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Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 49:8-16a, Psalm 131:1-3, I Corinthians 4:1-5, Matthew 6:24-34

Some people are pessimists; others are optimists. It’s entirely possible that most of us are some mixture of both. One way of distinguishing pessimists and optimists is whether they live expecting good things or bad things to happen to them as they progress through life. Again, realistically, most of us probably expect some of both.

Another way of looking at it is to ask whether life is a tragedy or a comedy? Christianity unmistakably portrays life as a comedy, i.e., in the end, good wins out over evil. It doesn’t bury its head and deny the existence of evil and destruction, but the power of life and good overcomes, even when sometimes the cost is great.

Stripped of all the mythology and stories, the carefully articulated theology, etc., the good news of biblical faith is the we can trust something good at work to overcome all that besieges us along the way. At the heart of Christianity is a cross where the power of love does not succumb to the forces that try to destroy it. Some may see a crucifixion as a tragedy; this particular crucifixion (and others like it?) is, in fact, a comedy. Some have described it as God getting the last laugh. That’s why Paul can speak of it as “foolishness,” the kind of thing fools and jesters use to stir laughter when the realities around them might suggest despair.

I believe that this week’s lectionary readings can all be seen as expressions of that comedic love which says, “Life can be trusted. There is something at work in life that makes it possible for us to keep on living in hope.”

Perhaps one of the most comforting images for human beings is that of a mother nursing a child. It is no wonder that Mother Mary has drawn the adoration of many. I realize that some mothers fall short of the ideal, some even bringing intentional harm to their children, but the image of mother’s comfort and care is one most of us cling to.

It’s there in the reading from Isaiah. It contains a variety of images of God’s comfort. “They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching winds nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them . . . Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.” (Isaiah 49:9-10, 13)

The words were addressed originally to a people taken captive, offering a vision of the possibilities head of them. Central to the vision is the image of a mother. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?,” the people cry out. God replies that his love is even greater than that. “Even these”—even the best of mothers—“may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (vs. 15) And then these strange words: “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hand.” (vs. 16) I bet you never thought of God as having a tattoo. At least one commentator compares this to the lover who has his beloved’s name tattooed on an arm (or who knows where?) as a constant reminder. Isaiah’s message is that we can trust someone who loves us that much. That kind of love will overcome anything. Just as a child born into a sometimes dangerous world is, in the best of circumstances, surrounded by a love that wards off such danger, we, who live in that kind of world, are taught optimism when many think pessimism is more appropriate.

The Psalm also speaks of being “calmed and quieted . . . like a weaned child with its mother.” (Psalm 131:2)

The reading from I Corinthians focuses upon being judged as to whether or not we are “trustworthy” stewards of “God’s mysteries.” (I Corinthians 4:1-2) Paul has probably been criticized by some in Corinth. He declares that he doesn’t care a whit about the judgments of human beings or their courts. (vs. 3) It is only God’s judgment that matters to him. (vs. 4-5) In terms of this blog’s theme, one might say that life can be trusted because it is in the hands of a God who can be trusted to judge fairly, out of love. We sometimes speak of trusting someone with our lives. That’s a lot of trust. There probably are few if any human beings who fully merit such trust. Every morning, though, optimists who see life through the lens of Christ, step out believing that we live in a universe where love rules. If we, or anyone else, are going to judge life and the actions we take in it, we do so in the context of “God’s mysteries” (vs. 1), and the Lord, “who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (vs. 5) We can trust life because built into its purposes is the promise that “each one will receive commendation from God.” (vs. 5)

Finally the Gospel lesson, continuing through the Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus telling us to trust one day at a time. “Be not anxious” were the familiar words with which some of us grew up. The New Revised Standard Version of our pew Bibles, says, “do not worry.” (vs. 25) We are not to worry about life, food, drink, clothing, etc. (vs. 25) Easier said than done, isn’t it? As if worry could be commanded away. Ultimately it’s a matter of trust.

