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Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures:
First Sunday After Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148:1-14, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40
Holy Name of Jesus & other festivals: Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 8:1-9, Galatians 4:4-7, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 2:15-21
New Year’s Day: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, Psalm 8:1-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, Matthew 25:31-46

This week we again are offered three sets of readings. We are still in the season of Christmas—the First Sunday after Christmas. It’s also New Year’s Day has its own set of readings. Finally, on January 1 or the first Sunday in January, Catholics celebrate the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, the feast of the Circumcision, a whole series of feasts related to Mary (now combined in what is called “The Solemnity of Mary”), and a World Day of Peace. I think it is good for Protestants to find ways to incorporate Mary into our worship more than usually happens, so I don’t want just to dismiss that as one possible focus for Sunday, January 1.

I again see the abundance of readings as offering a variety of possible directions for our thinking, enrichment, and growth. As I thought about the coming of the New Year, I was reminded of the practice of making a list of resolutions. Looking at all of this week’s readings, I found myself with more questions than “themes.” I remember someone who said it is not so much the answers that matter as we go through life. The questions we ask matter as much as the questions.

What if, instead of a list of resolutions, we adopted a question (or a short list of them) for the coming year? The Kairos-Milwaukie congregation has viewed portions of the video series, “Living the Questions.” Are there questions that might give shape to our lives in the coming year? This blog will look briefly at the readings and identify one or more questions that challenge me. I don’t know if that will work or not, but I invite you to join me—and perhaps form some questions of your own.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3—This expression of Messianic hope gives us images of the adornment worn by the hoped-for one who will “cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations.” (61:11) It was a hope expressed with the coming of every king, often incorporated into the coronation ceremony. In this case, we are told of “garments of salvation” and robes of “righteousness,” wedding apparel with garlands and jewels, “a crown of beauty” and “a royal diadem.” (61:10 & 62:3)

We live in a culture which often invests great hope every four years when a new President is inaugurated. We live in a culture which often judges people by the apparel they wear. Notice that while the apparel of this king is described in somewhat traditional kingly terms, the content is not in the outward adornment. This king is wearing salvation and righteousness, etc.

A question: What do we want our leaders to wear?

Numbers 6:22-27—This oft-repeated benediction depicts a “Lord” who shines the light of grace upon, looking us in the face, so to speak, and offering us peace. (vss. 25-26) Have we ever looked deep into the eyes of someone and experienced them looking back and known in that moment that we were deeply loved? If we could look God in the eye (without fear, without simply seeing the old man with a beard in the sky), what would we see, and how would that affect us? Now there’s something to ponder for the New Year.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13—The writer of Ecclesiastes brings the questions of a pessimist to the Bible. This much-loved reading about time is very fateful in its outlook. It’s appropriate as a reflection on the meaning of life on New Year’s Day, but what do those of us who are more optimistic do with it? Is it true that there is “a time for war”? (vs. 8) Certainly history is full of war, but need it be that way. Can we avoid being “victims” of time? The significance of the reading, I believe, is in verses 11 and following. We are told that everything is suitable for its time. (vs. 11—Many of us grew up with the reading which says, “Everything is beautiful in its own time.” I like the notion of seeing beauty in everything, maybe even going through the next year asking where is the beauty around me?) We are also told that, while we may sense that there is a purpose in the movement of life, we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (vs. 11) The solution is to experience life as a gift and enjoy it in each moment. (vss. 12-13)

Psalm 148:1-14—Like many Psalms, this one overflows with praise. What is amazing is the all-inclusiveness of the “praisers”—sun, moon, and stars, sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, mountains and hills, trees, wild animals, birds, kings, young and old, angels. Is the song of a whale a way of praising? I don’t know. I do know that the Bible repeatedly sees all the cosmos as an expression of God’s grace. Psalms like this remind us that we are all connected in one great eco-system, or should we say “cosmo-system”? It is a hymn to be sung by environmentalists. Perhaps we can go through the next year asking where we are hearing or seeing praise in all that is around us.

Psalm 8:1-9—If Psalm 148 puts us in our proper place among all living things, this Psalm reminds us that somehow or other there is a divinity in us (what elsewhere is called “the image of God”). We have been made “a little lower than God, . . . crowned . . . with glory and honor.” (vs. 5) Whatever we read into this Psalm’s images of dominion, I do not believe our Godlikeness as a license to use abusive authority. A question for pondering: In what ways are we like God, and what are the implications?

Galatians 4:4-7—This reading also deals with God connections. It wants us to know that Jesus was “born of a woman.” (vs. 4—There’s Mary!) It talks about adopted children and heirs, the Spirit of Jesus crying in our hearts, “Abba! Father!. (vss. 5-6) The imagery is that of family, but a new kind of family. What does it mean to live with the image of God as our parent?

Philippians 2:5-11—A grand tribute to the combination of human and divine in Jesus and a call for us to have that “same mind in” us. (vs. 5) What mind did Jesus have in him? The mind/spirit guiding Jesus was the mind of God. What does it mean to have the mind of God in us? For Jesus it meant taking on the “likeness” of humanity, “being found in human form.” (vs. 7) The key is humility, emptying oneself. Where is the mind of God calling us and taking us in 2012?

Along with the humility is an exaltation in a series of verses that, on the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, speak of “the name that is above every name,” a name at which “every knee should bend . . .” What would it mean to live 2012 “in Jesus’ name.”

Revelation 21:1-16—This New Year’s reading focuses upon “a new heaven and a new earth” (vs. 1), a time when “I am making all things new.” (vs. 5) With every new year one of the most important questions is, “What’s going to be new?” Can things really be made new? Certainly there is much newness needed. How do we work with God in bringing that newness into being?

Luke 2:15-40—As we remember Mary, we might focus on verse 19 in which Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” What must it have been like for Mary (or Joseph for that matter) to have been parent to a child around which there was so much hubbub—at least according to the story? Do we ever see birth with such wonder and pondering in our hearts? What kind of world and possibility are our children being born into?

The rest of the reading is about Jesus’ circumcision and prophetic announcements associated with that occasion. Again the parents “were amazed at what was being said about him.” Simeon says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (vs. 35) Like parents everywhere, Jesus’ parents worried about the future he faced, however much or little they understood about it. Sensitive people in every age worry about the future that will greet their children and grandchildren, praying that future generations will build up rather than tear down. What future are we going to be building in 2012?

Matthew 25:31-46—This New Year’s reading was also used on Thanksgiving Sunday. The parable is traditionally seen, of course, as identifying the ministry which has eternal value—feeding and taking care of such people. It is as if we are doing it to God himself.

Instead of interpreting further or identifying more questions, I'm going to conclude with a quote from Henri Nouwen. It ends with a question suggested by this parable, to be laid alongside the many questions put before us (and that you may add) as we look ahead to 2012.

From “Bread for the Journey,” a year’s worth of daily meditations by Henri Nouwen—a few sentences from the reading for Dec. 25th. “What is our task in this world as children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus? Our task is reconciliation. Wherever we go we see divisions among people—in families, communities, cities, countries, and continents . . . So whatever we do the main question is, ‘Does it lead to reconciliation among people?’”
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures:
Proper I: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96:1-13, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
Proper II: Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97:1-12, Titus:3:4-7, Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20
Proper II: Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98:1-9, Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12), John 1:1-14

We are given three different sets of reading for Christmas Eve/Christmas. Some churches celebrate, in most years, a Christmas Eve liturgy, a Christmas Day liturgy, and a Christmas Sunday liturgy. With all those liturgies bunched together this year---on Saturday night and Sunday, we are given the “proper” readings for each. I simply view it as a larger smorgasbord to choose from to feed our souls as we seek to understand and celebrate a holy birth—and perhaps the holiness in all births.

I was born early on a Sunday morning. I suppose that Sunday was a little complicated for my parents. Any birth complicates things—whether it’s Sunday or not. The birth of Jesus was no exception.

Life can never be the same after any birth. I was present at the birth of two of my children—one of them by Caesarean. There was wonder and awe in that moment. Where did this living, breathing, creature come from? What will he or she become? Can I handle what this birth means? Can I cope with the changes it will bring?

The various readings offered by the lectionary suggest several possible areas of reflection as we prepare for the official liturgical beginning of the “Christmas” season this Sunday.

