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Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15:1-5, I Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

The kind of Fundamentalism in which I grew up had some countercultural elements. I had a keen awareness that I was “different.” There were restrictions on my life that weren’t binding on most of my schoolmates. In many ways, we were defined by what we didn’t do than by what we did. We didn’t dance or attend movies, smoke or drink or curse. Girls and women didn’t wear make-up. One church I belonged to during some of my high school years didn’t believe in males and females going swimming together. Another kicked a family out because they went bowling—bowling being a problem because there was a bar in the bowling alley.

Some of you may find this outrageous. It certainly isn’t where I am today, but, at the time, there seemed also to be power in it. I learned early that I didn’t have to follow the norm. I didn’t have to be like the crowd. I learned that there was an inner source of identity and strength that allowed me to resist.

Part of that has stuck with me throughout life. I was in college long enough (because of work on graduate degrees) to have spent most of the sixties in settings where counterculturalism and revolutionary views were rampant. I lived in Berkeley, California, from 1962 to 1966, for goodness sake, and in suburban Chicago at the time of the riots following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and at the time the Chicago 7 (or 8) were active during the Democratic Convention in 1968. Two of them were graduate school class mates.

I spent a lot of time studying and visiting, living at times on the edges of, some of the alternative countercultural communities that arose in those days. They appealed to my instincts, reminding me that I didn’t have to live according to the general social norms.

There’s a strong thread of counterculturalism that runs through the Bible, and through the history of Christianity (and other major religions), I believe. We are called to live by a different set of values than those which often seem to prevail.

This countercultural thread is evident in this week’s Epistle and Gospel readings. I Corinthians, chapter one, speaks of it in terms of foolishness vs. wisdom. “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (vs. 25) Paul reminded the members of the Corinthian congregation that they were not among the social elite, not part of the “in” crowd. “ . . . not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are . . .” (vss. 26-27)

We could get into debate, as some of us did at breakfast this morning, about whether this means we are not to use our minds. Is this a statement against intellectual endeavor and achievement? While we can certainly overvalue the work of the mind, making it into a god, I think the point of this passage is quite different. The “foolishness” appears at the beginning of the reading. It is “the cross.” (vs. 18) The foolishness is the call to an alternate way of life, a self-giving way of living. The foolishness is the one who demonstrates for us the extreme of that self-giving, so deeply committed to the ways of peace and justice that he ends up dying on a cross because of the challenge he represents. He chose to live by values which were counter to the norm and calls us to do the same. Humble self-giving doesn’t seem to stack up well against aggressive competition for status, wealth, achievement, and success. It’s so countercultural.

The Beatitudes in the Gospel lesson are similar in tone. Those who are described as “blessed” are not the winning athletes, the wealthy tycoons, the beauty queens, etc. The “blessed” are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, etc. (Matthew 5:3-9)

The same tone is present in Micah 6 and Psalm 15, a bit more subtly (although not much) with a slight twist. The reading from Micah begins with a controversy between God and his people. He is not happy with the way they are living. (Micah 6:2-3) The people respond by saying, “What do you want from us, God? We come to worship every sabbath. We bring our offerings. We are generous givers. Do you want more from us? Maybe you want us to bring our firstborn children as a sacrifice? What kind of God are you?” (A free interpretation of what was probably the underlying tone of verses 6-7)

God responds with the words which are the basis for the little chorus we sing each week as an offertory. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (vs. 8) It’s not about right worship and ritual. It’s about the values that guide our lives. We would not have to search far to discover that God was, in part, upset with the riches they were chasing after, the mansions they were building for themselves, the mistreatment of the poor, etc. This verse is a call to countercultural values.

