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Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148:1-14, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

Where are the boundaries? And what difference do boundaries make? This week’s reading from Acts is the story of boundaries and the easing of their effects.

Any time one is one thing, one cannot be the other; or can one? I belong to the Ogden family. It is not the Obama family or the Palin family. That doesn’t necessarily mean antagonism; it is just a fact of life. I’m a Christian, not a Muslim or Sikh. I am an American and not a Brazilian or Nigerian.

Any time one belongs to an organization or group there are definitions of who is in and who is out. What does it mean to belong to anything if there is no way to characterize those who belong? The Christian Church has asked repeatedly over the ages, “What defines a Christian?”

I seem to remember a law in logic about things that are contradictory. They cannot both be true at the same time. In the realm of religion, for instance, one can be inclusive—of everyone but one who is avowedly “noninclusive.” They are opposites; it is impossible for the one to encompass the other. Or is it?

Boundaries may sometimes lead to wars. Sometimes they become expressions of arrogance: My father is better than your father. It’s better to be an Ogden than a Palin. Sometimes the attempt to define boundaries leads to efforts to force you to become like me. If you want to play with me, you have to remake yourself in my image.

The early followers of Jesus were Jews. Jesus was a Jew. They worshiped and studied in Jewish synagogues and mostly followed Jewish ritual practices. Some Jewish groups were more inclusive and others were less inclusive. In my reading, Jesus is one who was on the side of inclusivism, but even he said, in Matthew 12:30, “Whoever is not with me is against me . . .” God’s love, though, is all-inclusive.

The early followers of Jesus were put to the test when Gentiles wanted to join their ranks, seen in this week’s lesson from the book of Acts. There had always been Gentiles who converted to Judaism—if they adopted the ritual practices of the Jews. What was going to be required now? There were a variety of issues—circumcision and food among them. It was determined that Gentiles who wanted to become followers of Jesus did not have to be circumcised, but what about food?

In Acts, chapter eleven, Peter reports a vision and experience that pulls that early band into a more inclusive position. In the vision, Peter is offered food which strict Jews would consider “unclean” and refuses to eat. He hears a voice say, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”—or “unclean.” (Acts 11:5-9) It turns out that the vision is not about food but about the inclusion of Gentiles. After the vision is repeated three times, some Gentiles who have also received a vision, knock on Peter’s door and take him to a Gentile household in Caesarea. It is God’s Spirit that prompts him to go with them, telling him “not to make a distinction between them and us.” (vss. 10-14) In this encounter, Peter senses the presence in them of the same Spirit that gives life to the followers of Jesus.

After his experience, Peter says to the leaders in Jerusalem, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17) The boundaries have been broken down. Our differences do not need to separate us.

If we live by love, we are not in a position to impose requirements that keep out those whom God’s love includes. Such truth may reach far beyond the walls of our congregations. It may even have some implications for immigration law.

Margie and I recently attended Center Stage Theater’s presentation of The Chosen by Chaim Potok. It is the story of two traditions in Judaism, members of which seem to be in a state of that logical contradiction I mentioned earlier. The young Hasidic boy has to get permission from his rabbi father to have as his friend a boy who is not Hasidic, permission which is granted and later revoked. The narrator of the story, at the beginning and again at the end of the play, reminds us of a rabbi who once said, “There are these and there are those. They both are the words of the Lord.” In the mysteries and grace of God maybe even logical contradictions can be overcome.

I’m glad I’m part of a congregation which clearly stands for inclusiveness. In our inclusiveness, we need to continue to ask what it means to be followers of Jesus. If we hear the questions and challenges put to us by Pastor Rick on almost every Sunday, we cannot avoid reflecting on our identity as those who claim to be part of the Christian tradition.

What about the rest of this week’s readings? The Psalm, another Psalm of praise, has its own inclusiveness. Who is called to praise God?—sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and cattle, creeping things and flying birds, kings and princes, young men and women, old and young. (Psalm 148: 7-12) That’s pretty inclusive!

