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Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures:
For Sunday: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 and Psalm 119:137-144 OR Isaiah 1:10-18 and Psalm 32:1-7, Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
For All Saints Day: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149:1-9, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

Monday, Nov. 1, is All Saints Day. Many churches use the Sunday nearest to that date to celebrate “All Saints Sunday,” and the lectionary offers the second set of scriptures as an option.

All Saints Day is the day we celebrate our connection with all the saints in all ages, past, present, and yet to come. It is called “The Communion of Saints” and we are all part of it.

It can be a time for reflecting on, among other things, the nature of the “community” in which we participate in the here and now. I’ve long been interested in “community,” not so much in the geographic sense of a group of people who live in the same neighborhood as in the sense of a group of people who intentionally band together in some kind of common life. The building of “community” has been one of the guiding principles in my ministry.

What does community means to us? What kind of community do we seek to participate in and build? What kind of community are we called to be?

The Quakers, who have deeply influenced my thinking about and experience of community, speak of the church as “The Blessed Community.” Josiah Royce, founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation coined the phrase, “The Beloved Community,” borrowed by Martin Luther King to describe his vision for human relationships on this earth. Both sets of this week’s lectionary readings offer insight into what it means to live in community. Here are excerpts from those scriptures, as well as from the Quakers and Martin Luther King. May we find in them some inspiration for living as “The Communion of Saints” in our place and time.

Paul’s letters are full of expressions of his closeness, his partnership, his sense of community with those to whom he is writing.

II Thessalonians 1:3—“We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.”

Ephesians 1:11-23 (although probably not written by Paul) is a text often used in celebrating All Saints Day because it reaches beyond the confines of this life to speak of an “inheritance,” a “destiny,” a “hope.” In the middle of it is another expression of that sense of connection: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (vss. 15-19)

A Quaker statement about “The Blessed Community”: “We are a diverse group of individuals who have been drawn together by the Spirit . . . It is only with God’s Spirit that such a diverse group of individuals can realize and embody the kind of unity, belonging, and community that answers to that of God within us. The Quaker Meeting is meant to be a Blessed Community – a living testimony to a social order that embodies God’s peace, justice, love, compassion, and joy; an example and invitation to a better way of life. Like our other testimonies, Community can be a prophetic call to the rest of society. From their earliest beginnings, Quakers have witnessed to their experience of the wholeness that God intends for us in this lifetime on earth. The Spirit calls us to live in a loving relationship with God, with each other, and with all of creation.”

Excerpts from “The World House,” a chapter in “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We have inherited a large house, a great 'world house' in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.
. . .
“Every nation is an heir of a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead of all nations have contributed . . . We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women. When we rise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge which is provided for us by a Pacific islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a European. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are already beholden to more than half of the world.
. . .
“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly . . . This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men . . . We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind's last chance to choose between chaos and community.”

The Gospel lesson for All Saints Day includes Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, surely part of the definition of what it means to “The Blessed Community”: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:20-21) The passage ends with some specific instructions for those who would live together. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (vss. 37-31)

The Gospel lesson for Sunday is the story of Zacchaeus, which shows Jesus again reaching out to include someone who is considered unclean by the religious establishment, not only a tax collector but a “chief tax collector.” (Luke 19:2) This “outsider” then demonstrates another feature of community. With no apparent prompting he commits himself to repaying those whom he has defrauded, mending relationships which have been broken. When Jesus sees this act of community-building, he calls it “salvation,” reminding us that community is about seeking out and including, not just about feeling “warm and fuzzy” with those who are like us.

Being “The Blessed Community” is no small thing. It is a partnership into which God has called us, in which the divine presence works in and through, beside and with, us day by day.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65:1-13, Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 and Psalm 84:1-7, II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 19:9-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of my “humility” as I write this is a confession that I am unable to tie all this together into a neat lesson. This week’s texts stir in me an intuition that hope and humility are closely linked, but I haven’t yet come up with a way to express it. I’m also convinced, from experience as well as scripture and intuition, that without hope and humility we’re going to have a difficult time making it through the times of trial, and the times of abundance, that seem to be part of the human predicament. There’s an epistle text that is not included in this week’s readings, this time words that are almost certainly Paul’s. I offer them as an expression of hope and humility that we can take to heart in the good times and the bad, whenever we are wondering what it is all about or when we are tempted to become boastful about how well we seem to be doing. Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Monday, October 11, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:27-34 & Psalm 119:97-104 OR Genesis 32:22-31 & Psalm 121:1-8, II Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

I’ve missed being away from the lectionary blog the past few weeks. I’ve read Pastor Rick’s entries for the weeks we were gone. Sorry I missed the sermons. Missing worship at Kairos leaves a void. It’s familiar and comforting as well as unpredictably surprising and challenging.

