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Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8:1-9, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

Although this is Trinity Sunday, this week’s readings do not give us much insight into the nature of the doctrine of the Trinity, nor am I’m going to make any significant attempt in this blog to come up with anything definitive about the Trinity. I’m happy to settle for it being an attempt to explain the various ways in which we experience God. As far as I’m concerned, it could just as well be the God of a million expressions rather than just three. Rather than get hung up on doctrine, I would call us to think about the various ways in which we experience God.

So, what do we do with this week’s lectionary scriptures?

In Proverbs, there is a feminine Spirit called “Wisdom” (Proverbs 8:1) who is created at the beginning (vss. 22) and has been God’s companion throughout the unfolding of creation (vss. 23-31). In Romans, it is “through the Holy Spirit” that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” (Romans 5:5) In John’s Gospel we return to the passage about the Spirit being one who “will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:13) Each of these “takes” on the Holy Spirit would be worth developing. Wisdom, Love, Truth—three ways of experiencing God in the interactions of human relationships.

There are other things in each of those passages that might give us food for thought and guidance for living, most notably the familiar sequence starting in Romans 8:2—“suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us . . .” What about it? The oft-spoken words that suffering will strengthen us, that something good will come of it, are not always that comforting. Sometimes they may be downright infuriating.

I recently read the words of a poem by Robert Browning Hamilton:

I walked a mile with Pleasure; She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser for all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow, And ne’re a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her, when Sorrow walked with me.

Although I hope you never hear me talking glibly about suffering, I am reminded that, at the very center of Christian identity, the one from whom we get the name “Christian,” was one who suffered. In his suffering the power of love was revealed, the power of love to bring newness and hope even in moments of despair. Most of us know, or have known, enough suffering that I pray we will find a Spirit which leads us through and to hope on the other side of that suffering.

Here are the questions that most grabbed my attention in reading this week’s lectionary passages: What is the place of humanity in the workings of creation and God? Who are we in the scheme of things?

Psalm 8 famously declares that God made “human beings . . . a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” (vss. 4-5) It is a repeated scriptural declaration that we partake of the nature of God and Jesus. We are created in God’s image. Wisdom is there at the beginning, “rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (Proverbs 8:30) Paul, in Romans 5:3), boasts in the “hope of sharing the glory of God.” Jesus, in John 16:14-15, says that everything God has “is mine” and that the Spirit will take all that and pass it on to us.

I worry a little when Psalms 8 goes on about the dominion given to humanity, putting “all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and . . . the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea . . .” (vss.6-8) Are we really the crowning glory of creation? We certainly haven’t always done a great job of exercising dominion. Yet there is an inner “Spirit” that sometimes tunes us into a divine spark within, reminding us that we are part of the love that drives all creation. The reformer, Martin Luther, sometimes spoke of us as “Little Christs.” The dominion to which we are called is one of humble love which works not for self-aggrandizement and power but for the well-being of all. If somehow we are inhabited by the “glory of God,” if that is what it means for the Holy Spirit to be at work in us, it is important to remember that the God we’re talking about (emulating?) is a God whose love is revealed in one who was called a “suffering servant.”
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 2:1-21, Genesis 11:1-9 or Romans 8:14-17, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, John 14:8-17, 25-27

Worship at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ on Sunday, May 23rd, will be led by guest musician Jim Scott, including the use of parts of the Missa Gaia, a mass for the earth he co-wrote. The service was not specifically planned as a celebration of Pentecost, which is also Sunday, May 23rd, although there are some possible connections (to be mentioned later).

Pentecost is an old Hebrew festival (originally a Spring harvest festival to celebrate the first fruits) held fifty days after Passover. (The word “Pentecost” means “fiftieth.”) The focus later became more upon the receiving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. In the Christian tradition it has become a celebration of the Holy Spirit held fifty days after Easter.

All of this week’s lectionary readings have elements that connect with this special occasion.

The verses from Psalm 104 celebrate the works God has done, beginning with the words in verse 24, “O Lord, how manifold are your works!” Verses 27 and following identify some of God’s actions and gifts and their consequences for all creatures both small and great (vs. 25), ending with these words in verse 30: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” It is a Pentecost of sorts and we are to sing and praise and rejoice as a result. (vss. 32-33)

Romans 8:14 declares the those “who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Our celebration of Pentecost includes singing and dancing because the same Spirit flows through and empowers us that gave life to Jesus.