1. The birth of a child is something to be celebrated. The readings are full of celebration. Isaiah 9 speaks of the coming of a great light (vs. 1) which has “increased” the “joy” of the nation. “They rejoice before you as with joy at harvest.” (vs. 2) Isaiah 52 & 62 celebrate the rebirth of Jerusalem, a rebirth Christians centuries later, connected with a Messiah (Jesus) who would usher in a New Jerusalem. “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem;” we read in Isaiah 52:9, “for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.” The Psalms sing for joy and the earth rejoices. “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” (Psalm 96:1) “Let the earth rejoice; let the coastlands be glad!” (Psalm 97:1) “O sing the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things . . . Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous sing and sing praises.” (Psalm 98:1 & 4) In the story of the birth of Jesus as told in Luke, the angels (“a multitude of the heavenly host”) sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 1:13-14) The shepherds who come to worship returned to the fields, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen . . .” (Luke 1:20)

How do we celebrate the birth of Jesus—or any birth? What songs do we sing? Some families make much of birthday celebrations, celebrating the growth that occurs and the possibilities that still are ahead. What might it mean to think of Christmas as a big birthday party?

2. Birth involves rituals of naming. Parents have often thought about possible names long in advance. Sometimes the names represent family heritage, popular heroes, currently trendy names, names that reflect place or month of birth (Denver or May), popular values and concepts (Hope, Joy, etc.). In some cultures a name may embody some attribute or hoped-for destiny to be lived into—Running Bear, Mighty Healer, etc.

What do names mean anyway? They signify the whole bundle of life embodied in this individual. No words of description quite catch up all that I am, but when someone speaks my name, they refer to my entire being—even the parts that person doesn’t know or understand. Names have an element of aspiration and hope. Each birth represents potential to be lived into.

I was Jim (or Jimmie or James) from the day I was born. The cells of my body have been many times replaced. My understanding of the world, my beliefs, my relationships have changed and developed over time, but I am still Jim. Every experience, including those yet to come, are contained in that name we are given.

Jesus was known by many names. His being was beyond capture by one name, so followers through the ages have used many words. The list of names in Isaiah 9:6 have been applied to him: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” He has been called “Light”. (See Isaiah 9:2, Psalm 97:4, John 1:4, 7-9) The Gospel According to John calls him “the Word” which was from the beginning. (John 1:1) “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (vs. 14)

His ancestry, and those who were God’s spokespersons before him, mattered His father, Joseph, was "descended from the house and family of David.” (Luke 1:4) He was somehow the “Son” of God. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2, with development and description in the verses following) Both Luke and Matthew record his genealogy.

Among the more difficult names to understand and interpret, for those in the progressive stream of Christianity, are Messiah (Christ) and Savior, yet they are central to biblical history. The letter to “Titus”, not where most would think of going for Christmas scriptures, speaks of waiting “for the blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ”—not “Son of God” here, but “God.” (Titus 2:13) The reading from chapter three begins, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us . . .” It is through Jesus Christ (Messiah) our Savior that the Spirit has been “poured out on us richly.” (Titus 3:4-6) The angels, in Luke, announce to the shepherds, “ . . . to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

Most of the discussion at our weekly breakfast this morning had us trying to clarify what it means to call Jesus “Savior.” Thank God we didn’t come up with a definitive creed. Christmas is a time to continue to reflect on all the names applied to Jesus and let their meanings continue to come to fruition in him and in us.

Psalm 96:8 tells us to “ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.” (See also Psalm 96:2—“Sing to the Lord, bless his name.”) Although not written specifically about Jesus, it speaks about the signficance of a name, and realizing the fulness of a name. The reading from Hebrews speaks of Jesus as “the reflection of God’s glory” (Hebrews 1:3) and John’s Gospel tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

What does it mean for someone to live up to a name, to realize his or her full glory? In the reading from Isaiah 62, we see that the people are given some names: “The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord,” . . . “Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.” (vs. 12) Followers of Christ in our day are sometimes named after him, i.e., “Christians.” What does it mean for us to live into that name? The gifts we open at Christmas time usually come with name tags on them. Names are important whether applied to Jesus or to us. Can Christmas be a time when we focus on the full meaning and potential of names—those applied to Jesus and our own? Who are these children born in mangers and hospitals and homes?

3. Finally, in these readings we see a number of references to justice and righteousness and peace. When the expected Messiah/King comes, “there shall be endless peace . . . He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness . . .” (Isaiah 9:7) Psalm 96 tells us “he will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.” (vs. 13—See also Psalm 98:9 which has the exact same words except for “equity” in place of “truth”) “ . . . righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.” (Psalm 97:2) The reading from Hebrews describes the “Son” as loving “righteousness” and hating “wickedness.” (Hebrews 1:9)

The biblical expectations associated with the birth we celebrate at Christmas involve great upheaval, the righting of wrongs and injustice. Things are turned upside down. Light proves to be more powerful than darkness. (John 1:5) Titus doesn’t seem to speak in the same grandiose terms, but suggests a revolution brought about by the “grace of God” bringing “salvation to all.” It is to be expressed now in “lives that are self-controlled, upright, godly.” (Titus 2:11-12) The result of Jesus giving “himself for us” is “a people . . . who are zealous for good deeds.” (vs. 14) May our Christmas meditations direct us toward those places where peace and justice are shining in the darkness, that we might fan the flames of that light through good deeds large and small.

Birth—a time to celebrate and reflect and ponder. There is, indeed, much to ponder as we consider the potential of each life and name. Mary, it says, treasured this moment and pondered it in her heart. Maybe pondering is the most important thing we can do this Christmas—considering the many possibilities opened to us in this event and these scriptures which offer us interpretations and meanings.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:46b-55 OR Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38

For some, the wonder of Christmas is in guessing what’s in those colorfully wrapped packages that are under the tree. We may even pick them up and shake them. What’s in them is a mystery and part of the wonder is gone when we have the unwrapped gift in our hands.

Some people have a clear image of what they want to be in that box, down to the details of shape and color and accessories. The people of Israel were a little that way in their hopes for a Messiah. Although many visions of hope were merged into the expectation of Messiah, they thought they had a pretty good idea of what they were waiting for. The “Christmas” child was to be a king. After all, that’s what Messiah meant—one who was anointed of God to reign in a kingdom of righteousness and justice and peace.

It was a hope held for every one of their kings, voiced when the king’s reign was inaugurated. David was remembered by many as the greatest of those kings—one whose idealized reign was the model for the Messiah many were breathlessly awaiting. Luke (not in this week’s reading) makes much about the fact that Joseph is from the “house of David.” (Luke 1:27 & 2:3—By the way, if the connection with the house David is so important, one wonders whether the “virgin birth” perhaps takes away from that connection.) When the angel Gabriel announces the coming birth to Mary, the angel’s words include this promise, “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” (Luke 1:33) Matthew’s Gospel begins with “the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David . . .” (Matthew 1:1) Jesus is repeatedly addressed as “Son of David.” (Matthew 9:27, 15:22, 20:30-31 are just a few instances.)

This week’s reading from II Samuel describes part of the reign of David. It ends with God saying, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (II Samuel 7:15) Although this history (as is true of most history) was compiled after the fact, some years after David’s reign, it is clear that very early a sense of the eternity of his reign was in the air. Likewise in this week’s Psalm God says, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’” (Psalm 89:3-4)

This is what many thought was in the box—a Messiah in the mold of David. They were pretty sure they even knew some of the details, reflected in Mary’s song when she sings of the baby she is carrying in her womb. This child was associated with the Mighty One’s scattering of “the proud,” who “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:49-53—Note that Mary’s song was included in last week’s reading options as well as this week.)

It might be worth noting that the powerful who sit on thrones don’t come off too well in Mary’s song. Was the expectation of a king to restore the Golden Age of David misguided? Certainly David, in the story in II Samuel, finds that God doesn’t fit as neatly into a box as he thought.

David notices that he is living in a fine house but is worried that God’s still living in a tent. (II Samuel 7:2) God sends the prophet Nathan to set David straight. “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle . . . Did I ever speak a word . . . saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ . . . I have been with you wherever you want . . .” (vss. 6-7 & 9)

The implication is that God is a mystery greater than anything that can be contained in a box or a temple. Even Solomon, David’s son, who eventually built the temple, says in his dedicatory prayer, “But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!”

I see us, in this week’s readings, being presented with a great mystery. We aren’t entirely comfortable with mysteries. To reverse the metaphor of opening the box, we often try to take the mystery and define it so that it can be contained. So many of our religious constructions—ideas, buildings, practices—are an attempt to tame and contain mystery.

This week’s reading from Romans talks about Jesus as “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages.” (Romans 16:25-27) Early Christians came to believe that Jesus became a revelation of what was in that hoped-for box.

In my opinion, that didn’t put an end to all mystery. Jesus himself—who he was and is, what his mission was and is—left/leaves plenty of questions to be answered. He can no more be contained and defined than God—or, dare we say it, the existence and purpose and meaning of any human life.

