The pathos of God, the ethos of the church

This is a slightly longer version of commentary for The Center for Congregational Ethics‘ “Lectionary to Life Series” for 21 April 2023


by Ken Sehested

Lections for the day: Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; Isaiah 26:1-4; 1 Peter 1:13-16

Here are three points of entry in discerning today’s lections.

1. The psalmist (as is the repeated case elsewhere) lifts up life’s distress in vivid language. Though little of such psalms (or other biblical texts) show up in our lectionary cycle. Our liturgies characteristically feature “the sunny side of life” and strive to “accentuate the positive.”

The church gathered needs fewer praise bands and triumphant anthems and more occasions for lament and blues music. Ironically, our resistance to public lament constricts our capacity for the kind of hope that sustains beyond shallow, cheery optimism.

2. As is too often the case, today’s readings skip over key information which clarifies and quickens the surrounding text.

Left out of this selection from Isaiah are vv. 5-6: [God] humbles those who dwell on high [and] lays the lofty city low; he levels it to the ground and casts it down to the dust. Feet trample it down—the feet of the oppressed, the footsteps of the poor.”

This reversal of fortunes is echoed in Mary’s “Magnificat” (Luke 1) where her incendiary “hymn of praise” impinges on “the proud in their conceit” and imagines the rich being stripped of their affluence.

3. Attention to the world’s cries is the essential context of spiritual formation. As Isaiah writes, The Lord “heard my voice,” an ultimatum uttered in the midst of death’s entanglement.

The psalmist centers the voice of the abused, calling to mind the Exodus text where the wailing of Hebrew slaves mobilizes God’s attention (3:7). And, prior to that—after her abandonment by Abraham and Sarah into the desert’s desolation —the weeping of Hagar’s infant, Ismael, whose name means “God has heard,” spurs God’s intervention (Gen. 21:17).

To “be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) requires a recalibration of our eyes and ears.

Atonement comes by way of attunement to the voices of the afflicted. It is in their presence that we comprehend our own spiritual paucity and the revelation that our own sake is linked to that of “the least of these.” The only proper adoration comes by way of emulation.

As has been said, what you know depends on where you stand. Social location is essential if the little flock of Jesus is to “rightly divide the word of truth.”

The pathos of God—incarnated in Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and capacitated by the Holy Spirit— forges the ethos of the church.

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