The Collect for Proper 28 tells us to listen, read, mark and inwardly digest scripture. So I did. Although I dutifully read the lessons assigned for the Daily Office, as often as not it is an exercise in scriptural review (except for the Psalms, which I find useful), and I move on to prayer, praise, and the perpetual exercise in discernment and formation. Today I stopped and asked why these three and what do they have to do with the coming end of the liturgical year?
The Maccabees were fierce warriors, ferociously faithful to Jewish law. They were more what was expected of a Messiah by the Jewish people. In today’s passage an outnumbered Judean army conquers a foreign force by faith in God (and a tactical move by their commander). Not the first time. Yesterday’s lectionary reading told us that Deborah, prophet and judge, in an earlier era, also had to bail a disobedient Jewish people from slavery with her army and God’s help (Judges 4:1-7). Do we ever listen?
The reading from Revelation tells of the defeat of Satan and that terrible Day of Judgment. The Book of Life is opened and each soul is judged by their deeds in life. Those not written in the book are thrown into the pit with Satan. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, we are told in Proverbs (9:10), and standing naked before God, in the presence of angels and a host of mighty dead is a terrifying image. Who are these damned? Those who have disobeyed the laws of God, who have not turned to Christ for mercy? Here begins the whole theology, not of God’s love and mercy, but of piety, fear, and blame. It is a threatening passage, and one that should force us to the knees of our hearts and open ourselves to the Spirit for mercy, instruction, and reconciliation.
Finally we have Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration. Most often the focus is on the revealed Glory around Jesus, or Peter’s misinterpretation of the presence of the two prophets with Jesus. Let us stay here, build tents. Isn’t Elijah to come first? But the true focus is the voice of God the Father saying, “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased,” and the part we tend to overlook, “listen to him!”
What these three have in common is obedience, a word we don’t often relate to as modern, freedom loving, liberal people. In today’s first reading, obedience was measured not only by following the commander, but by the high bar for righteousness set by the Maccabees measured by obedience to Jewish law. In Revelation, the fiery pit and eternal damnation is the fate of the disobedient to God’s law as revealed in Jesus Christ. In Matthew, obedience is summed up in three words. “Listen to him.”
We have come a long way from beating children, wives, slaves. And that is what obedience had come to mean. But it is easy to forget that actions have consequences. Every confession we make specifies love of God and neighbor, by action or failing to act. That is submitting ourselves in obedience to God’s law.
Obedience can be abused, but at its best it is a path to God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. It is an invitation for mutual respect, total trust, and faith in God. And we have enacted civil laws to protect us from abusers, just in case. When we yield our will to the will of another, a person whom we freely agree to respect, not fear, we exercise humility, vulnerability, trust. The sadomasochism of erotic literature and practice is a warped and unhealthy interpretation of this.
What is healthy is a functional family, personal or parish. It is a community of people who listen to each other, but more importantly, listen to God in prayer and scripture. We are often called to be humble, lowly, not proud and stiff necked. What we are doing by being humble is opening ourselves to God’s love. By being proud and self assured we build a shield around ourselves. That is fine in the secular world of cut-throat business, but that is not what Jesus taught. Jesus, and later Paul, may have freed us from the complex legality of Jewish law, but we are still a people under God. The gift is not only being saved from the fiery pit, but knowing the joy of God’s presence in our lives. (“Listen to him”)
We are now in an anything-goes culture, which is not all bad. We have more creative opportunities, and are allowed to explore a wide range of social and gender expressions. Now more than ever we must consider our choices, and that makes it more important to pay attention to and abide by God’s desires for us, willingly and with delight. This is hard. And we do compromise. We are, after all, human, and incarnation, which we will be preparing in Advent, is all about how we are saved and cherished, not despite our humanity, but because of it.
As Advent approaches, and Christmas is already at Costco, how will we keep focus? We will want to run after shiny things, a magic spell distracting us from the gift of the Incarnation. It is hard to hang on to Christ in a world of Golden Calves (available on Amazon, Prime 2-day delivery). Jesus didn’t ask us not to have fun. But he did tell us to be responsible, accountable as he was, an obedient son to his heavenly father. Listen to him.
Today we are reminded that we are promised our own transfiguration, not just struggling to be Christ-like by prayer and study of Scripture, but made perfect in Christ and a child of the Living God, a God who knows our name, who loves us warts and all. A God who wants to teach and heal and make us perfect. And to write us into the Book of Life. Humble, unworthy, vulnerable us. So enjoy the winter holidays. Take the kids to the mall, eat too many sweets, put up a glorious (Germanic pagan) Christmas tree. But don’t let the glamour overwhelm us. We are still answerable to God.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.
Image: Russian orthodox church