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Thursday, December 27, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 2:18-20, 26, Psalm 148:1-14, Colosians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52

Good parenting means taking care of one’s children—seeing that they are fed, clothed, sheltered, loved, etc. Parental concern can, of course, be excessive, but it usually arises from good instincts. It’s also true that events intervene—via gunshot, health issues, war, famine, etc.—reminding parents that they cannot provide complete protection and security. In such situations, the anguish of parents is but another reminder of that deep caring connection which is the source of great pain when it is broken.

In two of this week’s lectionary readings, we see concerned parents. The parallels between Mary and Hannah (Samuel’s mother) and the birth of Jesus and Samuel have long been noted. The only parallel in these two readings is the concern of parents. In I Samuel, chapter 2, we see a mother who faithfully makes “a little robe” for her son each year and takes it to him where he is serving the priest Eli. (I Samuel 2:18-19)

I’m not sure kids always enjoy receiving articles of clothing as gifts. I grew up in a culture of hand-me-downs. Clothes went from my older cousins to me and then back to younger cousins. Yes, somehow we made them last that long. I remember one Christmas my parents splurged and got me a brand new suit to wear to church. Those were the days when we “dressed up” to go to church—not just for other people but because we thought it somehow showed respect for God. When I opened the suit, my first question was, “Whose was it?” I didn’t know that clothes could be brand new or that I might be the first owner of some article of clothing. I still think I look pretty “spiffy” in pictures I have of me in that suit.

The Gospel lesson tells about an outing taken by Jesus’ family when he was 12 years old. They went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. (Luke 2:41-42) Traveling as a group of relatives and friends, children running this way and that, Jesus’ parents are on their way home before they notice that Jesus is missing. In our day, they probably would have been immediately “blamed” for losing him, but they knew what it was to be a whole “village” taking care of their children. The highlight of the story is probably where they found him, “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (vs. 46) It says, “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (vs. 47)

I suppose some parents might identify with the experience of having a precocious kid whose understandings moves beyond them. “ . . . they did not understand what he said to them,” we are told. (vs. 49) This week perhaps we can just note the important role of parents in Jesus’ life, in the life of any child. I once titled a sermon on this text, “Jesus Had Parents.” The story notes that Jesus went back home with his parents and “was obedient to them.” (vs. 51) There is also the touching observation showing us that Mary was a proud parent. She “treasured” the experience of watching her child grow, holding those shared times “in her heart.” (vs. 51)

At the end of each child’s story----Samuel and Jesus—we see growth. “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” (I Samuel 2:20) “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” (Luke 2:52) Isn’t that ultimately what parenting is about, encouraging and enabling our children to grow? Perhaps we can broaden it to talk about the role of adults and communities (including communities of believers) as they minister with and to children. Birth (and Christmas) is but a beginning. Notice that both children are described as growing in divine and human favor. Growing includes entering into fuller relationship with God and with those around us, learning how to get along in this world and in our connection with God—perhaps putting on new clothes with each passing season.

The epistle reading specifically talks about spiritual clothing. “ . . . clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12 & 14) Other verses spell out the details, speaking of forgiveness and peace and gratitude, ending with the admonition, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (vss. 13 & 15-17) I once preached a sermon titled simply, “Whatever.” What a powerful all-inclusive word.

Rather than dwell on the details right now, though, I want to call attention to Paul’s simple declaration in Galatians 3:27—“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Is it possible that the clothes so neatly gift-wrapped under the tree are Christ himself? I’m not sure whether the clothes he offers are hand-me-downs or not. If that means used and worn, I suspect not. These are clothes that give us a brand new chance. But if it means that they are part of his very being passed on (handed down) to us, maybe hand-me-downs will serve us quite well. And if it means that they come from one who had tested their durability on all the highways and byways of life, that probably adds to the value of the gift. Maybe now he has even become like Hannah, seeking to cloth his children. Look where thinking about parenting and clothes has taken us.

The Psalm doesn’t seem to address the theme of our reflections—or does it? If we think of all creation as part of the clothing God provides for us, we are apt to burst into a song of praise like the one we have in Psalm 148. Maybe we need to look beyond the gifts under the tree and look heavenward, thinking of all nature as a gift for which to be grateful—at Christmas time and all year. As I read it, these verses repeat the word, “praise,” thirteen times. In the story of Jesus’ birth as told by Luke, we read, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’”

Praise God for parents and clothing, for all things great and small, for the sustaining beauty of nature, for love embodied in a child, and in all relationships human and divine!
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Micah 5:2-5a, Psalm 80:1-7, Hebrews 10:5-10, Lke 1:39-55

Where do we look for the meaning of Christmas? In brightly decorated trees with flashing lights or in jovial belly-laughing Santas? Where does the world direct its adoration—not just at Christmas time but all year? Toward power brokers, sports heroes, and stars that populate the various entertainment media, or perhaps the winners of all the talent or reality shows—maybe even the Kardashians who seem to just be popular for being popular?

Many biblical texts, including some for the Sunday before Christmas, remind us to set our sights a little lower—where we may be surprised by seeing deeper and higher and farther. The effects of God’s transforming love may emanate from unexpected, off the beaten path, places.

Micah talks about “Bethlehem of Ephrathah . . . one of the little clans of Judah.” (Micah 5:2) In a prophecy which was later applied to Jesus, we are told of “one who is to rule Israel . . . He shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.” (vss. 2 & 4-5) Never forget that last part. He shall be one of peace, not a power-wielding dictator who sees the world as weak and powerless peoples to be dominated.

The Gospel lesson records a song sung by Mary as she celebrates the one to whom she will give birth. The story is prefaced by the touching story of Mary’s trip to visit Elizabeth who is also expecting a child. We are told simply that Elizabeth is a “relative.” Many of us grew up assuming they were cousins as is indicated in the King James Version of the Bible. (Luke 1:36) The child (John, the Baptist) in Elizabeth’s womb leaps when Mary arrives, and she says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me.” (vss. 41-44)

It is at this point that Mary begins to sing what has come to be called “The Magnificat” for its first line: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (vs. 46) Who would have expected great things to come from this humble peasant girl who speaks of herself in terms of “the lowliness of his servant”? (vs. 48) And what kind of child does she sing about? Is it one who is going to bow down before the power brokers and rich of the world? No, his concern is not for those who seem to loom large in the affairs of this world. The ones who are “proud in the thoughts of their hearts” are going to be scattered, and the powerful and rich are going to be brought down. The lowly are going to “lifted up” and the hungry will be fed. (vss. 51-53) This child born to a surprising mother in an unexpected place, whose very being is reminder that small things matter, will offer significance and purpose to all who have been held in contempt and abused by the powers that be.

It may be a stretch to connect the other two readings with this theme—but you know by now that I do a bit of stretching from time to time. The Psalm is a prayer by people who are feeling alienated, neglected, and put upon. (Psalm 80:1-2) They speak of their food and drink as “tears.” (vs. 5) People who are crying, though, have a right to have the Lord’s face shine on them. (vs. 7) In fact, it has been my experience that it is often those who have lived through times of deep trial that have the deepest faith, that find the power of God’s Love present in desparate times. I am more apt to trust such “little” people as guides to the meaning of life than I am to expect some powerful political orator to “save” me.

The reading from Hebrews continues to develop the theme of Jesus as one who lays down his life for us. In other biblical writings the emphasis is upon the “servant.” The one long-awaited, whether a king or savior or heavenly being, was sometimes described as a “suffering servant.” “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:11—See all of Isaiah 53) Israel itself is described as a servant who is “a light to the nations. (Isaiah 49:6—See also the entire chapter, especially vss. 3 & 5) Jesus, in Matthew 23:11, says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” In another place, he defines his ministry by says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) It may be noteworthy that Mary says, in the verse just before this Sunday’s Gospel reading, after the angel has told her about this unexpected birth, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1-38)

The Christmas message is about humble people who are willing to serve—even a savior who comes as a servant, a baby born in a manger. If we are to hear the message, we are called to look in unexpected places, and to live in unexpected places and ways. Christmas is not just about the family feasts for which we gather. It is about hungry people being fed and downtrodden people finding their worth. All these people in all these unexpected places—the message is that God is one of them—and, if we do not think too highly of ourselves—one of us.

