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Wednesday, February 03, 2010
THE MYSTERY OF CLOSE ENCOUNTERS—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR FEBRUARY 7, 2010, THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138:1-8, I Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

In Isaiah 6 the prophet tells of an experience in the temple (an epiphany?). Mid-twentieth century students of worship often pointed to this passage as a model for worship—some of the feelings associated with “mystical” experiences of God, epiphanies. One begins with “awe,” a sense of being in the presence of something wonderful and mysterious and “holy.” (vss. 1-4) Surrounded by carvings and incense and burning offerings in the temple, Isaiah was overwhelmed. In the presence of such magnificence—one can feel small. Isaiah cries out. (vs. 5) Some have grown up with images of God that are not only awesome, but also fearsome. Isaiah quickly finds that he has, instead, come face to face with forgiveness—pictured here as live coals touched to his lips (not something that sounds particularly comforting to me.) The words spoken, though, are those of assurance and forgiveness.

As the experience continues, Isaiah hears words of call. The Lord is looking for someone to send on a mission. The mystical moment is not complete without response, in this case Isaiah’s words in verse eight, “Here I am, send me!”

All of the above elements are appropriate to the mood of worship. They are part of the human/divine relationship. They need not be applied only to congregational worship. They are moods to which we can be attuned in any moment of “spiritual” experience, alone or in the midst of daily human relationships.

The focus I see this week is upon paying attention to the purpose that is trying to come to focus in our lives. The Bible and theologians often speak of it as “call.” Whatever we call it, it is a matter of discerning what it is that we are to be about in our lives.

The Gospel lesson, from Luke, chapter 5, is another “call” story—Jesus calling his first disciples, fishermen. To connect with them he uses the analogy of fishing for people. As a fisherman, I’ve often been a bit troubled with that image even though I grew up singing the children’s song, “I will make you fisher’s of men.” It sounds like entrapment to me. Dragging people into church as a bunch of creatures trapped in a net gasping for breath—or, in more modern terms, at the end of a barbed hook pulling at the edges of the mouth—does not sound much like Love at work.

I know every analogy has its limits and it got their attention. It says they (Simon and James and John—and perhaps others) “left everything and followed him.” Now there’s a challenge. Following him is a serious challenge and it involves getting our priorities straight.

I think perhaps the heart of the story, if taken as sort of a parable, is back in verses 4-7. They’ve been fishing all night with no results. Jesus comes along and asks them to go out again—into deeper water—and try again. The results are overwhelming. They need a second boat to hold all the fish. Is there a point here about going where the fish are—and going deeper? My years of experience have taught me how to read the waters and determine where the best places are and what depths are appropriate. Whether we use the analogy of fishing or some other image, we want more people to know that they are loved and that there is hope in a world that is aching with need. Too often, the “bait” we offer is too bland (not “deep” enough). Maybe we haven’t even tasted the depths enough ourselves so that we have experienced the fullness of what it is that we have to share. Sometimes we are not willing to move out of our comfort zones into new places where we may be met with skepticism, but where we find whole “schools” of new “fish,’ some of whom may even be “gasping” for a breath of fresh air (to offer some confusing and perhaps contradictory analogies).

Without commenting in depth, it is worth noting some possible connections with the Psalm and Epistle lessons. Psalm 138:2 connects with the temple setting and verse eight speaks of the Lord’s purpose being fulfilled for the Psalmist.

I Corinthians includes another call story. Paul talks about the various people to whom the risen Lord appeared. At the end of the list, in verse eight, there is Paul, whose time of birth was such that he didn’t have the opportunity to walk and talk with Jesus in the days of his physical presence. That didn’t prevent Paul from experiencing his powerful presence. Even those of us many years later can be touched by that presence. Like Isaiah, Paul felt unworthy but he found a Love which accepted him just as he was. “ . . . by the grace of God,” he says, “I am what I am.”

“I am what I am” is one translation of YHWH (Yahweh), one of the Old Testament names for God. It is a favorite expression used by Popeye, who was, I believe, more theological than we realize. I once showed clips of the movie version of Popeye as part of a sermon. It’s worth watching again and again. If you do, pay special attention to the lyrics of the songs in it. The theme, from the very beginning, is a hymn of the church, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell.”

A couple of other resources:

Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, wrote another book, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. It is the story of a barnstorming pilot who realizes he (and, it turns out, all of us) is called to be a messiah. He is given a Messiah’s Handbook as part of his training. It is filled with pithy and provocative sayings, the foremost of which says, “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.” Many such thoughts in the book are useful in thinking about our purpose/call.

A poem by Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies/too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth’s superb surprise/As Lightning to the Children eased/With Explanation kind/The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind—” The Truth encountered in epiphanies in temples can be overwhelming. We can only make sense of it “slant,” through parables and stories. I certainly can’t begin to tie it all together here, so it’s up to you now, all you messiahs out there.

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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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