The Common Good
September/October 2011

SEPTEMBER Not for the Faint of Heart

by Enuma Okoro | September/October 2011

Reflections on the Common Lectionary.

Following where God leads is not an easy task. God's ways are not only foreign to us, but often go against our sense of what is acceptable, realistic, and just. We do not become willing disciples simply by saying yes to God. It takes practice, prayer, and ongoing relationship with God and one another to shapeshift ourselves into those who "live in the manner of Christ."

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We can admit openly that being faithful is hard work. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is hard work. Forgiving once -- let alone seventy times -- is hard work. We will fail time and time again to be who God desires us to be. But that’s simply the human predicament. The good news is that God cannot seem to let us murmur and moan alone.

This month's lectionary passages highlight our very real and understandable human behavior, but also challenge us to remember who God is and to live from such remembrance. The path to salvation is a life-long journey, with fits and starts, more dependent on God’s love, patience, and teaching than on our blurred understandings. But that doesn't let us off the hook as idle recipients of God's mercy and grace. Our duty is to turn to God for instruction, to bring both our pleas and praises honestly before a God who hears us, and to love, support, and encourage one another in our feeble attempts at faithful living.

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

[September 4]
Life-Saving Rituals
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20


Most of us, when we feel threatened, move with adrenaline and passion to defensively protect what is ours. We don’t normally make time for religious rituals and attentive, communal, holy listening. This modus operandi also plays out in our collective consciousness as a nation. We instinctively resort to familiar ways of defense and protection in the face of danger, whether or not such ways have proven successful in the past.

The Exodus story offers an unusual paradigm for danger response. Here the steps are first to listen for God's instruction, to practice obedience, and to trust that God keeps God's word. Such practices preserve us from that which is not of God, including our own disordered desires and partial understandings.

It takes humility and wisdom to pray like the psalmist, to understand that -- as individuals, communities, and nations -- our well-being and the life-giving freedom that comes from God are always intricately bound to the well-being and freedom of other individuals, communities, and nations. When we understand this we might delight in God's commandments (Psalm 119:35) to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13: 8-10): to care for the bodies, minds, and spirits of our neighbors in the careful and respectful manner in which God calls us to care for ourselves (Romans 13:11-14). This is the instruction that leads to life and frees us from captivity.

There should be an urgency in being about the business of the Lord. We should be living as though we are indeed marked by the blood of the sacrificial lamb. Freedom from captivity is at hand, whether the captors are Pharaoh and his army or narcissistic cultural imaginations.

The things we "put on" (Romans 13:14) speak to what captivates us. As the Passover lamb is eaten in its entirety, we are called to take on the fullness of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. The body of Christ should not be divided literally or figuratively (Matthew 18:15-20). We are called to feed on Christ, to be freed by the blood of the lamb, and to actively and courageously turn our hearts and eyes away from what is not of God and toward the fulfillment of the law, loving our neighbor.

[ September 11 ]
Remembering
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 103:1-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

The psalmist implores listeners not to forget the benefits of the Lord. God forgives, God heals, God redeems, and God "works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed" (Psalm 103:6). We read of God’s justice and vindication as God leads the Israelites through the Red Sea and drowns the "oppressors" (Exodus 14). Reading these texts in the West presents a worthy challenge. It is tempting to stand in the position of those for whom God intervenes, looking to God to hear our cries, to "redeem our lives from the pit" (Psalm 103:4) and free us from whomever we perceive as enemies.

But as Westerners whose lifestyles are delicately entangled in what Christians from other parts of the world might view as economically oppressive systems, we must tiptoe carefully in our interpretations until we find some solid footing on which to stand. This is hard. This is painful. This is almost offensive, especially on days like today, when as an American nation we remember and continue to mourn the lives that were lost 10 years ago on Sept. 11.

How do we balance our remembering of death, loss, anger, pain, and injustice with active remembering of God’s way with us, all of us as God’s children? God forgives. God heals. God redeems. "God does not deal with us according to our sins" (Psalm 103:10). And for this reason God says, "every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God" (Romans 14:11). We praise God because God is merciful and has released us from our debts. Now the only debt we owe God is to fulfill the law of love, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to "forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (Matthew 18:35). We might find ourselves asking -- in light of our pain, grief, righteous anger, or sense of injustice -- "Who is my neighbor, my sister, or my brother?" If we look to the God who became human to sacrifice his life for the love of those who considered him an enemy, then we might not struggle so much with the question but with the answer.

[ September 18 ]
What's Our "Wilderness"?
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 145:1-8;
Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

One thing these passages refreshingly highlight is that faith is hard. Trusting God's ways is an ongoing challenge for people of faith, in the past and today. Forgiveness is hard. Patience is hard. Dependence is hard. Following Christ is not for the faint of heart.

Life with God involves seasons of wilderness wanderings. These are periods where we put one foot in front of the other and trust that God is present and will show us the way while sustaining us. It is natural to complain. It is even okay to complain. There was no indication in Exodus 16:2-15 that food was coming before the Israelites began to murmur. God does hear the cries of those in need. And God mercifully and patiently bears our complaints, knowing that we are mere mortals who cannot see as God sees, and who struggle to live "in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Philippians 1:27). We do in fact forget the benefits of the Lord. We are afraid for our futures, often to the extent of desiring our broken pasts.

But again, our reading of scripture is so often affected by our social and political locations. If we find ourselves identifying with the wilderness narrative and crying out to God, then we must also imagine how these verses might speak to people today. What does "wilderness" look like for Christians living on Capitol Hill, in a small Midwestern town, in South Kordofan, Sudan, in Goma, eastern Congo? We have chosen to say yes to God's invitation to follow a God who doesn't play by our rules and who calls us to strive "side by side" (Philippians 1:27) in the ways of God's reign. Discomfort is natural. Fear is natural. Occasional distrust is natural. Complaining is natural. This is consistent with human character.

The challenge for us is to remember what is consistent with the character of God. The challenge is to turn our focus back to the God whom the psalmist claims does wondrous works, awesome deeds, and mighty acts (Psalm 145:1-8). Our task on the journey is to remember that God is gracious and merciful, generous and abundantly good, even to the extent of offending our sensibilities (Matthew 20:11-16).

[ September 25 ]
Questioning Authority
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 25:1-9;
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

"By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" (Matthew 21:23). The question posed by the chief priests to Jesus echoes the questions the Israelites hurl at Moses. "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" (Exodus 17:3). It's a common enough question to put to religious leaders: "Who gives you the right to lead us, and why should we trust you?" And, honestly, it's a fair question, especially when these leaders suggest we follow ways that are foreign to us and may threaten our existence. Paul's letter to the church at Philippi echoes an answer when he writes, "Regard others as better than yourselves ... look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others" (2:3-4).

Questioning religious authority is not a bad thing. It can lead to necessary clarification and increased wisdom. But how can religious leaders know when we are encouraging people in the work of God? How can followers know when we are being led astray? These are good questions for communal reflection and discernment. The answers lie in the testimony of the fruit produced by leadership. What is going on within our respective communities that witness to the upside-down justice of God? Are the last placed first? Where is God’s mercy being mimicked? Where is the interest of others being put first? Where are leaders and those in authority seeking, like the psalmist, to know the ways of God (Psalm 25:1-9)?

"Living the Word" reflections for October can be found at www.sojo.net/magazine. "Preaching the Word," Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.

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