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Thursday, December 30, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12, Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21, Ephesians 1:1-4, John 1:1-18

The Christmas season is a time when some feel particularly grateful for the blessings of family as well as material comforts and pleasures. I recognize that there are those for whom Christmas is a “blue” time. We even had moments of feeling blue in recent weeks, when we have been unable to reproduce some treasured experiences of Christmases past. Most, however, even in the midst of down times can recognize or identify some blessing in their lives.

Feeling blessed may lead to a sense of entitlement. I must have received this or that blessing because I deserved it. The other side is a feeling of blame or unworthiness if blessings are not received or perceived.

Receiving blessings can even lead to feeling privileged or superior. Theologically it may be expressed as a sense of being “chosen.” “I have been specially chosen.”

In the Bible, God’s people often felt that way. Scriptures, in fact, describe them as a chosen people, selected by God from among all people. And when things got tough, they wondered what happened to their “chosenness.” Some of the founding fathers even saw America as heir to that tradition of being chosen.

There is danger when people or nations begin to feeling that they have been specially chosen, especially if they feel chosen to dominate other nations, deserving a privileged place in the scheme of earthly relationships. Even in the Old Testament there are two understandings of what it means to be chosen. Oversimplified, the distinction is between being chosen for privilege or chosen to serve. In Genesis 12:2, God tells Abraham (Abram), “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” “Blessed to be a blessing.” It is something God’s people in every age have too often forgotten.

Many of us would probably just as soon discard the doctrine of “chosenness.” Before we do, perhaps we might consider expanding it. We often talk about every child being “special,” about each of us having a calling, being put on this earth for some purpose. There is a sense in which we are all “chosen,” not in a narrow, privileged, sense. Every one of us matters as a beloved creature of God. It might be worthwhile to reflect on that from time to time, asking what it is that we have been chosen for. In what ways are we special and how does that “specialness” get applied and used in daily relationships and activities?

Most of the lectionary readings for this Sunday speak of feeling blessed or chosen.

The reading from Jeremiah comes as a word to those who wondered whether God had forgotten his special relationship with them. It speaks of a time of joy and celebration, addressing the people in exile as “the chief of the nations.” (Jeremiah 31:7) They are to be gathered and led back. (vss. 8-9) Their will be dancing and mourning will be turned into joy. (vs. 13)

We are given the choice between two apocryphal readings, from Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. Without getting into a dissertation on these writings which are not included in the Protestant Bible, it is sufficient now to know that both come from about two centuries before Christ. They are part of what is called Wisdom literature, collections (like Proverbs, for example) intended to give guidance for right living.

In some of this literature, including these passages from Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is embodied in a feminine spirit. Is she an Old Testament aspect of the Holy Spirit?

In Sirach she comes from heaven searching for a resting place. (Sirach 24:3-7) Is this in the Christmas readings because there is the suggestion of the divine coming to earth? The Creator chooses a place for her, saying, “Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.” (vs. 8) So, Wisdom says, “I took root in an honored people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.” (vs. 12) It is a passage about “chosenness.”

In Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is the one who “entered the soul of a servant of the Lord,” guiding the “holy people” through the Red Sea,” etc. (Wisdom of Solomon 10:16-18) As a result, there is celebration. “ . . . they sang hymns . . . and praised with one accord . . .” (vs. 20) The people are blessed and they celebrate.

The words from Psalm 147 are also a celebration of blessings: peace, the blowing wind, the flowing water, etc. (vss. 12-18) At the end we see that the blessings are taken as a sign of being special. God “has not dealt thus with any other nation.” (vs. 20)

Ephesians explicitly speaks of being chosen by God, connecting it now with Christ who was there “before the foundation of the earth.” (Ephesians 1:4) The blessing is that we have been adopted as God’s children. (vs. 5) Being children means there is an inheritance, which calls forth praise. (vss. 11-14)

The Gospel from John is one of the traditional readings for the Christmas season, presenting us with Jesus as the embodiment of the eternal “Word.” In Greek, it is “logos,” which can be translated as “word” but also was a concept used in Greek philosophy to represent something of an eternal principle or force energizing the cosmos. We could also look at the significance of “Word” as a living expression of God in Hebrew scripture and theology. In the reading from John, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14)

This eternal dimension is present in the reading from Ephesians, which speaks of our being chosen “before the foundation of the world.” (Ephesians 1:4) It may not be too much of a stretch to see the eternal Logos as something like “Wisdom” in Sirach, which “came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (like a word spoken by God?). (Sirach 24:3) In both Sirach and John we have God’s Spirit coming to live in our midst. It’s enough to make anyone feel special. John expresses it by saying, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:16)

Do we feel blessed and special? The coming of the New Year is sometimes seen as a time for making resolutions. May it also be a time for counting of our blessings and knowing that we are special—not in the sense of being given special privileges but in the sense that each one of us counts and has a place in God’s scheme of things. We are blessed to be a blessing. We are loved to be instruments of love. We have been given so that we can pass it on.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148:1-14, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23

In scripture, and in Christian theology, we find the birth of Jesus means a Savior has come, after all these long years of waiting.

We don’t talk about saviors as much as we used to. The word “salvation” itself is pretty simple. It means health, well-being. As an English word it is derived from the word “salve,” a healing ointment—“balm” in the Bible. As I look around, this world---its politics, its relationships--- needs a lot of healing. I need healing—from self-centeredness, injured ego, short-sightedness, and a myriad of other inward and outward conditions that I could let torment me if I didn’t tuck them away out of sight.

What are some of the things that characterize this savior as we read the lectionary for Sunday? In the Isaiah and Hebrews readings, this savior is not someone we seek on high. It is someone who identifies with us, comes into our midst, lives with us—Emmanuel—God with us—as an earlier Advent reading had it. Isaiah 63:8-9, speaks of a God (“the Lord”) who “became their savior” in the midst of “all their distress.” Then we are told that it not the “messenger or angel,” angel being the Greek word for “messenger,” who brings salvation. It is God’s “presence that saved them.”

We look to eloquent politicians or personable pastors or brilliant economists or insightful therapists or gifted superstars to save us, forgetting that they are but messengers. Their power, personality, brilliant insights, gifts, are but signs of something more profound—divinity among us. And the messenger too often gets it distorted, even misuses it.

The book of Hebrews interprets Jesus through the lens of Old Testament teachings and practices (still very much alive in Jesus’ day) involving the offering of sacrifices on the altar for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is presented as the ultimate sacrifice making all others unnecessary. This reading from Hebrews contains another reference to “angels.” Jesus, “did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.” (Hebrews 2:16) Whatever we believe about angels, they are not the ones in need of healing; we humans, “descendants of Abraham,” are. And, in this passage, it can only be accomplished by some who is like us, fully human, who knows what it means to suffer and be tested. “ . . . he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect . . . to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (vs. 17) “Because he himself was tested . . . he is able to help those who are being tested.” (vs. 18) A couple of chapters later it says that he is “one who in every respect has been tested as we are . . .” (Hebrews 4:15)

In unwrapping our Christmas presents we probably will not find as many layers of interpretation as those which could be, and have been, spun out of verses like these. For now, let’s just take it as another declaration about a savior who is “God with us,” the key being with us, like us, entering into the fullness of human experience, internalizing it all and somehow bringing healing. We might think of it as having our very existence in God’s “body.” After all we are told, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Compare it to the human body. If our big toe hurts, we feel it and it likely affects our entire being. In some mysterious way, I believe that our feelings are borne in that way by a higher consciousness (God?), that our health (salvation) is derived from his very being, from the empathy of the cosmos that is God’s consciousness. This “God with us” is as near as the air we breathe.

The reading from Matthew presents a rich and complex story, telling of the immediate aftermath of the visit of the Magi to worship the child. Matthew, attempting to show Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, uses references that would have reminded his readers of their status as an oppressed people, often living away from their homeland in a foreign country. Jesus’ birth is depicted as a threat to the power of King Herod. Herod—and those in political power—are the saviors, are they not? How could the birth of a child under obscure circumstances threaten the power of a king? How could such a one be an alternative for the saving of the people?

Herod, though, perceives a threat. An angel warns Joseph to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. (Matthew 2:13-14) Here we go again, says the early reader. I remember another Joseph in Egypt. Even though that Joseph fared pretty well, I remember what eventually happened in Egypt. We always end up fleeing one pharaoh or another.

The story turns to what some have called “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” Herod ordered the killing of “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under,” hoping, of course, to assure Jesus’ death before he ever got near a cross. (vs. 16) In speaking of the slaughter, Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah who speaks of Rachel’s “wailing and loud lamentation . . . weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (vss. 17-18) In Jeremiah’s writing, Rachel represented the nation of Israel, weeping over its children sent into exile. The reader would again think, “Here we go again, always being persecuted, always ending up in exile. Now our hope has come and it’s happening again.”

