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Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Deuteronomy 34:1-2 AND Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 OR Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 AND Psalm 1:1-6, I Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

Today’s political sniping at Mormonism has brought attention to the question of whether we human beings are meant to achieve Godhood or not. Whatever the answer to that question, our eulogies sometimes make something akin to gods of those who have died. Witness the praise heaped upon Steve Jobs. His life certainly deserved to be praised, and his impact on modern culture has been huge. Whether he ranks up there with some of those to whom he is compared is another question. I doubt that we need to consider him part of a divine pantheon.

Some of this week’s readings can become the occasion for asking what kind of life is worthy of praise—and how God may be at work in and through human lives and relationships.

The reading from Deuteronomy places us at the end of Moses’ life. He is allowed to look into the “Promised Land,” but must pass over leadership to Joshua, the one who will get to the other side of the Jordan. (Deuteronomy 34:1-3 & 9) We are given the picture of a vigorous Moses, whose “sight was unimpaired and vigor “not abated” at 120 years of age. (vs. 7) The reading ends with a eulogy to Moses. “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses . . . He was unequaled . . .” (vss. 10-12) Although the passage begins with God in charge (vs. 4), it ends with praise for one who is able to do “signs and wonders . . . mighty deeds . . . terrifying deeds of power . . .” (vss. 11-12) In remembering Moses, as in our remembering of Steve Jobs, he becomes almost Godlike. The things worthy of praise are magnificent achievements of leadership.

The Psalm that opens the collection of Psalms makes a sharp distinction between the “wicked” and the “righteous.” (Psalm 1:1-2 & 5-6) In the real world, I tend to see people (including myself) who are much more a mix of “wickedness” and “righteousness.” In most of our living, we find ourselves moving along a continuum of shadows and light. Wherever we are on that continuum, though, it is righteousness that is worthy of praise. I particularly find strength in the image of “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season . . .” (vs. 3) What a eulogy it would be to be remembered as a tree “planted by streams of water,” yielding the fruit of righteousness.

Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonika has a little different take on leadership. Paul describes the way he has related to the people there, the people for whom he deeply cares. He is not exactly seeking praise—although he does not always seem to have an excess of humility. In this case, he argues that, in his dealing with these people, he has not been trying to “please mortals, but to please God.” He has not dealt with them “from deceit or impure motives or trickery . . . we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed . . . we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children . . . we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves . . .” (I Thessalonians 2:3-8) What is worthy of praise is giving ourselves to one another.

In the Gospel lesson Jesus identifies two great commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets. The second of these is loving our neighbor as ourself. The measure of a person is whether they love God and love their neighbor (are servants to one another in the manner described by Paul).

We could probe the Gospel lesson more deeply, noting, for example, that these two commandments stand side by side. Loving God and loving neighbor are so linked that they cannot be separated. If God is worthy of love so is our neighbor. Piety (loving God?) and service (loving one’s neighbor) are equally worthy of praise.

The reading from Leviticus is included this week, I am sure, to remind us that the injunction to love our neighbor has been around for a long time. Leviticus spends much time calling us to “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) Is there an implication here that we are not so far off when we eulogize someone in a way that makes them seem almost godlike? Holiness is surely an attribute we associate with God, but here we too are to partake of that holiness, in some way to reflect the very nature of God, God’s image. Note, however, the behavior associated with holiness here: not rendering “an unjust judgment,” “justice” in relation to one’s neighbor, not hating, not seeking vengeance or bearing a grudge, etc., culminating with the emphasis upon loving our neighbor. (vss. 15-18)

We could think about the phrase, “as yourself.” It is a leveling phrase. Those who would serve one another in love meet as equals. Relationships based on that kind of holiness are worthy of praise.

The remainder of the Gospel lesson seems like a distraction and some argue, effectively, that it is something added to the story by the early church. It is another instance, I believe, of Jesus trying to stretch some of the religious leadership of his day. He asks them whose son they think the Messiah is. “The son of David,” they say, following the tradition which said the Messiah would come from the lineage of David. But David, Jesus says, calls the Messiah “Lord.” How then can he be David’s son? (Matthew 22:41-45) The exchange is even more puzzling to us than it was to those Pharisees. Perhaps Jesus was doing nothing more than trying to shake them out of their complacency, their sense that they had all the answers, had God and God’s doings all wrapped up in a neat package with a pretty bow on top. In terms of the theme of this blog, perhaps he was also trying to get them to see that greatness is something much bigger than they imagined. If they were going to eulogize the Messiah, let them realize that whatever they might think or say about the Messiah would not be big enough. Even when we consider the greatest of eulogies we have heard or spoken it is well to remember that what is worthy of praise may be much more, or quite different, than we imagine.

