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Thursday, December 21, 2006
Luke 1:39-45. Luke 1:47-55 Micah 5:2-5 Hebrews 10:5-10. Most of the time, preachers of this text understandably focus on Mary's exuberant prayer, the Magnificat, an outburst echoing Hannah's praise for God's marvelous deeds in her life and in the lives of all who feel marginalized or downtrodden (see First Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures). And the Magnificat is indeed a beautiful expression of rejoicing at God's promises kept, a celebration of the tables being turned, or overturned, in a sense: the lowly are lifted up, the proud are brought down, and the hungry are fed. God remembers the people of Israel, and the promises God has made to them. What a powerful text for every hungry heart in need of good news! There is another strand of good news in today's text, however, that is often overlooked, and Henri Nouwen wrote a thoughtful reflection on it in his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey (Doubleday). Nouwen's meditation on the encounter between the two women, Elizabeth and Mary, is worthy of the best feminist theology, which draws our attention to the easily missed things that are happening to and with the "little ones" in our Scripture texts. It may be true that the mighty are brought down, and the great promises of old are kept, but in the meantime, on a dusty road outside a relative's home, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child. Advent is indeed a time of waiting, a time pregnant with hope. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary and Elizabeth could be seen as two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness but first tending to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting to every woman, especially the first time around, and these two women have found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms, one past the age to conceive, and the other a virgin. So they spend time together – three months, the text says – like women in every place and time. The new life promised in Mary's pregnancy brings profound added meaning in this story, and fulfills promises to all humankind, but one wonders how these two humble women must have felt about what was happening in their own lives. Nouwen says, "Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? But Mary says, ‘Let it happen to me', and she immediately realizes that only Elizabeth will be able to affirm her ‘yes'. For three months Mary and Elizabeth live together and encourage each other to truly accept the motherhood given to them." As Nouwen reads this story, neither woman had to wait alone for the extraordinary events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: "They could wait together and thus deepen in each other their faith in God, for whom nothing is impossible. Thus, God's most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community." In this Advent season, we in the church are keenly aware that we wait in community for the promises of God to unfold in our lives. In fact, it is here in community that we "hold each other up" when one of us needs encouragement or support. We help one another search for meaning, rejoice with one another, walk alongside one another. Sometimes, we just sit in the dark quiet and wait, together, trusting in the promises of God, listening for a word from the Stillspeaking God. And in the midst of our waiting, as Paul, writing from prison, encouraged the Philippians; as Hannah and Mary sang God's praise; and as Elizabeth welcomed her beloved cousin and companion, we rejoice, our hearts dancing within us. How is God at work in the life of our congregation? In what ways does it make a difference that you listen for God's word in community rather than alone? How have you, together, deepened your faith in ways you might not have experienced in isolation?
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
What Should We Do? Preparing the way for God’s Messiah relies on openness to change. Intimate relationship with God moves us through questions into expectation, through repentance into actions of sharing. The good news does not consist of promises limited to a distant future. God is near. God rejoices over us. In love, God invites all into renewed relationship. Scripture: Luke 3:7–18The gospels place John’s ministry in the wilderness. Several key points are made by that location. Wilderness had been the setting of Israel’s sojourn between exodus from Egypt and entry into their new homeland. Wilderness meant preparation and discovery. Also, John’s wilderness is far from Jerusalem’s temple and Herodian palace. John provides an alternative voice to those places and persons of power. From the outside, to outsiders, John evokes repentance. Repentance. The Greek word translates as “have a change of mind” or “go beyond the mind you have.” Narrow understandings that link repentance exclusively to sin do not do justice to its broader meaning. Repentance depicts a change of life and heart evidenced in action as well as attitude. John associates repentance in the focus scripture with “bear fruit,” a synonym in Jewish wisdom literature for one’s actions. The crowds who travel to the wilderness to hear John include two groups of outcasts: tax collectors and soldiers. Both groups were held in disdain by first-century Jewish society, often viewed as collaborators with the Roman occupation regime. John’s demanding call for repentance graciously includes them in the summons to redirect life toward God and neighbour. All, then and now, are invited to renewal. The beneficiary of John’s message is not just the Messiah whose way he prepares. The beneficiaries of repentance will be those provided with warm clothing or food. They will be those previously cheated or bullied. The Spirit works through acts of justice and compassion, as well as acts of refraining from injustice, to prepare the way for Messiah and God’s realm. The repeated refrain of the focus scripture is “What should we do?” The same response follows Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:37). The “questioning” of John by these people reflects openness to the gospel he announces. They ask, not to entrap John, but to embody the answer given. Questions serve as prelude to discipleship. So John and the crowds pave the way for God’s reign as announced and embodied in the ministry of Jesus. In our readings, hope arises from recognition of God’s nearness. Philippians 4:4–7 invites the church to be known for gentleness and to be freed from anxiety because of that nearness. Isaiah 12:2–6 beckons trust and aims to dispel fear because of God who is “in your midst.” As is fitting for a Sunday celebrated in some traditions as Rejoice Sunday, another theme in these readings is joy. Listen to the verbs used in these texts. Sing aloud. Rejoice. Shout. Sing for joy. Zephaniah 3:14–20 rejoices in the hope of Jerusalem’s restoration through the One who will “gather” Israel. Beyond that, verse 17 reveals that God rejoices over us. No wonder Philippians begins with the plea to rejoice in God always. Such joy at God’s nearness helps us discern why the early church heard the challenging message of John as good news. • • • • • John announces good news, even while calling for reorientation of our lives in light of this news. The other readings rejoice in God, who is in our midst. For whom are these texts good news and why? What are the questions John moves us to ask; and in their light, what then should we do?