Psalm 15 spells some of those values out in terms of doing what is right, speaking the truth from the heart, not slandering, standing by one’s oath even if it hurts, not going along with a system based on bribes and excessive profits, etc. (vss. 2-5)

It’s pretty heavy stuff, easily inducing guilt—another topic of our breakfast discussion this morning. Many of us are well-educated, living comfortable middle or upper-middle class lives. We (including Margie and myself) struggle with our response to scriptures like these. That’s a start. Much of life is in the struggle. Wallowing in guilt can, and often is, paralyzing. Our church, and its members, respond with generous giving, with acts of compassion and service too numerous to list here. Perhaps these scriptures are simply a warning never to get too comfortable, a reminder to examine and re-examine the values we live by. Perhaps they are meant to summon our courage when other values seem to be winning. We are called to bear witness to another set of values, another way of living. Our view of it, our living of it, is never complete, but there is a cross to remind us and motivate us. In Jesus we will always see new possibilities of the lengths to which we can go in the name of Love.

A footnote on compromise: One could easily read into these passages a warning against compromise. Stick to your guns (Oops! Did I use that word?) no matter what, even it takes you to your death. It is good to be reminded to stand up for what we believe, but too often uncompromising spirits meet only to be staring into the barrels of each other’s guns. Much of political and social discourse these days seems to have come to that.

Let me suggest that compromise may also be seen as a way of self-giving. Compromise can be a bit countercultural. It requires actually listening to one another. If I compromise, it means I care enough about you to give up something of myself. Compromise can be an expression of humility. It’s just a thought, maybe even a bit of foolishness, but who knows what can happen when we get a bit foolish?
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 22:1, 4-9, I Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

When my youngest son was in college, he and some of his friends undertook a project in “sensory deprivation,” studying what happens when one is almost totally deprived of external sensations—no sight, no sound, almost no feeling, etc. They built an isolation chamber in their apartment—a completely enclosed tub of body-temperature water with no light or sound allowed to enter. Such experiments have been conducted in various places around the world, and sometimes put to negative use as torture techniques. The general conclusions from such research are that “short-term sessions of sensory deprivation are . . . relaxing and conducive to meditation. However, extended or forced sensory deprivation can result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts and depression.”
Adam Bloom, a participant in a 48-hour “total isolation” experiment aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation, commented during the process (the communication itself being a break in his “total isolation”), "Its really hard to stimulate your brain with no light. It's blanking me. I can feel my brain just not wanting to do anything.”
God has long been associated with light. In I John 1:5 we read, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” In the following chapter, the writer speaks of “the darkness . . . passing away and the true light . . . already shining.” Sounds a lot like the declaration in a couple of the lectionary readings for this Sunday. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2) The words are quoted in the Gospel reading, applied to Jesus. (Matthew 4:16)

The reading from Isaiah is part of a description of the coming Messiah, words that have since been used by Christians to describe Jesus. After speaking of seeing a great light, the reading from Isaiah goes on to the familiar words about a child being born who will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

Epiphany is often seen as the season which recognizes the dawning of new light in human history, the presence of light which overcomes darkness. The Psalm also declares “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” placing it in the context of not being afraid. (Psalm 27:1) Some children, even some adults, are afraid of the dark. They want the light left on; then there is no reason to be afraid.

All these references set me to thinking about light. I’m not often there to watch the sun come up in the morning. Some of you probably see it more often. Isn’t there something in the experience that stirs the human soul? Where there was nothing but shadow, a soft glow begins to appear. On a recent trip to the Oregon coast, I sat at the window in our motel, looking westward and watched the light of the rising sun bringing a brilliant white glow to the surf. When the sun begins to rise, what was an indistince blur of hillsides or water, takes on flesh as individual trees and drops of water rising from the tops of waves. Dawn overcomes the coolness of the night and offers the beginning of the warmth of day. “Ah,” we may be tempted to say, “this is life.” Indeed it is, quite literally. Without light, there is no life.

I spent a three-month sabbatical living as part of a Quaker community. Quakers talk much of the light of God in each one of us—“the inner light.” In the community kitchen there was an old fashioned refrigerator—more like an icebox, except with electricity—where we could go for snacks whenever we wished. As is the case with most refrigerators, there was a light inside. It didn’t come on automatically, but had to be turned on and off. There was a note posted on the door instructing us to turn off the light when we were done. Some ardent Quaker has added his or her own note: “How unQuakerly.” How unbiblical, how unhuman, to become disconnected from the light within! When the epistle of I John declares that God is light, it goes on to encourage us to “walk in the light.” (I John 1:7) It is a sign that we are in fellowship with God’s light as seen in Jesus.

