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Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, II Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

One of the rituals of this season usually involves someone reading a poem by Clement Clarke Moore about the night before Christmas. It includes this line: “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” Many of us, perhaps most of us are dreamers. I’m referring not to night dreams during our sleep—although those can be quite revealing at times. I’m talking about visions of possibility, our “dreams” for a better world, our understandings of the shape that world might have.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior inspired many of us with his famous “I Have A Dream” speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. At one point he launched into cadence that repeatedly returned to the phrase, “I have a dream,” each time fleshed out with a vivid image of peace and justice. Dr. King was a clergyman, deeply influenced by biblical vision. Part of his inspiration for this speech was drawn from this week’s reading from Isaiah 40, words from verses four and five: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

Many attempts have been made to describe the perfect society. What would it look like if human beings lived together in a way that they achieved their maximum potential, so that the human spirit was encouraged and enabled rather than worn down and destroyed? Some have even tried to build “utopias”, intentional communities where those dreams are lived out. People still experiment with living together communally, usually either failing or finding that life together involves a lot of compromise.

Perfection is not found in this earthly existence, but it doesn’t mean we should stop dreaming or stop taking steps to realize those dreams. Advent is a time for such dreaming. What visions run through our heads during the days before Christmas?

The lectionary readings for this week offer some images and suggestions. Isaiah 40 addresses a people in exile, living in a strange land. They feel separated from all they have known and need a word of comfort. Their dream is, among other things, to discover that God still cares for them. In the very first verse we read, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 40:1) They dream of returning to their homeland, going back to things the way they were, but the road back is difficult, full of obstacles. The dream—and the promise--- is that those obstacles will be removed: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (vs. 4)

I’m not really sure that having it easy is the way to human fulfillment, but we need encouragement and hope when we are down, when the challenges of the future look nearly impossible to face and overcome. It is encouraging to know that a way is being prepared. (vs. 3) The Gospel reading from Mark looks back to this verse and applies it to John the baptizer. He is the one who cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:3-4)

Isaiah 40 also includes a dream we encountered a couple of weeks ago, the image of sheep in intimate relationship with a caring shepherd. Do we ever entirely lose the longing for the caress of a loving caregiver? For some it is embodied in memories (perhaps unconscious) of being nurtured at the breast of a loving mother. For some it is the assurance offered in the popular “Footprints” poem: “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Again this dream seems to me to be based in a degree of helpless dependence, yet in difficult days we need the assurance that there are those around us who will love and support us. The “perfect” society of which many of us dream is one in which we can all count on one another for such support—and where we sense ourselves connected with an underlying and supportive Spirit.

One of the longings that seems to work its way into our dreams is that of forgiveness. Although we in the more “progressive” wing of Christianity like to avoid too much emphasis upon “guilt,” I don’t know a person, including myself, who has not engaged in some hurtful or destructive activity. We have spoken words which cut someone down. We have pursued a goal at the expense of someone else. We have entertained thoughts and wishes that have haunted us. For some the “dark side” has been much deeper. We want to know that things will be all right, that such acts will not destroy us. We want forgiveness. Isaiah 40 speaks of the “penalty” having been paid. (Isaiah 40:2) Psalm 85 says, “You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.” (Psalm 85:2) II Peter speaks of all coming to “repentance” (II Peter 3:9), and John the baptizer comes as one who proclaims “a baptism of repentance for sins.” (Mark 1:4)

Forgiveness is one of the central Christian understandings associated with God’s Love. God is not a vengeful God, but one who is patient and forgiving. Part of what II Peter brings to the discussion on the awaited Day of the Lord is an emphasis upon God’s patience. The writer starts by reminding us that, in God’s time, “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (II Peter 3:8) It’s another way of stating that we shouldn’t get bogged down in trying to map out events leading to a day of judgment. In fact, it is a sign that “The Lord . . . is patient with you.” (vs. 9) God is not out to kill all the bad guys, but to patiently waits for forgiving Love to transform them.

Back to Psalm 85 for a minute. The dream there is poetically expressed in verses 10-11: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

Many of us dream of a society in which every one does what is right, i.e., where righteousness prevails. It is a society in which people are honest with one another, don’t use power to take advantage of and suppress one another, etc. All of the following words have been used at one time or another in translating the Hebrew biblical word for “righteousness”—integrity, equity, justice. One who is righteous is innocent, true, sincere. Righteousness is the product of upright, moral action. Is righteousness part of our Advent dream?