Christmas has come! Christmas is coming! Christmas will come! “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

In what seems to be a footnote but may be the “heart” of the matter, I comment on two things that have permeated my thinking and feeling during the time I was writing this blog—the school shootings in Connecticut and my wife’s major back surgery. I don’t intend to put them on a par but both are events containing incredible pain. One is a tragedy; the other a road to healing. It would belittle both events to focus only on the good acts of people who have given above and beyond the call and duty in the midst of the pain and suffering. It would be equally irresponsible to ignore the many acts of kindness, even heroism, by the “little” people in such situations. I have been personally touched by the many who gave support and comfort to my wife and myself (in a healing process which is continuing to unfold well). Caregivers can surprise one at the most unexpected moment in the most unexpected ways. When that happens, the Christmas spirit breaks into unexpected places at unexpected times.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

When I presented the lectionary readings for this Sunday to our Tuesday morning breakfast, I suggested three at times overlapping themes for discussion: going home/experiencing restoration, joy and rejoicing, and how we live when we are in the midst of crisis. Each has a Christmas connection in our life experience. Christmas is a time when many go home or think about home and experience both the joys and conflicts that may be part of it. We sing “Joy to the World” and think of Christmas as a time of “happiness” and celebration. (As we passed the Pendleton Woolen outlet on our way to breakfast this morning their sign read, “Joy is a Gift of Pendleton.”) The birth we celebrate this time of year took place in a world in the midst of crisis. The child was heralded by some as the ushering in of a new age, with all the strains associated with the downfall of the old.

So we discussed unions and Fundamentalism and Socialism and universal health care and I don’t know what all else. I think at one point around our table of 13 there were at least four different dicussions going on. I’m not going to comment on how we got to all those places in our discussion.

As I listened and later reflected, I heard some longing for a time when belief was simpler and clearer. A number of us come out of more conservative—even fundamentalist—personal histories. (What we who are now in the more “progressive” stream of Christianity call “fundamentalism” is more varied than many of us are willing to admit—and doesn’t the term “progressive” have a hint of arrogance about it? Those variations sent me down another stream of thought which provides grist—to mix metaphors—for another blog.) We are so glad that we have moved on from that and that we have found a church which accepts us where we are and helps us grow into new understandings and expressions and experiences. Still, there are times when the shaking of the old foundations makes us long for solid ground on which to stand. Part of the appeal of the churches from which some of us have come is their clarity about authority. Coming at faith without that kind of authority can leave us in a place that seems ambiguous as our faith is constantly being reshaped.

Beyond explicitly “faith” questions, I think there are many who long for times when life didn’t seem so uncertain and shaky—if such times ever really existed. We live with “fiscal cliffs” and shifting world politics and changing understandings on what had seemed to be settled moral questions. Even when there are changes we celebrate, keeping up with the pace of change can be unsettling.
In the reading from Zephaniah I see the promise of restoration. Whether this “minor” prophetic writing which appears near the end of the “Old Testament” comes out of the turmoil associated with the succession of kings or from the later experience of exile makes little difference. The book claims that it is “the word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah, in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah.” (Zephaniah 1:1) Amon’s reign ended in less than two years with his murder. He was followed by Josiah who brought reform. Some suggest that Zephaniah was Josiah’s cousin. Wherever it fits in this or subsequent history, Zephaniah speaks of a time of restoration and going home. Sounds like a vision born out of exile to me. It is summarized in Zephaniah 3:20—“At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you, for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”

When things around us are shaking, maybe even crumbling, we long for the safety of some place we call “home.” We want what we may think of as the security of “the good old days.” (I recognize that not all have good images of “home” and some are glad to have “escaped” the good old days.)

Much of the Bible speaks of or addresses people who are living through the shaking of the foundations. Psalm 11:3 cries out, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Isaiah 24:18 speaks of a time when “the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.” In the Gospel reading for Sunday, John warns the people: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9) The end of the reading tells us that John with this and “many other exhortations . . . proclaimed the goods news to the people.” (vs. 18)

How this is “good news” is a question worthy considering, but what leaps out of the entire reading is the people’s response and how John answers them. They want to know what they should do. (vs. 10) In the midst of troubling times isn’t that a question many ask. We are looking for the clear and reassuring answers we were offered some time in the past. There must be some kind of singular answer that will cure all ills and make everything all right.

And what does John tell them? He tells them to go about their business with honesty and fairness and caring. If you have extra clothing or food, share it with others. (vs. 11) Don’t take advantage of people or be dishonest in your dealings with them. “ . . . be satisfied with your wages.” (vss. 12-14) Just because you’re going through a time of crisis doesn’t mean you have to give up your commitment to the ideals of peace and justice. Perhaps we can be the yeast that leavens the situation and helps bring new life to the whole. Remember that Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

There’s another thing we can do. We can rejoice. Without denying that there is crying and judgment and lots of other things, the Bible is full of rejoicing. Two of this Sunday’s readings speak of that joy. Isaiah promises a day when “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3) It exhorts us to “sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously . . . Shout aloud and sing for joy . . . for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” (vss. 6-7)

The joyous epistle of Paul to the Philippians is a testament to the triumph of attitude over circumstances. I don’t mean to be pollyannish, but there are always things for which we can be thankful. The epistle reading begins with words which have been put to music so that we have the delightful little chorus, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) My wife, Margie, who is living through a period of intense pain and awaiting surgery, says she loves to sing songs of joy because they help her endure. Joy doesn’t make the bad stuff go way. It doesn’t dispel the crises we may be living through personally or globally, but it lifts our spirits as we walk through difficult times. Thanksgiving dominates in the praying Margie and I do, even when the going is tough. Paul says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplications with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (vss. 6-7)

Whatever the route we have traveled, whatever days we remember (maybe even long for), what we have are these days. We can dwell upon and fear all the troubles that may be coming our way—or we can keep on living honestly, justly, peaceably, and caringly, singing songs of joy and thanksgiving. Christmas celebrated in that spirit is probably more in keeping with biblical history than is the shallow glitter and canned lyrical songs about reindeer and Mama kissing Santa Claus that surrounds our shopping at the mall weighed down by consumerism.
Thursday, December 06, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Baruch 5:1-9 OR Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-4

When I introduced this week’s lectionary texts at our Kairos-Milwaukie Tuesday morning breakfast, I thought we might give our attention to such things as “preparation” and “completion,” both at a personal and societal/political level. As sometimes happens, the discussion took an unexpected turn.

Before getting into that, let’s look a little bit at “preparation” and “completion.” In life there is always something ahead, something we are waiting for or hoping for, something we anticipate. Advent calls us to be particularly aware of that anticipation. It can be seen as a time of preparation. The thing toward which we are moving can also be seen as a point of completion. Life is moving toward something. Some purpose drives our living. We are seeking a sense of completion, a time when that purpose is fully realized. Both “preparation” and looking ahead to “completion” are part of the Advent experience. This week’s lectionary readings touch on both.

Now—let me tell you where the discussion went. The night before, the Portland Blazers NBA basketball team came from 18 points behind with 5 min. 17 sec. remaining to win the game 118-112 in overtime. It was the greatest comeback in Blazer history and most of us had watched it. Many of us are passionate fans and couldn’t keep the amazing game out of our discussion.. We made a little effort, not much, to try to tie it in with the lectionary readings—talking about what it takes to prepare for games like that, what it means to never give up hope, what it means to play “on the road” (in exile?) for seven games, etc. Mostly we just wanted to talk about the incredibly exciting game and victory.

Earlier the lectionary texts had stirred some reflections in my mind on lesser names in scripture and the supporting role they play. There are lots of such people in the Bible. There is Barnabas, known as “The Encourager.” One of my favorites is Tertius, who pops up at the end of Paul’s letter to Romans and says, “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” (Romans 16:22) Many of these helpers are unnamed, but each made an important contribution. After the basketball discussion, I thought about the importance of “assists” in that sport, important enough that “assists” are counted and kept as statistics which measure the contribution of each player to the game. The Blazers (and most teams) are at their best when there are lots of “assists.” The Blazers have a number of players who are pretty good at “assisting.”

Christmas, and living into the reality of the Good News, doesn’t happen alone. Even Jesus needed a few “assists.” If the hope of peace and justice is to come to “completion” it will take lots of people—some just a passing name in one verse of life, some unnamed, some widely known, even famous. That’s the connection I finally made—sometime after breakfast—between the texts and the table discussion this morning.

(There’s yet another direction discussion could have taken—a focus on the leveling of mountains and valleys. What is the significance of that image in the journey from beginning to middle to end? As I take a quick look at the various texts, I leave it to you to reflect on any or all of the above themes, or find another that speaks to you.)

Baruch (not in the Hebrew or Protestant scriptures) is included in the Catholic Bible. Baruch was Jeremiah’s scribe and, at times, spokesperson, one of those who provided an “assist” to someone more well-known. In Jeremiah 36:4-8, we read, “Then Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him. And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, ‘I am prevented from entering the house of the Lord; so you go yourself, and on a fast day in the hearing of the people in the Lord’s house you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation . . .’ And Baruch son of Neriah did all that the prophet Jeremiah ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the Lord in the Lord’s house.” Although the book of Baruch bears his name, it is generally thought that it was not written until about 100 years before Christ. The portion in this week’s lectionary is another vision of the hoped for restoration God would bring to people who were in exile or battling powerful enemies. It includes this statement:“God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,” an image that has come to be applied to preparation (and a sign of) the coming of the Messiah (Christ).

