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Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 11:1-10, I Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

Years ago, I participated in some “sensitivity” training, designed to make us more sensitive to those who might be experiencing life differently than we were. To gain some understanding of the experience of blindness, we had a meal together in a public restaurant blindfolded.

My enduring memory of that experience is not the difficulty of eating, but the difficulty of hearing. There were voices all around, but sorting them out was a challenge. Even when we can look around and see who’s talking, communication does not always go smoothly. When sound assails one’s ears from all sides with no visual cues, it becomes a jumble, unless one has learned to deal with that experience.

Sometimes, in these days of political debate and shrieking public “noise,” I feel like I’m walking around with a blindfold on. The noise is such that I can’t figure out what is worth listening to.

Lots of words go into the air in our verbal culture, but not all words have equal worth. I believe all of this week’s lectionary readings are relevant to that process. I’m not going to try to highlight the primary intent of each. I’m going to apply them to the process of speaking and hearing what is worth speaking and hearing.

First of all, it is important that the words one speaks are “grounded” or “centered.” Such words seem to have “authority,” gain one’s attention, are worth listening to.

The reading from Deuteronomy is troublesome in that one can die if one hears “the voice of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 18:16) and one can die if one presumes “to speak a word that” God has “not commanded.” (vs. 25) Almost makes one want to close both one’s mouth and one’s ears.

Without trying to interpret the seeming extreme consequences described, one can take from the passage the truth that words matter. Words can do great harm. Words can be untrue. They can mislead. I take it as a warning to be careful with our words, to be sure that they represent the “truth” as we best discern it. Voices that do that are worth listening to, as opposed to the sometimes flip and flip-flopping words we hear in so much public debate. May the Lord raise up voices which speak from deep places (See vs. 15)

As I read Psalm 111 I find reference to fearing the Lord. (vss. 5 & 10) I don’t see this as a call to cringe in a corner. The “fear” spoken of here is more like “awe,” so that one might translate verse ten, “Awe is the beginning of wisdom.” Words worth speaking and hearing are often rooted in a sense of awe. We look around us and see things that stir our beings. We experience things and catch a glimpse of what life is all about. We are in awe. “All those who practice” awe “have a good understanding.” (vs. 10)

We have just returned from a week in Mexico City. My overwhelming response is one of awe. The creativity of the human spirit is evident in the architecture and art, in the presentation of history, in the continuing revolution and social experience going on in that emerging world economic power. To walk the streets of that city is to be alive. Every word I write or speak about it is undergirded by that sense of awe.

Would that our public discourse have more “awe” in it, people speaking who “see” something worth speaking about, people hearing who sense that there is a deeper reality behind the words spoken. Our world needs more words of worth!

There were deep divisions in the Corinthian church. Paul addressed a number of them, but he always tried to lift them to higher principles, calling the Corinthians to own up to an underlying attitude that fueled the divisions. The specific controversy in today’s reading is that of whether or not it is appropriate for believers to eat food which has been first offered to idols. (vss. 1 & 4) The “enlightened” know that nothing about the meat has been changed, that eating the meat doesn’t mean one believes in the power of the idol (vss. 7-9), but the “enlightened” sometimes seem to have an arrogant attitude, thinking their “knowledge” makes them better than others. That’s the real problem to be addressed, the use to which knowledge is put. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.” (vss. 1-2) Love means treating the “weak” gently, building them up, not flaunting our knowledge and hitting them over the head with it. (vss. 7 & 9-10) I don’t particularly like the way “weak” is used to define those whose conscience puts them opposite me in this conversation, but I strongly approve of the admonition to consider the effect of our words and actions on others. We are to approach those with whom we differ in a spirit of love. We are to be sensitive to the hearer and those who are observing how love works itself out in the way we live.

Medical professionals, and some others, have a basic principle which says, “Do no harm.” Can we apply that to our use of knowledge and words?

So, who do we listen to? Not simply those who claim to have the “truth,” but those who temper their knowledge with love. We need more people who bring the wisdom of love to the conversation, and more people with ears listening for the sounds of love in public discourse (and more private conversation, for that matter).

