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Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, I Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12

The way some talk, one would think the only significance of Jesus’ resurrection is the hope it gives us of eternal life. I once had a parishioner who was fond of saying, “Some people are just so heavenly that they’re no earthly good.” She was interested in what the resurrection has to do with life here and now.

At the same time, for some heaven is not a much discussed topic. To not talk or think about heaven overlooks longings of the soul that have driven human beings for millennia. Many world religions provide or mandate ceremonies that provide linkages with those who have gone before. Many would like to be able to have another conversation with “dear old Dad.” Mitch Albom’s, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, speaks to this longing.

We also want to know that our lives have lasting significance. There is something deep within many of us that can’t imagine that this is all there is—even when things have been great for us. And if we’ve suffered or known injustice or seen it around us, we cry out for a time and place where those things are set right.

In addition to questions of heaven and earth related to resurrection, we sometimes struggle with the physical/scientific nature of resurrection. What was Jesus’ resurrected “body” like? What form will we have in a “resurrected” state? Will we recognize those who’ve gone before? Such largely unanswerable questions are almost without end.

I believe the lectionary passages for Easter Sunday this year provide a variety of perspectives on these matters.

In Isaiah 65 the efforts we put into this life will be rewarded. We will live in the houses we build, reap from vineyards and gardens we plant. (vss. 21 & 22) “My chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands They shall not labor in vain.” (vss. 22 & 23) Yet it ends with the fantastic vision of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” where the animals who are usually enemies (even predator and prey) live together in harmony. (vs. 25)

Acts follows a similar pattern in seeing the resurrection as a sign of God’s inclusiveness. “God shows no partiality.” (Acts 10:34) The Gospel is for everyone. (vss. 35 & 42) It brings into being a heaven on earth in which God’s love, Jesus’ resurrection presence, brings us together across every line of exclusion we would try to draw.

For Easter Sunday, Psalm 118:17 takes on special significance: “I shall not die, but I shall live . . .” It is a Psalm that celebrates the endurance of God’s love in all times and places, “forever” (vss. 1-2), even in this very day: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Each day is perhaps an occasion for resurrection and the rejoicing that goes with it.

In some ways, the passage from I Corinthians 15 most clearly connects Jesus’ resurrection with the hope for eternal life. Paul says that this life is not enough. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (vs. 19) At the heart of the mission of “Christ” is the destruction of “death,” and all those who are instruments of death, including those who abuse power and authority.

In the Gospel lessons not everything is as cut and dried as some like to make it. I don’t see disciples here who are sitting around just waiting for Jesus to get up and walk out of the tomb, nor do I see a Jesus with a body that everyone immediately recognizes. I see a great deal of doubt and confusion. It’s enough to give every one of us pause if we try for absolute certainty about our understanding of these events.

Mary Magdalene cries out that someone has stolen Jesus’ body and wants to find where it is. (John 20:1-2) Verse 9 tells us that “they did not understand . . . that he must rise from the dead.” They gave up and went home (vs. 10), all that is except Mary. But when she turns and Jesus is standing there, she doesn’t recognize him. (vs. 14) For many, the moment Jesus speaks her name and she recognizes him has been heart-warming (vs. 16), but his instruction here is not unlike that in Luke. “The meaning of who I am is not to be found here in the cemetery. Don’t try to hang on to who I was. Get on back and stir up those discouraged disciples. My life, my spirit, is not here. It’s in the life and mission still ahead of you.” (A free interpretation of vss. 17-18)

Luke’s account is similar. They find the empty tomb (Luke 24:2-3) and they are “perplexed.” (vs. 4) They didn’t expect this. They didn’t come prepared for a resurrection. The angels ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Again, the place to find the risen Christ is not in the cemetery, but in the active living of one’s faith in the presence of his unseen Spirit.

In both stories, the first people on the scene, the ones who bear the message to the men, are women. In Luke’s account three are named along with “the other women with them.” (vs. 10) The men hear what the women have to say and deem it to be “an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (vs. 11) Some would say that things haven’t changed much in the way men respond to what women have to say.