Although mystery is not mentioned in the second reading from Luke, it is certainly there. It is a story growing out of the early church’s struggle with how Jesus could be both human and divine.

The angel Gabriel speaks to Mary (portrayed as a virgin) about a birth in which “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) Whatever the mysteries of this Jesus, Luke wants us to understand that his life and his mission have their roots in, are an expression of, the Spirit of God.

In considering the image of the box, I’ve noted that we sometimes try to contain the great mysteries of God and life in boxes of our creation. Advent and Christmas, however, are more about unwrapping and releasing the mysteries—not unwrapping them so we can now see clearly what they are, but so that they can inspire and empower our living. Jesus doesn’t do away with the mystery; his Spirit infuses that mystery into our very lives. Mary is not the only one whom the Spirit has come upon.

Just as there was wonderment in this child born of Mary, wonderment beyond his biological origins, so is there wonderment in each one of us—beyond our physical DNA. It is a mystery to be unwrapped and reunderstood each step along the road of life. It is understood in the embodiment and the living.

Margie and I have been reading daily readings from Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith by Henri J.M. Nouwen. I wrote part of this blog entry yesterday (Dec. 13). When we read Nouwen’s words for Dec. 13, they struck me as another take on what I was trying to say. He speaks of the messianic vision of “the peaceable Kingdom.” “Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true. We must remind one another constantly of the vision. Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are.”
Tuesday, December 06, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126:1-6 OR Luke 1:46b-55, I Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

Children often seem to have an innate sense of fairness. Who has not heard a child—or an adult—cry out, “It’s not fair!” The Smothers Brothers made an art out of the routine that had Mom always liking you best.

Now I didn’t say that children always act fairly. They can be extremely selfish, always ready to claim, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” They seem to know, though, when things are out of balance, and want to let the world know about it.

Maybe sensitivity to fairness is innate; maybe not. If it is, it seems to get drowned in the sea of greed and aggressive accumulation that characterizes the systems of this world.

Underneath I like to think that the desire for fairness is still there. I know I feel it, and I know of lot of those who seek the path of divine Love feel it too.

It’s a desire with a long history. There have been humans in most ages who have cried out at the unfairness they’ve seen and experienced. The prophets gave voice to it, this week’s reading from Isaiah 61 being one instance. The vision is of a time when there is a startling upset of the status quo and things are set right. Fairness reigns again.

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn . . .” Thus begins Isaiah 61, in words Jesus used in his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. (Luke 4:16-19) It was a declaration of his mission, fulfilled, he said, in the “Now” of his presence. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he said. (Luke 4:21)

The contrasts in Isaiah 61 are rich: “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (vs. 3) It speaks of ruined cities being repaired, “for I the Lord love justice. I hate robbery and wrongdoing . . . for as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” (vss. 4, 8, 11) Notice the context is “all the nations.” Worldwide fairness! It’s enough to make the heart leap.

The Psalmist catches the mood. “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy . . . May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (Psalm 126:2, 5-6)

In the first chapter of Luke, Mary, when she was carrying the baby Jesus in her womb sang out with joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:45) Why is she rejoicing? Because she connects this child with “the Mighty One” who “has done great things . . . he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (vss. 49, 51-53)

While the reading from the Gospel According to John does not specifically mention this upending vision of fairness, it is assumed. It is John’s version of last week’s reading from Mark—the story of John the baptizer as preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. The hopes and fears of all the years came to focus in the expectation of this one who would come as Messiah. He was the one who would make things right, introducing a kingdom, a realm, where fairness prevailed. Those who hear John preaching want to know if he is that one. (John 1:19-20) He is not that light, looming just on the horizon, but the one who comes “to testify to the light,” i.e., the Messiah Jesus. (vss. 7-8)

Many of us who read and write about this week’s readings, or preach about them, or listen to sermons on them, have a difficult time grasping the joyful message. We are, at times, too comfortable. We don’t think of ourselves, as one of “the lowly” like Mary. Fairness may mean we have to give up some of our toys, or at least share them with all the children of the earth whom Jesus loves. I hope it means that some of those ruled by corporate greed or political ambition are put into the “playpen” of the real world as well. The people who would probably rejoice the most if true fairness came are those who can’t find a room in the inn where they can spend the night, those who’ve been kidnaped and sold for profit to serve the needs of powerful men seeking sex, those who have lost mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters in tribal warfares of revenge.

This list is long. Year after year, the cry for fairness screams from our hearts, and we find that fairness is a long time coming. How long? How long? We are still waiting—sometimes not very patiently. There are those in many nations who gather in the streets to cry out against the injustice of it all.

Waiting or not, the Spirit continues to stir up the flames of hope within. Followers of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speak of “keeping the dream alive.” Whatever the powers of this world do, we cannot succumb without continuing to give voice to the dream of an alternative. It may not come as soon as we would like it to come, but the reading from I Thessalonians offers an attitude and promise to consider in our time of waiting.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances . . . Do not quench the Spirit . . . The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18, 24) We are always surrounded by realities that threaten to quench our spirits and the Spirit of Love at work in us. I have always found verse 24 to be a powerful reminder that we are not in this alone. The one who is the source of the vision “is faithful, and he will do this.” Hang in there; it’s not time to give up yet.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, II Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

One of the rituals of this season usually involves someone reading a poem by Clement Clarke Moore about the night before Christmas. It includes this line: “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” Many of us, perhaps most of us are dreamers. I’m referring not to night dreams during our sleep—although those can be quite revealing at times. I’m talking about visions of possibility, our “dreams” for a better world, our understandings of the shape that world might have.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior inspired many of us with his famous “I Have A Dream” speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. At one point he launched into cadence that repeatedly returned to the phrase, “I have a dream,” each time fleshed out with a vivid image of peace and justice. Dr. King was a clergyman, deeply influenced by biblical vision. Part of his inspiration for this speech was drawn from this week’s reading from Isaiah 40, words from verses four and five: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

Many attempts have been made to describe the perfect society. What would it look like if human beings lived together in a way that they achieved their maximum potential, so that the human spirit was encouraged and enabled rather than worn down and destroyed? Some have even tried to build “utopias”, intentional communities where those dreams are lived out. People still experiment with living together communally, usually either failing or finding that life together involves a lot of compromise.

Perfection is not found in this earthly existence, but it doesn’t mean we should stop dreaming or stop taking steps to realize those dreams. Advent is a time for such dreaming. What visions run through our heads during the days before Christmas?

The lectionary readings for this week offer some images and suggestions. Isaiah 40 addresses a people in exile, living in a strange land. They feel separated from all they have known and need a word of comfort. Their dream is, among other things, to discover that God still cares for them. In the very first verse we read, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 40:1) They dream of returning to their homeland, going back to things the way they were, but the road back is difficult, full of obstacles. The dream—and the promise--- is that those obstacles will be removed: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (vs. 4)

I’m not really sure that having it easy is the way to human fulfillment, but we need encouragement and hope when we are down, when the challenges of the future look nearly impossible to face and overcome. It is encouraging to know that a way is being prepared. (vs. 3) The Gospel reading from Mark looks back to this verse and applies it to John the baptizer. He is the one who cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:3-4)

Isaiah 40 also includes a dream we encountered a couple of weeks ago, the image of sheep in intimate relationship with a caring shepherd. Do we ever entirely lose the longing for the caress of a loving caregiver? For some it is embodied in memories (perhaps unconscious) of being nurtured at the breast of a loving mother. For some it is the assurance offered in the popular “Footprints” poem: “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Again this dream seems to me to be based in a degree of helpless dependence, yet in difficult days we need the assurance that there are those around us who will love and support us. The “perfect” society of which many of us dream is one in which we can all count on one another for such support—and where we sense ourselves connected with an underlying and supportive Spirit.

One of the longings that seems to work its way into our dreams is that of forgiveness. Although we in the more “progressive” wing of Christianity like to avoid too much emphasis upon “guilt,” I don’t know a person, including myself, who has not engaged in some hurtful or destructive activity. We have spoken words which cut someone down. We have pursued a goal at the expense of someone else. We have entertained thoughts and wishes that have haunted us. For some the “dark side” has been much deeper. We want to know that things will be all right, that such acts will not destroy us. We want forgiveness. Isaiah 40 speaks of the “penalty” having been paid. (Isaiah 40:2) Psalm 85 says, “You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.” (Psalm 85:2) II Peter speaks of all coming to “repentance” (II Peter 3:9), and John the baptizer comes as one who proclaims “a baptism of repentance for sins.” (Mark 1:4)

Forgiveness is one of the central Christian understandings associated with God’s Love. God is not a vengeful God, but one who is patient and forgiving. Part of what II Peter brings to the discussion on the awaited Day of the Lord is an emphasis upon God’s patience. The writer starts by reminding us that, in God’s time, “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (II Peter 3:8) It’s another way of stating that we shouldn’t get bogged down in trying to map out events leading to a day of judgment. In fact, it is a sign that “The Lord . . . is patient with you.” (vs. 9) God is not out to kill all the bad guys, but to patiently waits for forgiving Love to transform them.