For those who want to pursue another aspect of this passage from I Corinthians, I call your attention to the monotheism in which Paul grounds the entire argument: “ . . . even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (vss. 5-6) A lot of meat in those two verses to ponder and discuss. What are the implications of monotheism for everyday living?

Finally, the Gospel lesson from Mark brings us around to the authority behind the speaking and action. When considering who it is we’re going to listen to, our ears (even our inner being) strain for a sense of authenticity in the person who is trying to gain our attention. Does the person speak and act from a deep inner source of strength and truth—not the truth of one who can cite this law and that law, not truth that is trotted out to cow us into obedience, but truth which inspires the spirit.

It is sometimes called speaking with authority, as in this story about Jesus. “ . . . he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22. See also, vs. 27) It’s also a story about “unclean” spirits and how they respond to this kind of authority. Pastor Rick may be getting into that aspect of the story this Sunday. Whatever the point of the story, something about Jesus made people stand up and take notice. This guy is the real thing!

We’re still looking for people who come to us as the real thing, who embody the spirit of Jesus, the spirit to which Paul was calling the Corinthian Christians and us. Will our, do our, ears recognize them when they speak? Do we, in our own speaking and acting, come across as the real thing? People who are the real thing, starting with Jesus, are worth listening to!
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, I Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

I’m a tourist—and photographer. There are many other dimensions to my personality, but I enjoy observing the wonders of God’s creation and the variety of expressions and circumstances found in the interactions of the human species (and other species as well). Highways through scenic areas often offer viewpoints. Some are high on the edge of a cliff. Others are close-up to a rushing stream. Some are beside a quiet bird-filled lake. One may find himself or herself craning the neck to look almost straight up. Watching, and photographing, people is sometimes done while sitting on a bench in a busy square. There may be a wedding that one stumbles upon in a public rose garden. From some tower, the people below may look like ants.

How one sees the world, its people and creations, is deeply affected by one’s point of view. Viewpoint and point of view. Although the two are synonymous, the first tends to be more associated with physical location, while the second is often used to speak of one’s philosophical or spiritual or political perspective.

Faith is, among other things, about point of view, the way we look at and experience and live in the world. Some are uncomfortable with the phrase “born again.” Biblically the phrase has to do with being born into a new way of looking at things—being born “from above.” The call of charismatic religious pioneers, like Jesus among others, has been to see life in a new way, from a new perspective. It has been spoken of as being in, but not of, the world.

This week’s Gospel lesson, from Mark, continues with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he is calling disciples. As a fisherman, I’ve always been intrigued with the image of fishing for people. (Mark 1:17) Even if I stop thinking of the hook in the mouth and think about casting nets, I’m not sure that “catching” is the best way to get people to hear God’s good news.

There is something to be commended about the passion of a fisherperson and his or her effort to learn about the habitat and habits of the fish. This week, though, the focus I see in this passage is the radical, earth-shaking, perspective-changing message Jesus calls these disciples to carry into the world. “Jesus came to Galilee,” it says, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)

The people had been waiting for a new day when justice and peace and love were realized in their midst. Now Jesus comes saying, “It’s near, very near.” In some cases, it sounds as if he is even saying that it has already come.

But how can that be? We’re still looking for justice and peace and love. The message of God’s good news calls us to look again, from a different point of view. What if we looked at the world and saw what it could/can be? That’s what God does. It’s not pie in the sky. We can begin now to live into the possibilities God has put before us. In the context of this passage, I believe that’s what it means to “repent.” It means to believe in those unprecedented, breathtaking, possibilities that seem unachieveable. The call to be a fisherperson is a call to live as if those possibilities were true, to make them true in our own lives.

It’s not so much a viewpoint that calls us to pull off to the side of the road and watch in wonder. It’s a call to see the wonder in every nook and cranny as we walk in the midst of all that is happening around us. Do I catch a glimpse of peace over there? Can I offer of crumb of justice?

The daily reading Margie and I did last night, reflecting on Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples, asked whose feet we could be washing. Jesus’ act of washing turned the pomp and ceremony of the powerful on its head. If more leaders—and we—were humble enough to figuratively wash feet, a new point of view might begin to develop.

The other readings also contain the possibility of seeing the world from a new point of view.

