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Monday, February 25, 2008
Rules and traditions intend to set helpful limits. Yet even the best-intentioned may be narrowly viewed so as to lose sight of what is needed: love. God sees and works beyond constricted perspectives so that opportunities to restore and anoint are not lost. Do we see and act that way? Or does fear of breaking with the old – or being open to the new – blind us? John 9:1–41 Blindness and other ailments were often viewed in ancient times as punishment for sin. The disciples of Jesus and the leaders who oppose him assume this. Biblical scholar Richard Rohrbaugh speaks of an ancient custom of spitting in the presence of the blind in order to protect oneself from the “evil eye.” Jesus transforms that act of disdain into one of healing. Sabbath keeping was the most visible mark of practicing Judaism. Its weekly ritual of renewal reflected – even as it worshipped – the God who “rested” (translating the Hebrew shabath) on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:2). In this story, Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath creates the initial controversy (verse 16). At issue is what can or cannot be done on Sabbath. Many oral traditions had developed to provide guidance. “Kneading” was technically forbidden. Jesus’ making of mud (verse 6) could be viewed as such activity. The larger question involves Sabbath and healing. Has Jesus broken or kept the law by performing this act? The healing creates division within the community. Neighbours divide over whether this is the same man they had known (verse 9). Pharisees divide over whether Jesus is from God or not (verse 16). The man’s parents distance themselves from their son for fear of the religious leaders (verses 21–22). The divisions within the narrative hint at divisions between church and synagogue in the author’s time. Verse 22’s threat of expulsion from the synagogue can be heard as reflecting that later state of affairs. The transformation of the one who is healed is not just from blindness to sight. Initially, he is a passive recipient of Jesus’ actions. The healed one becomes more active as the story goes on. By reporting what has happened, he becomes a teacher of theology to the teachers of theology. Eventually this healed one becomes a disciple of the one who healed. The story begins with Jesus seeing this man. From that seeing comes healing. Later Jesus finds this man, and from that finding comes belief. The story does not end there. Jesus and the religious leaders speak. On the surface, Jesus’ words levy judgment. The leaders’ presumption of seeing is interpreted as indication of sin (verse 41). But is that not where the text began? Did Jesus not heal and restore sight to one presumed to be a sinner? The text leaves it open as to whether these leaders, and the rest of us, may yet find healing. God’s sight and oversight are central in the other texts. 1 Samuel 16:1–13 affirms that God sees beyond the superficial and into the heart. Psalm 23 witnesses the psalmist’s reliance upon the watchful care of the shepherd. Ephesians 5:8–14 uses the language of light and darkness to speak of coming in Christ to faith and new life. Out of God’s seeing comes God’s providing. In 1 Samuel 16, God provides a new leader for Israel. The psalmist declares that God’s presence assures life even in the face of danger. The writer of Ephesians 5 celebrates the change God in Christ brings us. God is in the business of seeing what others overlook and restoring life that has been overlooked. Who are the ones “overlooked” today that remind us of the blind man’s situation and potential? In what ways might love be calling our congregation to revisit and perhaps reinterpret some of our established ways of doing things, in order that God’s love might prevail? REFLECTION Gracious God, we encounter and follow you in ways long practiced before us. So keep us open and alive to meeting and following you in ways unexpected and untravelled. Keep us open to the ones we might otherwise overlook. Keep us open to love. Amen.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Is God Still Speaking? Listen to these stories’ witness of water and word. Water flows from need to gift. Words shift from misunderstanding to revealing. The confluence of water and word in the Samaritan woman’s story witnesses to who Christ is and who we can be. Our need for living water is quenched by the God who is with us. John 4:5–42 Samaria was a region south of Galilee and north of Judah. The hatred between Samaritans and Jews went back to when the northern kingdom of Israel was overrun by Assyria. The Assyrians resettled Samaria with foreigners loyal to them, along with Israelites not taken captive. While Samaritans continued some Jewish practices and beliefs, they were viewed as outsiders to Judaism, little better than Gentiles. This separation grew over the centuries. By the time of Jesus, the enmity between Jews and Samaritans was severe. The gospel of John includes several long narratives, of which this is the first. Verse 4 is revealing: “But he had to go through Samaria.” Other routes were available for Jews to bypass Samaria. So for John to say Jesus had to go through Samaria suggests other reasons. At the head of that list would be Jesus’ ministry among those considered to be “outsiders.” Jesus enters Samaria, initiates conversation with a Samaritan woman, and accepts hospitality from the Samaritan community. Such reversals continue through the story. Jesus asks this woman for water. In Psalm 95, God provides water; in Samaria this woman is placed in the role of providing water to Jesus. Even more surprising is the way in which Jesus and this woman engage together in theological discussion. She knows her traditions. She awaits the