I encourage every reader of this blog to do his or her own reflection on light—his or her own experiences with it, its characteristics, its significance, etc.

The reading from I Corinthians, and the rest of the Matthew passage, offer some other things to think about, beyond the direct focus upon light. I Corinthians, among other things, is relevant to the debates that go on in current politics. Among the many conflicts in the Corinthian church was the division into “parties” following this leader or that leader—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, Christ. (I Corinthians 1:12) Paul tries to call them to something higher, their commitment to the Gospel message, calling them to humility. (vss. 13 & 17-18) Without further analysis, we might let these verses call us all to focus upon a higher purpose, rather than petty party loyalties, in our public discourse.

Other things of note in the Gospel lesson.
1. This story is Matthew’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. “From that time,”
it says, “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
Repent means simply to turn around, to turn toward the light, one might say. Repent, for
many, has become a negative word. Is it possible for us to reclaim it as a word calling us
to new opportunities and new possibilities?
2. Jesus also calls his first disciples. The details about Peter and Andrew differ from the story we had last week from John’s Gospel. This story tells of the calling of two sets of brothers working side by side as fishermen—Peter and Andrew, James and John. (Matthew 4:18 & 21) Somehow both their family connections and their occupation—fishermen—seem to be an integral part of their calling. Jesus wants them to come fishing with, filling their boats with people who are ready to walk in the Way of Light. (vs. 19) Startlingly, “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (vs. 20)

Light can do that. It can dazzle us and make everything else seem pale. It can come into our everyday relationships and activities and bring new illumination. When that happens, we are invited to follow and walk in the light!
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, II Corinthians 1-9, John 1:29-42

Individuals and nations all have identities—ways in which they understand and present themselves or are perceived by others, probably some combination of all those things and more. Names themselves have meanings, something that has had more importance in other times and cultures than it usually does in our own. My name, James, for instance, derives from the Hebrew name, Jacob. It means “supplanter” or “one who replaces.” For me, it is a name which has family significance. My father’s middle name was “James.” My maternal grandfather was “James.”

My oldest daughter was born on the land of the Hopi Nation in northern Arizona, where I was serving as a missionary at the time. She was adopted into the Snake Clan and given a Hopi name—semana, meaning “Little Flower Girl.” In English she is “Jonquil,” which is indeed a little flower, although she is widely known as “JQ”. JQ was given a small kachina (a doll carved from wood, painted and colorfully adorned) known as a flower pot spirit.

Most of us have probably known people who have changed their names at some point in life, sometimes to mark what has seemed to them to be a turning point. Names are important, part of the way in which we identify ourselves and are identified by others. They triggered quite a discussion as some of us gathered for breakfast at Mehri’s this morning. The discussion changed what I had been thinking about writing. Identity and turning points can perhaps give us some perspectives on the readings.

Nations have names and slogans which express an identity. The Israelites knew themselves to be God’s people, but weren’t always clear what that meant. Today’s reading from Isaiah offers one slogan which has been part of the continuing discussion. Notice that the reading begins with the Lord telling Israel, the nation, “You are my servant.” (Isaiah 49:3) Sometimes we don’t feel like we have realized the possibilities in our identity, which is the case here. Israel responds, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” (vs. 4) Israel still, however, expresses confidence about his place in God’s cause. (vss. 4-5) The Lord challenges Israel to expand its understanding of its identity, offering the slogan, “a light to the nations.” (vs. 6)

Whatever our name or identity, we do not exist just for ourselves and our own ends. We receive from God so that God’s grace may flow through us and become a blessing to others. The phrase “a light to the nations” influenced some of our own founding fathers as they thought about becoming a beacon for the cause of liberty. There can be arrogance in seeing ourselves as God’s special emissaries, whether we are Israel or America, but the notion of being a caring presence in the world rather than living by selfish greed is not to be taken lightly. Most nations, including Israel and the United States, seem to forget it too often, and some nations never seem to learn it at all.