The argument in these verses asks us to notice how much abundance there is in nature without a lot of worrying. It teems with birds and animals, nutritious plants, and gorgeous blossoms. (vs. 26 & 28) Jesus asks whether worry will extend our lives. (vs. 27) There is evidence, in fact, that it does just the opposite. Don’t worry! Trust the powers of life that are at work in all things. They come from a trustworthy source “the heavenly Father” who knows what we need. (vss. 30-32)

The reading from Matthew ends with the instruction to live one day at a time. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (vs. 34) While trusting must be placed in a cosmic framework, it is to be done day by day. Taking the next step is always an act of trust. Our faith assures us that the next step is undergirded with a generous and trustworthy love. Life can be trusted!

Note that it doesn’t say there will be no troubles. Look at verse 34 again. There are things to worry about today. There will be troubles tomorrow. Trusting is about moving ahead anyway, because we know life is ultimately a comedy. The cross does not depict a life without struggle, but a life in which good and love overcome every setback, major and minor, we may face in that next step.

Verse 33, perhaps the key to this entire section, says, “But strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The way I memorized it was, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” It was sometimes misinterpreted to mean, “If you just do the right thing you’ll have everything you want, maybe even get rich.” It needs first to be seen in the context to God’s knowing what we “need.” It’s not about everything we might want; it’s about our basic needs for survival being covered. More importantly, though, it’s about keeping our focus upon doing what is right each day and trusting God for the rest. Instead of being pessimists who are worrying our lives away, let’s be optimists who are more intent on moving ahead one step at a time that cowering in fear of judgment.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-13, Psalm 119:33-40, I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:39-38

Pastor Rick often instructs, at the end of the benediction, that we are to take care of each other. I suppose it’s a homey way of talking about being good neighbors. At least two of this week’s readings can be seen as a call to take care of each other.

Leviticus is often viewed as a fairly dry book listing lots of laws, including many laws of ritual and sacrifice that takes us into unfamiliar regions. That’s probably an accurate view; it’s not your average bedtime reading.

But there’s a surprising amount of relationship stuff in it as well. I quoted Leviticus 19:18 in last week’s blog, not having looked ahead to see that it is part of this week’s reading. The final words of the reading are, “ . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” No one had to sit around waiting for Jesus to learn about loving one’s neighbor.

Leviticus is often described as a “Holiness Code.” It calls people to “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) Being holy means to be set aside, blessed, for God’s use. We sometimes think of it in ethereal, spiritual, terms. A holy person walks around with feet off the ground, in sort of a trance, perfect and loving and calm in all things—or something like that. I’ve known a person or two who might have a bit of that, but most of us fall short.

Here, though, we see that holiness is described in concrete, earthly, relational terms. Leave some grain in your field or grapes in your vineyard so those who are in need can gather it. (vss. 9-10) Don’t steal from or defraud your neighbor. (vss. 11-13) Treat everyone fairly. (vs. 15) Every verse touches on different human relationships. To be holy is to love one’s neighbor in concrete ways. Notice also who the neighbor is—not only the poor, but the “alien.” (vs. 10) Even foreigners are to be treated fairly and lovingly. Whatever our views in the current debate about immigration, let us never forget that we are dealing with human beings who are God’s children.

The Gospel lesson, continuing in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, takes it a step further, instructing us to love our “enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) It’s difficult enough to love those who are family and friends. How do we learn to love across deep lines of division, whether they be religious or political or international? Jesus says such loving is a way of showing that we are “children of your Father in heaven,” the one who “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteousness.” (vs. 45) The grace of creation is there for everyone. Why should our love not flow as freely?

Jesus also notes that love is not given in order to receive reward. Trading this for that is a common practice in many human relationships—and such exchange is appropriate to the smooth running of a social order. It’s good that we greet one another pleasantly and shake hands—or should we bump elbows to avoid the flu? The deepest kind of love, the kind that flows from God, though, is not calculating. It doesn’t say, “What can I get out of this? Does this person deserve my attention and care?” It simply says, as God does to us, “I’m here for you no matter what.”

Earlier Jesus has addressed another aspect of relationships that challenges this notion of exchange—this time the exchange that is involved is revenge and retaliation. It’s sort of a dark cousin of the Golden Rule, this time saying, “Do unto others what they have done to you. Get even.” That, after all, is the old teaching, still quoted by some to justify such things as capital punishment. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It’s there even in Leviticus. (See chapter 24, verses 18-20) But Jesus, continuing the pattern of “You have heard . . ., but I say to you,” offers an alternative to retaliation. Do not resist; turn the other cheek; give more than is taken from you. (Matthew 5:39-42) These become illustrations of ways to love your enemy.

