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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.”

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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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