The Common Good
September/October 2011

OCTOBER Remembering Our Identity

by Enuma Okoro | September/October 2011

Reflections on the Common Lectionary.

God is a God of order. The first order of business is to remind creation that God is the only true God. Our God is the one who creates, saves, and redeems, who expects creation to respond to God’s goodness.

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But we struggle to remember who God is and who we are called to be.

Instead, we cling to pieces of our past identities because what we know always seems more reliable than forging ahead without a detailed map. Despite story after story of God’s faithfulness, despite God becoming human in Christ, it is still not enough for us to remember why putting our future in God’s hands is a good idea. We want God on speed dial, ready to dole out whatever we imagine we need for our security. We want a “just add water” relationship with God, bypassing the wilderness spaces and uncertainties that come with authentic love. Walking by invitation and in loving faith is not for those who want to create gods who will abide by their own rules.

Thankfully, God knows who God is and chooses to remain present as we tenaciously cling to our old ways. When we forget who is God, God reminds us. The eternal God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow invites us, God’s straying sheep, to live in the present in a way that honors God’s work in the past and God’s call to the future.

Enuma Okoro, of Durham, North Carolina, is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

[ October 2 ]
Gratitude or Entitlement?
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 80:7-15; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Our life with God is a response to God’s initiative. As history testifies we can respond to God’s goodness in ways that lead to a flourishing life or to dishonoring and abusing both God and creation. Exodus 20 begins with God reminding the Israelites of who God is in relationship to them, and of their history with God. Any faithful response to God rests on our conviction that we do not have any other gods and that our lives are dependent on our relationship with God. In this sense, our memory and understanding of the past plays a vital role in how we understand our present identity and duties in order to live into a fruitful future. But the focus of our memory should steer toward God’s unchanging identity and God’s initial stance in relationship to us. Keeping God’s sovereignty in the forefront of our minds and remembering that God lovingly chooses relationship with us should order our lives in new ways.

Paul knows this because he has experienced God’s redemption. In Philippians 3, Paul recalls his past not with nostalgia, pride, or even false humility but in order to reframe his present loyalties through open acknowledgement of how God has related to him. Too often, we look to our past and want to hold onto identities that stifle us from faithful growth in Christ. Like the tenants in Matthew 21:33-46, we can turn from receiving God’s gifts with gratitude and obedience toward having a false and foolish sense of entitlement. The sad and desperate truth is that when we feel entitled to something we can justify going to any lengths to have it. Western history testifies to that. It might be an appropriate time for many of us to join the psalmist (Psalm 80:14) in pleading with God to remember God’s own identity as merciful savior and redeemer. God, save us from ourselves!

[ October 9 ]
Remembering Forward
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

When we lose sight of God’s sovereignty we lose our trust in God’s faithfulness and goodness. If we will not follow God and abide by God’s ways, then we will surely follow someone else. We risk taking on ungodly ways of being in the world and in relationship with one another. The Israelites choose to forget how God has engaged them in the past. They choose to deny the freeing power of God. As a result they lose their sense of direction just like lost sheep who stray from the shepherd. In their self-appointed confusion they forget their identity as those called to worship God—not Moses, and not the work of their own hands (Exodus 32:1-4). God has rightly ordered our first acknowledgment of God’s identity because that helps us order our own allegiances. It also enables us to maintain faithful perspective in circumstances that should elicit fear and worry.

The psalmist knows that God is the true shepherd (Psalm 23:1). Starting with this proclamation reminds those who listen that God delivers and preserves. God does not forget God’s own identity, one graciously wrapped up in covenant to creation. For Paul, this is reason to rejoice, even while in prison from which he penned the letter to the Philippians. “The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5). Don’t worry. God sees us, hears us, and will meet us.

These texts also offer added insight into the grace of God. It’s not just about how we choose to use our own memory. God has a memory too, and if God acted solely by God’s memory of our human responses (as the wedding guests do in Matthew 22:1-14), we would be pitied. Instead, God chooses to focus on remembering God’s covenant, God’s love, God’s desire for creation to be redeemed. What do we choose to remember in our own relationships with individuals, communities, other nations?

[ October 16 ]
A Partial View
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 96:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Moses is hungry for deeper intimacy with God. His request in Exodus 33:12 can be paraphrased as, ‘If you love me like you say you do, then you better come with me! The world has got to know that you are real.” Moses sounds like a petulant child and an exhausted leader all at once. It is encouraging to read this exchange because it reminds us that we are dealing with a God who takes our relationship seriously. God listens and hears Moses. God doesn’t chastise, but instead reassures. God reveals God’s self as an act of love.

Yet, part of God’s love seems to manifest itself in the mystery of God’s hiddenness. Sometimes partial revelation is both an act of grace and mercy (Exodus 33:18-23) and a call to be the very witness to the world that we long God to be (1 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

God reveals God’s self fully in Christ, and we grow deeper in intimacy with God through imitating Christ in love and life, even in Christ’s suffering when needed. That is how we are the church and how the world should know that God loves all creation and is present in word and action. According to the psalmist, creation is already revealing God to the world (Psalm 96:1-13). If we give to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21), then God is revealed in the world. The hungry are fed from the abundance of food at the disposal of the few. The naked are clothed by those who have two coats. The sick are cared for with adequate health insurance. If we remember that God is sovereign Creator and give God what is God’s, then those who ask of God what Moses asked (Exodus 33:13, 18) will receive an answer.

[ October 23 ]
Foolish or Faithful Leadership?
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Moses, Paul, and Jesus all had challenges when guiding people on the path that leads to life. What is required to faithfully lead God’s children in the ways of God? The lectionary passages suggest at least three keys characteristics: loving relational commitment, deepening wisdom, and the ability to grasp God-sized visions.

Moses’ primary relational commitment was to God. Like the psalmist who delights in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1), Moses understood that the source of life was intimate relationship with God. From this stemmed Moses’ ability to stay committed to the Israelites despite all the trials he faced. His love of God enabled him to love others to the point of sacrifice. The wisdom Moses passed onto Joshua came at the price of self-denial, emotional and physical hardship, giving his life to God’s call, and staying committed when things got unbearable. Paul too can relate to the cost of discipleship (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8). It is not easy to love your neighbor (Matthew 22:34-46) and to stay committed to the ways of God when your neighbor lacks any sense of recognition or gratitude for your efforts. The love that God calls us to is based on putting others before ourselves in ways that honor God’s own self-denying love for us. It takes a vision of faith to see the bigger picture and to hold onto it long enough to walk faithfully toward it.

[ October 30 ]
Can You See the Future?
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

God is present here right now and guiding us toward a future reality. We need one another to hold on to the God-sized, bigger picture of God’s fulfilled promises. What does that picture look like? Imagine people of every nation, tribe, race, and ethnicity being recognized and treated as children of God (Revelation 7:9-17.) We need one another to hold the vision that God is already blessing those who mourn, hunger, seek peace, and suffer for righteousness (Matthew 5:1-12). We need one another to hold the vision that even though we cannot fully see, that does not deny the fullness of God’s love already revealed to all in Christ (1 John 3:1-3).

On All Saints Day we honor those who have held out that vision. Those saints—known and unknown—have held the vision by choosing to live as though God’s coming reign is already making sneak appearances. We can imitate them through our own actions toward one another, our daily choices to delight “in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2), and to bless the Lord at all times with praise continually on our mouths (Psalm 34:1).

Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.

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