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Zechariah blesses his newly born child. The blessings cascade into promises of hope for the people and a call to ministry for John. The role cast upon John recalls the prophecy of Malachi and anticipates God’s reign. The immanence and hope of God’s reign must be announced. The way of God’s Messiah must be prepared. You, child, shall be God’s prophet. Luke 1:68–79 Zechariah’s “song” in our focus passage is his first utterance in months. Zechariah’s disbelief at Gabriel’s word of a child to be born to his wife Elizabeth in their old age rendered him mute (1:19–20). Thus John’s birth, even as his later ministry, evoked questions – “What then will become of this child?” (1:66). Zechariah speaks over John almost as a liturgical response to this question. Another important background piece to this text, and Luke as a whole, is the previous visit of Mary to Elizabeth. Luke indicates the women are related. Their two children share ties of kinship. More importantly, they share in the revealing of God’s promised reign. John will announce that realm even as he will prepare the way for Jesus. The prophecy of Zechariah is a text of blessing and commissioning. Zechariah weaves quotes and images from Israel’s prophets into his own declaration of God’s reign: “Light to those who sit in the shadow of death” (Isaiah 9:2). “The dawn from on high will break upon us” (Malachi 4:2). In Zechariah’s words, we are invited to perceive John as the next of Israel’s prophets. Not to be overlooked in these verses is the voice of a father blessing his child. As a priest, Zechariah knew the prophetic traditions. The ways they faced were not always easy. The words they spoke often were not accepted. But as Hannah sang over Samuel, and Mary gloried in the promise of God’s reign and her child, Zechariah speaks now. We all see our children as gifts of God to us. Zechariah sings of his son as a gift and a call for the sake of a whole people. Verse 68 celebrates God’s redemption as something already come to pass. God’s reign is a “now” experience – but it is also a “not yet” hope. John’s work of announcing and preparing remains. We do not yet fully walk in the way of peace. We live between the times. But John prepares us to bridge those times, as we live toward God’s reign in experience and hope. In today’s readings, there is a strong sense of something (or someone) new that is coming. Malachi 3:1–4 and Philippians 1:3–11 both use the imagery of righteousness, whether in the context of offering or harvest, to speak of how we prepare our lives for what God is working out among us. The traditional understanding of Philippians as written during Paul’s imprisonment heightens the sense of longing in the passage. Likewise, Malachi’s placement in the Christian canon as the final Old Testament book invests its message (“Malachi” literally means “my messenger”) with a sense of transition and expectation. The surprise of God’s reign and its announcement takes narrative form in Luke 3:1–6. A careful listing of “very important persons” in their “very important places” reveals that God’s word will break forth from somewhere and someone totally unexpected. Similarly, Luke and Malachi stress that the way God breaks open may not be all that comfortable to traverse. Zechariah’s words lift up the role of John in God’s redemptive work. What do you hear this song affirming about life, self, vocation, and God: as they relate to John; as they relate to you? In what ways do we strike a faithful balance between relying on God to bring the “not yet” of God’s reign,” and our bearing witness to God’s reign already among us?
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
What does the future hold? These texts invite trust of God in the midst of uncertain times. In situations that seem only to threaten loss, we hear words of promises kept. We find assertions of steadfast love. We lift prayers of restoration. We trust news of redemption approaching. Advent declares: the days of God’s reign are coming in our midst! Jeremiah 33: 14–16 Jerusalem and Judah are poised on the brink of ruin in 587 bce. An exile partially begun ten years earlier will soon come to bear full force. While most of the book of Jeremiah pronounces judgment to prepare Judah for exile, the prophet shifts to words of promise in 30:1—33:26 (“The Book of Comfort”). Within that section, our focus scripture announces hope in the face of mounting despair. The painful realities of exile test the ability to trust promises of an “everlasting covenant” (2 Samuel 7:16). Yet God’s keeping of promises forms the foundation of Jeremiah’s word. A new branch will “spring up” (tsamach), a Hebrew verb used in Genesis 2:5 about the life God would bring from the ground. Waiting is involved. What will come to pass in Genesis and Jeremiah is neither clearly seen nor firmly in hand. But Judah’s new creation, as with the first creation, springs up as God’s promised work. It invites living with hope of restoration. This passage points to community restored in several ways. “House” in the Hebrew Scriptures may refer to dynasty, temple, palace, or dwelling. The promise made to the “houses” of Judah and Israel involves the whole community. Jeremiah says that God’s “branch” (a Messianic term, as in Isaiah 11:1ff) will execute justice. The prophets see justice as equitable relationships. Justice produces fairness and avoids oppression. One reason exile has come is rulers who failed to insure such equity. Jeremiah promises that this failure and its effects will be reversed in God’s promise of justice done. Jeremiah’s imagery of salvation (verse 16) expresses why hope can be held in the midst of present difficulties. In the face of seeming abandonment, Jeremiah assures that God will save Judah. In the midst of times that appear anything but safe or trustworthy, the prophet announces the promise of life lived in “safety” (literally, “trust”). Living with hope threads through the other lections. Psalm 25:1–10 reflects on such trust in personal terms. The psalmist converses with God in confession (“in you I trust”) and plea (“be mindful of your mercy”). Luke 21:25–36 frames hope in cosmic terms. Signs and wonders in creation form an unsettling backdrop that might seem to cause only fear. Trust and anticipation recognize the nearness of God’s redemption and realm. In all the passages, hopeful waiting hinges not on clear knowledge of what will be, but active trust in God’s new workings. These texts balance one another. The “in those days” of Jeremiah and Luke complement the present joy and trust celebrated by the psalmist and the words of 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13. Together, the texts affirm God’s reign is both now and not yet. These words call individuals and communities to engage in trust, and intend to strengthen us as we live between those times. For even as we await God’s coming, Paul makes clear that hope takes shape in our present practice of love. Jeremiah and the other readings challenge us to live faithfully toward the future in present days that try our patience and trust. What, and who, do we trust for the future? What might surprise us about the new work of God in our day? In what ways might these passages shape how we live in the “now and not yet” of God’s reign with anticipation and hope?
