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Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 12:1-14 AND Psalm 149:1-9 OR Ezekiel 33:7-11 AND Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

For inspiration and challenge I often turn to Frederick Buechner, widely-acclaimed American writer and theologian, a Presbyterian minister. In “A Room Called Remember,” he writes, “We have survived, you and I . . . After twenty years, forty years, sixty years or eighty, we have made it to this year, this day. We needn’t have made it. There were times we never thought we would and nearly didn’t. There were times we almost hoped we wouldn’t, were ready to give the whole thing up. Each must speak for himself, for herself, but I can say for myself that I have seen sorrow and pain enough to turn the heart to stone . . . To remember my life is to remember countless times when I might have given up, gone under, when humanly speaking I might have gotten lost beyond the power of any to find me. But I didn’t . . . And each of you, with all the memories you have and the tales you could tell, you have not given up. You also are survivors and are here. And what does that tell us, our surviving? . . . Who or what was with us all those years? Who or what do we have to thank for you survival?”

There are survivors groups of various sorts, identified because they have survived this or that—transplant survivors, cancer survivors, abuse survivors, holocaust survivors. Battlefield (and other) survivors often struggle with why they made it home when the buddies next to them didn’t. Beuchner reminds us that all of us who are alive are survivors. Others along the way have died, whatever the reasons for their deaths. Every day of life is another day of survival.

What are the stories we tell about our survival, the reasons we give for it, the ways in which we interpret it? At the age of 15 I survived the crash of a car which was crushed nearly flat after flipping through the air and landing on its top. I pried the bottom of the door open and squeezed through unscratched. It didn’t become a defining story for my life, but it sobered me for a time, and I cannot deny that I am a survivor. Things are different, for me and for others, because I survived. The outcome made a small difference in history.

In biblical history, we are, among other things, survivors. Why is it, though, that surviving often leads to a story that says we are chosen? Why do we have to tell stories of the destruction of our enemies to make sense of our survival?

The Hebrew people escape from Egypt and ever since the story of that escape/deliverance has been central to their religious observance and identity. It is a story of “passover” described in this week’s reading from Exodus, chapter 12, ending with the words, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual observance.” (Exodus 12:14) The choosing of a lamb for slaughter is described (vss. 5-6), including what to do if a whole lamb will be too much for one family—“join the closest neighbor in obtaining one . . .” (vs. 4) Blood from the lamb painted on the doorposts and lintel will protect the firstborn when God strikes down Egyptian children as an act of judgment upon Egypt. (vss. 7 & 12-13) The lamb is eaten hastily in preparation for fleeing. “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in you hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (vs. 11)

The story has carried over into Christianity, with Jesus as the sacrificial lamb whose blood provides protection. It is a story of chosenness. We are survivors who have made it because our enemies have been defeated.

I find it an uncomfortable, even offensive, story. I refuse to believe in a God who goes around killing firstborn children of any nation, who demands blood as a sign that I “deserve” protection.

Yet, by the very fact that I am alive today, I am a survivor. Like the battlefield survivor, I am troubled by those who have dropped by the wayside as we’ve traveled together. Nevertheless, like the battlefield survivor, I am a survivor and life goes on. How am I to interpret my survival and what am I to do with it?

If you think I’m going to give you an answer, you’ll probably be disappointed. What you’re getting is what today’s readings triggered in me. Some of the same tone continues in others of the readings. Psalm 149 is a call to celebration, but includes the lines, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples . . . to execute on them the judgment decreed.” (Psalm 149:6-9) The reading from Ezekiel speaks of the wicked dying “in their iniquity.” (Ezekiel 33:8) It is true that they are given the chance to turn from their ways and be saved. (vs. 9) It is true that God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked . . .” (vs. 11) The general tone, however, is that the good survive and the wicked die. Survival is a reward to those who are good. Any casual observer of life knows that we who have survived have often been no better than those who didn’t, sometimes even worse. It doesn’t work for me as a way to tell the story of my survival, if there is any story that can adequately interpret such a momentous reality. I am alive. I have survived. Why?