We’re called not just to love our neighbor. We are called to treat our enemy as if he or she were a neighbor, because, in God’s scheme of things, he or she is. Are we able to travel this road? I find it a challenge.

Paralleling the holiness code of Leviticus, Jesus concludes this teaching with the instruction to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Be perfect; be holy? The Greek word used here is perhaps less intimidating than it might seem, although still full of challenge. To be “perfect” is to live up to what we were intended to be, to fulfill our purpose in life, to be complete, to arrive at the end for which we were created. I think that’s more than challenge enough. The key here, though, is to see that loving our neighbor is our purpose for being. We are only complete when we enter into that kind of loving relationship with those around us.

Finally, some brief comments on the other two readings for this Sunday. Their connection to the direction I’ve taken in this blog is not immediately obvious, but it is not absent.

The reading from Psalm 119 continues that long chapter’s emphasis upon the Law not as a rigid code but as a delightful indwelling reality that turn us toward God and one another. This is the chapter that includes the words, “I treasure your word in my heart,” which many of us may have learned as “Thy Word have I hid in my heart.” (Psalm 199:11) In today’s reading the Psalmist seeks to “keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.” (vs. 34) One who observes God’s Law will avoid “selfish gain.” (vs. 37) Twice the Psalmist prays that it may “give me life.” (vss. 37 & 40) Is it too large a step to make this a prayer that the Law be a “living” thing rather than a dead code, undergirding and building neighborly relationships?

When we turn to I Corinthians we continue with the themes of previous weeks—wisdom and foolishness, belonging to God rather than debating the merits of various human leaders, etc. The central message is that Jesus is the foundation for our life together. (I Corinthians 3:11) The debate about leadership is linked with the teaching about wisdom and foolishness by suggesting that we may easily end up arguing about which leader is “wisest.” (vss. 18-21) The leaders are presented as all being part of one community, belonging to Christ and to God.

There’s much to be considered in a passage like this, especially in a community where we are moving toward a transition in leadership. Right now, I’d simply like to connect it with the theme of loving our neighbors. Taking care of one another is what we do, because we all belong to—are part of—the same reality. We are neighbors not because we live near one another, not because we share common views. We are neighbors because we all live and move and have our being in God’s Cosmic Love. Loving our neighbors (and our enemies) is an expression of our true identity, so let’s go out and be who we really are.
Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures Deuteronomy 20:15-20, Sirach 15:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, I Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

The discussion was active and wide-ranging at this week’s breakfast gathering—free will, the function of law, how people become members of and are encouraged in the life of a congregation, divorce, the sharing of memories, thoughts on the functioning of society, etc. I guess what one might say is that we were discussing life.

If we were to ask what this week’s readings are about (which we are), we would get pretty close to an answer if we said, “They’re about life and relationships.” What is faith all about? It’s about life and relationships, infused with, guided by, given growth by, the breath of God’s Spirit?

The context this week is rules—rules of religious ritual, rules of social conduct, etc. If we just follow the rules will everything be all right? Is following the rules enough? For some, following the rules becomes sort of a minimalist approach to life. What’s the minimum I have to do? How much can I get away with without breaking the letter of the law? Overemphasis upon rules can also be a way of trying to set life in stone (as in stone tablets?). We can get life tied down. Instead of welcoming the possibilities that may be opening in our future, we hold tight to what has been decided in the past.

The name “Deuteronomy” means “Second Law.” The common interpretation is that the Law was lost for a period of time and Deuteronomy was recorded after the lost documents were found during the reconstruction of the temple in 621 B.C. Deuteronomy repeats much of what is in Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, but the tone seems to be different. It appears to have been recorded by religious leaders who were trying to keep the traditions of Moses alive and apply them to their particular circumstances in another time and place. The Law is a living thing that requires adaptation and interpretation as we face new circumstances.