Whatever the details of the story, Luke’s account moves beyond the discouragement and disbelief to amazement. (vs. 12) There are stories of discouragement and disbelief yet to come, in biblical times, in history, in our day, but something of great significance happened that energized a movement that has survived and thrived, often against great odds.

Questions about the meaning of resurrection will always be with us. Ask and ask and ask them again and again. What do we believe about resurrection? What difference has it made, does it make, in our living on this earth, in our hopes for eternity?

Our interpretations may vary. May they all be rooted in a connection with a power that overcomes death, so that we stop clinging to what is buried in the past and turn to a future filled with promise.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Liturgy of the Palms—Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40
Liturgy of the Passion—Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-23:56

This week there are two lectionary listings—one for Palm Sunday and one for Passion Sunday—celebrating the so-called Triumphal Entry and the crucifixion (the “Passion”). Palm Sunday comes but once a year and many like a big celebration, but neither has any other Sunday in the church year specifically been set aside for a focus on the crucifixion, central to Christian theology and experience. The two occasions represent a sharp contrast in moods. The enthusiastic crowd thought they were welcoming a kind of king who never materialized—one who was going to overthrow the present Roman dominance and set up a new earthly realm of immediate peace and justice. Later in the week, when things began to get tough, the mood of the crowd changed and the king they hoped for ended up on a cross.

Let’s try to take a quick look at the scriptures for each of the emphases—Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday—although I don’t recommend that anyone try to preach on all of them on the same Sunday.

Psalm 118 depicts entry into the temple for worship. It contains references to a “festal procession with branches” (vs. 27) and includes the words used by the crowd as they cheer Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem—“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (vs. 26) It is filled with the same kind of joy expressed on that first Palm Sunday, including the verse familiar to many: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (vs. 24)

On special feast days it was not uncommon for worship to begin outside with a procession into the temple, through the “gates of righteousness,” “the gate of the Lord.” (Psalm 118:19-20) Is Luke trying to draw a parallel? Jesus is part of a procession into the holy of holies (what we call “Holy Week”) of the Gospel story. Some Psalms were used to celebrate the coronation of a new king. It is not clear that this is one of them, but Luke may be trying to portray the entry into Jerusalem as part of that coronation tradition. The people think they are on their way to a coronation.

The first part of the reading from Luke 18 includes the commandeering of a donkey, because “the Lord needs it.” (vs. 30-34) We could talk about Jesus’ riding in on a donkey as an act of humility, but it also reminded the people of a king (the hoped-for Messiah?) described as follows in Zechariah 9:9—“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Is it any wonder the crowd thought their highest hopes were being fulfilled?

The story ends with the Pharisees begging Jesus to order his disciples to stop their shouting of praises, to which Jesus replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:39-40) Whatever is happening is so momentous that it can’t be silenced, covered up. Perhaps that’s the “triumphal” part of all this. History (and the people who make history) have tried to squelch, avoid, the stories of Jesus, the subversive truth in them, the defeat on a cross that couldn’t kill the truth—and they haven’t been able to do it. The reality to which Jesus pointed is still alive!

Do we believe it? The rejoicing on that first “Palm Sunday” was short-lived. What about the rejoicing—or self-examination or insight or commitment—that is present in our midst during any given Sunday of worship? Is it still there on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and even on a dark Friday? May such questions be part of our Holy Week meditations.

The readings from Isaiah 50 and Psalm 31 for “Passion Sunday” both foreshadow attitudes attributed to Jesus on the cross, attitudes of one who is under siege. In Isaiah one who has been struck and maligned (vs. 6) remains obedient (vss. 5 & 7) and trusting (vss. 8-9). In the Psalm one who feels abandoned, wasting away in grief (vss. 9-13), declares trust and seeks deliverance because God is a God of “steadfast love.” (Vss. 14-16).

The instruction of the epistle reading from Philippians 2:5-11 is to follow the example of Jesus, who emptied himself, took on human form, even faced death, in the service of Love. The events of Holy Week are about “incarnation,” Love becoming flesh and dwelling among us. None of it makes any sense unless Love finds life in us and is expressed in our living and our dying, our serving and relating.

