The Common Good
September-October 2001

You Are What You Worship

by Michaela Bruzzese | September-October 2001

We are reminded that the commitment to the gospel is an absolute one. Reflections on the revised common lectionary, Cycle C.

In his monumental work The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds the faithful, "There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control, but to share." For Christians, discipleship itself is sacred space that must also transcend the confines of time and space, so that the love of Christ is always made tangible in a busy and often cruel world. We are each invited to live our lives in this sacred realm, to resist the clutter of things and money that so easily skew our perspective of what is right and good according to God.

In the next eight weeks, we will be reminded by Jeremiah and the Psalms, by Paul in his letter to Timothy, and by Luke that our most important work is to magnify the presence of God wherever and whenever possible in the world. Surely no one of us is up to the task, even though we "are fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14) by a generous and loving God. But we are assured that we need only to care for the world as God does in order to be true disciples. With persistent prayer (Luke 18:6-7) and a steadfast faith (2 Timothy 3:14), we will love the prisoner, welcome the stranger (Hebrews 13:1-3), give to others abundantly, and rejoice when they cannot repay us (Luke 14:14). These everyday gestures to family, friends, co-workers, and strangers will reveal to all that we worship the one true God.

We will be reminded that the commitment to the gospel is an absolute one; only those free from possessions can accept it (Luke 14:33). The best way to resist the pull of possessions is by sharing all that we have, and doing so with joy; in the words of Mother Teresa, "It is not how much you give, but with how much love you give it." Our ability to give, and to do so with joy and love, will sufficiently betray our allegiance, not to any worldly leader or thing, but to the Holy One who has called us into being.

Michaela Bruzzese is a free-lance writer living in Chile.

September 2

Let Mutual Love Continue

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

"You are what you worship," Jeremiah tells us. While we may confess one faith, the object of our true devotion reveals itself in our everyday actions and in the things to which we devote most of our time and energy. And when our hearts are devoted to anything but God, we betray not only God but also ourselves: "Your fathers went after idols, and became empty themselves.... My people have changed their glory, for useless things" (Jeremiah 2:5). Though more than 2,000 years have passed, little has changed-if anything, we now have more access to a greater variety of useless things than ever. The idols are different in name and shape, but their effect is the same: Lifeless objects bring death, not life. In the end, however, we are always freely allowed to make the choice between God and not-God: "My people heard me not, so I gave them up to the hardness of their hearts" (Psalm 81:12-13).

In contrast, the alternate psalm joyfully praises the righteous person's choices. The one who "fears the Lord and greatly delights in his commands" rejoices, for "his posterity shall be mighty upon the earth" (Psalm 112:1-2). The choice to "fear" (also translated as "revere") the Lord has never been easy to make or to maintain. But God promises the only true and lasting fortune, for "I will never forsake you or abandon you" (Hebrews 13:5).

Jesus reaffirms the rewards of choosing the goodness that God asks of us. When our generosity and mercy have no bounds toward "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind... blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you" (Luke 14:13-14). We are most blessed when our generosity (like God's) is not repayable.

September 9

Law of Love

Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

The psalmist stands in wonder, utterly overwhelmed by the gift of life given to each of us as God's first act of unconditional love: "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; too lofty for me to attain. Truly you have formed my innermost being.... I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:13-14). Truly we each begin purely as gift and as gifted; we are granted the spirit of life at no cost, with nothing owed.

We are invited, however, to deeper, lasting life through a relationship with God. It is not a guarantee of special favors, or a life free from pain. In our alternate psalm, we are promised only that God will walk with us; we will be "like a tree planted near running water, that yields fruit in due season, and whose leaves never fade" (Psalm 1:3). God does not fade, but cares for us through all; God's faithfulness will be our strength.