The Ten Commandments from Exodus, chapter 20, are repeated, with variations, in Deuteronomy, chapter 5. It is what follows, though, that is interesting. Early in the next chapter, the Deuteronomist writes, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” The Law is something to be applied in our daily living, in our homes, etc. Centrally it is about loving God—which is also linked with loving our neighbors. Many of the laws in Deuteronomy concern relations with our neighbor and, as early as Leviticus 19:18, we read, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Although the emphasis is not absent from the other books of Law, we see clearly, in Deuteronomy, that the Law is undergirded by God’s Love. It is that Love which is life-giving.

Today’s reading from Deuteronomy, chapter 30, calls us to focus upon, choose, life—the things that build up life rather than the things that lead to destruction. (vss. 15-16) In God’s scheme of things, “Life” takes precedence over “Death.” Aligning ourselves with “Life” is a way of “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” (vss. 19-20)

The reading from Sirach is similar. It says that how we act is a matter of choice. Sirach appears in the Catholic Bible but not in the Jewish scriptures nor in our Protestant Bible. It is attributed to Jesus ben Sirach about 200 years before Christ, sometimes called “Ecclesiasticus” (not “Ecclesiastes”). “To act faithfully,” he writes, “is a matter of your own choice . . . before each person are life and death.

Psalm 119, the longest book in the Bible, is sort of an ode to the Law. Although the portion in this week’s readings does not specifically speak of choice, it is implied, offering happiness to those “who walk in the law of the Lord.” (vs. 1)

In last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) It was part of his introduction to this week’s reading, which is a series of illustrations that suggest we ought to be more concerned with the matters of life and relationship and inner attitude that are behind each law than with the letter of the law. “You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times,” Jesus says as he introduces each of several commandments, (vs. 21) introducing a deeper meaning with the words, “But I say to you . . .” (vs. 22)

He spends several verses moving from the law against murder to his emphasis upon not getting angry, not insulting one another, not calling one another names. His emphasis is upon reconciling relationships rather than brutally bringing them to an end.

I won’t go through them one by one—adultery/lust (vss. 27-30), divorce (vss. 31-32), using something to confirm your “sworn” testimony vs. letting your simple “Yes” or “No” suffice because your honesty is above question (vss. 33-37). The last of those reminds me of the old sealing a deal with a handshake—no contract needed because everyone knows your word is good.

Since a number of us have been through divorce, we got into quite a discussion of verses 31-32. I won’t try to repeat the discussion here, except to say that these verses are, in fact, a good illustration of the underlying point of this entire passage. Without considering all the details of the words and the context of customs of that time, the simple lesson is that divorce is more than a piece of paper. It is about relationships, feelings, pain, etc. Anyone who thinks it’s simply about putting one’s signature on a document is cruel and hard-hearted. I’m still a little uncomfortable with the term “amicable divorce,” but, even when the most violent of relationships are broken, we need to treat one another with as much dignity and consideration as possible. The point is not to destroy one another, but to find ways to love even one who seems to have become an enemy, and perhaps move into a new kind of relationship/friendship. Certainly lots to think about here - fodder for several blogs.

Finally, there’s I Corinthians. The main emphasis of this week’s reading is growth, which certainly connects with the theme of life and relationship. There is no life, no relationship, without growth. Paul, in I Corinthians 3:6-7, says it is “God who gives the growth.” The reading begins with the people not being ready to receive what it takes to grow. “ . . . you were not ready . . . even now you are still not ready.” (vs. 2) It goes on to talk about thinking our growth depends on this leader or that leader. (vss. 4-6) The leaders, Paul says, are just gardeners, planting and watering. There is no life unless the Spirit of God is at work. (vs. 7) The reading ends with one of the mixed metaphors for which Paul is famous. “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (vs. 9)

Whatever else we make of rules, these scriptures, I believe, call us to look behind them to see the
God, the Spirit, who gives them, and us life, who is the ultimate source of growth and meaning in all of life and its relationships.
Thursday, February 03, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10, I Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

The themes in this week’s readings are similar to those of last week—the priority of harmonious and just human relationships over right ritual or pious worship and the comparison of the foolishness and wisdom of the world with the foolishness and wisdom of the spirit.

We are challenged by a high standard indeed. Jesus, in the Gospel lesson, says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets . . . For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished . . . For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5: 17, 18, & 20)

Religion has been understood by many to be a set of laws to be obeyed—with rewards for obedience. The number of Jewish laws most commonly cited is 613, although others say there is no end to the number of laws. Very early, Christian leaders (especially Paul) saw the religion of Jesus as an alternative to rigid adherence to a set of laws. The truth is that, even before Jesus, there were differing interpretations of the significance of law.