In Jonah, we have the startling declaration that even “God changed his mind.” (Jonah 3:10) Jonah is sent to Nineveh, viewed by many as a seat of wickedness. He is to call them to repentance. (vss. 2-4) Jonah’s point of view, like that of some in our day, was that these people deserved to be punished. They had made a mess of things and probably would never change. He bought into the prevailing point of view. Behold, the people surprised him—even apparently surprised God. God must have seen some possibility to have sent Jonah there in the first place. At least he was ready to see the change in these people when it occurred, which is more than we can say for Jonah. If we went on with the story, we would find that he was really upset with God. Jonah still wasn’t ready to change his point of view. He didn’t really want these people to repent, because then he might have to forgive them. He might find that he would like them, maybe even love them. A whole new world might be born if he saw Nineveh from a new point of view.

The Psalm suggests that many of the things people pursue in life “are a delusion.” (Psalm 62:9) “Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes in robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” (vs. 10) What we value in life, where we expect to find reward and fulfillment, depends on our point of view. The Psalm is a call to see that our “deliverance and . . . honor” are found when we begin with trust in God. (vss. 7-8)

Some approaches to religion might run with this and declare that all life is illusion. They might see religion as separating themselves from the “dirtiness” of life by building walls or pretending it doesn’t exist. The short reading from I Corinthians seems almost to have that tone. They lived in expectation that the time when all would be fulfilled was at hand. “ . . . the appointed time has grown short,” Paul writes. (I Corinthians 7:29) All the usual relationships are “passing away.” (vs. 31) “ . . . let even those who have wives be as though they had none.” (vs. 30) Now there’s a license for a husband who wants to go on a spree of philandering! We don’t need to mourn or rejoice any more, or buy things and have possessions. (vs. 30) “ . . . those who deal with world” should behave “as though they had no dealings with it.” (vs. 31)

These verses would have to be laid against other New Testament readings where the instruction is to continue to be engaged in the world, to keep on working. For now, though, I’m willing to take them not so much as a call to “separation” but as a call to a new point of view. God’s call, in all times, is to see that life is about more than the daily fretting and fuming and accumulating. That is a world that needs to pass away. The message of the reign of God is about the possibility of another world, and Jesus said, “ . . . the kingdom of God has come near.”

Do we see it? Are we ready to live it?
Monday, January 09, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, I Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

One of the anthems written and composed by our own Kathy Walden and Dave Parker urges us to “Listen!” If God is the one we are to be listening to, many of us may wonder how we hear. While scripture regularly presents stories where God seems to speak with a clear voice in human language, that doesn’t seem to happen to most of us.

By the time you read this, Margie and I will be in Mexico City, where we will be spending a week enjoying the rich cultural treasures of that city and country. Both of us have some exposure to Spanish, mine extensive, but we haven’t used it in years. We worry about our ability to communicate, especially to hear. It is usually easier to spit out enough words to be understood than it is to understand when someone else is speaking.

Reading the passages for January 15th, I find myself catching glimpses of how we hear God, most of which resonate with my 72 years of life experience. As I comment on the readings (without much attention to their historical context), I’ll try to identify some ways in which we may hear God. Add your own.

The reading from I Samuel is familiar to many, the calling of the prophet Samuel. His mother Hannah left him with the elderly priest Eli, to be raised as a “nazarite”, one set apart for the service of God. (See I Samuel 1:21-28) Strangely, in this week’s reading, when Samuel is a young boy, we find that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord . . .” (I Samuel 3:7) When he hears a voice calling his name he thinks it is Eli. (vss. 4-5) This happens three times until “Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.” (vs. 8) Following Eli’s instruction, the next time the voice speaks, Samuel responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (vss. 9-10)

Now it turns out that the story is as much about Eli’s sons as it is about Samuel. They, having followed Eli into the priesthood, have become contemptible scoundrels. (I Samuel 2:12-17) Samuel is being called to replace them. (I Samuel 3:11-16)