Why is it that “innocents” so often suffer at the hands of the powers of this world? Is health, salvation, always gained through the sacrifice of the innocents? I don’t have an easy answer, or much more than a fragment of any answer. We’ve come to see Jesus as one of those innocents. God with us comes in the form of innocence, and too often corrupt power cringes in the presence of innocence. Their manipulative grasping for power and wealth is revealed. Such light must be eliminated.

But what if those thousand points of light (as someone called them), all those innocents, rose up and said, “We’re not going to take it any more.” Would that start us again on the road to health? There’s a sense in which we are all called to be “saviors.” I know that it sounds a bit sacrilegious, but are we among the “innocents.” The divinity that was in Jesus is also in us. Paying attention to that divinity is risky because the more we pay attention to it the greater threat we are to the prevailing culture values. The powers of this world may be no more tolerant that Herod was. Their devices may be more subtle, but the children, the weak, the needy, the oppressed are too often the ones that suffer.

Christmas announces that a Savior has come. It is a sobering thought, but also an occasion for rejoicing and praise, the kind of praise that, in Psalm 148, arises from all creation. “Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the Lord.” (vs. 12-13)
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Centuries of debate and discussion have gone into trying to explain how Jesus could be human and divine. In the early years of the church there was even intense debate over two Greek words that differed in only one letter. Out of that debate came the Nicene Creed considered by many to be the standard of orthodoxy. It spoke/speaks (still recited in many churches today) of Jesus and God as being “of one substance.” The alternative was “of like substance,” hardly distinguishable in Greek.

Here’s my take. People who met Jesus sensed that they were in the presence of some kind of divine power when they were with him. As human beings are so prone to do, they tried to capture that experience in words and images they could hold onto as absolute truth. The “virgin” birth which appears in this week’s lectionary readings was one such effort. After all, there were stories of other “gods” born of virgins. Ours is at least as good as theirs.

Our reading from the prophets looks ahead to a “young woman” who will bear a son. (Isaiah 7:14) Notice that it does not say, “a virgin.” When Matthew, in the Gospel lesson, quotes this verse however, he uses the word, “virgin.” (Matthew 1:23) The manuscript from which he was reading Isaiah had been translated into Greek, where it seemed to mean “virgin.” Even that, however, has been debated. We love to debate rather than stand on holy ground and rejoice in the presence of mystery.

The focus in both stories is upon one to be named Emmanuel—or Immanuel in the Isaiah reading. (Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23, again). In Matthew, it also says that the child will be named “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) “Jesus,” the same name as “Joshua” and a common name in those days, as it still is in some cultures—say Hispanic, means “God saves.” In Isaiah, Immanuel is described as a child who knows "how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” (Isaiah 7:16) In both cases, the child is seen as one who represents God’s presence in the midst of humanity as a sign and bearer of the harmony and justice God’s people long for.

Other attempts at explaining the combination of divine and human have asked about Jesus’ sense of his own identity. Who did he think he was? Did he think of himself as divine? Who made him into God and when did he know it? The reading from Romans, an introduction to that letter by Paul, makes a stab at telling about Jesus’ identity. He was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,” a descendant of David, who “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead . . .” (Romans 1:2-4) Some have suggested that Jesus came to some awareness of who he was and his special mission when he visited the temple as a young boy. Others have suggested it happened at his baptism, or on the mountain when he was seen as a shining light. Who really knows how Jesus would have resolved this divine-human debate?

The reading from Romans sees the resurrection as the sign that he is the “son of God,” and it says he “was declared to be the Son of God.” Isn’t that an interesting turn of phrase? Who did the declaring and when? All we know for sure is that Jesus’ early followers, and the church early in its history, made that declaration.

Isn’t it too bad that instead of sitting (or standing or serving) wide-eyed, we debate the details?

We got into a discussion this morning at our weekly breakfast at Mehri’s about how one tells the Christmas story to children. Following that discussion Ethelyn forwarded that following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ki8EcnVbd-Q Check it out and notice how unconcerned these children seem to be about accuracy of detail, yet they seem to sense the greatness of what is happening in the story. They know that it is about God being present in the lowliest of circumstances, and about God touching and changing human hearts and lives. What more could we want than an account of the Christmas story with that result?

One other aspect of the divine-human discussion has to do with the divine spark even in us. We too are sons and daughters of God. Romans 8:14 says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (There are other references in Romans and Galatians as well.) Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis both spoke of us as “little Christs.” The focus here is not on how we differ from Christ but how we are called to be vessels of God’s Spirit (the divine) in this life. It is God’s intention, I believe, that we are to be the Spirit of Christmas to those around us, “Little Christs” as Luther and Lewis put it, to our neighbors.
There is divinity loose among us, folks. Merry Christmas and Good will to all!

As is often the case, I have a couple of afterwards.

1. I did not mention the Psalm. It is a Psalm of longing, the same longing for God in our midst making things right that is found in the other scriptures. The prayer, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be save,” is repeated three times. (Psalm 80:3, 7, & 19) It can be, for us, an Advent prayer.

2. I didn’t talk about Joseph who is a central character in the reading from Matthew. It would be another whole blog entry to begin to do justice to this often overlooked character. He may have, at times, been, as Pastor Rick said Sunday, “clueless.” Aren’t we all? Yet God uses “clueless” people. Joseph steps up to the plate and becomes a father to this child, however we interpret the actual birth. Jesus may well have learned a lot about God from what was in Mary’s heart, expressed in her song among other places. I suspect he also learned a lot from Joseph about being human. Can we see Joseph and Mary as representing the human and divine influences even from his earliest years? Anyway, let’s not forget Joseph.
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

Sometimes I feel like I was born with a passion for justice. Where did it come from? My father’s income was always below the official poverty line, although we didn’t think of ourselves as “poor”. We definitely lived on the wrong wide of the “divide” in our community, living sort of on the margins of those with power and social acceptability. My father was physically handicapped and my mother battled mental illness. We never dwelt upon it, but we knew what discrimination felt like, or at least what it felt like to be different.

Beyond our own family, the place I probably had the most intimate view of poverty was among the migrant workers who lived on the margins of our community. Eventually I spent some time working for the Migrant Ministry of the Council of Churches—both in Oregon and Washington. During my first year of higher education, at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, that ministry had me living among the migrant workers of Yamhill County, in a migrant labor community called Eola Village (run by the Yamhill County Housing Authority). It no longer exists, but at its peak it housed about 2000 people in simple but adequate two-bedroom homes as well as tents on foundations. I shared one of the two-bedroom homes with a fellow student. I remember my shock at discovering 13 year old girls running a prostitution operation out of one of the tents.

The question remains, “Where did that passion come from, and why does it not seem to burn as brightly now?” How do any of us come by such a passion and how does such a passion get engendered and maintained? At this morning’s breakfast discussion we all agreed that guilt doesn’t work too well. We also agreed that our church gives generously and supports a variety of worthy causes, but we feel there may be a deeper challenge calling some of us to another level.

The vision of justice pervades the scriptures, some of them coming especially to prominence during the Advent season, the promise of a coming Messiah seen as the arrival of a society where all things are put right. On my best days, I like to think that the passion for justice comes from those religious roots, those scriptures that have shaped my life since childhood. The vision is not just something we learn from our circumstance, or inherit in our genes, or catch like a passing virus. It is the groaning of God’s Spirit all around us, hard-wired into the synapses of the cosmos, sending spurts of passion into our dreams not unlike visions of sugar plums (although, I hope, more profound).

The visions are there in the lectionary readings for this Sunday, and, guess what! They are presented not so much as pulpit-thumping tirades. They are offered as gifts, promises, something for which to be grateful and to sing about. If there is a call, it is a call to participate in God’s reality, rather than a message that here is something we have to go out and create by sheer effort as something against our own wants and needs.

Isaiah talks about something that “shall be.” (See Isaiah 35:1, 5, 8, 9, & 10, for instance, all of which contain that phrase.) The vision includes good news for the blind and deaf and lame, the oppressed and hungry, prisoners, strangers, orphans and widows, all those in need. (See Isaiah 35:5-6, Psalm 146:7-9, Luke 1:43, & Matthew 11:5) Sometimes it includes the blossoming of the desert, highways that are made straight and safe, etc. (See Isaiah 35:1-2, 8-9)

The vision is something that engenders singing and gratitude and joy. (See Isaiah 35:10, Psalm 146:5 & 10—The Luke passage is a song with ancient roots sung by Mary in anticipation of Jesus’ birth, a grateful response to a God who does not forget the needs of lowly people.)

So what if, instead of thinking of justice as something we have to work at, we were to experience it—even its possibility—as something to sing about and be thankful for? I know it’s a bit idealistic, but passions are often expressed in songs and prayers of gratitude. If we could but start from that place, perhaps we would come closer to the place where true justice exists. Maybe we need to start by singing and praying our way through Advent, with gratitude.

A few additional comments temper all that I have said so far. Justice is somehow also connected with “judgment.” Our system of justice today, with all its limitations, requires that those whose behavior is destructive stand in a court of law to be held accountable. Well, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work, and sometimes does. The biblical vision has the oppressors being brought to account. The proud are scattered; the powerful are brought down; the rich are sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53) James writes of a “judge . . . standing at the doors!” (James 5:9) What is good news to the poor and hungry weighs heavily on those who seem to have been working against God’s vision.