II Peter says, “We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” (II Peter 3:13) Yet, we need not wait, he implies. We can start living the dream right now, being the sort of persons we ought to be “in leading lives of holiness and godliness.” (vs. 11) “While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace . . .” (vs. 14) Remember the words of Psalm 85 where it says “he will speak peace to his people,” that “righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:8 & 10)

For some, peace is the highest of all dreams. God’s peace, however, is more than just the absence of violence and hostility. It is an inner attitude as well as an outer reality. It is harmonious cooperation for the well-being of all so that war becomes obsolete. Now there’s a dream worth having. I’m tempted to say “worth fighting for,” but that doesn’t quite fit. How about “worth cooperating for”?

The Gospel reading jumps right in with John the baptizer preparing the way for one who comes to embody the dream. No birth stories. No genealogies. Mark, the earliest Gospel, opens with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) We’ve already noted that he quotes from Isaiah to describe John as the preparer bringing a message of forgiveness. John the baptizer is a symbol of Advent preparation, for awaiting the dream—and living the dream while we wait.

Note how the reading ends. John speaks of Jesus as one who baptizes not with water, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 8) Is there the suggestion here that all of our dreaming is empty without the presence of the Spirit? The dreams that matter are not just about bricks and mortar, laws and rules and regulations. Our dreams are most profound when they are “baptized” with the presence of God’s guiding Spirit.

May this Advent be a time when we attune ourselves to God’s Spirit and move beyond dreams of sugar plums—or even sugar plum fairies—anticipating and living into a time when “steadfast love and faithfulness” meet and “righteousness and peace” kiss each other.
Monday, November 21, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, I Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

We sometimes complain about how early the commercial interests of the world try to overwhelm us with the sights and sounds and products of Christmas. As I write, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and I’ve been hearing Christmas music for at least two weeks, most recently in my favorite Chinese restaurant yet. (Not that all Chinese follow some other religion or ignore Christmas, but it somehow seems a little incongruous.)

But that time has come in the Church Year. This Sunday begins Advent—and a new Church Year. Now it’s Advent, mind you, not Christmas. It’s a time of preparation, not the beginning of the celebration. Some pastors and congregations refuse to sing the actual Christmas carols until the Christmas season of the Church Year begins on what we call Christmas Day.

I lean a little in that direction because it forces me to live through a time of waiting. Advent is about, among other things, waiting—but waiting in high anticipation. Remember the stereotype of the young child who tries to stay awake all night on Christmas Eve. Maybe you were such a child, or parented one. It may be that the motivation for staying awake is to catch a glimpse of Santa, or maybe it is just the excitement and impatience associated with tearing the wrappers off all those gifts under the tree. In our household, one always had to wait until a parent gave the all clear to come running out to see what was under the tree. Now everything is usually out there for weeks for all to examine the shapes of the packages, perhaps even shake them a little. And, of course, family customs vary—some opening presents on Christmas Eve, some on Christmas morning. Some family gatherings don’t get to it until later in the day—or spread it our through the entire day. Some open one a day for several days.

Advent stretches that one night of anticipation to four weeks. I don’t imagine many, if any, of those children stayed up all night praying, but that may be closer to the spirit of the Advent season that all the glitter that fuels our wide-eyed wonder these days.

Being wide-eyed, though, is an appropriate way to approach Advent. This week’s Gospel lesson ends with the words, “Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37) The wakefulness is not because there are presents under the tree. This reading is another of those lessons about a coming time of judgment and the fulfilment of history. It is something that Jesus and his followers seemed to expect any day now. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (vs. 30) The images stun, perhaps frighten us. Maybe we just read them in disbelief, tempted to laugh.

A darkened sun, stars falling from heaven (vss. 24-25)—well, even science has predicted the demise of our sun in some distant future—with far more immediate destructive “natural” occurrences as a result of our treatment of the environment. But a person (“the Son of Man”) “coming in clouds”? (vs. 26) What’s that? A space ship from another planet?