This week’s reading from Revelation deals with newness—a new heaven and a new earth. (Revelation 21:1) One seated on a throne says, “See, I am making all things new.” Wherever and whenever we are to find this newness—past, present, future, heaven, earth (or all of the above)—I find verse three to express the most central truth I see embodied in Jesus. The one on the throne says, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them . . .” Jesus told us that his realm is all around us. Can we see and enter into the new thing he is doing, starting now?

The passage from John, chapter 13, immediately follows Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. He tells them that his work on this earth is done and where he is going they cannot come. (vss. 31-33) Rather than pointing them to the skies, leaving them desolate, abandoned by the very presence of God’s love, he says, in effect, “It’s up to you now. You are to build that loving community I’ve talked to you about. I’ve shown you what it means to be loved and loving. I will not be gone if my love continues to exist in what you do, in the relationships you will build. ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’” Is that perhaps intended to say something about inclusion? Where God is at work, his Spirit is bringing into being an ever-expanding community of love.

Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome!
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23:1-6, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

We’re still in the Easter season, celebrating the power of resurrection. Whatever else the message means, it tells us that death is not the final word about the meaning of life.

One of this Sunday’s lectionary readings is about someone being “raised from the death”—hard for the modern mind to digest. At the same time, the story of Tabitha (or Dorcas) is so human. She’s died. Her friends have gathered. What are they doing? They’re admiring her handiwork, the clothing she made while she was living. They’re in the presence of death but their interest is not focused upon the lifeless body. They are reveling in something of beauty and significance that has been left behind. It is a testimony of sorts that the meaning of one’s life doesn’t stop when the body expires.

It turns out in this case that Tabitha rose to face another day. It doesn’t always happen that way, but for those who have eyes to see, death does not define the meaning of life.

Psalm 23 has been a comfort to many, with its pictures in which we are surrounded by green pastors and still waters, our souls restored, etc. The sheep and shepherd imagery is there in a couple of the other lectionary passages as well. Revelation 7:17 says that “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life . . .” In John 10:27, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

Most of us have little up-close connection with shepherding. Our images of this dirty, smelly, taxing, sometimes boring, labor are often idealized. Sometimes we’re not sure we want to be thought of as sheep—not the brightest animals of the block. The image of sheep and shepherd calls us to a certain amount of humility, but that’s a lesson for another time.

In the middle of Psalm 23 is that familiar verse four. When most of us learned it, or first heard it, the words were, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Most newer translations have something similar to what the New Revised Standard Version (our pew Bibles): “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil.” It is another declaration that death is not the final word about life. It speaks of walking through troublesome, potentially frightening times, and coming out on the other side—finding resurrection. The passage from Revelation speaks in a similar manner. Here are all those in white robes again singing praise to God. Someone asks who they are. The answer: they are the ones “who have come out of the great ordeal.” (Revelation 7:13-14) Like the sheep, they have found themselves in a comforting place where there is no hunger or thirst and all tears are wiped away. (vss. 16-17) For the Psalmist or the writer of Revelation it is the presence of God that makes the difference. “I fear no evil; for you are with me . . .” (Psalm 23:4) The Lamb in whose presence those in white are singing is their shepherd. It is God who wipes away the tears. (Revelation 7:17)

Whatever other interpretations one imposes on the entire book of Revelation, it is a vision that came to John on the island of Patmos for the encouragement of churches and followers of Christ who were under persecution, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, threatened on every side. The message then was, as it is now, “You will get through this. God will not abandon you. These threats do not define what your life means.”

The promise, in my opinion, is not just for some future heavenly state. Resurrections will continue to occur in the middle of this life. You will probably walk through more than one dark valley along the way, but don’t let those dark valleys define what your life means. “You are my children, my sheep. Remember who you are and who walks with you.”

