Powered by Blogger.

Follow by Email


Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Hosea 11:1-11 & Psalm 107:1-9, 43, Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23 & Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

Those who parent us are among the most profound influences on our lives—for good or ill, often for both. Those who parent are equally affected by the children they parent. Children can be lovable, annoying, demanding, thoughtful, diligent, lazy, mean. You add your own words.

The parent-child relationship here does not have to be biological. Uncles, older sisters, neighbors, friends, cousins, and a myriad of others all parent. Whole congregations and communities sometimes act as parents.

Admittedly not everyone has good memories of father or mother. Many do, and most long for the ideal of love associated with a parent who cares deeply.

Hosea offers us that kind of picture of God this week. Granted that the passage has a political setting with consequences still influencing politics in the Middle East, it is first and foremost a picture of God as a parent (whether male or female is not stated) grieving over wandering children (Israel or Ephraim). “The more I called them, the more they went from me . . .” (Hosea 11:2) God remembers teaching the child to walk. “I took them up in my arms . . . I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love . . . I bent down and fed them.” (vss. 3-4)

The God whom we see in Hosea is one who is persistent, who doesn’t give up. It is tempting to get angry and cut off the offending child, but by verse 11, God cries out “How can I give up . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger . . .” (vss. 8-9)

Hosea presents an Old Testament parallel to the story of “The Prodigal Son.” Psalm 107 has some of the same elements in it—the wandering people whose soul faints within them, who cry out as the “prodigal” finally did, and God guides them and reaches out to them with “his steadfast love.”

Hosea tells us that God is a parent whose Love is unconditional, who never gives up on us. For me, anytime we’re talking about God I believe we are talking about the very nature of reality. Maybe all we have are metaphors, some of them powerful, but they point to a truth about the cosmos. We live in a cosmos, I believe, that never gives up on us, that feels pain when we fail to treat it kindly and lovingly, that strives to heal the damage we do. It is a cosmos in which each one of us (and our contribution) matters beyond measure. It is a cosmos which values who and what we are, because without us it wouldn’t be what it is.

Probably never thought of yourself as living in a Cosmic Parent, did you—although we do, from time to time, talk about “Mother” earth.

Two of the other readings this week touch upon the heritage passed from one generation to another. The “Teacher” in Ecclesiastes despairs of meaning, this week mentioning that everything he (or she) has worked for will just be left “to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?” Who knows what they will do with it? (Ecclesiastes 2:18-29)

Luke, chapter 12, gives us the story of a brother whom comes for his share of the inheritance. (vs. 13) Jesus uses that incident to introduce a parable about a greedy man who gained more and more riches, storing them in ever larger barns, relying on the philosophy of “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” (vss. 16-19. At the end he dies and finds that he can’t take it all with him, the punch line being, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (vs. 21)

The man was following a course similar to those Hosea speaks of as following the “Baals.” (Hosea 11:2) Jesus says that there is something more to life than pursuing riches and pleasure. Both Ecclesiastes and this passage for Luke can call us to consider what heritage we are passing on to the next generation. Parents sometimes wonder whether they have properly helped their children ground their lives in values that endure and build up. The nature of the future we are preparing our children for, and preparing for our children, is a serious matter. Their very lives may hang in the balance. Has our world sold out to riches and comfort, doing great damage to the environment so that it is beyond repair, so that Mother Earth can no longer bear the pain and pay the price? Should we, with Ecclesiastes, say, “All is vanity”?

I don’t think it is too late. The prophets all held out hope, calling the people to change directions. God, like a good parent, they said, never gives up.

Finally, if our focus is on parenting, there is something we can pick out of the epistle lesson from Colossians as well. Paul talks about the values we are to live by as followers of Christ, using the image of putting on new clothes. (Colossians 3:10) In the verses immediately following this week’s reading, that image is elaborated. “ . . . clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . Above all, clothe yourselves with love . . .” (vs. 12-14) Parenting involves providing clothing for the children, in this case spiritual clothing. The values mentioned offer an alternative to the riches stored up in barns.

Galatians 3:27 speaks of us as having clothed ourselves “in Christ.” God, the ever-loving parent, wants us to be clothed in nothing but the best—in the Love (God’s Love) that we see embodied in Jesus, the Christ.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Hosea 1:2-10 and Psalm 85:1-13, Genesis 18:20-32 and Psalm 138:1-8, Colossians 2:6-19, Luke 11:1-13

Let’s talk about persistence this week—God’s and ours.

Human words, thoughts, descriptions, can’t encompass God. Our every attempt is a metaphor. This week we might do well to remember the image from The Hound of Heaven, a poem by Francis Thompson, a startling metaphor depicting the persistence of God. Here’s what one commentator writes about the image from that poem: “As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.”

