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Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27:1-14, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

This week’s scripture from Genesis reminds us that we are part of a “covenant” tradition. A covenant is an agreement between two parties. In Hebrew it is spoken of as “cutting” a covenant, involving commingling the blood of the two parties to the covenant. This could take us into a whole reflection on “blood” theology, but I won’t go there this time.

The importance of covenant, or an identity which sees us as a “covenant” people, is that our relationship with God is not just a whim. It is a promise more binding than a contract. We are somehow of one blood with God and will not be abandoned.

There are several covenants in the Old Testament (as well as several stories of some of them). This one in Genesis 15 (see verses 5 & 18) is the covenant with Abram, promising that this childless old man will become the father of descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky. He will go to a Promised Land and become the father of many nations.

During Lent perhaps we can see covenant as a symbol of hope in troublesome times. Lent is sometimes a season to face our demons. Even in this Genesis passage, in addition to the agony of Abram’s childlessness, we find a “deep and terrifying darkness” descending on him, a sleep in which he sees “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” passing among the parts of the slain animals which surround him. (Genesis 15:17)

One theme among this week’s scriptures might be the reassurance that there is a power which will give us courage and staying power during times of trial, not unlike that described by Pastor Rick last Sunday when he preached on Jesus’ and our times of trial and temptation.

I sometimes like to approach texts like these by selecting a phrase or sentence or verse from each that stands out—sometimes because it seems to summarize, sometimes because it is intriguing and catches my mind and curiosity, sometimes because it has taken a place in the history of scriptural interpretation, sometimes because it has been significant in my own spiritual growth.

In the Genesis passage, for me it would be verse 6, later quoted by Paul (see Romans, chapter four). It is relevant to a debate about grace and works that went on in the household of my childhood. Some see the “old” covenant as a covenant of “law” and the “new” covenant as a covenant of “grace.” Abraham lived before the “law” had been given, before circumcision was required. He had nothing but “faith,” and that was enough. “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abraham wasn’t required to live by a narrow code before God would love him and enter into covenant (promise) with him. All he had to do was trust. I say “all.” Trusting may be the most difficult thing of all. Can we trust that the power of love at work in the cosmos will carry us through what may sometimes feel like terrifying darkness?

Psalm 27 is a Psalm in which the Psalmist cries out for protection when surrounded by threat and danger. He asks to be taught the Lord’s way. His hope is to “see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” (verse 13, the verse that I would most emphasize). He does not see his faith as something just for the sweet by and by in a world beyond. It is something for the land of the living, even while surrounded by danger. The same thought is back in verse four when he asks “to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,” not just when I die but “all the days of my life.” Even in this life, however, it does not always come easily. Sometimes we have to “wait”, go through Lenten days of trial and examination which require strength, hearts which “take courage. (See Psalm 27:14)

The verses from Philippians chapters three and four contain a promise of transformation (transfiguration akin to what we talked about a couple of weeks ago). Such transformation is the context of Paul’s call to “stand firm in the Lord”—another call to courage. The phrase that draws me, though, is in 3:21, where it says “our citizenship is in heaven.” One translation puts it this way: “we are a colony of heaven.” Paul’s audience saw themselves as aliens in a hostile Roman world. They were called to live by and demonstrate, at some risk to themselves, a different set of values. They were like a colony, an outpost, trying to embody the values of heaven. What if our congregation thought of itself as an outpost of alternative values in a world where consumerism, pride, egotism, nationalism, even violence, seem to tempt and trap many?

Finally, the Gospel lesson from Luke finds Jesus responding to the threat of death with courage, calling Herod “that fox” and going on about his work “today, tomorrow, and the next day.” (See Luke 13:31-33) “ . . . today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way” could be a slogan for all of us—continuing in faith in the land of the living one day at a time. It is verse 34, though, that has always been stirring and revealing for me. As Jesus considers Jerusalem, the destination of his journey and a place that is life-threatening, his heart goes out to the people there. He meets the threat of death with love, crying out, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” It is one of several (not many) feminine images of divine love—a clucking hen hovering over her brood. The mother hen is the place of safety in the midst of trial and temptation. Is it an image that can get us through Lent, and life, with renewed courage each day?