If we ask, where does the passion for justice come from, we might also ask, “Why do some people just not seem to get it?” We have certainly seen examples in recent years—and in all ages—of the high and mighty (and maybe some everyday citizens) who seem to care about little but their own comfort and ease and profit. In fact, the reading from Matthew implies that they are not where we need to look for a vision of justice. Jesus asks what the people expected when they went out to hear John the Baptist. Were they looking for someone in fancy robes, living like a king? What they got, and what they needed, was a prophet to announce the coming of a new way of walking together on this earth. (Matthew 11:7-10)

Interestingly, Jesus ends his words about John the Baptist with the declaration that “the least in the kingdom is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11) I take that to mean that Jesus is calling every one of his followers to be a messenger preparing the way.

Finally, it seems almost contradictory, but James’ instruction is to “be patient.” (James 5:7-8) Let yourself be surrounded by, comforted and encouraged, even empowered, by God’s vision of justice, but be patient walking along the highway leading toward its full realization. Take time to sing and pray along the way, remembering, as someone once said, that “all the way to heaven can be heaven,” if we just notice it and live it as best we can right now. Let’s keep walking all the way through Advent and beyond, passionate about God’s vision of justice.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 73:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

I once spent nearly a year with a Jungian psychotherapist working through some personal and relational issues. At one point in the process he asked, “What does it mean to be an Ogden?” We expanded it to, “What does it mean to be an Ogden/McCarahan?” My mother was a McCarahan.

I am in a unique position to answer that question, since I am the keeper of the family history documents on the McCarahan side, and have most of what is available on the Ogden side. Their psychological significance is another matter, something most of us never quite finish discovering.

Many people are “into” researching, recording, studying, and sharing “family trees.” Advent (the season leading up to Christmas) is an appropriate time to examine the significance of family trees on a larger scale. Christmas, biblically and, for many, in contemporary celebration, is a time that's about family. Matthew opens his Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, and Luke includes another version of the genealogy early in his Gospel. (Neither is part of the lectionary readings for this week, but you can check them out in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 if you wish.)

Some of the readings for this Sunday can be an occasion for thinking about our “religious” family tree. Isaiah, chapter 11 actually begins with the image of a tree—well, actually a stump. It looks ahead to “a shoot” which “shall come out from the stump of Jesse . . .” (vs. 1) Jesse was the father of King David. Isaiah goes on, in the same verse, to speak of this anticipated descendant as “a branch” growing “out of his roots.” Tree images all over the place—roots, a stump, shoots, branches. In talking about family history we often use such language, speaking of our “roots,” the various “branches” of our family, etc.

In the reading from Romans Paul freely adapts some of Isaiah’s words, speaking again of “the root of Jesse.” (Romans 15:17) In the Gospel lesson from Matthew the image of an ax “lying at the root of the trees,” which are in danger of being cut down, is more troubling, but it comes in the context of a common ancestor, Abraham, being identified.

This one to come from the root of Jesse has come to be seen as the “Messiah,” the “Christ,” Hebrews and Greek words, respectively, for one to be anointed as king. As time went on, it came to refer to a king who would come from above to restore all things to harmony so that peace and justice would reign. Isaiah, chapter 11, contains an ecstatic poetic expression of that dream and hope. “ . . . with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (vs. 14) Even the predators and prey in the animal kingdom will live in peace.” (vs. 7)

The reading from Psalm 72 prays that the king will “judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice,” defending “the cause of the poor,” giving “deliverance to the needy,” etc. (vss. 1-4)

Unfortunately talk of family trees can lead to division as well as unity, one trying to lay greater claim to this or that ancestor so that brother and sister are alienated and/or separated. “Mom loved me more than you!” Words like those of John the Baptist in Matthew, chapter three, have been interpreted over the years in ways that have led to great division among those who look to Abraham as a common ancestor.

Christians have claimed the vision of Messiah has been realized in Jesus. Some despise Jews who reject that claim, and some Jews see the Christian claim as blasphemous. The followers of Muhammed are descendants of Abraham as well, and revere Jesus as one of God’s prophets, but not as Messiah. Jesus becomes a point of division rather than unity.

John the Baptist, in Matthew 3:9-10, reminds the descendants of Abraham that, if the tree they have become does not bear fruit, it can be cut off. Other scriptures suggest that they can be replaced and other branches grafted into the original trunk. Some, over the years, have interpreted this to mean that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s favored people. Those who make such statements are not likely to build good relationships with the Jewish community, our cousins as descendants of Abraham.

I believe God’s vision of harmony is bigger than our various religious communities. Romans offers a vision of a more inclusive community. It includes Gentiles (see Romans 15:9-11), but not to the exclusion of Jews. It prays that “the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another . . . that together you may with one voice glorify God.” (vss. 5-6)

I grant that it is not that simplistic, that we still have to come to grips with who “Jesus Christ” is for us in our respective traditions, but I do not believe John the Baptist was saying that all the Jews of his day had an ax at their roots. He was addressing those who didn’t bear fruit. I believe his words today can be seen as a message to all who claim Abraham as an ancestor. “Show your claim to this ancestry by bearing the fruit of a faith that is like that of Abraham, an expression of the family tree that has grown from Abraham’s roots.

So, here are the larger family tree questions to be answered. Starting with our own particular tradition (Christian, Jewish, etc.), what does it mean to bear fruit in that tradition? What does it mean to be brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.? Now think of the Abrahamic tradition of which three major religions of the world are expressions. Ask again those questions about bearing fruit, being brothers and sisters, etc.

Finally, we can expand our outlook to the entire human family. We all trace our ancestry back to God, metaphorically if not literally. Ephesians 4:6 speaks of “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” What does it mean to be a fruit-bearing tree that has emerged from that root? Can we seek a kingdom in which we acknowledge the family tree whose many branches help keep the entire tree growing?

I believe that Advent is a time to dream about and realize such a family tree.

A footnote: I have been greatly influenced by a family systems book (addressed specifically to religious leaders) entitled Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, by Edwin Friedman, a Jewish rabbi and family therapist. He looks at the dynamics of the families who are members, the dynamics of clergy families, the dynamics of congregations as families, and how the three interact. He poses a question to clergy: “Who in your family ordained you?” He’s asking who in your family most influenced you to become a clergyperson. In this week’s reflecting on our family trees, I think that question can be expanded to, “Who in your family has been most decisive in shaping the branch you have become?”

What kind of fruit is our family tree, personal, congregational, religious, and beyond, bearing?
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122:1-9, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, that season of anticipation that looks ahead to Christmas. I’m writing this on Thanksgiving morning. The Oregonian newspaper that was delivered to our door this morning weighed four pounds! It included three large packets of advertising, many of them announcing sales starting at 3 or 4 or 5 A.M.

I guess that’s the way the world begins Advent. It makes me wonder how many people would be drawn to a 3 A.M. sale on “Peace.”

Many in the Old Testament lived in anticipation, and peace was very much a part of that anticipation. They looked here, there, and everywhere for a king who would right the wrongs of this world and bring peace, justice, righteousness, harmony, prosperity, and general well-being.

Some of that longing is evident in the reading from Isaiah, chapter two, which includes those familiar words about nations beating “their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) Psalm 122 includes prayers for peace. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem . . . Peace be within your walls . . . Peace be within you.” It talks about seeking your good, i.e, the good of the city.

Some within Judaism saw the birth of Jesus as a sign of such peace and well-being. Part of the message of the angels in the Christmas story is that peace and good will have come to the earth. Christians through the ages have struggled to understand what that peace means, when, at times, there seems to be no peace. The expectation of a peaceful kingdom has been sometimes reinterpreted so that it refers to a spiritual kingdom, a reign in the hearts to men and women.

It’s so easy to give up on the dream of peace. Last night Margie and I watched a documentary about John Lennon, of Beatles fame. It paid a lot of attention to his peace activism. He acknowledged that there had been a lot of disappointment, that “flower power” hadn’t brought in the peaceable kingdom. He urged people to never give up. Here we are thirty some years later, and it still hasn’t arrived. Imagine how discouraged those people throughout biblical history must have become as they awaited the fulfilment of the dreams God had implanted in them!

For Christmas one year, John Lennon and Yoko Ono posted Christmas greetings on bulletin boards all over the world, in many languages. The most prominent feature of the posters was huge print declaring, “War Is Over.” In slightly smaller print underneath, it said, “If You Want It.” At the bottom were the words, “Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”

“If You Want It.” Sounds kind of idealistic doesn’t it? In the light of the other two scripture readings for this Sunday, I’d be inclined to say instead, “If We Live It.” Notice, I didn’t say, “If We Work For It.” That’s important also, but it starts with each one of us living it.