After a lifetime of grappling with scripture, there are many which stick in the mind and heart as “favorites” or as challenges. Seldom do as many appear in one set of lectionary readings. I see them all as providing insight into a faith which is not confined to words on a page or a distant unapproachable God. They speak of a faith which lives in the heart, a God with whom we can wrestle, and scripture which prepares one for “good works.”

Jeremiah, the prophet who sometimes seems to despair, always sees more. In chapter thirty-one, he speaks of it in terms of planting seeds which will grow rather than a time of destruction. Tucked in the middle of the passage is a colorful early expression of individual responsibility. There was a saying about the parents eating sour grapes (sinning) and the children’s mouths puckering up, i.e., the children were punished for the parents’ sins. It is true that children often suffer the consequences of their parents’ sins, but Jeremiah wants us to take responsibility for our own sin, and faith, rather than blaming it on our parents, or thinking we can get by on their faith.

When I was a young brash seminarian, I preached a sermon on this text in my home church, talking about the faith of our parents not being enough. We have to make it our own.

The heart of the passage, a central text, I believe, in the Old Testament, is in verses 31-34 which speaks of a new covenant, one written on the heart, a covenant of forgiveness and relationship. It will not be just something written on tablets of stone. It will not be something just passed on from generation to generation. It may be all those things, but its meaning will be found in a relationship welling up from a heart connection.

The verses from Psalm 119 sound almost arrogant. “I know more than my teachers, more than the elders, and I obey every bit of the law.” Hogwash! I really don’t find a lot of comfort and encouragement in these verses. I am too aware of the ways in which I fall short.

There are two verses that do call out to me. In verse 97, the Psalmist talks about loving the law. “Law” here would have meant Torah, the first five books of scripture. If we can extend it to the entire body of scripture, I too can speak of loving that resource for life. Scripture, for me, is something to be loved (and translated into loving acts) rather than something to be slavishly obeyed. I particularly like verse 103 which contains the image of scripture as something sweet-tasting to be eaten. It is to be taken in and digested, rather than something simply read, followed by debates about strict interpretations and applications. The image is not unlike that Jeremiah offers of scripture that is written on the heart.

Words from II Timothy have sometimes been used to support a strict literalism in our approach to scripture. It speaks of “all scripture” being “inspired by God.” (II Timothy 3:16) What is often overlooked in these verses is the purpose of scripture. It is not inspired so that we can win debates and determine who is right. Its purpose is to equip people for good work. (vss. 17) A couple of other interesting thoughts are tucked away here as well. (1) Speaking the truth is not for those seeking to win a popularity contest. One is to be persistent in that task “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” No testing the winds with polls here! (2) People often go around trying to find someone who will give them the answer they want, accumulating “for themselves teachers to their own desires.” Whoever wrote this must have foreseen the politics of our day—or maybe the politics of any day.

The underlying message is to stand strong, not to be inflexible, but to root our lives deep in the traditions of scripture.

The stories in Genesis and Luke both show a God who is part of a give and take relationship—not some rigid demagogue who sends out decrees from afar. Jacob, perhaps carrying a burden of guilt, has a dream. Is it a man, or an angel, or God? In Genesis 32:28, the man says, “ . . . you have striven with God and with humans . . .” Jacob is seeking a blessing. Getting the family—and divine?—blessing seems to have been an obsession with Jacob. In the dream, he wrestles with the man, so vigorously that his hip is put out of joint. (vss. 24-25) He refuses to let go until he receives the blessing. (vs. 29) As happens in other stories, God’s name becomes an issue, and Jacob is not given it. Jacob may get a blessing, but he will not be given insights into the very heart of mystery, nor given magical power to control God. The surprising thing, however, is that he has wrestled with God, argued with God, “seen God face to face,” and lived. It is a strange story that tells us that God is not ultimately to be feared. Meeting God is a true “encounter” where we are both changed in the process. Jacob comes away with a limp, but also with a blessing. (vs. 31)

