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Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12, Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18

Our two “optional” scriptures this week are from the Apocrypha writings—included in Catholic scriptures but not in the Bibles we most commonly use. Both Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon are what is called “Wisdom” literature, not unlike parts of what we know as the Book of Proverbs in our Old Testament. They were probably written in the second century before the time of Jesus. Christians have often taken them as anticipating the coming of Jesus as “Messiah,” i.e., Christ.

I see them as providing a theme for this week’s reflections, a theme that can be seen in some, if not all, of this Sunday’s scriptures. It is the theme of “incarnation,” embodiment, the theological focus of the Christmas message. Christmas tells us that Jesus is the “incarnation,” the embodiment of God’s love, Love made flesh, dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

At the heart of scripture is the sense that God is with us, working out divine purposes, even in us. Ecclesiastes 3:11, Ecclesiastes being another piece of “Wisdom” literature, implies that there are sweeping purposes at work in us that we will never fully understand. The New International Version perhaps puts it most clearly, saying. God “has . . . set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Wow! Eternity in our hearts. It was there in Jesus and it is in us. Philippians 2:5 says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” the same mind being, in my opinion, the eternal mind of God. Ephesians 4:13 speaks of us coming “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Growing up is to become an “incarnation” like Christ.

Mind-boggling? Eternity is at work even in us. God is always trying to find a way to express divine purposes through people and events in this world. Those purposes have been at work since the beginning.
The most familiar expression of that truth as it is applied to Jesus is found at the beginning of the Gospel according to John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” going on, in John 1:14, to say “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

What are we going to call the eternal principle, the eternal reality, that is at work in us? “Word” in John is a translation of the Greek “Logos.” It’s an accurate literal translation, but “Logos” was much more in Greek philosophy. It was the “divine animating principle pervading the universe.” Jesus was an expression of the creative Spirit giving life to the universe—and so are we. To designate Jesus as “Christ” is not only to say that he is the long-awaited Messiah; it is to say that he embodies an eternal reality that has been there from the beginning of time.

In the “wisdom” literature, the eternal principle is “Wisdom,” the feminine presence that is sometimes thought of as similar to what we call the “Holy Spirit.” In Sirach 24:2 and following, she says, “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High.” As she looked out over all of creation, all peoples and all nations, she “sought a resting place” and made her dwelling among the Hebrew people. In words that sound much like those of John, she says, “Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me; and for all ages I shall not cease to be.” This eternal spirit “took root in an honored people.” (Sirach 24:12)

In Wisdom of Solomon, she (Wisdom) enters “the soul of a servant of the Lord,” a phrase some Christians have applied to the Messiah (Christ). Jesus is an expression of this divine eternal Wisdom.

Life, the life of each one of us, is about so much more than the present moment. In us, in each one of us, in Jesus, all of history comes alive in the present moment. This week’s passage from Ephesians speaks of God choosing us “in Christ before the foundation of the world.” (Ephesians 1:4) Can we bear it? Can we live up to it?

In the tradition in which I grew us, we talked about having Jesus “in our heart.” All kinds of jokes were told about children wondering how Jesus could fit in there. We know, of course, that we didn’t literally mean in our physical heart, but the purposes of God Jesus embodied still sometimes seem too big for us. An acquaintance of mine used to tell a story about growing up with a younger brother. Whenever he went out to play, his parents would say, “Take your little brother with you.” As he grew older and became a Christian, his parents began to say, when he went out, “Take Jesus with you.” He said he always had a little bit of resentment when he had to take his brother along and now he felt some of that same resentment toward Jesus.

In today’s reflections, we see Jesus not as something to be dragged along with us. Jesus is something we are to embody and live. We are to have the same mind in us that he had in him. That’s much bigger than simply taking him along with us—and much more scary, but also full of promise and hope.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
BEYOND THE MANGER—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR DECEMBER 27, 2009, THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS—BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 2:18-20, 26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52

You almost got the wrong scriptures this week. Yesterday, after writing this week’s blog entry, I noticed that I had the scriptures for a year from now. Fortunately I hadn’t posted it yet.

Interestingly, the Psalm is the same. Psalm 148 calls the entire cosmos to praise God—sun and moon, sea monsters, snow and frost, mountains, fruit trees, creeping things and flying birds, kings and princes, all people, male and female, young and old. I suppose we could spend some time asking what it means for each of these, and all the others named in the Psalm, to praise God. With our concern for justice and peace, it might we worth asking what it might mean if kings and princes truly lived and governed in an attitude of praise. Is not passionately pursuing peace and justice a way of praising?

The Gospel reading skips us right over the birth stories. Jesus is twelve years old amazing the teachers in the temple with his understanding (2:46-47). We also see a very human side of Jesus. He has wandered off from his parents to do his own thing (2:43), throwing them into a panic as they have to go back to Jerusalem and find him (2:44-45). When Jesus’ parents find him, he asks if they don’t know that he must be about his Father’s business (2:48-49).

This could set us off on a discussion about who indeed is our father—the place of both human parents and a divine parent in the scheme of our lives. Even his parents didn’t understand what he was saying (2:50).

The fact that Jesus had parents, needed parents—parents who went through the usual panics and worries of parenthood—is perhaps what is most significant for us in this story. At the end of the story, he went home with his parents and “was obedient to them.” (Luke 2:51) The story tells us that, like any other child he grew. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, used as our pew Bibles, it says that he “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Here are a couple of other translations that are nearer what I learned in earlier years: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” (King James Version)—“And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (New International Version).
They echo the words used to describe young Samuel in our reading from I Samuel, chapter 2. Verse 26 says, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” We won’t get into the story of Samuel and the particular occasion described. The point is that spirituality in our tradition is not a static thing. Even Jesus grew in wisdom. He didn’t have it all figured out from day one. Furthermore, growth, if one is faithful to ways of the God of love and justice, involves not only a mystical inward spiritual connection; growth is also measured in our relationships with one another as human beings. What does it mean to grow “in favor with God and man”—“in divine and human favor”? It’s a question worth pondering as we move away from the manger. Life and the possibilities of life don’t end in a manger. Christmas is but a symbol of beginning. Where are we going from here? How will we grow “in divine and human favor”?

The epistle reading from Colossians, chapter 3, may give us further perspective on the question. It is about putting on new clothes—“compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (vs. 12) “Above all,” it says, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” It talks about the peace of Christ and forgiveness, and thankfulness, and ends, in verse 17 (one of my favorites), with these words, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” A recipe for growing in favor with God and with those around us? Galatians 3:27 speaks of being “clothed . . . with Christ.”

With Christmas being a time when many think about what they are going to wear for church or for special occasions or even for family gatherings, perhaps we need to examine what is the true clothing of Christmas. What is the message of Christmas calling us to wear? When we have grown enough to climb out of the manger and dress ourselves, what are we going to put on? Will we notice that outfits of love and peace and justice—and a host of other virtues of relationship—have already been laid out for us?
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: Micah 5:2-5, Psalm 80:1-7, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55

At one point in my early years I belonged to a denomination which spoke of being “saved and sanctified.” You got saved through an emotional conversion experience in which you felt yourself forgiven of past sin and found yourself in full communion with the Spirit of Jesus and his Love. To be “sanctified” was to enter into a higher degree of holiness, perhaps even sinless perfection.

On one of the college campuses where I spent a year, there was a young man who used to roam the campus at night with a flashlight. He would come up and shine it in your face and ask, “Are you saved?” Kind of scary, huh? Today they might lock him up as dangerous or unstable.

In contrast to those two situations, the more “progressive” wing of Christianity tends to shy away from, or laugh at, the notion of “being saved.” Why is that? Is it because of the associations we have with that kind of language? Is there nothing we need to be saved from?

Certainly there have been those at many periods in history who have felt a deep need to be saved, not just from inner sin and immorality, but from social abuse and injustice. They were people in deep pain, trampled upon, ignored, physically beaten down. They had reason to cry because, as the Psalmist screams out to God in Psalm 80:5, “You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.” They desperately needed to be saved, and they cried out to God to rescue them from what Pastor Rick might call “the tyranny of empire.” Are we so far removed from that kind of desperation that we no longer need to be saved?

Throughout history there have been those who lived with heartfelt expectation, believing in a promise that there would indeed come one who would save them from all this. In the prophet Micah (Micah 5:5) it is said that “he shall be the one of peace.” After the two pregnant cousins meet (Mary and Elizabeth) and Elizabeth’s child (John, the Baptist) leaps within her, Mary sings her great song, known throughout the Christian world today as the Magnificat. It is more than a thing of choral beauty to be sung in the vaulted chambers of elite music halls. It is a song of radical deliverance wrought by a Mighty God, who “has brought down the powerful . . . and lifted up the lowly; . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

The most basic meaning of being saved is to be “safe,” to be healthy and whole. The English word “salvation” derives from the word “salve,” a healing ointment. Salvation, biblically, is understood to be a state of “shalom,” harmony, peace, where all things work together for the good of the whole. It is a place where we, again as Pastor Rick says, “all take care of one another.”

I haven’t arrived at that place yet. Have you? I don’t feel safe all the time in this world which often feels pretty chaotic. How about you? Although I don’t use the language of being “saved” any more, I still want to live in a world where I feel safe, and that world will never be as long as those with great power lord it over the lowly, leaving many feeling powerless. Even I feel pretty powerless as times. And you?

