthew of Jesus’ words to questioning skeptics. “To live in this world as one of God’s people what does God require,” they ask. “Being creatures of flesh and spirit, do we split our allegiance between the demands of the empire we live in and the demands of God? Can we satisfy both and live well, free of conflict and consequences?” Jesus replies that it is good to pay to the empire what it is due and to God what God is due. Is this a mandate to pay our taxes and also tithe well to the church? Or is it more like a Zen koan that we are to ponder? If God is the unimaginably powerful sovereign mystery described in all our other lectionary texts then what is God due? Is there anything left for the empire or is all our allegiance due to God who is the larger than life, loving, mighty, delivering Creator of all? If so, how then do we live our lives of flesh and spirit in a world that demands allegiance to ways that are not the ways of God?

Stories

There are two tales from the Sufi tradition that speak to the questions above. Both can be found in a collection by Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes; Teaching Stories of the Sufi Masters over the Past Thousand Years (Penguin Group, 1967.) I have also located them on-line.

The first is called “The Oath.”[i] In this story a man – could be a woman ­– makes a vow to sell his house when all his problems are solved and give all the money to the poor. When this comes to pass, he gets cold feet and doesn’t want to part with all his money. So he sells his house for one silver coin. But with the house comes a cat that costs 10,000 silver coins. A buyer is found. House and cat are sold. The man give the one silver coin to the poor and pockets the 10,000 silver coins.

Where was the man’s true allegiance?

Children have such an innate sense of fairness that I am wondering if this could be turned into a children’s time story with the right framing. They would see immediately the injustice and falsehood of the person selling their house. It could be that the protagonist becomes a child promising to sell their bicycle or dollhouse or another favorite toy.

The second story is called “The Bequest[ii]. A rich man dies far from home and sends back with the rest of his will a bequest for the distribution of his land. “Let the community where the land is situated take what they wish for themselves, and let them give that which they wish to Arif the Humble.” The community elders do not find Arif a suitable heir since he is very young, poor and not educated. Years pass and Arif grows up to become a wise and able leader. He goes to the community elders for his inheritance. They are entirely resistant to part with the land until they are challenged by an unknown person in the community to look again at the original language of the bequest. “Let the community where the land is situated take what they wish for themselves, and let them give that which they wish to Arif the Humble.” Since the man died so far from home and could not give personal instructions, the property was entrusted to the elders to be held for Arif the Humble who would eventually know how best to use it. By keeping the land for themselves, the elders had betrayed the intentions of the man leaving the bequest. Finally they accept the truth and justice prevails in the community.

What questions does this story ask about rightful ownership? How does it resonate with Jesus’ instructions to the skeptics to give God what belongs to God?

Blessings on your story journey, 

Jane Anne

©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Photos and commentary may be reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!

[i] ”( http://www.spiritual-short-stories.com/spiritual-short-story-329-The+Oath.html

[ii] (http://www.spiritual-short-stories.com/spiritual-short-story-328-The+Bequest.html

Resisting Violence in a Violent World

Year A, Pentecost, Proper 23

Exodus 32:1-14 and Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 

Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23

Philippians 4:1-9 

Matthew 22:1-14

There is an ebb and flow of imagery revealing conflict and resolution in the texts this week. We begin with the conflict between the Israelites who are feeling abandoned (once again!) in the wilderness and God. They seek a tangible presence and break covenant worshipping an idol. God is angry –no, wrathful! Moses steps in as intermediary in dialogue with God on behalf of the people and the conflict is resolved with God turning from wrath to stay in relationship with the erring community. Once again the final word from God is not judgment and destruction, but grace. Exodus tells the story and Psalm 106 rehearses it in stunning poetry. Continue reading

Sharing the Inheritance

Year A, Pentecost, Proper 22

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19  

Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15

Philippians 3:4b-14

Matthew 21:33-46

I am intrigued this week with the images running through the scriptures of all we inherit from God as human beings made in God’s image as well as being simply part of the interconnected flow of creation. The imagery reveals such rich treasure available to us, yet treasure that also makes demands on the way we live in God’s world. Exodus 20 gives those ancient and famous commandments that still guide us in creating fruitful and just community. Psalm 19 extols the cosmos that speaks without words of God’s glory in its daily order of day and night inviting us to deep meditation. The vivid sensory image of a grape vine and a vineyard, with its sights, textures, smells and tastes, connects Isaiah 5, Psalm 80 and Matthew 21 in a pointed parable that asks how we will accept and use the great inheritance of God’s treasures of life, wisdom and abundance. Will we live in this amazing cosmic treasure chest through the just use of the resources of creation and of God’s love? Or will we ignore the God’s ways in fearful greed, squandering and betraying our rich inheritance? Paul challenges us in his letter to the church at Philippi to “press on”, “strain forward” in following Christ Jesus. For it is Christ who models our inheritance of the counter-cultural/counter-empire (in the first and twenty-first centuries) ways of God – the ways built into flow and fabric of creation. Continue reading

Coming Round Right

Year A, Pentecost, Proper 21

Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Psalm 25:1-9

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

Images abound in our lectionary texts this week around being in right – or not so right – relationship with God. People whine, complain and despair in the wildness doubting that God is still among them. Yet God provides water in the desert. Psalmists cry out for God’s teachings and truth, promising to proclaim them and teach them in turn to their children. A prophet hears and shares the word of the Lord regarding a false proverb that is obstructing the people’s relationship with the Divine way. Paul exhorts the people of Philippi to follow God’s ways through letting the same mind as Christ be within them. Jesus challenges the authorities and us with a parable picture right relationship with God. It’s a matter of the heart not of the law. Continue reading