Malachi is the last book of what we call The Old Testament, a prophetic writing mainly addressing the importance of giving God what God is due in the form of sacrifices and tithes. Just a few verses beyond this week’s reading, we find these words; “Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, 'How are we robbing you?' In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse . . .” (Malachi 3:8-10) Even in the short reading from the lectionary we find reference to an “offering” that “will be pleasing to the Lord . . .” (vs. 4) It is the first verse that is commonly read in Advent, a verse of preparation. God says, “See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me . . .” They are to be prepared for judgment upon those who are robbing God. It will be a time of refinement and purification when justice is restored. (Vss. 2, 3, & 5)

We have two readings from Luke this week. The first is Zechariah’s ecstatic utterance upon the circumcision of his son, whom we know as John the Baptist or John, the Baptizer. John is another of those who “assists,” a figure overshadowed by the dazzling light of a star player. Zechariah articulates the vision of a reign in which “those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” will see light and be guided “into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79) Zechariah speaks to his son, saying, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” (vs. 76) Here is the one who prepares the way of the Lord. Indeed, in the other reading, when John begins his ministry, Luke writes, “He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’” (Luke 3:3-6)

Finally we have the reading from Philippians. Paul had a profound sense of connection with those who “assisted” in the work of the Gospel, never forgetting to thank them. “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:3-5) In terms of an Advent focus, I see verse six as central. “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion . . .” (vs. 6) Advent is a time for confident hope that the purposes of God will be fulfilled in us and in the world, that God’s will will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” I would also note that this reading moves on to a prayer which expresses the attitude that works in the heart of all who would truly give “assists” in the ball game of life. “ . . . this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best . . .” (vs. 9-10) It goes on to speak of a “harvest of righteousness” when all things come to completion.

May it be so, and may all of us recognize the importance of the “assists” of every player as we prepare and play and move to completion—even if the game goes into overtime.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, I Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

We Americans are not good at waiting—except perhaps standing outside a store awaiting Black Friday creep. As we begin a new church year, we enter Advent, a time of waiting. Even the church has at times jumped the gun on Christmas. We know the story. We know that Christmas is coming, that, in fact, it already came some 2000 years ago. So, along with the Christmas carols which crept up on us in some public places even before Thanksgiving, some want to begin singing them in worship.

The strength of the liturgical calendar is that it helps us relive the moods of the original flow of the events in biblical history. In the Bible, Christmas is the culmination of a long period of longing, or perhaps just the beginning of the culmination. I’m not suggesting, as is the habit of some, that all texts in the Bible anticipate and/or interpret Jesus, but many of them do express a deep longing. People are waiting, living in anticipation. Maybe we too need to do some of that waiting and anticipating. Advent is a time for that to happen, a time to slow down and consider the moods of waiting and what it is we are waiting for.

Like the stereotypical children in a car we may be tempted to cry out, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” It’s a cry that has been taken as an image of impatience, yet there’s a sense in which it was also the cry of those biblical ancestors who longed for something new to break forth. Waiting is not simply a passive activity. Some speak of “eagerly awaiting” something. Waiting is an attitude of anticipation. Something is coming. During Advent, let’s meditate on what it is we await and the feelings we experience while waiting.

Perhaps the lectionary readings for the first Sunday in Advent can give us some guidance.

At the core of much of the longing in the Hebrew scriptures is hope for a day of peace and justice and righteousness. In the reading from Jeremiah, there is the promise of a king who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 33:15) Sometimes the king was seen as a Messiah, one anointed by God to fulfill this hope, whether viewed as a king from the line of David (as mentioned in the first part of vs. 15) or “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” (Luke 21:27). Even after the birth and life and death of Jesus, there was (and is) still anticipation of better times, a fulfillment, to come—a “second coming.” We are still awaiting the full reign of peace and justice and righteousness. Perhaps Advent can be a time to refocus our commitment to that vision.

Psalm 25 can be understood in a similar context, but it has a different twist. It assumes enemies who are going to put the nation to shame. (Psalm 25:2) Like so many of us, it expresses a longing for a new start. “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.” (vs. 7) They are “waiting.” “Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame.” (vs. 3) They need guidance as they look ahead. “Lead me in your truth . . . for you I wait all day long.” (vs. 5) God “leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” (vs. 9) Perhaps Advent can be a time to ponder new starts and find a sense of direction.

I was particularly struck by the reading from I Thessalonians. Paul writes in anticipation of a time of reunion with those who are dear to him. “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face . . . may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.” (I Thessalonians 3:10-11)

Christmas for many is a time when family gathers. Margie’s and my children are scattered all over the world—Germany, Hawaii, West Virginia, Chicago, Maine. For a variety of reasons we are rarely able to share holidays, but most families can relate to waiting in the airport eagerly awaiting the arrival of friends or family so we can throw our arms around them in loving welcome. If we’re traveling to see them, we may be so eager to arrive that we cry out, “Are we there yet?”

In Paul’s case he is concerned about the spiritual and relational well-being of the Thessalonians to whom he is writing. He speaks of “whatever is lacking in your faith.” (vs. 10) He prays that the Lord may “make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” (vs. 12) He wants them to have strong hearts. (vs. 13) It is an amazingly intimate glimpse of the tenderness and concern in Paul’s heart. However we express it, like Paul, our love for family and friends means that we long for the best for them, for meaning and purpose in their lives. We parents are sometimes prone to think we know what is best for them. That’s not always true and we couldn’t impose it on them no matter how hard we tried. Advent, however, can be a time when we consider all the people who stir the intimate inner workings of our hearts.

One of the Hebrew words frequently translated “wait,” including in Psalm 25:3 &5, carries the connotation of coming together—“to bind together.” It also is seen as something we do “together.” It is a word of togetherness.

The Gospel lesson begins with one of those dramatic pictures of apocalyptic expectation. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and one the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26) We all know how such words are used, and I would say abused, by some. Maybe a tsunami or a storm ripping up the New Jersey coast and New York City shoreline are signs of judgment or of the end. Surely God is using them to get our attention.

I don’t think the biblical writers necessarily intended us to give such interpretations. Jesus himself seemed to see these as things that would happen in his generation (vs. 32), but he follows these images up with words in which I believe he is calling us to “pay attention.” At the heart of waiting is paying attention to what’s going on around us. Jesus speaks of the leaves on trees that signal the changing of the seasons. (vss. 29-31) What do the things that are happening around us mean?—not just the natural disasters but the neglect of the poor and the moments when our lives are touched with goodness. What meaning do we see in every moment of every day?

My outlook on life has been deeply influenced by Existentialism. As I’ve gotten older, it has become more apparent that the place where meaning is found is in this day and this moment. “Seize the day.” Margie and I have been going through what has seemed like a terribly long wait for surgery which will address her back pain. Again and again through that time we have been rediscovering that we simply have to live one day at a time and receive the gifts that are in that day.

In Luke, Jesus’ focus is less on the signs than upon our attitude while “waiting.” “Be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life . . . Be alert at all times . . .” (vss. 34-35) There’s much to be considered, maybe even debated, in those verses, especially before I have edited them down. In the light of my focus on the question, “Are we there yet?”, maybe they should remind us that in our eagerness to get wherever we are going, we may miss the possibilities that are in this moment, in this place, as we travel along in the pilgrimage that is our life. All of us experience the things that are fleeting in life (see vss. 32, 33, & 35), but Jesus reminds us that all that is true, all that has meaning, “will not pass away.” (vs. 33) As we travel through Advent, waiting, sometimes crying out “Are we there yet,” rushing to get to the joyous Christmas carols, let’s not forget to pay attention to every moment along the way, looking for signs and meanings and a divine presence walking with us.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 23:1-7 AND Psalm 132:1-18 OR Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 AND Psalm 93:1-5, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

The Christian liturgical year ends with a new heaven and a new earth and Christ sitting at the right hand of God reigning forever and ever—whatever that means! That, of course, is just one way of trying to express in human language what is inexpressible.

The final Sunday of the liturgical year (this coming Sunday) used to be called Christ the King Sunday, but those who are deeply committed to democracy have trouble relating to kings. Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ is a church where issues of justice are very important. Kings are often seen as the epitome of a system of oppression—as if deep differences of wealth and power did not exist also in “democracies.” Furthermore, where there are “kings” in the modern world they are often nothing more than figureheads in nations where everyday affairs are decided in some sort of more or less democratic fashion.