I would no longer separate being “saved” and being “sanctified." Sanctified simply means to become holy, like a “saint.” Following a God of Love and Justice whose Spirit moves in our midst is a continuing process toward great “holiness,” greater faithfulness to the things that make for peace and justice. The reading from Hebrews speaks of sanctification as something that happens through the sacrificial offering of one’s life in service, like the sacrifice made by Jesus, not through various ritual acts of worship. While not part of today’s epistle reading, Romans 13:1-2, expresses it quite clearly. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

One of my colleagues, in using the language of being “saved,” used to talk about being saved “from” and being saved “to.” The journey of faithfulness is not so much backward looking as it is looking ahead, starting with the now. We are always awaiting the next sign that will indicate where God is taking us and what God wants us to do to “prepare the way of the Lord,” and “make his paths straight,” so that “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth . . .” (Isaiah as quoted by John the Baptist in Luke 3:4-5).

Not your usual message for the Sunday before Christmas, but we have not been into the usual comfortable Christmas message during the Advent season at Kairos. I’m glad! I’d rather take a stab at the kind of holiness the prophets envisioned than the holiness of a warm glow of a candlelight service. Don’t get me wrong! I like to feel a warm glow as much as the next person, but God wants more for and from us than that. The promise of Advent is that there is more, much more—that a Merry Christmas is a hope which, when realized, will shake things up so much that we and this world will never be the same. Are we up to it? I hope so. The prophets hope so. God believes so—that is, that if we are faithful to the Spirit of Jesus Christ we can live in a world where there is peace and justice. What a Christmas hope!
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-4, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Did you know that this Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, is often called Gaudete Sunday? Gaudete means “Rejoice”—it’s the first word in the Roman Catholic Latin Mass for the third Sunday in Advent—the Sunday on which most churches using Advent wreaths light a pink, rather than a purple candle.

Advent is a somber season of waiting, maybe even penitence, isn’t it? Now we are called to rejoice. When pastoring, I sometimes used the candles to represent the sweep of history: First Sunday—Creation; Second Sunday—The Patriarchs; Third Sunday—The Prophets, through whom a great light of hope brightened the sky from deep purple to pink, the glow of impending dawn.

Some have simply noted that we have passed the halfway point of Advent, so we take a moment to rejoice. Whatever the reason, it is true that waiting often alternates between hope and despair.

This Sunday’s epistle from Philippians, with its clear call to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” is often read on Gaudete Sunday. Joy is present at some point in the message of each of the prophets, the prophetic message being prominently visible during Advent. Joy almost always shines through somewhere when we are touched by the message of a God of Love, but it is a joy rooted in a deep sense of the tragic in human lives, in society, in each one of us.

In general, the prophets addressed three situations: (1) a time when threat was on the horizon, with a message of warning to the people to repent and change their ways; (2) a time when collapse was actually happening, or imminently near, a time to be prepared for disaster; and, (3) a time after the disaster, in exile, with a message of hope for restoration and strength of live through these times, sometimes with some restoration already underway, leading to rejoicing. Whatever the historical times, such patterns recurred in the life of the Hebrew people and the early church—and have, in a sense, been with us always. Trying too hard to figure out the exact historical circumstances addressed by each biblical message can distract us from the universality of these cycles and the messages needed in each.

If we take the book of Zephaniah at face value, we see that Zephaniah traces his lineage to King Hezekiah, a reforming king. He is also a distant cousin of Josiah, another reforming king. Does he find hope in such a tradition of reform? Who are the reformers that give us hope? Zephaniah is often seen as a contemporary of Jeremiah, and/or one who is prophesying while the Scythians are a threat to Jerusalem. My favorite commentary goes on for several pages trying, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to sort it all out.

Today’s reading from Zephaniah offers a message of joy as judgment and oppression are removed, the outcast and lame, and all those who need hope, find it. It is a time to “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Isaiah’s message, although almost certainly not from the same time or circumstances, looks to a coming time of joy, when God’s people will be able to shout and sing.

Gaudete Sunday—a Sunday to celebrate joy in the midst of our waiting, because, through it all, God will be our strength—even our home. In all circumstances, we can drink deeply from the wells of God’s salvation.

But where are we, right now, as those cycles of history continue to grind their way through the years of our live? John the Baptist, in the reading from Luke, brings us back to earth, reminding us that reform is a dangerous undertaking. It will mean the downfall of some. The way things work now will be challenged. Where will we land when it is all over?

John’s call, in the midst of all this, is to focus on what we are to do in the here and now. Begin now, even in these days of waiting, to share what you have, to treat people fairly. When people do that, true reform will take hold, and that will be good news indeed. Hope is no longer a pink candle, a glimmer of light on the horizon. It walks the city streets and the poverty-stricken hollows in the rural hills, saying today is a day to start rejoicing.
Thursday, December 03, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

All of this week’s scriptures can be seen as addressing situations in which hope and encouragement are needed in the face of despair. That’s the spirit that prevails in Advent, what some have called hope against hope. We cry for peace when there is no peace, but we do not give up hope.

Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament. The setting is probably after the exile when rebuilding has begun and people are still returning to the homeland from Babylon. Things certainly don’t seem to be what they used to be. In fact, they are a mess. It doesn’t even seem like God is there when one goes to worship, because, the people think, the temple is in pretty sad shape. Will things ever be the same? Malachi suggests that part of the problem is not the building but their own attitude. This one who is coming will prepare the way by refining the people like gold and silver is refined, all that is not glittering and shining burned away.

Some thought the “preparer” would be a resurrected Elijah, a belief that led some to think John the Baptist or Jesus might be Elijah. A “preparer” passage from Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament reading from Luke 3, used to describe John and his message. Both scriptures from Luke refer to John as one who prepares the way.

The point I want to highlight, though, is that the coming one does not just magically change everything from misery to bliss. People in all ages have often overlooked that the promise includes a cost. There is hope, but, for the hope to be realized, we may have to look inward and open ourselves to costly, maybe even sacrificial change. I’m not sure I’m ready for that, but God’s love, great comfort that it is to me, challenges me like a refiner’s fire, expecting more of me, and empowering more in me, than I ever thought was possible. Such staggering, mind and being stretching, possibilities in each one of us are part of the Advent hope.

Now, what about this “Baruch”? It is a “prophetic” writing included in Catholic Bibles but not in Hebrew or Protestant scriptures. It is written in the name of Baruch, secretary who took down the words of Jeremiah and read them to the people.

The “book” of “Baruch,” however, from which one of this week’s passages is taken, was probably not written until another time of destruction, the fall of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The writer wanted the despairing folk of that day to remember Jeremiah who helped the people of another day find hope when the symbols of hope seemed to be gone. “Take off the garment of you sorrow and affliction,” he begins, “and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God.” This passage and both readings about John the Baptist from Luke are full of hope. The promise is that there will be great leveling—no more highs and lows yanking at our sanity and stability. (See Baruch 5:7 and Luke 3:5) There will be light in the darkness and our feet will be guided into the way of peace (Luke 1:79).

The reality is that the promise is still in front of us. We live in the time between. God isn’t finished yet, with us or with the world or with history. The reading from Philippians contains one of my favorite verses. Paul’s ministry was among young churches facing persecution and struggle. Again and again, he spoke words of encouragement to them. In Philippians 1:6, he says, “ . . . the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion . . .” It is part of the promise associated with the power of Jesus at work in their midst.

All the good in us, a gift from God, is still developing and growing and coming to completion. In our reflection during Advent perhaps we could focus on what the good is that has been begun in us, what it is that we hope will be brought to completion in us. What is it that God is calling forth in us during this season and on into the future? What is the refining that is occurring, or needs to occur?

The reading from Philippians concludes with a prayer similar to the one last week from I Thessalonians. It is an Advent prayer that can undergird the good work that is waiting to spring forth in our being, in our relationships, in our church, in our community and world. “ . . . this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and insight, to help to determine what is best . . .,” assuming that the power of Christ at work in us will produce a “harvest of righteousness . . . for the glory and praise of God.”
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, I Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

Happy New Year! (I, Jim Ogden, am back doing the blog for I'm not sure how long.) Yes, this Sunday starts a new year in the seasons of the church. It is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the cycles of life we observe in the walk of faith.

The first act of the year is to wait. When I was growing up, we started singing Christmas carols right after Thanksgiving. Today Christmas sounds permeate the culture, sometimes starting even before Thanksgiving. We don’t know how to wait!

Some congregations, including at least a couple that I served, go overboard, singing no “Christmas” songs until Christmas day, since that’s when the liturgical season of Christmas is just starting. I’m not an advocate of that practice, but we would all do well to include a little of the somber, yet joyous, waiting that is the essence of Advent. It was a time of darkness and despair for many, a time when the need for hope, for someone to turn things around, was great. An expectation that God would bring peace and justice was revived in every generation among the Hebrew people. They saw themselves as inheritors of a vision and promise of a peaceful kingdom. Perhaps now is the time. The hope was renewed with the enthronement of every new king. Perhaps he is the one. Look. See the signs. Is it about to happen? Such expectations were strong in the years leading up to Jesus’ birth, and the need was great. There was no peace, only oppression and injustice. I suggest we try to feel that reality during this Advent season.