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Circle of Hope Reign of Christ (Christ the King) Sunday brings us full circle in the liturgical year. Today, our texts show us the circle of hope in which our faith is grounded and our lives transformed: God’s covenant, Christ’s reign, and the Spirit’s abiding presence. Revelation 1: 4b–8 Tradition holds that the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation while in exile on the island of Patmos during the reign of the emperor Domitian (81–96 CE). The Roman emperors claimed to be “Lord” and “Father” of all people. In doing so, the Roman Empire expected people to yield to its authority with gratitude for all the good things it provided. Those who refused to address an emperor in this way faced persecution or death. Early Christians, persistently faithful to the confession of Christ alone as Lord, faced great risk in declaring so. This book was written to offer hope and encouragement to Christians enduring such trials. In this book, the word “revelation” is a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, and means, “an unveiling.” The type of writing in Revelation is known as apocalyptic writing. It offers bold visions of the new dwelling place of peace that God is preparing for God’s people. The writer intended this book to be difficult to understand, so that it would seem harmless to any government official who might read it. The greeting in 1:4b bestows grace and peace from the God “who is and who was and who is to come,” and is paralleled later in the identity of God as “Alpha and Omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. These words are a declaration of hope. Long before the Roman emperors took breath, long after they will have perished, God is. God is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, identified in this passage with three titles. “Faithful witness” foreshadows how early Christians sometimes were called before an imperial court regarding their confession of Christ as Lord. “Firstborn of the dead” underscores God’s power to bring life not just to Jesus, but to all those who witness to Christ. “The ruler of the kings of the earth” states the subversive core of this book. Christ’s power is contrasted with the oppressive power confronted by the first readers of this book. Notice the verb tense in verse 5: [Christ] loves us. Love is not just a past recollection of the cross or a promise of hope that will be fulfilled someday. Christ’s love is now. God in Christ creates us as a people, as a “kingdom” and as “priests.” This hope will be revealed not only to those who hold fast to its confession, but also to those who try to squelch it or deny it. “So it is to be” offers a word of faith to those who would hear, and a word of defiance to those who would try to shut out God’s inevitable destiny. In 2 Samuel 23:1–7, David’s words reflect on God’s faithfulness near the time of death. David grounds his hope in the timeless covenant that God keeps rather than in any temporal authority, including his own. Psalm 132:1–12, (13–18) speaks of hope in God’s covenant. The description of a future heir makes this psalm a traditional reading for this Sunday. Jesus’ faithful witness to the truth in John 18:33–37 is a model for the faithful witness of the early Christians and Christians today. Pilate, the imperial governor of Judea, needs to know who Jesus is in terms of the powers and authorities of this world. The truth that motivates Jesus is of a different sort entirely.
Monday, November 13, 2006
Justice and Joy The texts this Sunday affirm God’s birthing of the future. Their promise-bearing words urge just and hopeful lives today. Hannah cries out to God in distress. God’s hearing goes named in the child “heard of God” (Samu-el). With Hannah, we may sing with joy, celebrating the justice of God that breaks open the future to new life. 1 Samuel 1:4–20; 2:1–10 In biblical times, a childless wife was viewed with scorn for her failure to provide her husband and family with heirs. Hannah suffers such ridicule. Yet, Hannah joins those women in Hebrew and Christian scriptures whose barrenness becomes the opportunity for the birthing of promise. Hannah does not let go of the one who can bring life and joy. And God does not disappoint. Dynamics of community are revealed in this text in several ways. Elkanah, Hannah’s husband, does not waver from loving her. Peninnah, her “rival,” gives Hannah no peace by “irritating” her (a Hebrew word that has the meaning of “to cause to thunder or tremble”). Eli, the prophet, jumps to an errant conclusion, but then listens. And in listening, Eli then sends her away in peace by affirming that Hannah’s asking will find answer. God is often portrayed as the promise-keeper in scripture, a trait that brings hope to individuals and communities. In verses between (1:21–28) and following (2:18–20) the focus passages, Hannah is the one who keeps her word. And in so doing, she helps lay the foundation for Israel’s hope through dedicating her son Samuel to serve God. It is a powerful story of a mother who offers God the very promise given her. It is a poignant story, where the narrator reveals that Hannah “used to make a little robe and take it to him each year” (2:19). The joy of Hannah taps into deep hopes for the whole of Israel. The song Hannah sings (2:1–10) is not a lullaby for the son she has entrusted to Eli. It is a victory song for the Holy One of Israel, who overturns conventional wisdom and dismantles earthly powers while uplifting the very ones this world overlooks and oppresses. Hannah’s son Samuel is a sign of the future God has in store, a future that in verse 10 hints at a “king” and an “anointed” one. Hannah’s child will be the one who anoints. God’s promises, like Hannah’s, will be kept. Hannah’s song is echoed in the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46–55) in structure and themes. The notes these women sing harmonize in the chord of God’s new order that lifts up the lowly and brings low the haughty. For Hannah and Mary, their songs trace from and aim toward the birth of a child, in whom God’s promises of justice and joy will be kept. In contrast to the community provocation that irritated Hannah, Hebrews urges provocation to love and good deeds. In Hebrews 10:11–14, (15–18), 19–25 the “day approaching” serves as a motive and an ethic for living in community today. Encouragement based on God’s sure promises builds up community. In Mark 13:1–8 Jesus speaks of the birthpangs to come, when God disrupts what had been the one constant in Israel’s religious community – the temple. Yet, similar to Hannah’s song, Jesus reveals that such upheaval points to a future in God’s realm. The gifts Hannah brings to community, first in her persistent trust and then in her child Samuel, are enormous. What of our selves do we entrust to the care and keeping of community? What stanzas might we add to Hannah’s song to celebrate reversals unleashed by God for the sake of the future? Who today would embrace Hannah’s song? Who might flee from it? Why?
