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Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Built on a Promise God’s covenant with us frames our lives with promises. Those promises may seem distant when we feel uprooted or displaced. Yet God honours our questions and encourages us to stand with confidence in the face of fear. God, who would shelter us as a mother hen covers chicks under her wings, journeys with us. Our covenant is with One who saves. Genesis 15:1–12, 17–18 This story of covenant making stands in the midst of a series of God-initiated covenants. The gift of the rainbow had been given as a sign or reminder to God of God’s covenant to “never again”(Genesis 9:8–17). Still to come is God’s covenanting with Israel and Moses at Sinai through the gift of the Law (Exodus 19–20). This story falls in the midst of the journey of Abram and Sarai. They have left Haran for a land not yet revealed (Genesis 12:5ff). The fulfillment of God’s promise is yet to come. Heir and land form the two core promises at stake in this story and God’s covenant with Abram. Already aged at the journey’s start, Abram finds it more difficult to trust. Without an heir, God’s promise of land has no lasting meaning. Will God prove trustworthy? Abram’s wondering anticipates the questions of subsequent generations. We dare not begrudge Abram his impatience. In his willingness to speak his heart before God, Abram speaks for us. The ritual of covenant making described in this text (verses 7–11, 17) involves ancient and obscure details. The “cutting” of animals echoes the verb in verse 18. “Make” (karath) covenant literally means “cut” or “prepare.” Some believe the practice of the two covenanting parties walking between the divided animals may be a visual image of the threat of being unfaithful to covenant. The fire in verse 17 may symbolize God, who thus takes the risk of such commitment. “Deep sleep” (tardemah) in verse 12 is the same word used to describe the state of Adam at Eve’s creation (2:21). Here, though, what descends in Abram’s sleep is a “deep and terrifying darkness.” What this means is clarified in verses 13–16, omitted from the focus passage. There, God reveals that the promised offspring will have a lengthy sojourn in Egypt and slavery. They will experience the same waiting on promises that now troubles Abram. The passage ends with naming the boundaries of the land promised held only in promise. These are not empty, unpopulated lands. People already live in these places. Will they be displaced, or will a way be made to co-exist? Will the recipients of promise use those pledges as bludgeons, or as means to reconciliation and community? We must wait and see – now as then. Sunday's readings resonate with the sense of “place” that God provides. Psalm 27 speaks of God serving as “stronghold,” “shelter,” “rock,” and “salvation.” Philippians 3:17—4:1 borrows an image from that day’s political arena by affirming “our citizenship in heaven.” In Luke 13:31–35, places of threat and risk are accepted because of Jesus’ underlying trust in God. Likewise, these texts link the place God provides and God’s call to faithfulness in times of decision and risk. Listen to the verbs directed to audiences of these readings: wait, be strong, take courage, stand firm. We can build our lives on the trustworthy foundation of God’s promises and purposes. Abram waited on and trusted in God’s promises, even when they seemed distant. The Lessons today help us trust in God’s word and God’s way, especially when fulfillment of the promise seems a long time coming. In what experiences have you found God trustworthy? With Abram, we have questions and wonderings about what will come. What makes it possible for you to live toward the promise of God’s realm and its ultimate fulfillment, freed from fear and anchored in hope?
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Note: Computer woes kept me from posting last week. I think we've exorcised the demons. Lent begins in joyful remembrance that all we have flows from God. God’s love, purpose, and power in the wilderness – for the people of Israel and for Jesus – reveal such providence. Experiencing God’s grace beckons us to open what we have and who we are in thanksgiving to God, and in sharing with neighbor. Let us celebrate the good God gives! Deuteronomy 26:1–11 Deuteronomy consists of a series of addresses attributed to Moses. They serve to prepare the people of Israel for entering the land after the wilderness sojourn. The book of Deuteronomy likely did not take final form until the late 7th century bce. The focus passage comes at the end of a collection of laws (12:1—25:19) that are to govern Israel. This passage provides understandings based on covenant of “where we came from” and the basis of hope in God. What comprises covenant here? God gives. The people respond with offerings, confession, and celebration. This text describes covenant faith and action. Note how covenant becomes inclusive. Israel is not to celebrate alone. The Levites and the “aliens who reside among you” (v. 11) are included. Why? Israel lived as aliens in Egypt (verse 5). The Levites had no tribal lands on which to raise crops in order to bring an offering of first fruits. In both cases, covenant calls for their inclusion because of the good (a more literal translation in verse 11 than “bounty”) God provides. “First fruits” giving reflects an ancient tradition that the land and its produce belong to God. “First fruits” literally refers to the first crop harvested, considered the prime part of the harvest. Offering first fruits expresses faith in and gratitude for God’s providence. This passage and Deuteronomy 26:13–15 relate two traditions of first fruits offerings. This tradition of first fruits giving invites us to be stewards who are grounded in gratitude and give from what comes first, not from what is “left over.” One striking feature of this passage is the centrality of God’s giving. While the action called for is the first fruits offering, we are reminded of God’s providential and saving activity. The land, the harvest, the bringing out of Egypt: all are attributed to God’s works on behalf of Israel. This is visually apparent in the repetition of the holy name of God, which occurs no less than fourteen times in these verses! Belief invites action that relies (trusts) and calls upon God. Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16 affirms God’s presence as trustworthy. In Romans 10:8b–13, Paul links heartfelt belief with confession in a way that is evocative of Deuteronomy’s use of faith confession. The narrative of the wilderness temptation in Luke 4:1–13 affirms Jesus’ reliance on God. In these texts, belief is more than simply knowing or saying the proper words. Issues of allegiance are important in these texts. The Roman church confessed “Jesus is Lord” in face of the demand of Rome’s emperors to be hailed as “lord.” Jesus’ refusal to serve the tempter reveals a similar tension. The repetition of the holy name of God in Deuteronomy recalls that this name had been given to Moses so he could tell Israel who would deliver them from Pharaoh. Allegiance is a form of trust. These texts confess trust and allegiance grounded in God. Such confession in our times also may involve hard choices when encountering rival claims to sovereignty from political institutions or economic systems. With joyful remembrance we confess our trust in the One who makes life possible. How can we thank God, not only with our offerings and gifts, but with the whole of our lives? What does it mean to “believe”? How does trust in God’s radical acceptance of us transform the way we respond to God – and to others?
Friday, February 09, 2007
Surprising Teaching Jesus begins to teach about the life of discipleship, turning conventional human understanding upside down. In speaking of blessings and woes, Jesus surprises and challenges. Our readings affirm that all who trust in the promises of God are blessed. Luke 6:17–26 Imagine the scene: Jesus goes up a mountain to pray and stays all night. The next morning he calls the disciples together and chooses twelve of them to be apostles (Luke 6:12-16). As they come down the mountain, there is an enormous crowd of people waiting for them, seeking healing. In this group there are other disciples, Jews (those noted as coming from Judea and Jerusalem), and Gentiles (those noted as coming from Tyre and Sidon). Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “Blessed are you…” In this way the gospel of Luke begins Jesus’ teaching commonly called the Beatitudes. These sayings are also recorded in Matthew 5:1–12. In Luke, this teaching marks the beginning of a lengthy period of instruction for the disciples before Jesus sends them out on their own (9:6). In Matthew’s record of the Beattudes, no “woes” are mentioned. Luke, however, reports Jesus’ teaching as including four sets of blessings and woes. Poor/rich, hungry/full, weeping/laughing, and rejected/accepted form parallel pairings of blessing and woe. Jesus’ use of the word “you” in each statement suggests that the crowd included individuals living in each of these situations. As named in Deuteronomy 11:26–28, Jesus’ hearers would have considered blessing to be a sign of God’s favour and woe a sign of God’s disapproval or judgment. The ways that Bible translators have rendered these phrases offers additional insight for us. The phrase “blessed are” (NRSV) is translated in other Bible versions as “God will bless,” “Happy are,” and “You’re blessed when.” The phrase “woe to” (NRSV) is translated as “you’re in for trouble,” “how terrible for you,” and “it’s trouble ahead.” Jesus’ message to those who would follow as disciples is one of astounding promise. For many in that crowd, these words may have seemed full of justice and mercy. For others they may have seemed a harsh judgment. Jesus speaks prophetically of the great reversal of human understanding that we encounter in the reign of God. As Jesus continues to be revealed as a great teacher, his message continues to reveal the surprising way of God. The good news is not always easy to embrace and follow. Another glimpse of blessings and woes in the reign of God is found in Jeremiah 17:5–10. Here the prophet describes those who fail to trust God’s promises as plants perishing in a parched land. Those who trust God are described as trees planted by streams of water. Also using the image of trees planted near streams, we are encouraged in Psalm 1 to bear the good fruit of God’s wisdom. This psalm celebrates a life that is dedicated to living in God’s way. Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians 15:12–20 that we are able to bear the fruit of God’s righteousness in our lives because of the resurrection of Christ. Since Christ has been raised from the dead, those who are grounded in Christ’s promise are able to celebrate new life. To Paul, there is strength for today in this future hope. There are blessings and woes in life, and God’s people are not exempt. Trusting God’s promises, we are blessed in order to bring healing and blessing to others, inviting them to participate in the vision offered in Jesus’ teaching. What strengthens you to continue bearing such fruit?

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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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