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Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Luke 5:1-11 A Surprising Catch One way to approach this story might be to ask, "How big is your boat?" An extraordinary archaeological find, a first-century boat from the Sea of Galilee, is 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 4.5 feet high, giving us a pretty good idea of the size of Simon Peter’s boat. Since men of Simon’s time were about five feet, five inches tall, that makes the boat plenty deep. It would have held a lot of fish, and it would have taken a lot to sink it. And it would have taken something very big to get its crew simply to walk away from it and the livelihood it must have represented. In fact, we read in the Gospel of Matthew (this fish story is in all the Gospels) that Zebedee, the father of two of the fishermen-turned-disciples, stayed in the boat. After all, someone had to clean up all that fish and get it to the people who were hungry, and the everyday work had to go on. Our boats – our sources of livelihood and security – are substantial, too. It would take a lot for us to walk away from them. Like Zebedee, it strikes us as wholly unrealistic and perhaps even irresponsible to walk away from our work and the people it supports, including ourselves. But then perhaps that’s not the point of the story. What matters is the response of Simon, now Simon Peter already, to something far beyond his understanding, something that makes him painfully aware of his own limitations and unworthiness. His awe, translated so well by Eugene Peterson, "I’m a sinner and can’t handle this holiness. Leave me to myself," helps us understand better the phrase, "fear of the Lord." And yet Jesus’ first words are, "Do not be afraid." Consoling words, found often in the Good News, and followed closely by a reassuring commission that holds within it a risky invitation that makes a boat groaning with a load of fish look like a picnic in the park! We’ve already gotten a taste of the danger Jesus is in when the folks in his own hometown of Nazareth try to throw him off a cliff after he preaches in the synagogue, a chapter before this one. He had drawn on the words of Isaiah to lay out his purposes for the poor and the downtrodden, and he was very clear that this message was going to appeal to people outside the comfort zone of his listeners. It wasn’t a pretty sight when the synagogue crowd chased him to the cliff, but this compelling Jesus walked away from them, passing right through them and moving into other areas to continue his ministry of healing and teaching. In those places, he found an enthusiastic audience, and he needed a boat to get out in the water, just the shallow end, to address the great crowds. One might imagine that Jesus wanted to say so much that he needed more than words to express the abundance of God’s love and the overflowing power of God’s grace, "far more than all we could ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20). So he decided to show them as well, urging the tired fishermen to strike out into the deep rather than head safely home after a long day. The yield was more than enough to convince them that something really big was happening here, and in their encounter with Jesus they were keenly aware that life held much more possibility than fishing for fish. Some scholars say that the relationship Simon Peter entered into with Jesus was a "client-patron" one, where "family-like" bonds provided help when the family couldn’t. "A patron is someone who can get for you something you could not obtain by your own abilities, or on better terms than you could arrange for yourself" (Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle C). Like a boat groaning with fish, perhaps, or a mission field inviting us to leave our comfort zones and prepare for results beyond our wildest imaginings. Of course, there is more than one way to approach this text. We might also explore what it means to "strike out into the deep," when we’re tired and convinced that there are no more people interested in the good news we offer, especially when our popular culture offers such enticing invitations in other directions. "The deep" might represent those places we would rather not go, the places of discomfort and danger and unfamiliarity, where we might "get in over our heads." What if we become Open and Affirming and "too many" of "those people" show up? ("They" are, after all, the spiritually hungry and homeless ones.) What if we welcome people living with mental illness, and their families? How will we "deal" with the situations that may arise? What if we call a woman as our pastor? There are just too many things that could go wrong, and we may be better off just calling it a day and staying here, in the shallow water, drying our nets as we should, and disappointed by the results of our efforts. Today we have difficulty imagining what it means to "leave it all behind" unless we do something quite unusual, along the lines of becoming a missionary or drastically changing our lifestyle. And so we wistfully read this story once again this Epiphany season, and go back to our nets and our ordinary lives as if this story were not about us, and this call were not ours, too. But what if we can in fact clean the nets and strike out again in the morning to do the work of our lives and yet, at the same time, live lives true to the gospel, given to God, faithful to the Word that called Simon and his partners away? What if our lives could be transformed right where they are, with the people we love and know? Can our imaginations open us up to epiphanies all around us, wonders that challenge our expectations, as Renita Weems has described miracles (New Proclamation Year C 2001)? After all, she says, the last thing those "tired fishermen" were expecting was a showing of God’s awesome power right there, at the end of another workday. Why couldn’t the same be said of our workdays: that they hold the possibility of seeing God’s hand at work in our lives and all around us? Weems says that "Jesus still shows up and surprises us," and we can find our lives changed forever. It’s an intensely personal experience, and Weems challenges preachers to get up in the pulpit and speak from their own personal experience of such awe and wonder, instead of just making "dry homiletical pronouncements we pasted in our mind that evaporate in the sanctuary air as soon as we utter them because they are spoken devoid of passion and personal witness." If preachers get such a sharing started, perhaps the people in the pews and those who read our website and those who meet us wherever we are, at the nets or sitting in hospital waiting rooms, might hear a word of good news so compelling that their lives, too, would never be the same. It is somewhat fashionable to read the Bible through scientific eyes, checking out the "wonders" to decide whether there is some "rational" explanation for them. Fortunately, Simon had sense enough to be open to a wonder when he saw one. As we celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Church of Christ, we might reflect on wonders in the history of our denomination and in the lives of our congregations. We might also consider the deep waters still calling us to new ministry, new insights, new experiences of faithfulness and wonder.