The Epistle and Gospel readings both address a darker aspect of the long-awaited arrival of God’s justice. It included a day of fearful judgment. People sometimes dreaded its coming. They wanted to know exactly when it was going to happen—like some people in our day. Jesus put an end to that by saying, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36) Not even Jesus knew, so I guess I don’t have to spend a lot of time working out schemes and calendars so that I know the exact time.

Instead, Jesus says, after acknowledging that there are indeed some scary times ahead, live in readiness all the time, be wide awake in your living all the time. (vss. 42-44) Paul, in Romans, talks about living “honorably” as the day nears. (Romans 13:13)

So, what does all this have to do with getting ready for Christmas? Some have decried the fact that we seem, at times, to focus all our benevolence on limited times of the year—most notably Christmas and Thanksgiving. The Christmas Spirit, they say, should prevail year round. The dream of peace is not just a Christmas dream; it is a something we hope will be realized every day of the year.

We might move closer to making it a reality if we lived it every day. Being ready in the Epistle and Gospel lessons in not unlike John Lennon’s declaration, “War Is Over: If You Want It.” Being ready is not so much living in either fear or anticipation. It is looking to the dream embodied in Christmas and beginning to live it now, and each day of the year, in all that we do and say. If we do that we will be ready, for whatever comes, whenever it comes. And who knows? Maybe what comes will be peace!
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures:
Reign of Christ Sunday: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Luke 1:68-79, Psalm 46:1-11, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43
Thanksgiving Day: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 100:1-5, Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:25-35

I’ve included two sets of readings this week. Many churches focus on Thanksgiving this coming Sunday, the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day.

In the year of worship around which the lectionary readings is organized, Nov. 21 is the Reign of God Sunday (often called Christ, the King, Sunday). It’s not only the last day of the season following Pentecost; it’s the last day of the church year. Nov. 28 starts a new church year with the First Sunday of Advent. The church year culminates with a celebration of the Spirit of Jesus permeating and informing (reigning in) all of life.

Christ, the King, (or Reign of Christ) Sunday reminds us that the political powers of this world are not the final authority for believers. In my theology, Christ does not exercise power and authority exercised as dictatorial monarch, but as an inner personal guide persuading the heart. I think of Reign of Christ Sunday as a celebration of God’s vision, shown in Jesus, of a new community in which the ideals for which we all long reign.

Most of the readings for Reign of God Sunday refer, in one way or another, to God, or Jesus, as king. Jeremiah looks ahead to days when the Lord “will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 23:1-6) In one of the Gospel lessons, Zechariah, a priest, speaks at the circumcision of his son, John (known to us as John the Baptist). “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go to prepare his ways . . .” (Luke 1:76) Those hearing the words would probably have thought of the hoped-for messiah. Zechariah goes on to speak of a “dawn from on high” breaking “upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide out feet into the way of peace.” (vs. 78) The other Gospel lesson, also from Luke, takes us to the crucifixion, where the sign of Jesus’ cross says, “This is the King of the Jews.”

The Psalm speaks of God being “in the midst of” Jerusalem,” “the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High,” where his power over the nations which “are in uproar” is apparent. (Psalm 46:4-6) “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth,” saying “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” (vss. 9-10)

The reading from Colossians paints a picture of what some call “The Cosmic Christ.” It uses a string of striking images to picture the Spirit of Christ as the glue which holds everything together. A key phrase is “in him all things hold together,” followed by the declaration that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was please to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20) Taking all the imagery seriously, but not literally, I picture the Spirit of Christ as the beating heart of the Cosmos. The Love he represents is what keeps things going, what informs history at its best, what moves us on toward the fulfillment of the highest visions and dreams of God.

The readings for Thanksgiving Day, not surprisingly, focus more on a spirit of joy and thankfulness. The passage from Deuteronomy gives instruction for a harvest festival when “first of all the fruit of the ground” is offered in thanks to the Lord. (Deuteronomy 26:2) The occasion is their entry into the Promised Land. They give thanks for “a land flowing with milk and honey.” (vs. 9) “Then you . . . shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” (vs. 11) We could dwell on this history of conquest behind their possession of the land. We could wonder if too much emphasis is put upon the abundance they have enjoyed, rather than upon the deeper values which have also been God’s gift to them. Still, when we give thanks, we need always to remember that food and shelter, basic sustenance, strength which carries us through hardship, are things to be remembered with deep appreciation.

Psalm 100, a favorite of many, is filled with exuberance. Consider the words and phrases: “a joyful noise (vs. 1), “gladness” and “singing” (vs. 2) “thanksgiving” and “praise” (vs. 3). Are such things at the core of our celebration of Thanksgiving? Undergirding them is the declaration, “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” (vs. 5)

Philippians, too, calls for rejoicing, indeed, repeats the instruction to “rejoice.” “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) It instructs to “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (vs. 6) The context is “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” the passage concluding by exhorting the reader to focus upon “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,” i.e., “anything worthy of praise.” (vs. 8)

Both sets of readings seem to call us to focus not on surface things, whether they be earthly power or material wealth. Pay attention to, give authority to, be thankful, for the things that matter.

The Gospel lesson from John, which follows the story of the feeding on the five thousand makes it very graphic. Don’t focus on “food that perishes.” Instead work for “food that endures for eternal life.” (John 6:27) Eternal life here is not just some future reality. It is the result of bread “which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (vs. 33) We find at the end of the reading that Jesus (or Jesus’ living Spirit) is that bread—“the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never by thirsty.” (vs. 35)

Among the many ways in which people have understood and comprehended and experience “Jesus,” one is as a Spirit of eternal love, enlivening the entire cosmos, undergirding human interaction and relationships, bringing salvation (wholeness, healthy functioning) to all that is. What could matter more?
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 65:17-25 and Isaiah 12:106, Malachi 4:1-2a and Psalm 98:1-9, II Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

What do you think is coming our way? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do grand pictures of future possibilities make any difference? What happens to our ideals in the rough and tumble of everyday existence, or political realities? Is there any place for compromise so that those holding competing visions can come to some kind of compromise? Are we doomed to gridlock forever?

The reading from Isaiah 65 is a vision of an ideal society, sometimes called “The Peaceable Kingdom,” an expression of Israel’s hoped-for future ruled over by a divine Messiah. All the stuff that has been dragging us down in the past will be gone and something new will come into being. (vs. 17-19) Infants will make it beyond those critical first days after birth and old people will live out a long and full life, “for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth.” (vs. 20) (Frankly, I’m not sure that living to 100 is high on my “bucket list,” but fully enjoying my old age is fine with me. On good days, I’m doing that now.)

People will reap the benefits of their labor. (vss. 21-23)

The vision ends with the famous picture of the animals, prey and predator, living in peace with one another. “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But will it ever be? That’s part of the debate in American politics today. Some of our politicians speak eloquently of a society in which peace and justice, compassion, abundance, and security prevail. There often seems to be a great gap between the vision and their ability to deliver. So, why bother with visions?

There’s a saying I’ve heard attributed to a variety of people, most frequently “anonymous.” "If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time." If we have a vision, a plan, we may not achieve it, but part of it is likely to come into being. Without a vision, there is “nothing” to hope for.

I need a vision to fill me with hope, to give me something to aim for. What is your vision of the ideal society? What is mine? We need more conversations about that. Maybe the reading from Isaiah 65 can be a beginning point.

Unfortunately, too often we are unable to engage in civil conversations about conflicting visions. One person’s vision is viewed by another as a descent into hell. We see it in politics—even in some churches—every day.

Even in the Bible, we can find visions of doom and destruction to lay alongside that of “The Peaceable Kingdom.” We can work on reconciling them by saying that they apply to different situations in different times, but I wonder whether some of it is just the difference in temperament between the optimist and the pessimist. One is always hopeful that things will get better. The other sees threat on every side.

Malachi certainly paints a scary picture, although it’s one of those where the “good guys” come out okay. There is destruction “burning like an oven” for “evildoers,” but those who “revere” God’s “name the sun or righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” (Malachi 4:1-2a) I don’t like images of anyone being destroyed. I once said something strange like, “If God sends anyone to hell, then I want to go there to continue to love them because that is what Jesus had modeled for all of us.” Talk about youthful idealism, but is it an idealism we need to hang onto?

Malachi paints a picture of how bad things have gotten, as do other prophets. Most of them offer a way out. Repent, turn around and fix things, so that this seemingly inevitable destruction is avoided. God wants things to get better, but God can’t do it unless we join in the work that needs to be done. It’s not unlike what many are saying about the environmental crisis of our day. If things keep on the way they have been going, the future is not very hopeful, but we can change and, in so doing, change the future in a positive direction.

Remember last week’s message from II Thessalonians when people were sitting around waiting for the end to come. Paul told them to get back to work. This week, he reminds them of his own example. When he was with them, he always joined in the work that needed to be done. (II Thessalonians 3:7-9) He exhorts them to work “quietly” (without making a big deal out it), to “not be weary in doing what is right.” (vss. 12-13)

Vision cannot remain “pie in the sky.” We have to roll up our sleeves and go to work if we want the world to be a better place.

