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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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