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Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19, Jeremiah 23:23-29 and Psalm 82:1-8, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56

This week’s lectionary readings call us to think about self-destructive behavior. Why do we persist in such behavior? Where do the consequences come from?

Some of this week’s readings are about judgment. Many of the biblical images of judgment involve not the judgment of individuals but the judgment of nations. In some of this week’s readings from the Hebrew scriptures, it is Israel that is being judged, and, as is repeatedly found in the writings of the prophets, the basis of judgment is whether justice and righteousness are being done. (See Isaiah 5:7) We are given the image of a vineyard, “planted . . . with choice vines,” but it doesn’t bear the expected fruit. (vs. 4) God was looking for justice but instead saw bloodshed, for righteousness but heard people crying as they suffered the consequences of evil.

Psalm 82 pictures God with a “divine council,” “in the midst of the gods” holding judgment. (vs. 1) That image alone is enough to boggle the minds of us monotheists. This judgment is not an arbitrary thing from someone sitting isolated on a throne. The multiple aspects of God’s “personality” or the multiple expressions of divinity at work among us, or the powers and forces of creation and the cosmos, come together to assess the results of what the nations have been up to. Again, the basis of judgment is justice for the weak and the orphan, the rights of the lowly and the destitute, etc. (vss. 3-4)

Whatever one’s image of judgment, perhaps we can all agree that there are consequences to behavior. Some behaviors lead to destruction, whether as the result of an external force or the simple unfolding of what grows out of the behavior itself. Persistence in untreated addictions has consequences, sometimes deadly. When nations persistently pursue policies that are unjust, eventually they destroy themselves from within. The abused rise up; the abusers come to live in fear and conflict and mistrust. Might may get a nation a lot of territory, but, in the long run, a nation built on might alone will fall. Some of the greatest empires of all time are no more. Scriptures like Isaiah 5 and Psalm 82 give us a perspective from which to look at our own nation, and ask how we are faring according to the standards of judgment they present.

One of the things we sometimes see in nations is a tendency to turn inward, to assume that all of its blessings are to be reserved for themselves because they have “earned” them. Israel was no different, nor is the U.S. God intended Israel to be a “blessing” to all nations, to share with others what they had received from God. Too often, however, they seemed to want to keep the “blessing” for themselves. Psalm 80 reflects such an attitude as they cry out about others plucking the fruit of the vine God brought out of Egypt. (vss. 8-12) There’s the image of the vineyard again. They see it being destroyed and cry out to God. (vss. 13-19) Psalm 80 calls us to reflect on our attitude as a nation in our relationships with other peoples and nations. Think immigration policy, for instance.

The final, and perhaps most troubling, image of judgment comes in the Gospel lesson from Luke, chapter 12. Jesus talks about bringing fire and division on earth. (vss. 49-52). He talks about families experiencing devastating conflict. (vss. 52-53) It all needs to be interpreted through verses 55 and 56. We are able to look at the sky and wind and feel the climate changes around us and say, “It’s going to rain.” “It’s going to be hot.” (Although the weather reporters often misread the signs)
Shouldn’t we be able to read the happenings of our day just as well? What is it that we are supposed to read? Are we supposed to conclude from the prevalence of family conflict that something is wrong, that something destructive is at work, that we are in danger of destroying ourselves? Certainly something is stressing families in our day. Can we see it? Equally evident in our day is the emergence of a political climate in which peaceful and productive debate and compromise has become almost impossible. The political process is in danger of becoming, if it has not already become, self-destructive.

In Luke’s writing, the sign people are not reading is probably the presence of Jesus himself—and the mission he represents. Later in this same Gospel Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, offering once again words of judgment. “You haven’t been able to recognize the things that make for peace!” he says. “You did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:41-44) When we refuse to see and follow the purposes of God, as God’s Spirit seeks to work in our midst, we are choosing to go in a self-destructive way. Why do we so often make that choice and persist in it?

Jeremiah raises the question in a slightly different way. Where can we find trustworthy help for building productive lives and nations? The Spirit of God is at work everywhere, in all things, (vss. 23-24) but we have around us the voices of many interpreters. Jeremiah accuses some of the prophets of speaking empty dreams, making up whatever interpretations comes to them in the moment. (vss. 25-27) In verse 28, the Lord says, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat?” Straw is wheat from which everything of nutritional value has been removed. It is the word of the Lord, not wispy pipe dreams, that we can trust. This does not have to mean a literalistic adherence to a single interpretation which reduces God’s living word—the word God is still speaking—to a strict set of rules. In the U.S. we have great discussions about the meaning of the Constitution as it applies to current situations. At our best, we treat it as a living document. So it is with God’s word. It is our constitution, the document which shapes our identity, helps us see and learn from our history, opens our hearts to the divine Spirit. If it is not part of our discussion of who we are, where we have been, and where we are going, we will likely lose our way, if we have not already lost it.

The reading from Hebrews provides a final perspective on the stream of which we are a part. It continues the litany, begun last week, of those who have been faithful through the ages, concluding with the image of a race. We are in a race in which the crowd cheering us on is made up of all those who have gone before. Think about it for a moment. Who is in that invisible crowd cheering you one? Lifted by their cheers we are to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) In races of that day, the prize was often fastened to a pole at the finish line, visible to all who were racing. In this race, the prize upon which we are to keep our eyes focused is “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” If the race is life, I take that to mean that the life and teachings and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus provide the guidance and encouragement we need to continue in the race and avoid self-destruction.

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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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