Many who saw and heard Jesus during his ministry on earth weren’t quite sure who he was. Some speculated that he was the Messiah. In this week’s Gospel lesson from John, chapter 10, they confront him. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (vs. 24) When I read the story today, it seemed to me that Jesus' response tells them they’re looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. While he speaks of “eternal life” (vs. 28), his main emphasis seems to be upon getting them to see that God is already right there. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me (vs. 25), concluding with the words, “The Father and I are one” (vs. 30) It is again the assurance that he is with us. Resurrection doesn’t have to wait. It’s there every day for those who have eyes to see.

The essence of resurrection is being filled with the life of God, which is something that can never be overcome by death. John’s Gospel begins with these inspiring words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Light and life are more powerful that darkness and death.

In the 17th chapter of John (vss. 20-26), Jesus prays for his followers in all ages. For me, his words in this prayer, not death and darkness, define the power of the resurrection. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me . . . I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” That’s the resurrection I want to see and experience and talk about!
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30:1-12. Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

The lectionary readings for Sunday demonstrate the dramatic reach of resurrection power. There is great reversal.

Psalm 30 speaks of being restored from “Sheol” and the “Pit,” the shadowy place where, as one writer puts it, “the dead were thought to lead a conscious shadowy existence . . ., they were not in torment, but had neither hope nor satisfaction”—a place where, perhaps, they awaited judgment. The Psalmist, “restored” from that place praises God because “you have turned my mourning into dancing; you taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” (Psalm 30:3 & 12) In the middle of the Psalm is one of my favorite promises, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (vs. 5)

In the Gospel lesson from John 21, we have a transformation from discouragement and doubt to full nets, exuberance, and faith. When some of the disciples go back to fishing it doesn’t go well. (vss. 2-3) Jesus, unrecognized at first, appears and tells them to cast their nets on the other side. Suddenly the nets are full. (vss. 4-8) Peter recognizes Jesus, puts on some clothes, and jumps into the sea. (vs.7) This is the same Peter who once tried to walk on the water only to become frightened and begin to sink. (Matthew 14:30)

He’s no longer the same Peter, although the transformation is not yet complete. This is also the same Peter who denied his Lord three times, and now he is given a new chance. Three times Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter answers, “Of course I do,” after which Jesus tells him to “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” “feed my sheep.” I’ll leave it to others to parse the details of this encounter. What I see is that we are given second chances. There is hope even for those who have stumbled into the pit of despair and doubt and denial. Jesus still has a place for such people in his ministry and mission.

In the reading from Acts, we see that even a persecutor of Jesus’ followers can be resurrected and become the most prominent shaping voice of the early church. Jesus appears to Saul (whom we now call Paul) as a sudden flashing light from heaven (which literally blinds him) and a voice that speaks to him and gives him instruction. (Acts 9:3-9)

We see him transformed from persecutor to advocate. But not without another transformation. There’s a community of believers in Damascus, including Ananias, who is told to welcome this persecutor. (Acts 9:10-14) There is understandable fear and doubt, but Ananias is obedient, welcomes Saul and heals him from his blindness. (vss. 15-18) Saul/Paul remains for a time with the disciples and begins to preach in the synagogue. (vss. 19-20) Resurrection power not only changes a persecutor into an advocate. It transforms a group gathered in fear into a welcoming community.

In the tradition in which I grew up, this story of Saul’s “conversion” was taken as a model for all conversions. This is what was supposed to happen to each one of us upon our initiation into the way of Jesus—bright lights and all. Some of us struggled with that. Although there is a moment with some drama that I look to as my initial moment of conversion, and other moments of being held in overwhelming love along the way, very little of it comes in terms of bright lights and voices from the heavens, moments in which I was knocked down and blinded.

Most of us don’t start in the pits or as crusading enemies of the church. It is true that there are those who have come into the church from a life of addiction, from experiences of violence, etc. For some, the changes have been dramatic and visible. Many, however, have grown up in the church or have, at least, been guided by values consistent with those taught by the church. Maybe they have never even known a time when they did not feel the presence of Jesus’ Love surrounding and filling them.