Here in Matthew, though, Jesus seems to set a standard which is even higher. What are we to do? I doubt anyone ever really consistently obeyed every one of those 613 laws. Scripture tells us that we all sin and fall short.

The Old Testament readings, like those from last week, direct us toward a new understanding of those laws. So many of them had to do with the right conduct of rituals and worship, the offering of sacrifices, the ways to fast, etc. Isaiah looks at the practice of fasting, noting that the people may adhere rigidly to the rituals of fasting, but meanwhile they still go on oppressing their workers. (Isaiah 58:3) “Look,” he continues, “you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” (vs. 4) In contrast, the fast God wants is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . . Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your kin?” (vss. 6-7) Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it?

Note, in this season of Epiphany when we especially celebrate the shining of light (God’s and our own) in human life, that Isaiah says when we do these things, “then your light shall break forth like the dawn.” (vss. 8 & 10)

The Psalm could easily be used to promote the idea that if you only live according to the law you will get rich. (See vss. 1-3) It goes on, however, to describe these “righteous people” as ones who “have distributed freely . . . given to the poor.” (vs. 9) Verse four also talks about light rising in the darkness, although less in terms of the sharing emphasized by Isaiah and more in terms of reward.

So where am I going with this? It seems that the law—the righteousness—that is most important is that which leads to justice and harmony in human relationships. Even Jesus, and others before and after him, when asked which law came first, said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) In Mark’s Gospel his response ends with these words: “There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31)

In fact, that may be the higher righteousness to which Jesus in calling us in Matthew, chapter five. His words about the law are an introduction to the verses which follow when he contrasts old familiar laws with a new attitude. It is not so much the law that matters but the spirit behind the law. You can go all your life without killing someone, but still carry around a lot of hate. What you need to deal with is that hate? You may never rape anyone, and still be ruled by lust. The higher standard to which Jesus calls us is the spirit of the law. I believe that is what Paul is trying to get at when, in II Corinthians 3:6, when he speaks of the new covenant, being “not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

This week’s epistle reading, which is from earlier in Paul’s writings to the Corinthian church, is similar in tone, contrasting the wisdom of “this age or of the rulers of this age,” “words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things . . .” (See specifically I Corinthians 2:6 & 13, as well as the tone of the entire passage.)

There’s much more to be unpacked in these passages, like the emphases upon secrets being revealed (I Corinthians 2:7) and Jesus’ call to us, in Matthew, to be salt and light. (Matthew 5:13-16) Perhaps Pastor Rick will get into some of that on Sunday. For me, I’ll leave the primary emphasis (with one footnote to follow) on a call for us to pay attention to the spirit of the law. How good can we be? Not as good as the letter of the whole law, but even better if our spirits are filled and guided by God’s Spirit, the source which gives substance and meaning and purpose to every iota, jot and tittle, of the law, and to our lives.

The footnote: In the light of the continuing emphasis upon wisdom and foolishness and a bit of discussion that arose at this week’s breakfast at Mehri’s, I’ve been considering two images of Jesus—the Superstar and the Clown. Remember, Paul contrasts human wisdom and spiritual wisdom. Human wisdom values the superstar, the superhero, the rock idol, etc. In the 70s, when I was still a young man, two musical stage productions appeared almost simultaneously—the rock opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Godspell. I saw professional stage productions of both, including the original off-Broadway production of Godspell. In the first, at least in the production I saw, Jesus seems to be a kind of glitzy rock star—although there’s a lot more to the story than that. In Godspell Jesus is a clown who hangs out with a motley crew of somewhat ordinary folk. The emphasis is much more on the Sermon on the Mount and the nature and development of the group of disciples, although the crucifixion is not absent.

It’s not my purpose to critique either production or to assess it’s telling of the Gospel story. In the context of the discussion of foolishness and wisdom, I simply want to say that I find the image of Jesus as a clown, a “fool,” more appealing than that of the superstar. I enjoyed both productions, but I respond to a Jesus who is more circus clown than rock star.

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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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