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Wednesday, September 24, 2008
NOTE: I'll be away for the next few weeks. Next posting will be in late -October. As the Israelites learn to live as a community of God’s people, they encounter frustration and anger, and then hope, as God’s compassion comes in a surprising way. God’s people today still encounter God’s grace in unexpected places and persons. Taken together, these texts challenge us to discern God’s abundant provision and our response. Exodus 17:1–7 The people of Israel are still wandering in the wilderness, led by Moses and Aaron. In the story last week, the hungry community called out for food, and God fed them day-by-day with bread from heaven. Sunday’s focus scripture begins as the Hebrews set up camp at Rephidim, and discover there is no water. Their reaction to this dilemma is a familiar one – they lash out at Moses. How could they be sure that God was still with them? In spite of their deliverance from Egypt, their reliance on God’s sustaining presence falters once again. The people accuse Moses of intending to kill them all along. Moses, in turn, cries out to God for guidance. “What shall I do with this people?” Moses and the Hebrew people are not left alone in this wilderness of frustration and anger. God responds with grace and the journey resumes: “Go on ahead of the people…I will be standing there in front of you.” God’s faithful presence and provision sustains them once again. God’s faithfulness prevails over the Hebrews’ lack of trust and faith. Moses strikes the rock as God directs, and water rushes forth. The springs that are created there are named Massah and Meribah, Hebrew words that recall the Israelites’ quarrelling and testing. This may seem like a reminder to not raise complaints to God. Or, perhaps, the names are more a judgment of their lack of trust in God’s willingness or ability to hear and to act. The text concludes with the question: “Is God among us or not?” This question remains critical for all who journey in faith. So does the response given in this text – water springs from a rock to bring life in the wilderness. This will not be the last time that the people of Israel grow anxious and fearful on their journey to the Promised Land. Still, as is often the case for them, this time of crisis pushes them to re-affirm their trust in God’s presence. Trust that God is among us is evident in Psalm 78:1–4, 12–16. God’s provision of good things is celebrated with joy. The lectionary skips over 78:5–11, the memory of the people’s rebellion against God and their refusal to keep covenant. As a remedy against this happening again, the psalmist calls the people to remember and recite accounts of God’s powerful works. Paul, in Philippians 2:1–13, declares, “God is with us!” And to live in God’s name is to be of service to all. When Paul implores the community to “work out your own salvation” (v. 12), he is not saying salvation is earned, but that the community must take the steps necessary to reach and express their complete wholeness. God calls; humans respond. In Philippi, some favoured Caesar and some Jesus as their lord. In Matthew 21:23–32, Jesus faces religious authorities who refuse to take a stand either way. Jesus responds to this time of testing by declaring the importance of standing with God’s truth, regardless of the consequences. As we live between frustration and hope, we call out to God and to our human leaders. We long to know we will be heard, that there will be a response. Assured by Christ, we can be confident of God’s sustaining presence. What does it mean to trust in God alone in the midst of test and struggle? How might we support one another as we grow in trust of God’s compassion and provision?
