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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?

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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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