The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 24, 2016

Reading 1:  Reading 2:  Reading 3:  Reading 4: 
Nehemiah 8:1-3
Psalm 19 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 Luke 4:14-21

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 24, 2016

By Bruce G. Epperly

January 24, 2016

Today’s readings explore the relationship between law and spirituality. Far from legalistic in approach, process preachers still have a great deal of ethical advice to give to their congregants. Their counsel involves relationships rather than rules, and global and not merely individual admonitions.

Imagine getting excited about reading the Law of Moses! Today, when most of us read the first five books of the bible, especially Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, our eyes are likely to glaze over. Many of the rules given to the Hebrews seem stringent, irrelevant, and possibly, in their violent punishments, immoral themselves. Progressive and moderate Christians tend not to be legalistic and such laws appear to infringe on the dynamic and evolving nature of human experience. Still, we can empathize with Nehemiah’s hearers. Law originally defined the Hebrews; it gave them an identity and community, and a way of understanding themselves, not unlike the ways some view our USA Constitution. After years of captivity and chaos, the discovery and reading of the Mosaic Law restored the peoples’ sense of self and gave them hope for the future.

Process thinkers are much more situational than legalistic in their ethic. Ethics are evolving and contextual. There are few, if any, legalistic imperatives. Yet, today’s passage challenges us to reflect on our values and how they shape our personal and communal-political behaviors. Process preachers ask: “What guides our decision-making in relationships, business, marriage, politics, and congregational life?” At the very least, process thinkers consider God’s aim at beauty of experience to be a type of norm. Though the behavioral embodiment of this aim may differ from moment to moment, still we must act to maximize beauty, enjoyment, love, growth, for all and not just some. We must try to give God a beautiful, and not ugly, world by our actions. We must be guided by Mother Teresa’s goal of doing something beautiful for God.

Law, for process thinkers, is seldom either heteronomous or autonomous, to quote Paul Tillich. It is relational and theonomous, that is, it seeks to embody the most fitting and life-giving behaviors given our current relational setting and encourages behaviors that bring beauty to the world and God’s experience. We must, as Whitehead asserts, move from self-interest to world loyalty. Still, with the passage from Nehemiah, our values define the people we are and the communities of which we are members. Process preachers ask, “What values are guiding our political leaders’ – and candidates’ – attitudes toward immigrants, global climate change, Muslim refugees and citizens, gun ownership, and distribution of wealth?” Certainly, process theology invites us to an ethic of listening, to be attentive to God’s vision and realm of possibilities in this moment and community context and then act to achieve the best possible, world-creating, beauty-giving, person-affirming, and creation-supporting outcome.

The words of Psalm 19 connect mystical experiences with living out God’s law. God’s creation reveals God’s glory and part of God’s glory is the inner movement of law in our being. While we cannot fully know what is right or insure that our best intentions will improve certain situations, we need to trust God’s wisdom in the conduct of our loves and depend on God’s mercy when we go astray. Psalm 19 reminds us that the laws of God in an evolving universe go far beyond human well-being but relate to the well-being of creation. This is especially important as we weigh human need and justice issues in light of global climate change and species extinction.

The reading from I Corinthians 12 suggests a unity of ethics and spiritual formation in the context of the dynamic interconnectedness of life. In the fabric of relatedness, our gifts are communal as well as individual. We are called to further the vocational gifts of others, and to help them live out their vocational destiny, as part of the well-being of the community. In his book Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman notes that one of the greatest ills of poverty and injustice is the stifling of the imagination and dreams of the oppressed. A holistic ethic nurtures the deep yearnings of those around us, especially the marginalized. Whatever diminishes one member of the community eventually diminishes all. In a relational universe, our joys and sorrows are one; we rejoice at the authentic achievements of those around us and mourn their pain and inability to live out their destiny.

The passage from I Corinthians 12 challenges our congregations to be places where gifts are nurtured and vocations are treasured and supported. Our communities need to go beyond isolating individualism to a creative unity in which we treasure everyone’s gifts for the common good.

Jesus affirms a good news ethic. God is liberating, healing, welcoming, and awakening. This is God’s work now in our world, Jesus asserts, and we need to be part of this Shalom-affirming mission of God. God’s Spirit brings freedom, creativity, and beauty to the universe. Alignment with the many manifestations of the Spirit’s work is our imperative today. In a relational universe, this is the fulfillment of God’s law.