Two of the lectionary texts address the spirit of expectation and hope and waiting.

Jeremiah talks about days to come when the promise will be fulfilled and justice and righteousness will come. Part of his prophecies later came to be applied to Jesus, rightly or wrongly. In the Christian tradition it is to Jesus that we look when we are seeking the peace and justice of which Jeremiah spoke.

The passage from Luke contains troubling, often misused (in my opinion), words of Jesus. They speak of a coming time and the signs of those times—times of distress and fear and foreboding. He says, observe the signs and let them tell you what is coming, just like the springtime sprouting of the leaves on a tree tell you that Spring is coming.

Devout people in every generation have tried to use these words to set precise dates for a time when Christ will reappear—or at least to scare us into thinking it might happen day after tomorrow. Some, I think, are almost gleeful in their attitude, seeing a promise of escape when everyone else will get what’s coming to him or her.

There is a touch—probably more than a touch—of urgency about the words Jesus speaks. He apparently expected these things to happen soon—during that generation. It didn’t, at least in the way people thought it was going to, and we still wait.

So, how are we to wait? Alertly, paying attention. Don’t be fooled, lulled into a false sense that everything is all right. Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes!

One might even say our task is to read the signs of the times. What are the significant things that are happening in our time? What do they mean? Where are they taking us? What is coming? What is it that we are most hoping for? Can we see it coming? How can we join the movement that is bringing it closer?

As was the case in the days before Jesus’ birth, I believe we live in a day when there is great fear. The left fears what the right is trying to do; the right is convinced that the left is leading us over the brink. Listening to the national conversation, and recent visits with family across the country and closer to home, has convinced me that many feel America, and its highest values, is on the verge of collapse. I refuse to buy into that fear, but there is always a darkness on the horizon that threatens to overcome the light. We cling tightly to the belief that the light will overcome and that we are called to part of the light. Advent is a time to renew that belief and prepare the way for peace and justice.

