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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.”

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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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