The Psalm celebrates a turning point with the image of being drawn up “from the desolate pit.” (Psalm 40:2) The turning point does not, in this case, seem to bring a new name or slogan. It brings a song and joy. (vss. 3-4) It leads to a turning outward (as a light to the nations?) to share the “glad news.” (vss. 9-10) There is the realization that God is more interested in that kind of response than in right ritual (“sacrifice and offering”). (vs. 6)

The reading from I Corinthians does not specifically deal with names and turning points (identity), except for, possibly, the final verse. “God is faithful, by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (I Corinthians 1:9) Is our identity expressed, at least in part, in being a group of people who are a fellowship brought together around Jesus?

The church in Corinth was filled with conflict, which troubled Paul deeply. He repeatedly tried to move them beyond their polarizations, just as some of us would pray might happen on the American political scene. What’s remarkable is the degree to which this letter opens with words not of condemnation but of encouragement. He gives thanks for them, reminding them of the enrichment they have received from God. (vss. 4-5) He tells them that they are gifted, a topic that becomes part of his central message to them later. (vs. 17) In chapters 12-14 he tells them to use the gifts they have been given, above all the gift of love. Again, what we have received from God is to be applied in the service of others. Our gifts and talents are not just a means to gain glory in some competition. They are meant to enrich not just us but those around us.

The reading from the Gospel According to John deals explicitly with name change, and change of identity, as well as with Jesus’ identity. It is another story of an encounter between Jesus and John the Baptizer. Although it is not a story of Jesus’ baptism, John refers to “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove,” a testimony we saw last week to Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. (John 1:32---Notice here that John says he saw the dove, whereas in last week’s account from Matthew apparently only Jesus saw the dove.)

Twice John speaks of Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” one of many phrases used to describe Jesus’ identity in the New Testament. (vss. 29 & 36) He is also called Rabbi (Teacher) and Messiah (vss. 38 & 41) No one identity can capture Jesus any more than a single phrase or name can describe all that we are and feel. Each name or phrase is worth exploring, especially “Lamb of God,” which goes back to images from the Exodus—but I’ll not get into that now. Dig into it a bit yourselves if you wish.

The story ends with the calling of the first disciples. (vs. 37) It’s a strange encounter. Jesus asks them what they are looking for and they respond by asking him where he is staying. (vs. 38) His response is “Come and see,” come and get acquainted. (vs. 39) One of the disciples is Andrew; the other is unnamed. (vs. 40) When they conclude that Jesus is the Messiah, Andrew runs to get his brother Simon. (Vs. 41) We see once again the impulse to share profound spiritual moments and discoveries with others. Simon, it turns out, is the one we know as Peter, a new name given by Jesus—“‘Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).” (vs. 42) In English it is Rock, another image that could take our minds down a trail of further reflection.

Names are important. Biblically, to speak a person’s name was to have power over that person. It is a power that can be abused, but names are also a way of opening a door to deeper relationship—with God, with Jesus, and with one another. What is your name, and what new name do you think Jesus might give you?
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29:1-11, Acts 10:34-43. Matthew 3:13-17

January 6th marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas. It is the Day of the Epiphany, usually understood to be a celebration of the coming of the Wise Men to visit the young Jesus.

Epiphany lasts longer than a day and is about much more than the Wise Men. We will be in the Epiphany season from now until Ash Wednesday. “Epiphany” literally means “revelation.” Narrowly understood, it is anything that reveals who Jesus is. The story of the Wise Men reveals him to be a king of some sorts, one whose power is a threat to Herod who thinks the king they already have (Herod himself) will do quite well for the time being.

More broadly “epiphany” refers to any experience of sudden revelation—an “aha” moment when we gain some new insight that alters our perception and experience and appreciation of life. Pastor Rick likes to link the season of Epiphany with light. An epiphany is a moment of enlightenment.

So, during this season, we are not faced with just an external attempt to figure out who Jesus is. The questions are internal and personal: “Who is Jesus to and for me? How do I experience Jesus? What difference does he make in my life?” Many answers have been given over the years to both the external and the internal question. Most, if not all, of them offer important insights. There is no single “right” answer, since Jesus touches each of us uniquely and individually, whether as prophet or teacher, as ecstatic mystery or priestly mediator, as savior or friend or role model or even as some have suggested, a clown who helps us see the ridiculous and sublime in life.