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
TENSIONS IN THE WILDERNESS God listens and responds, providing through nature, other people, and communities. After the Hebrew people fled from Egypt, they were tested by unfamiliar territory, hunger, and lack of knowledge. In the midst of such tension, God provided for their needs. In Matthew, Jesus responds to a time of tension with a parable about God’s care and generosity. Exodus 16:2–15 Sunday’s story follows songs of praise and thanksgiving for God’s deliverance in Exodus 15. After crossing the sea and escaping from the Egyptians, the Hebrews entered the Wilderness of Sin, known today as the Sinai Desert. Their journey was not along the main trade routes. The region was arid. Food sources were unfamiliar. Their secure supply of food in Egypt was replaced by the need to hunt and gather food in unfamiliar territory. The hardship the Hebrews faced in the wilderness was the result of struggling to find food and water in an unfamiliar place. However, the wilderness was also a place of experiencing God’s abundance and a time of self-discovery. This wandering time reoriented the Hebrews from life in Egypt to life with God. God was present with them in captivity, in freedom, and in the wilderness. The people’s complaint was against God’s creation. God’s provision came in an image of creation – bread from heaven. The name for the bread, man-uh, is from the Hebrew question: “What is it?” Each time the Hebrews spoke the name of this bread, they recalled their own question, and remembered who had supplied the food. Man–uh was probably a sticky, protein-rich substance excreted by insects. God also supplied quail, a small ground bird of the region. All creation is good, as God is present in it. Moses and Aaron received the people’s complaint. God responded to Moses, who played a priestly role as mediator for the people. Moses and Aaron expand upon God’s instructions. Aaron called for hope and belief. The voice from within the cloud was a powerful reminder of God’s presence. The people understood that the God who delivered them also provided. When the Hebrew people complained about the lack of food, the complaint was against God. Would their memories of food and water in Egypt shake their belief in God? It seems the Hebrews had left Egypt, but Egypt had not left them. Until they had truly left Egypt behind, it would not be possible for them to accept God’s covenant, to be given in the law at Sinai (Exodus 19–20). Accepting God’s provision of food was part of getting ready to accept a new kind of relationship with God. Moses and Aaron helped the people to move on from Egypt, and get ready for God to give the law. There is completeness in this story. The entire company complained, then received God’s response, and knew of God’s presence and care. Such glory of God’s saving presence also was celebrated in the Passover feast. Long after these events, those who recorded the stories in Exodus included detailed instructions in these stories to make sure that the Sabbath continued to be observed. As noted by the psalmist in Psalm 105, each generation has a role to play in passing on these great stories of faith. God is generous with the community of God’s people. Paul writes, in Philippians 1:21–30, that the struggle to claim and sustain our identity in Christ is worthy of great effort. Jesus’ story in Matthew 20:1–16 about the wilderness of unemployment and the landowner who acts in surprising ways reminds us that God’s generosity does not follow human reasoning. God’s generosity is unlimited. In such generosity, God’s justice is seen. God listens and responds. Sometimes we are part of God’s response. When have you sensed God’s presence in your own times of tension or wilderness struggles? In what ways are you and your church agents of God’s abundant generosity for others?
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
God acted to liberate the Hebrew people, and they responded with joyful celebration. They saw God’s saving work, and believed. Then, as now, God hears the cries of oppressed people and acts. This God is worthy of trust and loyalty. The gift of such compassion strengthens faith for the lifelong journey toward living in freedom in God’s reign. Exodus 14:19–31 Exodus 14 continues the story of the Hebrews’ journey to freedom. Following the Passover meal (Exodus 12), the Hebrews fled from their homes, stopping for instruction and consecration of the first-born (Exodus 13). They avoided the main military route between Egypt and Canaan; a daytime cloud and nighttime pillar of fire confirmed God’s leading presence. When trapped in their campsite between the sea and the Egyptian army, Pharaoh seized the opportunity to recapture his escaped workforce. In today’s passage, God directs the action, moving the cloud to protect the Hebrews as they camp by the sea. God directs Moses, and moves the sea. God creates “water walls” that provide a dry crossing for the Hebrew slaves. When God restores order to the sea, there are devastating results. The storyteller shows that God is responsible for the freedom of the Hebrews. God’s action frees and saves. The people see and believe. God’s actions serve to continue the formation of the people of Israel, who grow in understanding that faith in God is well-placed. Water is significant in stories of God’s saving work. Water recalls God’s work in creation. God’s promise to Noah was to never again destroy with water. Water also is a physical barrier. Water-crossing imagery is found again in the story of Joshua leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Crossing through water becomes a metaphor for transformation – a symbol of God’s deliverance. Water, as a sign and symbol, is used in baptism today as a means to rehearse God’s freeing love through Jesus Christ. For modern readers, Exodus 14 often raises questions about God’s character. Couldn’t God have saved the Egyptians, too? Remember that the storyteller who recorded the stories in Exodus was a person of that time and worldview. Pastor Martin Niemoeller, imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II, said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. [God] is not even the enemy of [God’s] enemies.” A Jewish legend tells of God’s words to an archangel, who was celebrating the defeat of the Egyptian army in the sea: “Why do you celebrate while the work of my hands is being destroyed?” The Exodus stories explore God’s relationship with the Israelites. They help to shape them into a people with mission and charge. These stories become a lens for understanding later events in their history, and shape their self-awareness, values, and faith. Their understanding of God as I AM (“I will cause to be”) becomes clearer. The exodus journey is associated with God’s grace, compassion, and salvation, and becomes a metaphor for hope. Two other readings for today – Psalm 114 and Exodus 15:1b–11, 20–21 – affirm the importance of God’s actions in the lives of the people at this time. For Jesus, the road to freedom was forgiveness. Jesus’ story in Matthew 18:21–25 lifts up the essence of God’s law as God’s gracious, extravagant, unlimited compassion. Paul, in Romans14: 1–2, calls Christians to be accountable to Jesus’ standards and example of forgiveness, while living with confidence that we are God’s. Jesus’ disciples today continue to journey toward the freedom of God’s reign, striving to live in ways that honor God.