The second reading from the Psalms continues with the undercurrent of finding and following the right rules so that “disgrace” may be escaped. (Psalm 119:39—See also vss. 36-37 as well as the entire reading) The Gospel lesson also focuses upon the punishment of wrongdoing. Granted it offers a series of steps in which the wrongdoer is given chances to change his or her ways. If he or she will not listen to the one who has been wronged, others are brought into the process. (Matthew 18:15-17) Finally, though, if the wrongdoer does not listen, he or she is cut off from the community. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” that is to say, an untouchable. (vs. 17) These verses and a few similar ones have become the basis for the “shunning” practiced by some groups. One who is shunned is treated as if he or she no longer existed. To survive is to follow the rules. It’s another narrative that I find inadequate for the interpretation of my survival.

We’re still doing it far too often, in our individual stories, in our national politics—treating our survival as giving us special privilege, a sign that we are better, more righteous than other individuals or groups or nations. I don’t want to offend you by being so negative. I’m sure if we worked hard at it we could come up with reconciling interpretations that draw on these strains in biblical history. I know that many have worked on it for years and that there are theologians out there bringing new perspectives to old stories. This week, though, it just seems like it shouldn’t be so difficult. Is that what God really wants for us? Is the divine word for the human situation that difficult to understand?

The epistle reading from Romans seems to blow fresh air on stale legalism. All that matters is loving one another. The one who has done that “has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8) All the commandments “are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself . . . love is the fulfilling of the law.” (vss. 9-10) Of course, loving is not simple, but it moves us to another level in dealing with what it means to survive. However we work out the details of love, to survive is to keep on loving—and, by the way, we can look at Jesus and find out a lot about what it means to love. There’s still a bit of the old tone of judgment in the contrast between “the works of darkness” and the things of light (vss. 11-13), but the center is putting on “the Lord Jesus Christ.” (vs. 14)

Finally, survival, for me, means that each day is a gift of grace. I don’t know why I survived and someone else didn’t. All I know is that I am here and today is a gift to be filled with love—love received and love given. Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “We could never have made it this far if we had had only each other to depend on because nobody knows better than we do ourselves the undependability and frailty of even the strongest among us . . . To remember the past is to see that we are here today by grace, that we have survived as a gift.”
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 3:1-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b, Jeremiah 15:15-21 AND Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:23-28

Human beings seem to be creatures who try to make sense of things. Christians (and others) sometimes speak of aligning our lives with God’s purposes or with the Spirit of the Cosmos. Traditionally we have spoken of a sense of “call.”

Such a perspective may get distorted in a couple of ways. First, I suspect that there may be a variety of options before us as we move through life and that each may contain God-given possibilities. Life and call are not so much about finding a single “right” course as they are about being attentive to the “God-possibilities” wherever we are in life’s journey. Second, even if our personal mission is more narrowly defined than I think, I suspect that finding it is not a guarantee of ease and fulfillment. God’s call, I believe, often involves challenges, leading us to moments of frustration, even crying out in desperation as Jeremiah and Job and Moses and Paul and even Jesus himself can attest.

The lectionary readings for this Sunday can shed light on what it is that God wants, the purposes in which God wants us to be involved.