The other two scriptures may be taken as things we can do during this season of preparation and waiting. The Psalm suggests that we seek to understand and follow the path in which the Lord would lead us. The epistle reading from I Thessalonians can be seen as calling us to pray for one another for strength and love. Suppose we made the concluding words from this epistle our own and prayed them every day of Advent. “May the Lord make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all . . . and may he strengthen our hearts in holiness.”
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
As the story of Naomi and Ruth continues, faithful human actions restore the two vulnerable widows, and through them the whole people of Israel. The texts this Sunday invite us to consider what puts survival at risk, and what is received and offered through community as God’s people choose to take action on behalf of another’s good. Ruth 3:1–5; 4:13–17 In the focus passage studied November 1, Ruth chose to join her life’s journey with Naomi’s, forming an unlikely alliance for survival. In today’s focus scripture, these two widows navigate a decisive turning point. The stage for this account is set in the second chapter of Ruth, which tells of an encounter between Ruth and Naomi’s relative, Boaz. Ruth 2:20 identifies Boaz as “nearest kin.” The Hebrew word used here is goel. Elsewhere translated as “redeemer,” goel is a family member who is supposed to restore something that another family member has lost because of debt or poverty. As Ruth 3 begins, Naomi and Ruth plan what they might do for the sake of their future security. In 3:3, Naomi proposes action filled with double meanings. “Do not make yourself known…” uses a verb that can also mean sexual intimacy (Genesis 4:1). “Feet” can be a euphemism in Hebrew for genitals. “Threshing floor” has an association with sexual activity (Hosea 9:1). These sexual undertones move the text’s interpretation into a reflection on what it means to risk offence for the sake of survival. Ruth follows Naomi’s counsel. Boaz acts with honor as goel (“next of kin,” “one who redeems”) and marries Ruth. God gives conception. Throughout the book of Ruth, Naomi and Ruth are models of persistence and loyalty. As the narrative closes, we learn how their relationship expands into a larger community of women. These women recognize the child’s importance to Naomi. “He shall be to you a restorer of life” (4:15). “Restorer” is a translation of the Hebrew shub, that word of “turning” used throughout the book of Ruth. The women, not father or mother, name the child Obed. A story of widows who have no living children becomes a story of birth. A struggle to survive becomes the means by which God restores hope to these women and to Israel’s unborn generations. God sets into motion a promise – who will be David – through Ruth, the Moabite. The book of Ruth affirms that God works through surprising people and in unexpected ways in order to bring restoration to God’s people. Psalm 127 also asserts that children are a gift of heritage and hope. The balance to the psalm’s male imagery comes in the role played by women in Ruth. God will build the “house” (the word can mean “dynasty”), often in surprising ways. There is a sense of eager waiting for the unborn David at the close of Ruth. The writer of Hebrews 9:24–28 also conveys a longing, a sense of “eagerly waiting”– looking forward to the salvation Christ brings. The sacrificial imagery in Hebrews has a common backdrop with the temple scene in Mark 12:38–44. Jesus speaks out against shows of religious devotion that mask mistreatment of the most vulnerable persons in that day, widows. Whether by requirement or social conditioning, the widow who placed her coins in the treasury may have felt she had little choice. This woman takes a risk by entrusting all that she has as a gift to God, trusting that God’s providence will keep her. Communities today still wrestle with the consequences of economic injustice and racial and gender prejudice. As in all times, God’s people are called to seek restoration for those who are vulnerable and injured. When and through whom have you found your life restored, nourished, and encouraged? For whose sake might God be us to take a bold risk?
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
What Must I Do? At times, the perceived absence of God from our lives evokes our questions. At other times, it is the presence of God that grieves us. Words born of God’s love are not always welcomed or heeded when they seek our transformation. Yet what seems impossible for us to do or conceive grows in possibility when we recognize God's deep love for us. Focus Scripture: Mark 10:17–31 Mark’s gospel deals with what it means to follow Jesus. Sometimes this focus passage is presented as unique in its call to sell all and follow. But this invitation parallels Jesus’ earlier commissioning of the disciples in Mark 6:8–9. Those who follow Jesus are ordered to take along no money for the journey. Money and possessions convey status, then and now. But love, not status, forms the basis for Jesus’ community and discipleship. To follow Jesus is a call to travel light. Mark prefaces this particular call to divest with Jesus “looking” at the man. It is not the typical Greek word for seeing. Emblepo is sight that involves intense interest or concern. “Looking at him” might be better rendered as “looking into him.” Such sight leads to Jesus’ love, albeit love that makes a hard demand. This detail of Jesus’ love is notable. This is one of only two places where “love” occurs in Mark’s gospel. The other unique element in this text is the mention of “eternal life.” Verses 17 and 30 are the only places in Mark where “eternal life” appears. The term Mark normally employs is “kingdom of God.” Both terms reference the transformed life that comes in relationship with Christ. Both terms point not only to a promised future, but also to life lived in the presence of God now. “Power” is another recurring theme in Mark. When the disciples wonder here “who can be saved,” Jesus answers with a statement of power. The words impossible and possible in verse 27 share the same Greek root: dunatos, meaning “power” or “ability.” The “possibility” of salvation is not a matter of philosophical discernment. It is a matter of power, and God has the power. In the closing verses of the passage, the disciples receive reassurance about what they have left in order to follow Jesus – sort of. Jesus lists “persecutions” among the blessings that will come to the disciples in this age. This word seems counter-productive. If that’s what one gets for following Jesus, why follow? A deeper hearing might recognize Mark’s community here. Their following had brought persecution. Such experiences might have led to wondering if their faithfulness was misdirected. But if persecution is part of following, then its experience can be seen as validation that disciples are on the right path. The challenge facing the man with possessions in Mark was not God’s absence. It was the shocking word that came from one he looked to as a teacher of God. The additional readings wrestle with both God’s presence and absence. Job 23:1–9, 16–17 cries out of the experience of one who longs for God’s presence in the face of God’s seeming absence. Like the individual in Mark who went away shocked and grieved, Job also has a sense of God as one who may “terrify.” Psalm 22:1–15 utters words of what the absence of God feels like. Still, verse 8 and the portion of the psalm not included in the reading affirm God as one who delivers. Hebrews 4:12–16 tells of the sharpness of God’s word that can pierce us deeply, yet also witnesses to the sympathy of Christ. Our response to the demanding call to remove stumbling blocks to our following of Jesus is made possible by the loving providence of God. We are invited to live into the reign of God with all its joys and risks. What does such following ask you to do? How might our church ask the hard questions of discipleship even as it celebrates our following of Jesus?
Thursday, October 01, 2009
ENFOLDING LOVE Breakdowns in relationship bring hurt and separation. In response, God enfolds the estranged and left-out ones with love that blesses with wholeness and inclusion. God’s love wisely binds grace to justice. Held in such love, we may cry out to God. Enfolded by such love, we receive Jesus’ welcome and are invited, likewise, to enfold others. Focus Scripture: Mark 10:2–16 “Testing” of Jesus is an ongoing theme in Mark. Such testing occurs in the wilderness (1:13), by religious leaders (8:11), and by those who want to arrest Jesus (12:12–15). In the focus scripture, the Pharisees test by asking “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” In responding, Jesus risks antagonizing ruthless political power. The recent execution of John the Baptizer stemmed from John’s teaching that it was not lawful for Herod to marry his brother’s wife (6:17–18). Mark’s community also lived under the weight of testing. They faced the threat of the same Roman imperial rule that executed Jesus. They were a minority party within Judaism, and were viewed with suspicion. Such testing may have raised questions about how to protect the community from outside threats. The words between these Pharisees and Jesus regarding marriage and divorce begin with what is taught in the Law of Moses. Jesus then expands the conversation by quoting from Genesis 1:27, 2:24, and 5:2, which precede the Law. It is as if law alone cannot resolve this issue. The teaching of Jesus “in the house” with the disciples that follows the exchange with the Pharisees hints that Mark brings his own community into the conversation. Differing traditions in Judaism and the Hellenistic culture at this time vary on the rights of women in such cases. Jesus does not institute a new law here. Rather, Jesus appeals to the intention for relationships in “pre-law” times. A key element in this test is the word translated as “lawful.” The Greek word carries the meaning of “what is permitted.” To ask if something is permitted is not the same as asking what is needful or even right. Jesus replies by asking not what Moses permitted, but what Moses “commanded,” thus making this a discussion of what is just. That emphasis on justice flows into Jesus’ welcome of the children in both word and gesture. The little ones are welcomed because they belong. “Took them in his arms” translates a unique compound word that literally means to “bend the arm” as in the act of cradling or enfolding. The Body of Christ is called to welcome the little ones and the vulnerable ones not merely because it is permitted. The welcome arises because it is the just and right thing to do. Jesus respects the worth of all people. Jesus’ mindfulness toward the Pharisees, the disciples, and the children reflects commitments that grow out of the trustworthiness of God’s enfolding love and care. The additional texts likewise invite our recognition of God’s trustworthiness. Psalm 26 trusts in God’s care; such trust arises out of the psalmist’s experience of God’s steadfast love. In contrast, Job 1:1, 2:1–10 begins with God placing Job in another’s hands (the Hebrew phrase translated here as “in your power” literally means “in your hand”). Even so, this passage ends with Job trusting what is received from God. Hebrews 1:1–4; 2:5–12 declares God’s high regard for humankind by quoting Psalm 8. Such regard is further expressed by having the One praised as the “exact imprint of God’s being” name and enfold us as sisters and brothers. Our experience of God’s enfolding love invites us to receive those who are vulnerable with such love. Who have been the ones whose loving welcome restored us to relationship or community? How might we enfold those who are struggling with separation in relationships and from community?
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
COURAGE FOR COMMUNITY What is true greatness? In Mark’s gospel, Jesus speaks of greatness through calls for bold service and courageous hospitality that preserve community in trying times. In today’s focus passage, the people of Israel in exile are at risk; Esther acts with such greatness and wisdom to defeat a deadly plot and thus preserve the Jews. Esther 7:1–6, 9–10; 9:20–22. This story is set in the court of King Ahasuerus, described as ruling “127 provinces from India to Ethiopia” (Esther 1:1). Esther and her cousin Mordecai are living in the community of Jewish exiles in the lands ruled by King Ahasuerus. When Queen Vashti is banished for her disobedience, Esther is selected as the next queen. Following Mordecai’s advice, Esther does not reveal she is a Jew. Later, when the king’s chief advisor, Haman, hatches a scheme to secure Ahasuerus’s approval of genocide against the Jews, the deadly plan is approved with neither advisor nor king knowing Esther is a Jew. Esther’s cousin Mordecai declares the time for silence is over. Mordecai hints at divine providence: “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this” (4:14). Esther calls upon the Jewish community to support her with fasting. Esther’s courageous action to preserve her community begins at a banquet. When King Ahasuerus asks “What is your petition?,” Esther asks for her life and the “lives of my people” (7:3). She identifies herself as a Jew and declares solidarity with her people. Further, Esther translates the obscenity of the planned genocide into an attempt by Haman to do damage to the king. Even though Ahasuerus had approved Haman’s plan, he flies into a rage. The writer of Esther uses irony in the telling. For example, consider the family histories of Mordecai and Haman. The text says Mordecai is a Benjaminite (2:5) and Haman is an Agagite (3:1). The hatred between the Benjaminites and Agagites was centuries old. In 1 Samuel 15:7–9, the story is told of an Israelite victory led by King Saul the Benjaminite against King Agag. Also consider the details of Haman’s fate. Ahasuerus does not order Haman’s execution for plotting the death of the Jews. Instead, the king misunderstands Haman’s actions of pleading for mercy from Esther as a physical assault on her. Haman then hangs on the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. As described in the closing verses of the reading (9:20–22), Mordecai, who becomes a high official in the government, establishes the Jewish celebration of Purim. Purim means “lots,” in reference to Haman’s casting lots to decide when to kill the Jews (3:7). While the story does not name God, God’s redemption occurs through Esther. Purim celebrates – with drama, meals, and gifts for the poor – this preserving of Jewish community by Esther’s courage. Human acts of courage may enact saving activity on behalf of community. Psalm 124 is a community prayer of thanksgiving, celebrating God’s saving actions in times of danger. James 5:13–20 calls for the community of faith to be bold and courageous in their prayers and actions for the sake of those made vulnerable by illness. In Mark 9:38–50, Jesus speaks of standing with those who take risks to engage in ministry. For Mark’s community in a time of persecution, cups of cold water, not causing little ones to stumble, and lives of shalom bear witness to how community may be preserved in threatening times. At great personal risk, Esther took action to preserve life. Our call as Jesus’ followers remains to take courageous action on behalf of wholeness in community. What communities today might be preserved through our courageous action as individuals and as a church?