In Luke, Jesus also paints a pretty scary picture—the destruction of the temple, wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues (Luke 21:5-6, 9-11), even personal persecution so that you will be “betrayed” and “hated.” (vss. 12, 16-17)

Many have tried to make specific predictions based on the references to wars, earthquakes, etc., but those things have been with humanity throughout history, continuing down today’s headlines. Whatever the future, I see Jesus looking around and seeing society collapsing. It’s easy in our day to look around and see the same. Jesus’ focus seems to be less on the destruction and more on the fact that we will survive. He will give us words and wisdom (that offer peace, healing, and hope, I want to believe) that build strength and endurance in all our relationships (even with our “opponents”). (vss. 14-15, 18-19)

Jesus is often seen as an idealist, but he is also a realist who is ready to equip us to live in a real world. We live in a day when we need to be equipped. The future of the American and world political, economic, and social scene is not very clear, but we cannot give up. We need to continue to stay tuned to visions that are infused with the Spirit of God, reaching out even to those who seem to be our “opponents,” moving toward “The Peaceable Kingdom” one step at a time.
Thursday, November 04, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Haggai 1:15b-2:9 and Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 or Psalm 98:1-9 OR Job 19:23-27a and Psalm 117:1-9, II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

We are creatures of time. We can look back on many experiences, as well as the longer history of family, nation, and the human race. We live in anticipation that there is much yet to come. Most of life is experienced, however, day by day in the now.

We sometimes look back to “the good old days,” like the people Haggai is addressing. They have returned from captivity to view the ruins of what is left of Jerusalem. They look at the ruins and are overwhelmed. How can it ever be like the good old days? The Lord recognizes this when he says to them, through Haggai, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”

Most of us have some good old days to which we look back. In recent weeks, the old days many people long for are the days when politics was more civil. The good old days for some may now become the days of Obama’s first term.

And then there’s the future. I’m convinced that a lot of what has fueled political debate in recent years is belief that one or the other party is going to destroy everything we have believed in and worked for. Instead of finding ways to work toward the common good, we feel we’ve become engaged in a battle to save the future. The result is gridlock. We’re stuck.

Maybe the returning exiles were stuck. Some felt that God had abandoned them—first by letting them be held captive in Babylon. Now they could see that the house where God lived no longer stood, so maybe they just gave up on God. Some had come to realize that God was not limited by geography or the walls of a building, but to have a powerful symbol destroyed was devastating and affected everyone’s psyche. Think the Trade Towers in New York or Pearl Harbor in an earlier era.

The word of the Lord through Haggai is that things will get better. First the most important promise: “My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” (Haggai 2:5) I have not abandoned you. That should be enough. We shouldn’t need bigger and better symbols, temples, but Haggai says even that will happen: “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.” (Haggai 2:9)

The future isn’t always what we hoped for or expect, but there will always be possibilities for us and God will be in it with us. Most of us, like the people in Haggai’s day, want something a little more concrete. We want to see what the future is like, especially when we face our mortality.

Most of the Hebrew people during much of Old Testament history believed that their children was their immortality. We see a hint of that in Psalm 145:4—“One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.”

Gradually, a belief that God’s people would experience physical resurrection grew up—not just the resurrection of one person, but of all. (That debate is behind some of Jesus’ conversations in the New Testament, including today’s story from Luke—which we’ll get to soon.) The writer of Job may have been one of the first to catch of glimpse of this possibility. In this drama about a man, Job, who suffered undeserved loss beyond imagination, he argues with God and his “friends,” maintaining his innocence. He is struggling to find a way through all this into the future. He cries out: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25-27a) (This verse was inspiration for words in Handel’s Messiah as well as a common hymn of worship.)

Whether Job’s talking about something akin to what we call eternal life or simply declaring that all will be well again in his relationship with God is not clear. Like the people to whom Haggai is speaking, he wants the good old days restored. He declares his faith that better times are coming and that God will be with him.

Like many who try to find a detailed calendar for end times, the people to whom Paul is writing in II Thessalonians, thought they had it all worked out. Jesus was coming again soon so they might as well just sit back and wait. Paul writes to them saying, “ . . . we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” (II Thessalonians 3:11) Don’t let your anticipation of the future keep you from living in the present. In fact, past, present, and future come together in this reading from II Thessalonians. Remember the past and “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” (II Thessalonians 2:15), but take to heart this benediction: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” (vss. 16-17)

No matter what the past has been or the future brings, we live in the present, where we are to continue doing the good work, coming together to make this world a better place. God has left some of the building of the future in our hands. Are we up to the task or are we going to spend all our time longing for the good old days or waiting to be swept up in some miraculous future.?

This week’s Gospel lesson is an amusing encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees, the Sadducees being among those who rejected any belief that believers look forward to some kind of resurrection. It was Jewish law that if a man’s brother died he was to take the widow as his wife. If there is such a thing as resurrection, these Sadducees want to know, what if there are seven brothers who die one by one, each taking the original widow as a wife? (Luke 20:27-31) Finally she dies. (vs. 32) “In the resurrection,” they want to know, seeking to trap Jesus with they sly question, “whose wife will the woman be?” (vs. 33)

There’s much to puzzle over in Jesus’ answer, but some things are clear. Jesus resists their attempt to tie down the details of the future. You don’t get it, he says. Life will be lived on such a different order that old ways of thinking about it won’t work any more. Everyone will be like family, as if all are married to one another. (vss. 34-36) More importantly, what you should be focused upon is “living,” whether it is now or in that time after life as we know it, for God “is God not of the dead but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (vs. 39) Those whom we think of as “dead” and those whom we know as “living” are all connected in a great “Communion of Saints.” Paul puts it this way in Romans 14:7-8: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

Let’s not worry so much about past, present, and future. Let’s be about our living right now. Let’s worry less about what destruction this political party or that political party may bring. Let’s move beyond such divisions and work together on the things that build up life—even today, for it is out of today that the future is built.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures:
For Sunday: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 and Psalm 119:137-144 OR Isaiah 1:10-18 and Psalm 32:1-7, Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
For All Saints Day: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149:1-9, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

Monday, Nov. 1, is All Saints Day. Many churches use the Sunday nearest to that date to celebrate “All Saints Sunday,” and the lectionary offers the second set of scriptures as an option.

All Saints Day is the day we celebrate our connection with all the saints in all ages, past, present, and yet to come. It is called “The Communion of Saints” and we are all part of it.

It can be a time for reflecting on, among other things, the nature of the “community” in which we participate in the here and now. I’ve long been interested in “community,” not so much in the geographic sense of a group of people who live in the same neighborhood as in the sense of a group of people who intentionally band together in some kind of common life. The building of “community” has been one of the guiding principles in my ministry.

What does community means to us? What kind of community do we seek to participate in and build? What kind of community are we called to be?

The Quakers, who have deeply influenced my thinking about and experience of community, speak of the church as “The Blessed Community.” Josiah Royce, founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation coined the phrase, “The Beloved Community,” borrowed by Martin Luther King to describe his vision for human relationships on this earth. Both sets of this week’s lectionary readings offer insight into what it means to live in community. Here are excerpts from those scriptures, as well as from the Quakers and Martin Luther King. May we find in them some inspiration for living as “The Communion of Saints” in our place and time.

Paul’s letters are full of expressions of his closeness, his partnership, his sense of community with those to whom he is writing.

II Thessalonians 1:3—“We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.”

Ephesians 1:11-23 (although probably not written by Paul) is a text often used in celebrating All Saints Day because it reaches beyond the confines of this life to speak of an “inheritance,” a “destiny,” a “hope.” In the middle of it is another expression of that sense of connection: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (vss. 15-19)

A Quaker statement about “The Blessed Community”: “We are a diverse group of individuals who have been drawn together by the Spirit . . . It is only with God’s Spirit that such a diverse group of individuals can realize and embody the kind of unity, belonging, and community that answers to that of God within us. The Quaker Meeting is meant to be a Blessed Community – a living testimony to a social order that embodies God’s peace, justice, love, compassion, and joy; an example and invitation to a better way of life. Like our other testimonies, Community can be a prophetic call to the rest of society. From their earliest beginnings, Quakers have witnessed to their experience of the wholeness that God intends for us in this lifetime on earth. The Spirit calls us to live in a loving relationship with God, with each other, and with all of creation.”

Excerpts from “The World House,” a chapter in “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We have inherited a large house, a great 'world house' in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.
. . .
“Every nation is an heir of a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead of all nations have contributed . . . We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women. When we rise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge which is provided for us by a Pacific islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a European. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are already beholden to more than half of the world.
. . .
“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly . . . This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men . . . We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind's last chance to choose between chaos and community.”