The reading from Exodus defines (or refuses to define) God in ways that continue on through both testaments. The story begins with Moses taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness. (Exodus 3:1) Last time we saw Moses, he was being raised as Pharaoh’s grandson. When he reached adulthood, he noticed that his kinsmen, the enslaved Hebrews, were being mistreated. In a fit of anger, he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. (Exodus 2:11-14) This didn’t sit well with Pharaoh, so Moses fled for his life, settling in the land of Midian. (Exodus 2:15) There he met Rueul, also known as Jethro, and married his daughter, Zipporah. (Exodus 2:16-22)

We won’t waste words here on the different story-telling traditions that use different names for people and places (not only Rueul and Jethro, but Horeb (as in Exodus 3:1 and elsewhere) and Sinai, as other story-tellers name the mountain). We’ll just start with Moses in the wilderness noticing a bush that is burning without being “consumed.” (vss. 2-3) Various attempts to give a “scientific” explanation have some merit, but it is not a scientific story. The flame is an angel after all. (vs. 2) It is a story about sacredness, holiness, mystery. Moses is having a “God-moment.” He hears God speaking out of the bush and is told to take off his sandals because he is “standing on holy ground.” (vss. 4-5)

This story begins and ends with a God who is mystery, who cannot be contained, yet somehow connects with us, draws us into divine purposes. We all need “holy ground moments,” times when we are overwhelmed with the mystery of life, with the sense that there is something at work that just keeps on giving, doesn’t run out, strips us of all pretense so that we stand there barefooted and gaping. That’s part of the definition (or non-definition) of God.

And what does God have to say? God says, “I’m on your side, on the side of all who are down-trodden, all who suffer. I’ve come to deliver your people from the Egyptians.” (vss. 6-9) I’m not sure what Moses thought of God before that, what Moses might have expected to hear. I suspect what he heard came as something of a surprise. He already feared for his life, and it says that “he was afraid to look at God.” (vs. 6)

The big surprise is that that’s not the end of it. God has a place for Moses in his purposes. Moses is to be the liberator. (vs. 10) What God wants is people who will join the divine liberation movement. Like Moses, we’re often not sure this is what we’re ready to sign on for. (vs. 11) Then comes the final moment in this God-defining story. Moses says, “Well, if I’m going to do this thing, at least I need to know your name so that I can tell them who sent me.” (vs. 13) God says “I AM WHO I AM . . . Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” We have grown up with the name “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” (YHWH). Some have suggested it might better be translated as “I will be who I will be.” It is a “name” that denies limits. I will move wherever I need to move to right the wrongs of this world, to restore and uphold human dignity where it is being denied. The “I AM” appears again and again in human religion and human history. Even early Christians heard it being echoed in the descriptions of Jesus as “I AM . . .” this and that (light, the way, resurrection, life). Even now are we seeing a new breath that cannot be contained sweeping the African continent?

The verses selected from Psalm 105 celebrate this God of liberation and the people God used to bring liberation about. (vss. 1-5) It traces their journey to Egypt and his sending of Moses and Aaron in their time of need. (Psalm 105:6, 23-26)

Jeremiah and Psalm 26 bring another dimension to the question, “What does God want anyway?” The tone is, “I’ve been good. I’ve done everything I thought you wanted me to do. Why am I then suffering? Why am I being persecuted?” “I did not sit in the company of merrymakers . . . Why is my pain unceasing . . .?” (Jeremiah 15:17-18) “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity . . . I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence . . .” (Psalm 26:1, 4-6) The texts are a bit more complicated than that, but the question of why the righteous suffer is an eternal one. These particular verses seem to have a self-righteous tone, avoiding any contact with those who are not seen as God’s elect. While God certainly calls us again and again to do the right thing, the model of love we see in Jesus is one which sits beside sinners and those deemed “worthless.” Those are exactly the people that God wants us to love. We do it not to escape suffering but because of the love God has implanted in our souls.

The reading from Romans spells out what it is that God wants in terms of everyday actions and relationships. It defines love in terms of behavior, including blessing those who persecute us, weeping with those who weep, living in harmony, not being haughty, associating with the lowly. (Romans 12:14-16) It turns the question of Jeremiah 15 and Psalm 26 upside down. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” (vs. 17) “If your enemies are hungry feed them . . . Do not overcome evil, but overcome evil with good.” (vss. 20-21)

And tucked away in there is a verse we all need to hear in our families and churches, in our national and international politics, everywhere in all ages: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (vs. 18) It is one of the most muted calls to peace we can find. It’s not idealistic, recognizing that peace may not always be possible—“if it is possible.” It realizes that it takes more than one to make peace. All we can be responsible for is our own behavior—“as far as it depends on you.” The idealism comes when it makes no distinction between friends and enemies—“live peaceably with all.” Any questions about what God wants?