This week we have a couple stories about human persistence, even negotiation, in the presence of God. In the first, the fate of Sodom is at stake. In the story Abraham negotiates to save Sodom. “If there are fifty righteous people left, will you forgive what has happened in the city?” (Genesis 18:20-25) God relents. (vs. 26) Abraham keeps pushing (vss. 27-31) until he finally gets God to say, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

I’m not entirely pleased with the final outcome because not even ten can be found. Notice, though, that Abraham’s plea is rooted in his understanding that this destruction is contrary to God’s nature. (vs. 25) The God we see here is not one who wants to vengefully destroy. This God does not draw a rigid immovable line in the sand. This is a God who wants to go as far as possible with us. In this story it is perhaps not as far as we would wish, nor as far as we find in some other images, but it is comforting to think of God as one who has a little give. (And if you have trouble with such human images of God, try applying them in some way to the very universe, cosmos, reality, in which we live and move and have our being. Reality itself has a little give in it. Life is not just rigidly deterministic.)

The Gospel lesson includes a story (or parable) about going to a friend at midnight and asking for some bread. The friend tells him to go away, but the one who knocked persists until the friend gives him what is needed. (Luke 11:5-8) If the friend is understood to be God, I have a little trouble again. Much of my experience and understanding has been shaped in a way that has God graciously and abundantly giving, without holding back. One has to move on to the images of a child asking for food (a fish or an egg). What person would respond to the request by giving a snake or a scorpion? (vss. 11-12) The punch line here is not that God has to be persuaded, but that if even we know to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

There’s a lot more to unpack in there. In verse 13, why are the people described as “evil”? Why is it suddenly “the Holy Spirit” that the heavenly Father gives? Lots to think and meditate upon. Whatever the outcome of our meditation, we are again given an image of a God—a universe?—who is responsive to our needs—perhaps even keeping us connected to the very “Spirit” of reality.

That seems to be the tack of the epistle lesson from Colossians. The all-encompassing image of Christ presented in this epistle continues this week. We are to live our lives “in him,” “rooted and built up in him.” (Colossians 2:6-7) “The whole fullness” of God dwells in him.” He is the head of every ruler and authority.” (vss. 9-10, see also vs. 15) It seems a bit grandiose when one considers the “practical” issue being addressed. Some were trying to make the new converts to the way of Jesus follow every ritual law about food and drink and worship. They were being presented again with a rigid, unbending, God.

Paul reminds them that God is bigger than that, working in the fact that God’s love is a forgiving love, that forgiveness is already at work in them. (vss. 11-14) “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths . . . Do not let anyone disqualify you . . . puffed up by a human way of thinking.” (vss. 16 & 18) In the final verse (vs. 19), we see that God’s all-encompassing Love (in this case embodied in Jesus) is what we most need to know about God and reality. It is from him that “the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”

In the Hebrew scriptures, Israel’s (and our) relationship with God is, on occasion, depicted as one of marriage. In Hosea (as well as in other passages) Israel (and we) are described as “whores” who have gone after other gods. Hosea’s own marriage, whether literal or depicted in a parable, is used as an illustration of the truth that God’s love persists, chases down even the “whore,” remains faithful to the commitments of love made in marriage even when Israel (or we) don’t. (See Hosea 1:2-3. Read all of chapter 1-3 if you wish.)

I’ll be the preacher Sunday and will be developing this image, as well as the story of Hosea’s relationship with Gomer, further. It is sufficient here to point out that two different words are used in the Hebrew scriptures to describe God’s love for us. One is the gracious unconditional outpouring of God’s very nature. God loves us just because that is who God is. The other love that comes from God is that which persists because of a commitment made, sometimes called “steadfast love.” (See Psalm 85:7 & 10 and Psalm 138:2 & 8, in this week’s lectionary readings.) It’s like love which is faithful to marriage vows. We may fall in love under the influence of the first kind of love, as God fell in love with us, but it is the second kind of love that keeps things going, persists. In our biblical tradition the “marriage vows” are described as a “covenant,” and the love which persists and is faithful to that covenant is sometimes called “covenant-love.” Such love is a theme illuminated by Hosea. God and we are in a committed relationship. God persists in faithfulness to that commitment and will never let go. Reality, whose nature I believe to be ultimately good and loving, will surround us and stay with us and follow us. That’s what the “Hound of Heaven” does.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Amos 8:1-12 and Psalm 52:1-9 OR Genesis 18:1-10a and Psalm 15:1-5, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

Hospitality is a rich theme in the history and teaching of many religions, including our own Judeo-Christian tradition. Biblically it means “welcoming the stranger.”