All these thoughts came together for me in the idea that life (with perhaps heightened awareness during Lent) is a journey down a highway where a lot of construction is going on, not just on the roadway but in our lives and living. It sometimes takes a lot of perseverance to travel down a dusty and bumpy section of road construction. The call is “today, tomorrow, and the next day” to continue on our way as part of a colony drawing upon the promises and courage, knowing that the head of the road crew is filled with nothing but the most profound love.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10;8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

Deuteronomy is presented to us as a speech by Moses, reviewing the history of the journey of the Hebrew people to the Promised Land. It was actually written after the fact, after the people have become settled and are enjoying the benefits of this land flowing with “milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 26:9) Deteronomy is, I believe, a tract in which one of the themes is, “Don’t forget where you have come from and how you got here?” People and nations at times become arrogant when surrounded by wealth and power and success, thinking it is all a product of their skill and wisdom.

I’ve been struck during the current Winter Olympics at a struggle that seems to be going on in Canada’s soul. The perceive themselves as a kinder, gentler nation, friendly and humble. Now they're not as sure about the humility part. They are intent on becoming perceived as “winners”—assertively, if not aggressively, pursuing the gold.

No one would be likely to accuse the U.S. of an attitude of humility, although that is just what Deuteronomy calls for. Perhaps Lent can be a call to a renewed sense of humility in our personal lives, in our spiritual lives, in our politics (from which humility is notably absent these days), etc. In Deuteronomy 8:17, Moses says to the people, “Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” In chapter seven, verses seven and eight, he has said, “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you . . .”

This week’s reading from Deuteronomy, drives it home with the reference in chapter 26, verse 5, to “a wandering Aramean.” There are various interpretations of who the wandering Aramean is. It may be Abraham, although it now is an image applied to the entire people. I am content to see it as a reminder of their roots as a wandering people before they came into possession of this land. Remember where you have come from. There’s no room for arrogance here.

Romans reminds us that God’s love and grace is not limited to a special group of people. It also harks back to Abraham (the wandering Aramean?) to whom the words quoted in chapter ten, verse three, were first spoken: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The key word is “everyone” “for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” Arrogance and exclusiveness often go together (emanating from small minds and spirits) while God is inclusive beyond our wildest imagination.

The Gospel reading from Luke, chapter nine, lets us in on the very human struggle of Jesus as he considers the direction of his life and ministry. He faces a series of temptations put before him by the devil, who quotes scripture thinking that will make them even more palatable.

All of the temptations, I believe, can be seen as temptations to arrogance—the temptation to be the answer to all of the people’s consumer needs (providing all the bread and other goods they ask for), the temptation to become the preeminent politician of the world (the absolute monarch), and the temptation to put on a good show (to be the dazzling entertainer and magician—ala Jesus Christ, Superstar).

This week’s Psalm is included because the devil quotes from it when tempting Jesus. (See Psalm 91:12 and Luke 4:11 about the angels providing protection—a thought that can be comforting at times but cannot be used as a blanket answer to all problems or possibilities, even for Jesus.)

There are many other things in the temptation story that are worthy of consideration. Where does temptation comes from? In Luke’s stories, the Holy Spirit is always present in whatever happens. Here it is the Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness where the devil is the agent of temptation. We could reflect on the use and misuse of scripture, for even the devil is capable of quoting it. We might ask of the cost to Jesus—or ourselves—of giving in to—or resisting—temptation. Giving in means surrendering ourselves to a greater power and giving up the very core of our identity, but resisting can be very costly as well. It eventually took Jesus to a cross.

The story ends on a sobering note. The devil departed “until an opportune time.” Sometimes just when we think we have everything under control, when we think we are living secure in a promised land, is exactly the time to watch out. Arrogance may be lurking just around the corner. Unpleasant as it may be to think about such things, Lent is a season with a little bit (or a lot) of built-in discomfort.
Tuesday, February 09, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99:1-9, II Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-43

There’s a lot of glowing going on in this week’s lectionary lessons. First there’s Exodus. When Moses comes down from the mountain after receiving the commandments from God, his face is shining so brightly that it scares the people. Moses has to cover his face with a veil. It’s a little like last week’s story about Isaiah. Being in the presence of God is a bit more than we can take. The light is too bright. It frightens us.