The Gospel lesson gets us back into the question of suffering. When Jesus tells his disciples that he will “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed . . .,” Peter is outraged. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:21-22) The “Messiah” must not suffer. It was an idea that was offensive to ever right-thinking Jew. It went way beyond a good person suffering. Divinity itself was involved here. They must have misheard Jesus.

The heart of the reading, and the final answer to what God wants is in what follows. What God wants is our lives. It is not that we are being called to martyrdom, or to deliberate exposure to suffering. Giving our lives is a matter of being committed to serving others rather than seeking our own selfish gain. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (vss. 24-26)

When we ask, “What does God want anyway?”, we must be ready to open every corner, every activity of our lives. God wants us to realize that the meaning and purpose of our lives is an all-encompassing self-giving love. That’s more than enough for me, certainly beyond anything I can completely comprehend. So I guess I just have to keep on asking, “What does God want anyway?” I invite you to do the same.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 1:8-2:10 AND Psalm 124:1-8 OR Isaiah 51:1-5 AND Psalm 138:1-8, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

The story line of many movies and novels, and autobiographies, involves the child who doesn’t seem to fit in (or at least feels like he or she doesn’t) who goes on to overcome the odds and make a surprising contribution to the larger world—in politics, art, education, or some other field of endeavor. We recently saw “An Angel at My Table,” the story of Janet Frame, widely acclaimed New Zealand author, who survived a dysfunctional childhood and adult schizophrenia, while producing stunning novels and poetry. The film is adapted from her autobiographical trilogy.

Her life, like much of scripture, reminds us that life is not necessarily about fitting in. When society is oppressive, fitting in is not a virtue. When society tries to fit one into a prefabricated box that denies one’s unique gifts, fitting in is a violation of human dignity.

A central message (the cental message?) of scripture is that God has acted/is acting/will act to liberate us, whether it is from slavery or despair or ridicule or pressure to conform. God’s Spirit empowers us to resist the power of those who deal in death—literally or socially or psychologically.

In this week’s reading from Exodus it is women who do the resisting, who refuse to fit in. The result is that a savior survives, Moses, the central liberator in the Old Testament. The reading begins by noting that history has moved on since Joseph was an esteemed leader in Egypt. A new king has arisen “who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8) How quickly we forget the leaders of the past who have gotten us to this place. We can witness today the shortness of political memory, the inability of new leaders who have arisen to remember how government works when functioning at its best.

In Egypt, the Israelites have now multiplied to the point that the natives of the land are saying, “The Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.” (vs. 9) In the U.S. many feel threatened as various ethnic “minorities” grow in size and power. Such situations sometimes lead to attempts to oppress, to put the “upstarts” in their place. In the case of Egypt, the Israelites become the slave labor to build cities, and probably some of the pyramids. (vss. 10-14) The Egyptians “were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them,” it says in verse fourteen.

Finally, the king of Egypt orders the midwives to kill all Hebrew boys at birth. (vss. 15 -16) Thank God for Shiprah and Puah, and other unnamed midwives who refused to fit in. Count them among the liberators of the Israelites. They “feared God” and “did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.” (vs. 17—see also vss. 18-21)

At that point Pharaoh enlists “all his people” in his hate campaign, urging them to throw every Hebrew boy baby into the Nile. (vs. 22) One newborn makes it to the Nile, but is hidden among the reeds by his mother in a papyrus basket plastered with bitumen and pitch. It is Moses, watched over by his sister, until he is discovered by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh, another woman who refuses to fit in. After the child is nursed by his biological mother, he is taken in as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, becoming a member of the royal household. (Genesis 2:1-10) The one who will lead the Israelites from their bondage has arrived on the scene, one who, while nurtured by royalty, will refuse to fit in. God always finds, raises up, encourages, uses those who refuse to fit in, those who oppose oppressive measures and regimes which demean the human spirit.

