4th Sunday after Epiphany

January 30, 2005
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Micah 6:1-8
Reading 2: 
Psalm 15
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Reading 4: 
Matthew 5:1-12
By Tari Lennon

The season of Epiphany continues to dawn upon a world darkened by catastrophe and grief. The consequences of human-made and natural disasters encircle our globe. How do we affirm the presence of the Light without seeming glib and facile? What do we say to our people to connect them through the Light to the darkness in the world without succumbing to sentimentality and trivialization? How do we address the massive suffering in the world without sounding despondent or risking cynicism?

At moments such as these I cannot help but think of King Lear. As age continues to erode Lear’s sense of himself and hold on his world, he stands with the blind Gloucester, out on a heath, and ask, "How do you see the world?” Gloucester responds, "I see it feelingly."

To see the world feelingly may be the best we can bring to our world at this moment. By that I mean, if we reconsider Paul’s understanding of the cross of Christ in light  of Process/Whiteheadian thought we see that for Paul the cross both illuminates and unites. In our reading for today Paul pleads with his associates at Corinth to see that the cross conveys radical, new, and transforming  information about God--information that must change forever how they relate to one another. He also insists that they will never, never, never get that new information by relying on traditional teachings or cultural expectations.

The Christ of God, "Christ crucified," a crucified God, discloses a God participant with them, a God in whom they must participate, a God who is weak by worldly calculations of strength and silly by intellectual standards of smart.

To the casual observer or traditional thinker such information would serve simply to inspire a smirk or the derisive question, "what kind of God would that be?” But for those willing to think from the heart it becomes clear that if what Paul is saying is true for this one then it is also true for that one and, therefore, God participates in each of us--all of us--and in that participation connects each of us to one another in God. The cross is neither a device nor a manipulation. It is simply emblematic of the way God is--present, accessible, vulnerable, and at pains to connect us to one another and to God’s very Self in the divine life

To "get that" is to be led almost automatically to what is now termed the Sermon on the Mount. Regardless "Matthew’s" casting of Jesus as the new Moses, the delivery of the "new law," and mountaintops being metaphors in the religious world for revelations either about or from God, we have to marvel at how our author has recast his knowledge of his traditions into sound bites for the book tour of his itinerant teacher. Like Paul before him he calls attention to weak and foolish happenstance and ridiculous people to confront his audience with a whole new way of seeing both those rejects and the great, big, fearsome God of their beliefs. Using many of the Psalms (1:; 32:1-2; 37:11; 41:1; 65:4; 84:4-5; 106:3; 112:1; 128:1), III Isaiah (61:2-30), and alluding to the prophets, our author(s) gather up what has gone before and give it a brand new spin. It is the very people who have been pitied, or looked down upon, or cast aside who are the comforters of God’s heart and models for how to be in relationship with God.

The religious concerns of the tradition are neither rejected nor abrogated, just gathered up and faced in a new direction. Righteousness, mercy, peace--they are still important, but to be realized now, in a new way. But the new way is not simply not the old way, it is a bigger way. The route to a fuller relationship with God is through a more inclusive and expansive relationship with each other and the sure and certain knowledge that every actual entity gives rise to every other actual entity and that they are all pervaded by the Divine Life. Nothing can be scoffed at, no one should be overlooked, and everything can be reworked and redone to divine ends.

After Susan Sontag’s death I took some time to revisit some of her essays. She was a polymath of the first order.  Photography, film, politics, philosophy, music, literature, culture, and so much more, were fields of interest, inquiry and critical evaluation for her. Early in her career she wrote a book of critical essays entitled, "Against Interpretation," and that is exactly what she was arguing for. Sounds so sorta’ post-modern now, but then, 1966, it was revolutionary thinking. She insisted that trying to interpret anything does violence to that which is being interpreted and if we really, really want to understand a painting, a piece of music, a religious belief,* a photograph . . . it must be experienced. We must do the work of fashioning some kind of relationship with the thing to be interpreted. Sounds like a process/religious perspective to me. And I believe that that provides us with a lens through which we can view both New Testament texts for the day.

Psalm 15 and the text from Micah presuppose the covenantal relationship between God and the Israelites. But once again, in the Micah piece, we have the prophet reframing old covenantal requirements in this covenant lawsuit with the prophet acting as the attorney for the people. Whereas at one point in time the covenant relationship required certain rites and rituals to be performed by the people in order to demonstrate their faithfulness, now new behaviors are being invited. In turn, those new behaviors alter the very nature of the community itself. The covenant is no longer just about the relationship between God and Israel , but rather how, and in what ways, that relationship will impact the entire world. Prophetic insight could be a very useful tool these days, right here at home.

Finally for today, I want to comment on the 15th Psalm. First of all I want to observe how radically different entering the Temple was from entering any church today is. Churches market and advertise themselves in such ways today as to convince people that whatever their needs are, "this church" will meet them. All marketing today is about what the church is going to do for the attendee.

Our Psalm is saying don’t even bother to show up if you’re not ready and committed to do certain things. Outrageous! Can’t you just hear the demographers and marketing experts now, "say that and you’ll be talking to yourself--and maybe Jesus. ” But some days I wonder if we don’t miss an important opportunity by not demanding something of people, by not making some other assumptions about people viz. , that they want to live meaningful lives and be of service as well as have their needs met.

I close today with a quote from the Confucian scholar Mencius:

"What is the foundation of natural human feeling for others: The heart that sympathizes with pain.

What is the foundation of a commitment to the common good? The heart that is repelled by vice.

What is the foundation of respect for social and religious forms? The heart that is willing to defer.

And what is the foundation for a liberal education?
The heart that can tell true from false.

People have these four foundations like they have four limbs. Everybody has these four foundations in them. If these four foundations are fulfilled, it will be like a fire starting up or a spring bursting through. If they are fulfilled, it will be enough to create and preserve order in the world.

Leave them unfulfilled, and it will even be impossible for someone to take care of (his) father or mother."
As I was saying, maybe the best we can offer our broken world right now is to see it feelingly.

Till next week.

*A fact seldom commented on in her biographies is that she taught sociology of religion early in her career.

The Rev. Dr. Tari Lennon is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds degrees in theology, ministry and psychology. She retired from parish ministry after 43 years and now convenes Open Gatherings which draws people together from all faiths and nonfaiths to explore topics of spirituality, relationships, and personal ethics.