The story of the widow in Luke is another story of persistence. It’s a parable which challenges the image of God as a harsh judge. (Luke 18:1-2) The widow cries out to the judge for justice, persisting long enough that the judge is worn down and grants her request. (vss. 4-5) “Will not God do better than that judge?” Jesus asks. It doesn’t say that answers will come immediately, nor that they will come in the form we might prefer. It says, “Never give up in your praying.” Every Sunday—and many times during the week—we cry out for peace and justice. We get discouraged. The parable says, “Keep on praying and don’t lose heart.” Such persistence is an expression of faith. (vs. 8)

Psalm 121 is a classic about the source of our help. Some translations have suggested that it says our help comes from the hills. Many recognize instead that the first verse is a question. I sit here looking up at the hills and realize that the source of my help is greater than these. It comes from the one whose power is behind the hills and the skies. (vs. 2) Basically it is a Psalm about the comforting presence of God, around us whether we are awake or asleep, in the day and in the night, in our every coming and going. (vss. 4-8) It joins the other texts in presenting God as one who is not distant and anonymous.

If we are to know God at all, it will be in our everyday comings and goings, in our wrestlings and struggles, in our inner motivations and the good works that pour forth from our hearts.
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
Remembering who they were and whose they were, the Hebrew exiles lived with faith that God was still with them. Living, being, and growing as God’s people, they found the strength they needed to survive the exile, to walk and not faint, to struggle and find meaning. Ultimately, faith plants new life.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4–7
In an incredible testament to the resiliency of the spirit – and the profound impact it would have on the history of the world – the people of Judah survived the Babylonian exile (587 to 538 BCE). At the beginning of this exile, the prophet Jeremiah spoke through letters to help the exiles understand their tragedy theologically and to give hope that they could rise above it.

In the focus scripture, we read how Jeremiah encouraged the exiles in Babylon through a letter from Jerusalem. This letter was sent to the first deportees of 597 BCE. In chapter 27, we read how Jeremiah addressed those who had survived the first deportation – those who remained in Jerusalem. The message to both groups is similar. To those who survived the first deportation the message is to not resist Babylonian domination, but to accept it. To those who had been deported, the message is to not resist, to accept servitude in Babylon, and to grow. Jeremiah also countered false prophets who were promising the time in exile would be short; these prophets encouraged rebellion against the Babylonians.

Jeremiah encouraged his fellow Judeans to instead “build” and “plant.” These were the verbs used by Yahweh to instruct Jeremiah when he was commissioned as a prophet (1:10). In this letter, Jeremiah advised the exiles to build houses and live, plant gardens and eat, get married, and have children.

Jeremiah’s prophetic letter announced that even while living in exile, there was the hope of marrying and having children. This would ensure the survival of the people, who in the future would receive freedom and God’s blessings. The exiles were able to live in faith and grow because the Babylonians did not sell them into slavery; families and communities were allowed to remain together. Public gatherings were permitted, and so was worship.

During the exile, people’s emotions were raw with anger and sorrow, as Psalm 137 attests. Despite this, Jeremiah encouraged the people to pray for their enemies and “seek the welfare of the city” (v. 7). In praying for the security and prosperity of the land, the people of Judah would also benefit and be allowed to grow and blossom. Ultimately, the time of exile proved an important time for meaning, purification, and clarifying their identity in Yahweh. It also became a source of rich theological regeneration and exploration. Jeremiah believed that God led the people into Babylon and God would lead them out.

When life brings struggles, God calls us to trust. In trust, people gain confidence to “bloom where you are planted.” Psalm 66 acknowledges that God has “tested us” (v.10), but the people also see God’s faithfulness, which allows for praise and thanksgiving. In 2 Timothy 2:8–15, Paul speaks to enduring everything for the sake of the good news of God’s saving love. There is meaning to suffering, because God’s word liberates and makes one whole. When Jesus heals ten lepers in Luke 17:11–19, the Samaritan’s act of gratitude truly makes him whole.

Sometimes, God calls us to actions that go against our natural inclinations. God’s vision of our lives is far greater than what we perceive, especially in difficult times. In trusting God, we may be led to plant new life in unexpected places. What message of hope is God uttering to you in the silence of your heart? How is God equipping you to plant and nurture new life where you are?

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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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