As I read most biblical treatments of such coming events, the main point is that of verses 32-33. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father . . . you do not know when the time will come.” People sometimes got into a frenzy, did strange things, when they lived in fear or in the hope that the end would come soon. Some quite working; some decided to eat, drink, and be merry while there was still time. In every age, there have been those who have tried to put a specific date on it—some groups more than once. I’ve never heard them express any embarrassment when the predicted day came and went while history continued and people woke up and went to work as usual the next day.

Our Gospel lesson calls simply for being “alert” (vs. 33), keeping “awake.” (vss. 35-37) Advent is a time for keeping awake. Can we take that as encouragement to be wide-eyed in appreciation every day of life we are given? Can it be taken as an instruction to live every moment in anticipation of what life (and God) is doing? Can we move beyond an attempt to map out the details of future events and realize that each day is a wonder? Such wide-eyed wonder is appropriate all year. Advent can be a time with we let it loose, staying awake all night because we know not what possibilities the new day may bring.

The other lectionary readings for this Sunday offer some additional perspectives on waiting. In Isaiah we read about a people who feel abandoned by God. “For you have hidden your face from us . . .” (Isaiah 64:7) They are waiting, so to speak, for their relationship with God to be restored. The reading from Psalm 80 is similar in tone. “Restore us, O God; let your face shine . . .” (vss. 3, 7, & 19)

Holidays can be lonely times. We nostalgically remember lost loved ones. The wounds may be especially raw if there has been a recent death. Those who are going through divorce lose some of the rituals they may have known for years. Even many years later, divorced families know how complicated holidays can become. We look for a new reality in which meanings are made whole again. There are no easy answers, but the biblical perspective is that there is always hope for healing and new beginnings. Advent is a time to be wide-eyed, awake, ready for such new possibilities, new beginnings.

Perhaps the most hopeful verse in the reading from Isaiah 64 is verse 8: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of you hand.” Advent is a time when the forces of history are grinding away. It is like a time of labor before a new birth. Maybe, at times, all we can do is yield to those forces, let them work away reshaping us and bringing something new into being, marveling (even if there is pain) at the wonder of those workings.

The context of the Epistle reading is waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” for “the end,” “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1:7-8) Paul reminds his readers that he gives thanks to God for them. (vs. 2) He speaks of the way they have been strengthened by Christ, who “will also strengthen you to the end.” (vss. 6 & 8) I particularly notice that he speaks about one of his favorite topics—one developed at length later in I Corinthians—the gifts we have been given. “ . . . you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait.” (vs. 7) Is he implying something similar to the clay and potter image of Isaiah 64:8?

Overall, the point I make is this: Rather than get bogged down trying to describe final events in detail, rather than cringing in fear or going to excess in the pursuit of pleasure while we have a chance, we are to continue living each day no matter what may come. We are to move ahead wide-eyed, using our gifts, talents, abilities as fully as possible, flexible enough to be molded by the circumstances and opportunities and challenges that may be part of an uncertain future. “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Marks 13:37)
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 AND Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1;15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

November 20th is the last Sunday of the Church Year. The following Sunday begins the next Church year with the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. The last Sunday of the Church Year traditionally celebrates the culmination of history when God’s Love through Jesus Christ comes to full fruition. Scripturally it is spoken of as Christ ruling over all in a Kingdom in which Love has triumphed.

When I ask the question, “Where Are We Going?”, I think less of an eternal destination (say heaven or hell) or a final judgment. I’m asking about divine goals that may be operative giving us guidance as we move through history. What is it that we are working for, living for?

This is also the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the Sunday on which many pastors preach a message of the meaning and/or importance of giving thanks. Since I will be preaching, I have chosen the Thanksgiving Sunday emphasis, although my comments in this blog entry will include some broader observations.

Most of the readings include the image of a shepherd and sheep, so that the “reign of Christ” may be compared to the relationship of a good shepherd to his flock. It is an image that recurs throughout scripture. Both Psalms contain the line. “We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” (Psalm 100:4) “We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Psalm 94:7) Both Psalms are appropriate expressions of praise for Thanksgiving. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness . . . Enter his gates with thanksgiving . . . For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever . . .” (Psalm 100:1-2, 4-5—with similar phrases in Psalm 95) To be cared for by a good shepherd, to be God’s people, is reason to have thankful hearts.