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
FIRST IN CARING Jesus calls us to receive and practice this wisdom about those who are great in God’s reign: God’s wise children are called to welcome and care for “little ones” among us. Wise ones reach out with encouraging presence to those who are vulnerable. Wise ones live close to God by living justly with neighbor. Wise hands do good. Focus Scripture: Mark 9:30–37 This passage is preceded by two stories where the disciples are not shown in a favorable light. Peter and two others are terrified when Jesus is transfigured. Next comes the inability of the disciples to heal a child who has seizures. The vulnerability born of such fear and failure sets the backdrop for the second passion (from Greek word meaning “suffering”) prediction. The three passion predictions in Mark point to Jesus’ suffering in Jerusalem. They emphasize a sense of urgency, underscored by the disciples’ failure each time to understand. The Greek word translated in verse 33 as “argued” is dialogizomai. It is the root for “dialogue.” It can mean to dispute or argue in a negative sense. More positively, it also can mean to reason or debate as a way of learning. The disciples’ silence when Jesus asks them about their “dialogue” could be taken as implying they argued. Or, their silence could represent a fear on their part to share their thoughts openly with Jesus, as they still did not understand the importance of Jesus’ teaching about his suffering and death. Centering Jesus’ teaching on greatness around a child raises interesting issues. Childhood in Palestinian, as well as Roman, society could be harsh. They often were the first victims of famine, disease, or war. While important to their families, children were almost “non-persons” in the society. In that sense, they held much in common with the community that Mark’s gospel first addressed. This early Christian community lived as a small minority in an increasingly hostile empire. Jesus demonstrates a different ethic and valuing of children, more in line with the treasuring of a child seen in Psalm 127:3 or Ruth 4:14–15. Jesus takes a child in his arms and declares that to welcome one who is powerless and vulnerable is also to welcome Jesus. Mark’s community might have felt themselves embraced in Jesus’ arms. Jesus’ ensuing call to welcome such vulnerable ones may have been heard as the logical outcome of their own welcome. Words of challenge to relationships run through Mark’s text. Jesus announces the upside-down word that greatness comes in service. The welcoming of a child enacts the call to welcome others into the circle of community. Community is ongoing as individuals and even leaders come and go. That is what makes the welcome of others, including those who are vulnerable, all the more crucial. For if we cannot find and give welcome here, where can welcome be found? Shalom (peace) means more than an absence of conflict. It includes all that makes for life, including caring for others. The peace extended by welcome in the gospel is reflected in the call to such wholeness in life found in the additional readings. Proverbs 31:10–31 celebrates hands that work for the good of others. Psalm 1 talks about life prospering in the doing of that which is right. James 3:13—4:3, 7–8a places “peaceable” early in the list of that which defines such wisdom, and links a “good life” with one “full of mercy.” As a church, we form a community that embraces, empowers, and equips. When we reach out with Jesus’ welcome to all, including those who are most vulnerable, we are living in God’s ways. Who might Jesus be setting in our midst today while saying, “whoever welcomes one such as these, welcomes me”? In what ways do our own vulnerabilities as individuals and as a church shape how we care for others?
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
WHO ARE YOU? Words have the power to “name” or shape people in ways that may lead to good or ill, to acceptance or rebuke. Who we say Jesus is shapes our journey as Christians. Wise followers listen for the words and ways of God in their midst. For God’s words and ways lead to deeper understanding of who we are called to be because of whom we follow. Focus Scripture: Mark 8:27–38 This passage serves as the midway “hinge point” in Mark’s gospel. Before this, Jesus traveled across Galilee and into Gentile territories. From here, the geography and theology move toward Jerusalem. Verse 31 is the first of the three “passion predictions” in Mark that point to Jesus’ suffering in Jerusalem. Passion comes from a Greek word meaning “suffering.” The setting of this teaching near Caesarea Philippi is intriguing. One source of the Jordan River flows out of a cave nearby. It served over time as a shrine of worship for various deities called by different “names.” The names reported by the disciples in response to Jesus’ question in verse 27 reflect earlier opinions voiced by Herod and others (Mark 6:14–16). Several names given by the disciples have messianic links. John the Baptizer prepared for one who was “coming after me.” Elijah was expected to return shortly before the appearance of Messiah. Jesus does not refer to himself as “Messiah,” but “Son of Man.” This term appears in Daniel 7:13 in a passage associated with God’s coming. “Son of Man” also appears frequently in Ezekiel, where the prophet uses the term to describe himself. “Son of Man” in Daniel and Ezekiel connects with God’s mission and, at times, suffering. A pair of rebukes follows Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus’ ensuing command of silence about his identity. The most dominant expectations of Messiah at this time involved one who would deliver the land from Roman rule. Often this figure was linked to the line of David. Such hopes likely formed the basis for Peter’s rebuke of Jesus when Jesus taught the wisdom of a suffering “Son of Man” – nothing like the triumphant warrior awaited by many. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in response sets the stage for Jesus’ further wisdom about what discipleship entails. The word translated as “life” in verses 35–37 is psuche, the root word for “psyche” and “psychology.” It involves the notion of “self.” That connotation brings a stronger sense of paradox to Jesus’ teaching. The affirmation of self comes in the act of self-giving (“those who would lose their psuche for my sake…will save it”). Jesus redefines both Messiah and disciple in this passage. To be a follower is not simply to name Jesus with a “correct” title (“you are the Messiah”). The text implies danger in the hard consequences of following in the way of Jesus, who announces suffering for self and crosses for disciples. The counter-intuitive wisdom of Jesus about Messiah and discipleship echoes themes in other wisdom teachings about power and risk. Proverbs 1:20–33 offers a warning and call from personified wisdom. The author of Proverbs notes the great risk when wisdom is ignored and the path of folly is taken. Psalm 19 celebrates creation’s witness to the law and glory of God. James 3:1–12 adds its cautionary wisdom about teaching and language, and the power of words to accomplish good or ill. Mark closely links Jesus’ identity and vocation with that of disciples in that day, and in our own. In Jesus’ wisdom we find the path opened to finding our selves. Who do we say Jesus is today by what we pray for in our heart of hearts; by what we seek from (and offer to) our faith communities? What wisdom of Jesus do you hear Mark 8:34–37 speaking to the church and to the wider community today? What wisdom do today’s readings speak about following the way of Christ?
Saturday, August 08, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 or Proverbs 9:1-6, Psalm 111:1-10 or Psalm 34:9-14, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58 The Gospel lesson is more on the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus as the bread of life, living bread and eternal life. A basic point that has come to us over the weeks: There are ideas, thoughts, values, feelings, attitudes, belief systems, spiritual experiences, etc., that we feed upon. Some build us—and humanity—up; others are probably destructive. The most valuable are those that have lasting significance, such that we might speak of them as eternal. When we feed upon and express them it is almost like living on another plane, where the things that happen last forever. The primary theme I see in this week’s scriptures is that of “wisdom.” Solomon is remembered not as a warrior king but as one who sought and demonstrated wisdom. His prayer for wisdom might offer guidance for all of us in our prayers. Solomon prays in humility that he is only a little child who does “not know how to go out or come in.” (I Kings 3:7) The responsibilities of his office weigh on him—all those people “so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.” (vs. 8) So the prayer is for “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil . . .” Would that every person with responsibility seek that kind of understanding. Of course some go overboard and make themselves the final authority on what is good and what is evil, but Solomon seems to come at it with more humility, ending his prayer with the question, “ . . . for who can govern this your great people?” Indeed, who can govern without humbly seeking understanding—wisdom? I believe it is important that we seek wisdom and understanding in all the human relationships in which we are involved. We need wisdom in our families, our friendships, our work life, our recreation, our volunteer work, our environmental concerns, the mission activities of the church—and on and on. Some days I look out at all the things that need to be addressed, and I throw up my hands and say I don’t have enough understanding. I hardly know where to begin. Almost always, almost every day, specifics happen that require response. Solomon had to decide between two women who both claimed the same child—but that’s another story. We are required to decide almost every day, about little things, and sometimes big things. (Sometimes the little things are bigger than we think.) Part of the prayer of each day might be for the kind of understanding/wisdom that will prepare us for whatever might come. The passage from Ephesians suggests that wisdom is a good way to make “the most of the time.” (Ephesians 5:15-16) What I find most fascinating is that wisdom appears to be somehow connected with music. The passage starts with an instruction to be wise, concluding that part of being wise is singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.” (vs. 19) Granted there have been some pretty dark compositions and popular songs, there is much music that is uplifting. It is difficult to think evil thoughts while singing or listening to such music. I find music to be healing, inspiring, even challenging on occasion. It is food for the soul that offers an eternal connection. Pastor Rick has reminded us that “wisdom” in parts of the biblical tradition, including the Proverbs, is female, a female expression of the divine, sometimes another way of talking about God’s Spirit. What if the third person of the Trinity were female? Tackling the Trinity right now, though, is too much. Nevertheless, note that being wise, in Ephesians 5:19, is to be filled with the Spirit. The verses from Proverbs talk about “Wisdom” as one who calls out to the simple and those without sense, to come to her and find the sustenance which will allow them to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9:4-6) Note also that Proverbs 9:5 connects with the bread and wine theme. Wisdom’s invitation is to “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Is Wisdom then one of those eternal foods offered to all who would partake? This will be my last submission to the Kairos Blog until another yet unseen occasion arises. Margie and I are off to Wisconsin, a wedding, some sightseeing, etc. I believe Rick will be offering his usual brilliant insights (full of wisdom?) starting in September. Thank you, Rick, and all readers, for allowing me to share some of what the lectionary—and being part of this congregation—has meant and means to me.
