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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 8:4-20m 11:14-15 AND Psalm 138:1-8 OR Genesis 3:8-15 AND Psalm 130:1-8, II Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

Some of us have fallen into almost despair as the civility of political discourse has made it seem more like a gutter brawl than a conversation among civil men and women about the welfare of humanity.  I have come to the United Church of Christ after serving many years as a pastor and administrator with the American Baptist Churches in the USA.  Like many denominations, it became wracked with divisions over issues that threatened to tear the fabric of American life.  Some of us had worked hard to lead our denomination in finding Common Ground.  I had worked with a fellow pastor whose views on some of those issues differed sharply from my own.  We had led conferences, with some success, to encourage open and loving conversation.  Then we attended a particularly bitter national convention about 10 years ago.  My colleague and I happened to meet outside the convention hall.  We stood there in tears and asked how things had ever gotten to this point.  I still don’t have a clear answer to that question.  I’m grateful now to be part of the United Church of Christ where I no longer have to endure that level of divisiveness.

I believe this week’s lectionary readings address such divisions, beginning with Jesus’ declaration, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”  (Mark 3:24-25)    Jesus has been accused, by his family, of having “gone out of his mind.”  (vs. 21)   He has claimed to have authority to cast out demons (vs. 15) and they suggest that perhaps it is because he himself has been possessed by Satan.  (vs. 22)   He scoffingly suggests that that would pit Satan against himself, which doesn’t make any sense at all.

It never makes sense to be pitted against oneself, but it happens in individual psyches, in families, in congregations and denominations, and in and among nations and groups.  When that happens, things begin to fall apart.  Many of us weep when that happens.  To see a body to which we are deeply committed begin to self-destruct is certainly cause for weeping.

There is the hint of solution in verse 28.  It speaks of forgiveness, as does Psalm 130:4 when it declares of the Lord, “ . . . there is forgiveness with you.”  There’s also, in Mark 3:29, the puzzling reference to those who cannot be forgiven—“whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.”  I grew up with too much effort put into that reference.  Here it applies to accusing Jesus of having “an unclean spirit” (vs. 30) which I take as highlighting the destructiveness that occurs when we confuse good and evil.  We look at good people doing good things and suggest that they are doing the devil’s work.  It is another way of looking at a house divided against itself.

Then, this Gospel lesson ends with a redefinition of our connections with one another.  Rather than being divided we are to be like family, like brother and sister and mother.  “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  (vs. 35—See from vs. 31 on)

The reading from I Samuel reads like something out of today’s political discussion about taxes and about the abuse of power.  The people come to Samuel wanting him to appoint a king, “like the other nations.”  (I Samuel 8:4-5)   Samuel has a conversation with Lord about it, and the people are given fair warning.  This is what a king will do: “ . . . he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots . . . . He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.”  (vss. 8-17—See entire section from verse 7-18)   The people didn’t listen and, in my opinion, the rest of I & II Samuel and I & II Kings are an extended, “I told you so.”  The people suffer the consequence of choosing the way of power in the manner of other nations.

I don’t want to suggest that this text be used as fodder in an anti-tax movement.  I believe paying taxes is part of responsible citizenship.  I do see this text of an illustration of how easily power can divide so that the rich try to subdue the poor and the oppressed rise up in rebellion.  When our eyes are on power and the obtaining and use of power as the solution to our ills, we are in danger of becoming a house divided against itself.    That’s not the way of the Lord.  “ . . . he regards the lowly;” we are told in Psalm 138:6, “but the haughty he perceives from far away.”

The reading from Genesis is also a story of division.  Adam has eaten of the forbidden fruit and immediately the accusations begin.  The woman made me do it, Adam says.  (Genesis 3:12)   The serpent tricked me, the woman says.  (vs. 13)

We could talk about nakedness and the loss of innocence in this story.  Adam feels vulnerable so he covers his nakedness.  (vs. 10)   We often try to hide our true selves.  Doing so, I would suggest, is often the beginning of division.  Certainly that is the end result in this story.  It describes a great rift between men and women.  One need not take this to be a literal and eternally immutable condition to realize that trickery and blame lead to a house divided against itself.  Wherever those occur, all that we value is in danger of falling.  Certainly we see far to much trickery and blame in the politics and relationships of this life from households and congregations to nations and global affairs.

The reading from II Corinthians seems to take us in a different direction, focusing more on persisting through times of trouble into a hopeful future.  (II Corinthians 4:16-17)  That them would be fine, but I also see in it a concern for looking beyond outward appearances and discovering realities not seen by physical observation.  “ . . . we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”  (vs. 18)   What if we paid more attention to those eternal things in the here and now?  They’re here you know.  What if we paid less attention to the outward realities of one another and saw instead the eternal value of each person?  Idealistic?  Yes, but if we could go even a little way down that road we might be able to move beyond some of our divisions.  We so often build divisions according to what we look like and what we think.  Instead, suppose we looked at one another with loving and forgiving eyes and saw that we are all family.  Perhaps we could begin to dwell, even now on this earth, “a house not made with hands.”  (II Corinthians 5:1)

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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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