The Gospel reading from John, chapter 14, again affirms the mystical union of Father and Son. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (vs. 11), suggesting that whose who come after will not only “do the works that I do,” but, “in fact, will do greater works.” (vs. 12) Now there’s something to think about! Jesus’ work is still going on, only now we’re doing it—with the guidance of the Spirit, he tells us in these verses. Called an Advocate, Helper, Comforter, Counselor in different translations, this Spirit will teach us and guide us in doing the things that express truth and make for peace. (vss. 16-27)

The readings from Genesis and Acts are often interpreted as companion stories—the confusion of communication and its restoration. In Genesis, chapter 11, human pride sets out to build a tower which reaches into the heavens. (vss. 3-4) God sends confusion so that they cannot understand one another. (vss. 5-7) And the place is called “Babel,” or “Babylon,” which means “gate of God.” Here, however, it is used as a play on an Aramaic word which means “to confuse,” conveniently similar to the English word, “babble.”

Most commonly the story is seen as a commentary on human beings attempting to make themselves into God. Whatever theological depth might be intended by the story, I see it as a very human comment on what happens to our communication and interaction when our entire energy is focused upon self-aggrandizement, climbing over one another to get to the top.

In contrast, in the Pentecost story from Acts, the focus is upon the Spirit shared by those gathered. They are from all over the known world and “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” (Acts 2:6) It is like a first United Nations assembly, each person with earphones hearing the simultaneous translation. Observers wonder if everyone’s drunk.

It’s one of those stories where one is tempted to ask, “I wonder what really happened?” What really happened is that there was genuine communication. I’m not going to quibble about wind and tongues of fire when a larger miracle is occurring. People really listening to and hearing one another! You don’t think that’s a miracle? It’s what can happen when people forget their own narrow selfish interests and find themselves swept along by the tides of God’s Spirit.

When they ask, “What does this mean?”, in verse 12, are they asking “What is happening?” or is it a question about the content of the message they hear? Verse 11, they note, “In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” When Peter speaks out to interpret what is happening he quotes a passage from the prophet Joel in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28 & following). In Joel God says that he will pour out his Spirit on everyone, male and female, young and old, and all will be drawn in as partners in his visions and dreams and work.

God’s Spirit has again and again refused to stay within set boundaries. It is always trying to break through to include everyone. When a complaint was lodged with Moses that the Spirit had taken possession of some men outside the walls, Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)

Pentecost is a celebration that the mysterious truth of God, and God’s Spirit, transcends the limits of language. Remember that, in the Gospel lesson, the Spirit is called “the Spirit of truth.” When our attention is focused upon that Spirit, rather than the letter of the words, a new level of communication begins to take place. Paul wrote that God “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Too often religious fanatics, and perhaps some who didn’t seem like fanatics, have tried to capture God’s Spirit in a particular set of words and formulas (occasionally even fighting to the death over one word or phrase). May Pentecost, for us, be a reminder that God’s reach is far greater than any language or culture.

I promised a comment on Pentecost and this Sunday’s musical service of worship. It’s this simple. Music, while it also can divide, is a medium that transcends and often unites people, helps them/us catch glimpses of something higher, something beyond. It can be like wind and fire in our midst. May it be so in our gathering Sunday as Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
CONNECTIONS OF LOVE AND JUSTICE—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR MAY 16, 2010, THE SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER—BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97:1-12, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

If I were preaching on this week’s Psalm, I might pick up on the theme of “righteousness and justice.” (Psalm 97:2) God is always on the side of what is right and justice, because it is part of God’s very nature and being. “The heavens proclaim his righteousness . . .” (vs. 6) We are to become vehicles of that same righteousness. “The Lord loves those who hate evil . . . Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright of heart.” (vs. 11) “Righteous” is not a description of those who run around polishing their haloes or spouting platitudes. It’s applied to those who get into the work of making this a better world in which all people are treated with dignity and share in the riches of God’s creation.