We are left with the other Psalm. While it begins as a Psalm of praise, it seems more a pleading for blessing and fair treatment. “Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us . . . Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands . . .” Psalm 90:15 & 17) It calls upon God to live up to God’s covenant—God’s “steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 14) It is almost a conditional praise. “We will consider you worthy if you bless us and treat us fairly.” Although coming to God in this way can seem rather crude, it does remind us again that one of the things worthy of praise is fairness. We don’t always get it. We can’t always expect it, but when it happens, it is certainly worthy of praise, whether it comes from God or those around us.

So, what will the eulogies spoken of us sound like? It may seem a little awkward, perhaps even self-centered, to ask whether we will be worthy. In the end, biblical truth and the testimony of the Holy Spirit remind us that God considers us worthy of abundant love—love beyond measure bestowed upon us without measuring our every step. In the meantime, perhaps these verses (not from this week’s readings) can guide us. Colossians 1:10 speaks of leading “lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” Ephesians 4:13 and following calls us “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ . . . speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Sounds a little like the call in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy!
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 33:12-23 AND Psalm 99:1-9 OR Isaiah 45:1-7 AND Psalm 96:1-13, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

One dictionary definition of “gasp” is to “catch one’s breath with an open mouth, from pain, breathlessness, or astonishment.” Today I’m most interesting in the “astonishment” part. What makes us gasp with astonishment?

Gasping in astonishment can be one aspect of worship. When’s the last time we did such “gasping” in worship. Last Sunday at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ came close to be a gasping experience.

The Bible sometimes uses the words “glory” and “holy” to describe things that might make us gasp in astonishment. Both words appear in lectionary readings for this Sunday.

In a story which seems a bit humorous, Moses wants to see God’s “glory.” (Exodus 33:18) Moses has been given a big assignment by God, to lead the children of Israel “to a land flowing with milk and honey . . .” (Exodus 33:3) All along, Moses has been less than fully confident about his role as leader. Now he wants to know if God is going to back him up or not. God promises, “My presence will go with you . . .” (vs. 14) Moses wants to know a little bit more about that presence. He wants to see what resources God has to offer. He wants to see God’s “glory,” i.e., in this case, literally how “well-armed” God is. There are other places in the Bible where “glory” is a kind of brightness, a blinding light—in the New Testament “doxa,” the Greek word from which we get “doxology.” Here it is a military word. How will God protect Moses and the people as they find their way to this new land? It’s interesting that God reframes things in his answer. His first response to Moses’ request is “I will make my goodness pass before you,” my “goodness,” not my military might. (vs. 19)

The word “holy,” appears three times in Psalm 99. It is a great Psalm of gasping astonishment in the presence of God, “mighty king, lover of justice . . .” (Psalm 99:4) It is a call to “praise” his “great and awesome name . . . Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool.” (vss. 3 & 5—See also vs. 9) In each call there is the declaration, “Holy is he! . . . for the Lord our God is holy” To call something holy is to declare that it is special, set apart of a special purpose, “boundaries” drawn around it. It is as if there are boundaries beyond which we are not able to go in knowing all that God is. There is an “unknowable” aspect to God, beyond which we cannot see. We can only gasp in astonishment!

But Moses wants to see beyond those boundaries. Don’t we all. Many want to see God so clearly that there is no longer any mystery. We have God packaged and ready to sell.

But God says, “No, there are limits.” In the Exodus story it gets expressed in an almost crude way. “Stand over there by the rock, Moses, and I’ll let you see my back side,” God says. (Exodus 33:22-23) Perhaps the story for the people of Israel, as these stories were shared and recorded many years later, meant they had broken through to a new understanding. While the people around them worshiped carved and sculpted and molded images, the God of Moses, the God who led them through the wilderness, was much bigger than that.

Whatever the story meant to those early Israelites, it is a reminder to us that some days we need to spend more time gasping and less time trying to get a photograph of God. If we have such a photograph, we can proudly take it along as a talisman to protect us on the journey, or place it in an album to show people exactly what God looks like. I’m reminded of the girl who was drawing a picture. Her mother asked what she was drawing. The response: “A picture of God.” Mom quickly reminded her that no one knows what God looks like. “They will when I get done,” the girl said. We’re sometimes so busy trying to draw the perfect picture that we forget to gasp at the mystery just beyond our vision.