Monday, August 03, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 or 1 Kings 19:4-8, Psalm 130:1-8 or Psalm 34:1-8, Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2, John 6:35, 41-51 Some of this week’s lectionary readings continue to give attention to miraculous feedings. I’m not sure I’m up to much more of that. In this week’s portion we have the notion of a prophet being without honor in his own country. “How could Jesus possibly have ‘come down from heaven.’? He’s the son of Joseph, after all.” (John 6:41-42) Between the lines, or maybe not so hidden, one can see Jesus trying to redirect their attention from a heaven in the skies to what is right in front of them. “Here I am right in the midst of you. That’s where you need to look for heaven. Eternal life is not just forever in another realm; it’s right now, here, all around you.” (John 6:45-51) In the story from 1 Kings, Elijah is out sitting alone under a tree feeling sorry for himself because Jezebel is after him—to kill him. Well, I guess that might be reason to complain a little. (1 Kings 19:1-4) An angel comes and gives him food and drink, which sustains him for forty days and forty nights, a popular number in the Bible when one is wandering around feeling like one is in the wilderness. Elijah’s basic complaint? “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts” and “I alone am left . . .” (1 Kings 19:10) “I’ve been so much more faithful than all the others. They all have run away, turned from you, or been killed. Oh, poor me. All alone.” God speaks to him in a quiet voice after a display of wind, earthquake, and fire, and says, “You are not alone, Elijah. There are seven thousand faithful still there, ready to work alongside you. You don’t have to do it all by yourself.” (vss. 11-18) We have a tendency to forget that there are those around us who are willing to offer support, to help, to be partners with us in the tasks and trials we face. There’s a lot of need for support in this week’s scriptures. What parent cannot identify with David when he loses his beloved son, Absalom? We have not all lost children, but we know how much we worry about them. Maybe we have no children, but we have lost other loved ones, or we worry about them. David’s experience is described in this way in 2 Samuel 18:33. “The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’” To be ready to die so that another will not have to is the epitome of love. Have we ever felt like we wished it had been us instead of someone else? That’s the way life is finally lived and finally makes sense. We all live and die for one another. We can’t go it alone. We can’t escape our responsibilities and connections—both the benefits and the costs. We are part of a cast of thousands who walk through this life together, living and dying—and it is the being in it together that makes it all worthwhile. One can move from Elijah to Ephesians, which offers instruction for living together in mutually supportive ways, ways in which we will be helpful to one another and we will all get through, maybe even grow stronger. Don’t lie to one another. It’s okay to get angry for a bit, but don’t bear a grudge. Do your fair share, and work together so that you have something to give to the needy. Speak only in ways that build up. It’s all there; go read it. Perhaps it is summed up in Ephesians 4:31-32: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” That’s the kind of community we are called to be, and when we are that kind of community we truly are not alone. We’re not perfect and we never will be, but sharing the load together beats any alternative I know. In Ephesians 5:1-2, we find the center of strength from which that togetherness is enabled. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” It is by looking to God and Jesus that we find what it is that draws us together. That love is described as something “fragrant.” How sweet it is when brothers and sisters come together in mutual support and encouragement!
Monday, July 27, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: 2 Samuel 11:26 - 12:13a or Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, Psalm 51:12 or Psalm 78:23-29, Ephesians 4:1-6, John 6:24-35 The reading from 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a continues the story of David and Bathsheba, which was the subject of this blog last week. This week we meet the prophet Nathan who speaks truth to power. He is not intimidated by David. He does not wring his hands and say, “Well, I guess I’d better ignore David’s poor behavior. If I call him on it he might fire me.” The standards of righteousness and justice must apply to the powerful and rich as well as to the weak and poor. Often that calls for whistleblowers who are willing to take a risk, whether it is a corporate employee privy to company mischief or a top administration official who sees the folly of presidential policies or a wise citizen who speaks out about his or her experience with the health care system. Nathan tells a story about a rich shepherd and a poor one. (2 Samuel 12:1-3) The rich shepherd took the poor shepherd’s only ewe and served it to a guest. (vs. 4) David expresses great anger that the rich shepherd would do such a thing, saying the man deserves to die but instead must make forefold restitution. (vss. 5-6) What an opening for Nathan! He says to David, “You are the man! You are the rich shepherd. This is exactly what you, in all your splendor, have done to poor Uriah. You took his wife and had him killed. Just as you have pronounced sentence upon the rich shepherd, the Lord pronounces sentence upon you. (vss. 7-12) Certainly we don’t see ourselves as David, having someone killed so that we can get what we want. When we look at the ills of the world, however, it is always appropriate to remember that, for the most part, we are the rich of the world. We can’t simply point at others and say everything is their fault. Our way of life taxes the environment, the economy, political and social relations. Sometimes even within our own families we are the man or the woman who is a source of strain. The phrase “You are the one” can be an occasion to examine ourselves, to open ourselves to God, asking for a chance to being again. That’s what David did. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible Psalm 51 is labeled a “Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon: A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” It is a model for humbly seeking God’s mercy, reaching its peak in verse ten and following: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me . . . Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” Whatever the ways in which we have fallen short, we are not to wallow in them. We are to expose them to God’s loving and forgiving heart, get them aired out, and start anew, breathing the fresh air of renewed joy. The passage from Ephesians continues the themes of peace that have been there the past couple of weeks, focusing upon humility, gentleness, and patience (almost like the spirit shown in Psalm 51), “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3) The Gospel reading continues the story of the feeding of the five thousand, this time coupled with the story from Exodus about manna in the wilderness. The second Psalm connects as well. It is a hymn of praise to God, who “rained down on them manna to eat . . .” (Psalm 78:24) We could spend time describing manna or commenting on the fact that it couldn’t be hoarded. There was enough for one day at a time. The people’s complaint in Exodus 16:3, always reminds me of a question Sam Keen used to ask, “Why do people prefer known hells to unknown heavens?” We are easily bought off with full stomachs, not quite realizing how much we have compromised with those who mislead and misuse us. We need to remember Nathan. He lived with David in the lap of luxury, but it did not blind him to injustice. The story is a reminder to look to God for what we need, and that there will be enough. It may not seem like enough. It may not be an abundance. I don’t want to make light of the suffering people experience. Life is full of risks, but we can’t turn back to the captivity of Egypt. God intends more for us and wants us to be open to that more. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus suggests the crowd is a bit like those people wanting to go back to Egypt where they had enough to eat. They are following him because he’s filled their stomachs. (John 6:26) Instead, he tells them the miracle is a sign, just as the manna was a sign, that he wants them to be about the business of eternity in this life. Things eternal is what people need to eat if their souls are to be nurtured. (vs. 27) When they ask Jesus to give him that bread, he says, “I am the bread of life.” Tying all the scriptures together, perhaps we can think of the manna as the forgiving Spirit which is embodied in Jesus, the forgiving Spirit that David called upon. Maybe manna, the food of eternal love, tastes a little like humble pie. Whatever it is, it the kind of nutrition that can put a new and right spirit within each one of us—again and again and again. After Jesus says that he is the bread of life, he adds, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 11:1-5 or II Kings 4:42-44, Psalm 14:1-7 or Psalm 145:10-18, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21 II Samuel, chapters 11 & 12 do not give us David’s finest moment. From the roof of his mansion, he looks across and sees Bathsheba taking a bath. He wants her, and, what the king wants the king gets. One little problem: Bathsheba is the wife of one of David’s warriors, and—Bathsheba ends up carrying David’s child. David arranges for her husband, Uriah, to be sent into harm’s way on the battlefield, where he is killed. Bathsheba becomes David’s wife. A son is born, but the son dies. It’s part of the price David pays for his erring ways. There are lots more subtleties and complications in the story, but that’s it in a nutshell. Our first response may be outrage. We may want to scream at David as a sex-craved male beast. We may want to focus on his abuse of power. It is clear in this story that David is a cad. Scripture so often goes out of its way to show us the dark side of some of the biblical “heroes.” What we see, I believe, is that God finds a way to use us despite those moments of weakness in our moral behavior. It’s not something to be offered as an excuse. It’s just the reality of things. The universe, life, whatever divinity you see in it, is made up of people like us. There’s no one else. Whatever good things, whatever “divine” purposes, are accomplished will be done by the likes of us. Although I’m still happy if someone wants to rant and rave about David’s gross misbehavior, we all need to be reminded of Jesus’ words in John 8:7---“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone . . . ” Immediately following this story (toward the end of II Samuel, chapter 12), another son, Solomon, is born to David and Bathsheba. Without her, there might not have been a Solomon. As one who's been through divorce and had a son born late in life in a second marriage, I often ponder this dilemma. If I had not been divorced, would he have been born? You can drive yourself crazy trying to think about such things. Why is anyone born—as opposed to not being born? The point is not to dismiss, or justify, the bad things that happen in life, but to say, sometimes good things occur as a result, may, in spite of, them. When Joseph is reconciled to his brothers after they have tried to do him in, he says to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good . . .” (Genesis 50:20) The alternative passage from the Hebrew scriptures, II Kings 4:42-44, is a parallel to the Gospel lesson from John, the feeding of the five thousand. In John, there are five barley loaves and two fish. The “miracle” is not quite as great for Elisha in II Kings. There are twenty loaves of barley and an unnamed number of “fresh ears of grain” to feed a hundred. How are we going to understand the story? Most of us have difficulty getting our minds around it as a straightforward “miracle,” but if that’s what you want to try to do, go ahead. That’s not the way John usually treats miracles. They are there as “signs,” pointing to some deeper truth about God’s ways and Jesus. A common way of trying to “explain away” the “miracle” is to suggest that others came forward and shared what they had—sort of an early “potluck.” It makes for good preaching. If we all pitch in with what we have, there’ll be enough. God can only use what we have and what we are willing to give. If it’s just a small basket of food, it will be enough. In both the II Kings and John, there is skepticism. We don’t have enough to do this. Can we perhaps see these stories as being about our lack of faith and confidence in what we have to offer, even if it doesn’t seem like much? We live in a culture where more always seems better, where realizing we have “enough” is hard to admit. If God doesn’t have anybody else, maybe we can start by offering what we have, warts and all, as they say, to be used in God’s service, so that the entire world receives a share of the blessings God intends for us all. A beginning point might be to hear the prayer from Ephesians 3:14-21 as if it were being prayed for us, and every human being. It is an expansive prayer that encompasses “every family in heaven and on earth” (vs. 15), “rooted and grounded” (vs. 17) in a love that is beyond measure (vs. 18). It is a prayer that we may all “be filled with . . . the fulness of God,” that his power may “work within us . . . to accomplish abundantly far more that all we can ask or imagine.” (vss. 19-10) So be it!