Without examining in depth the other readings from the Hebrew scriptures, we can note that each contains some reference to liberation, escape, deliverance. God is on the side of those who overcome forces that would keep them down. “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 124:7-8) “I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.” (Isaiah 51:5) “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away. Though I walk in the midst of troubles, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.” (Psalm 138:7)

In social relationships we are often pressured to “conform” to the way everybody is doing it. The reading from Romans calls us to “not be conformed to his world, but to be transformed.” (Romans 12:2) We are to seek “the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” rather than simply go along with the herd. (vs. 2)

Although I have little in common with the Tea Party, part of me admires their willingness to stand on principle and challenge conventional wisdom. They remind me of a kind of religion I experienced in my childhood. It instilled in me a deep sense of not having to be like everyone else—not having to go along with the crowd. It was all right—even Godly—to be different. Unfortunately, I think at this point, “teapartyism” has become a dogma to which not only the core adherents, but everyone else, is being forced to conform. I don’t see a genuine seeking for what will be good for everyone. It’s more, “We already know the answer and one answer fits all.”

In the second part of the Romans reading we have familiar verses about being one body made up of many gifts. The call is not to conform as if we were all the same. It is to seek out our unique gift and use it. So often society tries to get people to fit into the slots that are available, whether that is where we fit or not. What a radical idea it is to live up to the best of our God-given abilities. We cannot be faithful if we allow ourselves to be forced into acting in ways which deny who we are.

The Gospel lesson seems not to address the issue of liberation/salvation directly. At its core, however, is the recognition of Jesus as “Messiah.” Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is. (Matthew 16:13) Various answers are given: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. (vs. 14) Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” (vs. 16) The Messiah was the long-awaited one who would come and turn things upside down, who would set things right, bringing justice and liberation and salvation. Jesus is the new Moses, the new liberator. Peter has gotten right to the core of biblical truth. We’re not offered details here. We could critique various misunderstandings of “Messiah,” but the Gospel lessons takes us right to the heart of what God is about—shaking things up so that everyone can find his or her rightful place in the scheme of things, rather than fitting into the hierarchy the powers that be try to dictate.

Perhaps the rest of the Gospel reading helps us see what that means. It speaks of Peter as the rock upon which the church will be built. (vss. 18-19) Some suggest that these verses are an addition by the early church to justify a particular understanding of church authority. It has been used to underfird the authority of the papacy, with Peter as the first pope. Those who have opposed this interpretation have most frequently argued that it is not Peter himself but Peter’s faith—as shown in his answer—that provides a foundation for the church. It is faith like this that the church will be and is built upon.

As I was rereading these verses, I saw another possibility. Overall, Peter was a volatile soul, running hot and cold, bursting with enthusiasm and then hiding in the shadows. Peter was a lot like people I know, including myself. However these verses came to be included in Matthew, whatever the original writers intended them to convey, it may be that we can hear Jesus saying, “The church will be built upon ordinary people like Peter. Whatever the church will become, it is up to you” Perhaps it can be read as another call for each one of us to use the gifts we have been given. Only when we do that will the power of God be loosed on earth and in heaven. A church, and a new order, will be built in which fitting in will mean something entirely new, because we will all be liberated to realize the fullness of possibility God’s Spirit has implanted in each one of us.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 45:1-15 AND Psalm 133:1-3 OR Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 AND Psalm 67:1-7, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:10-28

Some years back, during race riots in Los Angeles, Rodney King cried out, “Can’t we all just get along.” We can, but it doesn’t happen easily. Watching the political landscape these days, one sometimes wonders whether we even really want to get along.