Ezekiel presents a more extended image. The shepherd is one who gathers and “rescues” the sheep. (Ezekiel 34:11-13) “I will feed them with good pasture . . . they shall lie down in good grazing land . . . I will seek the lost . . . and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” (vss. 14 & 16) We find, though, that not all is sweetness and light. The sheep are to be judged. (vs. 20) One would think that the lean and weak sheep that might be culled from the flock. Instead, we find that the fat sheep are the problem, “because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.” (vss. 16 & 20-22)

If this is a picture of the “kingdom,” it is one in which sheep and shepherd live together in harmony, without taking advantage of one another. “Fat cats” are not allowed to take advantage. The powerful are not allowed to foster division and dissent, to intimidate the “weak.” It is a peaceable kingdom where all live in harmony.

The Gospel lesson is also a judgment scene. Here the nations are gathered before “the Son of Man” who “comes in his glory.” They are separated “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:31-32) Central to this parable is the basis of judgment. Even without the “eternal punishment” that comes at its end, the parable offers insight into the nature of the reign of God. The king proclaims that those who are “blessed” are the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, visited those in prison. (vss. 34-36) The “goats” are described as those who “did not” do those things. Both groups want to know when it was that they did or did not act in these ways.

In what is the key verse for me as I approach this Thanksgiving Sunday, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (vs. 40) Progressive/liberal Christians, those interested in peace and justice, have been particularly fond of this scripture, usually focusing on the phrase “the least of these.”

What caught my eye this time was that the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned, are described as “members of my family.” The stereotypical image of Thanksgiving is a family, feasting together around a table. People in their rich diversity gathered around a banquet table is a scriptural picture of the reign of God, the goal of history if you wish.

So—Sunday I’m going to be talking about family, remembering our own experiences of family celebration (good and bad) and thinking about the great variety of people seated at God’s inclusive table. Family connections aren’t always defined by whom we like or get along easily with. There’s the alcoholic uncle and the rebellious daughter. There’s the obnoxious sister-in-law who talks non-stop and the macho cousin whose manhood is defined by the size of the motor in his truck. One hopes there are also a lot of pleasant, loving, well-behaved people present as well, but when we gather for Thanksgiving there are ties that transcend the differences and problematic behaviors. Nobody said being a family is easy—and don’t you dare discuss politics or religion.

To talk about the “reign of Christ” is to talk about being such a family on a grander scale. The parable tells us that God includes the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned as members of his family. We are part of a family that is inclusive, where the fat sheep sometimes need to be reminded that the “weak”sheep are part of the family too.

If we were to explore the imagery of sheep further, we would find that they are often dirty and smelly creatures, not what we would immediately think of as ideal to symbolize the reign of God. Those, however, are the creatures God reaches out to include.

Dirty sheep, dysfunctional families, those who are weak and needy are all included. In the parable, taking care of one another in such a family means we are “blessed.” My Thanksgiving message will call upon us to give thanks for the blessing of being included in such a family. Such inclusiveness, I believe, is the goal of history. It is, I know, the ideal that Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ tries to embody.

Finally, the epistle reading from Ephesians more directly addresses traditional understandings of the reign of Christ when all things are fulfilled. It speaks of that time as one filled with “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (Ephesians 1:18), i.e., of the family inheritance at the end of time. It speaks of “the immeasurable greatness of his power.” (vs. 19) Christ is pictured as seated with God “at his right hand in the heavenly places.” (vs. 19) “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him head over all thins for the church.” (vs. 22)

I don’t find much comfort in such images of power and submission. It almost makes me think of one of the worst images of the abuse of power—the victor with his booted foot resting on my head. The last phrase of the reading, however, seems to change the image, speaking of “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (vs. 23) It is less an image of power from above and more an image of an indwelling presence that empowers us all, who gives the family an identity and holds its disparate parts together.