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 7:1-14a or Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 89:20-37 or Psalm 23:1-6, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 There are at least three themes that could be picked up from two or more of the scriptures: peace, the true nature of God’s house/temple, and shepherds/sheep. My comments here will be limited to the first two. I believe that I & II Samuel and I & II Kings are an extended peace tract. You have to go back to I Samuel, chapter eight, to see it. The people tell Samuel that they want a king. Through Samuel God tells them that kings will be the death of them, placing a heavy load of taxes upon them, compelling them to work to satisfy their every whim, using them to prepare instruments of war, etc. Many year later, when the subsequent history was being recorded, the authors say, “See. It happened just as predicted.” The story ends in with the fall of Jerusalem. See what kings and warring and violence bring! Today’s scripture from II Samuel, chapter seven, is part of the story. David wants to build a fine house for God, relying on a display of grandeur instead of staying close to the Spirit of a God who needs no house in order to be present to his beloved people. Nathan is God’s voice this time. Just as Samuel said to the people that they needed no king, God’s message through Nathan is a reminder that he has been present in their midst all these years without a house. (II Samuel 7:6 and following) Neither kings nor temples are required for us to be in relationship with God. In both cases, though, God allows the people to go ahead with their plans. They have to find out for themselves that God is bigger than mighty nations and grand temples, that what he requires of them is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. In fact, when everything falls apart, one of the major themes of the prophets is that God is still there even when the external symbols of power and glory have been lost. Despite God’s not needing it, God allows the temple to be built, but not by David. His son, Solomon will be the one to do the job. We have to go to 1 Chronicles to get the reason. David says, “ . . . the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth.” (I Chronicles 22:8) God sees the temple and violence as incompatible. The building of a temple will be left to David’s son, Solomon, “a man of peace.” (1 Chronicles 22:9) The temple is to be a symbol of peace. In Ephesians, chapter two, peace is the breaking down of walls between different groups of people (vs. 14)—most notably in that day, the Jews and the Gentiles. Jesus “came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off (the Gentiles) and peace to those who were near (the Jews) . . .” (vs. 17) Jesus’ message is one of peace, in which we are all one, God’s Spirit being equally available to all. (vss. 14 & 18) We are “no longer strangers and aliens.” Peace comes from a new way of looking at things. It is like living in a “new creation.” (II Corinthians 5:17) We need to adjust our vision so that we see things with new eyes, so that our vision is so radically different that it is as if we were newborn babes opening our eyes for the first time. The writer of Ephesians uses three images to convey the vision. It is like we are all citizens of the same country, world citizens one might say. (vs. 19) It is like we all lived in the same house—the “household of God.” (vs. 19) It is like we are a living temple, with Jesus as the cornerstone. We are “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” (vss. 20-22) We, the people who make up the church rather than the physical structure, are the temple. Peace is something that is embodied in our very relationships with one another. Such peace is the sign that we are a dwelling place for God. How are we signs of peace, as individuals, as a congregation? How can we be signs of peace? The fourth chapter of the book of Ephesians talks about our calling to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3-4) We are begged “to lead a life worthy of the calling . . . with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love (vss. 1-2), ending with the declaration that there is “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Not a bad place to start if we are to be a sign of peace.
Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 or Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 24:1-10 or Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29 The reading from II Samuel has David dancing because the ark of the covenant—here called “the ark of God”—is being returned to the temple where it belongs. The ark was believed to have contained the very presence of God. We all probably have some problems with this sort of “God in a box” image, although it’s not uncommon for human beings to try to put God in a box. For now, let’s just note that there’s a big parade going on and David is at the head of the parade, “leaping and dancing before the Lord.” (II Samuel 6:16) It’s a picture of enthusiastic worship. What if Pastor Rick danced his way into the sanctuary some Sunday? Or, think of the massive celebrations of the life of Michael Jackson, which deserve further anaylsis but won’t get it here. I grew up in a tradition where dancing was not allowed in any form or place—so I never learned to dance. I’ve since experienced various forms of liturgical dance, tasteful interpretive performances before the congregation during worship. The dancing in this passage from II Samuel, however, appears to be spontaneous and unrestrained, an example of the exuberance one might expect on any given Sunday. There are always those who oppose exuberance. In this case it is Michal, David’s wife (and daughter of Saul), who, looking on, sees David dancing his heart out, and she despises him in her heart. (II Samuel 6:16) What is her reason? Is she embarrassed because David seems to be making a fool of himself? Is she jealous, glimpsing the women in the procession admiring, perhaps drooling over, David? Does she just wish that David might demonstrate that much exuberance in his love for her? Whatever the specifics for Michal, there are always those who sit on the sidelines passing judgment and missing the action. What happens at the end is remarkable! David distributes food “among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins.” (II Samuel 6:19) What if worship were an exuberant dance (literally or figuratively) followed by a distribution of food for all in need? In the Amos passage, we might consider the significance of the “plumb line,” a measuring device to check whether a wall is straight or not. It is announced that God is going to hold a plumb line against his people to see if they measure up. How do we tell whether a nation is living up to God’s vision? Amos is a “herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” (Amos 7:14) an ordinary person whom God has chosen for a task, like the ordinary people God usually chooses. Perhaps the folk of Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ are, believe it or not, among the ordinary people God wants to use to make a difference in the Portland area. The second of the Psalms, Psalm 85, contains some wonderful images, images that perhaps give content to that plumb line in Amos. God speaks “peace to his people (vs. 8). “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” Would that all were that intimate with righteousness and peace, associating them with a kiss. “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky.” The Gospel lesson contains the story of Herodias, Herod’s daughter, demanding Herod bring her John the Baptist’s head on a platter. The story, however, is a flashback. The question is the identity of Jesus. Herod remembers what he did to John the Baptist and fears that John has come back to haunt him. The story might cause us to reflect on the things, the actions, that come back to haunt us. We have a hard time moving on because we relive them when confronted by new, and perhaps similar, circumstances. Or—we might simply stick with the question of who Jesus is to us, given our history and experience. Or—we might consider why John the Baptist was in prison in the first place. He had confronted Herod—spoken the truth to power—who married his brother’s wife. There is always a cost to speaking the truth to power, but it is something God’s prophets, even ordinary people like Amos and us, have been called to do. Finally, the reading from Ephesians could lead us into a discussion of adoption. There is a whole tradition of speaking of us as adopted children of God. In our human families, there has sometimes been jealousy and conflict between “natural” and “adopted” children, adopted children sometimes thinking they are valued and loved less. Usually they are reminded of the powerful fact that they were singled out, chosen, to receive the love their parents wanted to give. Whatever the theological language used, it is a fact that we have somehow come into existence in this cosmos, the cosmos has “chosen” to accomplish the purposes of love through us. We have been given existence. It is a gift—every single ordinary life—to be used to further the work of love and peace and justice. Can we fulfill our purpose with exuberance, leaping and dancing as righteousness and peace embrace and kiss?
Monday, June 29, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 or Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 48:1-14 or Psalm 123:1-4, II Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-3 II Corinthians 12:9 may have been my mother’s favorite verse. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” words spoken by the Lord to Paul. The words hung over the kitchen sink, inscribed on a small plaque. She suffered a mental breakdown during my teen years, eventually spending time in the state mental institution in the days of electro-shock therapy. She went on to live a significant, relatively normal, life, characterized by much service to the community. She became what Henri Nouwen spoke of as a “wounded healer.” My parents were both living witnesses to the power of people who find their way through weakness to strength. Somehow they managed to convey to me, in a way that I internalized, that fighting was not acceptable behavior. It doesn’t sound very manly, but when a bully attacked me, I would simply go limp, and soon he would give up. When the Lord speaks to Paul in that verse quoted from II Corinthians, Paul has said that he will not boast about anything “except my weaknesses.” (II Corinthians 12:5) He concludes, in verse 10, with the declaration, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” It seems that when he is aware of his weakness he is also most aware of the power of Christ in him. (Vs. 9) Well, what about it? Doesn’t make much sense. To be powerful you have to scramble your way to the top, pushing aside everyone who gets in the way. Isn’t that the way it works—for individual and for nations? If you don’t stand up for what it yours, fight back, exact revenge, those bullies will take away everything you have. I admit I’ve often wondered whether radical obedience to the way of Jesus could ever work—especially on the grand scale of international power plays. We will probably hear a speech or two about what makes a “strong” nation this holiday weekend. Can we listen to them with hearts and minds that see power coming from a gentle inner Spirit that sees and measures not as the world sees and measures? Both Ezekiel and Mark speak to the need for people to hear the words of a prophet, to be called to account by a voice from another perspective. Ezekiel paints the picture of a rebellious nation which is “impudent and stubborn.” (Ezekiel 2:4) At least they will know that “there has been a prophet among them.” (vs. 5) Someone needs to continue to speak words that challenge the usual ways of power politics. Jesus, in the Gospel according to Mark, speaks of a prophet who is without honor in his hometown—he being that prophet. People can’t imagine that an ordinary carpenter, an ordinary anything, ordinary people like us, might have anything to say that would affect the course of history. When we worship and speak and act as Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ does the world know that prophets are in their midst. I hope we never stop hearing that prophetic word here and never stop doing our best to apply it in our living in our private and public activities. If you like to wonder about strange elements in biblical stories, you may want to speculate on this person whom Paul knew, described in the first part of the passage from II Corinthians. The person was “caught up to the third heaven.” It is there that the person “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” I’d rather be encouraged by the possibility of strength in weakness than five visions about things which cannot be told—nor probably understood. I’m sure there are graces beyond description in realms that reach from here to eternity. For the moment I’ll settle for grace which is sufficient to empower me in my weakness. Would that the world know more of such grace in its interpersonal and international functioning.