Back to Psalm 85 for a minute. The dream there is poetically expressed in verses 10-11: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

Many of us dream of a society in which every one does what is right, i.e., where righteousness prevails. It is a society in which people are honest with one another, don’t use power to take advantage of and suppress one another, etc. All of the following words have been used at one time or another in translating the Hebrew biblical word for “righteousness”—integrity, equity, justice. One who is righteous is innocent, true, sincere. Righteousness is the product of upright, moral action. Is righteousness part of our Advent dream?

II Peter says, “We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” (II Peter 3:13) Yet, we need not wait, he implies. We can start living the dream right now, being the sort of persons we ought to be “in leading lives of holiness and godliness.” (vs. 11) “While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace . . .” (vs. 14) Remember the words of Psalm 85 where it says “he will speak peace to his people,” that “righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:8 & 10)

For some, peace is the highest of all dreams. God’s peace, however, is more than just the absence of violence and hostility. It is an inner attitude as well as an outer reality. It is harmonious cooperation for the well-being of all so that war becomes obsolete. Now there’s a dream worth having. I’m tempted to say “worth fighting for,” but that doesn’t quite fit. How about “worth cooperating for”?

The Gospel reading jumps right in with John the baptizer preparing the way for one who comes to embody the dream. No birth stories. No genealogies. Mark, the earliest Gospel, opens with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) We’ve already noted that he quotes from Isaiah to describe John as the preparer bringing a message of forgiveness. John the baptizer is a symbol of Advent preparation, for awaiting the dream—and living the dream while we wait.

Note how the reading ends. John speaks of Jesus as one who baptizes not with water, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 8) Is there the suggestion here that all of our dreaming is empty without the presence of the Spirit? The dreams that matter are not just about bricks and mortar, laws and rules and regulations. Our dreams are most profound when they are “baptized” with the presence of God’s guiding Spirit.

May this Advent be a time when we attune ourselves to God’s Spirit and move beyond dreams of sugar plums—or even sugar plum fairies—anticipating and living into a time when “steadfast love and faithfulness” meet and “righteousness and peace” kiss each other.
Monday, November 21, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, I Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

We sometimes complain about how early the commercial interests of the world try to overwhelm us with the sights and sounds and products of Christmas. As I write, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and I’ve been hearing Christmas music for at least two weeks, most recently in my favorite Chinese restaurant yet. (Not that all Chinese follow some other religion or ignore Christmas, but it somehow seems a little incongruous.)

But that time has come in the Church Year. This Sunday begins Advent—and a new Church Year. Now it’s Advent, mind you, not Christmas. It’s a time of preparation, not the beginning of the celebration. Some pastors and congregations refuse to sing the actual Christmas carols until the Christmas season of the Church Year begins on what we call Christmas Day.

I lean a little in that direction because it forces me to live through a time of waiting. Advent is about, among other things, waiting—but waiting in high anticipation. Remember the stereotype of the young child who tries to stay awake all night on Christmas Eve. Maybe you were such a child, or parented one. It may be that the motivation for staying awake is to catch a glimpse of Santa, or maybe it is just the excitement and impatience associated with tearing the wrappers off all those gifts under the tree. In our household, one always had to wait until a parent gave the all clear to come running out to see what was under the tree. Now everything is usually out there for weeks for all to examine the shapes of the packages, perhaps even shake them a little. And, of course, family customs vary—some opening presents on Christmas Eve, some on Christmas morning. Some family gatherings don’t get to it until later in the day—or spread it our through the entire day. Some open one a day for several days.

Advent stretches that one night of anticipation to four weeks. I don’t imagine many, if any, of those children stayed up all night praying, but that may be closer to the spirit of the Advent season that all the glitter that fuels our wide-eyed wonder these days.

Being wide-eyed, though, is an appropriate way to approach Advent. This week’s Gospel lesson ends with the words, “Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37) The wakefulness is not because there are presents under the tree. This reading is another of those lessons about a coming time of judgment and the fulfilment of history. It is something that Jesus and his followers seemed to expect any day now. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (vs. 30) The images stun, perhaps frighten us. Maybe we just read them in disbelief, tempted to laugh.

A darkened sun, stars falling from heaven (vss. 24-25)—well, even science has predicted the demise of our sun in some distant future—with far more immediate destructive “natural” occurrences as a result of our treatment of the environment. But a person (“the Son of Man”) “coming in clouds”? (vs. 26) What’s that? A space ship from another planet?

As I read most biblical treatments of such coming events, the main point is that of verses 32-33. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father . . . you do not know when the time will come.” People sometimes got into a frenzy, did strange things, when they lived in fear or in the hope that the end would come soon. Some quite working; some decided to eat, drink, and be merry while there was still time. In every age, there have been those who have tried to put a specific date on it—some groups more than once. I’ve never heard them express any embarrassment when the predicted day came and went while history continued and people woke up and went to work as usual the next day.

Our Gospel lesson calls simply for being “alert” (vs. 33), keeping “awake.” (vss. 35-37) Advent is a time for keeping awake. Can we take that as encouragement to be wide-eyed in appreciation every day of life we are given? Can it be taken as an instruction to live every moment in anticipation of what life (and God) is doing? Can we move beyond an attempt to map out the details of future events and realize that each day is a wonder? Such wide-eyed wonder is appropriate all year. Advent can be a time with we let it loose, staying awake all night because we know not what possibilities the new day may bring.

The other lectionary readings for this Sunday offer some additional perspectives on waiting. In Isaiah we read about a people who feel abandoned by God. “For you have hidden your face from us . . .” (Isaiah 64:7) They are waiting, so to speak, for their relationship with God to be restored. The reading from Psalm 80 is similar in tone. “Restore us, O God; let your face shine . . .” (vss. 3, 7, & 19)

Holidays can be lonely times. We nostalgically remember lost loved ones. The wounds may be especially raw if there has been a recent death. Those who are going through divorce lose some of the rituals they may have known for years. Even many years later, divorced families know how complicated holidays can become. We look for a new reality in which meanings are made whole again. There are no easy answers, but the biblical perspective is that there is always hope for healing and new beginnings. Advent is a time to be wide-eyed, awake, ready for such new possibilities, new beginnings.

Perhaps the most hopeful verse in the reading from Isaiah 64 is verse 8: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of you hand.” Advent is a time when the forces of history are grinding away. It is like a time of labor before a new birth. Maybe, at times, all we can do is yield to those forces, let them work away reshaping us and bringing something new into being, marveling (even if there is pain) at the wonder of those workings.

The context of the Epistle reading is waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” for “the end,” “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1:7-8) Paul reminds his readers that he gives thanks to God for them. (vs. 2) He speaks of the way they have been strengthened by Christ, who “will also strengthen you to the end.” (vss. 6 & 8) I particularly notice that he speaks about one of his favorite topics—one developed at length later in I Corinthians—the gifts we have been given. “ . . . you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait.” (vs. 7) Is he implying something similar to the clay and potter image of Isaiah 64:8?

Overall, the point I make is this: Rather than get bogged down trying to describe final events in detail, rather than cringing in fear or going to excess in the pursuit of pleasure while we have a chance, we are to continue living each day no matter what may come. We are to move ahead wide-eyed, using our gifts, talents, abilities as fully as possible, flexible enough to be molded by the circumstances and opportunities and challenges that may be part of an uncertain future. “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Marks 13:37)
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 AND Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1;15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

November 20th is the last Sunday of the Church Year. The following Sunday begins the next Church year with the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. The last Sunday of the Church Year traditionally celebrates the culmination of history when God’s Love through Jesus Christ comes to full fruition. Scripturally it is spoken of as Christ ruling over all in a Kingdom in which Love has triumphed.

When I ask the question, “Where Are We Going?”, I think less of an eternal destination (say heaven or hell) or a final judgment. I’m asking about divine goals that may be operative giving us guidance as we move through history. What is it that we are working for, living for?

This is also the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the Sunday on which many pastors preach a message of the meaning and/or importance of giving thanks. Since I will be preaching, I have chosen the Thanksgiving Sunday emphasis, although my comments in this blog entry will include some broader observations.

