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Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65:1-13, Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 and Psalm 84:1-7, II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 19:9-14

The general tone of this week’s lectionary readings is positive. Its message is something like this: “You may be going through a rough patch—even a seriously rough patch—but hang on. Things will get better. And through it all you can still find comfort in the presence of God.”

It’s a message I’ve been reluctant to speak at times, careful and judicious in my use of it. It’s not always a comfort when one is in the bottom of the pit. No words can take away the pain of one’s present suffering.

Beyond the words, is a presence. Sometimes when we are moved by the plight of someone near to us, we want to find the right words when all we can give is a hug, our loving presence. The most comforting word may be, “I’m here.”

Many of the prophetic texts we have looked at have spoken of the troubles faced by God’s people. Granted, there’s usually a word of hope, but it doesn’t always leap out. This week, in Joel, it’s right up front. The locusts and grasshoppers may have nearly done you in, but abundant rains will come. There will be rich harvests. You will prosper again. (Joel 2:23-26) You “will never again be put to shame.” (vs. 27)

Along with the promise related to the earth is a promise for human relationships, a promise which is remembered in the New Testament at the time of Pentecost. God’s spirit will be poured out on everyone (not unlike the situation foreseen in Jeremiah last week). God’s spirit will overcome the distinctions we usually make as we try to exclude this type of person or that type of person. The spirit will come to young and old, male and female, even to those who are enslaved. Their ability to dream and see visions will be renewed in them, the very wellspring of hope. When we no longer dream and have visions of possibility, hope is gone. (vss. 28-29)

This week’s Psalms speak of the strength and joy one can find by being in the presence of God. “Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.” (Psalm 65:4) “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” (Psalm 84:1) Psalm 84 uses the image of a sparrow who finds a safe nest. (vs. 3) The presence of God is a source of strength (vs. 5), so that it is possible to “go from strength to strength.” (vs. 7)

Like Joel, Psalm 65 sees God as a source of sustenance for the earth, watering it, enriching it, so that pastures give sustenance to flocks and “valleys deck themselves with grain.” (vss. 9-13) Psalm 65 also sees God providing “deliverance.” “You are the hope of all the ends of the earth and the farthest seas.” (Psalm 65:5)

I’m not always as lyrical about it as the Psalmist, but I am sustained by the same hope. My life, like that of so many, has been a matter of peaks and valleys, at least as many valleys as peaks. Sometimes the valleys have been pretty dark, seemingly hopeless, but I can look back and say, “I clung to something, or something clung to me, and I made it through.” Hope is not always a sudden bright light that switches on. It is a spirit at work within us “with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

Sirach (a book, sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, not in our Protestant Bibles), named for Jesus ben Sirach, writing a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ, picks up the same theme as the Psalmist, that of God’s generosity (Sirach 35:12). We don’t have to bribe God. (vs. 16) God doesn’t choose favorites. Although this passage includes those troubling words, “He will not show partiality to the poor,” those who are “wronged,” the orphan, and the widow are all singled out as among those to whom God will listen. (vss. 16-17) God gives generously to those who are in need.

II Timothy extends this line of hope to the end of our earthly existence. It contains the image of life as a race and is often taken as Paul looking back in his old age. The words probably were not written by him, but may have been written by someone in his name, as a tribute to the endurance of his life. It is a life where the runner has not lost faith, has not given up. (II Timothy 2:6-7) In that race, the Lord has given the runner strength. (vs. 17) It is obvious that the race has not been easy, but the runner has found hope in the presence and strength of God, not unlike the hope found in several of today’s texts. And now, he finds hope beyond this life. Nothing in this life has been able to destroy this runner and now not even death will be able to do him in. (vs. 8) Hope is more than abundant crops. It is assurance of a meaning that keeps us in the race.

The reading from Jeremiah has a different tone, depicting a common response when one is in the dark valley. “It’s all my fault. What did I do to get here? I am no good. I’m sorry. Please forgive me and put things right again.” (See Jeremiah 14:7, 10, & 20)

Our Tuesday morning group this week spent a lot of time discussing the theology of reward and punishment and its abuse. I’m not going to try to resolve all the questions those of us with a “progressive” spirit have. It is interesting to note in this passage that, in the middle of their crying out, the people still have a sense of God being with them (vs. 9), of God as the giver of abundant rain (vs. 22), so that God is still the source of hope. “We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.” (vs. 22)

When we put the passage from Jeremiah together with the Gospel lesson from Luke, we see that the plea for forgiveness is an act of humility. With all the showering of abundance found in most of this week’s passages, it would be easy for a person, or nation, to say, “Look at all that God has given me. I must really be special. I deserve this and it shows that I am better than other people.” That was the attitude of the Pharisee in the parable Jesus tells in Luke, chapter 18. He is one of two men who went up to the temple to pray. His prayer is, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. I do all the right things and you know how good I am.” (Luke 18:11-12) He stands in his high place of pride and looks down on others around him. In contrast, the tax collector, whose business no good Jew would undertake, stands afar and simply confesses that he is a sinner. (vs. 13) As is the case more than once in Jesus’ teaching, we see a reversal. The one who seems to be good is not the one Jesus praises, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vs. 14)

The Tuesday morning group also got into quite a discussion about the meaning of humility. Is there such a thing as “false humility”?

Part of my “humility” as I write this is a confession that I am unable to tie all this together into a neat lesson. This week’s texts stir in me an intuition that hope and humility are closely linked, but I haven’t yet come up with a way to express it. I’m also convinced, from experience as well as scripture and intuition, that without hope and humility we’re going to have a difficult time making it through the times of trial, and the times of abundance, that seem to be part of the human predicament. There’s an epistle text that is not included in this week’s readings, this time words that are almost certainly Paul’s. I offer them as an expression of hope and humility that we can take to heart in the good times and the bad, whenever we are wondering what it is all about or when we are tempted to become boastful about how well we seem to be doing. Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


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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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