For me the most significant transformations have had to do with self-image and going through times of trial. I grew up in what some would call “poverty,” although not in a “dirt-poor: existence. The conditions did not help my self-image. In today’s terms, I might have been one of those made fun of on the internet. My experience of Jesus and the church community told me different. I was worth something. I had a place in the scheme of things—a “scheme” which was about a love that embraced even me. Along the way, like most people, I’ve had experiences that have thrown me for a loop, setbacks and challenges that defied reason and filled my being with shame and pain. It’s why that fifth verse of Psalm 30 has so much meaning to me. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” I’ve not been Paul on the Damascus road, but I’ve known the power of resurrection in everyday human life and living.

I believe the bottom line is in the experience of an accepting community. Such communities are the body of the living Jesus. Not all churches live up to that ideal. Even the best fall short. It is such communities, though, that have sustained me again and again and again. Even those guided by a fairly narrow theology had room for a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, even welcomed him into leadership positions. Some, including Kairos, have been so much bigger, welcoming seekers of all kinds, people whose identities have been challenged by the larger society, people who are hanging on for dear life, people who have accomplished great things, people who have talents to be used in service and ministry, etc., etc.

Which leads me to some concluding thoughts about another theme in a couple of this week’s scriptures—the theme of light. Scripture tells us that “God is light.” (I John 1:5) It’s there is Saul’s experience on the Damascus road. I see it in the passage from Revelation with all its mystery. I’ve always thought, “If this is a picture of heaven, I’m not sure it’s for me.” As much as I enjoy singing, I don’t relish standing around singing “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” for all of eternity. (Revelation 5:12) Yet I am moved by the majesty of these few verses and picture them in a setting bathed by brilliant white light. The word “glory” contained in the song being sung refers to the glowing essence emanating from God. The Quakers speak of the light within, i.e., God’s light within us, shining in and through us. I don’t believe that the “light” is necessarily a dramatic external event. Not all of us respond to life’s powerful experiences in a dramatic way. Resurrection transformation can be a quiet inner, even recurring, experience. Whatever its form, I believe scripture intends it to be filled with illumination that will guide our lives, help us take next steps, lead us into communities of celebration and support.

Other notes:

1. Jesus is often known in mealtime experiences. It is in such experiences that his followers recognize him. This week’s Gospel lesson contains another of those times. It sounds much like those occasions of remembrance when we break bread and drink of the cup. This time it is a breakfast of bread and fish. “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the same with the fish.” (John 21:13) I once was part of a church where we regularly celebrated Communion around the breakfast table. “Eating” with, serving Jesus, communing with him, is a moveable feast. The table is set beside the seashore, on Glisan Street, at a walk-a-thon, in our homes, on the battlefield, in the boardroom. Anyplace is a place we can meet Jesus and he us, if we are ready for our eyes to be opened.

2. Verse 18 offers a proverb about aging and loss of control. When you’re young you can fasten your own belt and control your own life. That changes when you get older. In reality, younger people don’t always have as much control as they like to think, nor do all older people go through rapid deterioration. Nevertheless, this verse could call us to think about control and loss of control and how they affect us.

If this is, as some think, a look ahead at Peter’s death (or a report by a writer some years later who has already seen Peter’s death) it may point to crucifixion as his form of death (“you will stretch out your hands”). Verse 19 notes, “He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.” Is Peter being reminded that love is not without cost? Receiving and giving Jesus’ love means putting one’s very life into those relationships of love.

Whatever the exact meaning, the passage ends with one of Jesus’ signature phrases, “Follow me.” Jesus is not just about Damascus road experiences. His call is to follow. The sign that we are in a relationship of love with him is in the following. Even Saul wasn’t stopped just so he could bask—or be frightened by or overwhelmed by—a burst of light. He was directed to a community and given a task. He heard and responded to the call, “Follow me.” The resurrected Jesus continues to speak those words to all of us across the ages, “Follow me.”
Tuesday, April 06, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150:1-6, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31

Human life is lived in the midst of a much larger reality, to which we are called to be faithful. It is finally, Paul says (quoting a poet of his day), in God that” we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

This sometimes put the early Christians, as well as believers in all ages, in conflict with the authorities of the day. In Acts, chapter five, we find the early apostles causing such a stir that they get the attention of the Jewish Council. The apostles are told to stop.(Acts 5:27-28) The apostles response: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (vs. 29) It is a declaration which is a challenge to our living everyday. Are we simply following the winds that blow as governments and people around us try to tell us how to live, or are our choices responsive to some deeper internal compass?

