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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.

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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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