It’s no wonder that some have tried to soften the emphasis upon kingship and call this Sunday “Reign of Christ Sunday,”—in my mind largely a distinction without a difference. Its still about authority, a ruling person or principle. The question put before us is what rules or reigns in the cosmos, in the affairs of this world, in our lives?

Sometimes my attempts to make sense out of things drives me to definitions—which can also drive me to distraction, or insanity. Here are some definitions I found, offered here without comment, each perhaps shedding a little light on possible foci for Reign of Christ Sunday.

"Reign” is defined as “control or government.”
“Rule” may mean “a code of practice and discipline for a religious community,” “to exercise ultimate power over (a people or nation),” “exert a powerful and restricting influence on,” “pronounce authoritatively and legally to be the case.”

A “king” is defined as “the male ruler of an independent state, especially one who inherits the position by birth,” or “the best or most important person or thing in a sphere or group.”

A “kingdom” is “a country, state, or territory ruled by a king or queen,” “a realm associated with a particular person or thing,” or “the spiritual reign or authority of God.”

The word “reign” reminded my of “rein.” I wondered if there was any connection between the words. There’s not, that I could find—but I still found “rein” to be an illuminating word. A rein is “a long, narrow strap attached at one end to a horse's bit, used in pairs to guide or check a horse.” Often used in the plural, it may also mean “the power to direct and control.” As a verb it means, among other things, to “restrain.” I find it interesting that imagery related to the control of horses is occasionally applied to human beings. In Psalm 32:8-9, God says, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.” James 3:3 says, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.” (Actually, he’s talking about the power of the tongue, but perhaps the verse can be applied to wider understandings of governance.)

Such definitions give us lots to chew on as we consider the readings for Reign of Christ Sunday, all of which are part of a focus on kingship. The first two are about the end of the reign of David, the highest image of a king in Hebrews history, yet even his reign was not without its troubles and shortcomings. II Samuel offers one version of “the last words of David.” (II Samuel 23:1) He thinks highly of his reign. A good king “rules over people justly . . .” (vs. 3) His rule is “like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” (vs. 4) “Is not my house like this with God?” David asks. (vs. 5) Not exactly humble, is he? And all those on the other side, “are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.” (vs. 7) Did David have an enemies list? Power so often has difficulty tolerating any opposition. The reading from Psalm 132 also reflects, not too humbly, on David’s reign as well.

Psalm 93 rises to higher ground, declaring the “the Lord is king.” We could get into the whole history of Israel’s desire for a king and God’s trying to remind them who their king really was. Why are we human beings so ready to hand authority over to human leaders whether they be kings, presidents, senators and representatives, family patriarchs, or others too numerous to name?

Jesus, in the Gospel lesson, tries to point us to authority that functions on a different dimension. He is asked by Pilate if he is “King of the Jews.” (John 18:33) Although he says, “You say that I am a king” (vs. 37), it is only after he has said, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (vs. 36) His answer leaves us with lots of questions and room for speculation and interpretation, but it is clear throughout his teachings that he called us to live in a kingdom which wasn’t based on traditional political authority. It was among others things within. He called us to consider what rules at the very center of our being.

There are two more readings this week, both from apocalyptic readings about the consummation of all history. Without getting into the details of various interpretations (many of which jump way beyond the original context of the writings), we have the picture a divine being who is “given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:14) In Daniel he is “one like a human being,” taken by many Christians to mean Jesus. (vs. 13) In the reading from Revelation he is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” (Revelation 1:4) He has “made us to be a kingdom.” Stated in the form of a benedictory prayer, it says, “to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (vs. 6)

As I tried to get a handle on all this king talk, I thought of a modern colloquialism, often expressed emotionally, which says something or someone “rules.” Rick “rules.” Love “rules.” It’s not a phrase I use and I’m not sure of its meaning or use, so I decided to try to find out about it on the Internet. I got lots of list of rules but no clear discussion that helped me. Finally I found this exchange on Yahoo Answers. Someone notes that “in Ugly Betty, Justin said that Betty rules. What does it mean?” The first answer is, “When someone says ‘You rule’ it's a compliment, like ‘You're awesome’ or ‘You did really well.’ It's a pretty common phrase, perfectly acceptable to use in everyday conversation. It's also interchangeable with ‘You rock.’” Another answer says, “It's an expression of admiration for someone who is an effective leader.”

It probably trivializes the majesty of kingship, and talk about power that keeps the cosmos on course, to lay it alongside the everyday comment, “You rule.” Maybe, however, when concepts are beyond the reach of the most sophisticated of theories, we can understand them in a way that captures the awe and respect we sometimes feel in the presence of even another human being. Perhaps when we are not able to easily connect with the image of “king,” we can consider crying out, “God rules” as a declaration of our awe and admiration for all that a loving God as seen in Jesus and his teaching means to us.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures:
For Sunday: I Samuel 1:4-20 AND I Samuel 2:1-10 OR Daniel 12:1-3 AND Psalm 16:1-11, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8
For Thanksgiving Day: Joel 2:21-27, Psalm 126:1-6, I Timothy 2:1-7, Matthew 6:25-33

I’ve including the Thanksgiving Day readings because many congregations may celebrate this Sunday as Thanksgiving Sunday, the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day.

I have been reading Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1945. The 1992 edition contains Frankl’s reflections on his “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” (with particular emphasis upon psychological responses to those experiences), “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” and “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.” Logotherapy is an approach to psychology which seeks to understand how and where people find meaning and help them to discover their own meaning and purpose. More than once Frankl quotes the words of Nietzche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” Harold Kuchner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, in the foreword to the 1992 edition, summarizes Frankl’s key insight in this way: “The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.”  Along with Frankl’s emphasis upon hope and meaning, he discovered in the concentration camps a thankfulness for what he calls “the most trivial of comforts.”

In considering this week’s readings, let’s reflect on where we find meaning and purpose and hope and what elicits a thankful spirit within us.

In the story of Hannah from I Samuel, the meaning of life revolves around children and their possible impact upon the future. In a society where children were a measure of your eternal worth, Hannah is unable to provide her husband, Elkanah, with such a heritage. Hannah is distraught. Her life seems to have no meaning and she carries on in a way that makes Eli, the priest, think she’s drunk. (vss. 10-16) Finally he grants her petition for a child and Samuel is born. (vss. 17-20) The reading from the second chapter of Samuel is much like Mary’s song in the New Testament, the exultation of a mother who connects her son with a time of peace and justice. Sometimes we have such high hopes for our children! They will arise and take this messy world and be part of the building of something new and beautiful. We find in such births and visions hope and meaning.

Psalm 16 and the reading from Hebrews seem to find meaning in forgiveness and mercy and closeness to/intimacy with God. “I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices . . . You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy . . .” (Psalm 16:8-9 & 11) Hebrews, chapter 10, continues the emphasis upon Jesus as our high priest, “for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (vs. 14 and the verses that precede it) This week’s reading specifically lifts up forgiveness. The Holy Spirit says, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” (vs. 17) Such forgiveness means we can live with “confidence,” approaching God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean . . . Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” (vss. 19-23) We find meaning and are able to move ahead in hope because the burden of being judged for every move we make has been removed.

We are into the season of the church year when the emphasis is upon the consummation of history, on a time when God will bring fruition to all things. Writings full of symbolism and omens, called apocalypses, speak of battles between good and evil. “Apocalypse” is a word from the Greek which means to uncover or reveal. Daniel and Revelation are two such writings. This week’s readings include a short section from Daniel, including the words: “There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered . . . Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life . . .” (Daniel 12:1-2)

Many have used such apocalyptic writings to predict and give dates to a precise sequence of specific events—often with a great deal of disagreement about the events. Someone, after reading the book of Revelation, said simply, “I’ve read the last chapter. God wins!” Most people of faith believe that good is ultimately stronger than evil. In the face of much evidence to the contrary, we believe that good ultimately prevails. It is in such beliefs, interpreted in esoteric detail or broadly held as a view of how life works, that are a source of hope and meaning for many.

The Gospel reading for this Sunday stands in the apocalyptic tradition, the 13th chapter of Mark often called “The Little Apocalypse.” The reading ends with images of “wars and rumors of wars,” of nation rising against nation, of earthquakes and famines, and this is just the beginning. (Mark 13:7-8) This week I just want to call attention to the prediction of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. (Mark 13:2) The destruction of the temple would have threatened meaning for many. It verged on taking God away from them. How many of us pin our hopes and meanings to buildings and places?

In talking about hopes and meanings we may also look at the things for which we give thanks. The lectionary readings for Thanksgiving Day show us some of the things for which people often give thanks.