The core of the reading from the book of Revelation lifts up the promise that Jesus will come again—the doctrine sometimes called “The Second Coming.” (See. vs. 12) Various reinterpretations of this doctrine have been attempted, including the belief by some that Jesus has already come again through the presence of his Holy Spirit. It’s also possible to think of Jesus coming again and again as he touches our hearts anew and brings new life. It may be another way of expressing the fact that God spans all time, past, present, and future,—“the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (vs. 13) The message of Revelation is that the work is not done yet. Don’t give up. I have not abandoned you. I will be there in the future as well as in the past, even if you have a hard time seeing it in any given moment.

The passage ends with the repeated prayer for Jesus to “Come.” (vss. 17 & 20) It is clear that the fullness of righteousness and justice has not yet been achieved. It is a time in which we need to pray fervently that Jesus’ vision of the peaceable kingdom may be realized—and to act on those prayers.

In the Gospel According to John we have a portion of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in all ages. A mystical tone can easily be seen in this prayer. It is a prayer that we will experience a “spiritual” unity, a merging of spirits. The phrases are heaped upon one another so that one can hardly miss the point—“that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them, and you in me, that they may be completely one . . . I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:21-23) Our faith always involves a mystical element, an element that is “known” in one’s deep inner being beyond words, an element that gives rise to a sense of unity with all that is, including the loving heart which beats of the very center of life itself. And the purpose, in Jesus’ prayer, is that all may know that they are surrounded by and part of that love. (See vs. 23)

At first, the story from Acts 16:16-34 seems to be another healing story, and, in part, it is. Of note, however, is who is healed and the consequences. It is a story about the economic impact of the ministry of Paul and his companions. The one healed (of possession by a spirit) was a slave who made money for her owners by telling people’s fortunes. (vss. 16-18) After she is healed, they’ve lost their source of income. It is their disruption of the economics of slavery that gets them arrested and thrown into prison (vss. 19-24) Later there is a similar response when they are a threat to the economic system in Ephesus. (See Acts 19:21 & following) On another occasion people respond to Paul and his companions by shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also . . .” (Acts 17:6) Taking the Gospel seriously is a challenge to the systems of domination that don’t want to be disturbed.

There’s more to the story, though. Remember Paul and Silas back there in prison? Know what they’re doing? Praying and singing. (vs. 25) Tuesday morning at breakfast, Pastor Rick wondered what they were singing. We didn’t decide. Maybe they were singing something like the old camp song, “Kumbaya”—Come by here, Lord.

Whatever they were singing, an earthquake struck, the doors fell open, and their chains dropped off. (vs. 26) What would you do? I’d probably get out of there as soon as possible, thinking it was an “act of God.” Why overlook such an opportunity?

That’s what made sense to the jailer, who’d been sleeping on the job. The earthquake awakened him and he assumed they were gone. He was about to kill himself when Paul loudly told him, “Stop! We’re all here.” (vs. 27-28) The jailer, as well as Paul and his party, knew that the punishment for allowing them to escape would have been death. The most significant part of the story may be the compassion these early missionaries showed. Their staying saved the jailer’s life. Preaching the Gospel in a way that shakes the powerful up is part of the story. The other is loving one’s enemy, including the one who is keeping you in chains—and recognizing that even the jailer is but a cog in a larger system.

As a result of their compassion, the jailer, and his family, became followers of The Way. The reach of compassion, of God’s Love, goes beyond a single person to touch whole families and communities. Whatever the guiding power in our lives, others are affected by it, most immediately those in our households.

And new relationships of intimacy are built. As happened with Lydia in an earlier story, Paul and his friends are invited home by the jailer to share a meal—breaking bread around the table often symbolizing the community brought into being by Jesus’ love—even the community of love that we call Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ.
Tuesday, May 04, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67:1-7, Revelation 21:10 & 22-22;5, John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

This week’s reading from Acts, chapter 16, contains the seeds for a variety of reflections.

1. The verses just before Paul’s vision tell of plans which have been frustrated. Here are verses 6-8: “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.” Then comes the vision of a call from Macedonia. “Come over . . . and help us.” (vs. 9) Perhaps it calls us to think about how doors open and close. When one closes often another unexpected one opens. When we are intent just on our own plans we may miss the need that is crying out from another place or direction.

2. Their response to the call takes them to Philippi, a Roman colony, a military outpost built by Rome, (vs. 12) reminding us of the encounter of early Christianity with the power of the Roman empire. What happens when a few wandering people of faith come into the presence of the mighty powers of this world is always something to which we want to pay attention.