The fruits of such discipleship are evident in Paul's letter to Philemon regarding his slave, Onesimus. Writing from prison, Paul implores Philemon to re-examine his relationship with Onesimus, now estranged from him after having run away and possibly stolen from Philemon. Though human laws demand that Onesimus be punished and forced to pay for his actions, Paul responds according to the laws of discipleship when he asks Philemon to "welcome him as you would me." He vows that "if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me." Paul's actions are utterly senseless according to human laws; as such, they bear the marks of his true allegiance to the law of the gospel.

In Luke, Jesus states the only way by which to live God's law: through a commitment so absolute that all others are secondary, including those to our families and our own lives. When we choose God, we do so with our whole hearts and our whole lives, renouncing forever all that we possess, and all that possesses us.

September 16

Mercifully Treated

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 51:1-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Themes of sin and forgiveness, often repeated in the history of God's relationship with God's people, take center stage. Through Jeremiah, God proclaims: "Fools my people are, they know me not.... They are wise in evil, but know not how to do good" (Jeremiah 4:22). His lament is followed, in our alternate reading, by the Israelites' quintessential betrayal when they were still newly liberated from the land of Egypt. Seeing how quickly they turned to worship the work of their own hands, God again exclaims, "I see how stiff-necked this people is.... Let me alone, that my wrath may blaze up to consume them" (Exodus 32:9-10). They are eventually consumed only by the fire of mercy, thanks to Moses' intervention and pleas for forgiveness.

Jesus' parable of the lost sheep also confirms that even when we have turned from God, the desire to be reunited is by itself enough for God to stretch forth his hand in love. The very idea that each one of us is worthy of saving may be beyond our comprehension, but, like David, our pleas for compassion and to once again "hear the sounds of joy" (Psalm 51:10) do not go unheard. They bring to our side Jesus, "the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God" (Timothy 1:17), and humble shepherd.

Our community is a "Who's Who" list of sinners who chose to come home, each more lovingly welcomed than the last. The fibers of our tradition were woven by the imperfect-people like Paul, for example, who confessed that "I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but have been mercifully treated" (1 Timothy 1:13). Forgiveness is a powerful and necessary source of renewal, and through it we are called, again and again, to new life. Through it, we are also given the means to be sources of new life to others. The one who has been forgiven also forgives much. Our church, as a Church of the Imperfect, must model God's mercy and love to the world. We who have been mercifully treated have no reason to remain in exile, and every reason to forgive others as we have been forgiven.

September 23

Serving God Alone

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Once again we witness our religious ancestors' ongoing struggle to fulfill the covenant despite the temptations that surround them. The prosperity and power enjoyed by the Israelites are accompanied by other temptations, including the idolatry of wealth and neglect of community, especially of the needy. God calls Israel to account, first through Amos and then Jeremiah, to remind them of the covenant and their obligations.

Over and over, God is portrayed on the side of the downtrodden and outcast. The psalmist proclaims, "He raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor to seat them with...the princes of his own people" (Psalm 113:7-8). Amos illustrates God's anger in the face of injustice and mercilessness, and assures those who "trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land.... Never will I forget a thing they have done!" (Amos 8:4, 7). Jeremiah's grief is "incurable" as he witnesses Israel's idolatry and wonders, "Why do they provoke me with their...foreign nonentities?" They who worshipped nothing ultimately became nothing; after a series of corrupt kings in Judah, Jerusalem is ultimately destroyed.

In Luke, Jesus once again tells a parable on the dangers of wealth. Here, though the parable-which stems from Palestinian lending customs during Jesus' time-may appear somewhat cryptic to contemporary readers, Jesus' central message is perfectly clear when he states that "You cannot serve God and Mammon" (Luke 16:13). In a world where capital is king, placing our trust, faith, and hope in a God who loves the poor and needy is profoundly countercultural and an act of rebellion. As Christians, it is still our challenge to not only live kingdom values in secular society, but to do so joyfully, celebrating the fundamental goodness and beauty of the world. Our task is not to live the kingdom apart from the world, but to infuse the world with the joy and sacredness of the kingdom.