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Living Love Love provides for the possibility of life lived in the close quarters of the Body of Christ. Our love for one another and the world grows out of God’s gracious love for us. Prophecy that prepares us to receive God begins and ends in the speaking and doing of love. Such love enlivens community. Such love persists. By such love we are fully known. 1 Corinthians 13: 1–13 Paul frames this passage using a rhetorical device of the time. In such constructions, typically used to praise an individual or virtue, actions serve as clues to character. Here, love is known by its actions. The Greek language has three words for love. Eros refers to sensual or erotic love. Philia refers to love based on relationships of kinship or friendship. Agape, the word used here, indicates love that is gracious in origin, nature, and expression. Paul does not seek to theorize about the nature of agape love. Rather, this passage stresses actions that reveal love. Those actions are not always easy, and often come with risk. The critical nature of love to Christian life and community becomes clear in the first verses. For without love, even the best of actions ring hollow. It is difficult not to hear this text apart from our associations of it with weddings and commitment ceremonies. It is important to remember that Paul did not write these words to give preachers something to read to couples. This passage originated in his attempt to describe what makes life possible within Christian community. The meaning of these words in rituals of marriage grows out of that prior truth, not vice-versa. The context of this passage is Paul’s concern in chapter 12, and the entire letter of 1 Corinthians, for what it means to live as Christ’s Body. Love forms the bottom line to that vocation. A key element is that such love does not exhaust itself in revealing Christ to and for one another within the community. Love serves as the way in which we bear witness to Christ to the whole world. One critical observer of the early church made the begrudging comment: “see how they love one another.” Community and witness both take form in love enacted. As Paul prepared the Corinthians for life lived in the close quarters of community, two of the other readings narrate how the prophetic voice prepared God’s way. Jeremiah 1:4–10 narrates Jeremiah’s call to speak words and later engage in actions that will be difficult. The commission to pull down and build up anticipates Jeremiah’s task of announcing exile and then return. In Luke 4:21–30, Jesus’ words found a hard reception at home. The gospel of including outsiders stirred conflict. That truth, experienced by earlier prophets, still holds true today. Paul adds the perspective in 1 Corinthians 13 that even the prophetic word rings hollow without love. These readings also share the imagery of childhood. Psalm 71:1–6 employs positive images. The psalmist relates trust in God “from my youth” and reliance on God from birth. In Luke and Jeremiah, “boy” and “son” seem to be used in pejorative ways, while Paul alludes to “child” and “childish.” Remember, though, those who belittle youth in Luke and Jeremiah miss God’s affirmation and choice of these children. And the word Paul uses for “child” refers to an infant, a stage at which speech and reason are just beginning to develop. True maturity is not scorn of an earlier age, but growth into newness of life. Paul urges the community of Christ to love expressed in action. How might this text shape or transform the way we embody love today, especially in the context of community? How does love prepare us for God – and how does God prepare us for love?
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Revealing Love We can depend on God’s abundant love. Whether offering renewal to those without hope in Isaiah’s time or changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana, God gives us extravagant gifts. The abundant gifts of God’s Spirit work in the midst of the community of God’s beloved people to reveal Christ, then and now. John 2:1–11 In this miracle story unique to John’s gospel, Jesus’ ministry gains public awareness at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. The disciples are there, as is Jesus’ mother, Mary. (Note, however, that the gospel of John does not refer to Jesus’ mother by name.) The story itself begins simply enough, and there is no hint in the first few verses that a miracle is about to occur. Suddenly, “the wine gave out,” an embarrassing predicament for the hosts. Mary calls on Jesus to help. Scholars disagree over Jesus’ use of the term woman in Jesus’ reply to Mary. Some cite it as a term of respect, while others claim it would have been unusual for a son to refer to his mother in this way in that culture. Some scholars understand this dialogue symbolically, pointing to Communion, with the wine alluding to Jesus’ blood, and the “hour” referring to Jesus’ death. This brief conversation with Mary provides evidence to John’s readers that through Jesus, salvation is at hand. What is truly amazing in this story is the abundance of wine Jesus offers the wedding party. Imagine about 568 litres or 150 gallons of wine, and of the highest quality! Jesus provides the best wine at the end of the feast. This would have been unheard of in that time – a reversal of expectations. The steward is confused about the origin of the wine, though the servants who had drawn the water know. Through the turning of the water into wine, Jesus is revealed. This miracle speaks of God bringing extravagance and abundance into everyday activities. God’s glory is revealed and the disciples believe in Jesus. The world – or at least the world of this wedding party – has been turned around. Using the image of the wedding feast, Isaiah 62:1–5 reveals the abundant joy and love that God has for God’s people. The prophet is speaking a word of comfort to a hurting and desolate people, returning home after exile in Babylon. In Hebrew culture, a name offered clues to one’s identity. In receiving a new name from God, the people understand that their relationship with God is restored. Psalm 36:5–10 calls us to thankfulness for God’s rich abundance in all times and places. God’s unconditional love renews and restores us, even in our lowest moments. The psalmist makes generous use of the Hebrew word hesed, translated in the many phrases that refer to God’s unfailing, continuing love. God is calling us to be faithful and promises to be faithful to us. Centuries later, Paul echoes the words first spoken by the prophet and the psalmist: God brings abundance into our midst. For a church as diverse as the one in Corinth, these words about God’s renewal served as both a corrective and a mission. In 1 Corinthians 12:1–11, Paul reminds the Corinthians that although each one of them is different, they are united by God’s abundant Spirit. As God’s people, we live with an abundant spirit that stands in contrast to many of the world’s realities. We imagine hope where there seems to be none, for we are guided by faith in God’s unending love. The Season after the Epiphany is a good time to reflect upon the ways that God’s abundant love and Spirit are at work among us. In what ways does Jesus’ life and ministry reveal God’s abundance to you? In what ways does God continue to bring abundance into the world today?

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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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