Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Strategies for Dignity–– Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany –– 19 February 2017

As we conclude our readings from the Sermon on the Mount at the end of the Sundays after Epiphany, we hear God ask us to be holy and perfect, and distinct and whole in our love for neighbors and enemies alike.  And we are reminded that this kind of holiness will look like foolishness in the eyes of the world.

Matthew 5: 38-48

Jesus continues his teaching with the formula “you have heard it said/but I say to you” which we encountered last week.  As he asks us to be salt and light, visible signs of righteousness to the world, he lays down the challenge that such righteousness will be embodied in refusing the pattern of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  The examples of this teaching in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are very specific, and it is significant that Jesus assumes his followers will take this mandate out of context and apply it to every encounter and slight. 

Instead, Jesus asks his followers to turn the left cheek in addition to the right if someone strikes; when sued for a coat to give a cloak as well; and to go two miles if conscripted to go one.  Walter Wink wrote quite convincingly that these actions were not simply submission, but strategies by which the one struck, sued, or conscripted could assert dignity while appealing to the other’s humanity, which Wink called the “Third Way” of Jesus [Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998) 101-111]. 

The second admonition, to love not just your neighbor but also your enemy, presses us further down the path of holiness and righteousness, for as Jesus asks, if we love our neighbors only, how is our holiness distinct? 

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18

God commands the people of Israel to be holy as “I the Eternal your God am holy.”  The Hebrew adjective qadosh can mean sacred, separate, distinct, and set apart. Israel will therefore be distinct via a holiness constituted by a righteousness greater than that of others. 

This righteousness is expressed in care and concern for the poor and the alien, who should be able to glean the edges of the fields and pick the fallen grapes of the vineyards.  It is expressed in care for laborers who should not be defrauded their wages, and for the poor who are accused, that they not be judged unjustly. 

Our holiness as righteousness is expressed as love for our neighbors and for the poor and alien in our midst.

I Corinthians 3: 10-11

The Apostle Paul preaches that we all must “choose with care how to build” on the foundation that is Jesus Christ (vss. 10-11). As we build on the foundation that is Jesus Christ, our wisdom will look like foolishness in the eyes of the world (vss. 18-19).  Even if the foundation and what we build upon it looks foolish, we may rest assured that the path to follow is God’s wisdom, not the wisdom of the world. 



Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke, Ph.D., is President of The Liturgical Conference, Senior Pastor of First Congregational Church UCC, Wilmette, Illinois, and affiliate faculty in Christian History at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Life and Death –– Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany –– 12 February 2017

Jesus’ call to his followers to be visible signs of righteousness continues in this week’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount. This righteousness is to be lived in a community that seeks to fulfill the law and the prophets because Jesus himself fulfills them in his incarnation and makes our embodiment of them possible.

Matthew 5:21-37
After Jesus proclaims that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them (5:17), he begins a series of teachings which contrast what his followers have heard about a commandment combined with his own intensification of it: “you have heard it said/but I say to you.” 

So the commandment not to murder becomes a teaching that anger, insult, and failure to reconcile are just as damaging to communal relationships as murder itself. The commandment not to commit adultery becomes a teaching that lust in itself is a violation of faithfulness that erodes trust in marital relationships. The commandment regarding divorce becomes a teaching that while divorce may be legal, the men initiating it must heed the economic and social consequences for the women who are abandoned. And the commandment against swearing falsely becomes a teaching about the way that oaths often presume lies when, instead, our “yes and no” should suffice as commitments of trust and fidelity.

The point is not that the commandments themselves are not sufficient, but that we are not only called to avoid certain acts and behaviors, but more deeply to embody the commandments.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Before the entry into the land of Israel, Moses reminds the people that the commandments are a social contract meant to shape a community that is just, compassionate, and righteous. Following the commandments is a choice between life and death, prosperity and adversity. 

We should not think of adversity as sent specifically by God, as much as it is the outcome of a way of life lived outside of covenant with God and one another. The commandments are the ways of life which lead to human flourishing and the good of all creation.

I Corinthians 3:1-9

The Apostle Paul addresses a Corinthian congregation struggling with the demands of living in community. In short, Paul asserts that their jealousy, quarreling, and factions are signs that they still have growing to do—they are not yet spiritual people, but infants in Christ. 

A sign of a maturing congregation is the ability to work together as God’s servants, without concern for who has planted or who has watered, but only for “God who gives the growth” (3:7).


Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke, Ph.D., is President of The Liturgical Conference, Senior Pastor of First Congregational Church UCC, Wilmette, Illinois, and affiliate faculty in Christian History at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Salt and Light – Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – 5 February 2017

The scripture readings for Epiphany 5 Year A coalesce around several themes: righteousness, light, and visibility.

Matthew 5:13-20

In this week’s second installment of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announces that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. Our fulfillment of the law and the prophets is as salt and light.

Salt preserves. It tenderizes, it seasons, and diluted with water, the ancients used it to cleanse and treat wounds.

Light illumines, guides, and exposes what is formerly hidden or concealed.

Jesus insists that this discipleship be visible and tangible: not hidden under a bushel, not grown flat and stale. Yet the visibility of our discipleship as salt and light is not for its own sake. It is not meant to call attention to our acts of righteousness, but to allow the world to locate the “city on a hill” in the community of those who follow Jesus.

Isaiah 58: 1-12

Since Jesus comes not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, we take seriously the words of the prophet. The people complain, and God answers. The content of their complaint is that God does not see their visible acts of righteousness, in this case, their fasting. God replies that the people have failed at fasting and humility, while really serving their own interests and oppressing their workers. Instead, God would have other actions constitute their visible righteousness: their fast should be to “share their bread with the hungry,” shelter the poor, and clothe the naked (58: 7). From these acts, “light shall break forth like the dawn” (58:8).

1 Corinthians 2: 1-16

Tthe Apostle Paul proposes the lens through which we perceive God’s work and which clarifies our own: Christ crucified. Christ crucified is the visible, incarnate out-pouring of God’s kenotic, loving, righteous mission to renew us. Looking through this lens, we see the powers of the world and the wisdom of the age for what they are, and for what they are not. Looking through the lens of Christ crucified also enables our spiritual discernment, our perception of “what is truly God’s” (2: 11).




Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke, Ph.D., is President of The Liturgical Conference, Senior Pastor of First Congregational Church UCC, Wilmette, Illinois, and affiliate faculty in Christian History at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois.