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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?

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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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