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Monday, August 30, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 OR Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Psalm 1:1-6, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

This week’s lectionary scriptures seem to be mostly about what it’s like to be in relationship with God, and the choices that are placed before us as a result. The images are a challenge at times—kind of scary even. Consider the image from Jeremiah in this week’s readings. God is a potter and we are the clay. (Jeremiah 18:6) While it can be spoken of as a metaphor, what is a metaphor but an attempt to capture some elusive truth using comparison? The truth here seems to be that God can do pretty much whatever God wants to us. We are clay in God’s hands. In fact, in this reading, God seems ready to break the clay down and start over again. (vss. 7-11) How does it feel when we think of ourselves as clay in the hands of the divine potter? In a chorus we ask the Spirit of the Living God to melt us, mold us, fill us, use us. Are we really that ready to put our lives into God’s hands?
Of course, as is usually the case in the message of the prophets, there is a choice. God’s intent is to build up (vs. 9) but it is dependent upon the choice of the people. (vss. 10-11) Isn’t it amazing that we are created with choice? Sometimes we’re overwhelmed with images of judgment in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament—but also in the New. Behind such images, however, is the reality of human choice. We choose ways that bring good results or ways that are destructive. Choice is always before us. How we use the power of choice is a profoundly spiritual question. Notice also that these verses are not addressed to an individual, but to an entire nation. The choices nations make are at least as consequential as those made by individuals. If that’s the case, then we’d better be paying attention to the choices our nation makes.
There’s one aspect of the image that Jeremiah doesn’t much develop. The story starts with Jeremiah watching an actual potter at work and realizing that God is like what. (vss. 1-4) I imagine that he was watching a potter who cared deeply about his or her work and kept at it, lovingly shaping and reshaping it until its full potential is realized.
Psalm 139 offers another image of intimacy with God. God knows every part of our being. (Psalm 139:1-6) Again, it’s kind of overwhelming and scary, but don’t we all long for someone to know us completely, every strength and weakness, even the most perverse aspects of our being, and still accept and love us? The older I get the more I realize that there are secrets within that no one knows, and certainly no single person who knows all there is to know about me. The great love chapter, I Corinthians 13, speaks of a time “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Love and being “fully known” seem to go together.
This week’s reading from Deuteronomy takes us back to the theme of choice. We are called to choose between life and death. (Deuteronomy 30:15 & 19) We sometimes talk about something being a matter of “life or death.” My take on the spiritual journey we all travel is that the choices we make are all a matter of “life and death.” It’s not that we should agonize or be immobilized by every little decision, but somewhere in our awareness should be the realization that everything we do builds up or tears down, leads to life or death, figuratively or literally, for us and others. This passage says that “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him . . . means life to you.” (vs. 20)
Psalm 1 is an idyllic description on one who chooses “life.” Someone I knew published a book entitled, “Life Comes As Choice.” This Psalm is another reminder of that truth, another occasion for us to reflect on what is means to be people with the power to choose and the consequences of our choices for ourselves and others.
The reading from Luke 14 is a sober look at the process of choosing. Choosing affects our relationships with our family, for example. (vs. 26) What happens when one partner has a job opportunity 2000 miles away? Choices can have monetary consequences. This job pays more than that job. If I want to get more education I’m going to have to come up with the money somewhere. Central to Jesus message as he spoke to the crowds on that day was, “Count the cost. Consider what you’re getting into if you follow me.” (vs. 29) I’m not sure I like the cost Jesus suggests. “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (vs. 33)
Surely Jesus doesn’t mean it literally. In the context of life and ministry in his day, he probably did, at least for those who “hit the road” with him. Understanding what it might mean in our day and age seems a little more complicated. At the very least it is likely that living the life Jesus intends us to live means our first priority will not be getting the big bucks and accumulating all the possessions we can. The choice he puts before us is to carry a cross, i.e., to give ourselves in service to others. We may do that from a lot of different places in a lot of different places, but he has given us a principle to apply in the making of choices. It is the principle of love and service, symbolized in a cross.
The epistle of Paul to Philemon comes almost as a case study of choosing, presenting us with the challenge Paul places before his friend and co-worker Philemon. It is a letter of only one chapter, twenty-one verses long, yet it confronts Philemon with a choice which can put his social standing in jeopardy. Paul is asking his friend to defy a social custom of his day in a dramatic and visible way.
Slavery was a regular practice of Paul’s day. Paul is writing on behalf of Onesimus, a slave who escaped service with Philemon. Paul is writing from prison, where he is no stranger to bondage. Onesimus has become a great help to Paul during his time in prison. (verses 10-11) Now he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. (vss. 12-14)
But, says Paul, I have a stunning proposal. I want you to take him back as a brother rather than as a slave. I, Paul, will pay whatever his escape has cost you, but then let’s put this slavery thing in the past. You and Onesimus need to start over on a new basis, on equal footing.
The seeds of revolution are sown. Philemon’s world will never be the same. And Paul makes it a matter of “love.” “I . . . appeal to you on the basis of love.” (vs. 9) Paul often thanks God for the people with whom he ministers, whose love he has observed in action. (vss. 4-7) And in the final verse Paul expresses his confidence that “you will do even more than I say.” (vs. 21)
Today’s reading calls us to choose life and shows us a power that can undergird our choices. Let’s encourage one another, confident that we can do far more than we might imagine.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 2:4-13 and Psalm 81:1, 10-16, OR Sirach 10:12-18 and Psalm 112:1-10, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

