Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The Weakest Link as the Point of Strength

Isaiah 1:16-20
Romans 14:14-23
Luke 7:1-10

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”  Mother Teresa of Calcutta

We have surely heard the adage, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”  And we know this to be true because the point of weakness is where the chain will break when stressed.  The overall strength of the chain to serve its purpose can only be measured at its weakest point.

The very same must be said of any community, any sort of congregation of people regardless of their purpose for gathering.  We may have convinced ourselves that our strength is measured by individual might or wealth, by military power or political connections, or by any number of other measures of value in the secular world.  But “Do not, for the sake of food [or other weakness], destroy the work of God” (Romans 14:20).

There may indeed be a measure of power in these things - temporal thought they may be – but the hard truth is we as a community, as a congregation of the people of The Lord, can only be as strong as the weakest and most frail among us – because the true strength of any community, any congregation, any nation is measured in how we treat the weakest among us – even if they are not directly a part of “us”.

What is so revealing in Luke’s Gospel is not the miracle of Jesus healing the centurion’s slave without actually touching him.  It is most revealing in understanding that the centurion, a Roman military commander, was not actually considered a part of the community, the congregation of the people.  Even though he was considered friendly to them, he was still an outsider, a “foreigner”.  So, too, was his slave.

Now we may be tempted to think the Jewish elders agreed to go to Jesus with this request from the centurion because of “quid pro quo” – returning favor for favor – and there may be some merit to this; but we may also consider that since Jesus had come “only” to the House of Israel (Matthew 15:24), going to this Roman was out of line. 

Yet we should also consider something much broader and with much more depth than “getting saved” as the only reason to have an encounter with Jesus, “the Word which became flesh”.  We are compelled not only to know and appreciate The Word in its fullness; we are compelled also to consider that order to lift up the entire congregation of the House of Jacob, it would be necessary to reach out to the very weakest among them.  And I doubt there were many who would be considered much weaker or more worthless than a sick slave – and a slave to a Roman at that!

In Deuteronomy 24:17 it is written: "You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan [outsider OR insider, both in a position of weakness] … .”  Yet the prayer of the psalmist also reads: “O Lord, You will hear the desire of the meek; You will strengthen their heart, and You will incline Your Ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed so that those from earth may strike terror no more” (Psalm 10:17-18).

We are often quick and sincere to pray The Lord’s mercy on those who are marginalized, who are weak and frail, who are unable (but not unwilling) to fend for themselves.  We pray for justice and we certainly pray for mercy for ourselves and for our loved ones; yet The Lord Himself seems to say, according to His commandments (The Word) and affirmed through His prophets, that justice and mercy, acts of true righteousness and faith, must come from the hands and the hearts of The Lord’s people.  This is how justice is done rather than wished for.  This is how mercy is shown rather than hoped for.

The tone is set early on in Isaiah as The Lord chastises His people for their empty religious ceremonies, assemblies, and offerings.  This is very strange since Exodus and Leviticus are chock full of regulations and rules for worship and sacrifice offerings.  They are not recommended; they are required!

Yet The Lord declares through His prophet, “What to Me is the multitude of your sacrifices … I have had enough of burnt offerings … I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs or of goats … I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity [that is, the presence of sin] (Isaiah 1:11-13).

So how can there be sin in the midst of doing all the right worship stuff?  We follow the rules of our traditions.  We show up for worship.  We participate in the prayers.  We offer our tithes and other offerings.  We receive the Sacraments of the Church.  We do all the right “religious” things, but something is clearly lacking, says The Lord.  “Remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes.  Cease to do evil, learn to do good.  Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17).

It would seem, then, that for all the praying we do in asking The Lord to watch over those who cannot fend for themselves, The Lord is tapping His fingers on the arm of His Throne and wondering when we are going to get busy going about His work in looking out for one another.

This is not to say the religious practices are not important.  They are very important for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the very worship of The Lord Himself.  Yet it is impossible to please Him or to offer to Him anything at all if everything we have and everything we do is tainted with the lack of care and concern for the well-being of the whole community.  Not only those we happen to like, or only those who are like us, or only those who can return a favor – but perhaps especially for those we do not particularly like and certainly especially for those who absolutely cannot return a favor.

In Isaiah’s context it would seem only the well-to-do were offering anything at all, effectively trying to buy The Lord’s favor by slaughtering only the best of the livestock (as the regulations require).  Even those who thought perhaps they were only giving what they believed they could spare would not be immune from the Divine Judgment that stated very clearly that no gift, no offer, no sacrifice would be accepted if those who could not participate – for whatever reason - were excluded in any way – not just excluded from the worship gathering but who were excluded from the attention of the community.

The community was failing right before The Lord’s very eyes, and throughout the prophets we get a sense of a very slow degradation of society in general not because no one was giving – but perhaps because so many were only giving to the Temple and to worship but were ignoring the clear social component of Torah, what we call “Law”, in looking after the “least” among them – even the “aliens”. 

What we commonly refer to as “The Law” (what we Christians have been convinced we are excused from) is much more than a list of “thou shalt not’s” – and there are many more than just ten.  The entire Law (Torah) rests on the two Great Commandments to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:40).  Even St. Paul sums up the entire Law as loving neighbor (Galatians 5:14).  We Christians, however, have marginalized the Divine Law and have reduced the Gospel itself only to “getting saved” or having a “personal” Savior.

We all get a little overwhelmed with need because we can clearly see the needs around us are so great.  Many of us have convinced ourselves we do well to tithe at all, assuming we can actually reach the tithe level.  And the political climate in this country right now is such that we are much more concerned about keeping “outsiders” out for safety’s sake, not realizing or even caring about those who are being categorized unfairly.

We are more acutely aware of potential danger than we are of our own Divine Authority to act in the Holy Name.  We are not a people of Faith; we are a people of Fear.  In this mindset, we harm the very neighbor we are commanded to love as ourselves – and we cheat the community (including ourselves) out of its real strength, the strength found only in wholeness, in holiness.

It is written, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  Before we try pasting that bumper sticker on our cars, maybe we should actually try doing “all things” before we boast about any Christian privilege.  For our privilege AND strength are not in quoting favorite Bible passages … but in living them.  For Him who strengthens us … for those whose strength has faded or has been taken from them.  Only then will we know our true strength.  Amen.

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