Psalm 96 continues to gasp in God’s presence. “Declare his glory among the nations . . . for great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised . . . For all the gods of the peoples are idols . . . Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name . . . Worship the Lord in holy splendor . . .” (Psalm 96: 3-5 & 8-9) The reading from Isaiah depicts a God who calls us by our name (Isaiah 45:3), but is so holy and glorious that we do not know all of the divine fullness. “I call you by your name but you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.” (vss. 4-5)

The Gospel lesson also calls us to ask what “god” we serve. As is so often the case, there are those who are out to trick Jesus into making a treasonous statement. (Matthew 22:15) This time the question has to do with paying taxes. It could be used as a timely text relevant to today’s tax rebellions. (vss. 16-17) Jesus’ answer, though, pushes the discussion to a whole different level. He asks for a coin and asks whose image is on it. (vss. 19-20) When they acknowledge that it is the emperor’s head, Jesus says, “Give . . . to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (vs. 21) There is no definition of what is God’s and what is the emperor’s. We could make it a story about not being drawn into the pursuit of money, or about looking to the emperor to provide answers and solutions. Taxes, riches, political power—all these things are in the story—but at its core, it simply asks, “Whom do you worship?” What causes you to gasp in astonishment? Are you like the crowd that screams when a celebrity passes by or are you more inspired when you see the self-giving spirit of Love at work? Those who heard Jesus on this day “were amazed.” (vs. 22) Sometimes it is a masterful comment that makes us “gasp” because it challenges, and perhaps even changes, the way we see reality.

If the Exodus passage, however, has Moses trying to get a glimpse of God, Paul, in I Thessalonians, suggests another place to look. He describes people who are engaged in a “work of love and labor of love” (I Thessalonians 1:3) They are “imitators” of Paul and “of the Lord.” (vs. 6) Because of that they are “an example” to others. “ . . . in every place your faith in God has become known, so we have no need to speak about it.” (vs. 8) Although we can never see the fulness of God’s glory, we can sometimes see it in loving deeds undertaken by people of faith. In fact, Jesus once said, “ . . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” There’s that word “glory” again, now perhaps shining forth from us. Part of our “gasping” when we gather to worship may occur when we look around at the people around us and hear about all the good works that are being undertaken through the many ministries of our congregation.

It may be that we ourselves are the back side God exposes to the world. Gasp!
Tuesday, October 04, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 32:1-14 AND Psalm 106:1-6 OR Isaiah 25:1-9 AND Psalm 23:1-6, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

The Bible frequently pictures God as a blustering human writ large. God expresses all the emotions of a sometimes petulant human being. It’s the anger that especially troubles our sensibilities. One of our recent readings from Philippians encourages us to have the mind of God (as seen in Jesus) in us. Today’s reading from Exodus gives us another look into the mind of God. How often do we think of God as changing his or her mind? But there it is in Exodus 32:14—“ . . . the Lord changed his mind . . .”

This is not the only time it happens. In fact, the prophetic message assumes that God will changes God’s mind about the predicted doom—if the people repent and turn “from their evil ways.” Jeremiah’s reports these words from the Lord several times: “It may be that they will listen, all of them, and will turn from their evil way, that I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on them . . .” Jeremiah 26:3—See also verses 13 & 19) Jonah gets upset when God changes God’s mind about destroying the Ninevites. (See Jonah 3:9-4:2) In the New Testament, we have the story of the widow who persists in asking the judge for justice. The parable suggests that it is Godlike when the judge finally responds to her persistence pestering. (Luke 18:2-7, with verse seven asking, “ . . . will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”)

Let me suggest that it is a human way of picturing a God who is compassionate, who forgives. Compassion requires a response. A plea for forgiveness is useless unless someone or something can be moved by that plea. Charles Hartshorne, in The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God, argues that sensitive to the feelings and actions of another is a sign of higher development, so that a being with the highest level of perfection would be most affected by the joys and sorrows of others. “I invite you to perform with me a mental experiment,” Hartshorne writes. “Imagine someone to read aloud an eloquent poem, in the presence of: (A) a glass of water, (B) and ant, (C) a dog, (D) a human being unacquainted with the language of the poem, (E) a human being knowing the language but insensitive to poetry, (F) a person sensitive to poetry and familiar with the language.” Each, Hartshorne suggests, is more sensitive to the sounds, until the final listener “may go through a deep and thousandfold adventure of thought and feeling.” God, for Hartshorne, becomes the one who is supremely sensitive.