This week’s readings offer some dreams and lessons about getting along.

Often it starts with asking for and receiving forgiveness. Some days there’s a lot of forgiveness needed. The pain of hurt feelings, perceived wrongs, or deep injustices rolls around our psyches and relationships and we are unable to move on. Things need to be set right and relationships restored.

In our continuing Genesis saga, we’ve seen the enmity between Joseph and his brothers. They hated him because he was daddy’s most beloved. They got even and now Joseph is the one who has been wronged—sold into slavery in Egypt. You can’t keep a good man down, though, and Joseph has become Pharaoh’s right-hand man, interpreting his dreams and managing the economy through a time of famine. Maybe we need Joseph as a consultant to tell us how to fix our economy. Times of abundance come and Joseph sees that his father and brothers back in Canaan are taken care of.

Joseph meets with the family more than once, not revealing his identity. There’s even some trickery. (See Genesis chapters 42-44 for those episodes leading up to this week’s reading.) In chapter 45, Joseph reveals himself, amidst great weeping. (vss. 1-3) The brothers are worried about reprisals for what they did to Joseph earlier. (vss. 3-5) We don’t have a record which reveals a classic example of asking for and receiving forgiveness. What we do have is a great weeping family hug. (vs. 15)

I witnessed something similar in my own family. My father was crippled for life by polio when he was young. His older brothers constantly taunted him. Some thought they were “mean” to him. Those acts haunted them for years, although there was little visible animosity. My father wasn’t a vindictive man. As the years went on, they began to talk about those past events, one of the brothers through a series of moving letters that asked for forgiveness. In his later years, I took my father to visit one of the brothers who was in the later stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was privileged to witness the final step in reconciliation as the two brothers engaged in a heartfelt and weeping embrace.

If we are to move beyond divisions in our society, in our families, in life, we have to learn how to embrace one another literally and/or figuratively.

The reading from Psalm 133 doesn’t give us much instruction. It is simply an ecstatic celebration of unit. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) It is described as like being anointed with “precious oil,” so abundant that the oil runs down over the collar, or like refreshing dew. (vss. 2-3) Unity is something to get excited about, to sing about, to celebrate.

Unity involves people from different nations and groups learning to get along with one another, even love one another. The reading from Isaiah talks about the inclusion of foreigners and speaks of the place of worship as “a house of prayer for all peoples.” (vss. 6-7) This same passage also speaks of the inclusion of “eunuchs,” who were once forbidden entrance to the place of worship. Whatever one concludes about who “eunuchs” were, they did not fit the usual categories of sexual identity. Yet they are included.. “For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:4-5) Notice, of course, the opening verse. It speaks of “justice” and doing “what is right.” (vs. 1) Where there is no justice, division will abound. There is no love without justice—only bitterness, unrest, suspicion, vengefulness.

Psalm 67 also addresses all the nations of the earth, ending with the admonition, “Let all the ends of the earth revere him.” (vs. 7)

The reading from Romans, chapter 11, is part of Paul’s continuing discussion of Jews and Gentiles, his declaration that both are included. Being Jew or Gentile should not be occasion for division, for we are all recipients of God’s gift, God’s calling, and God’s mercy.

The first part of the Gospel lesson is a parable. The Pharisees and scribes have just accused Jesus’ disciples of ignoring the cleanliness rituals. They don’t wash their hands before they eat. Today, with our knowledge of the way diseases spread, that even sounds a little offensive to us. In their day, it was part of a whole catalog of religious laws pertaining to food and its consumption, whether based in “science” or not. Observing such rituals or not sometimes became a source of division between groups. Differing customs and rituals, and our suspicion or protection of them, can be divisive.