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Courage can arise in the most ordinary of lives. Faithful human actions in the book of Ruth restore two widows, and through them the whole people of Israel. The texts this Sunday invite us to consider what puts survival at risk. Ruth 3:1–5; 4: 13–17 At the beginning of this book, Ruth chose to join her life and path with Naomi’s. In the focus passage for today, this following reaches a decisive turn. Earlier, chapter 2 told of an encounter between Ruth and a relative of Naomi named Boaz. Verse 20 identified him as “nearest kin.” The Hebrew word used here is goel. Elsewhere translated as “redeemer,” goel is a family member who is supposed to restore something that another family member has lost because of debt or poverty. Now, need and opportunity meet in the plans of Naomi and Ruth. In 3:3, Naomi proposes action filled with double meanings. “Do not make yourself known…” uses a verb that can also mean sexual intimacy (Genesis 4:1).“Feet” can be a euphemism in Hebrew for genitals. “Threshing floor” has an association with sexual activity (Hosea 9:1). These sexual undertones move the text’s interpretation into a reflection on the courage to risk offence for the sake of life. Ruth follows Naomi’s counsel. Boaz acts with honour as “next of kin” (goel – “one who redeems”). God gives conception. Throughout this book, Naomi and Ruth act with loyalty. As the narrative closes, we learn how their relationship expands into a larger community of women. These women recognize the child’s importance to Naomi. “He shall be to you a restorer of life” (4:15). “Restorer” is a translation of the Hebrew shub, that word of “turning” used throughout the book of Ruth. The women, not father or mother, name the child Obed. A story of widows who have no living children becomes a story of birth. A struggle to survive becomes the means by which God delivers hope to these women and to Israel’s unborn generations. God sets into motion the promise, who will be David, through the courage and faithfulness of Ruth, the Moabite. Many scholars date the writing of Ruth to the post-exilic era, known for its disdain of foreigners and especially foreign wives. The book of Ruth affirms: God will work through whomever God chooses. Psalm 127 also asserts that children are a gift of heritage and hope. The balance to the psalm’s male imagery comes in the role played by women and daughters (in law) in Ruth. God will build the “house” (the word can mean “dynasty”) by whomever God chooses. There is a sense of eager waiting for the unborn David at the close of Ruth. The writer of Hebrews 9:24–28 also conveys a longing, a sense of “eagerly waiting”– looking forward to the salvation Christ will bring. The sacrificial imagery in Hebrews has a common backdrop with the temple scene in Mark. Jesus, in Mark 12:38–44, warns against shows of religious devotion that cloak actions and systems that are devouring the most vulnerable persons in that day, widows. Whether by requirement or social conditioning, the widow who placed her coins in the treasury may have felt she had little choice. This woman shows courage by entrusting all that she has as a gift to God, trusting God’s providence to keep her. Economic injustice and racial and gender prejudice still jeopardize life. Yet, covenant and hope still call forth acts of courage. Courage is shown in any action that would bring safety and wholeness to another. When and through whom have you found your life restored, nourished, and (en)couraged? What offence might we need to risk in order to secure the welfare of those with whom covenant binds us?
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Leaving home risks the loss of place and family, yet grace may gift us with a new place and kin. Naomi and Ruth begin such a journey of leaving and finding home. The scribe who seeks out Jesus asserts love as the path on such pilgrimage. Along with all these, we assert that our home is always and everywhere in God. Ruth 1:1–18 This story begins with refugees who are widowed and hungry. Naomi’s husband and sons die. She is without means of support. In search of bread, Naomi turns toward her former home of Beth-Lehem (“house of bread”). The refusal of Naomi’s widowed daughter-in-law Ruth to leave her side begins the turn toward renewal. Naomi and all of Israel will find a new future through Ruth, who now leaves her home. Ruth’s actions, now and later, embody the keeping of covenant. This particular story and the entire book of Ruth pivot on the theme of “turnings.” The Hebrew verb shub occurs no less than twelve times in Ruth 1:1–18. At times, shub simply indicates a physical change in direction (1:15). Naomi uses it to describe her perception of God’s rejection of her (1:13). By the time this book ends, all sorts of unexpected turns and reversals will come. Ruth the Moabite gives birth to the ancestor of Israel’s greatest king. Many scholars identify this work as being written in post-exilic Israel. In that era, foreigners in general and Moabites especially were despised as enemies of God’s people. The setting of Ruth only underscores the power of the theme of turnings. When Naomi blesses Ruth and Orpah (1:8), she uses a key word from the traditions of covenant faith: hesed. Hesed expresses the love, loyalty, and commitment that one partner has for the other. Such loyalty exceeds legal requirements or duties. In the Hebrew Scriptures, hesed typically describes God’s nature in covenant with Israel. Beginning with her vow to Naomi (1:16–17), however, Ruth proves to be the example and source of hesed in this story. Such loyalty will eventually restore Naomi, whose faith, at the moment, can only lament God’s turning against her. Ruth’s vow in verses 16–17 uses verbs exclusively in the future tense. The whole of this work aims toward future and promise. Even the child, whose birth climaxes the book of Ruth, is a signpost to his own grandson named David. The psalmist praises God, who upholds those who are vulnerable, including widows. In reading Psalm 146 one is tempted to ask God, “Why has this happened to Naomi?” As already hinted above, God’s watchfulness takes shape through the care and devotion of Ruth. Ruth’s Moabite background would have made her an unclean woman in the eyes of purity laws. Yet Ruth brings good to Israel. Hebrews 9:11–14 uses the language and imagery of ritual cleanliness to affirm the good God brings us in Christ. Beyond that, Matthew 1:5 lists Ruth in the genealogy of Jesus, whom the Hebrews text says will purify us. The command to love God and neighbour is summarized memorably in Mark 12:28–34. Such love finds eloquent example in Ruth’s covenant with Naomi, and its subsequent keeping. Leaving home forms a metaphor for journeys we all undertake at various points in our lives. While we may feel we are setting out alone, the gift of community or companionship on such a journey changes us. In the course of the journey, we may be surprised to find ourselves “at home.” Who needs you to accompany them on life’s journey, come what may? What does it mean to show love toward these persons?