coming Messiah. In the synagogues of that day, men and women were seated in separate locations. Here at the well, Jesus and this woman sit and speak together about the things of God. Wordplay occurs around the meaning of water. The woman misunderstands Jesus. She confuses Jesus’ offer of “living water” with “running water.” There are no streams here, only a well. Jesus turns the discussion from literal meanings to deeper ones. Living water is Jesus’ way of speaking about the gift of “eternal life.” As in John 3:16, “eternal life” has to do with the gracious possibility of life lived in the presence of God. Such life begins now in the recognition that Jesus is the gift of God (verse 10), who offers such life-giving water to our spirits. The passage ends on the theme of witness. There is first the woman’s witness to her community. Her expression of both doubt and hope (“He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”) leaves room for the community to respond. And respond it does. Their confession of Jesus as the “Saviour of the World” offers one of the clearest statements of faith in the entire gospel. Water and word interplay in our other lections. Exodus 17:1–7 begins with a need of water that finds answer in the promise of water. Psalm 95 offers a warning word – a caution against repeating the error of those Israelites who “tested” God in the wilderness. In Romans 5:1–11, the word of salvation takes form in God’s “pouring” love into our hearts. These texts also witness to how God is with us. Exodus 17:1–7 testifies that God “stands” by the rock that provides the life-giving water. Psalm 95 invites us to enter God’s presence with thanks. Romans 5:1–11 witnesses to the peace and grace and reconciliation that are ours in Christ. In the gifts of water and word, God reconciles and makes peace. We encounter these gifts in Jesus. What can we learn from the Samaritan woman about how Jesus makes a difference in your lives? What “witness” do you make when life around you – or within you – raises the question: is God Still Speaking?
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
One teacher ventures out at night to meet another. Respect and challenge mark their encounter. Ambiguous language opens rather than closes conversation. At stake, then and now, is the potential for birthing to new life and opening to God’s blessing. Faith beckons us to go out from what is known and journey toward the One whose promises are trusted. John 3:1–17 Most of the focus passages through the seasons of Lent and Easter this year are from John. Today’s scripture introduces a pattern that is common throughout this gospel: Jesus speaks, but his words are misunderstood. The misunderstanding leads to further teaching by Jesus that reveals deeper meanings. Key words like believe, see, know, life, and send provide a framework for action and dialogue, here and in later texts. Jesus’ conversation partner in this passage is Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee of the day. Later, we encounter Nicodemus as one who defends Jesus and helps with his burial (see John 7:50; 19:39). Examples of the open-ended nature of Jesus’ language in John are found in two words of this text. First is anothen in verse 3. Coupled with the verb born, this Greek word can mean “born again,” “born from above,” and “born anew.” The question is not which meaning is right. All are. A second example is in verse 8. In Greek and Hebrew, one word serves for both “wind” and “spirit.” In both languages, it is also the same word for “breath.” Such language encourages openness to layers of meaning in what Jesus says. Nicodemus misunderstands, as others do later, by settling for only one meaning. One major difference between the gospel of John and the other gospels comes in the use of “kingdom of God.” In John, “kingdom of God” occurs only in John 3:3, 5. In John, the content and decision of faith are not focused so much on God’s coming realm or how persons align themselves with it. Rather, the issue is how people (we) respond to Jesus, whom God has sent. The lifting up of the serpent in verse 14 alludes to Numbers 21:8–9. The people of Israel in their wilderness sojourn complained against God. A plague of poisonous snakes had been sent as punishment. Healing would come only by looking up at a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole. John 3:16–17 stamps the gospel of John – and Christian faith as a whole – with the theme of God’s blessing. Love is declared to be God’s fundamental disposition toward creation. God’s love sets the stage for Jesus’ later commanding of love for the practice of faith. These verses also invoke words that John will return to continually: believe, eternal life, send, save. All will be further developed in later passages to invite the readers and hearers into faith. The theme of God’s blessing runs through all the texts. Genesis 12:1–4a identifies Abram and Sarai (later named Abraham and Sarah) as not only blessed of God, but as the source of blessing for all of Earth’s families. The second half of Psalm 121 is a benediction that pronounces God’s blessing. Romans 4:1–5, 13–17 speaks of blessing as our being reckoned with “righteousness,” a word whose meaning has to do with our acceptance before God. Trust connects us to God’s blessing. Genesis 12:1–4a implicitly narrates the trust of Abram and Sarai as they journey. Romans 4:1–5, 13–17 makes that trust explicit on Abraham and Sarah’s part, and on our own. The opening four verses of Psalm 121 assert the psalmist’s trust in God. Place yourself in the shoes of Nicodemus. What questions or affirmations would you bring to Jesus? In what ways have you experienced birthing to new life, or life from above? Where, and with whom, might faith be calling you to venture through this Season of Lent?