The reading from the book of Joel speaks of a time of abundance which will come upon the people. “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.” (Joel 2:26, and the preceding verses) Psalm 126 also anticipates and rejoices in restored fortunes. (See vss. 1 & 4) “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced . . . Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (vss. 3 & 6)

The reading from I Timothy speaks less of the content of our thanksfulness as it does about making “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings . . . for everyone.” (I Timothy 2:1) It’s interesting that included among “everyone” are “kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (vs. 2) Much to unpack in that if we were to dig into the historical context and the place of the Christians of that day in the society around them.

So much of our thanksgiving focuses upon our abundance and physical blessing, the people around us, the political leaders we favor, etc. Are we able to lift up our leaders in prayer (and not prayers of condemnation) after the recent election?

The Gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day reminds us that so much of what we worry about, and for which we give thanks, is transitory. Jesus, in Matthew, chapter 5 (part of what we call “The Sermon on the Mount”), tells us not to worry about such things. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (vs. 25) If we were to go beyond the defined reading, we would come to verse 34: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” In our giving thanks, perhaps we need to focus on this day, this moment, receiving it and living into it in a spirit of thanksgiving. In such moments, perhaps we will discover that we have all we need, an abundance of the spirit we almost missed noticing.

Hope and meaning can sometimes seem elusive, so difficult to find and define. May our attention in this season of Thanksgiving turn to things of deep meaning and lasting significance.
Wednesday, November 07, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 AND Psalm 127:1-5 OR I Kings 17:8-16 AND Psalm 146:1-10, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

There are lot of widows in the Bible—over 100 references to “widow” or “widows.” They are often linked with “orphans.” In biblical times, they received no inheritance or social security check. When a widow’s husband died, she could be as abandoned as a child who was orphaned.

Widows, specific and general, are mentioned in several of this week’s lectionary readings. They are people to be cared for. As in the case in modern society when there are those who need care, debates go on about two possibilities: 1. It is a responsibility to be undertaken by the family. 2. The church or society need to organize some way to provide services to such people. Both forms of service and care existed in biblical times as they do today.

Pastor Rick, in his benediction at the end of worship each Sunday morning, usually tells us to “Go out and take care of one another.” Looking at scriptures about widows and orphans can call us to think about and figure out how to care for one another. Even today, widows may find themselves impoverished, deprived of companionship, not feeling like they fit into the social networks that used to sustain them—but we also can look at the wider framework of need and response in and through family and social reality, including the church. Do widows and others with social needs find inclusion and support in the church, or do they feel alienated and isolated? Both can happen.

The lectionary continues this week with the story of Naomi, and her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth. After they become widows, Naomi decides to return to her homeland, Judah. Ruth, in a dramatic display of loyalty, insists on accompanying her. One common avenue to security for widows was to remarry. Jewish Law even provided a framework for that. The deceased husband’s brother was to take the widow as his wife. Ruth, a foreigner, is not part of that framework, but Naomi says to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” (Ruth 3:1) Naomi identifies a relative who may rise to the occasion, Boaz. (vs. 2) Ruth is sent to lie with him on the threshing floor. “Uncover his feet and lie down;” Naomi says to Ruth, “feet” being a euphemism for genitals. “He will tell you what to do.” (vss. 3-4)

Boaz and Ruth bear a child who is seen as a great blessing to Naomi. “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age.” (vs. 15) Naomi more or less adopts him into her Jewish culture and family, becoming “his nurse.” (vs. 16)

This story is included in the Bible, I suspect, mainly because this child, Obed, is the grandfather of David, which also makes him an ancestor of Jesus. Somebody looked at David’s birth certificate and found that the line had been contaminated by a foreigner. The story tells us that even foreigners can have faith and be included. It is one of several Old Testament stories that tell us that God’s love is bigger than tribal lines, that even redemption can come from the womb of a foreigner. It also underlines the Old Testament view that blessing comes to us through our children. They are the sign of our immortality.

Psalm 127 certainly picks up that theme. “Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has a quiver full of them.” (Psalm 127:3-4) Although the Psalm is not about widows, it is about the importance of family connections. Family connections, at their best, are a source of sustenance and blessing, bringing us close to God as well as to one another. Not all families realize that potential, but the first verse of the Psalm holds up an ideal: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who built it labor in vain.” I’m also aware that sons were more highly valued than daughters. Although we still often fall short of full equality between the sexes, today most of us see daughters as a blessing equal to that of sons.

The larger picture in this week’s blog is taking care of one another in families and beyond. It can even be one way of looking at why we are here, of what families and churches and social connections have as their purpose. It takes a village. We are here, at least in part, to take care of one another.

The story in I Kings involves another widow, a widow who is called upon out of her limited means, to offer care for one of God’s prophets. Elijah, having been cared for by God through a time of drought, finds that the spring which has sustained him has dried up. (I Kings 17:1-7) God tells him, “Go now to Zarephath . . . and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” (vss. 8-9) Elijah goes and asks the woman, who remains nameless, for bread and water. (vss. 10-11) This widow, who has a son, calls attention to her own poverty. “I have . . . only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go him and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” (vs. 12) Elijah insists on being fed, promising that “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” (vss. 13-14) I’m not sure whether the story is about the promise that God will provide or the seeming miracle of the provisions which don’t run out. If we went a little further in the story, we would find another miracle. The widow’s son apparently dies and Elijah brings him to life again. (vss. 17-23)

There’s yet another miracle I’d like to focus upon. It is that this woman living on the margins of existence is presented as one who has something to give. She is a source of blessing to this one who is called “a man of God.” She trusts what must have seemed like a pie-in-the-sky promise and gave what little she had. She is not unlike the widow praised by Jesus in this week’s Gospel reading. She comes to the temple where Jesus sees her put into the treasury “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” (Mark 12:41-42) His comment: “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury, for all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (vs. 43-44) Having grown up on the margins of poverty, I have also viewed with wonderment the generosity I have seen among the poor. Here, after having berated the scribes for devouring “widows’ houses,” Jesus sees widows (and others in poverty) not just as those to be “helped” but as people who have something to give, a contribution to make in this process of taking care of one another.

That leaves only a reading from Hebrews and another Psalm. We’ll skip the few verses from Hebrews this week, having in previous weeks explored the theme of Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice. The Psalm is one which speaks of God’s concern for those in need, including the declaration that “he upholds the orphan and widow.” (Psalm 146:9—see also vss. 7-8)

Verse three of this Psalm says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” As I write, it is election day. Reading this verse anew helped me reassure myself that whichever candidate wins it will not be the end of everything I have valued and held dear. Many of the words that have been slung through the air, by both sides, might have us believe that, but I’ve lived long enough, seen enough candidates and presidents (some of whom I intensely disliked) come and go, to know better.

Still, part of the way I will evaluate the results of this election is how widows and others in need are treated. Both candidates have shown a pattern of personal care for such people, although one leans more toward family and church solutions and the other sees a larger role for government. I admit I’m concerned about how all that gets worked out in policy, but, beyond all the immediacy of such political issues, I have confidence that “the Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 146:10)
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures:
All Saints Day: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 OR Isaiah 25:6-9 AND Psalm 24:1-10, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
Sunday, Nov. 4, if not celebrated as “All Saints Sunday”: Ruth 1:1-8 AND Psalm 146:1-10 OR Deuteronomy 6:1-9 AND Psalm 119:1-8, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34

The lectionary offers a set of readings for Sunday, Nov. 4, if it is not celebrated as All Saints Sunday. If it is, then the lectionary readings for All Saints Day (Nov. 1) are to be used. Of course, in the free church tradition we are not bound by any particular set of readings so we’ll just have to come on Sunday and find out what happens.

The various optional lectionary texts are numerous and diverse enough that I’ll suggest three topics for exploration with questions and suggestions in each category. In some way, I see them all as calling us to consider “Things of Enduring Significance”.

In the readings for Sunday, Nov. 4, I see a focus on the principles upon which we build our lives. What are the enduring values, and what the Bible sometimes calls commandments or laws, that are worth living and dying for? What principles and values hold the universe, and human relationships in particular, together?

In the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Ten Commandments, recorded among other places in the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, provide a framework for living in full relationship and harmony with God and one another. The next chapter, from which one of this Sunday’s readings is taken, can be read as a summary of the content and significance of those commandments. The summary, a centerpiece of Jewish worship, is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “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.” The Hebrew people (and we?) are instructed to immerse ourselves in the truth of the commandments and to pass their values on to future generations. “Keep these words . . . in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them . . . 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.” (vss. 6-9)

While the external symbols may seem a bit much to some of us, they remind us of how important it is to have things that keep us rooted and grounded in values that endure. In the church of my childhood, I remember that one would not think of walking to church without carrying one’s Bible. The Bible was visible in a prominent place in the home, and no other book was ever placed on top of it. Those were empty rituals, to be sure, if one did not keep the words in one’s heart, but what are the rituals in our lives today that remind us to pay attention to and live by enduring values and principles?