September 30

‘My God in Whom I Trust'

Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

From our Jewish heritage to the life of Jesus to the earliest Christian communities, we confront over and over the requirements of our discipleship and the role of money in our lives. Our alternate psalm advises us to place our trust not in "princes" but in God, who alone "sets captives free...gives sight to the blind...protects strangers...the fatherless and the widow he sustains" (Psalm 146:7-9). The psalmist includes almost every powerless group in ancient Israel, chiefly those without able-bodied males and tribal ties to protect them. Psalm 91 guarantees us that those who place their trust in God, not humans, will be cared for: "Because he clings to me, I will deliver him...I will be with him in distress" (Psalm 91:14-15).

As Timothy and Paul discovered in their experience with the early Christian church, however, clinging to God in the face of life's realities is no easy task. Paul warns Timothy against the dangers of wealth, for "Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and...many harmful and foolish desires which plunge them into...destruction" (1 Timothy 6:9). He assures him, however, that "religion with contentment is a great gain" (1 Timothy 6:6). "Contentment," from the Greek autarkeia, may be better translated as a detachment from worldly goods.

Finally, by including Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Luke also highlights the dangers of wealth. The rich man's preoccupation with wealth prevented him from acknowledging Lazarus or reaching out to ease his suffering during his lifetime, and thus created an insurpassable chasm after his death. If we want to follow Christ, we must struggle seriously with issues of wealth in our own lives. We who "cling to the Lord" can reveal the God whom we worship by crossing the many chasms that divide our world-between rich and poor, sick and healthy, powerful and powerless-to help bring to the world the fullness of life in Christ.

October 7

‘How Long, O Lord?'

Lamentations 1:1-6; 3:19-26; Psalm 37: 1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

The readings begin with the lament of Jerusalem's destruction and God's seeming abandonment, and end with the promise of justice inherently present in the stubbornness of faith. In Lamentations, the author tries to comprehend the incomprehensible: the fall of Jerusalem, God's holy city. His sorrow is tangible as he describes Jerusalem's plight; she "who was mistress over nations...has been made a toiling slave" (Lamentations 1:1).

In the alternate reading, the prophet Habakkuk knows these feelings well. Writing just before Jerusalem's capture, Habakkuk is witness to the pervasive "ruin...misery, destruction, and violence" (Habakkuk 1:3) in the kingdom of Judah. Overwhelmed, he cries "How long, O Lord?...Why do you let me see ruin? Why must I look at misery?" He questions how God can permit such injustice, asking "Why then do you gaze on the faithless in silence, while the wicked man devours one more just than himself?" (Habakkuk 1:13).

God's answer is given in each of today's readings. To Habakkuk, God vows that "the just man, because of his faith, shall live" (Habakkuk 2:4). The psalmist promises that "evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land" (Psalm 37:9). Paul encourages Timothy to "bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God" (2 Timothy 1:8). Finally, in today's gospel, Jesus assures the disciples that even the smallest amount of faith can move mountains and firmly rooted trees. Surely, then, our faith can also strengthen us in the face of evil and injustice.

To fight evil, however, requires that we must first see it and name it. To do so is an act of courage. Our discipleship further requires that we, like Habakkuk, Paul, and Timothy, take action. What is our response in the face of evil? Are we unable or unwilling to confront it until it is too late? Or do we, like Habakkuk, take action, strengthened by the God who "Makes my feet swift as those of hinds, and enables me to go upon the heights"?

October 14

Led to Refreshment

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Our experience of faith in the midst of despair is just as important as in the midst of joy. Jeremiah sends a letter to the Israelites exiled in Babylon, commanding them on behalf of "the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel" to "build houses...plant gardens...take wives and beget sons and daughters" (Jeremiah 29:5-6). Jeremiah beseeches the Israelites to trust that God will deliver them from exile and to persist with life as an act of faith, even when they are strangers in a strange land. The psalmist exemplifies this attitude and praises God, "Israel's deliverer," who has "given life to our souls," for although "we went through fire and water...you have led us out to refreshment."