Trust and Justice

Year A, Pentecost, Proper 20

Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45  

Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8 

Philippians 1:21-30 

Matthew 20:1-16

Our texts this week begin and end with trusting there will be justice in the Kingdom of God though it might not come just as we would imagine it. The fearful Israelites receive the sustenance they plead for in extraordinary ways with an unexpected admonition. They must trust day by day it will be provided. No hoarding allowed! Jonah becomes angry when he finally trusts and fulfills God’s commandment to prophecy and the proclamation of God’s power actually comes to fruition. The great city of Ninevah repents and God is merciful instead of wrathful. It does not end as Jonah expected. Paul challenges the Philippians to trust the message of the gospel and live their lives in accordance with it even in adversity. In Matthew, the disciples are grumbling and wondering about what reward they will eventually receive for following Jesus. He gives them a challenging parable about personal and systemic justice. Trust that the Kingdom is about justice and love for all, not in eventual rewards.The last shall be first and the first last. Continue reading

Trust and Forgiveness

Year A, Pentecost, Proper 19

Exodus 14:19-31 and Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21  

Genesis 50:15-21 and Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 

Romans 14:1-12 

Matthew 18:21-35

Deliverance from captivity, freedom and new life are the themes of the first set of texts this week. The imagery is keen in the Exodus story. Though you may remember this scene from The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt try to envision and re-create it in your imagination. The cloud by day and pillar of fire by night evoke vivid visuals. The wall of water and the muddy sea bottom clogging the wheels of the chariots brings smells of salt, seaweed and floundering sea creatures. We can hear the screech of the chariots wheels and the cries of the horsemen. Do you feel the wind pick up as the sea rolls back into place? The cries of people hurrying to freedom and of those fleeing the waves of the deep come to our ears. And then there are the songs and shouts of praise from Psalm 114 and Exodus 15. Continue reading

Following God’s Ways

Year A, Proper 18

Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149                

Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40 

Romans 13:8-14 

Matthew 18:15-20

Welcome to several new Sermon-Stories.com blog subscribers! We had a sudden growth spurt. It is gratifying and inspiring to look at each new subscriber form and see where you all live. People around the world are connected through this blog.

The imagery from this week’s texts throws stark light on the commandments to follow God’s ways that run through scripture. We are called to be God’s people. Not our own people. We are called to follow God’s ways in relationship to ourselves, to one another, to creation. It is the path to abundant life. Scripture is adamant about this and the message is amazingly consistent for a book that is really many books collected together over thousands of years. Continue reading

Curiosity, Call, Transformation

Year A, Proper 17

Exodus 3:1-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b  

Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Psalm 26:1-8 

Romans 12:9-21 

Matthew 16:21-28

“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”(Matthew 16.24-25). After all the months of curiously following Jesus, after answering the initial call to be his disciple, Jesus issues the ultimate call. This is really IT! If you want to follow me in following the ways of God, it will lead through hardship and giving up what you may think is your life to discover your true life. Those of us called to the professional ministry have certainly experienced a call, whether dramatic or subtle, as well as the roller coaster ride of following the call. I would venture to say that many in our congregations have answered a call to teaching or medicine or activism or parenting, through service in numerous professions. You can be called to service as a grocery store clerk or a wait staff person. It is the not the job but the call to God’s service in the midst of your life that makes up the substance of “call.” Continue reading

Rock of Ages

Year A, Proper 16

Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124  

Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138  

Romans 12:1-8  

Matthew 16:13-20

As I write this blog post we are waiting for the solar eclipse. Here in Fort Collins, CO we will get near totality. Though not enough for the purists. Many friends and parishioners have headed north to Wyoming and Nebraska to be in the path of total totality. We have bright sunny weather. I hope they do too!

Waiting for this event, which I understand is more common than not around the world, leads one to thinking of cataclysmic events prophesied or described in biblical literature. Could they be the product of people experiencing partial or total solar or lunar eclipses? I must admit that just reading about this American eclipse and all the media hype involved does make one think of our national and global events of recent days in even larger than life scenarios. And the events themselves are quite large already.

Listening to our texts from Isaiah and Matthew this week in light of world events and the awe-inspiring natural event of the solar eclipse here in the US, I find myself pondering the response of God’s people. My first thoughts center around my own family of faith, Christendom, acknowledging the heritage of our Jewish roots. Isaiah proclaims that God is bringing salvation that will outlast our natural world and even our human species. In her biblical commentary blog, “Working Preacher”, Ingrid Lilly, writes,Isaiah 51 falls within Second Isaiah’s powerful pastoral sermon to bring comfort and hope to a community struggling to recover from mass exile (chapters 40-55). The prophet’s job is to heal the wounds of unwanted disorientation.”[i] Healing the wounds of unwanted disorientation has a welcome sound in our 21st century world. God will bring comfort to the waste lands of ancient Israel, of our contemporary Middle East, to the warring land of North Korea and its perceived enemies, the racially divided, economically and class stratified land of America….you can add to this list and we could go on and on. Do we cling with hope to Isaiah’s prophecy, “God will bring comfort to the waste lands”? Do we take it to heart? I know that in American Christendom we all too often think we have to do our own saving all by ourselves. Continue reading

Across the Divides

Year A, Proper 15

Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67 

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Our text from Isaiah 56 gives a timely message for this week, reiterating a familiar theme for the prophet – God is bringing salvation and deliverance from oppression to the people. As part of the second generation of Isaiah texts ,often labeled Second Isaiah, the prophet of Isaiah 56 speaks in the name of the great 8th century BCE prophet and proclaims that God’s salvation is extended past the people of Israel to ALL who join themselves and commit to God’s ways. Foreigners and Gentiles are included in God’s family. “Thus says the Lord, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56.8). God is working across the divides that humanity has made! Continue reading