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Tuesday, November 18, 2008
This Sunday is Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, the end of the church year. This day we proclaim the hope of God’s eternal realm of justice and peace. Christians are called to imitate God’s love for all creation, and especially for those who are vulnerable, weak, and oppressed. God is at work through us, as we find Christ in one another. Matthew 25:31–46 Jesus’ teaching in this passage tells how, when God’s reign comes in its fullness, the nations will be separated in the same way a shepherd separates sheep and goats. In Jesus’ day, flocks of sheep and goats together were common. Shepherds would count their animals at the end of the day, separating the sheep – which needed more attentive care – from the goats. In the Hebrew Scriptures, sheep sometimes are an image of God’s people (for example, Psalm 100:3 and Isaiah 53:6). In the New Testament, the image of sheep often refers to those who follow Christ, the shepherd (for example, John 10:1–11 and Hebrews 13:20). On the day Christ reigns in full glory, Jesus says the nations will be separated based on whether they have fed the hungry ones, clothed the naked ones, and so forth. In this way Jesus announces the judgment of all nations, both Jewish and Gentile, according to how they have responded to the call to follow and serve the cause of Christ. First-century Antioch, where the first readers of Matthew may have been located, had no “social safety net” of shelters, food banks, public hospitals, and social services. The streets would have teemed with the kind of people Jesus names in this passage – people who struggled to survive. Very few people would have avoided the painful sight of so many in need. There are challenges for modern readers in understanding this text. First, we might hear the truth of Jesus’ teaching, but find it difficult to leave our personal comfort zones to enact the mandate. Second, the text can lead individuals or congregations to approach those who are in need as objects of their good works. They may, in this way, donate money or volunteer time all with an eye toward “us” helping “them.” What is key, therefore, is to recognize the encounter that is at the heart of the passage. Jesus’ disciples today are called to perform acts of mercy and justice for those in need – to live out God’s great compassion. We do these things, however, not simply to “help,” to assuage our guilt, or to justify ourselves. In such action, we also encounter the living presence of Christ in one another. In other words, those who have plenty are as much in “need” (of God) as those with little. The encounter with one another may lead to relationships. Acts of compassion may become experiences of God’s presence. As we see Christ present in other people, perhaps they will see Christ present in us as well. The image of Christ as the one who reigns is emphasized in Ephesians 1:15–23. We who call ourselves members of Christ’s church are indeed the Body of Christ in the world. The primacy of God’s justice and compassion are also apparent in Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24. God cares for each member of the flock, seeking out those who are lost. At the same time, God judges between “fat” and “lean,” accusing the “fat” of depriving the “lean” of what they need to live well. The singer of Psalm 100 celebrates that we are God’s sheep. God’s love endures and we can trust God’s care. As we use our hearts and hands to share the love of God, we open ourselves to encountering Christ in others and having them encounter Christ in us.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Jesus used provocative images to encourage his disciples to seize opportunities to serve neighbors and strangers. God’s extravagant, life-giving love is not limited by traditional boundaries. It is found in unexpected and surprising places. Faith, hope, and love empower us to live as though the fulfillment of God’s reign is imminent. Matthew 25:14–30 Matthew 25 continues with another of Jesus’ parables about the reign of God. Jesus uses money to visualize the power of God released in the world. It further develops Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, and provides a picture of God’s Spirit at work. The parable encourages us to let God’s life-giving grace and compassion flow through us as a power for good in the neighborhood and beyond. In Jesus’ time, a talent was a huge amount of money – about 15 years’ wages for a common laborer. Thus, the first servant received more than a lifetime’s wages. Jesus reveals God as being ridiculously extravagant. The first hearers likely found this parable controversial. Imagining God’s reign as money at work would have been disturbing. Money often was an instrument of exclusion and oppression, and not associated with God’s activity. Such a controversial image alerted his listeners to Jesus’ interpretation of God’s law. The parable tells of the owner’s successful investments beyond the usual agents and clients. The plot does not follow Matthew’s usual sequence of Israel first, then the Gentiles. Could God’s reign be wider and more inclusive than previously thought? This would have been a dangerous idea to the first hearers. The third servant buried the “life of God,” fearing punishment for underachieving. The judgment for this servant’s lack of trust urges disciples to a radical change of heart and behavior. God’s life-giving power let loose in the world brings a richly expanded capital of love and compassion. God’s presence is acknowledged where disciples might not expect or