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Monday, October 11, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:27-34 & Psalm 119:97-104 OR Genesis 32:22-31 & Psalm 121:1-8, II Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

I’ve missed being away from the lectionary blog the past few weeks. I’ve read Pastor Rick’s entries for the weeks we were gone. Sorry I missed the sermons. Missing worship at Kairos leaves a void. It’s familiar and comforting as well as unpredictably surprising and challenging.

After a lifetime of grappling with scripture, there are many which stick in the mind and heart as “favorites” or as challenges. Seldom do as many appear in one set of lectionary readings. I see them all as providing insight into a faith which is not confined to words on a page or a distant unapproachable God. They speak of a faith which lives in the heart, a God with whom we can wrestle, and scripture which prepares one for “good works.”

Jeremiah, the prophet who sometimes seems to despair, always sees more. In chapter thirty-one, he speaks of it in terms of planting seeds which will grow rather than a time of destruction. Tucked in the middle of the passage is a colorful early expression of individual responsibility. There was a saying about the parents eating sour grapes (sinning) and the children’s mouths puckering up, i.e., the children were punished for the parents’ sins. It is true that children often suffer the consequences of their parents’ sins, but Jeremiah wants us to take responsibility for our own sin, and faith, rather than blaming it on our parents, or thinking we can get by on their faith.

When I was a young brash seminarian, I preached a sermon on this text in my home church, talking about the faith of our parents not being enough. We have to make it our own.

The heart of the passage, a central text, I believe, in the Old Testament, is in verses 31-34 which speaks of a new covenant, one written on the heart, a covenant of forgiveness and relationship. It will not be just something written on tablets of stone. It will not be something just passed on from generation to generation. It may be all those things, but its meaning will be found in a relationship welling up from a heart connection.

The verses from Psalm 119 sound almost arrogant. “I know more than my teachers, more than the elders, and I obey every bit of the law.” Hogwash! I really don’t find a lot of comfort and encouragement in these verses. I am too aware of the ways in which I fall short.

There are two verses that do call out to me. In verse 97, the Psalmist talks about loving the law. “Law” here would have meant Torah, the first five books of scripture. If we can extend it to the entire body of scripture, I too can speak of loving that resource for life. Scripture, for me, is something to be loved (and translated into loving acts) rather than something to be slavishly obeyed. I particularly like verse 103 which contains the image of scripture as something sweet-tasting to be eaten. It is to be taken in and digested, rather than something simply read, followed by debates about strict interpretations and applications. The image is not unlike that Jeremiah offers of scripture that is written on the heart.

Words from II Timothy have sometimes been used to support a strict literalism in our approach to scripture. It speaks of “all scripture” being “inspired by God.” (II Timothy 3:16) What is often overlooked in these verses is the purpose of scripture. It is not inspired so that we can win debates and determine who is right. Its purpose is to equip people for good work. (vss. 17) A couple of other interesting thoughts are tucked away here as well. (1) Speaking the truth is not for those seeking to win a popularity contest. One is to be persistent in that task “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” No testing the winds with polls here! (2) People often go around trying to find someone who will give them the answer they want, accumulating “for themselves teachers to their own desires.” Whoever wrote this must have foreseen the politics of our day—or maybe the politics of any day.

The underlying message is to stand strong, not to be inflexible, but to root our lives deep in the traditions of scripture.

The stories in Genesis and Luke both show a God who is part of a give and take relationship—not some rigid demagogue who sends out decrees from afar. Jacob, perhaps carrying a burden of guilt, has a dream. Is it a man, or an angel, or God? In Genesis 32:28, the man says, “ . . . you have striven with God and with humans . . .” Jacob is seeking a blessing. Getting the family—and divine?—blessing seems to have been an obsession with Jacob. In the dream, he wrestles with the man, so vigorously that his hip is put out of joint. (vss. 24-25) He refuses to let go until he receives the blessing. (vs. 29) As happens in other stories, God’s name becomes an issue, and Jacob is not given it. Jacob may get a blessing, but he will not be given insights into the very heart of mystery, nor given magical power to control God. The surprising thing, however, is that he has wrestled with God, argued with God, “seen God face to face,” and lived. It is a strange story that tells us that God is not ultimately to be feared. Meeting God is a true “encounter” where we are both changed in the process. Jacob comes away with a limp, but also with a blessing. (vs. 31)

The story of the widow in Luke is another story of persistence. It’s a parable which challenges the image of God as a harsh judge. (Luke 18:1-2) The widow cries out to the judge for justice, persisting long enough that the judge is worn down and grants her request. (vss. 4-5) “Will not God do better than that judge?” Jesus asks. It doesn’t say that answers will come immediately, nor that they will come in the form we might prefer. It says, “Never give up in your praying.” Every Sunday—and many times during the week—we cry out for peace and justice. We get discouraged. The parable says, “Keep on praying and don’t lose heart.” Such persistence is an expression of faith. (vs. 8)

Psalm 121 is a classic about the source of our help. Some translations have suggested that it says our help comes from the hills. Many recognize instead that the first verse is a question. I sit here looking up at the hills and realize that the source of my help is greater than these. It comes from the one whose power is behind the hills and the skies. (vs. 2) Basically it is a Psalm about the comforting presence of God, around us whether we are awake or asleep, in the day and in the night, in our every coming and going. (vss. 4-8) It joins the other texts in presenting God as one who is not distant and anonymous.

If we are to know God at all, it will be in our everyday comings and goings, in our wrestlings and struggles, in our inner motivations and the good works that pour forth from our hearts.

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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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