Abraham practiced hospitality one day as he sat in the door of his tent and saw three strangers approaching. He ran out to meet them, washed their feet, and fed them. (Actually it was Sarah and a servant who got stuck preparing the food, Sarah playing a role women have often been expected to play.) (Genesis 18:1-8)

What prompted Abraham to invite the strangers in? Maybe he was just a friendly outgoing person. I’m a quieter type and might have just watched them pass by, wondering who they were and where they were going. Perhaps Abraham was simply a vigorous follower of the customs of his faith. In the first verse of this week’s reading from Genesis we find that the Lord appeared to Abraham that day, which may have prompted his hospitality.

This story about Abraham may have been in the mind of the one who recorded these words in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Abraham entertained angels without knowing it that day. As people who live in the tradition of such hospitality, perhaps this story calls us to keep our eyes open for passing strangers who need our love and hospitality.

What would have happened if Abraham had not shown hospitality that day? These strangers, it turns out, have a message—that Sarah in her old age will have a son. They announce a birth that seems unbelievable, even laughable. (Genesis 18:9-15) Why is this earth-shaking, history-changing announcement connected with the story of hospitality to strangers? Is the son intended to be a reward for Abraham’s hospitality? Probably not, but it’s worth thinking about. Are we supposed to see the coming child as a stranger to whom Abraham and Sarah are to extend hospitality? There’s a thought: parenting as welcoming and offering hospitality to a stranger.

Hospitality can take many forms. Although the word is not actually used in the reading from the screaming prophet Amos, what he sees around him could be described as a lack of hospitality. He is one of the great Hebrew voices crying out for justice, accusing his people of practicing “deceit with false balances,” trampling the poor, bringing “to ruin the poor of the land,” “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” etc. (Amos 8:4-6) Sometimes whole societies lose their way when it comes to practicing hospitality. Our lives can be so impersonal. Perhaps the first step toward justice is getting to know those who are caught in situations of injustice.

The voice of the prophets can often seem grating, a lot like the screaming voices in the public debate of our day. Their message is that the things we’re doing to one another are going to result in destruction. Amos foresees such destruction and declares that it is coming. (vss. 7-12) It’s a message we don’t like to hear. Screaming voices offend us. Are there quieter ways to get the message out? I don’t know. Injustice in any age is destructive. It needs to be pointed out and corrected. I have loved Amos ever since I was first introduced to him, but I don’t find him to be a role model I necessarily feel like I can or want to live up to. There are still prophetic voices out there, but perhaps we can be prophetic in a variety of ways. What is our way, my way, your way?

We need also to remember that, if we take the prophetic message in its entirety, it is not one which says the future is set in stone, that destruction is inevitable. It is a call to change, saying, “This is what’s going to happen if things don’t change—SO CHANGE!—and God will be with you in that change.”

Psalm 52 is a prophetic Psalm accusing the people of mischief, plotting destruction, having a sharp tongue, working treachery, loving evil, and lying. (vss. 1-3) “You love all words that devour . . .” (vs. 4) Again the consequence is destruction. (vs. 5) There are similar themes in the alternate Psalm (Psalm 15). It extols those who “do what is right, and speak truth from the heart,” who avoid doing "evil to their friends, who don't "take up a reproach against their neighbors,” “who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.” (vss. 2-5) Hospitality is perhaps much bigger than we thought.

For many of us the story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel lesson has always been a bit difficult to interpret. Martha gets scolded for being a good host, welcoming Jesus as he is passing through and offering him generous hospitality. (Luke 10:38-39) Isn’t that something to be praised? Meanwhile, Martha’s sister Mary is sitting listening to Rabbi Jesus teach. Who does she think she is? Has she forgotten her place? Luke often lifts up how the unexpected person is included, in this case a woman who seems able to grasp the fine points of theology.

Martha confronts Jesus asking him to send Mary out to help her with the food. (vs. 40) Surprisingly Jesus rebukes her, offering the most obvious lesson of the story. “Don’t get distracted from what is important? Don’t get yourself into a tizzy? Focus on what is really important.” (vss. 41-42) Isn’t fixing the food important? Is it possible that Martha’s heart wasn’t in it in the first place? Could she have found peace and spiritual strength even in the kitchen if her inner being were focused? Saints in all ages have connected with deep spiritual reality while working at a myriad of tasks. Martha comes across as scattered and unfocused, while Mary is intent, knowing exactly what she needs to be doing—and doing it. Is that perhaps the contrast we need to see in this story?

The story also reminds us that hospitality is more than just feeding the body and taking care of creature comforts; it is taking the guest seriously enough to sit and listen. At the heart of hospitality is the need to make real connections with the stranger so that he or she experiences love and justice---and so that we benefit from what he or she has to offer.