I suppose the obvious lesson is that one can hear only if one is listening. Eli’s sons were not listening. They didn’t care to hear so it was another who heard his name called—Samuel. I find it equally noteworthy that Samuel had a helper—Eli. There are those around us who may help us hear and understand. We may not always be able to distinguish a “divine” voice from that of a trusted, dedicated, mentor or role model. Eli is as much a part of this communication process as some disembodied voice heard in the privacy of the bedroom or while “lying down in the temple of the Lord.” (I Samuel 3:3)

The verses from Psalm 139 perhaps are an antidote to the notion that we can fully hear and understand. They declare that God knows us wholly. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.” (vss. 1-3, with similar words continuing in vss. 4-5) All religions remind us that we cannot fully understand God or God’s ways. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it . . . How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand . . .” (vss. 6, 17-18)

Specialists in communication speak of “active” listening, listening being something that takes a lot of effort. It’s a useful perspective on listening; we often avoid the effort it takes. Sometimes, though, listening is more like an act of trust. We simply have to wait for things to unfold, grain by grain (to mix metaphors). Hearing what God has to say to us is a long process, even an eternal one. If we don’t hear and understand immediately, even tomorrow or next week, we are called to persist in our listening, treasuring the fragmented, even sometimes distorted pieces we get in any given moment.

I suppose if we combined this week’s epistle reading with the story of Eli’s son, we could come up with some reflections on sin and debauchery. Although such things are addressed in I Corinthians, chapter six (see vss. 13, 15-16, 18), I believe their meaning is to be taken primarily at another level.

Immediately, their context is a variety of disputes taking place in the Corinthian church, about Jewish ritual law and how it is to be applied to Gentiles, about lawsuits between followers of Christ, about what food can be eaten, etc. (see I Corinthians 6:1-13) Prostitution was regularly used as an image of those chased after other “gods.” They were like those who went to be with prostitutes.

If one is off indiscriminately chasing pleasures, one is not likely to hear the quiet inner voice of God. Ultimately, this is a passage about being spiritual joined. A first step in listening to God is sensing a unity of spirit with divine holiness. “ . . . anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him,” as opposed to “whoever is united to a prostitute.” (vss. 16-17) Listening means focusing, avoiding the things that distract and vie for our attention.

The Gospel lesson offers a story about the call of two of Jesus’ disciples, Philip and Nathaniel. When Jesus tells Philip to follow him, Philip is so impressed that he goes to tell Nathanial that they have found the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” (John 1:41-45) Nathaniel is skeptical, wondering whether anything good can come from Nazareth, so Philip invites him to “Come and see.” (vs. 46) Nathaniel is convinced and is impressed when Jesus seems already to know him. Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (vss. 47-49) Jesus says that there are even “greater things” to come. “ . . . you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending . . .” (vss. 50-51)

We might be able to dig out many lessons if we understood the entire historical context of John’s Gospel. For now, with the focus on how we hear God speaking, I see four guidelines. 1. Just as was the case with Samuel and Eli, we can start by listening to others who want to help us hear. In this case, the word comes to Nathaniel initially through Philip. 2. Be prepared to hear God speaking in unexpected places, perhaps even where we would least expect it. God’s voice is not limited to what happens in church on Sunday morning. God may speak in the dirty streets of human commerce, or in the remote regions far from the halls of power. 3. In an insight similar to what we saw in I Cointhians, we need to find a place close to God if we are to hear. Nathaniel invites Philip to get closer so he can see and hear for himself. 4. Listen big! Expect to hear the unexpected. When God speaks, it may be a word of challenge, a word that expands our horizons, even as big as all heaven. Whenever we are being challenged and stretched, subtly or boisterously, we can at least wonder whether or not it is God trying to get our attention.

May these readings call us to listen carefully. Read them again and add your own insights about what it means to listen and hear. May we all find places and times when we know ourselves to be in God’s presence.
Tuesday, January 03, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures:
Epiphany (Jan.6): Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
First Sunday After Epiphany - Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 8): Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29:1-11, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Friday begins the season of Epiphany in the life of the church. I’m pretty sure it’s one of Pastor Rick’s favorite seasons, so much so that he launched it last Sunday using the readings for the day of Epiphany. Since I was still in the Christmas season last week, I’ve included those readings (as well as the readings for this coming Sunday) as I encourage us to reflect on what it means to “experience” epiphany.