One might conclude from this week’s lectionary readings that the root of all evil is human pride, our tendency to think we, and sometimes we alone, have all the answers, and that those answers are better than anybody else’s answers. If the words of scripture are not enough, all we have to do is turn to the political, religious, and cultural scene of our day. When is the last time we saw humility demonstrated in political debate? I really worry about the vehemence behind misguided understandings and attitudes toward Islam. Are they really out to get us—all of them? Do we not see the variations in the ways they interpret their scriptures, just as there are variations among Christians? Would we all want to be defined by some of the shrill voices of Christianity?
Well, enough of an introduction. You can see that even I am in danger of losing my humility in the discussion going on around us. Most of us, at one time or another, in public debate or in the quiet recesses of our mind fail the humility test.
God, in the passage from Jeremiah, seems to think human beings have gotten a little arrogant. We humans are not the only ones to ask the “Why?” question. We ask why bad things happen. God’s struggle puts a little different twist on it. He wants to know why we choose ways that lead to self-destruction. After all, God has shown us the way that leads to life. “Why did you turn away from me?” he asks. You arrogantly went off on your own because you thought your answers—your ways—were better. You didn’t even look around to see where I was or remember the “plentiful land” into which I led you. (Jeremiah 2:5-7) You went after “things that do not profit.” (vs. 8) You “have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns . . ., cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
Parts of Psalm 81 echo this sentiment. “ . . . my people did not listen to me voice . . . O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! . . . I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” (Is this where the female African-American musical group gets its name?)
In several of this week’s passages there are elements of judgment, although they are not where I’m primarily focusing my attention. In Psalm 81, the judgment is more a matter of God allowing us to go our stubborn way. “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.” (vs. 12) We are quite capable of behaving in ways that bring bad results—for ourselves and for others. Why or why do we behave that way—bad mouthing whole groups of people, entering into seemingly futile wars trying to impose our ways on others, trying to prove that we are better or stronger or more worthy? Why do we do it? Maybe it’s just a matter of inertia as suggested by the question Sam Keen asks, “Why do people prefer known hells to unknown heavens?” It’s easier to go along with the crowd, to take the comfortable path, to do what we’ve always done.