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Who Has the Wisdom? Who holds the wisdom that is at creation’s core and in the midst of Job’s own predicament? A whirlwind reverses Job from questioner to the one questioned. Another reversal occurs when the conventional wisdom of privilege is met by the gospel wisdom of humility pronounced by Jesus. Seekers of wisdom may encounter more questions than answers in its finding. Job 38:1–7 Job and his friends have dominated the conversation since chapter two with lament and advice, questions and indictments. Their utterances have addressed and invoked the name of God. But now God will speak, answering Job’s questions with questions of God’s own. The narrator indicates that God speaks “out of the whirlwind.” Job has endured a whirlwind of suffering and questioning. God now responds to Job with swirling assertions of God’s power and freedom. This is not the first time God has brought word in awe-intending encounters. In Exodus 3, a bush burns without being consumed, and Moses receives vocation. Lightning and thunder surround Sinai, and Israel receives Torah. A whirlwind lifts up Elijah into heaven (2 Kings 2:11). A whirlwind does not lift up Job from his questions, but rather sets him in the midst of others. The narrator reveals the one who speaks out of the whirlwind to be Yahweh (YHWH), the holy and intimate name of God revealed to Moses. That name has not been used since chapters 1 and 2 of Job. It is as if Job and his friends have been talking about God in the abstract, as a principle rather than the power behind creation and exodus – and Job’s predicament. Yahweh will speak, even if in questions alone, and Job will hear. God’s line of questioning implies Job does not know or see the whole picture. That does not invalidate Job’s laments. It does not suggest his cries for justice are not true expressions of his experience. It simply means that we, like Job, live within the limits of human knowledge. We cannot see, nor can we control, all that comes our way. We can only hold on to God and one another in trust, in lament, in hope, in the midst of unresolved questions. Although it extends beyond our focus scripture, the ending of Job in chapter 42 needs to be considered. Challenging questions still remain. Restoration is affirmed – but how can dead children be restored in the way cattle and sheep are? Yet in the questions, Job not only endures, Job covenants. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5). Wisdom may not always be grasped, but Job understands where and in whom it resides. Other aspects of God’s wisdom are honoured in the lessons from Psalms and Hebrews. Psalm 104:1–9, 24, 35c celebrates God’s wisdom revealed in creation. Its litany of praise parallels the questions posed to Job. Hebrews 5:1–10 asserts the humanness of Jesus who, like Job, offered up “loud cries and tears.” God responded to the cries of Jesus and of Job, though not necessarily in the way either one desired. The wisdom Jesus revealed in Gethsemane came in remaining faithful to God and trusting God’s way. Disciples discover that the wisdom and ways of God may reverse human priorities. Mark 10:35–45 narrates the conflict between wishes of “me first” and the call to servanthood. Like God responding to Job, Jesus answers the request of James and John for greatness with a question. After a time of profound questions, Job proclaims his faith in God: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” We, like Job and the disciples, are called to trust God in the midst of our questions. When have you, like Job, experienced the presence of God? In what ways have your questions helped you to grow in faith and trust?