Most of the readings include the image of a shepherd and sheep, so that the “reign of Christ” may be compared to the relationship of a good shepherd to his flock. It is an image that recurs throughout scripture. Both Psalms contain the line. “We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” (Psalm 100:4) “We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Psalm 94:7) Both Psalms are appropriate expressions of praise for Thanksgiving. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness . . . Enter his gates with thanksgiving . . . For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever . . .” (Psalm 100:1-2, 4-5—with similar phrases in Psalm 95) To be cared for by a good shepherd, to be God’s people, is reason to have thankful hearts.

Ezekiel presents a more extended image. The shepherd is one who gathers and “rescues” the sheep. (Ezekiel 34:11-13) “I will feed them with good pasture . . . they shall lie down in good grazing land . . . I will seek the lost . . . and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” (vss. 14 & 16) We find, though, that not all is sweetness and light. The sheep are to be judged. (vs. 20) One would think that the lean and weak sheep that might be culled from the flock. Instead, we find that the fat sheep are the problem, “because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.” (vss. 16 & 20-22)

If this is a picture of the “kingdom,” it is one in which sheep and shepherd live together in harmony, without taking advantage of one another. “Fat cats” are not allowed to take advantage. The powerful are not allowed to foster division and dissent, to intimidate the “weak.” It is a peaceable kingdom where all live in harmony.

The Gospel lesson is also a judgment scene. Here the nations are gathered before “the Son of Man” who “comes in his glory.” They are separated “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:31-32) Central to this parable is the basis of judgment. Even without the “eternal punishment” that comes at its end, the parable offers insight into the nature of the reign of God. The king proclaims that those who are “blessed” are the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, visited those in prison. (vss. 34-36) The “goats” are described as those who “did not” do those things. Both groups want to know when it was that they did or did not act in these ways.

In what is the key verse for me as I approach this Thanksgiving Sunday, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (vs. 40) Progressive/liberal Christians, those interested in peace and justice, have been particularly fond of this scripture, usually focusing on the phrase “the least of these.”

What caught my eye this time was that the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned, are described as “members of my family.” The stereotypical image of Thanksgiving is a family, feasting together around a table. People in their rich diversity gathered around a banquet table is a scriptural picture of the reign of God, the goal of history if you wish.

So—Sunday I’m going to be talking about family, remembering our own experiences of family celebration (good and bad) and thinking about the great variety of people seated at God’s inclusive table. Family connections aren’t always defined by whom we like or get along easily with. There’s the alcoholic uncle and the rebellious daughter. There’s the obnoxious sister-in-law who talks non-stop and the macho cousin whose manhood is defined by the size of the motor in his truck. One hopes there are also a lot of pleasant, loving, well-behaved people present as well, but when we gather for Thanksgiving there are ties that transcend the differences and problematic behaviors. Nobody said being a family is easy—and don’t you dare discuss politics or religion.

To talk about the “reign of Christ” is to talk about being such a family on a grander scale. The parable tells us that God includes the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned as members of his family. We are part of a family that is inclusive, where the fat sheep sometimes need to be reminded that the “weak”sheep are part of the family too.

If we were to explore the imagery of sheep further, we would find that they are often dirty and smelly creatures, not what we would immediately think of as ideal to symbolize the reign of God. Those, however, are the creatures God reaches out to include.

Dirty sheep, dysfunctional families, those who are weak and needy are all included. In the parable, taking care of one another in such a family means we are “blessed.” My Thanksgiving message will call upon us to give thanks for the blessing of being included in such a family. Such inclusiveness, I believe, is the goal of history. It is, I know, the ideal that Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ tries to embody.

Finally, the epistle reading from Ephesians more directly addresses traditional understandings of the reign of Christ when all things are fulfilled. It speaks of that time as one filled with “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (Ephesians 1:18), i.e., of the family inheritance at the end of time. It speaks of “the immeasurable greatness of his power.” (vs. 19) Christ is pictured as seated with God “at his right hand in the heavenly places.” (vs. 19) “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him head over all thins for the church.” (vs. 22)

I don’t find much comfort in such images of power and submission. It almost makes me think of one of the worst images of the abuse of power—the victor with his booted foot resting on my head. The last phrase of the reading, however, seems to change the image, speaking of “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (vs. 23) It is less an image of power from above and more an image of an indwelling presence that empowers us all, who gives the family an identity and holds its disparate parts together.

Where are we going? Toward participation in the fullness of such a family. Someone has said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” There’s plenty to debate in such a “sound bite,” but the going is not just about the where. It is about the principles and the spirit that guide us along the way. We are on the way to the fullness of God’s inclusive family. On the way, we are building and experiencing it now, and that is part of the reign of Christ.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Judges 4:1-7 AND Psalm 123:1-4 OR Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 AND Psalm 90:1-12, I Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Most of this week’s readings are rooted in humanity’s outrage when seeming injustice and/or violence overtakes them. Evil happens and the struggle to explain it is endless and futile. We see it in the attack on the towers in New York City, in shooting rampages that take down students and politicians, in the recent surfacing of a sex abuse scandal at Penn State, in corporate greed (big bonuses for execs at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), in the use of power in totalitarian states, in tribal and ethnic hatred and slaughter. We could fill this entire blog with a list of such gut-wrenching phenomena. We blame it on mental illness, genetics, lack of proper socialization, greed, hunger for power, improper values, the devil, etc.

The most common response seems to be to strike back—revenge—give evil or evil. Romans 12:21 (not one of this week’s readings) says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Followers of Christ often say we are called upon to “forgive,” and that we are. I come this week, however, with more questions than answers.

My most basic question is how are people (including ourselves) held accountable for their actions. Society’s answer is often to punish people. Biblically we find many images of a final judgement, where those who have fallen short don’t fair too well.

I was fortunate enough to serve a church in a county seat where the sheriff was a seminary graduate pioneering one of the first victim-offender reconciliation projects in the country. It used our church as a place for victims and offenders to meet and seek reconciliation. I’ve seen it work, but does it work when we move to a larger scale? South Africa tried it with a Truth and Reconiliation Commission and similar efforts have been made in other countries—with positive but mixed results. There are no easy answers.

The book of Judges depicts a period of Israelite history when they were ruled by judges. In Judges 2:18-19, the period is described in this way: “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.”

Repeatedly in the book of Judges one finds the words which begin this week’s reading. Ehud, the judge, has just died and “the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (Judges 4:1) The result is that they are sold “into the hands of King Jabin of Canaan.” (vs. 2) It may be noteworthy that the next judge is a woman, Deborah. (vs. 4) Following her instruction, the Israelites win the next big battle (vss. 5-7) and have forty years of peace. (Judges 5:31) Then chapter six opens with the words: “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Evil is persistent and this reading gives us little comfort, only a sense that cycles of revenge don’t work.

In Psalm 123 people who seem to be at the bottom of the heap cry out for mercy—“for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.” (Psalm 123: 3-4) Such cries can be heard in every age, including our own, when those in power, those who sit at the top of the economic heap, seem to have little appreciation for those whose life is a day to day struggle. The rest of us sometimes seem to be little more than pawns.

Zephaniah, the prophet, looked around Jerusalem shortly before it fell to the enemy in 586 BCE and identified the wealthy as the source of evil. The solution is again punishment, destruction. “Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste . . . That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness . . . Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them . . .” (Zephaniah 1:13, 15, 18) There is truth in the warning that the pursuit of silver and gold is often the source of injustice, but what kind of justice is it that destroys a whole city? Isn’t there a better way? It’s a question I come back to again and again as I read these stories of revenge and punishment.

The author of Psalm 90 seems almost to throw up his hands in pessimistic resignation. It’s not a stance I can embrace, but there are times when it seems there is little we can do. The writer says we are “like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers . . . For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:5-6, 9-10)

How would you like to spend a day in the company of this man? Anyone who imagines the Psalms to be always inspiring missed this one. The hopeful word, however, is perhaps in the final verse—“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (vs. 12) Humans have often looked to philosophies which teach us to live one day at a time, living fully into the moment as the only place we can make a difference. The time when we can do what is right is now, and that, at least, is something. Jesus, in what is called “The Sermon on the Mount,” concluded his section on worry and anxiety with these words: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today." (Matthew 6:33-34) When faced with the consequences of “evil” my heart longs for something more, but “one day at a time” is not a bad place to start.

Both the epistle and Gospel lessons deal with a coming time of judgment. Early Christians, as has been true of some Christians in all ages, felt it was just around the corner. From the two letters to the church in Thessalonica we can gather that they engaged in quite a bit of speculation about it, some believing the end had already come (II Thessalonians 2:1-2), some believing it is so near that there is no point in working any more (II Thessalonians 3:6 & following), etc. In Today’s reading from the first epistle, some seem to be ignoring pending doom, saying, “There is peace and security.” (I Thessalonians 5:3) These verses do not seem so much to name some evil worthy of punishment as remind the readers that the time when judgment will come is not known. (vs. 2) They extend the notion of living one day at a time. We are to live fully awake, avoiding darkness since we are “children of light,” encouraging one another and building up each other. (vss.5-6 & 1) It is an exhortation to keep on each day doing what is right, letting our lights shine (as was emphasized this past Sunday at Kairos-Milwaukie UCC).

