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The Evil Weakening & the Good Raised Up

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 5th of Second Month, 2023

Speaker: Stephanie Crumley-Effinger

Scriptures & Reading:

1 Shout out; do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they want God on their side. 3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers. 4 You fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

Salt and Light

13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

15 People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Law and the Prophets

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Robert Barclay

Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came [I] to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by [the] Life. For, when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed; and indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian; to whom afterwards the knowledge and understanding of principles will not be wanting, but will grow up so much as is needful as the natural fruit of this good root, and such a knowledge will not be barren nor unfruitful.

There is a common theme between the passage read by Sussie from the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures, also known as the Old Testament, and the one read by Eleanor of teaching by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel in the Christian Scriptures or New Testament. Both readings feature strong declarations of God’s high expectations for faithfulness. Isaiah laments the wrong thinking of those who act in unjust and cruel ways while expecting God to be pleased with their practice of fasting. Isaiah challenges their expectation of divine approval despite their inability or unwillingness to see the wrongness of their behaviors toward other people. While fasting is a religious practice often found in the Bible, Isaiah reinterprets what God’s priorities are – to care for the needs of those who struggle. In verses 6 and 7 the prophet identifies God’s expectations for faithful religious practice:

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Similarly, Eleanor read from Matthew’s account of Jesus speaking to his followers, whom he had gathered to learn from his teaching. This comes from a section of the gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount and reflects some of the particular concerns and emphases of the author of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew was writing about 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection; his intended audience was people who were observant Jews who had also come to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. (Witherington and Hyatt) Matthew emphasized the importance of keeping Jewish laws and traditions, while reinterpreting them in light of the teachings of Jesus and the belief that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that came before him. (Powery)

In this passage Jesus, like Isaiah, identified high expectations for his hearers. He told them that they were to be like salt flavoring food, and light shining so others can see. Through their actions and words his followers were to be clear signs to others of God’s love pouring out onto the world. In elaborating on this, in verse 17 Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’ His audience would have known that Jesus, as a teacher and fulfillment of the law and the prophets, continually reinterpreted these, often in ways which were strikingly different than those taught by other religious leaders. (Powery)

In this account, Jesus went so far as to say that even the standards of the Pharisees, religious leaders who sought to enact faithful obedience to God’s law in every aspect of their lives, were not high enough for his followers. This can come as a shock to us; first, because often in the gospels the Pharisees are portrayed negatively as obstructionists to Jesus’s teaching, but here Jesus’ words are that even more than their high standards are expected of those who would join him in following God’s way. (Powery) And the second shocking aspect is that Jesus seems to set an impossibly high standard for behavior which is at odds with other times in the gospels when he emphasized love and grace.

Cassie read to us Robert Barclay’s words, written in the early years of the Quaker movement, about 1600 years later than Matthew’s gospel. Barclay was testifying to the power that he experienced when he came to worship with Friends, and the effect of this power on him to diminish his inward tendencies toward that which is wrong and to strengthen the good within him. Barclay noted that on coming in contact with Friends it wasn’t beliefs or ideas which spoke so strongly to him, but the experience in worship of being made better through connection with divine power. Following that experience he found the ideas and understandings of Friends to be fruitful, but the foundation of it all, what he called “this good root,” was the effect on him of connection with holy power to weaken the impact of evil within him and raise up the power of good.

Several weeks ago, in a message at Meeting, Brian Young asked, “What is the point of coming to Meeting?” Among the responses which arose for me from Brian’s question, this quotation from Robert Barclay stood out. Quite simply, I think that the main reason that I come to Meeting is to connect with that life and power, both coming directly from God and mediated through other people, which weakens the not-good parts of me and reinforces the good within me.

I often think of worship as the place where we seek to be real with God and one another, and that includes making ourselves available for the holy work which God seeks to do within us to form us in the divine image. Worship enables us to participate more fully in the beloved community declared by Jesus, the shalom of God proclaimed by prophets of old and of the present-day.

This process can be an uphill battle due to influences both within us and around us. We find in our culture many mixed messages about the idea of goodness and of being good. It is often associated with hypocrisy, since our human limitations and temptations can taint and distort goodness in problematic ways.

I found this illustrated well in the novel Middlemarch, published in 1871, in a conversation between two characters, Tertius Lydgate and Dorothea Casaubon. They were discussing an opening for a minister at Dorothea’s parish church. Tertius, suggesting that the position be given to a minister named Mr. Farebrother, described that man’s many good qualities, while also noting an objection which some might raise: due to his current ministry position paying a very small salary, Mr. Farebrother supplemented his meager earnings by winning money at the card game whist, at which he was a very skilled player. “But,” Tertius observed, “[Mr. Farebrother] is one of the most blameless men I ever knew. He has neither venom nor doubleness in him, and those often go with [someone who has] a more correct outside.”

As they talked further, Dorothea commented, ”I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest - I mean that which takes in the most good of all kinds, and brings in the most people as sharers in it. It is surely better to pardon too much, than to condemn too much. I should like to see Mr. Farebrother and hear him preach.” (page 363)

Dorothea and Tertius were aware that someone’s “more correct outside” can actually be righteousness as a performance, seeking to mask behavior which harms others. They saw the value in a visibly flawed person who “takes in the most good of all kinds, and brings in the most people as sharers in it.”

Goodness is not the same as compliance with authority or outwardly meeting the expectations of others. It can be overly associated with personal behavior and visible religious observance while missing the wider view of God’s shalom, which calls for justice, especially toward those most vulnerable. Goodness includes both inner attitudes and outward personal and societal behavior. It emerges from a heart which is turned toward God, as Barclay described experiencing.

As we move into waiting worship, let us follow Barclay in being open to the “secret power among [us, allowing it to] touch [our] heart[s]; and [giving] way unto it [that we might find] the evil weakening in [us] and the good raised up; and so [become] thus knit and united unto [one another], hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life.”

New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2023 Stephanie Crumley-Effinger. All rights reserved.

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