In the Gospel lesson from Mark Jesus draws upon Deuteronomy in presenting his summary of the commandments. He is asked by a scribe to identify the two most important commandments. Jesus first quotes directly from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 about loving God with all one’s being. (Mark 12:28-31) Then he adds, from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) It’s amusing that the scribe sees himself in a position to pat Jesus on the head (well, not literally) and tell him he got the answers right. (Mark 12:32) When the scribes repeats the answers back to Jesus, Jesus returns him the compliment and says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (vs. 34)

Psalm 119, a long chapter which extols the virtues of God’s commandments, laws, statutes, and precepts, offers these words in the lectionary readings for today: “Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart . . . O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!” (vss. 2 & 5)

If principles and values, commandments and laws, are one place to look for things that endure, relationships are another. The four act drama recorded in the short book of Ruth is about enduring relationships that cross lines of tribal identity. A family from Bethlehem in Judah (the heartland of Jewish identity) travel to the country of Moab. They are Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. (vs. 2) Elimilech dies and the two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. (vss. 3-4) Naomi and her two daughters-in-law are left alone when Naomi’s two sons die. (vs. 5) When Naomi decides to return to her homeland, her two daughters-in-law insist that they are going with her. (vss. 6-10) Naomi tries to send them back, but Ruth refuses (vss. 11-15), declaring her heartfelt commitment in those words familiar to many: “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there I will be buried.” (vss. 16-17) If we read to the end of the story, we would find that Ruth marries and is part of the line of Jesus ancestry with her name listed in Matthew 1:5.

For now, it is sufficient to reflect on the relationships that endure in our lives. What lines are we prepared to cross in the name of loyalty? What legacy comes from the relationships to which we are loyal?

If principle and values and relationships are among the things that endure, religion has always addressed the enduring significance of human life itself—often in terms of an afterlife. All of the readings from All Saints Day, a day when we remember those who have gone on before us, have a perspective on the endurance of life.

The Wisdom of Solomon speaks of peace and immortality. “ . . . the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God . . . they are at peace . . . their hope is full of immortality.” (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-4) Isaiah presents a picture of “all peoples” gathered for “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Isaiah 25:6) Death is swallowed up forever (vs. 7) and “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” (vs. 8) The book of Revelation, speaking of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1), picks up the same theme. “ . . . he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (vs. 4) Note that the picture here is of God dwelling “among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” (vs. 3) This vision of new beginnings sounds less like some ethereal heaven than God entering into the lives of human beings—perhaps something like the kingdom of heaven in our midst that Jesus sometimes spoke of. John, chapter eleven, the story of the death of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, offers the image of resurrection as a way of overcoming death. (John 11:44) Various elements of the story cry for attention (Jesus relationship with Mary and Martha (vss. 32-33 & 39-40), Jesus’ tears (vss. 33 & 35), Jesus words, “Unbind him and let him go,” (vs. 44), as well as the parallels between this story and Jesus’ own resurrection), but for now I include it as another perspective on life as something that endures.

All these readings call us to reflect on what our hope is with regard to the endurance of our lives, the principles and values that we have lived for, the mark of living and dying makes upon the world. And, as we celebrate All Saints Day, what of those who have gone before us?
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Job42:1-6, 19-17 AND Psalm 34:1-22 OR Jeremiah 31:7-9 AND Psalm 126:1-6, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10: 46-52

I grew up with a significant extended family. We gathered regularly for special occasions, large family feasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas, for instance. Most of us lived near enough to one another that the cousins played and fished, even double-dated, together. Our best friends were often family members, and even if not viewed as the closest of friends, they were assumed to be part of the regular dynamic of our life. That kind of family connectedness is rare these days, especially as we have become separated by great geographical distance and blended families have become more common.

I also grew up in a small town were it seemed liked everybody knew everybody else. All the business people on main street knew who we were. Only a hardware store owner who knew little 5-year old Jimmie Ogden would understand when he came in to buy a half pint of red paint as a Christmas present for his mother.

We lived on one side of the city park which was two blocks on each side. We knew who lived in every house around that park and the kids met in the middle to swim in the pool, swing on the swings, play hide and seek in the woods.

I’m not sure many grow up with the kind of sense of community today.

Some would suggest that I’m just an old fogey who ignores the movement of community onto the internet. I wonder, though, whether short tweets or text and e-mail messages where one never hears the inflections of voice or varieties of facial expression can fully stand in for the kind of community I have experienced as I’ve connected with and worked and played with various groups throughout my life. Can such a medium bear the weight of human joy and sorrow, hope and despair, handholding and meaning-building that constitute the community many of us long for? While I’m fully ready to aknowledge that the internet has facilitated connections undreamed of a few decades back, rallying people to thought and action in astounding ways, I wonder if it has also contributed to the lack of civility that rants and raves its way through so much of human discourse. I don’t know. I know that the human heart longs for connection. We were not meant to be alone. The popularity of the internet is partly fueled by that desire for connection.

My reflection on that desire is triggered by this week’s lectionary readings and the discussion of them that occurred during the weekly breakfast gathering that brings together some of the Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ folk at Mehri’s Café. They made me think about restoration, reparation, restitution, even forgiveness, which is a form of restoration.

What is the nature of the restoration we seek? In the reading from Job, after his long time of testing and trial we are surprised to find that “the Lord restored” his “fortunes . . . and gave Job twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42: 10) Many biblical scholars believe this account of restoration is the addition of a later editor who just couldn’t stand to have the story end with Job finding some kind of resolution in the midst of his humbled estate. It takes away, in my opinion, from a message which can help people see that the meaning of life is not in the wealth to which they at times cling so tightly. Nevertheless, this added ending points to one kind of restoration.

The reading from Jeremiah speaks of the restoration of a homeland. The scattered people of Israel at brought “from the land of the north . . . from the farthest parts of the earth.” (Jeremiah 31:8) “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back . . .” (vs. 9) Psalm 126 celebrating the same restoration says, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” (Psalm 126:2)

Land cannot be the last measure of restoration. History traces the movement of peoples into territories already occupied by others, or the exercise of a forced sovereignty over those who have been unjustly treated. How do oppressed and oppressor ever find healing for what happened as Europeans rolled over the natives that occupied the Americas, or to Africans (and others throughout history) who were forced into slavery, or Jews who were victims of Nazi holocaust, or Japanese-Americans who were placed in Detention Centers? Demands have been made and responses have attempted to pay reparations or make restitution, but restoration of trust and relationship and equity is difficult to come by.

The book of Hebrews gives a deep theological interpretation to the whole question of restoration, seeing Jesus as a high priest who restores all the brokeness of our lives and relationships “once for all when he offered himself” as the ultimate sacrifice. (Hebrews 7:27) I don’t intend to try to take us through the writer’s logical argument right now. The verse I have quoted might cause us to ask whether restoration is an ongoing process or something that happens only once. While the overall flow of the biblical narrative is from innocence to fall to restoration and consummation, I’ve come to see these things much more as an onoging process than a sequence of events. Restoration, like forgiveness, is something that happens on seventy-times seven, or more, occasions. Restoration is a daily experience, if we open ourselves to it.

The Gospel lesson points us to the restoration of sight. I don’t want to dismiss the literal restoration of physical sight, but as one who is not physically blind (and most of us are not) I have to look at the possible deeper meaning of seeing. Zen Buddhism says that the meaning of life is to see. Jesus talks about people with eyes who cannot see. Do we need our vision restored so that we can see the world around us, see the paths in which Jesus would have us walk?

It’s a rich story that is told about this blind beggar. The disciples try to keep him from bothering Jesus, but Jesus asks to speak with him. (Mark 10:46-49) Jesus does not, however, say, “I’m here to restore you. I have the solution to your problems.” He asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (vs. 51) The man’s healing begins with his recognition of his need.

Our breakfast discussion took us down the path of exploring the need for restoration of community. Relationships of all kind are broken in our world. We don’t connect with one another. Job’s story can be read as an experience in losing the extended community of which he was a part, his family. The friends who try to comfort him are not much help. They don’t take the time to listen and feel his pain. So the restoration that amazes us, and offends some, can be read as the restoration of community. The blind beggar can be seen as one who is alienated from the community, who has no community of support. Even the disciples’ initial response is one of exclusion. Jesus, on the other hand, reaches out to include him.