3. Paul and his party would usually have gone to the synagogue to teach and pray. There is none in this Roman stronghold. They go outside the city to the river where Jews might gather to pray. (vs. 13) Most commentators think it was indeed a Jewish place of prayer they found, although almost certainly not a building. I wonder if it might even have been a place of prayer of some other sort. Lydia, who is there with other women, is described as “a worshiper of God,” a phrase sometimes used to describe a Gentile convert to Judaism. (vs. 14) It may, however, been used in a broader sense.

God is often found outside the usual boundaries. Sometimes going to the place where God is at work moves us out into new frontiers. In this case, Paul and his party find themselves with a group of women (not the usual prayer companions in those days) who are perhaps not even praying the old familiar prayers or following the old familiar liturgy.

Psalms of praise are often hard to distinguish from one another. We can always reflect on what it means to praise God. Who does it? How is it done? In reading Psalm 67, we might want to think about what it means to ask God to bless us, or to wish God’s blessing upon someone. It begins and ends with a prayer for God’s continued blessing. (vss. 1 & 7)

The Hebrew word tanslated as “bless” comes from the word “to kneel.” To bless God is to kneel in adoration, sort of another way of saying, “Praise.” But what does it mean for God to bless us? Normally the word is taken to refer to some kind of benefit received. Is it possible that it suggests God is kneeling before us? Psalm 18:16 speaks of God reaching down. The Gospel message is about God dwelling among us. We are told, in Revelation 21:3, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them . . .” Kind of turns things upside down, doesn’t it.

This week we have, from Revelation, another vision of perfection. It reminds us that all things, even the most essential things of life like light and water, pale in importance when the Spirit of God is all-encompassing. God becomes the source of light and water, as God has always been even when we have failed to recognize it. (See especially Rev. 21:23 & 22:1-5.)

In this vision of perfection, there is no temple. It’s not needed. God’s presence is sufficient. I’m not ready to give up on the importance of the gathered community, whether it’s in homes or a temple, but this vision is a reminder that the temple is not what defines our life together. It is not the building, Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ on Logus Road, that defines who we are. It is the Spirit of God at work in our relationships and ministries. When we talk about “church” and try to be “church,” what image of “church” guides us?

In John, chapter 14, we find Jesus talking with his disciples about his leaving them. He links his love with that of his “Father.” (vss. 23-24) A third party appears, or is promised, “the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 26) It is one of the few places in the New Testament where all three parties of what we have come to call “The Trinity” are mentioned together. The Holy Spirit will be sent by the Father “in my name,” Jesus says. A spiritual presence rather than a physical presence will become available to guide us.

Jesus departing message is one of peace, stated in those words so familiar to many of us: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” The feeling of being abandoned can be scary, very scary indeed, but Jesus says, “I’ll still be with you—just in a different form. Don’t be afraid.” What are we afraid of? Can we find comfort and strength in the promise and presence of a Spirit of Peace—inner peace even in the midst of turmoil?

I once heard a sermon, based on the reading from John, chapter five, that lifted up the question in verse six as the key to this story of healing. “Do you want to be made well?” Sometimes the things that ail us become convenient crutches. We may not even be aware of the ways in which we use them as excuses or manipulations.

Many people have real ills that defy almost all medical efforts. This question is not for them. Nevertheless, the starting point of any change, whether it is a matter of health or a matter of social injustices, is a deep inner desire to see that change come about. It is always important to pay attention to our deep inner longings to see what growth and possibility they might arouse in us.

Also note that this man has been in this condition for thirty-eight years, just inches from healing waters, and no one has stepped up to help him. In fact, they have trampled over him to be the first into the water. Are there some parallels to be drawn as we look at health care issues today? Is it every man or women for himself or herself, or are we trying to build a climate in which we all work together to see that everyone gets into the pool? Is it only those with the most resources who get the treatment that is needed, while the rest wait in line for thirty-eight years or longer?

As usual, when we read scripture, questions and possibilities are put before us. I’m pleased to be part of a community where we ask difficult, life-changing, questions and work together to find and live our answers. It may not be as grand as the vision in Revelation, but being part of such a community represents, for me, a little bit of heaven on earth, or at least provides a glimpse of what it can be and is becoming.

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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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