Let’s look at some of clues offered by this week’s lectionary readings.

The passage from Isaiah 42 is often read during Advent, the weeks leading up to Christmas. It looks ahead to a coming “Messiah” using words many have applied to Jesus. The Messiah will “open the eyes that are blind, . . . bring out prisoners from the dungeon,” etc. (vs. 7) Jesus, when he went to his hometown of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, went to the synagogue and read from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) Later, when John, the Baptizer, being held in prison, sends his men to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, Jesus responds, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5)

Who is this guy? He is one who stands for justice, siding with the oppressed. Moments when we see that happening, when we participate in that happening, can be “epiphany” moments. Note, by the way that the passage from Isaiah presents this “Messiah” as one anointed by God’s Spirit. Epiphany almost always emanates from the Spirit. Epiphany is a “spiritual” or Spirit-filled experience.

Like so many of the Psalms, Psalm 29 is about the wonder and awe experienced in the presence of God’s power. Isn’t it delightful that one of the responses is skipping “like a calf”? (vs. 6) God’s work in the wonders of nature can bring on epiphanies. An epiphany moment can be a time when one is overwhelmed with a combination of joy and awe—when one feels like falling to the ground in humility or leaping exuberantly into the air because one has seen something shedding such a bright light on life and its meaning that it can be described as “holy splendor.” (vs. 2)

Who is this guy? To use today’s vernacular, “Our God is an awesome God.” Epiphany is a season for the renewal of awe in our lives. Note in passing that the Psalm ends, like the story of the Wise Men, with an emphasis upon one who sits as “king forever,” as well as one who blesses the “people with peace.” (vss. 10-11)

In the reading from Acts, Peter has just come through an experience where God has given him a vision and led him into an experience which took him beyond the boundaries he previously thought defined those eligible for God’s blessing. God prodded him to reach out to an “unclean” Gentile in ways that violated all Peter’s instincts, the instructions which had defined religious behavior for him up to that point. Now he preaches a sermon, beginning with the declaration, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” (Acts 10:34) God’s love is bigger than any boundaries we are inclined to draw.

Who is this guy? One whose reach is all-inclusive. Wherever barriers between people, groups, and nations are being broken down, the possibility of epiphany is present for those who have eyes to see. It is a message of “peace.” (Vs. 36)

Peter goes on in his sermon with the outline that was used in almost every sermon in the early church. It recounted the life of Jesus, here beginning with his baptism (vs. 37), continuing through his “doing good and healing” (vs. 38), and concluding with his death and resurrection (vss. 39-41).

Who is this guy? He is the bringer of life and good, one whose significance cannot be defeated by the most violent of deaths. He even offers “forgiveness of sins.” (vs. 43) Epiphany may occur whenever simple acts of kindness are done in everyday life, whenever relationships are healed and forgiveness given or experienced, when death is faced, even challenged, with confidence, when new beginnings become possible. Note again that all this is made possible by the anointing of the Holy Spirit. “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power . . .” (vs. 38)

Finally, from Matthew, the short story of Jesus’ baptism. The story triggered much discussion at breakfast this morning as we shared experiences of baptism and various rituals and meanings attached to it.

For now, just these observations. For Jesus, baptism was a moment of confirmation, a moment when he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and heard a voice saying that he was God’s beloved Son.” (Matthew 3:16-17) Notice, in this reading, it doesn’t say anyone else saw or heard. It was an internal epiphany. From this story we can note that moments when our faith or experience of God’s Spirit are confirmed, whether in baptism or confirmation, are often epiphany moments. We are also recalled to the fact that many in the Gospels and through the years of church history have looked at or experienced Jesus and seen God.

Who is this guy? He is one who reveals who we are and who God is. Let’s keep our eyes and ears open during epiphany, alert for the presence of a descending dove showing us the ways of peace and justice and forgiveness, in our inner being and in our outward living.

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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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