Then, in Luke, Jesus takes Peter and John and James and goes up a mountain to pray. Jesus’ appearance changes and his clothes become “dazzling white.” Moses and Elijah show up, figures underlining the significance of this occasion, linking the mission of Jesus to these revered ancestors. They are probably to be taken as messianic signs.

It is a moment of ecstasy. Peter just wants to stay there and build a shrine. Again, it turns a little scary. A cloud surrounds them and voice says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” I think I’d be a little freaked out too.

I’ve had some mystical moments, but never anything like these. There’s a hint of the same thing in Psalm 99 when, in verse seven, it says “He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud,” which, at night, was a pillar of fire. The epistle is a direct reflection on the Moses story, suggesting that we no longer have to be protected by a veil. The veil is referred to as a veil “over their minds.” Now we can stand in the presence of the Lord, unveiled, and let him do his work of tranformation on us. (II Corinthians 3:15-18)

So what are we to make of all this glowing? Frankly I don’t know, especially if we try to think literally. I always approach II Corinthians 3:18 with a sense of astonishment and wonder. Having grown up with a very high view of Jesus it’s astounding to think that we might be transformed into what he is. Yet, there it is. I John 3:2 says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” I believe it’s not just something for the future. Jesus shows us what we are to be now. He is the model, imbuing us with light and empowering us as those who bear light into the everyday workings of life.

I still don’t know what to make of it all. I know when I was a child we sang a Sunday School song: “Climb, climb up sunshine mountain, faces all aglow.” I know we speak sometimes of people having a glow about them, a sort of radiance as if they had been touched by some great uplifting experience, or carried a mysterious and joyous secret within them. I know that the literal physics of perception mean that all I ever really see of another person is light that is reflected from them. George H.W. Bush liked to use the phrase “a thousand points of light” to describe the difference each one of us could make in life. He encouraged us to be one of those thousand points.

So I ask, metaphorically, what is it that our lives reflect? What is it that glows from within us? Another song we sang when I was younger said, “This little light of mine; I’m gonna let it shine,” going on to name all the places where it was going to shine. The New Testament speaks of Jesus as “The Light of the World” and calls us to let our lights shine was well.

In the tradition of my childhood church, we thought you could spot “Christians” just by looking at them. It was a naive endeavor based on narrow cultural criteria. It remains a question, though, whether those who have been close to God have any distinguishing marks. In most of the Bible, God’s people are more identified by the ministries they perform than by haloes around their heads.

Notice that Peter and John and James don’t do any better after they come down from the mountain than they did before they went up. Jesus gets impatient with them. (Luke 9:40-41) As much as I am moved by mystical experiences (and I have had a few which I could share), I’m also encouraged by the very human reactions in these stories. The people are afraid, mundane, maybe even resistant, but God uses them anyway. I’m still puzzled about the significance of mystical experiences, my own included. I go to them as assuring reminders of being touched by a power greater than myself, but I try not to let them become a goal where I worship at a shrine on the mountaintop while ignoring ministry to those facing life and death battles at the foot of the mountain.

Our reading from II Corinthians seems to hold these two aspects of religious life together. The experience of transformation in us (3:18) is the reason we are “engaged in this ministry,” the reason we “do not lose heart” (4:1), the reason we have hope and “act with great boldness.” (3:12) Would that we always remembered and acted on such truth.
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
THE MYSTERY OF CLOSE ENCOUNTERS—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR FEBRUARY 7, 2010, THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138:1-8, I Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

In Isaiah 6 the prophet tells of an experience in the temple (an epiphany?). Mid-twentieth century students of worship often pointed to this passage as a model for worship—some of the feelings associated with “mystical” experiences of God, epiphanies. One begins with “awe,” a sense of being in the presence of something wonderful and mysterious and “holy.” (vss. 1-4) Surrounded by carvings and incense and burning offerings in the temple, Isaiah was overwhelmed. In the presence of such magnificence—one can feel small. Isaiah cries out. (vs. 5) Some have grown up with images of God that are not only awesome, but also fearsome. Isaiah quickly finds that he has, instead, come face to face with forgiveness—pictured here as live coals touched to his lips (not something that sounds particularly comforting to me.) The words spoken, though, are those of assurance and forgiveness.