The lengthy reading from Luke for Passion Sunday retells the story of deeply human moments for Jesus and for his disciples. They share a meal together. (Luke 22:14-20) There is talk of betrayal and denial, and arguments about who is most important among the disciples (vss. 21-34). Jesus goes out to pray, seeking another way out, his friends not able to stay awake with him through these dark moments. (vss. 39-46) Jesus knew the human experience of being abandoned by those closest to him.

He is arrested, mocked, tried, insulted. Like those in power everywhere, those accusing him try to pass the buck. “He belongs in your jurisdiction, not mine.” (Luke 22:63-23:16) The workings of justice in all ages can be brutal. The innocent suffer for the crimes of the powerful. The media stir up the populace so that they demand blood. And so Jesus is crucified. Often those in a position to make a difference wash their hands of responsibility. (Luke 23:18-25)

Other words and actions in the story catch our attention: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for you children.” (Luke 23:28) “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23: 34) “Certainly this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:47) There is great grief and Jesus is buried. Humanity has done its worst, yet there are those who show compassion (including some women) even at the tomb.

We are called during Holy Week to go to the tomb and ponder. Is the story over? Is there a resurrection to come? The answer will come in a variety of ways—through scripture, in our worship, etc. Words on a page, acts in a church sanctuary, though, are finally empty unless the story continues in us. Do we believe that can happen? If we do, perhaps that is as great a miracle as the first Easter morning.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126:1-6, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

Life goes along and suddenly something happens. Everything changes—sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. At times, we may speak of such occasions as turning points, as life-changing.

Both Isaiah 43 and Psalm 26 speak of restoration following times of trouble—whether the trouble be exile in a foreign land, wandering in the wilderness, or some other misfortune. In Isaiah, it comes as a promise of a change from the old to the new. God is not to be found in dwelling on past sorrows, because God is in the new thing that is being done. (Isaiah 43:18-19)

I love it when scripture speaks of laughter and joy, as it does in Psalm 126:2. Tears are turned into shouts of joy. (verses 5-6) There are other scriptures that speak of God wiping away our tears, of it being darkest just before the dawn, etc. I remember once hearing a sermon preached by a civil rights leader in which a repeated line was, “It’s midnight, but morning’s coming.”

There are tears in life; health and healing will probably not be achieved unless they are allowed to flow. These scriptures don’t deny such sorrow; they simply remind us that past things which have injured us and torn our hearts to pieces are not forever. Turning points happen; good things come along. Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

I once got the message from a young child, my daughter of about eight years old. The family was being wrenched by a divorce. This daughter called me one afternoon from her mother’s place. “Dad, are you feeling sad today?” I actually wasn’t in too bad a place at that moment, so I said something like, “Not particularly.” She persisted, “But Dad aren’t you feeling sad today?” As we got to the third round of the conversation, she said, “Well, just say your feeling sad.” So, I did. She responded, “Okay, I have good news to cheer you up.” Then she told me about the grades she had received on her report card. Her point was that, although times were pretty troubled right then, there was still good news.

The epistle, in Philippians, chapter three, is about a journey that looks ahead with eagerness. As is the case in Isaiah, there's an emphasis upon “forgetting what lies behind.” (Philippians 3:13) It is not just all the sorrows of the past that pale in the light of what is yet to come. Even the highest achievements of our lives may seem to matter little when we consider the spiritual possibilities before us. (verses 7-8) So Paul presses on toward the goal of the journey in which God is leading him. (verses 13-14) He doesn’t pretend to have arrived. (verse 12) None of us have. It’s good start, though, to keep facing in the right direction.

The Gospel lesson is one of those some would call a “difficult passage.” People too often grab hold of the final verse (John 12:8)—Jesus words, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Social activists may say, “Surely Jesus couldn’t have said that. Didn’t he teach us to give generously to the poor?” Others may take the verse and use it as an excuse to ignore the poor. “After all, we can’t fix the problem. What we can do is but a drop in the bucket. After we’re long gone, there will still be poverty in this world.”