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 1:1, 17-27 or Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24, Psalm 130:1-8 or Psalm 30:1-12 (optional with Lamentations 3:23-33), II Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43 TRUTH IN ADVERTISING DISCLAIMER: What I write here may or may not have anything to do with Pastor Rick’s Sunday sermon. Not even he knows at this point what he will say. We know that it will inspire and/or provoke us. Thank you, Rick, for what you bring to us each week. THIS WEEK’S COMMENTS: I once preached a sermon with an awkward title that went something like, “What Do You Cry About in Your Pillow at Night?” I also remember a clergy conference I attended where we were asked to think about the things we wanted to cry about. We were then instructed to sit on the floor and mourn aloud with vigor. The grief was almost overwhelming. Most of the scriptures for this Sunday have to do with mourning. In the midst of the mourning, however, there are words of hope. Death is not God’s final word; “joy” and “life” are what God is about. David, in II Samuel, chapter one, cries out about the death of Saul, and Saul’s son Jonathan, deeply loved by David. We could wonder about the relationship between David and Jonathan, mentioned in another recent blog. Whatever else it may or may not have been, it is a story that represents a deep level of friendship and commitment. David, remembering Jonathan, says (in II Samuel 1:26), “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan, greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” We could also see a theme here about the destructiveness and futility of war. Three times we hear the words, “How the mighty have fallen!” (II Samuel 1:19, 25, & 27) “How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” Certainly war and the losses associated with it—sometimes very personal to us—always personal to someone, a mother, a brother, a child. Many of the Psalms are laments, reminding us that it is okay to cry out in despair and frustration. Psalm 130 begins with the words, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” The alternate Psalm (#30) and the optional reading from the Hebrew scriptures (Lamentations 2:23-33) intertwine hope with the weeping. However one views various emotions attributed to God, the emphasis here is not on “negative” emotions, but on positive. “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5) “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” (Psalm 30:11) God’s mercies “are new every morning.” (Lamentations 2:23—the verse from which we get the hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”) The conditions, the circumstances, about which we weep will not last forever. African-American preaching in particular has emphasized that it is darkest before the dawn. Such an insight has led to sermon titles like “It’s Midnight, but Morning’s Coming” and “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming” referencing Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Gospel lesson is also about death and life. Our modern minds have difficulty get around stories of resurrection. There’s an intriguing reference to the fact that Jairus’ daughter was “not dead but sleeping.” (Mark 7:39) When we go through life half-asleep, out of touch with the injustices around us, are we as good as dead? The story, and the story of the hemorrhaging woman that’s tucked into the middle of it, equate life and faith. To have faith is to be alive. (Mark 5:34) To even come near to Jesus is to draw life from his Spirit. (Mark 5:28) Along the way, though, there’s a lot of weeping and wailing, more of that mourning before the dawn (morning) comes. (Mark 5:38) So, what stirs our hearts so deeply that we cry out in frustration, in grief, even in anger? Personal things? Social things? Political things? Cry! Cry loudly! And don’t forget that joy comes in the morning, that God stands on the side of life, not death!
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 or Job 38:1-11, Psalm 9:9-20 (optional with II Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16) or Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, II Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41 There are lots of lectionary choices for Sunday, June 21. Read them all if you want. One of the threads running through them is power and weakness and/or strength in the face of difficulty. I Samuel 17 starts off with the familiar story of Goliath. It’s full of violence. Even the "good" guy, the one who refuses to go into battle relaying on full military regalia and might, David, ends up flinging a stone so hard that it becomes imbedded in the giant enemy’s, Goliath, head. Then, for good measure, he buts Goliath’s head off. I don’t really know what to do with some of the details of the story. As much as I admire the lad with the sling, I’m offended. Mostly I’ve come to the story asking who are the giants threatening us. They can be personal (depression, addiction, loneliness, etc.), socio-economic (poverty, crime, overconsumption, greed), or political (terrorism, authoritarianism, racism, agism, sexism, and a lot of other "isms"), to name a few. The text calls us to trust God as our ally in fighting such giants. It explicitly wants us to "know," in I Samuel 17:47, "that the Lord does not save by sword and spear . . . " In the midst of a section of the Bible where we often see violence comes this warning against reliance upon the power of military might as a way of solving the problems of the world. I actually believe that I & II Samuel and I & II Kings constitute andantiwar tract in which the people are warned about reliance upon the power of a king. Look at I Samuel 8:4-18. The story is then told in violent detail until it leads inexoribly to the fall of the nation and the ruin of the people. In the end, relying upon military might leads to their, and our ruin. The passage from Job 38 is similar in that it warns us of the pride to think that we are the ones who make all things happen. There are so many things that happen that we don’t control—like last week’s windstorms or stock market crashes or 9/11 attacks. Yes, sometimes, many times, human hands are in the pot stirring things up, but it is the pride that we know and can predict all things that is not only arrogant, but dangerous. Pride and greed have gotten us into the current economic mess. Like the young David, we could do with a good dose of humility as we face the crises of this world. As Psalm 9:9 says, "The Lord is a stronghold . . . in times of trouble." Note in this Psalm that the Lord is again not on the side of the giants but on the side of the "oppressed" (vs. 9), and "the needy" (vs. 18). In the broad sweep of biblical history, we see that again and again. It’s not always comfortable for affluent people to realize that, but if we truly care about peace and justice, it reassures us when, like David, we face political and economic giants when the get out of hand and threaten to destroy the deeper values of human existence. The optional passage from I Samuel continues the story of David, offering us a love story between David and Jonathan (I Samuel 18:1-5). It then moves into the violence of Saul in the face of David’s popularity and success. Saul is jealous, perhaps driven a little mad, and attempts to kill David. Once again, we don’t get a very pretty picture of the machinations that occur in the inner workings of government. Earlier, in I Samuel 16:14 and following, David has been able to soothe Saul when the evil spirits overtake him, by playing the lyre for him. Apparently, Saul is now beyond that, but those who want to see peace and justice, and the healing of violence and troubled minds, may want to consider again the soothing and soul connecting (even across traditional lines of division) that music can sometimes bring. Both Psalm 107:25-30 and Mark 4:35-41 depict the soothing power of God in the face of the storms of life, storms perhaps being another way of talking about the giants we face. There is also an echo of the voice of God in Job asking who is really in charge anyway. We talk a lot about world peace, but a prerequisite to world peace is inner peace. Edwin Friedman has written about leaders needing to provide a "non-anxious presence." We get so anxious about so many things, even afraid. The shooting or shouting most often starts when we are anxious and fearful. We all need to hear the words, "Peace! Be still!" (Mark 4:39) Finally, the epistle, II Corinthinas 6:1-13, speaks also of strength in the face of adversity, in this case what Paul describes as "afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger." Is Paul complaining again? Theres’ more if you read the whole thing. The bottom line, though, is that he is alive and able to rejoice. He has learned, as he says elsewhere, "to be content with whatever I have." (Philippians 4:11) In II Corinthians 12:10 he makes a similar claim, while contrasting power and weakness. He puts himself on the side of weakness (David vs. Goliath) because that is where he realizes the strength and power of the love of Christ. He hears the Lord say, in 2 Corinthians 12:9, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Lots to think about. Lots to digest. I can’t wait to see what Rick will do with one or more of these scriptures. In the meantime, I hope all of us "weaklings" are able to find strength enough to prevent the Goliaths and windstorms from overcoming us—maybe even move on to a place where peace prevails, inwardly and outwardly.
Monday, June 08, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 15:34-16:13 or Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 20:1-9 or Psalm 92:1-5, II Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34 This week’s readings offer a rich selection, with the possibility of at least two themes. Selected verses leapt out at me in the first reading, so I’m mostly going to make quick comments on the inspiration of those specific verses rather than make an in-depth examination of the larger passages. 1 Samuel 16:7—“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” It is part of God’s instruction to Samuel as Samuel undertakes his God-give task of anointing a new king—a task, by the way, that he wasn’t too happy with initially. Not even God was very happy about allowing the people to have a king. It would only bring war and taxes, he said—and it did. But that’s another story. We easily chase after the popularity of beauty and physical attractiveness. The challenge to us is to see as the Lord sees, to look beyond outward appearances, the things that attract our senses and appetites, and see the true being, the true value, of the realities and people around us. It’s a little like the “born from above” of last week, being born into a new way of looking at and evaluating the things that matter in life. Psalm 20:7 overlaps, in that it also challenges our easy acquiescence to the powerful and the things of power. “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.” Chariots and horses—the instruments of war and symbols of position. Enough said! II Corinthians, chapter five, again picks up the theme of seeing in a new way. It begins with walking “by faith, not by sight,” (vs. 7) and moves on to a comparison of “outward appearance” and what is “in the heart.” (Vs. 12) It comes to conclusion, in verse 17: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view . . . if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” It is a call to see everything through new eyes, through the eyes of Christ. When we see things that way we realize what great possibility and potential God has intended for us and this world. We are called to be builders of the new, not those who cling on to the old myths and stereotypes and priorities and tunnel-vision that limits and stifles the way ahead. Going back to Ezekiel, we find the second theme, that of the flourishing growth which springs from God’s love. In Ezekiel 17:22-24, it is like a sprig which grows large enough to hold “every kind of bird.” “In the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” The image is repeated in the Gospel lesson in Mark 4:31-32. Jesus speaks of a mustard seed, the smallest of all sees, that grows “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” We’re loving the presence of the birds outside our lofty windows. We live in the midst of the branches of tall trees, inhabited by a rich variety of birds—mourning doves, jays, sparrows, finches, flickers, starlings, robins, and many we haven’t identified yet. Sometimes they come right up onto our decks, dig around in our potted plants, even appear to sit outside the window watching us, trying to start of conversation. The rich variety of birds in the tree in a sign of God’s peaceable kingdom, of the pentecostal reality of which Pastor Rick spoke last Sunday. In Psalm 92:12, it is God’s people who “flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” The part I like here is that “in old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.” We’ve moved from those who dwell in the tree to being the tree, and the point is that when God is giving the growth, our lives continue to bear fruit. It is the nature of God’s Love, planted in human lives, to take root and grow and bear fruit. Mark 4:26-34 gives us a couple of parables of growth, and there are others in the Gospels. The most basic point of all the growth parables is that when the seed is planted, some of it will grow. Whatever seeds of kindness we plant, whatever efforts we make toward peace and justice, whenever we reach out in love, there will be some fruit from that effort. It may not always seem like it. It may not come quickly. We may never even see the results, but, with the eyes of faith, we believe and declare that it will grow, in God’s good time. When we let God love us and let that love use us, the possibilities of growth are beyond our imagining, so great that we can’t see them unless we see things through new eyes.

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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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