even desire it. Disciples who take the risk to live as God directs will be shocked and surprised in the best possible ways by God’s compassion and people’s response. Dare we allow God’s love to push us into adventures beyond our imaginations, investing the gifts we receive for the sake of God’s reign? Some scholars offer a subversive reading of this text, suggesting that the parable offers the possibility of an “anti–hero” interpretation, pronouncing the third servant a hero. This servant refused to charge interest, which would have oppressed those who might have used the funds. This reading suggests that the reign of God is about God’s justice and equity. This is how communities of disciples are called to behave. Notice, however, that this servant did not give the funds to those in need. God works where God will work. In Judges 4:1–7, when the situation seemed hopeless, God was already at work to provide a leader and deliverance. God judges, but also sees and saves. The psalmist of Psalm 123 brings together the interests of a master and a servant in the context of God’s power for mercy. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11 Paul imagines Christians clothed with the virtues of faith, hope, and love as they resist pressure to conform to society. Living and working as though the fulfillment of God’s reign is imminent, disciples bring God’s grace and compassion to all. God’s life-giving love flows through the people of God into the wider community. Churches are called to embrace neighbors and strangers with extravagant acts of compassion and grace, working together to find ways to reach out to a universal community. How are we being called to take part in God’s reign? How will we continue to use God’s gifts in faithful and extravagant service to God and neighbor?
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Those who bear the light of Christ are called to give constant attention to tending the source of this light within. God’s Spirit is the life given to each disciple. As we wait for the fulfillment of God’s reign, we are to tend to the things that sustain and nurture our faith, and tend to the ministry and service to which God calls us. Matthew 25:1–13. Matthew 25 includes two parables about the coming of God’s realm in its fullness. Parables are wisdom stories. Jesus’ parables challenged the disciples to consider matters of faith through well-known, everyday experiences or cultural practices. Jesus’ parables gave wise responses to this question of early Christian communities: How shall we live in God’s reign in relationship with God and one another? In engaging Jesus’ parable in these verses, it is helpful to know that tradition required the bridegroom to arrive at the home of the bride’s family, claim the bride, and take her to his own house. The bridesmaids waited at the groom’s house, ready to welcome the couple and celebrate their new beginning. Waiting for the bridegroom meant being prepared, not merely passing time. In this parable, some bridesmaids neglected their oil lamps. A trimmed wick ensured maximum light and minimum smoke. Having lamps that once burned well did not mean that they would burn well again. Constant attention to the lamps ensured the light would be available when required. In Bible times, oil was associated with anointing and indicated the presence of God’s Spirit with a person. Oil also was a metaphor for God’s presence, displayed in one’s compassion and acts of love and mercy. The gospel of Matthew strives to keep the community of disciples grounded in Christ. The parable speaks to being ready whenever God’s reign comes in its fullness. God’s life is birthed in each person. Each person is responsible to tend the light of God’s life within – one person cannot pass her or his inner spiritual strength to another. Jesus’ parable speaks to God’s desire for relationships with disciples that have continuing life and consequence. An untended life of faith runs the risk of smothering the God-given flame within. Disciples can be seduced by religious “highs,” particular teachings, even ministry and service. The life of faith is dimmed through inattention. Tending to our faith – having trimmed wicks and plenty of oil – means attending to the practices of faith that form and grow us into the faith of Christ. Matthew’s reference to judgment in verse 10 may appear moralistic to modern readers. Experiencing God’s compassion seems a more effective motivation to attend to the practices of Christian faith. While we engage in the ministry and service to which God has called us, we must also tend the things that sustain and nurture our faith. Joshua, as described in Joshua 24:1–3a, 14–25, could not choose for others to follow God. To follow God meant living in relationship with God according to the covenant, and each Israelite needed to choose to do so. Psalm 78:1–7 lays out the importance of passing on past learning to future generations. Paul’s friends tended the light of their faith, but some died during persecution. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, Paul’s hope in God’s grace imagines them continuing in community with Christ, in God’s eternal presence. Jesus’ parable invites us to prepare for full participation in God’s reign. Such preparation and participation – tending God’s light – is grounded in our faith. What practices nourish and sustain our faith? What is the basis for our hope as we seek to live in Christ, now and in the time to come?

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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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