The parable makes the point that the attitudes of the heart are what make or break unity, what hurt or heal. “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (Matthew 15:19-20) There are other aspects of the parable that could lead to interesting discussion: the power of words, for instance. (See vss. 11 & 17-18) Words coming out of the mouth can hurt, but their real power comes from the attitudes of the heart. Unless those attitudes are changed, there will be no unity. Those who judged on the basis of rigid rules and customs are described as plants to be uprooted, i.e., weeds, as the blind leading the blind. (vss. 13-14)

The second part of the Gospel lesson surprises us with Jesus’ seeming exclusive attitude in dealing with a Canaanite woman. She comes pleading to help for her daughter. (Matthew 15:22) Jesus first ignored her and told the disciples to send her away, commenting, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (vss. 23-24) At one point, he even says, “It is not fait to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (vs. 26)

I suppose such a response should not be surprising. Jesus was a Jew and his response reflected the prevailing attitude of the day. Or, was Jesus going to the extreme to show how preposterous that attitude was? Who would not help a person in such dire need?

What is remarkable in the story is the woman’s persistence. She talks back to Jesus, saying, “ . . . even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (vs. 27) Whatever the significance of Jesus’ behavior, the bottom line is that he sees her faith and, even though she is not a Jew, embraces her and her daughter with his love and healing. When we persist in the belief that God’s mercy is for all of us, we have taken a significant step in moving beyond divisions.

If beyond division is where it leads us, let’s all cry out, “Lord, have mercy.”
Tuesday, August 02, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-18 AND Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22 OR I Kings 19:9-18 AND Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-115, Matthew 14:27-33

We never know how things are going to work out in history. We are surprised at who is used in what ways to change the course of entire nations and peoples. There are even sometimes those working quietly that we fail to notice or appreciate. If we speak in terms of the flow of God’s purposes in human history, there’s always someone who is an instrument of those purposes. Are we among those instruments?

Joseph, in this week’s reading from Genesis, is one of those surprises. He goes to Egypt, although not by choice, where he becomes second in command to Pharaoh, interpreting dreams and overseeing economic planning. His advice helps Egypt avoid famine and Joseph is able to see that his family gets a share of the abundance, finally bringing them to live in Egypt. It should not escape our notice that later others rose to power “who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) Not all is well for God’s people in Egypt. They become slaves, setting the stage for the central story of the Jews, God’s deliverance from bondage as they escape Egypt (after a bit of wandering in the wilderness). I thought about using the title, “God’s Mysterious Ways,” for truly, nothing turns out quite as bad as it begins nor as good as it may first seem.

This week’s reading focuses on another story of the humanity of family relationships. I love these stories which are often overlooked in preaching these days. Perhaps it has to do with questions about their historicity or their patriarchal nature or the flawed humanity of the characters, or their problematic place in the politics of the times. Maybe, for me, that makes them all the more intriguing. They are so human. This week we have a father with a favorite son, jealousy among brothers, an effort by the brothers to put the favored one in his place. You can almost hear the lyrics of the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies, when the writer says, “This is the story of the family of Jacob.” (Genesis 37:2) Joseph, his 17-year-old son, is introduced with the observation that his father loved him “more than any other of the children.” (vss. 2-4) He even made him a special robe. I loved the story of that robe, called a coat of many colors (following the King James Version), when I was a kid in Sunday School. It seemed like it would be really cool to have a coat like that. Now, in the New Revised Standard Version it is just “a long robe with sleeves.” (vs. 3)

The brothers understandably “hated” Joseph. (vs. 4) They plot to kill “this dreamer.” (vss. 18-20) Reuben, the oldest, tries to save Joseph’s life, having him thrown into a pit instead. (vss. 21-24) By chance (or providence?) a caravan of Ishmaelites comes along and the brothers sell Joseph to them for twenty pieces of silver. (vss. 25-28) That’s how Joseph gets to Egypt and that’s as far as the story takes us this week. I’ve already outlined the larger story and we have more readings ahead of us in the coming weeks.