As the experience continues, Isaiah hears words of call. The Lord is looking for someone to send on a mission. The mystical moment is not complete without response, in this case Isaiah’s words in verse eight, “Here I am, send me!”

All of the above elements are appropriate to the mood of worship. They are part of the human/divine relationship. They need not be applied only to congregational worship. They are moods to which we can be attuned in any moment of “spiritual” experience, alone or in the midst of daily human relationships.

The focus I see this week is upon paying attention to the purpose that is trying to come to focus in our lives. The Bible and theologians often speak of it as “call.” Whatever we call it, it is a matter of discerning what it is that we are to be about in our lives.

The Gospel lesson, from Luke, chapter 5, is another “call” story—Jesus calling his first disciples, fishermen. To connect with them he uses the analogy of fishing for people. As a fisherman, I’ve often been a bit troubled with that image even though I grew up singing the children’s song, “I will make you fisher’s of men.” It sounds like entrapment to me. Dragging people into church as a bunch of creatures trapped in a net gasping for breath—or, in more modern terms, at the end of a barbed hook pulling at the edges of the mouth—does not sound much like Love at work.

I know every analogy has its limits and it got their attention. It says they (Simon and James and John—and perhaps others) “left everything and followed him.” Now there’s a challenge. Following him is a serious challenge and it involves getting our priorities straight.

I think perhaps the heart of the story, if taken as sort of a parable, is back in verses 4-7. They’ve been fishing all night with no results. Jesus comes along and asks them to go out again—into deeper water—and try again. The results are overwhelming. They need a second boat to hold all the fish. Is there a point here about going where the fish are—and going deeper? My years of experience have taught me how to read the waters and determine where the best places are and what depths are appropriate. Whether we use the analogy of fishing or some other image, we want more people to know that they are loved and that there is hope in a world that is aching with need. Too often, the “bait” we offer is too bland (not “deep” enough). Maybe we haven’t even tasted the depths enough ourselves so that we have experienced the fullness of what it is that we have to share. Sometimes we are not willing to move out of our comfort zones into new places where we may be met with skepticism, but where we find whole “schools” of new “fish,’ some of whom may even be “gasping” for a breath of fresh air (to offer some confusing and perhaps contradictory analogies).

Without commenting in depth, it is worth noting some possible connections with the Psalm and Epistle lessons. Psalm 138:2 connects with the temple setting and verse eight speaks of the Lord’s purpose being fulfilled for the Psalmist.

I Corinthians includes another call story. Paul talks about the various people to whom the risen Lord appeared. At the end of the list, in verse eight, there is Paul, whose time of birth was such that he didn’t have the opportunity to walk and talk with Jesus in the days of his physical presence. That didn’t prevent Paul from experiencing his powerful presence. Even those of us many years later can be touched by that presence. Like Isaiah, Paul felt unworthy but he found a Love which accepted him just as he was. “ . . . by the grace of God,” he says, “I am what I am.”

“I am what I am” is one translation of YHWH (Yahweh), one of the Old Testament names for God. It is a favorite expression used by Popeye, who was, I believe, more theological than we realize. I once showed clips of the movie version of Popeye as part of a sermon. It’s worth watching again and again. If you do, pay special attention to the lyrics of the songs in it. The theme, from the very beginning, is a hymn of the church, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell.”

A couple of other resources:

Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, wrote another book, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. It is the story of a barnstorming pilot who realizes he (and, it turns out, all of us) is called to be a messiah. He is given a Messiah’s Handbook as part of his training. It is filled with pithy and provocative sayings, the foremost of which says, “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.” Many such thoughts in the book are useful in thinking about our purpose/call.

A poem by Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies/too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth’s superb surprise/As Lightning to the Children eased/With Explanation kind/The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind—” The Truth encountered in epiphanies in temples can be overwhelming. We can only make sense of it “slant,” through parables and stories. I certainly can’t begin to tie it all together here, so it’s up to you now, all you messiahs out there.

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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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