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
There certainly are many voices in Scripture. Sometimes, these different voices are within the same book of the Bible, as we hear in the speeches given by Job’s friends, who recite for him the conventional theological wisdom that might be summed up in three words: Life is fair. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. (Conversely, if good things happen to you, then you must have done something good.) It’s a nice system, very neat and logical: there’s payback for sin, and reward for virtue. In Job’s case, the punishment is so great, losing everything and all his children and then his health, that his companions assume that his offense must have been unusually serious. But Job is not alone in disagreeing with his "friends." In fact, if they had indeed been friends, perhaps they would have done better at active listening or at being a compassionate presence, just sitting with Job in his pain and suffering. No, Job is not alone because we are with Job, aren’t we? Don’t we watch the innocent suffer and wonder at how just, how fair the universe is? When we see our children and grandchildren – or someone else’s children or grandchildren – suffer from illness or hunger or war, don’t we ask where God is in all that? How much more innocent could one get than being a child? And what about the prospering of those who have gone undetected in their cheating and stealing, so graphically illustrated by the calamitous fall of companies whose leaders have left widows and retirees impoverished? No, Job isn’t alone in this story. We sit with him sometimes, too, and ask where we can find God in it all. And then there are the different voices not only within but between books of the Bible, too. One can hardly read today’s text, "If I go forward, God is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive God" (23:8), without hearing the echo of Psalm 139: "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?...If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast" (verses 7 and 9). Two ancient voices express different moments in the human condition, times of loss and questioning, times of utter assurance of God’s presence and love. We experience both in our lifetimes, and "faith" becomes at such moments a very different kind of word than just right belief in the correct doctrines. It becomes trust, a centering of ourselves in the mysterious One whose power and wisdom are so far beyond our own feeble but often noble attempts to make sense of the universe. Job’s friends are like preachers who have no good news and no comforting presence to share, only judgment and a kind of logic that violates Job’s integrity. Even though Job says that he can’t feel God’s presence, that he can’t find God so he can ask why these calamities have befallen him, he still holds to a stubborn kind of faith, a trust that God’s is just even if life is not. And so he longs to find God, to stand before God and make his case, like an attorney in a court before a judge, but right then, scraping his sores and surrounded by well-intentioned but misguided friends, Job thinks God is far, far away. When things are really bad, it may not be that God has left us but that we are blocked by pain from perceiving the God from whom we cannot flee. Some people see the Bible as a book of answers; others see in it both answers and unanswered questions. The Book of Job is best read in its entirety, as one passage gives us only a glimpse into this poetic and powerful reflection on undeserved suffering. But scholars provide an intriguing take on the final verses of today’s passage: the NRSV suggests Job is terminally depressed and despondent, longing for death and oblivion. But the Hebrew, according to o.t. scholar, James Newsome "is quite different, for it expresses Job’s continued and hopeful persistence…’It is God who makes me fainthearted, the Almighty who fills me with fear, yet I am not reduced to silence by the darkness or by the mystery which hides him’." Rather than resignation, Newsome says, Job embodies "continued faithfulness to his belief in a gracious God and to his belief in his own innocence." Walter Brueggemann, (another brilliant UCC scholar and teacher who is in Portland this week for a presentation at Trinity Episcopal) says that Job was like Adam in his need for a conversation partner who is adequate to the challenge. "Job seeks a conversation partner who will address him at the point of his anguish. The friends will not address him in his anguish, but will only rebuke him. Job must, however, find a partner who is not oversimple, boring, unconvincing. He must find a partner worthy of his life, elusive enough to interest, hidden enough to attract, severe enough to detain, awesome enough to encounter. He must find one or he is left with only his integrity" And, according to Brueggemann, this integrity is real and important, but "not adequate for the living of his life." How might we apply these reflections to our lives and to the life we share? Thinking of the desolation at Ground Zero or in Oklahoma City or in Lebanon or Baghdad or Gaza or Pakistan or any number of other disasters, the loss of innocent life and the suffering of those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, do we feel the ashes around us as we sit and wonder why? When the cancer diagnosis is delivered, can we absorb it without losing our trust in God? In our modern understanding of depression, where is the theology of Job? How do these readings from Job resonate with our "stages of grief"? Is Job angry in this text, or is he bargaining, or is he in denial? When have you tried to find security in your integrity, and yet found yourself surrounded by loss anyway? What does that tell us then about our security?
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Focus Scripture: Job 1:1, 2:1-10 This is barely the beginning of the story, this passage from the Book of Job. Most of us have some familiarity with Job and his story, this exquisitely artistic reflection on the question of suffering, especially undeserved suffering. Back in the day, as some folks say, there were those (in deuteronomic theology) who said that obedience and faithfulness to God’s precepts, keeping the covenant, would bring prosperity, health, and safety. Disobedience would bring a curse Most of us, then and now, can "do the math": when disaster strikes, there must be a good reason, specifically someone’s guilt. Look at the claims of TV evangelists who blamed the tsunami on various sins and sinners; their attempts to explain such massive suffering mirrors in some ways the words of Job’s friends who are clumsily interpreting the religious tradition in order to make some sense of Job’s sudden calamity. This introductory passage sets the stage but also hints, in a way, at the ending, for Job’s response to his wife’s urgings to curse God and die (let’s remember that this woman has lost not just everything but all her children, too) is a question: "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" Sitting in the ash heap, separated from community and cleanliness, unclean, surrounded by loss, Job, whose name has come to mean patience in suffering, speaks almost philosophically of the mystery of life, which holds countless, undeserved blessings as well as immeasurable, indescribable loss. In all these circumstances, Job suggests as he scrapes his diseased skin with a piece of broken pottery, God is in charge of everything. And that is one reason this book moves us so. Beyond the cases pressed by Job’s friends or the despair of his wife is the stubborn insistence of Job to press his case to God. It reminds one of stories about Jewish suffering where, in the face of death, the survivors recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. The reader might think this prayer is sorrowful and focused on death, but it is instead a beautiful song of praise, magnifying God and expressing the hope we share of God’s reign coming in fullness on this earth. A very different way to respond to death and loss than blaming and speculating on causes, indeed. Perhaps many of our strivings today, along with our avoidance of the larger questions of life by distracting ourselves with entertainment and noise, are ways to find security and protection from suffering. We don’t want to think about it (did Job think about it when he was healthy, prosperous, and surrounded by his children?), and we hope, deep down, that our self-help programs, our insurance policies, and our safety procedures will somehow protect us. We hope we won’t get caught off-guard, unprepared, or ill-equipped to handle what comes at us in life. We might even hope that the earplugs in our ears will insulate us from hearing about the suffering of others, or having to deal with the questions that suffering prompts. All the talk shows in the world can’t provide the answers, though, and we find ourselves, like Job, standing, or sitting in the ashes, and silent with wonder.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