Thursday, September 04, 2008
REMEMBER, RESTORE, RENEW Community is formed in ritual, learning, service, and worship. The Hebrew people received God’s grace and compassion in the gift of the Passover and in remembering this experience of liberation. Today, Jesus’ disciples continue to remember and celebrate God’s saving works in loving, disciplined, worshipping communities. Exodus 12:1–14Sunday's lesson follows after God’s action to achieve the Hebrews’ release from Egypt through Moses’ repeated pleas to Pharaoh for liberty. The stories in Exodus imagine a test of the gods. In the ancient world, a diverse group of gods were thought responsible for the fate of humans. The Passover story recalls and celebrates God’s identity as the one, true God who acts to save. On this first Passover, the enslaved Hebrew community prepared for an epic journey. It was to be a political journey, from slavery to freedom. It also was to be a journey toward community culture and identity. At the beginning of the journey, the Hebrews were a diverse people. After receiving God’s law at Sinai (Exodus 19–20), they became God’s covenant people. By the end of the journey recounted in Exodus, the Hebrews were established as Israelites. Subsequent generations remembered Passover through worship. The account in Exodus 12 was likely recorded and shaped during the Israelites’ later exile in Babylon (587–536 Bce). It reflects how Israelite priests regulated worship through ordinances (v. 14). The ways to select and prepare the lamb, and dispose unusable parts, are detailed. Directions about cooking the meat and making sure everyone participates are very particular. Instructions about using the blood are specific. These instructions helped to maintain the form of the annual Passover worship and ritual. In telling the Passover story each year, Israelites remembered their identity. Ritual and worship worked together to renew and restore the people. Blood painted onto the frames of the house doorways was a sign of hope for a restored relationship with God. Blood did not save. When God saw this sign, the tenth plague passed over that household. God’s liberating justice revealed who God was. God saved. The deaths of Egyptians were due to Pharaoh’s persistent injustice. God did not require life to be taken in order to give life. God’s creating and saving acts meet in this story. Israelite time and all remembrance festivals begin from this first Passover (vv. 2, 14). This sense of “beginning again” recalls creation. Also, people often recognize cataclysms – such as devastating earthquakes, storms, or acts of war – as times of new beginnings. Immediately after the Passover meal and final plague, God leads the Hebrews out of Egypt toward new life in the Promised Land. Passover is associated with deliverance. God keeps God’s promise to save and restore. In the Passover, the community of Hebrews experienced God’s restoration and renewed relationship. In Psalm 149, the psalmist remembers such mercy, and expresses praise for being God’s people. Paul, in Romans 13:8–14, reminds readers of what it means to live as God’s people. Relationships with one another and with those outside the community are to be guided by Jesus’ interpretation of God’s law. In Jesus’ time, God’s presence was closely linked with well-disciplined communities. In Matthew 18:15–20, Jesus teaches that God’s forgiveness is never limited. God always seeks “lost ones” with compassion. When Christian communities live by Jesus’ words, God’s glory shines through. God’s deliverance restored and renewed the Hebrew people; later they remembered this gift in Passover worship. In what ways does your community proclaim what God has done in your lives? What rituals help your church remember and celebrate God’s promise and purpose?

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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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