Paul knows well the need for faith in the midst of despair. He confesses to Timothy that though he suffers "even to the point of chains, like a criminal," he is inspired and strengthened by his discipleship and by "the word of God," for "it is not chained." Paul finds meaning in, and even transcends, his physical suffering for "the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 2:9-10).

Luke emphasizes Paul's distinction between physical and spiritual health in his telling of the cleansing of the 10 lepers. Luke is the only author to include this event that highlights the actions of a non-Jew, a Samaritan, who returned to thank Jesus after being healed of leprosy. Of the 10 who were healed, it is only the Samaritan who returned, "glorifying God in a loud voice." Though he had already physically healed the man, Jesus' assurance that "your faith has healed you" indicates that the man's restoration went beyond the physical. Again, Luke challenges our assumptions about those who are "saved" and assures us that spiritual wholeness depends not on birthright, but on our response to God's grace. By focusing on the faith of the Samaritan, considered unclean and unsaved by Jewish religious authorities, Luke emphasizes that there is no one outside God's invitation to new life. All that's required is our consent.

October 21

‘Whence shall help come?'

Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Today we read of three different ways that God is present and available to God's people. In Jeremiah, God speaks of the new covenant, written "upon their hearts" (Jeremiah 31:33)-within the faithful, not outside on stone tablets. The law will not be foreign, but an inherent aspect of creation in the divine image, accessible to all and known to all. The psalmist rejoices, for "your command has made me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me" (Psalm 119:98).

Second, Paul tells Timothy that scriptures are "useful for teaching... and training... so that one who belongs to God may be... equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Paul knows well the crucial role scripture plays in living the gospel and persisting through adversity. Earlier he confesses that "all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12). It is a definitive statement: Living the gospel will bring persecution, tension, and division. But the scriptures are constant and enduring proof that the living God is with us, preparing us for good works and perseverance in the face of despair.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Jesus emphasizes prayer so strongly in Luke's gospel. As with many of his parables, Jesus uses extreme examples to make his point. The judge is not only godless but also disrespectful of basic human rights. Nevertheless, if the widow, who represents the most powerless segment of society in first-century Palestine, can persuade such a man, how much easier must it be for we, whom God loves, to "secure the rights of his chosen ones, who call out to him day and night?" (Luke 18:7). Today Jesus promises that God is attentive to our call; like a good shepherd, he seeks us out in our distress and responds to us.

God has gifted us with the law, scripture, and prayer through Christ Jesus. Equipped with such powerful tools, we are assured that when we lift our eyes toward the mountains and plead for help, the Lord shall be our guardian now and forever.

October 28

Keeping the Faith

Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

The connection between humility, service to others, and spiritual greatness is frequently emphasized by Jesus in word and action. He cautions against the danger of religious superiority, stating that "everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14). He knew how susceptible people of faith were to self-righteousness and pride; the gospels testify to his passionate arguments with and condemnations of religious hypocrisy and spiritual arrogance (see Luke 6:37, 16:14, 7:36, 9:46, and 11:37). Jesus' words still ring true; people of faith are not exempt from the human need to be recognized and important. Unfortunately, religious beliefs are often used as a weapon of exclusion against those perceived to be less deserving of God's (and therefore our) love and generosity.

We, like the Pharisee, forget that it is God "who set the mountains in place" and who stills "the roaring of the seas...and the tumult of people" (Psalm 65:6-7). God alone, as Paul reminds us, is the "just judge" (2 Timothy 4:8). And like Paul, who "competed well...finished the race," and "kept the faith," the passion of our beliefs should be an instrument of radical inclusion rather than exclusion. Though abandoned by those whom he considered friends, Paul prayed that "it not be held against them." He could do so because his faith was in Jesus, who "stood by me and gave me strength" (2 Timothy 4:16-17).

Fortunately, our path has been prepared by Paul and a whole "cloud of witnesses." The lives and works of the saints continue to provide living testimony to Joel's prophecy that "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions" (Joel 2:28). The gospel and the lives of those who embrace it make it clear that the greatest dreamers and visionaries are those who choose to be last in line, to serve rather than be served, to forgive rather than judge.

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