The story is about a dinner party at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. Mary pours expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. Judas complains that it should have been sold and given to the poor. In Matthew and Mark, Judas is not named. It is “the disciples” or “some who were there” who complain. Notice that Judas’ motives are questioned. He’s not really concerned about the poor, we are told. He’s just a thief.

We have Judas as a cold and calculating person and Mary as a spontaneous person whose enthusiastic love cannot be contained. It is not that we should forget about helping the poor. Helping the poor, though, can become a mechanical activity from which our hearts get disconnected. Is Jesus saying, “Don’t forget to renew the source of the love that is in you so that your social action is truly a ministry that touches people’s spirits?

Is it a story to remind us about the importance of spontaneity in life, or extravagant love that is not calculating? Perhaps it is a story to call us to examine our motives. Are we really concerned about the poor, or about some gain we hope to receive in the process of our “helping”?

In verse 7, there is the suggestion that Mary’s act was part of a ritual preparation for what was to come. While helping the poor must always be part of our ministry, we are also called to continue to participate in the rituals that make sense of living and dying, and, yes, even of ministry. We press on toward the goal (including the goal of feeding the poor) because there is meaning in the journey—and, to use somewhat cliched language, the journey only makes sense when we stay close to Jesus (i.e., to his living Spirit in our time and place).

So, let us journey onward, companions on the open road.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32:1-11, II Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

It’s hard to miss the theme of forgiveness in the lectionary readings for this Sunday.

We have just a few verses from Joshua in the long saga of captivity in Egypt, escape, wandering in the wilderness, and entry into the Promised Land. The focus of these verses is on the transition from wilderness to a settled and secure existence—a forgiveness of sorts. In Joshua 5:9, the Lord says, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” The transition is accompanied by ritual—circumcision (in the story just before this) and the Passover meal. Both were a reminder/renewal of the covenant relationship with a loving God—the agreement that they would be his people in a mutual relationship of love. Circumcision marked them as belonging to God. The Passover reminded them of God’s love and protection and renewed their fellowship with God as they partook of the sustenance God provided. Is there also here a reminder that being part of the covenant involves responsibilities? They are no longer going to be provided the manna that came fresh each day. It is no longer needed. They now have fields to till and crops to tend. God will still provide but they must go back to doing their part, taking care of the earth and doing the things that feed their spirits.

Psalm 32 portrays movement from the pit of despair to the joy of forgiveness. It is a vivid portrayal of the destructive impact of carrying about a burden of guilt. Dwelling on guilt can eat us up. “My body wasted away through my groaning all day long,” the Psalmist says in verse 3. This is contrasted with happiness of “those whose transgression is forgiven” (verse 1), those who are surrounded “with glad cries of deliverance” (verse 7).

Forgiveness is at the very heart of Christianity, of the teaching of Jesus, of the God to whom Jesus points us. Many have tried to make it a religion of judgment and have come across as judgmental, trying to condemn everyone and everything around them. Instead, the epistle tells us, we are to be forgivers, ministers of reconciliation. The old has gone. Through Christ, we have been forgiven. (II Corinthians 5:17) Because of that, the reading begins (verse 16), we are to see and relate to those around us from a new point of view. We have been given “the ministry of reconciliation” (verse 18), entrusted with “the message of reconciliation” (verse19). Again, it is not just about receiving manna (reconciliation); it is about living it in our relationships.

Commentators on the Gospel lesson have long reminded us that the focus upon the “prodigal” son is perhaps misplaced. Alternative titles have been suggested: The Tale of Two Sons (significance of the second often overlooked or misinterpreted) or the Parable of the Waiting Father.

Most of us have known moments or months or years of confusion in our lives, not quite knowing where we are or where we’re going, wondering if there is a way to make sense of things. Some of us have gotten lost in ruts and routines, carried along by forces with seem to be beyond our control. Some may even have gotten lost in success and affluence, grasping at goods and position and recognition but still wondering whether that’s all there is.

Eugene Peterson gives the parable this name: “The Lost Brothers.” He contends that the second brother is just as lost as the one we call “prodigal.” You will recall that he is the “good” son, the one who stays home and works the farm with his father. He is appalled when he comes up from the field and sees a party going on in celebration of his brother’s return.

