I am continually amazed at the wisdom of those who put together and maintain our Revised Common Lectionary. Reading through the texts for this coming Sunday is like reading a narrative, a story that runs through the ages of God’s story about justice and love. This week’s texts speak to me of Epiphany quest for new ways of revealing God’s realm, of making visible justice and love in the midst of our currently divisive political environment here in the US. Perhaps those of you in other countries are experiencing the angst of this quest in your politics or in world politics at large.
Beginning with the ancient prophet, Isaiah, whom Jesus would have known well, we hear questions from God, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? … 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. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3a,4) Substitute the word “worship” for “fast.” Does this speak to practices of shallow worship, worship by rote, when we cannot even talk with brothers and sisters across the divides of Christendom? Isaiah continues with God answering the questions, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”(Isaiah 58:6-7) Our own kin are our Christian brothers and sisters, liberal to conservative, as well as our interfaith brothers and sisters.
Our true worship is to do the work of God’s justice and love everyday….our Sunday worship gives us sustenance to do this. Psalm 112 reiterates this. “Praise the LORD! Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments. … they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice” (Psalm 112:1, 4b-5). The apostle Paul continues the narrative thread by reminding us that it is God’s very Spirit that empowers us in our work/worship of justice and love. We are not left to our strength or our wisdom and devices. Writing to the church in Corinth he declares, “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. … we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5,12). Finally we hear from the mouth of Jesus himself as he teaches us to be salt that flavors the world with justice and light that shines God’s love. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. … You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:17, 13a, 14a). Jesus comes full circle reminding us of Isaiah’s prophetic words, “to loose the bonds of injustice … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.”
Friends, we are not alone in our search and in our actions to make God’s realm visible here and now. We live in God’s world. We are working for the very essence and substance of which all creation and particularly humankind are made. We are made in God’s image. We need to remember this in a time that news media and the actions of so many seem to reflect otherwise. The love and justice of God made known in Jesus are the very substance of the world and of who we are. This understanding may not make our work shorter or less arduous….it does give us ultimate meaning and power.
There is a wonderful resource for stories of justice that I found some years back that is still available on Amazon, used and on Prime. It is titled, Fair is Fair; World Folktales of Justice by storyteller and lawyer, Sharon Creeden. It is well worth being on a pastor or educator’s bookshelf given the emphasis that God places on justice and love in our Judeo-Christian scriptures. Creeden follows her retelling of each folktale with corollary stories from the history of law and justice, real life stories. All of my suggestions for stories this week come from her book. I have found internet sources for them as well.
- “The Stolen Smells” – This is a story that Creeden says is American in origin. It tells of a greedy baker who wants to deny his poor neighbor even the smell of his freshly baked goods without payment. And the comeuppance he receives. This story clearly speaks of the ludicrous nature of greed.
- “Ooka and the Wasted Wisdom” – A story from Japan about the wise judge, Ooka. This tale is a variation on the story of Solomon deciding who was the rightful and true mother of a child. It has some clever twists. And it is embedded in a sermon preached by Rev. Richard Bolin at Trinity United Methodist Church in Loleta, CA, USA. Worth the read!
- “The Quality of Mercy” – In this story Creeden retells a Moroccan folktale inspired by Shakespeare’s play, “The Merchant of Venice.” In this play a young women dresses as a man to be the lawyer for her beloved who is to repay a debt with a pound of his own flesh. The folktale uses this motif but Creeden retells it by having the young man learn a lesson about repayment even though he is saved from the fate of giving a kilo of his own flesh. And the young woman, a princess in disguise, is given a place next the king, her father, to rule the kingdom with mercy, “more kindness than justice requires.”
Blessings on your Epiphany story journey! May you walk with God’s justice and love,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Commentary and photos may be reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!