But I think it’s more. Some of today’s scriptures specifically pinpoint “pride.” The reading from Sirach will not be found in Protestant or Hebrew Bibles (unless they include the Apocrypha). It’s a writing from the 2nd century before the Christian era, credited to Jesus Ben Sirach. It is akin to the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures—books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes—and is included in Catholic Bibles.
The reading we are given this week describes turning from the ways of God as an act of pride (See Sirach 10:1-2), ending with the cryptic saying: “Pride was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women.” (vs. 18) The puzzling way in which those words are put together raise as many questions as they answer. Whatever else they may mean or imply, however, they are clear that pride is not something productively pursued or expressed by human beings.
Although the Gospel lesson from Luke 14 does not use the word “pride,” it offers an example of what pride looks like. Jesus goes to Sunday (Sabbath) dinner at the home of a Pharisee and notices all the people jockeying for the best seats. (vss. 1 & 7) He tells some parables suggesting that the proper place to sit is “at the lowest place.” (vss. 8-10) I’m a little suspicious about the motivation of the folk in Jesus’ parable. They seem to still covet those best places, simply biding their time until they’re invited to move up. Jesus quickly turns, however, to who should be invited in the first place—not “your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors” but “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (vss. 12-13) Why? Because the first group will invite you to dinner at their house and you will be repaid. The second group can’t repay you.
Humility is the key, stated in verse 11: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Humility is doing good without expecting to be repaid. Oh, there is an eternal reward, but it is not about position at the table; it is not about showing how much better you are than someone else. It is about service.
Pride and humility are contrasting approaches in human relationships, in actions taken by individuals, congregations, tribes, or nations. The second Psalm (112) and the reading from Hebrews remind us that humility seeks the welfare of those around us. Psalm 112 talks about being “gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice . . . They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor . . .” (vss. 4-5 & 9)
Hebrews describes it in terms of “hospitality to strangers,” remembering “those who are in prison” and “those who are being tortured,” warning against “the love of money.” (Hebrews 13:2-3 & 5) All of these are put in the context of “mutual love.” Humility means letting “mutual love continue.” (vs. 1) The Hebrews reading concludes with the instruction: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have.” (vs. 16)
Years ago, the Boston Industrial Mission developed a little mantra that struck a chord with many of us. “Use less, enjoy it more, and share what you have with others.” It’s simplistic (although not always simple to put into practice), but it is perhaps a beginning point for living a life of humility. There’s much more. Humility needs to spill over and permeate the political and cultural milieu, but the simple instruction of Hebrews 13:1, “Let mutual love continue,” is something we can all take to heart.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Psalm 71:1-6 OR Isaiah 58:9b-14 and Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

Our value as human beings transcends our years here on earth. We are a product of eternity. We have our very being in eternity. Eternity is our destiny. Ecclesiastes 3:11 (in the New International Version of the Bible) says, God “has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” We are in, of, and for eternity, but its full meaning remains a mystery.

This week’s reading from the first chapter of Jeremiah, recording Jeremiah’s call as a prophet, begins with God saying to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (vs. 5) The Psalmist, in Psalm 71, declares “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” Although I have trouble with the way these verses are sometimes used, even misused, in debates about abortion, and the judgments and actions which are sometimes taken as a result, they do ascribe to the human spirit great dignity. We did not just happen upon this earth. We are part of a larger stream of life and purpose.

In the portions of Hebrews we have looked at the past couple of weeks we have been given a litany of the names of people of faith through the centuries. We have been told that although they were all moving toward the realization of God’s promises for their lives, they did not come, during their lifetimes, to that full realization. (Hebrews 11:39-40) In this week’s reading, we are told that the destination to which they, and we, have come is not “something that can be touched.” We are given wild and imaginative and sometimes scary images. (Hebrews 12:18-19) What is being described is “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, filled with “innumerable angels in festal gathering . . .” (vs. 22) There’s more. In the end, the place of promise is “a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” a place where “we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” (vs. 28)

Through poetry and mystery, these verses place our lives again in the context of eternity. Our spirits are not intended for a few short years of earthly existence. We do not come to full maturity and perfection in those years. We come from eternity and return to eternity—and through some mystery we are part of a process by which eternity breaks into every moment.

I submit that such an astounding vision calls us to look upon all of life as having dignity and worth, that all of our relationships are part of an eternal dance with those whom God loves, those whom God wants to be in caring, intimate, relationship with one another and with the divine Spirit which is Love itself.

We are a congregation deeply committed to peace and justice. It would be possible to ask why should we care about anyone else. Why not just pursue our own interests? A simple answer is that it doesn’t work over the long run. A more profound answer is that the value of every human life, I believe, is built right into the cosmos.