The parable is told in response Pharisees and scribes who are “grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” They, Jesus says, are like the elder brother, blind to the grace they have received from the father, looking down their noses when Jesus seems to be wasting his love on those who are of no account. The parable is an invitation to the older son to celebrate his participation in the same grace the “prodigal” has received.

In admiring this parable we often get so caught up in our focus upon the wonderful welcome of the “prodigal” that we may miss the ways in which we are like the older son. We’d just as soon not notice. He’s not nearly such an attractive and engaging character. Near the end of his chapter (in a book called “Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers”), Peterson says, “For as long as we hold on to any pretense of having it all together we are prevented from deepening and maturing in the Christian faith.”

Neither son really had it together although one appeared to. I suspect few of us do either, no matter how well-organized and successful we may seem. The wonder of the parable, and all of this Sunday’s lessons, is that a loving father is waiting for us, has always been there for us, wants us to party with him in celebration.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, I Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

The passage from Isaiah 55 begins with a call for everyone to come and “buy” wine and milk without money and without price—to “eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1-2) The prophet poses the question, “Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” I don’t believe he means for us to take this as referring to literal food or bread. Psalm 63:1 also speaks of the soul thirsting for God, with the promise, in verse 5, of it being “satisfied as if with a rich feast.” This week’s epistle also speaks of “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink,” drink coming from a “spiritual rock” which is Christ.

Isaiah is addressing a nation which is in danger of forgetting its roots and the source of its life—similar to circumstances we talked about a couple of week’s ago. He reminds them that the ultimate source of life is “the Lord.” “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” He wants them to remember the purpose of their life and mission, what is truly important and satisfying in their search for meaning in life. When we look into the deep inner places which motivate us, what do we find that brings us fulfillment and how do we feed those places and help those things grow?

Now I recognize that the epistle and Gospel lessons also contain verses we find troubling. They seem to depict a vengeful God. I Corinthians speaks of those who “were struck down in the wilderness” and “twenty-three thousand” who “fell in a single day.” (I Corinthians 10:5-8) In Luke, Jesus himself is described as speaking of Galileans killed by Pilate and eighteen killed “when the tower of Siloam fell on them.” (Luke 13:2-4)

To be honest, these stories stretch me beyond where my mind stretches, but here they seem to be used to make two similar points. In both I Corinthians and Luke (and perhaps back in Isaiah) it is pride that is being addressed. People are sometimes prone to point to other people’s suffering and say it is God’s punishment on them—Pat Robertson commenting on the earthquake in Haiti, for instance. The warning in I Corinthians 10:12 is to watch out when we start pointing the finger at other people. My father used to say, “When you are pointing at someone, three fingers are pointing back at you.” Proverbs 16:18-19 says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.”

In Luke, Jesus underlines the fact that we are all equally sinners, a sentiment Paul also stated, in Romans 3:23—“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Neither Lent nor any other time are times for pointing at others. They are times to turn inward and ask where we fall short and what spiritual nourishment we need to achieve inner healing and fulfillment.

Finally, the parable of the fig tree in the reading from Luke: It tells of a man who had a fig tree in his vineyard and it was bearing no fruit. He tells the gardener to cut it down, but the gardener says, “Give it another year and let me put some manure around it.” We’re back to the theme of feeding. Feed the fig tree some manure and perhaps it will bear fruit. Feed our souls so that our lives bear fruit.

One interpreter takes the fig tree as a symbol of our impatience with all that doesn’t live up to our standards (the theme of “pride” again?). For many, the first response may be, “Cut it down.” I don’t like that person so I’m going to cut him or her out of my life. Those people are different so let’s cut them down. It’s an attitude that operates in organizational, national, and international life, even in church life (those people don’t believe like we do, so let’s make cutting remarks about them). The parable suggests that maybe instead of cutting them down we should be finding ways to feed them (build more schools in Afghanistan instead of wielding more weapons?). If we see God as the gardener (as Jesus may have intended), we are reminded that God is a patient feeder of souls rather than one who is anxious to breathe the fire of judgment upon us.

Lots to chew on this week. Have a good meal!

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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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