When the people of God face challenging times, our charge is to season our actions with our faith. In this Sunday's lesson, the community of Israel in exile stands at risk; Esther embraces such a time as this with an act of courage. The psalmist confesses the need for God’s presence in crisis. Mark calls for risky hospitality that preserves community in trying times, actions that James reminds us to ground in prayer. Esther 7:1–6, 9–10; 9:20–22 A fool for a king and a racist for a king’s chief advisor create the backdrop for this story. The advisor Haman schemes to secure King Ahasuerus’ approval of genocide against the Jews. Neither as yet knows Queen Esther’s secret: she is a Jew. Esther’s cousin Mordecai, who once advised her not to reveal her Jewish identity, now declares the time for silence is over. Though God is never mentioned in this book by name, Mordecai hints at providence in Esther’s present position. “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). Such a time as this begins innocently at a banquet. Esther speaks with courage and shrewdness. She does not shy away from her identity as a Jew, but she declares solidarity with her people. At such a time as this, the people support Esther’s courage with prayer. But a fool like King Ahasuerus cannot be turned by courage alone. So Esther translates the obscenity of genocide into an attempt by Haman to do damage to the king. Even though Ahasuerus had approved Haman’s plan, now he flies into a rage. The storyteller of Esther laces the narrative with irony, both subtle and obvious. The family histories of Mordecai and Haman provide example of subtlety. The text says Mordecai is a Benjaminite (2:5)and Haman is an Agagite (3:1). The hatred between the Benjaminites and Agagites was centuries old. In 1 Samuel 15:7–9, the story is told of an Israelite victory led by King Saul the Benjaminite against King Agag. The obvious stroke of irony comes in the details of Haman’s fate. Ahasuerus does not order Haman’s execution for plotting the death of the Jews. Instead, the king misunderstands Haman’s plea for mercy from Esther as an assault on the queen. Haman hangs on the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. The closing verses (9:20–22) relate the celebration of Purim. Purim means “lots,” in reference to Haman’s casting lots to decide when to kill the Jews (3:7). While the story does not name God, God’s redemption occurs through Esther. Purim celebrates – with drama, meals, and gifts for the poor – this preserving of Jewish community by Esther’s courage. The story of Esther reminds us how human acts of courage may enact saving activity. For such a time, Psalm 124 celebrates God’s standing with God’s people in times of danger. James 5:13–20 calls for prayers and actions for the sake of those made vulnerable by illness. Human words and touch (anointing) are part of the ministry of healing we exercise for one another. In Mark 9:38–50, Jesus speaks of standing with those who engage in ministry. For Mark’s community as it faces persecution, cups of cold water, not causing little ones to stumble, and life lived in peace bear witness to how community may be preserved in threatening times. Just as Esther took her stand and acted to preserve life, and as Mark’s community exercised hospitality in times of risk, to welcome and shelter those who are vulnerable still requires our courageous action today. In such a time as today, who waits on your action and courage? What aspect of your identity as God’s child may be hidden, in need of claiming for God’s work in this time and place?
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
When we open our hearts and minds to the texts for this Sunday, we confront the radical nature of God’s wisdom. In the surprising reversals we encounter, we hear Jesus’ call to live against the grain. As people of faith, we desire intimacy with God and a place in God’s sovereign realm. How can we recognize the presence and meaning of God’s gift and way of wisdom? Mark 9:30–37 As they are travelling, Jesus identifies himself to the disciples as the “Son of Man.” Jesus doesn’t explain this term. (Scholars are not in agreement as to the origin or the exact meaning of this identification that Jesus chooses for himself.) Jesus talks about the signs of his betrayal, death, and resurrection and again does not elaborate. Verse 32 states that the disciples do not understand, and furthermore, that they are afraid to ask Jesus about these words. The scene shifts to a house. Jesus draws the disciples into discussion, not letting them stay on the comfortable outside. Jesus asks about their conversations on the road. Silence again. Jesus sits down, as a teacher in that day would have done. He calls the twelve and begins to explain things: those who want to be first in God’s reign need to take their places at the end of the line. Then, as the prophets before also would have done, Jesus embodies the teaching with a startling gesture. Jesus takes a child and puts this little one “among them” – in the centre. We can imagine that children were loved by their families, but in the Roman world of Mark’s first readers, children were not honored as pupils or citizens. Jesus doesn’t just place the child in this radical place of honor. Jesus takes the little one in his arms for an embrace; Jesus welcomes the child and teaches how the disciples should treat such a one as this. In the community of God’s sovereign realm, no one finds themselves left by Jesus outside the picture window, pressing nose against the glass to peer in and see what it might be like “if only.” Jesus brings the child – who also represents those who are silenced, vulnerable, and disenfranchised – to the centre. Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” God’s wisdom embodies kindness, generosity, and dignity. The description of the honored wife in Proverbs 31:10–31 is like the way Jesus calls his followers to be. The book of Proverbs begins with a description of wisdom; here we are challenged to claim wisdom as the grounding that enables our faithful actions. Being drawn into the embrace and community of God is described in Psalm 1 as being planted by streams of life-giving water. In this understanding, devotion to God’s “path” (Torah or law) comes not as some burdensome obligation, but as a delight and privilege. The book of James offers this wisdom: draw near to God in order to draw near to life. In James 3:13—4:3, 7–8a, James minces no words about how we can push ourselves away from God and others. James calls us to place ourselves in the embrace of God’s wisdom, and there to find life. Our Gospel lesson does not tell us how the disciples responded to Jesus’ teaching about being great in God’s reign by being a servant to all. We do not know how early readers of Proverbs or Psalm 1 considered the role of wisdom in their lives. We do not know how the first readers of James changed their lives because of these words. More important, perhaps, than knowing how others have responded to the challenges of God’s risky wisdom is choosing to respond ourselves, as individuals and as community. It what ways might we be both challenged and comforted by God’s wisdom?