Suffice it to say that in this seeming tragic moment Joseph is embarking on a mission. There’s always someone setting out on a mission, however unwillingly, however unlikely the beginning seems. And later, in Genesis 50:20, Joseph tells his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good . . .”

Psalm 105 is likely included this week because it poetically tells the same story. When God, it says, “summoned famine against the land, and broke every staff of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.” (vss. 16-17)

In the reading from I Kings, the fact that there is always someone is given as encouragement to Elijah. Elijah, having fled under threats of death from Ahab and Jezebel, is cowering in a cave. (I Kings 19:9) I’ve been faithful to you, God, he says, and now “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (vs. 10) God tells Elijah to pay attention to the forces around him, the wind, the breaking rocks, an earthquake, fire. This experience is often the focus for sermons on this passage. We look for dramatic signs that God is at work, not Joseph in a pit or Elijah in cave on the side of a mountain. But, in this case, God is not in all those “signs.” (vss. 11-12) Elijah finally hears God in the silence. (vss. 12-17) Taking time to be quiet and listen is often seen as the lesson to be drawn from these verses. It is a great lesson. We need to find quiet places in the midst of the turbulence around us, so that the voice of God is not overcome by the noise. I find the point today, though, in God’s final words to Elijah, even though the intervening instructions are troubling. Elijah is reminded that he is not alone. God promises that there are 7000 who are faithful to God’s purposes. There’s always someone, even when we are not yet aware of them. When we are down and wondering how any good can come, it is encouraging, heartening, to know that we are not alone.

The tie-in of the remaining two readings with the theme is a little more tenuous—perhaps just a stretch of my quirky mind. From Romans we have a continuation of Paul’s struggle with how his Jewish identity fits in with his encounter on the Damascus road and his current mission to the Gentiles. His overall point in chapters 9-11 is that when there are those who stray there will be others who come along to pick up the torch. There will always be somebody, some who remain faithful. It need not be made into a statement about Gentiles replacing Jews. It is a truth about religious faithfulness in general, on the part of all people. Ritual and tradition are not the measure of faithfulness. It is not the group to which we belong. It is a matter of faith and belief. (Romans 10:8-11) “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” (vs. 12)

Primarily this portion from chapter ten emphasizes the need for someone to carry the message. (vs.14) Who’s going to tell people about the experience of God’s love? Are you and I to be counted among the somebodies that there will always be? It doesn’t mean hitting people over the head with rigid doctrinal statements. It simply means sharing, as occasion rises, how “encountering the divine” (last week’s theme) sustains us in our everyday living. I have always liked the description of such people in verse 15. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” I’m not suggesting that we develop a foot fetish, but reminding us all that when we let people know that they are loved, it is an act of beauty. Sharing love is about beautifying life, and there’s always somebody ready to do that.

Finally, the reading from Matthew tells us a story about Peter. Peter was a brash sort of person, quick to plunge ahead without much counting of the cost, quick to declare his faithfulness but less reliable when put to the test. This week’s story is about his attempt to walk on water. From their wind-battered fishing boat the disciples see Jesus walking across the water toward them. (Matthew 24:22-27) Peter asks permission to step out of the boat and walk toward him. (vs. 28) He does quite well until he notices the storm raging round him. Doubt sets in; Peter begins to sink; Jesus rescues him and accuses him of having little faith. (vss. 29-31)

We could ask what really happened? Was the water simply shallow or were they near the shore so that Jesus was walking along the edge of the beach? In my opinion, that’s not what the story is about. It’s still about keeping the faith. When we declare there’s always someone, we may wonder at times whether Peter is the one. He’s there and then he’s not and then he’s there again. His similarity to our fickle faith makes us a bit uncomfortable. We’re not always sure we’re ready to be the someone who steps up—or in this case out—and when we do our faith may be a bit shaky. Nevertheless, it is people like us, and Peter, and all those others in this week’s readings, that are called to be instruments of God’s purposes.

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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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