The need for community seems to be deep within us, whether we are seeking justice or sharing of joys and sorrows, moments or intimate friendship, or forgiveness and healing because of some inner torment or hateful act. Restoration, the breakfast group decided, can only happen when we work hard to establish relationships across lines of separation and open ourselves to God’s presence and action in those relationships. Acts of reparation and resitution, confession and forgiveness, may grow out of such relationships, but it begins with asking questions of one another and listening to the responses and experiences we have to share.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Job38:1-7, 34-41 AND Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c OR Isaiah 53:4-12 AND Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-35

The longer I live, the more I realize how much I don’t know—and how much of what I know, I don’t understand. I grew up in a tradition, both religious and secular, where it was assumed we knew the answers, or at least could and should.  I still am a seeker after truth, both religious and scientific, but there’s much more awareness of the “seeker” part of it. I appreciate every bit of enlightenment that comes my way, but I will never know or understand the whole of the mystery that is God and creation and humanity.

There’s a whole approach to religion and religious experience that focuses on mystery. It’s called mysticism. God is not found in our words and intellectual systems, but in the experience of God’s presence beyond those words and systems.

A book with which many mystics find affinity is the anonymous 14th century writing, The Cloud of Unknowing. It proposes that the only way to truly "know" God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of "unknowingness," at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God. It counsels the seeking of God through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. William Johnston summarizes the books message as follows: "God can be loved but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts. So less thinking and more loving."

I’m not ready to give up all thinking, nor are most mystics, but, like Job, I at times need to be reminded of the limits of my sometimes arrogant claim to knowledge and understanding. In this week’s lectionary reading from Job, after Job has endured lengthy counsel from his friends as they try to enlighten him in the midst of his complaints, God enters the conversation, speaking out of a whirlwind. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God asks, wanting to know whether Job was there at the beginning of creation, “when the morning stars sang together . . .” (Job 38:1-7) God fires question after question as God challenges Job. “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” (vs. 36)

A scientist hearing God’s questions might say, “Well, we have answers to some of those questions. And we’re working on others. We’ve come close to looking into the very moment when the universe exploded into existence.” God’s challenge, however, is not so much about all the specifics. It’s a reminder of how much we don’t know or control, a reminder that sometimes we need to look at and experience the mystery that is life and respond in complete awe.

That’s what the Psalmist does in Psalm 104. His observations of the natural world parallel the list of God’s questions to Job, ending with a cry of praise, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures,” and, a few verses later, “Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 104:24 & 35)

Next week I'll have before me a reading from Job that takes us to the mystical core of the book. In Job 42:3-5, Job responds to the God who speaks out of the whirlwind : “ . . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you . . .”

We are often full of words. I fill up this blog with words every week. We gather on Sunday and hang on the words of Pastor Rick as he challenges and inspires us. In contrast to many churches, including the kind I grew up in, our words often convey an awareness of and openness to mystery.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent that in our approach to Jesus. In my early years we had formulas that we repeated to describe what Jesus had done for us. Give them credit; those formulas were linked with a life-changing inner experience. Then came years of struggle to find interpretations that satisfied the mind, words that could capture the overwhelming reality of a gracious love which seemed to fill life and its relationships at times.

The one at the heart of Christianity is not a sports hero, an entertainment star, a general leading the troops into battle. As much as I have enjoyed Jesus Christ, Superstar, I find that image alien to the reality of the Jesus I encounter in the New Testament. I’m much more fond of the Jesus in Godspell, but it is not a playful friend we find in Isaiah.

Isaiah, in one of this week’s readings, talks about one we have come to call a “Suffering Servant.” The writer may have had in mind a particular king or perhaps he saw the entire nation as the servant he was describing. The description came to be associated with the anticipated Messiah and thus with Jesus himself. Isaiah 53 paints a picture of one who suffers for the sins of others, one who gives himself, at great cost, to bring healing. “ . . . he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; . . . by his bruises we are healed.” (vs.5) What foolishness. We see God at work in such a person? Why can’t we just admire and try to emulate a superhero?

The Gospel lesson, though, makes it clear that servanthood is the way to which we are called. It’s built into the very structure of reality. James and John are after positions of privilege. (Mark 10:37) Jesus says that all he can guarantee them is the way of a servant. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant . . .” (vss. 42-43)

Did you ever hear anything so foolish? I can’t find words that take away the foolishness and mystery of such truth. All I can do is try to (or open myself to) experience and live into the mystery that is behind and beyond all the words.

In this election season we might note that this “suffering servant” is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus or calling us to live as servants. This “suffering servant” was seen as a king, a king who was defined by his giving spirit in relation to his people. What candidate for president or other public office would be ready to define himself or herself as a “suffering servant”?

The book of Hebrews presents Jesus as a high priest. A high priest, we are told, is one who “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” (Hebrews 5:2) If that’s the model for a high priest, what does it say about Jesus? Jesus is called “a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” (vs. 10) Melchizedek was a king/priest who gave his blessing to Abraham. (See Genesis 14:18-19 & Psalm 110:4) Here’s a leader who is a compassionate priest. In God’s order rulers do not “lord it over” others. (Mark 10:42) “ . . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” (vs. 43)

Finally, it’s almost as if Psalm 91 has been thrown in to confuse us. People in biblical times struggled with various images of leadership just as much as we do. They wanted someone to come and rescue them and keep them safe, one who had “the Most High” as a “dwelling place.” (Psalm 91:9) Many words have been written and spoken through the ages about what constitutes an ideal leader. It’s a worthy conversation, but the most important realities are often beyond words. The mystics invite us into “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Those who want their truths tied up in neat packages are hesitant to accept the invitation. The mystics claim that it is in that cloud that we may see more clearly than we’ve ever seen before.

Isn’t it interesting that “the cloud” has become what seems to many of us to be sort of a mystical place of information storage in cyberspace? Whatever the nature of the cloud, wherever it is, there’s lot more to life than meets the eye, and there’s a lot more to Jesus than what can be contained by language, verbal, written, or digital.
Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Job 21:1-9, 16-17 AND Psalm 22:1-5 OR Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 AND Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

Every Tuesday morning at 8:30 A.M. we gather at a small neighborhood café for breakfast and . . . What comes after the “and” is unpredictable. There are usually ten or fifteen of us—members and friends of Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ—mostly lay people. I often suggest one or more themes for possible discussion. When I stop, I never know what’s going to happen.. Some weeks the concerns at the top of our minds or overflowing from our hearts leap out and carry us forward into a time of sharing. Some weeks the lectionary triggers deep spiritual/theological discussion.

This morning was a “surprise” week. I suggested discussing “the absence of God,’ not abstractly, but as a experiential reality. Saints through the ages, and as we will see (if we don’t already know) biblical writers, went through those times when it seemed as if they had been abandoned by God. “Where are you God?”, they cried out. “What are the things that happen that lead to that feeling of abandonment?”, I asked.

We spun our wheels with a few attempts to offer observations and then there was a surprising turn. Someone grabbed hold of a passing phrase in Mark 10:19. Jesus is reminding someone (usually referred to as the rich young ruler) of some of the commandments, one of which is “Honor your father and mother.” Those five words became a foil for a mother struggling with relationships with her adult children. She wanted to hear what we all had experienced in relationships with our parents and children. All of us talked about the difficulty in maintaining intimacy in some of those relationships. Sometimes parents don’t feel loved or honored by their children. Sometimes children feel controlled and unloved by their parents.

As I sat through, and participated in, the discussion, I found myself feeling like this was a week when we’d left the lectionary (except for the tenuous connection with this one verse) and dealt with needs that begged for attention right now in this moment of gathering with others on the road of life. As the discussion died down, though, I realized that we’d been dealing with the heart of my suggested theme, in very concrete terms where life is lived.

This week’s lectionary readings include a look at what it feels like when our relationship with God is not what we had hoped for. Relationships are fragile whether we’re talking about God or parents and children or families or friends. It’s not uncommon for one or more parties to a relationship to feel abandoned, to wonder whether the other loves him or her.

Sometimes it feels like someone in the relationship “hangs up” on the other. We’re talking on the phone and suddenly there’s no one there—figuratively if not literally—experientially if not objectively. The reference to “hang ups” in the title also calls attention to the fact that we all live with “hang ups”—foibles, quirks, short-comings, even lapses of civility—as we go through life and try to maintain relationships.

Wherever you go from this week’s lectionary readings, here’s a quick look at them.

Whoever called Job “patient” didn’t read very carefully. Today’s reading from chapter 23 is only one of the places where his “complaint is bitter.” (vs. 2) He wants to lay his case before God (vs. 4), but he can’t find God. “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him . . . If only I could vanish is darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!” (vs. 8-9 & 17) Job feels abandoned. These are not the words of a patient man, but of a man in anguish, and the Bible includes his cries in its depiction of the human struggle. There are times in life when we cannot move ahead without sharing our deep agony with our friends—although Job, in this case, didn’t find his friends too helpful.

