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Wednesday, February 01, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20c, I Corinthians 9:16-23. Mark 1:29-39

One never knows where our Tuesday morning lectionary discussions over breakfast may go. I usually offer some thoughts on possible themes, some scriptural background if I feel so moved. I may share a personal experience or memory or an excerpt from a book in my library. Then it’s off to the races, wherever anyone in the group decides to take us. We may have a pretty straightforward discussion of the texts before us, or we may take off in quite unexpected directions. Whatever the discussion, it’s almost always enlightening and enriching, building connections that help us support one another and grow, that challenge us to deepen our understanding of the mission possibilities before us.

This week a memory of an experience connected with the reading of one of the texts was shared, giving us insight into a dear friend who sits at the table with us regularly. One who teaches children (following the lectionary) was concerned with how one interprets “demons” (See Mark 1:32-34) to children. We spent an unexpected amount of time discussing exorcism.

It just goes to show that one can’t control where the Spirit will take us in our conversations. Jesus, speaking of the Spirit, said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Our breakfast conversations often illustrate what I see as one of the themes in this week’s texts. When God is at work, there’s no telling what might happen.

God cannot be contained by any of our humanly devised schemes. I don’t believe there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion, but I have come to believe that there is a basic difference in approach. Confronted with “mystery,” science tries to explain it, while religion is more likely to embrace it, to seek to “experience” it, to draw energy from it. That is not to say that religious people should shut off their minds. Someone has defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Religion embraces the mind as well as the heart, but mystery is at the heart of religion.

So, this week’s texts.

Isaiah 40 offers a message to people in exile. The old ways of understanding and experiencing God don’t seem to be working in this new situation. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” (Isaiah 40:21) When the words are repeated in verse 28, the declaration is added: “ . . . his understanding is unsearchable.” This mysterious God, in fact, is so big that even when you feel you are languishing here, abandoned, in a foreign land, there is strength and energy to be had—“power to the faint,” strength to “the powerless.” When you feel overwhelmed and “exhausted,” remember that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (vss. 29-31) God’s wind is blowing where you least expect it. What a mystery, but in that mystery there is empowerment.

Psalm 147 offers a similar tone. We are called to praise a God who is big enough to determine “the number of the stars,” whose “understanding is beyond measure.” (Psalm 147:4-5) Again, this God is one who “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds,” who “lifts up the downtrodden.” (vss. 3 & 6) Such scriptures are intended to lead us in praise of a God whose boundaries continue to expand beyond what we can fully understand or contain. When we give ourselves to that kind of mystery, we find strength and healing.

In the reading from I Corinthians, Paul talks about his approach to spreading the Good News of Jesus’ love. He makes the outrageous statement that he has “become all things to all people.” (I Corinthians 9:22) It could be taken as the philosophy of an unscrupulous politician (or some who are compaigning today). It might spring from the mental abberation of someone who has too much need to please everyone, as if he ever could. I think rather that it expresses the truth that the great mystery (and Paul certainly spoke of mysteries) can take on life in the rich variety of human life, culture, and experience. Because it is a mystery which cannot be boxed in by one explanation, captured by any one culture or language, it can be experienced and interpreted by Jews and slaves, even legalists and those who are weak—as well as many unnamed. (vss. 19-22).

For Paul, it is a basic missionary principle. If you want people to hear what you have say, if you want to convey love to them, you have to speak their language. You have to adapt your way of relating to their culture. You have to take them seriously.

Once we try to domesticate God’s Love, remove the mystery from it, we are apt to end up with something that is culture-bound, often bound to forms that are most easily understood and expressed in our own culture. Mystery blows where it wills. The hills and valleys of one culture are too small for its breezes. We need to be ever alert to their blowing wherever we are, and ready to release them afresh in the patterns of new hills and valleys.

Finally, we come to the Gospel lesson from the first chapter of Mark. It is another story of healing and the casting out of demons, which gave rise to our discussion of that subject. Healing, however one interprets it, is part of what Jesus did, wherever he went. (Mark 1:34) What gets my attention this week, though, is the way the story ends. Jesus “went out to a deserted place . . . and prayed” (vs. 35), something which could be the subject of another whole series of reflections. The disciples look for him and find him and tell him, “Everyone is searching for you.” (vs. 37) Jesus, however, is ready to move on (vs. 39). This wind blows where it will. It’s always moving on into new territory. God’s mission isn’t limited to familiar times and places.

“And he went throughout Galilee . . .” To Jesus, it was home, but in contrast to Judea (with the holy city of Jerusalem), it was an area of rich diversity and a history of clashing cultures. “Galilee” means simply “district, and was called in Isaiah 9, Galilee of the nations—or, in some translations, Galilee of the Gentiles. One writer tells us, “Galilee was annexed by Judah Aristoblus I in 104 B.C. His brother and successor . . . further extended the borders of Galilee during his reign.” (Eric Meyers in Harper’s Bible Dictionary) In the early 20th century, its population included many Arab Christians and Muslims. The clash continues in our days. Politicians make hay by taking simplistic positions about matters that are as complex as the mysterious winds of God’s Spirit. People would build walls where God would break them down.

Even today, Jesus says, “I’m ready to move on. My Spirit longs to blow across old battlefields and bring healing, casting out the demons of hatred and prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” Is our God big enough to embrace all that and trust that “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes . . .”?

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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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