As has been the case for many of our readings in recent weeks, we find a belief that God is a God of justice running through the prophets and the Psalms. Psalm 71 is a prayer for escape from “the grasp of the unjust and cruel.” (vs. 4) In Isaiah 58, it is “offering your food to the hungry” and satisfying “the needs of the afflicted” that is rewarded. (vs. 10) The reading from Psalm 103 sees God as a forgiver of “iniquity,” a God of “steadfast love and mercy” who “works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.” (vss. 3-6)

The combination of readings for this week led me to reflect on the basis for our commitment to peace and justice. Do we stand for peace and just only because of God’s commandments or the teaching of the Bible? Is it because of some rational, philosophical, political, and pragmatic arguments we can draw upon? All of those are important, but our values, our commitments, I believe come from a deeper place, full of mystery, wonderment, perhaps even awe.

Are they perhaps part of our DNA (literally or figuratively)? If so, I don’t deny that we sometimes resist and rebel, work against our DNA. The spiritual call, in more than one religious tradition, is to become attuned to our inner nature, to discover and live out the purposes which have given us life and which are intended to be life-giving to all those who co-inhabit this earth.

The Gospel lesson from Luke says that giving human life that kind of dignity and value supercedes any literal adherence to ritual and other laws. Jesus is criticized for healing a woman on the Sabbath, thus violating laws again working on the Sabbath. He attacks them as “hypocrites.” They take care of their animals on the Sabbath. Isn’t the freeing of this woman from “bondage” something to rejoice about, whenever it happens? She is an embodiment of eternity in our midst. Pay attention to eternity—in yourself and in others—every day!

A postscript on Jeremiah: Jeremiah is a young man. He responds as others in the Bible sometimes do. “I am only a boy.” (Jeremiah 1:6) Others might say, as Moses did, “I have problems speaking clearly.” I’ve heard people say, “I am only a layperson.” God quickly puts that to rest. We are never “only” if we understand ourselves as “images of God,” if we believe God is with us and has a task for us to undertake. Granted the task given Jeremiah was a bit overwhelming—plucking up and pulling down nations, etc. (vs. 10)—we need to remember that the words and actions of any one of us can build up or tear down. We may not be Jeremiah, but God intends our words and actions to be used in the service of eternal purposes.

A postscript on values undergirding ministries of peace and justice: I was once part of a process that identified a set of such values. We at first called them interdependence, stewardship, and integrity. Later integrity morphed into “reverence.” “Integrity” and “reverence” for us were both ways of affirmed the value of every expression of life—each having its own “integrity” to be “revered” and held in respect and awe. Where do such values come from? They are, I believe, more than the product of staff efforts. They are part of our God-given DNA as human beings. I offer them here without development for your consideration, discussion, guidance, etc.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19, Jeremiah 23:23-29 and Psalm 82:1-8, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56

This week’s lectionary readings call us to think about self-destructive behavior. Why do we persist in such behavior? Where do the consequences come from?

Some of this week’s readings are about judgment. Many of the biblical images of judgment involve not the judgment of individuals but the judgment of nations. In some of this week’s readings from the Hebrew scriptures, it is Israel that is being judged, and, as is repeatedly found in the writings of the prophets, the basis of judgment is whether justice and righteousness are being done. (See Isaiah 5:7) We are given the image of a vineyard, “planted . . . with choice vines,” but it doesn’t bear the expected fruit. (vs. 4) God was looking for justice but instead saw bloodshed, for righteousness but heard people crying as they suffered the consequences of evil.

Psalm 82 pictures God with a “divine council,” “in the midst of the gods” holding judgment. (vs. 1) That image alone is enough to boggle the minds of us monotheists. This judgment is not an arbitrary thing from someone sitting isolated on a throne. The multiple aspects of God’s “personality” or the multiple expressions of divinity at work among us, or the powers and forces of creation and the cosmos, come together to assess the results of what the nations have been up to. Again, the basis of judgment is justice for the weak and the orphan, the rights of the lowly and the destitute, etc. (vss. 3-4)

Whatever one’s image of judgment, perhaps we can all agree that there are consequences to behavior. Some behaviors lead to destruction, whether as the result of an external force or the simple unfolding of what grows out of the behavior itself. Persistence in untreated addictions has consequences, sometimes deadly. When nations persistently pursue policies that are unjust, eventually they destroy themselves from within. The abused rise up; the abusers come to live in fear and conflict and mistrust. Might may get a nation a lot of territory, but, in the long run, a nation built on might alone will fall. Some of the greatest empires of all time are no more. Scriptures like Isaiah 5 and Psalm 82 give us a perspective from which to look at our own nation, and ask how we are faring according to the standards of judgment they present.