The portion of Psalm 22 offered in this week’s lectionary reading continues the same kind of complaint, beginning with the words spoken by Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (vs. 1) Many try to soften Jesus’ words by reference to the entire Psalm in which the Psalmist is undergirded by faith, but the agony expressed here, and by Jesus, are real. “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest . . . I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people . . . I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heat is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” (vss. 2, 6, 14-16) Kind of makes one want to run the other way, yet anytime and anywhere we try to maintain human and/or divine relationships, we may find our hearts breaking, may need a supportive listening ear.

The other Psalm (90) is a bit more upbeat, but still seems to come from a place of struggle. “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! . . . Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.” (Psalm 90:13 & 15)

It is not always just our inner turmoil or fragile relationships that trigger feelings of abandonment. When Amos, and others of the prophets, observe the injustice around them, it breaks their hearts. Amos, in chapter five, verse eleven, talks about those “who trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain . . . who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” Although, in this case, it is the rich who are “hanging up” on, not listening and responding to, the poor, conditions of injustice sometimes make us wonder where God is. Why doesn’t God do something about it? Amos doesn’t offer a lot of specifics for action, even suggesting that such evil times may call for silence, or, when he says, “the prudent will keep silent in such a time,” is he challenging those who would be prudent? (Amos 5:13) In this reading, Amos’ basic message is, “Seek good and not evil . . . Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate . . .” (vss. 14-15) As we try to live through crises of relationship, human and divine, rather than focus on our hurt and sense of abandonment, perhaps we need to put our energy into seeking and loving what is good, for ourselves, for our families, for the world around us.

Hebrews depicts Jesus as a great high priest in the sacrificial system familiar to the Jews of the time. Today’s few verses speak of him as a high priest who is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses . . . one who in every respect has been tested as we are . . .” (Hebrews 4:15) Jesus shows us a God who feels our pain. When our earthly relationships are ruptured, God has not gone away to some other place. God is right there with us in the middle of that brokenness, feeling it with us. Maybe we’re looking in the wrong place. Maybe we were expecting something else of God. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus represents a God where we may “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (vs. 16)

The Gospel lesson is the story of a man who comes to Jesus and asks about the way to eternal life. (Mark 10:17) His story might cause us to ask, when we feel like God is not as close as we would like, what are the things that get in our way? Where is our attention focused that we are missing God’s presence, that we are unable to connect with the eternal? In this man’s case, it was his possessions. He has kept all the commandments (vs. 19), but Jesus tells him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor . . .” (vs. 21) The man is unable to let go. (vs. 22) Sometimes we are unable to let go of whatever it is that leads to feelings of abandonment. We can only move on when we are willing to let go.

Mark’s version of the story includes something that is not in Matthew and Luke. Jesus, when he looked at this man “loved him,” we are told in verse twenty-one. It is an amazing observation that changes the tone of the whole story. Jesus continues to love us even when we are clinging to things that make it hard for that love to get through. That persistent love makes all the difference.

If we abandon ourselves to that love, rather than wallowing in feelings of being abandoned, it will prove to be stronger than all our “hang ups”.
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Job 1:1, 2:1-10 AND Psalm 26:1-2 OR Genesis 2:18-24 AND Psalm 8:1-9, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

I had a colleague who at times got a bit overzealous in pushing his pet projects on his congregation. One day one of his parishioners turned to him and asked, “Who died and made you chairman of the board of the universe?”  I’ve been a bit of a control freak myself.  I like to believe that that tendency has been much-tempered in retirement and after a life of realizing there’s lots that happens beyond our control. There are nevertheless tendencies in many of us to want to have the powers of God.

Some of this week’s scriptures suggest that, indeed, we are to count ourselves right up there close to God. Most of us who claim to be followers of Jesus have at least heard ourselves described as being “created in the image of God.”  Genesis 1:27, for instance, says, “ . . . God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

In this week’s lectionary readings we have the familiar Psalm 8 which looks around at the majesty of all creation and wonders, “What are human beings that your are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (vs. 4)  The musing continues with the observation, “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” (vs. 5)  (Some translations say, “a little lower than angels.” Either way it’s a pretty high view of humanity.)

The lectionary reading from Hebrews harks back to Psalm 8, noting that it says God subjected “all things under their feet,” i.e., the feet of human beings.  Hebrews take this quite literally—to the extreme. “Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control.” (Hebrews 2:6-8)  There’s power and control for those who would be God.

The writer of Hebrews is quick to note that “we do not yet see everything in subjection to them.” (vs. 8)  The fact is that starting from early childhood we learn that not everything is under our control.  There is much that happens to us that we would never have imagined, in some cases never have wished for.  Some of it is good; some, not so good.

Job is one who thought of himself as almost God-like in his perfection, and discovered it didn’t exempt him from the bad things in life.  In fact, in today’s reading he asks, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10)

The book of Job was written, in my opinion, as a drama.  The drama pictures a contest in which God allows Satan to do everything he can to destroy Job’s faith.  For centuries human beings have been asking why bad things happen to good people. 

As the drama unfolds, Job loses his health, wealth, and family.  Three friends sit with him and try to offer him comfort and understanding, but their answers are unsatisfying.  He rues the day he was born, (See Job 3:1), but Job never loses his faith.  Job is being tried and offers a lengthy defense (see especially Job chapters 29-31), after which a fourth young “comforter” rebukes them all and comes to the defense of God.  God shows up in a whirlwind and asks who is Job to try to outguess God (Job chapters 38-41).  Job realizes that he has to come to grips with the mysteries of life, that he can’t control all the outcomes (Job chapter 42).

One way to read the story is through the lens of integrity and self-righteousness.  I suspect Job was a little bit difficult to live with.  Is God perhaps even speaking a little tongue-in-cheek when he says of Job, “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity . . .” (Job 2:3)?  The Hebrew word for integrity here can imply perfection.  A person who thinks he or she is perfect, or a perfectionist, can be kind of offensive, perhaps not inclined to bow humbly before his or her God.  Indeed, Job’s wife right off, says to Job, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” (Job 2:9)  Job never curses God, but his final accuser’s words are described as a condemnation of Job’s “self-righteousness.” (See the heading for chapter 35 in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.)  Job has a bit of a superiority complex and throughout is thoroughly defensive about the fact that he is right on every count.  We get that way when we try to be like God and control everything.  In essence God’s lengthy words spoken from the whirlwind ask, “Who do you think you are?  God?”

Psalm 26 picks up the same theme. David declares twice, “I have walked in my integrity.” (vss. 1 & 11)

Maybe we can go overboard in trying to take on the role of God, in trying to control every event in our own lives and in the lives of those around us, but the earlier readings still affirm that there is something of God in us to be celebrated.  At the same time, we need the humility to remember the “little lower” in those declarations. There is always a power at work beyond us, but it is also the power that is work within us.

So how do the other lectionary readings for this Sunday fit in?

The account of Genesis found in chapter two differs from the earlier account.  This one unfolds almost as if God were going about it trial and error.  First a man is formed, but that doesn’t seem to be enough.  One man alone is not enough.  To be human is to be in relationship.  It’s basic to human identity and functioning.  So God decides to make a helper. (Genesis 2:18—Let’s not read too much into that word.  Biblically, a helper is not necessarily a subordinate.  God is described as our helper.  A helper can be a superior, an equal, or an inferior.)  Animals seem to be the first attempt to find a helper, “but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:19-20—Note the word “partner” which implies equality.)  So God tries again, making a woman from the rib of the man. (vs. 22)  God gets it right this time.

The superiority of the man has often been read into this passage, but at the heart of it is the fact that the man and the woman are both made of the same thing.  “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” the man says. (vs. 23)  Many have used verses like these to condemn homosexual relationships.  I believe that is a misuse, but getting into all the subtleties of interpretation is too much for today’s blog. Today, I see it as a passage which speaks to the unique value of every person, male or female in whatever kinds of relationships, as carrying the image of God.

This week’s Gospel reading harks back to the Genesis story (see Mark 10:6-9) and connects it with the question of divorce. (Vss. 3-4 & 10-12)  How we deal with divorce is a matter for thorough discussion. Today, though, I want to note that this story is sandwiched between two encounters with “little ones.”  In Mark 9:42, Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  In this week’s lectionary reading, people are trying to bring their little children to Jesus, but the disciples are curtly dismissing them. (vs. 3)  Jesus notices and is upset, saying, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And Jesus, “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” (vss. 14-16)  The disciples are being reminded that the children are created in the image of God, of infinite worth, almost God-like.

Let us always remember, however we interpret the nuances of all these passages: Every life matters and is valuable as God’s Spirit moves in and through all of life and its relationships.

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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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