“Epiphany” means “manifestation.” In the church calendar it is a celebration of the manifestation of God in human form, particularly in the form of a baby. It is a day when we celebrate the coming of the Magi (as representatives of the Gentile world) to worship the child. Both are astounding moments of insight if our awe generators are working. Who could imagine looking at a baby and seeing God? Who could imagine that a Jewish child born in an obscure location in the humblest of circumstances would give rise to a movement with such inclusiveness—eventually reaching around the world? If this is a manifestation of God it is startlingly eye-opening, a moment when the light in our hearts and minds illumines life in a way that brings an “Aha” to our lips.

The word “epiphany” is sometimes used to describe “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.” The season of Epiphany is often associated with light. Light illumines. It can bathe simple things in shimmering light so that we see them in new ways—ways that cause us to say, “Aha!” In homely terms, cartoons often use a light bulb over a person’s head to suggest a sudden insight. The light has suddenly turned on for that person.

The First Sunday After Epiphany usually focuses upon the baptism of Jesus, and on readings which call us to consider the deeper meanings of our own baptism. Scripturally, a distinction is made between the baptism practiced by John, the Baptizer (the one who baptized Jesus), and the baptism done in the name of Jesus. (It is not clear that Jesus himself ever physically baptized anyone. Note, for instance, that while John 4:1 speaks of Jesus “making and baptizing more disciples than John, the next verse says, “although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized . . .”)

John’s baptism is described as “with water,” while Jesus’ baptism is a more inward reality, receiving the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. (Mark 1:8—Two of the readings for this coming Sunday deal with that distinction: Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11) Baptism seems to be less about an outward ritual and more about an inner transformation.

Quakers speak of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit as an “inner light.” If epiphany is about light and illumination, it appears that baptism is as well. Those “aha” moments occur when that inner light stirs an insight alerting us that we, even in very ordinary moments, may be standing on holy ground.

All of those themes come together as we consider this week’s readings, calling us to be alert to “aha” moments when we notice a strange glow about life. Is Love being born? Is God trying to get our attention?

Light enters in the third verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:3—“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” And we are told that “God saw that the light was good . . .” (vs. 4) Throughout the darkest days, God’s people never gave up hope that they would again be bathed in light. Isaiah 60 declares a new era of light: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you . . . Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (vss. 1 & 3)

The word “glory” refers to a shine or glow that emanates from a person. Psalm 29, which speaks repeatedly of God’s “glory”, is a hymn that celebrates the light with which God illumines life. “Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name.” (vss. 1-2)

Notice that, back in Isaiah 60, that the light of the Lord penetrates our being and makes us “radiant.” (vs. 5) Epiphanies do not just occur in our private, inner, being. They make a difference in life. Psalm 72 can be seen as a prayer for a king who is so filled with light that he judges the “people with righteousness, and your poor with justice . . . May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor . . . he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.” (vss. 2, 4, 12-13) Epiphanies, so often absent from the halls of government, may come in the strangest of places—even in the cries and faces of those who rise up in the name of justice. “Aha,” one might be moved to say, I have seen (along with Mother Theresa) the face of God. God is working here and I might have missed it. Light is here is the midst of what many might think of as a dark place.

Earlier we mentioned the “epiphany” of realizing the inclusiveness of God’s Love. Many in Jesus’ day had forgotten that God’s call to the Hebrew people was to be a “light to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) When God blessed Abraham, it was “so that you will be a blessing . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3) The Magi, in the Gospel reading for the day of Epiphany, symbolize the reach of the light (in this case, a star) to regions beyond the confines to which human boundary-makers are prone to confine it.

The reading from Ephesians, chapter three, speaks of the same boundary-breaking “mystery.” (Is “mystery” perhaps a word akin to “epiphany”?) Paul is presented as the custodian of a mystery “made known to me by revelation . . . that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Jesus Christ through the gospel.” (vss. 3 & 6)

Epiphany moments are times when life may suddenly become larger than we had ever imagined it. We may discover connections with people in new ways.

During the Epiphany season, let’s look both inward and outward, prepared to find life glowing with possibility. When it happens, there will be “ahas,” quietly whispered or shouted out loud, and we will know that an epiphany has occurred!

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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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