Where are we going? Toward participation in the fullness of such a family. Someone has said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” There’s plenty to debate in such a “sound bite,” but the going is not just about the where. It is about the principles and the spirit that guide us along the way. We are on the way to the fullness of God’s inclusive family. On the way, we are building and experiencing it now, and that is part of the reign of Christ.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Judges 4:1-7 AND Psalm 123:1-4 OR Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 AND Psalm 90:1-12, I Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Most of this week’s readings are rooted in humanity’s outrage when seeming injustice and/or violence overtakes them. Evil happens and the struggle to explain it is endless and futile. We see it in the attack on the towers in New York City, in shooting rampages that take down students and politicians, in the recent surfacing of a sex abuse scandal at Penn State, in corporate greed (big bonuses for execs at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), in the use of power in totalitarian states, in tribal and ethnic hatred and slaughter. We could fill this entire blog with a list of such gut-wrenching phenomena. We blame it on mental illness, genetics, lack of proper socialization, greed, hunger for power, improper values, the devil, etc.

The most common response seems to be to strike back—revenge—give evil or evil. Romans 12:21 (not one of this week’s readings) says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Followers of Christ often say we are called upon to “forgive,” and that we are. I come this week, however, with more questions than answers.

My most basic question is how are people (including ourselves) held accountable for their actions. Society’s answer is often to punish people. Biblically we find many images of a final judgement, where those who have fallen short don’t fair too well.

I was fortunate enough to serve a church in a county seat where the sheriff was a seminary graduate pioneering one of the first victim-offender reconciliation projects in the country. It used our church as a place for victims and offenders to meet and seek reconciliation. I’ve seen it work, but does it work when we move to a larger scale? South Africa tried it with a Truth and Reconiliation Commission and similar efforts have been made in other countries—with positive but mixed results. There are no easy answers.

The book of Judges depicts a period of Israelite history when they were ruled by judges. In Judges 2:18-19, the period is described in this way: “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.”

Repeatedly in the book of Judges one finds the words which begin this week’s reading. Ehud, the judge, has just died and “the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (Judges 4:1) The result is that they are sold “into the hands of King Jabin of Canaan.” (vs. 2) It may be noteworthy that the next judge is a woman, Deborah. (vs. 4) Following her instruction, the Israelites win the next big battle (vss. 5-7) and have forty years of peace. (Judges 5:31) Then chapter six opens with the words: “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Evil is persistent and this reading gives us little comfort, only a sense that cycles of revenge don’t work.

In Psalm 123 people who seem to be at the bottom of the heap cry out for mercy—“for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.” (Psalm 123: 3-4) Such cries can be heard in every age, including our own, when those in power, those who sit at the top of the economic heap, seem to have little appreciation for those whose life is a day to day struggle. The rest of us sometimes seem to be little more than pawns.

Zephaniah, the prophet, looked around Jerusalem shortly before it fell to the enemy in 586 BCE and identified the wealthy as the source of evil. The solution is again punishment, destruction. “Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste . . . That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness . . . Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them . . .” (Zephaniah 1:13, 15, 18) There is truth in the warning that the pursuit of silver and gold is often the source of injustice, but what kind of justice is it that destroys a whole city? Isn’t there a better way? It’s a question I come back to again and again as I read these stories of revenge and punishment.

The author of Psalm 90 seems almost to throw up his hands in pessimistic resignation. It’s not a stance I can embrace, but there are times when it seems there is little we can do. The writer says we are “like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers . . . For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:5-6, 9-10)

How would you like to spend a day in the company of this man? Anyone who imagines the Psalms to be always inspiring missed this one. The hopeful word, however, is perhaps in the final verse—“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (vs. 12) Humans have often looked to philosophies which teach us to live one day at a time, living fully into the moment as the only place we can make a difference. The time when we can do what is right is now, and that, at least, is something. Jesus, in what is called “The Sermon on the Mount,” concluded his section on worry and anxiety with these words: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today." (Matthew 6:33-34) When faced with the consequences of “evil” my heart longs for something more, but “one day at a time” is not a bad place to start.