The Gospel lesson for All Saints Day includes Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, surely part of the definition of what it means to “The Blessed Community”: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:20-21) The passage ends with some specific instructions for those who would live together. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (vss. 37-31)

The Gospel lesson for Sunday is the story of Zacchaeus, which shows Jesus again reaching out to include someone who is considered unclean by the religious establishment, not only a tax collector but a “chief tax collector.” (Luke 19:2) This “outsider” then demonstrates another feature of community. With no apparent prompting he commits himself to repaying those whom he has defrauded, mending relationships which have been broken. When Jesus sees this act of community-building, he calls it “salvation,” reminding us that community is about seeking out and including, not just about feeling “warm and fuzzy” with those who are like us.

Being “The Blessed Community” is no small thing. It is a partnership into which God has called us, in which the divine presence works in and through, beside and with, us day by day.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65:1-13, Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 and Psalm 84:1-7, II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 19:9-14

The general tone of this week’s lectionary readings is positive. Its message is something like this: “You may be going through a rough patch—even a seriously rough patch—but hang on. Things will get better. And through it all you can still find comfort in the presence of God.”

It’s a message I’ve been reluctant to speak at times, careful and judicious in my use of it. It’s not always a comfort when one is in the bottom of the pit. No words can take away the pain of one’s present suffering.

Beyond the words, is a presence. Sometimes when we are moved by the plight of someone near to us, we want to find the right words when all we can give is a hug, our loving presence. The most comforting word may be, “I’m here.”

Many of the prophetic texts we have looked at have spoken of the troubles faced by God’s people. Granted, there’s usually a word of hope, but it doesn’t always leap out. This week, in Joel, it’s right up front. The locusts and grasshoppers may have nearly done you in, but abundant rains will come. There will be rich harvests. You will prosper again. (Joel 2:23-26) You “will never again be put to shame.” (vs. 27)

Along with the promise related to the earth is a promise for human relationships, a promise which is remembered in the New Testament at the time of Pentecost. God’s spirit will be poured out on everyone (not unlike the situation foreseen in Jeremiah last week). God’s spirit will overcome the distinctions we usually make as we try to exclude this type of person or that type of person. The spirit will come to young and old, male and female, even to those who are enslaved. Their ability to dream and see visions will be renewed in them, the very wellspring of hope. When we no longer dream and have visions of possibility, hope is gone. (vss. 28-29)

This week’s Psalms speak of the strength and joy one can find by being in the presence of God. “Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.” (Psalm 65:4) “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” (Psalm 84:1) Psalm 84 uses the image of a sparrow who finds a safe nest. (vs. 3) The presence of God is a source of strength (vs. 5), so that it is possible to “go from strength to strength.” (vs. 7)

Like Joel, Psalm 65 sees God as a source of sustenance for the earth, watering it, enriching it, so that pastures give sustenance to flocks and “valleys deck themselves with grain.” (vss. 9-13) Psalm 65 also sees God providing “deliverance.” “You are the hope of all the ends of the earth and the farthest seas.” (Psalm 65:5)

I’m not always as lyrical about it as the Psalmist, but I am sustained by the same hope. My life, like that of so many, has been a matter of peaks and valleys, at least as many valleys as peaks. Sometimes the valleys have been pretty dark, seemingly hopeless, but I can look back and say, “I clung to something, or something clung to me, and I made it through.” Hope is not always a sudden bright light that switches on. It is a spirit at work within us “with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

Sirach (a book, sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, not in our Protestant Bibles), named for Jesus ben Sirach, writing a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ, picks up the same theme as the Psalmist, that of God’s generosity (Sirach 35:12). We don’t have to bribe God. (vs. 16) God doesn’t choose favorites. Although this passage includes those troubling words, “He will not show partiality to the poor,” those who are “wronged,” the orphan, and the widow are all singled out as among those to whom God will listen. (vss. 16-17) God gives generously to those who are in need.

II Timothy extends this line of hope to the end of our earthly existence. It contains the image of life as a race and is often taken as Paul looking back in his old age. The words probably were not written by him, but may have been written by someone in his name, as a tribute to the endurance of his life. It is a life where the runner has not lost faith, has not given up. (II Timothy 2:6-7) In that race, the Lord has given the runner strength. (vs. 17) It is obvious that the race has not been easy, but the runner has found hope in the presence and strength of God, not unlike the hope found in several of today’s texts. And now, he finds hope beyond this life. Nothing in this life has been able to destroy this runner and now not even death will be able to do him in. (vs. 8) Hope is more than abundant crops. It is assurance of a meaning that keeps us in the race.

The reading from Jeremiah has a different tone, depicting a common response when one is in the dark valley. “It’s all my fault. What did I do to get here? I am no good. I’m sorry. Please forgive me and put things right again.” (See Jeremiah 14:7, 10, & 20)

Our Tuesday morning group this week spent a lot of time discussing the theology of reward and punishment and its abuse. I’m not going to try to resolve all the questions those of us with a “progressive” spirit have. It is interesting to note in this passage that, in the middle of their crying out, the people still have a sense of God being with them (vs. 9), of God as the giver of abundant rain (vs. 22), so that God is still the source of hope. “We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.” (vs. 22)

When we put the passage from Jeremiah together with the Gospel lesson from Luke, we see that the plea for forgiveness is an act of humility. With all the showering of abundance found in most of this week’s passages, it would be easy for a person, or nation, to say, “Look at all that God has given me. I must really be special. I deserve this and it shows that I am better than other people.” That was the attitude of the Pharisee in the parable Jesus tells in Luke, chapter 18. He is one of two men who went up to the temple to pray. His prayer is, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. I do all the right things and you know how good I am.” (Luke 18:11-12) He stands in his high place of pride and looks down on others around him. In contrast, the tax collector, whose business no good Jew would undertake, stands afar and simply confesses that he is a sinner. (vs. 13) As is the case more than once in Jesus’ teaching, we see a reversal. The one who seems to be good is not the one Jesus praises, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vs. 14)

The Tuesday morning group also got into quite a discussion about the meaning of humility. Is there such a thing as “false humility”?

Part of my “humility” as I write this is a confession that I am unable to tie all this together into a neat lesson. This week’s texts stir in me an intuition that hope and humility are closely linked, but I haven’t yet come up with a way to express it. I’m also convinced, from experience as well as scripture and intuition, that without hope and humility we’re going to have a difficult time making it through the times of trial, and the times of abundance, that seem to be part of the human predicament. There’s an epistle text that is not included in this week’s readings, this time words that are almost certainly Paul’s. I offer them as an expression of hope and humility that we can take to heart in the good times and the bad, whenever we are wondering what it is all about or when we are tempted to become boastful about how well we seem to be doing. Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Monday, October 11, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:27-34 & Psalm 119:97-104 OR Genesis 32:22-31 & Psalm 121:1-8, II Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

I’ve missed being away from the lectionary blog the past few weeks. I’ve read Pastor Rick’s entries for the weeks we were gone. Sorry I missed the sermons. Missing worship at Kairos leaves a void. It’s familiar and comforting as well as unpredictably surprising and challenging.

After a lifetime of grappling with scripture, there are many which stick in the mind and heart as “favorites” or as challenges. Seldom do as many appear in one set of lectionary readings. I see them all as providing insight into a faith which is not confined to words on a page or a distant unapproachable God. They speak of a faith which lives in the heart, a God with whom we can wrestle, and scripture which prepares one for “good works.”

Jeremiah, the prophet who sometimes seems to despair, always sees more. In chapter thirty-one, he speaks of it in terms of planting seeds which will grow rather than a time of destruction. Tucked in the middle of the passage is a colorful early expression of individual responsibility. There was a saying about the parents eating sour grapes (sinning) and the children’s mouths puckering up, i.e., the children were punished for the parents’ sins. It is true that children often suffer the consequences of their parents’ sins, but Jeremiah wants us to take responsibility for our own sin, and faith, rather than blaming it on our parents, or thinking we can get by on their faith.

When I was a young brash seminarian, I preached a sermon on this text in my home church, talking about the faith of our parents not being enough. We have to make it our own.

The heart of the passage, a central text, I believe, in the Old Testament, is in verses 31-34 which speaks of a new covenant, one written on the heart, a covenant of forgiveness and relationship. It will not be just something written on tablets of stone. It will not be something just passed on from generation to generation. It may be all those things, but its meaning will be found in a relationship welling up from a heart connection.

The verses from Psalm 119 sound almost arrogant. “I know more than my teachers, more than the elders, and I obey every bit of the law.” Hogwash! I really don’t find a lot of comfort and encouragement in these verses. I am too aware of the ways in which I fall short.

There are two verses that do call out to me. In verse 97, the Psalmist talks about loving the law. “Law” here would have meant Torah, the first five books of scripture. If we can extend it to the entire body of scripture, I too can speak of loving that resource for life. Scripture, for me, is something to be loved (and translated into loving acts) rather than something to be slavishly obeyed. I particularly like verse 103 which contains the image of scripture as something sweet-tasting to be eaten. It is to be taken in and digested, rather than something simply read, followed by debates about strict interpretations and applications. The image is not unlike that Jeremiah offers of scripture that is written on the heart.