Like so many of the Jesus’ parables, the one in our Gospel reading ends with a judgment scene. The parable depicts a man leaving his “slaves” in charge of his property, entrusting them with funds in varying amounts. (Matthew 25:14-15) When the owner returns, he finds that the two slaves given the most have doubled the value of what was entrusted to them. (vss. 20-23) The third, who received the least, was afraid and hid his money. (vss. 24-25) The result seems to us to be very harsh. The money he buried is taken from him and given to the one who earned the most, and “this worthless slave” is thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (vss. 29-30)

Basically it is a parable about using what we have. The money they were given was measured in “talents,” a Hebrew unit of measure. Most interpretations of the parable have taken the word “talent” to refer to the abilities and gifts we have.

The lesson is not unlike what we have drawn from the previous two readings. Whatever we think about a final judgment, we are to go on living now, letting our light shine, using our gifts and abilities. That is what we are accountable for. It’s almost a “use it or lose it” message: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (vs. 29) I can’t sit easily with that, nor some of the depictions of harsh judgments, but I can accept accountability for doing my best with what I have been given, trusting in a divine love which will multiply my efforts, assuring me that they will make a difference, however small, not only now, but in eternity.
Thursday, November 03, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures for All Saints Sunday: Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, I John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12
Lectionary Scriptures for Nov. 6 (if not being celebrated as All Saints Sunday): Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7, Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-20, Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70:1-5, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

NOTE: Although it was written on schedule, last week's blog did not get posted until a week later. The date is past but the blog is now there in the archives if you wish to read it. Jim Ogden

On the first Sunday in November, some congregations celebrate “All Saints Sunday.” I’ve included the lectionary readings for celebrating All Saints Day as well as the alternative readings.

Many of our scriptures were written in times when believers were being persecuted by the powers of their day—often finding themselves wandering in the wilderness, without a homeland, in exile, living among people whose values were perhaps tempting but not compatible with their own understandings. Voices cry out, as we read in Psalm 70, “I am poor and needy, hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!” (Psalm 70:5)

Let's consider this week's readings as tracts intended to encourage and warn such people, to give them hope, to suggest resources for living in and through such times of “ordeal.” It is not simply a matter of whether or not the Lord will hear; will we hear and respond?

Revelation was written to those living under Roman persecution. I won’t try to get into the specific historical context or the symbols in the writing that probably would have been recognized by the readers as references to their specific situation. It is sufficient, in my opinion, to see the reading from Revelation as a political document encouraging believers who are living through a time of “great ordeal” up close and personal. (See Revelation 7:14)

Who does not know an ordeal or two—personal or political? The demons of the mind and spirit, the political oppressors, the glittering call of dangerous temptations, are at work in every age. The reading from Revelation offers an image of those who make it through such ordeals—the “saints,” if you wish. They are in the presence of God, and “the Lamb . . . who will be their shepherd, and . . . will guide them to springs of the water of life.” “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . ., and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (vss. 15-17) If we take the entire New Testament, we know that the saints are not just those who have gone on to heaven. They are all those whose faith enables them to be “survivors” in the face of the ordeals of life.

We could talk about all the different kinds of “survivors” in life today—cancer survivors, survivors of abuse and harassment (sexual, political, etc.), poverty, mental health issues, and on and on. The word of scripture is that we all can get through the “ordeal”; we can all be “survivors.”

The reading from I Thessalonians paints another picture of happenings in the end times—again offered in a time of persecution. An angel calls and God’s trumpet sounds and all believers are lifted into the clouds and the presence of the Lord. (I Thessalonians 4:16-17) It’s one of many biblical images that have been interpreted and elaborated and distorted in a variety of ways. Rather than add to the debate about specific happenings, I would note that, again, the purpose is to “encourage one another.” (vs. 18)

The verses from Psalm 34—for All Saints Day—can be seen as describing the saints who are “radiant” (Psalm 34:5), because they have been “delivered” from fears, “saved from every trouble.” (vss. 4 & 6) When the Old Testament speaks of those who are sometimes called saints, it often speaks of them as “holy ones.” (vs. 9)

In I John, the saints are “children of God.” (I John 3:1) Notice that it is “now” (vs. 2), not just off in the future. As for the future, “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” What we know is that “we will be like him . . .” (vs. 2) Wow! Like God! That’s what it says. Words of hope for those living through the ordeals of life. (vs. 3)

The All Saints’ Gospel reading gives us a set of values that describe “saints,” offer guidelines for living in a time of “ordeal,” and offer hope for those who want to be part of the “kingdom of heaven”—what our pastor often calls “God’s Realm.” (Matthew 5:1-12) They are Jesus’ “Beatitudes”—the inspiration for an anthem written and composed by our own Kathy Walden and Dave Parker—“Blessed.” Those living under oppression are not to adopt the values of the oppressor. They live in a “counterculture” dominated by an inner spiritual quality that overcomes arrogance with humility, aggression with peacemaking, etc. Such values are the only hope in times of “ordeal.” We can’t begin to meet force with force. Peaceful and loving resistance, mercy and service, are the resources of those who would occupy a different reality.

The reading from Joshua has Joshua calling the people to “choose this day whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15) As they enter into this new land, they are going to be faced with tempting alternatives. We can agonize over what seems to be an unfair intrusion upon land that is already occupied. We can wonder about an exclusivity which says my way is better than your way. Choosing sometimes doesn’t seem to encourage much dialogue.

Beyond those questions, however, is the reality that most of us live in situations where we are called to choose among alternative values and realities. We need to be clear about the values we wish to build our lives upon or we will simply be swept along by the streams of what is popular or has surface appeal. The ideal is to find some way to choose without cutting off dialogue. We need to be respectful of others rights to make choices as well, but choose we must. Someone once said, “Life comes as choice.”

Psalm 78, and a variety of other biblical passages, speak to the fact that values for living in times of ordeal are passed on from generation to generation. They are “things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord . . .” (Psalm 78:3-4) Along with the Joshua reading, we might ask how cultures are maintained. It’s a critical question for immigrant populations. How do we maintain a sense of identity in the midst of great diversity, without just creating a separatist enclave? We might also ask how those seeking alternatives today—say the Occupy Wall Street movement—learn from the experience of those who have gone before—say the 60s activitists?

In this week’s readings, we also meet “Wisdom,” a female spiritual manifestation, a presence that guides in times of ordeal. “Wisdom of Solomon” is used by Catholics but is considered an “apocryphal” writing by others. Many have nevertheless found “Wisdom” to be a source of strength in times of ordeal. “To fix one’s thoughts on her is perfect understanding . . . The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her . . .’ (Wisdom of Solomon 6:15 & 17) Whatever the nature of this female spiritual entity, we need to seek information and act in “wise” ways, i.e., have wisdom, in times of ordeal.

The reading from Amos can help us get our priorities straight. He has earlier has said to those who claim to be God’s people: You “trample on the poor . . . take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” (Amos 5:11-12) When these same people then gather to worship, God looks on and says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs . . .” (vss. 21 & 23) Instead, God says, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (vs. 24) When we are living in a time of ordeal, we are reminded to keep our focus on justice and righteousness. When the economy goes bad, the wealthy and those in power sometimes try to protect their privilege rather than work for the welfare of all. Sound familiar? The Occupy Wall Street crowd thinks so.

Finally, Matthew 25 tells us of bridesmaids coming to a wedding banquet. (vs. 1) Half of them are carrying lamps that run out of oil. (vss. 3-8) They have to run back and buy more. While they are away, the festivities begin and they are left out. (vss. 9-10) It’s a troubling parable, subject to much interpretation and abuse, often used to make people quake about being “left behind.” In the light of the theme of this blog entry, it is sufficient to know that we are to be prepared for whatever happens. In times of ordeal, things are often unpredictable, the wind blows this way one day and that way the next. We don’t know what to expect or when to expect it.