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Lent opens with stories of testing and trusting. In parched wilderness and in lush garden, temptation comes. Sin or faithfulness follows, not because of the testing itself, but by what gets chosen in response. Live out of traditions whose truth we have experienced. Trust God’s steadfast love. Rely on grace that ministers to our needs. Matthew 4:1–11 Matthew places this story between Jesus’ baptism by John and Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Forty days in the wilderness parallels Israel’s forty years in the desert. Before land is entered or ministry proceeds, preparation in the presence of God begins the way. Tests and choices follow. The forty-day journey we make in Lent invites similar movement, leading us through the wilderness of Jesus’ passion to the lush garden of resurrection. Tests and choices are ours as well. Three other figures play roles in this passage. The Spirit “leads” Jesus into the wilderness. It is God, not the tempter, who directs the course of action. Matthew variously identifies the second figure as tempter, devil, and Satan. In the gospel of Matthew, this figure had evolved (devolved) from something of a prosecuting attorney in the heavenly court to a personification of evil. Within this story, the tempter puts a face on the presence of evil in the world by tempting ends that overlook the means used to achieve them. The third figure(s) are the angels at the story’s end. Their “waiting on” Jesus translates a Greek verb (diakoneo) that also means “minister” or “serve at table.” The magical transformation of bread is an easy remedy for physical need. But will magic or compassion be the way Jesus responds to human needs? The stunt of a miraculous rescue might attract attention. But will God’s deliverance and providence come in stunts or self-giving? A gesture of worship seduces with the promise of extending Jesus’ realm to all nations. But will God’s realm come by cutting deals with powers-that-be or living in witness to the One who is the power and the glory? Similar temptations faced Matthew’s first readers. In an era of persecution, survival might take precedence over faithfulness. In an era of emperor worship, bowing the knee to Caesar might not seem such a bad idea. Jesus’ choices set the tone for his ministry to follow. Jesus responds to each of the temptations by quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures. Each quote is from Deuteronomy, a book whose passages reflect on Israel’s time of wilderness testing. Story and tradition shaped Jesus’ life and the choices he made. Likewise, we als to live out of the scriptures and traditions that bear truth to us. The results of human choices weave through the other texts. Genesis 2:15–17, 3:1–7 tells of the hazard of choosing for oneself part of the mystery that belongs to God. Psalm 32 warns of the consequences of choices that lead to sin, and the restoration that comes by choosing to confess our need of God. Romans 5:12–19 affirms the deadly consequences of wrongful choices. These passages also witness to God’s choice of grace on our behalf. Psalm 32 speaks of that grace in the language of forgiveness. If one reads further in Genesis 3, judgment is tempered in the imagery of God making garments to clothe the man and the woman (3:21). God’s steadfast love is God’s choosing on our behalf. Whether sought out or fled from, testing will come; we may face it with trust in God’s steadfast love and care. What are the wilderness places for you? Where do you see evil today in the world, and in the choices that tempt you? What traditions and practices might you and your congregation explore this Lent that would encourage or provide guidance for your own faithful choices?

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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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