Now to the biblical stories. The people of God are still out there living on the edge—in the wilderness. They are looking for a friendly sign. Some philosophers talk about our struggle to “personalize the universe.” Out there in the wilderness, life can be rough. They need something to hang onto, to know that someone or something cares, to be able to feel things are not entirely out of control. Moses has gone up the mountain and will be bringing back something to give their lives structure, but who knows whether he’ll ever make it back. He’s been gone a long time. (Exodus 32:1)

The story is so human. We too get impatient. The story tells us that the people decide to take things into their own hands, devise a God of their own making, like the people around them worship. Do we ever do that—look around and follow whatever the masses seem to pursue? Is it coincidental in the story that their idolatry centers on gold? The world is a scary place. Surely we can buy our way to safety and security—yet the gods of the stock market seem precariously positioned these days. (vss. 2-6)

In the story, God doesn’t like what they are doing one bit. He tells Moses, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them . . .” (vs. 10) Moses pleads with God to consider who they are and what the consequences would be (vss. 11-13), and God changes his mind. (vs. 14) The bottom line, what the people remember in their singing in later years, is that God is compassionate. “Praise the Lord!” they sing. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 106:1) The Psalm goes on to retell the story of the golden calf and how “Moses . . . stood in the breach . . . to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” (vs. 23—See starting at vs. 19)

The reading from Isaiah is filled with images of compassion. We are unable to identify with certainty the enemy city that has been destroyed (Isaiah 25:2), but we treasure the pictures of the mind of God given us in this chapter. “ . . . you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress . . .” (vs. 4) “ . . . the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” (vs. 8) We aren’t sure about the specific mountain described in verses six, but a feast that includes “all peoples” is more than once used to describe the intimacy of God’s people as they sit at table in the divine presence, as they are gathered to the mountain of the Lord. The familiar 23rd Psalm, another of this week’s readings, pictures a compassionate God, who, among other things, “prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies . . .” (Psalm 23:5)

When the scriptures speak of God “changing his mind,” it is for me a way of picturing a compassionate God, a universe that gathers up my joys and sorrows giving them meaning and purpose. There may be moments when all of life seems to be angry with me, out to destroy me, but a heart of compassion beats behind the anger, able to change its mind.

The reading from Philippians is less about the compassion God has for us and more about compassion in our relationships with one another when we are guided by the mind of God. Remember the instruction to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . .” (Philippians 2:5) God is still very much present in this week’s reading from chapter four: “Stand firm in the Lord . . . Rejoice in the Lord always . . . The Lord is near.” (vss. 3-5) The Philippians are told to remain on intimate terms with God through prayer.” (vs. 6) In taking care of one another (vs. 3), in acting toward one another with gentleness (vs. 5), in being true and honorable and just and pure, etc. (vs. 8), it is finally “the peace of God” which “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (vs. 7—See also vs. 9) The mind we have in our relationships with one another and the mind of God as seen in Jesus are closely connected throughout the letter to the Philippians. We are to paint a picture of God’s mind in our caring for one another.

On the surface, the parable from Matthew 22 seems little focused upon compassion. Luke’s interpretation of the same parable makes it clear that the dinner host reaches out to “bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” (Luke 14:21) In that sense, there is an element of compassion in the accounts of both Matthew and Luke. (See Matthew 22:9-10) In Matthew, it is a wedding banquet for the host’s son (Matthew 22:2), so higher standards of proper behavior may have been in play. In both cases, the emphasis is upon the “proper” people who were too busy to come. (Matthew 22:4-6 & Luke 14:18-20) In Matthew especially Jesus is critical of the hypocrisy of some of the religious leadership and of their sense of privilege, assuming that their position is above reproach. We are given several parables where they are not so gently told that if they do not come to the banquet, others (generally thought of as less worthy) will be invited. Notice Matthew records that the host's slaves “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad . . .” (vs. 10)

The most troubling part comes when Matthew adds something that some suggest comes from another parable. The host notices someone who is not dressed properly. (vss. 11-12) He is taken out and cast “into the outer darkness.” (vs. 13) That certainly doesn’t seem very compassionate. My take (along with some others I have read) is that it’s not about the clothing. It’s about not having any sense of the wonder of this occasion. Some who come in from the streets (“both good and bad”) will be no better than those who were originally invited and couldn’t take time to enjoy fellowship with “the son.” Some say that wedding robes may have been available at the door. If so, the point may be that God offers us the Spirit with which we can be clothed when we come together in love, but some refuse to notice or “wear” it. Is that the meaning of verse 14? “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

God offers compassion beyond measure—to many, to all—but we may miss it if we get too busy making idols of the various things with which we easily get preoccupied. It is when we focus on the honorable, just, pure, etc., that the peace of God (the compassion of God?) is painted in our minds and lives. May the God of peace (and compassion) be with us as we take care of one another.

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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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