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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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