One of the things we sometimes see in nations is a tendency to turn inward, to assume that all of its blessings are to be reserved for themselves because they have “earned” them. Israel was no different, nor is the U.S. God intended Israel to be a “blessing” to all nations, to share with others what they had received from God. Too often, however, they seemed to want to keep the “blessing” for themselves. Psalm 80 reflects such an attitude as they cry out about others plucking the fruit of the vine God brought out of Egypt. (vss. 8-12) There’s the image of the vineyard again. They see it being destroyed and cry out to God. (vss. 13-19) Psalm 80 calls us to reflect on our attitude as a nation in our relationships with other peoples and nations. Think immigration policy, for instance.

The final, and perhaps most troubling, image of judgment comes in the Gospel lesson from Luke, chapter 12. Jesus talks about bringing fire and division on earth. (vss. 49-52). He talks about families experiencing devastating conflict. (vss. 52-53) It all needs to be interpreted through verses 55 and 56. We are able to look at the sky and wind and feel the climate changes around us and say, “It’s going to rain.” “It’s going to be hot.” (Although the weather reporters often misread the signs)
Shouldn’t we be able to read the happenings of our day just as well? What is it that we are supposed to read? Are we supposed to conclude from the prevalence of family conflict that something is wrong, that something destructive is at work, that we are in danger of destroying ourselves? Certainly something is stressing families in our day. Can we see it? Equally evident in our day is the emergence of a political climate in which peaceful and productive debate and compromise has become almost impossible. The political process is in danger of becoming, if it has not already become, self-destructive.

In Luke’s writing, the sign people are not reading is probably the presence of Jesus himself—and the mission he represents. Later in this same Gospel Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, offering once again words of judgment. “You haven’t been able to recognize the things that make for peace!” he says. “You did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:41-44) When we refuse to see and follow the purposes of God, as God’s Spirit seeks to work in our midst, we are choosing to go in a self-destructive way. Why do we so often make that choice and persist in it?

Jeremiah raises the question in a slightly different way. Where can we find trustworthy help for building productive lives and nations? The Spirit of God is at work everywhere, in all things, (vss. 23-24) but we have around us the voices of many interpreters. Jeremiah accuses some of the prophets of speaking empty dreams, making up whatever interpretations comes to them in the moment. (vss. 25-27) In verse 28, the Lord says, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat?” Straw is wheat from which everything of nutritional value has been removed. It is the word of the Lord, not wispy pipe dreams, that we can trust. This does not have to mean a literalistic adherence to a single interpretation which reduces God’s living word—the word God is still speaking—to a strict set of rules. In the U.S. we have great discussions about the meaning of the Constitution as it applies to current situations. At our best, we treat it as a living document. So it is with God’s word. It is our constitution, the document which shapes our identity, helps us see and learn from our history, opens our hearts to the divine Spirit. If it is not part of our discussion of who we are, where we have been, and where we are going, we will likely lose our way, if we have not already lost it.

The reading from Hebrews provides a final perspective on the stream of which we are a part. It continues the litany, begun last week, of those who have been faithful through the ages, concluding with the image of a race. We are in a race in which the crowd cheering us on is made up of all those who have gone before. Think about it for a moment. Who is in that invisible crowd cheering you one? Lifted by their cheers we are to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) In races of that day, the prize was often fastened to a pole at the finish line, visible to all who were racing. In this race, the prize upon which we are to keep our eyes focused is “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” If the race is life, I take that to mean that the life and teachings and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus provide the guidance and encouragement we need to continue in the race and avoid self-destruction.
Tuesday, August 03, 2010
WHAT’S IMPORTANT IN OUR RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE AND EXPRESSION?—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR AUGUST 8, 2010, THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 and Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23, Genesis 15:1-6 and Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40

Sociologists recognize various dimensions of religious experience and expression. Among them are belief systems (creeds, theology, etc.), ritual (the ways we worship, etc.), ethics (the way we live, the standards of right and wrong, etc.), the mystical (inner experiences of awe and connection with mystery among other things), as well as a number of others. Religious groups sometimes argue about the relative importance of the various dimensions, sometimes claiming one or another is the most important of all. If you just ascribe to the right creeds, for instance, everything will be okay. If you just worship in the right manner, that’s what it’s all about. If your live right (whether in your personal ethics—not lying, for example—or in your social ethics—working for peace and justice, for instance), then you have it. It’s all a matter of making a heart connection so that you sense God’s loving Spirit at work within, others would say.