Both the epistle and Gospel lessons deal with a coming time of judgment. Early Christians, as has been true of some Christians in all ages, felt it was just around the corner. From the two letters to the church in Thessalonica we can gather that they engaged in quite a bit of speculation about it, some believing the end had already come (II Thessalonians 2:1-2), some believing it is so near that there is no point in working any more (II Thessalonians 3:6 & following), etc. In Today’s reading from the first epistle, some seem to be ignoring pending doom, saying, “There is peace and security.” (I Thessalonians 5:3) These verses do not seem so much to name some evil worthy of punishment as remind the readers that the time when judgment will come is not known. (vs. 2) They extend the notion of living one day at a time. We are to live fully awake, avoiding darkness since we are “children of light,” encouraging one another and building up each other. (vss.5-6 & 1) It is an exhortation to keep on each day doing what is right, letting our lights shine (as was emphasized this past Sunday at Kairos-Milwaukie UCC).

Like so many of the Jesus’ parables, the one in our Gospel reading ends with a judgment scene. The parable depicts a man leaving his “slaves” in charge of his property, entrusting them with funds in varying amounts. (Matthew 25:14-15) When the owner returns, he finds that the two slaves given the most have doubled the value of what was entrusted to them. (vss. 20-23) The third, who received the least, was afraid and hid his money. (vss. 24-25) The result seems to us to be very harsh. The money he buried is taken from him and given to the one who earned the most, and “this worthless slave” is thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (vss. 29-30)

Basically it is a parable about using what we have. The money they were given was measured in “talents,” a Hebrew unit of measure. Most interpretations of the parable have taken the word “talent” to refer to the abilities and gifts we have.

The lesson is not unlike what we have drawn from the previous two readings. Whatever we think about a final judgment, we are to go on living now, letting our light shine, using our gifts and abilities. That is what we are accountable for. It’s almost a “use it or lose it” message: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (vs. 29) I can’t sit easily with that, nor some of the depictions of harsh judgments, but I can accept accountability for doing my best with what I have been given, trusting in a divine love which will multiply my efforts, assuring me that they will make a difference, however small, not only now, but in eternity.
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.”
Wednesday, November 02, 2011
NOTE: FOR SOME REASON THE BLOG ENTRY FOR SUNDAY, OCT. 30TH, DID NOT GET POSTED AT THE TIME IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN, EVEN THOUGH IT HAD BEEN WRITTEN. MY BAD: JIM OGDEN. HERE IT IS. A NEW ENTRY FOR NOV. 6TH WILL APPEAR SHORTLY, BUT THIS WILL REMAIN IN THE ARCHIVES.

Lectionary Scriptures: Joshua 3:7-17 AND Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 OR Micah 3:5-12 AND Psalm 43:1-5, I Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

We seem to have a lot of agreement that things are not going too well these days—in politics, in international relations, in economics, even in many of our families. Our recent lectionary readings have depicted the Hebrew people in something of a mess—a wilderness, one might say. In Psalm 107, we find the people wandering “in desert places . . . hungry and thirsty” crying out “in their trouble.” (Psalm 107:4-6) Ultimately it is “the Lord” who delivers them. “ . . . he led them by a straight way . . . for he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things.” (vss. 6, 7, & 9) Likewise, Psalm 43 is a cry from those who feel cast off. (Psalm 43:2) Many of the Psalms contain such cries. Who is going to get us out of this mess?

While God is seen as the ultimate deliverer, it is most frequently human leaders who step in to carry out what they perceive to be God’s will (even if it is often distorted and misunderstood).

The story last week took us up to the brink of the “Promised Land,” but Moses was not allowed to enter. A new leader was appointed, Joshua. Today’s reading picks up the story of Joshua as the people cross the Jordan River “on dry ground.” (Joshua 3:17) We could discuss various attempts to explain this “miracle.” Whatever stories they told about it, what was important to these people was that they got across. It is the beginning of a brand new chapter of their existence. They are given a new start.

We might agonize over their becoming an “occupying” force. We cannot escape the fact that human history is, among other things, the story of “occupying” new lands, getting new beginnings. We need to acknowledge that those new beginnings have come at a cost. The comes a day of reckoning when we need to set right what can be set right, and find ways to reconciliation and forgiveness in the midst of present realities.