If our theme is hospitality and hospitality is bigger than we usually imagine, the epistle lesson from Colossians reminds us that our hospitality is rooted in a Christ who is as big as all that is. These verses depict a “Cosmic Christ,” a Christ who is everywhere in all things, in all times. He is “before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:17) As Paul puts it elsewhere (quoting from a poet of his day), “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) The truth we find in Christ is really, really huge, Paul says. To achieve maturity we are to live fully in him and his teaching. (Colossians 1:28—See also Ephesians 4:13) Is hospitality—ranging from the kitchen to justice to listening to and relating to the stranger—one sign of maturity?
Sunday, July 04, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Amos 7:7-17, Psalm 82:1-8, Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 25:1-10, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

We’ll start this week with the Gospel lesson because I like the question it asks—although it also makes me squirm. A “lawyer,” an expert in the rules of behavior required of pious Jews, asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25) Jesus responds with a question. It is almost an insult, the most basic catechism question that every Jewish child should be able to answer. Jesus asks this wise and well-trained student of Jewish law to summarize the Torah. (vs. 26) The lawyer thinks he can hit a home run with his answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (vs. 27) You can almost picture Jesus patting him on the head and saying, “Good answer!” (vs. 28)

The lawyer hasn’t yet learned to quit while he is ahead. He asks a follow-up question. “If I’m to love my neighbor, I need to know who my neighbor is.” (vs. 29) It’s a question that rings across the centuries to us: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer comes in the form of a story, about a man who was robbed and beaten and left half dead along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. (vs. 30) Two pious Jews, a priest and a Levite, pass by without offering help. (vss. 31-32) It is only a Samaritan, a person viewed with avoidance and suspicion by a faithful Jew, who offers help. Those concerned about justice might appropriately ask how we can make this section of road safer, how we can reduce the crime rate so that fewer robberies take place. Such activity is a worthy way of helping our neighbor. But this victim’s need is immediate, as is the Samaritan’s response. Bandage him up, take him to a safe place, and pay someone to care for him. (vss. 33-35)

Jesus then concludes with another question to the lawyer who started the conversation: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer has gotten the point and says, “The one who showed him mercy.” The question has shifted from “Who is my neighbor?” to “What does it mean to be a neighbor?” To be a neighbor is to help those in need. And Jesus says to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” The power of the story is simply enhanced by the fact that the “neighbor” is a “foreigner,” not one of the pious followers of orthodox ritual.

So, who is calling us to be a good neighbor? The men at the Glisan Street shelter, the young girls in Kenya, the lonely person next to us in the pew, the friends suffering in the hospital, the person beaten by the police, and on and on and on.

On a larger scale, it is concern for justice that calls us to good neighboring. Some of the rest of this week’s readings, most notably Amos, remind us of that calling. Amos’ message is not unlike that of Jesus’ story in Luke. He looks at the practice of religion in his day and finds it wanting. He calls the rich women “cows of Bashan . . . who oppress the poor, who crush the needy . . .” (Amos 4:1) He speaks of Israel as those “who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” (Amos 5:12) Yet they continue to go to church and sing songs as if all is well with the world. He pictures God as a lion roaring at them, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” (Amos 5:21) What God wants, Amos says, is justice rolling “down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) Israel is being called to “seek good and not evil . . . Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate . . .” (Amos 5:14-15)

The portion of Amos’ message in this week’s reading has God holding a plumb line—a weighted string to determine if the walls—or the behavior of the nation—are as they should be. (Amos 7:7-8) They fail to measure up, of course, and the message leaves them angry as destruction is predicted. (vss. 9-17) The final chapter of Amos offers hope, but for the moment, they are forced to look directly into the face of the injustices that surround them. There comes a time when every good neighbor must face that reality and seek what is good. It’s not a pleasant message. It makes me uncomfortable, but God not only comforts the afflicted; God sometimes challenges the comfortable—even calling the comfortable to take notice of and reach out to the afflicted.

The theme of Psalm 82 is similar. “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy . . .” (vss. 1-4) Psalm 25 has more the tone of one who is feeling oppressed and put upon calling out for mercy and guidance, concluding that “all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.”

The epistle reading from Colossians contains a call which has challenged me again and again. Paul is praying for the people of Colossae, that they “may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord . . .” (Colossians 1:9-10) Leading “lives worthy of the Lord . . .” What a challenge!

The King James Version of the Bible talks about walking “worthy of the Lord . . .” I once preached a sermon titled, “Let’s Go for a Walk!” based on this text. There’s lots of walking in the Bible. Without repeating that sermon, let me just suggest that our walking may be a neighborly activity. Perhaps we can all take it from there and figure out how. Among other things, the reading from Colossians speaks of it in terms of bearing “fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:10), the result of a hope found in Jesus Christ, which is “bearing fruit in the whole world,” and “has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.” (vss. 3-6)

There’s so much more in this epistle lesson—and in all of this week’s readings. I hope every week you do so digging around in them yourselves, reflecting, praying, applying. Everything we need to know about being a neighbor is there if we take it in and then apply it as we walk the road from Milwaukie to wherever life takes us.

Blog Description

Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

Subscribe Now: RSS Feed

Blog Archive