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Turning points, (or in the current socio-political jargon "tipping points") come when we encounter God’s unconventional wisdom inviting us to risk for the gospel’s sake. Jesus’ disciples discover a Messiah who risks suffering and practices self-sacrifice for the well-being of all people. Wisdom calls us to turn and follow unexpected paths. Will we venture to live by such risky wisdom, trusting and hoping in God’s presence? Mark 8:27–38 Jesus questions the disciples about his identity. The conversation leads to Peter’s confession of “You are the Messiah.” (Messiah means anointed one.) The gospel of Mark now takes a dramatic turn. Jesus’ ministry throughout Galilee, which wanders with no seeming destination, suddenly aims toward Jerusalem. Jesus’ own answer to his question follows in this first of three unconventional teachings in Mark concerning a Messiah who suffers. Popular messianic hopes of that day awaited a militant figure who would bring deliverance to the nation and freedom from Rome. Factions such as the Zealots simply took that notion to the extreme in their conviction that armed rebellion and violence would hasten Messiah’s coming. If suffering came, conventional wisdom said, Messiah would inflict it upon the enemy. Jesus turns that wisdom upside down. Using a term from the prophets that was not compromised by such assumptions, Jesus teaches that the “Son of Man” will suffer, be rejected, and die. This clash of wisdoms comes to a head as Peter rebukes Jesus, and Jesus then rebukes Peter. The text portrays this exchange as a teaching moment; Jesus confronts Peter for the sake of community (“turning and looking at the disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter”). This turning point hinges on whose wisdom will be followed. Jesus’ teaching is clear – the identity of Jesus shapes the identity of the community who follows him. It is God’s wisdom that calls the disciples, and us, to take risks in serving on behalf of the well-being of all people. Jesus names two key aspects of that following in phrases that have a history of misunderstanding and abuse: “self-denial” and “taking up one’s cross.” In far too many times and ways, these words have been used to bludgeon individuals and groups already vulnerable, already “denied.” Or they have been trivialized and marginalized (self-denial as giving up chocolate for Lent, or taking up one’s cross as putting up with some minor irritation). Self-denial may be more vitally understood, as with the taking up of one’s cross, as embodying the community Jesus seeks to fashion. Self-hatred does not promote community, but living in response to and respect of one’s neighbor does. The community who follows this Messiah will risk its own individual and group agendas for the sake of following Jesus. Like Simon in Mark 15:21, we help bear Jesus’ cross where he cannot do so alone. Proverbs 1:20–33 depicts a personified Wisdom inviting individuals to follow in its way. The risks of folly are expressed in life and death terms. Psalm 19 celebrates the wisdom of God witnessed to in creation and Torah. Wisdom 7:26—8:1 provides a philosophical outlook on the gift and beauty of wisdom. The wisdom teaching of James 3:1–12 speaks of the power of the tongue for ill or good. The risk associated here with the responsibility of teaching finds illustration in Peter’s attempt to “teach” Jesus in the focus passage. Turning points still come to us when we encounter the voice of God’s wisdom. Who do you say Jesus is: in your words, in the conduct of your life? What are you willing to risk giving up – or taking on – in order to follow Jesus in a life of serving?
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Sunday's texts call us to explore what it means to be persistent as we take life-changing action with and on behalf of others. As we do, we encounter boundaries that provide places of sanctuary and boundaries that divide, separating people from one another and God. Consider how giving voice to God’s justice opens such human-made barriers. Mark 7:24–37 The geography in verses 24 and 31 reveals theology: Jesus moves beyond the normal boundaries, not always travelling among people who are kin. Verse 24 suggests that Jesus goes out of the way to find a place of retreat. In so doing, he is opened to the needs of those who inhabit the area. Two miracle stories take place in these verses, both involving advocacy for justice and life-changing action. In the first, a Syrophoenician gentile woman persists in seeking Jesus’ intervention. Her ethnicity sets her apart from Jesus. Her religion sets her apart from Jesus. Her gender sets her apart from Jesus. On any one of these accounts, public contact and conversation with Jesus would have brought censure for her and for him. But one matter connected them: the well-being of a child. For the child’s sake, the woman is persistent even when Jesus debates with her. This woman pleads with persistence for the needs of the child; human-made barriers are of little consequence. Jesus sends her on her way with what she asks. Mark is rather matter-of-fact about Jesus’ response. In Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus exclaims, “Great is your faith!” (Matthew 15:28). In the second story, a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment is brought to Jesus. We are not told who brings him – family members? Friends? Neighbours? The omission of this detail is a reminder that it is not the nature of relationship that matters so much as the willingness to act on behalf of one in need. The barriers in this story are different, but no less severe. This man cannot hear or speak for himself. Others must be willing to act on his behalf. Consider how much trust it required in this man’s encounter with Jesus. Fingers pry into the man’s ears. The rabbi spits and touches his tongue. Jesus speaks words the man could not yet hear, but he also makes gestures the man could see and gives touches he could feel. Jesus places his hands precisely on the barriers that separated this man from others. Jesus says, Ephphatha,” or “be opened.” This word ends the man’s separation from sound and community. The sayings in Proverbs 22:1–2, 8–9, 22–23 urge justice for the sake of the poor. These sayings from Israel’s wisdom traditions derive their power from God, who speaks and acts on behalf of those whose access to justice would otherwise be impaired. Psalm 125 gives voice to confidence in God’s justice and deliverance. Some attribute this psalm to the era following Israel’s exile, when the nation faced genuine threats. Ironically, those times also are associated with hardening social and ethnic boundaries, the results of which can be seen in scripture. Christians are called to be vigilant in taking action on behalf of God’s justice. James 2:1–10, (11–13), 14–17 warns all who follow Christ to shun favouritism and care for those who are vulnerable.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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