Words from II Timothy have sometimes been used to support a strict literalism in our approach to scripture. It speaks of “all scripture” being “inspired by God.” (II Timothy 3:16) What is often overlooked in these verses is the purpose of scripture. It is not inspired so that we can win debates and determine who is right. Its purpose is to equip people for good work. (vss. 17) A couple of other interesting thoughts are tucked away here as well. (1) Speaking the truth is not for those seeking to win a popularity contest. One is to be persistent in that task “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” No testing the winds with polls here! (2) People often go around trying to find someone who will give them the answer they want, accumulating “for themselves teachers to their own desires.” Whoever wrote this must have foreseen the politics of our day—or maybe the politics of any day.

The underlying message is to stand strong, not to be inflexible, but to root our lives deep in the traditions of scripture.

The stories in Genesis and Luke both show a God who is part of a give and take relationship—not some rigid demagogue who sends out decrees from afar. Jacob, perhaps carrying a burden of guilt, has a dream. Is it a man, or an angel, or God? In Genesis 32:28, the man says, “ . . . you have striven with God and with humans . . .” Jacob is seeking a blessing. Getting the family—and divine?—blessing seems to have been an obsession with Jacob. In the dream, he wrestles with the man, so vigorously that his hip is put out of joint. (vss. 24-25) He refuses to let go until he receives the blessing. (vs. 29) As happens in other stories, God’s name becomes an issue, and Jacob is not given it. Jacob may get a blessing, but he will not be given insights into the very heart of mystery, nor given magical power to control God. The surprising thing, however, is that he has wrestled with God, argued with God, “seen God face to face,” and lived. It is a strange story that tells us that God is not ultimately to be feared. Meeting God is a true “encounter” where we are both changed in the process. Jacob comes away with a limp, but also with a blessing. (vs. 31)

The story of the widow in Luke is another story of persistence. It’s a parable which challenges the image of God as a harsh judge. (Luke 18:1-2) The widow cries out to the judge for justice, persisting long enough that the judge is worn down and grants her request. (vss. 4-5) “Will not God do better than that judge?” Jesus asks. It doesn’t say that answers will come immediately, nor that they will come in the form we might prefer. It says, “Never give up in your praying.” Every Sunday—and many times during the week—we cry out for peace and justice. We get discouraged. The parable says, “Keep on praying and don’t lose heart.” Such persistence is an expression of faith. (vs. 8)

Psalm 121 is a classic about the source of our help. Some translations have suggested that it says our help comes from the hills. Many recognize instead that the first verse is a question. I sit here looking up at the hills and realize that the source of my help is greater than these. It comes from the one whose power is behind the hills and the skies. (vs. 2) Basically it is a Psalm about the comforting presence of God, around us whether we are awake or asleep, in the day and in the night, in our every coming and going. (vss. 4-8) It joins the other texts in presenting God as one who is not distant and anonymous.

If we are to know God at all, it will be in our everyday comings and goings, in our wrestlings and struggles, in our inner motivations and the good works that pour forth from our hearts.
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
Remembering who they were and whose they were, the Hebrew exiles lived with faith that God was still with them. Living, being, and growing as God’s people, they found the strength they needed to survive the exile, to walk and not faint, to struggle and find meaning. Ultimately, faith plants new life.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4–7
In an incredible testament to the resiliency of the spirit – and the profound impact it would have on the history of the world – the people of Judah survived the Babylonian exile (587 to 538 BCE). At the beginning of this exile, the prophet Jeremiah spoke through letters to help the exiles understand their tragedy theologically and to give hope that they could rise above it.

In the focus scripture, we read how Jeremiah encouraged the exiles in Babylon through a letter from Jerusalem. This letter was sent to the first deportees of 597 BCE. In chapter 27, we read how Jeremiah addressed those who had survived the first deportation – those who remained in Jerusalem. The message to both groups is similar. To those who survived the first deportation the message is to not resist Babylonian domination, but to accept it. To those who had been deported, the message is to not resist, to accept servitude in Babylon, and to grow. Jeremiah also countered false prophets who were promising the time in exile would be short; these prophets encouraged rebellion against the Babylonians.

Jeremiah encouraged his fellow Judeans to instead “build” and “plant.” These were the verbs used by Yahweh to instruct Jeremiah when he was commissioned as a prophet (1:10). In this letter, Jeremiah advised the exiles to build houses and live, plant gardens and eat, get married, and have children.

Jeremiah’s prophetic letter announced that even while living in exile, there was the hope of marrying and having children. This would ensure the survival of the people, who in the future would receive freedom and God’s blessings. The exiles were able to live in faith and grow because the Babylonians did not sell them into slavery; families and communities were allowed to remain together. Public gatherings were permitted, and so was worship.

During the exile, people’s emotions were raw with anger and sorrow, as Psalm 137 attests. Despite this, Jeremiah encouraged the people to pray for their enemies and “seek the welfare of the city” (v. 7). In praying for the security and prosperity of the land, the people of Judah would also benefit and be allowed to grow and blossom. Ultimately, the time of exile proved an important time for meaning, purification, and clarifying their identity in Yahweh. It also became a source of rich theological regeneration and exploration. Jeremiah believed that God led the people into Babylon and God would lead them out.

When life brings struggles, God calls us to trust. In trust, people gain confidence to “bloom where you are planted.” Psalm 66 acknowledges that God has “tested us” (v.10), but the people also see God’s faithfulness, which allows for praise and thanksgiving. In 2 Timothy 2:8–15, Paul speaks to enduring everything for the sake of the good news of God’s saving love. There is meaning to suffering, because God’s word liberates and makes one whole. When Jesus heals ten lepers in Luke 17:11–19, the Samaritan’s act of gratitude truly makes him whole.

Sometimes, God calls us to actions that go against our natural inclinations. God’s vision of our lives is far greater than what we perceive, especially in difficult times. In trusting God, we may be led to plant new life in unexpected places. What message of hope is God uttering to you in the silence of your heart? How is God equipping you to plant and nurture new life where you are?
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Sometimes pain is so deep and strong that it is very difficult to express it or even acknowledge it. Yet, we are welcomed to open our hearts, to grieve, and even to express our anger before God. Such honesty is invited in prayer as God accepts our pain in all its fullness and rawness. In such freedom to grieve, healing can begin.

Focus Scripture: Psalm 137
Prophet Jeremiah’s warnings of doom came true in 587 BCE, when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem. The walls fell, the temple was destroyed, the Davidic dynasty came to an end, and the leading citizens were taken to Babylon as exiles. The depth of their sorrow can be felt in Psalm 137, an expression of lament. This psalm was written either during the exile (587–539 BCE) or shortly after the people had returned to Judah. The psalm is brutally honest, and expresses despair and anger before God without fear or shame.

The Hebrew exiles gather at the “rivers of Babylon,” perhaps a stream or canal of the Tigris or Euphrates rivers. Being in a strange land, they are homesick. When they remember their lives in Jerusalem, it is painful. Yet, it would be even more devastating to forget. If Jerusalem were forgotten, they would lose their identity. In remembering Jerusalem, the exiles are longing for their geographical and spiritual home.

The captors torment the exiles, taunting them to sing “songs of Zion” (v. 3), which were only to be sung in Jerusalem. Zion was the mount on which the temple was built and was a holy site. Psalms 46, 48, 76 and others are “Songs of Zion” that proclaim the greatness of Jerusalem, which was to be protected and defended by God always. So, asking for “songs of Zion” rubbed salt into the wound of Jerusalem’s destruction.

In an act of defiance, the people hang up their harps and refuse to sing. This action is about being in control of one’s freedom to choose one’s response. Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl, who was incarcerated in Auschwitz, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning: “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”

The exiles choose not to sing, but they choose to remember who they are and who God is. They pray for God to “remember” (v. 7) and to share in their pain, just as God shared in the pain of the Hebrew people when they were slaves in Egypt (Exodus 3:7).

Verse 9 is shocking, yet speaks something very important. Such cruelties have been witnessed and suffered by the exiles. At the heart of this verse is the need of the victims to have others understand and acknowledge their pain. Rather than taking the matter into their own hands, they take their anguish to God for understanding and healing, being honest with God about the depth of their feelings.

Being confident in faith, we can turn freely to God in all situations. Lamentations 1:1–6 personifies the city of Jerusalem weeping bitterly in the night, mourning what it has become. In the words of Lamentations 3:19–26, the people turn to God in the midst of grief – praising, trusting, waiting. The writer of 2 Timothy 1:1–14 remembers Timothy with gratitude and joy, recalling his sincere faith and offering encouragement. In Luke 17:5–10, Jesus teaches about faith as the awareness of God’s power, our relationship with God, and doing what is expected of us.

God is open to all that is deep within us – things we may fear, be ashamed of, or be embarrassed about. We are free to grieve. It is from this place of honesty that faith is born and the desire for healing finds its home. What might help you to find the time to open yourself to God? What has prevented you from being completely honest with God? What might be possible when God heals your wounds?
Thursday, September 23, 2010
In the midst of seeming hopelessness, God provides surprising and radical gestures of hope. Though it may be difficult to understand, God’s trustworthiness is sure, God’s plans are hopeful, and God’s faithfulness is comforting. In our faith rituals, we celebrate our relationship with God, even in times of chaos and stress.