Can we perhaps see the lamps as metaphorical? The Quakers speak of the light within—the light of God’s Spirit. Times of ordeal threaten to extinguish that light. May God, Wisdom, the Holy Spirit keep it burning so that peace and justice and the spirit of the beatitudes may prevail. Perhaps one of the songs we need to sing in our “solemn assemblies” is, “Give me oil in my lamp! Keep me burning.”
Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Lectionary Scriptures: Joshua 3:7-17 AND Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 OR Micah 3:5-12 AND Psalm 43:1-5, I Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

We seem to have a lot of agreement that things are not going too well these days—in politics, in international relations, in economics, even in many of our families. Our recent lectionary readings have depicted the Hebrew people in something of a mess—a wilderness, one might say. In Psalm 107, we find the people wandering “in desert places . . . hungry and thirsty” crying out “in their trouble.” (Psalm 107:4-6) Ultimately it is “the Lord” who delivers them. “ . . . he led them by a straight way . . . for he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things.” (vss. 6, 7, & 9) Likewise, Psalm 43 is a cry from those who feel cast off. (Psalm 43:2) Many of the Psalms contain such cries. Who is going to get us out of this mess?

While God is seen as the ultimate deliverer, it is most frequently human leaders who step in to carry out what they perceive to be God’s will (even if it is often distorted and misunderstood).

The story last week took us up to the brink of the “Promised Land,” but Moses was not allowed to enter. A new leader was appointed, Joshua. Today’s reading picks up the story of Joshua as the people cross the Jordan River “on dry ground.” (Joshua 3:17) We could discuss various attempts to explain this “miracle.” Whatever stories they told about it, what was important to these people was that they got across. It is the beginning of a brand new chapter of their existence. They are given a new start.

We might agonize over their becoming an “occupying” force. We cannot escape the fact that human history is, among other things, the story of “occupying” new lands, getting new beginnings. We need to acknowledge that those new beginnings have come at a cost. The comes a day of reckoning when we need to set right what can be set right, and find ways to reconciliation and forgiveness in the midst of present realities.

For now, though, I want to examine this week’s readings to consider the kind of “leadership” needed to get us out of the messes we find ourselves in? This is not a systematic presentation of some biblical model of or critique of leadership. I’m simply gleaning some insights from these texts that may help us understand who is or who is not going to get us out of this mess

1. No one leader is going to do it alone. Joshua is told to select twelve men to help him get the job done. Putting too much emphasis on the symbolism of the number twelve probably takes us down a rabbit hole. Suffice it to say that twelve is seen as one of the “perfect” numbers, representing in this case, perfect governance. So what? How are we going to apply that in modern circumstances? It’s probably better to see it just as it is presented—a “representative” process—“one from each tribe.” (Joshua 3:12) The voices of all groups in society need to be heard if we are to get out of this mess. It’s the ideal behind our system of elected representatives, but it’s not working too well at the moment.

2. The prophet Micah, from the 8th century before the common era, reminds us that leaders can be corrupt, that leadership can be abused, that leaders can be just looking for what’s in it for them, etc. He observed and criticized such leaders as he observed them at work in the land of Judah. They “lead my people astray.” They “cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat.” (Micah 3:5) It is as if they have become comfortable, disconnect with the suffering of the people around them. Sound familiar? They “abhor justice and pervert all equity,” building the nation “with blood and with wrong!” They can be bribed. The priests and prophets can be bought “for a price . . . with money.” (vss. 9-11) What we have is a picture in which those who should be getting us out of this mess can be bought by the highest bidder. Sounds familiar again, doesn’t it? No wonder a movement arises to Occupy Wall Street and challenge a system of leadership which is controlled by the profiteers. God, through Micah, points out that this is a leadership that leads to destruction, so that our cities become “a heap of ruins.” (vs. 12) Here’s a prophet who hits close to home. This is not the way to get out of this mess.

3. Paul often addresses his leadership role among the churches to which he writes. (I Thessalonians 2:9-10) He sees himself in close loving relationship with the people. They are like family to one another.

One way of getting out of this mess is to function like a family. It’s a model that has been used in tribes, in businesses, in voluntary organizations, in churches from time to time. It’s certainly a huge step ahead of leadership by corrupt monarchs.

The problem comes when one defines a hierarchical family organization as the ideal, with a patriarch in charge. Paul sometimes seems to lean this way. He talks about dealing “with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you.” (vss. 11-12) It can work well when the father is benevolent and loving, but like most approaches to leadership it can easily be abused.

As in all these “models” we need to remember that the larger picture is not the leader himself or herself but how God is or is not at work in the situation. In I Thessalonians the call is to “lead a life worthy of God.” It is more that “a human word” at work; it is “God’s word, which is also are work in you believers.” (vss. 12-13)

4. The Gospel lesson touches on elements in some of the other texts. Jesus speaks about leaders who are corrupt—in this case, hypocrites. They say the right words, but “they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:3) They place heavy burdens on the people and “are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The look for honor and praise. They want to be addressed a the honorable this or the honorable that. (vss. 4-7)

If Paul wants to be seen as “father” (although we have no indication that he ever sought the title, “Father”), Jesus warns against using any honorific titles for leaders—not “rabbi,” not “teacher,” not “father,” not “instructor.” (vss. 8-10) We could puzzle over this one for some time. In the Fundamentalist circles of my childhood years, this was used to condemn the use of “Father” in addressing priests. Surely Jesus is not saying there should be no teachers, no priests, no instruction, etc. Paul’s letters talk about the variety of gifts we are given to be used for the building up of the church and world. I suspect that Jesus here is simply warning against using titles that give people power over us. His words can be read in the spirit of the Paul’s reminder that one gift is not better than another, not something to be used to say, “I am better than you. I have a more valuable ability.” And again, it is a call to see all gifts, all good leadership as coming from a deeper—more divine—place. (vs. 10)

The conclusion of the Gospel lesson confirms this emphasis upon a style of governance in which we all work together each applying his or her gift in service of the whole. It’s called servanthood, and it’s the only way we’re going to get out of this mess. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (vss. 11-12). No one ever said democracy was easy or efficient, but it is, I believe, the way that recognizes the divine is at work in each one of us. God’s leadership style is to give us all a stake in things. We bring what we have to the mix and it multiplies into something greater. No one else can get us out of this mess. It’s not magic, but it is a miracle of sorts. One of the most dramatic things I’ve observed in the Occupy Movement is their attempt to make decisions using some sort of consensus process in which each voice is heard. I’d like to think that God is looking on from some vantage point and smiling.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Deuteronomy 34:1-2 AND Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 OR Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 AND Psalm 1:1-6, I Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

Today’s political sniping at Mormonism has brought attention to the question of whether we human beings are meant to achieve Godhood or not. Whatever the answer to that question, our eulogies sometimes make something akin to gods of those who have died. Witness the praise heaped upon Steve Jobs. His life certainly deserved to be praised, and his impact on modern culture has been huge. Whether he ranks up there with some of those to whom he is compared is another question. I doubt that we need to consider him part of a divine pantheon.

Some of this week’s readings can become the occasion for asking what kind of life is worthy of praise—and how God may be at work in and through human lives and relationships.

The reading from Deuteronomy places us at the end of Moses’ life. He is allowed to look into the “Promised Land,” but must pass over leadership to Joshua, the one who will get to the other side of the Jordan. (Deuteronomy 34:1-3 & 9) We are given the picture of a vigorous Moses, whose “sight was unimpaired and vigor “not abated” at 120 years of age. (vs. 7) The reading ends with a eulogy to Moses. “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses . . . He was unequaled . . .” (vss. 10-12) Although the passage begins with God in charge (vs. 4), it ends with praise for one who is able to do “signs and wonders . . . mighty deeds . . . terrifying deeds of power . . .” (vss. 11-12) In remembering Moses, as in our remembering of Steve Jobs, he becomes almost Godlike. The things worthy of praise are magnificent achievements of leadership.

The Psalm that opens the collection of Psalms makes a sharp distinction between the “wicked” and the “righteous.” (Psalm 1:1-2 & 5-6) In the real world, I tend to see people (including myself) who are much more a mix of “wickedness” and “righteousness.” In most of our living, we find ourselves moving along a continuum of shadows and light. Wherever we are on that continuum, though, it is righteousness that is worthy of praise. I particularly find strength in the image of “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season . . .” (vs. 3) What a eulogy it would be to be remembered as a tree “planted by streams of water,” yielding the fruit of righteousness.

Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonika has a little different take on leadership. Paul describes the way he has related to the people there, the people for whom he deeply cares. He is not exactly seeking praise—although he does not always seem to have an excess of humility. In this case, he argues that, in his dealing with these people, he has not been trying to “please mortals, but to please God.” He has not dealt with them “from deceit or impure motives or trickery . . . we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed . . . we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children . . . we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves . . .” (I Thessalonians 2:3-8) What is worthy of praise is giving ourselves to one another.

In the Gospel lesson Jesus identifies two great commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets. The second of these is loving our neighbor as ourself. The measure of a person is whether they love God and love their neighbor (are servants to one another in the manner described by Paul).