For now, though, I want to examine this week’s readings to consider the kind of “leadership” needed to get us out of the messes we find ourselves in? This is not a systematic presentation of some biblical model of or critique of leadership. I’m simply gleaning some insights from these texts that may help us understand who is or who is not going to get us out of this mess

1. No one leader is going to do it alone. Joshua is told to select twelve men to help him get the job done. Putting too much emphasis on the symbolism of the number twelve probably takes us down a rabbit hole. Suffice it to say that twelve is seen as one of the “perfect” numbers, representing in this case, perfect governance. So what? How are we going to apply that in modern circumstances? It’s probably better to see it just as it is presented—a “representative” process—“one from each tribe.” (Joshua 3:12) The voices of all groups in society need to be heard if we are to get out of this mess. It’s the ideal behind our system of elected representatives, but it’s not working too well at the moment.

2. The prophet Micah, from the 8th century before the common era, reminds us that leaders can be corrupt, that leadership can be abused, that leaders can be just looking for what’s in it for them, etc. He observed and criticized such leaders as he observed them at work in the land of Judah. They “lead my people astray.” They “cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat.” (Micah 3:5) It is as if they have become comfortable, disconnect with the suffering of the people around them. Sound familiar? They “abhor justice and pervert all equity,” building the nation “with blood and with wrong!” They can be bribed. The priests and prophets can be bought “for a price . . . with money.” (vss. 9-11) What we have is a picture in which those who should be getting us out of this mess can be bought by the highest bidder. Sounds familiar again, doesn’t it? No wonder a movement arises to Occupy Wall Street and challenge a system of leadership which is controlled by the profiteers. God, through Micah, points out that this is a leadership that leads to destruction, so that our cities become “a heap of ruins.” (vs. 12) Here’s a prophet who hits close to home. This is not the way to get out of this mess.

3. Paul often addresses his leadership role among the churches to which he writes. (I Thessalonians 2:9-10) He sees himself in close loving relationship with the people. They are like family to one another.

One way of getting out of this mess is to function like a family. It’s a model that has been used in tribes, in businesses, in voluntary organizations, in churches from time to time. It’s certainly a huge step ahead of leadership by corrupt monarchs.

The problem comes when one defines a hierarchical family organization as the ideal, with a patriarch in charge. Paul sometimes seems to lean this way. He talks about dealing “with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you.” (vss. 11-12) It can work well when the father is benevolent and loving, but like most approaches to leadership it can easily be abused.

As in all these “models” we need to remember that the larger picture is not the leader himself or herself but how God is or is not at work in the situation. In I Thessalonians the call is to “lead a life worthy of God.” It is more that “a human word” at work; it is “God’s word, which is also are work in you believers.” (vss. 12-13)

4. The Gospel lesson touches on elements in some of the other texts. Jesus speaks about leaders who are corrupt—in this case, hypocrites. They say the right words, but “they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:3) They place heavy burdens on the people and “are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The look for honor and praise. They want to be addressed a the honorable this or the honorable that. (vss. 4-7)

If Paul wants to be seen as “father” (although we have no indication that he ever sought the title, “Father”), Jesus warns against using any honorific titles for leaders—not “rabbi,” not “teacher,” not “father,” not “instructor.” (vss. 8-10) We could puzzle over this one for some time. In the Fundamentalist circles of my childhood years, this was used to condemn the use of “Father” in addressing priests. Surely Jesus is not saying there should be no teachers, no priests, no instruction, etc. Paul’s letters talk about the variety of gifts we are given to be used for the building up of the church and world. I suspect that Jesus here is simply warning against using titles that give people power over us. His words can be read in the spirit of the Paul’s reminder that one gift is not better than another, not something to be used to say, “I am better than you. I have a more valuable ability.” And again, it is a call to see all gifts, all good leadership as coming from a deeper—more divine—place. (vs. 10)

The conclusion of the Gospel lesson confirms this emphasis upon a style of governance in which we all work together each applying his or her gift in service of the whole. It’s called servanthood, and it’s the only way we’re going to get out of this mess. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (vss. 11-12). No one ever said democracy was easy or efficient, but it is, I believe, the way that recognizes the divine is at work in each one of us. God’s leadership style is to give us all a stake in things. We bring what we have to the mix and it multiplies into something greater. No one else can get us out of this mess. It’s not magic, but it is a miracle of sorts. One of the most dramatic things I’ve observed in the Occupy Movement is their attempt to make decisions using some sort of consensus process in which each voice is heard. I’d like to think that God is looking on from some vantage point and smiling.

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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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