Jeremiah 32:1–3a, 6–15
In the shadows of the declining Assyrian empire, Babylon and Egypt were flexing their muscles in the region. Jeremiah had begun to warn the people of impending doom at the hands of the ever-expanding Babylonian Empire. True to Jeremiah’s words, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem in 597 BCE and deported many of its citizens. Furthermore, against the advice of Jeremiah, those remaining in Judah launched an unsuccessful revolt, and the Babylonian army returned in 588 BCE to blockade Jerusalem and starve out the city.

Jeremiah agonized over the theological meaning behind such doom for the people of Judah. The reason for the fall of Jerusalem was not that the Babylonian god was stronger than Yahweh; rather, destruction came because God’s people were worshipping the gods of Baal (fertility and prosperity god of the Canaanites) instead of Yahweh, making an alliance with Egypt, and not trusting in God.

While the Babylonian army was blockading the city, God told Jeremiah to buy a plot of land. Previously God had told Jeremiah to buy a loincloth to hide (13:1–11) and an earthenware jug to break (19:1–11). Now God tells Jeremiah to buy a field that he will not be able to plant or harvest.

The whole episode of Jeremiah buying the field from his cousin is based on “the law of redemption” (Leviticus 25:25–55). This law states that, should any property or any person within the family be in danger of being lost, it is the duty of the most senior family member to make sure it stays within the family. Because of the Babylonian invasion, Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel is destitute because he is unable to farm his field at Anathoth – Jeremiah’s ancestral land. Hanamel visits Jeremiah in prison and calls forth the law of redemption.

Jeremiah conducts the transfer of ownership in a conspicuous way. The prophet then orders his trusted companion Baruch to store the document in a safe place – in an earthenware jar that will keep for a long time.

Jeremiah’s act seems incomplete and meaningless without God’s words in verse 15: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” In fact, the whole passage seems meaningless without God’s word to Jeremiah. “Thus says the Lord” appears five times in this short passage to indicate that this transaction is indeed God’s plan; it is a sign of hope of God’s promise of a future beyond the fall of Jerusalem.

Trusting in God’s promises and following God’s ways sometimes require great trust. When Psalm 91:1–6, 14–16 is placed next to the focus passage, the psalmist’s faith seems even more remarkable: God is faithful, answers our call, and is our refuge and protection. First Timothy 6:6–9 makes a plea regarding the importance of keeping steadfast faith and the value of holding on to what really is life, rather than material wealth. Luke 16:19–31 stresses that it is important to serve the neighbor with justice, hospitality, and compassion now – to wait may be too late.

God’s ways are trustworthy even in times of despair and hopelessness; these ways can be trusted even when they seem mysterious to us. What is holding us back – as individuals and as a church – from embracing God’s future? What makes it possible to dare to trust in God’s plans, even when they seem illogical? What are we willing to sacrifice so that you might make a surprising investment in God’s eternal ways?
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
With the community addressed in 1 Timothy, we are reminded that God’s people pray in all circumstances. We are urged to pray for everyone, including political leaders, so that all people may live in God’s reign of peace and wholeness – shalom. God’s wise ways lead and encourage us as we seek to live prayerfully as members of the Body of Christ and also citizens of our own countries.

1 Timothy 2:1–7
When the early Christians realized that Jesus would not return soon, they worked to organize communities of Jesus’ followers for ongoing worship and service. Leaders like Paul wrote letters of teaching to these groups, offering their interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and the implications of Jesus’ teachings for the Body of Christ. The letters to Timothy most likely date from a later time than the life of Paul, but they reflect Paul’s teaching.

In the focus passage, the author teaches about prayerful living, urging the community to pray for everyone.

These verses also address a thorny question facing those who lived in the Roman Empire. Should a Christian pray for an emperor who demanded to be honored as a god, and before whose statue oaths were taken? The author tells the Christian community it is “right” and “acceptable” to pray for political leaders, so that they might live “a quiet and peaceable life” (v. 2). Some scholars suggest this urging did not mean yielding to Roman custom, but embodying a desire to see God’s peace (shalom) established for all people. Other scholars suggest that the author was using Paul’s “voice” to encourage the church to befriend the empire and its ways in order to move forward. Others suggest these words are to encourage church members to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) in order to survive.

The author says God, “our Savior,” desires for all to come to the saving knowledge of the truth of God’s saving ways. This message of inclusion is grounded in the belief that there is one God and one mediator between God and humankind, Jesus the Christ. In verse 6, Jesus is described as “a ransom for all.” Though Christian theology has several ways of exploring what this means, a cornerstone of our faith is belief that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection declare God’s victory over evil and bring new life. The kernel of the author’s message is that God is a God of salvation, forgiving and restoring to wholeness all who call on God’s name.

Like the church in Timothy’s time, Jesus’ first hearers struggled to find a way to live in the world, and yet not of it. In Luke 16:1–13, Jesus tells a story of a shrewd manager. Accused of squandering his master’s money, the manager visits the debtors with a plan to repay the master and provide for his own future. Jesus commends this manager for finding a way to live in the current situation, yet also speaks to the responsibility to live faithfully into the shalom of God’s reign.

When the relationship with God seems broken, God’s people cry out in lament, a prayer for help in a time of grief. In Jeremiah 8:18—9:1, the prophet laments that the people have been unfaithful to God’s commands. Leaders have been carried off into exile. Psalm 79:1–9 echoes Jeremiah’s lament, weeping over the destruction of the Temple and the death of the people at the hands of the Babylonians. This is an image of life in the absence of shalom.

Prayer is part of living faithfully as citizens of God’s realm. God’s people are called to pray for peace and justice for all people. What does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name for leaders? How might prayerful living strengthen us to work for justice, even as we pray for God’s shalom?
Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Being in a relationship with God can, at times, be like a lover’s quarrel. However, God never gives up, always seeking to repair the relationship and restore the love. God takes the initiative so that we may live securely in God’s liberating and nurturing ways. As we are growing in God’s love, we can learn to mirror God’s relationship with us in our relationships with one another.

1 Timothy 1:12–17
First Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are often referred to as the Pastoral Epistles because they offer advice on the life of faith and the regulation of church discipline. In addition, these letters urge the early Christian communities – and Christians today – to resist false teachings.

The author of 1 Timothy was not Paul; key theological phrases found in other Pauline letters are not present. The writer seeks to faithfully address new situations with Paul’s voice. For the first readers, using Paul’s name would have given authority to this writer’s words.

The letter is addressed to Timothy, the son of a Greek father and a Jewish mother who was a Christian. Timothy first worked with Paul in Lystra (Acts 16). This letter, written as from Paul, sets out to encourage Timothy – use of this name may represent those entrusted to spread Paul’s teachings – to provide guidance in church administration and to oppose false teaching.

The letter asserts that the tradition passed on from Jesus to Paul and now to Timothy is set against the false proclamations of Hymenaeus and Alexander (v. 20). The importance of faith is illustrated by Paul’s life and the powerful transformation he experienced. The real hero in this drama is Christ. After all, Paul did not cause his own transformation; it was the work of the risen Christ. The gift of Christ’s grace, along with faith and love, transformed Paul to live faithfully and minister with gusto. Though formerly a persecutor of Christians, Paul “received mercy” (v. 13) and was made an example (v. 16). God’s generous mercy and love deserve the honour and glory for the transforming work in Paul’s life and in ours.

The phrase “the saying is sure” (v. 15) is a remnant of a confession from worship in the early church. It sets up the strong theological statement that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (v. 15). The phrase “saying is sure” appears four other times in the Pastoral Epistles. Each time, it introduces a similar theological statement about the saving purpose of Jesus the Christ.

Telling one’s story helps God’s people understand their struggles with life and faith. It also gives powerful testimony to the power of God’s mercy, which is beyond human limitations. Just as Jesus’ stories are retold, Paul’s conversion story is retold in 1 Timothy.

God not only holds the Body of Christ accountable in the soundness of faith, God also holds the body together in love. Indeed, it is God’s love that helps the community grow and bring about longed-for changes. In Jeremiah 4:11–12, 22–28, the prophet laments the plight of the world due to human failings. Still, God will not let the world be completely destroyed. Similarly in Psalm 14, God is dismayed by human choices, but human sin will not prevail. God will restore God’s people. In Luke 15, Jesus tells how what is “lost” will be restored through parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son. Luke 15:1–10 celebrates the shepherd’s joy in finding a lost sheep.

Seeking what is lost and seeking to restore the world, God brings hope. The powerful ways in which God acts in our world can be seen in people like Paul and Timothy, and also in our own lives. Such saving love stirs us to respond and live into God’s hope. When have you experienced God’s gifts of mercy and overflowing grace? In what ways are your life and your church being transformed as you are growing in God’s love?

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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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