We could probe the Gospel lesson more deeply, noting, for example, that these two commandments stand side by side. Loving God and loving neighbor are so linked that they cannot be separated. If God is worthy of love so is our neighbor. Piety (loving God?) and service (loving one’s neighbor) are equally worthy of praise.

The reading from Leviticus is included this week, I am sure, to remind us that the injunction to love our neighbor has been around for a long time. Leviticus spends much time calling us to “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) Is there an implication here that we are not so far off when we eulogize someone in a way that makes them seem almost godlike? Holiness is surely an attribute we associate with God, but here we too are to partake of that holiness, in some way to reflect the very nature of God, God’s image. Note, however, the behavior associated with holiness here: not rendering “an unjust judgment,” “justice” in relation to one’s neighbor, not hating, not seeking vengeance or bearing a grudge, etc., culminating with the emphasis upon loving our neighbor. (vss. 15-18)

We could think about the phrase, “as yourself.” It is a leveling phrase. Those who would serve one another in love meet as equals. Relationships based on that kind of holiness are worthy of praise.

The remainder of the Gospel lesson seems like a distraction and some argue, effectively, that it is something added to the story by the early church. It is another instance, I believe, of Jesus trying to stretch some of the religious leadership of his day. He asks them whose son they think the Messiah is. “The son of David,” they say, following the tradition which said the Messiah would come from the lineage of David. But David, Jesus says, calls the Messiah “Lord.” How then can he be David’s son? (Matthew 22:41-45) The exchange is even more puzzling to us than it was to those Pharisees. Perhaps Jesus was doing nothing more than trying to shake them out of their complacency, their sense that they had all the answers, had God and God’s doings all wrapped up in a neat package with a pretty bow on top. In terms of the theme of this blog, perhaps he was also trying to get them to see that greatness is something much bigger than they imagined. If they were going to eulogize the Messiah, let them realize that whatever they might think or say about the Messiah would not be big enough. Even when we consider the greatest of eulogies we have heard or spoken it is well to remember that what is worthy of praise may be much more, or quite different, than we imagine.

We are left with the other Psalm. While it begins as a Psalm of praise, it seems more a pleading for blessing and fair treatment. “Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us . . . Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands . . .” Psalm 90:15 & 17) It calls upon God to live up to God’s covenant—God’s “steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 14) It is almost a conditional praise. “We will consider you worthy if you bless us and treat us fairly.” Although coming to God in this way can seem rather crude, it does remind us again that one of the things worthy of praise is fairness. We don’t always get it. We can’t always expect it, but when it happens, it is certainly worthy of praise, whether it comes from God or those around us.

So, what will the eulogies spoken of us sound like? It may seem a little awkward, perhaps even self-centered, to ask whether we will be worthy. In the end, biblical truth and the testimony of the Holy Spirit remind us that God considers us worthy of abundant love—love beyond measure bestowed upon us without measuring our every step. In the meantime, perhaps these verses (not from this week’s readings) can guide us. Colossians 1:10 speaks of leading “lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” Ephesians 4:13 and following calls us “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ . . . speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Sounds a little like the call in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy!
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 33:12-23 AND Psalm 99:1-9 OR Isaiah 45:1-7 AND Psalm 96:1-13, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

One dictionary definition of “gasp” is to “catch one’s breath with an open mouth, from pain, breathlessness, or astonishment.” Today I’m most interesting in the “astonishment” part. What makes us gasp with astonishment?

Gasping in astonishment can be one aspect of worship. When’s the last time we did such “gasping” in worship. Last Sunday at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ came close to be a gasping experience.

The Bible sometimes uses the words “glory” and “holy” to describe things that might make us gasp in astonishment. Both words appear in lectionary readings for this Sunday.

In a story which seems a bit humorous, Moses wants to see God’s “glory.” (Exodus 33:18) Moses has been given a big assignment by God, to lead the children of Israel “to a land flowing with milk and honey . . .” (Exodus 33:3) All along, Moses has been less than fully confident about his role as leader. Now he wants to know if God is going to back him up or not. God promises, “My presence will go with you . . .” (vs. 14) Moses wants to know a little bit more about that presence. He wants to see what resources God has to offer. He wants to see God’s “glory,” i.e., in this case, literally how “well-armed” God is. There are other places in the Bible where “glory” is a kind of brightness, a blinding light—in the New Testament “doxa,” the Greek word from which we get “doxology.” Here it is a military word. How will God protect Moses and the people as they find their way to this new land? It’s interesting that God reframes things in his answer. His first response to Moses’ request is “I will make my goodness pass before you,” my “goodness,” not my military might. (vs. 19)

The word “holy,” appears three times in Psalm 99. It is a great Psalm of gasping astonishment in the presence of God, “mighty king, lover of justice . . .” (Psalm 99:4) It is a call to “praise” his “great and awesome name . . . Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool.” (vss. 3 & 5—See also vs. 9) In each call there is the declaration, “Holy is he! . . . for the Lord our God is holy” To call something holy is to declare that it is special, set apart of a special purpose, “boundaries” drawn around it. It is as if there are boundaries beyond which we are not able to go in knowing all that God is. There is an “unknowable” aspect to God, beyond which we cannot see. We can only gasp in astonishment!

But Moses wants to see beyond those boundaries. Don’t we all. Many want to see God so clearly that there is no longer any mystery. We have God packaged and ready to sell.

But God says, “No, there are limits.” In the Exodus story it gets expressed in an almost crude way. “Stand over there by the rock, Moses, and I’ll let you see my back side,” God says. (Exodus 33:22-23) Perhaps the story for the people of Israel, as these stories were shared and recorded many years later, meant they had broken through to a new understanding. While the people around them worshiped carved and sculpted and molded images, the God of Moses, the God who led them through the wilderness, was much bigger than that.

Whatever the story meant to those early Israelites, it is a reminder to us that some days we need to spend more time gasping and less time trying to get a photograph of God. If we have such a photograph, we can proudly take it along as a talisman to protect us on the journey, or place it in an album to show people exactly what God looks like. I’m reminded of the girl who was drawing a picture. Her mother asked what she was drawing. The response: “A picture of God.” Mom quickly reminded her that no one knows what God looks like. “They will when I get done,” the girl said. We’re sometimes so busy trying to draw the perfect picture that we forget to gasp at the mystery just beyond our vision.

Psalm 96 continues to gasp in God’s presence. “Declare his glory among the nations . . . for great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised . . . For all the gods of the peoples are idols . . . Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name . . . Worship the Lord in holy splendor . . .” (Psalm 96: 3-5 & 8-9) The reading from Isaiah depicts a God who calls us by our name (Isaiah 45:3), but is so holy and glorious that we do not know all of the divine fullness. “I call you by your name but you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.” (vss. 4-5)

The Gospel lesson also calls us to ask what “god” we serve. As is so often the case, there are those who are out to trick Jesus into making a treasonous statement. (Matthew 22:15) This time the question has to do with paying taxes. It could be used as a timely text relevant to today’s tax rebellions. (vss. 16-17) Jesus’ answer, though, pushes the discussion to a whole different level. He asks for a coin and asks whose image is on it. (vss. 19-20) When they acknowledge that it is the emperor’s head, Jesus says, “Give . . . to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (vs. 21) There is no definition of what is God’s and what is the emperor’s. We could make it a story about not being drawn into the pursuit of money, or about looking to the emperor to provide answers and solutions. Taxes, riches, political power—all these things are in the story—but at its core, it simply asks, “Whom do you worship?” What causes you to gasp in astonishment? Are you like the crowd that screams when a celebrity passes by or are you more inspired when you see the self-giving spirit of Love at work? Those who heard Jesus on this day “were amazed.” (vs. 22) Sometimes it is a masterful comment that makes us “gasp” because it challenges, and perhaps even changes, the way we see reality.

If the Exodus passage, however, has Moses trying to get a glimpse of God, Paul, in I Thessalonians, suggests another place to look. He describes people who are engaged in a “work of love and labor of love” (I Thessalonians 1:3) They are “imitators” of Paul and “of the Lord.” (vs. 6) Because of that they are “an example” to others. “ . . . in every place your faith in God has become known, so we have no need to speak about it.” (vs. 8) Although we can never see the fulness of God’s glory, we can sometimes see it in loving deeds undertaken by people of faith. In fact, Jesus once said, “ . . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” There’s that word “glory” again, now perhaps shining forth from us. Part of our “gasping” when we gather to worship may occur when we look around at the people around us and hear about all the good works that are being undertaken through the many ministries of our congregation.

It may be that we ourselves are the back side God exposes to the world. Gasp!

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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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