The book of Revelation, from which one of this week’s readings comes, was written to encourage Christians in a time of Roman oppression, kind of an underground document full of symbols which the readers in that time would have understood. There have been those in every age that have applied the symbols to nations and leaders in their day, with absolute certainty. The truth of the book can be applied in every age, but that truth is larger than the deciphering of symbols. It is simply this: “No matter how oppressed you are, God has the last word. God does not intend for your lives to be snuffed out with no meaning.” Someone once said of the book of Revelation, “I’ve read the last chapter; God wins.”

This week’s reading from Revelation is from the beginning of the first chapter and declares that truth right up front. God is not a passing fad, not someone who fades away in the face of a moment (or even a week or year or lifetime) of suffering and oppression. God is one “who is and who was and who is to come.” (Revelation 1:4 & 8) Jesus is described as “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” to whom “glory and dominion” belong “forever and ever.” (vs. 6) The reading ends with the Lord God saying, “I am the Alpha and Omega,” Alpha and Omega being the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. God is there at the beginning and at the end and in all the time in between. Revelation calls us to remember that in troubling times. The meaning of life is much bigger than one little (or maybe not so little) setback.

This is the third Sunday in a row the lectionary has offered Psalm 119 as a reading or an alternative reading. It is a wide-eyed celebration of life that “is marvelous to our eyes.” (vs. 23) “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (vs. 24) “The Lord is God, and he has given us light.” Let’s celebrate! (vs. 27)

Psalm 150 might offer us an occasion to reflect on how to celebrate. There are instruments (trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, cymbals). (vss. 3-5) Where are the drums? I want to see drums! I love it when we get the drums going on some Sunday mornings, including Chris’ enthusiastic pounding!

There is dancing! I’ve been part of congregations that have used various forms of dance as part of worship on occasion. How do we express our joy and enthusiasm before God? There is not just one right way to worship. It doesn’t always have to be emotional and exuberant. Times of quiet reflection and meditation are important. Sometimes (probably more often than occurs now) we need to let go and get a bit carried away. What do you think? Or feel?

Finally, the Gospel lesson from John, chapter 20. The risen Jesus appears to the fearful disciples who are hiding behind locked doors. (vs. 19) Notice that all those gathered are shown Jesus’ hands and feet. (vs. 20) Thomas wasn’t there in the room that day. (vs. 24) He asked for nothing more than the others had already been given—to “see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.” (vs. 25) A week later, in another meeting, he is given that opportunity. (vss. 26-27)

Are we sometimes slow to believe something a friend tells us? That seemed to be the case more than once as the disciples (including the women) tried to tell one another what they had seen. The story raises for us the question, “How do we know what we know?” Thomas comes at it with a scientific mind, as do many today. Show me proof. Unless I can see and touch and feel, I won’t believe. It’s an understandable but pretty limiting perspective.

Jesus says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (vs. 29) We’ve sometimes heard it said, “Seeing is believing.” Are there other ways of knowing? Is there more to life than can be seen and touched and felt?

We were not in that room, yet somehow or other we have declared ourselves connected. Others have told us and shown us and we have responded. We can’t always put it into words—nor do all of us use exactly the same words—but we have cast our lot with a community that tries to live according to the truth of a higher power which cannot always be captured in a scientific syllogism.

J.B. Phillips wrote a book with the title Your God is Too Small. If we take this week’s scriptures seriously we won’t settle for a God who is too small. We’ll open ourselves to be “blown away” by sweeping vistas that reach across the entire universe and beyond, and into the minutest detail of our daily existence. Now there’s something to celebrate with all the instruments and postures and movements and actions of service we can find!

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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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