Such distinctions and debates can be seen in and beneath many scriptures, including the lectionary passages for this week. Let’s take a look at them, reflecting on our own experience and asking what is it that is really important to each one of us as we participate in a church which is part of the Christian tradition. What dimensions of religion matter to us? What are the various ways in which we experience and express our faith?

The reading from Isaiah, chapter 1, makes a distinction between right ritual and right living. The rituals of the day involved the sacrifice of animals on the altar. The people Isaiah was addressing seemed to be doing a good job of that, but God says to them, “I have had enough of burnt offerings or rams and the fat of fed beasts . . . Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates . . .” (vss. 11-14) What God wants instead is right living. “ . . . remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (vss. 16-17)

Psalm 50, while disturbing in its judgmental tone, includes the same message. God is rebuking his people “not for your sacrifices.” They are “continually before me.” (vs. 8) That’s not the problem. The problem, the basis upon which judgment is made, is whether our hearts are filled with thanksgiving and we are walking in “the right way.” (vs. 23) In both these passages right living seems to trump right ritual.

In the story from Genesis, chapter 15, however, right belief (trusting in the Lord), seems to be as valuable as right living (righteousness). It’s one version of the story in which Abraham (at this point called Abram) hears the preposterous promise that, in his old age, one who is “your very own issue will be your heir.” (vs. 4) “Look toward heaven and count the stars . . . So shall your descendants be.” (vs. 5) Abram has given up and is ready to leave all he has to one of his slaves. (vs. 3) Amazingly, Abram believes. And then this verse which is repeated in the epistles and used by Paul as he lifts up the centrality of grace and faith: Abram “believed the Lord, and reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The fact that he believed, not what he did, becomes the basis for Abram being considered righteous.

In both Romans and Galatians, Paul discusses faith in the context of the ritual laws and practices of his day, including circumcision. In Galatians 5:5-6, he concludes, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (See Romans, chapter four, for a fuller development of Paul’s thinking.) It is verses like these that became important to Martin Luther in his protest against the Catholic ritual practices of his day. His cry was, “Sola fide.” It is “only faith” that matters.

The reading from Hebrews 11 takes us further into the discussion of faith, offering this definition: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) The chapter enumerates the many people of faith who have gone on before us and died and not yet received, while living, the fullness of all God’s promises. They saw from a distance, as “strangers and foreigners on earth.” While on earth they were “seeking a homeland . . . a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (vss. 13-16)

I’m not going to try to get into a discussion of heaven here. What I want to point out is that, in talking about the faith of these people, the writer lists, as examples of their faith, the things they did, the way they lived. Abraham, by faith, “set out, not knowing where he was going . . .” (vs. 8) Many are listed “who through faith . . . administered justice . . . won strength out of weakness . . . were tortured, refusing to accept release . . . suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.” (vss. 33-35) We need to note here that, while faith looks to the future, it also is demonstrated in right living and in trustful response to God’s promises and God’s leading where we are now.

Then there’s the Gospel lesson from Luke, chapter 12, which comes at the question of what’s important from a slightly different angle. It reminds us that the treasures that matter are treasures of the heart, that we should sell our possessions and give alms.” (vss. 33-34) It sounds like an emphasis on social ethics, showing our concern for the poor. It is that, but it is more. Again we have the emphasis upon being ready for the moment when God breaks through in an unexpected way. We must be ready. However we might describe such events, the underlying focus on living in the moment, not being caught up in the accumulation of “things” as a means of securing the future, is worth taking seriously.

I believe all of the various dimensions of religious experience and expression are important, that we are called to hold them together, that one pursued apart from the others ends up missing part of what God intends for this life. I like these words found in the Epistle of James: “ . . . faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead . . . someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:17-18)

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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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