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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 15:34-16:13 AND Psalm 20:1-9, OR Ezekiel 17:22-24 AND Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15, II Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:25-34

It seems to be almost inherent in human interaction.  We find ways to measure ourselves against one another.  Sociologists call it a status system.  Often it’s based on the quantity and quality of our possessions.  Sometimes it’s based on beauty and physical prowess.  By the very nature of things, it pretty much has to be something external and observable—outward appearances.  One of the themes running through this week’s lectionary texts is the suggestion for an alternative—perhaps inward focus in measuring what is of worth in human life and interaction.

We have Samuel coming to Bethlehem to seek someone to replace King Saul.  (I Samuel 16:1) According to instruction from the Lord, the new king is to come from Jesse’s sons.  (vs. 3)  Notice that the people of Bethlehem don’t expect this to be a peaceable thing.  They tremble and ask, “Do you come peaceably?” (vs. 4)

Isn’t it sad that transitions in leadership are so often filled with venom and violence?  Even with our American democratic tradition where there is an “orderly” process for such transitions, elections often degenerate into a time of gross incivility.  Even in a period of considerable violence in biblical history, Samuel responds with a clear word, “Peaceably,” suggesting that there is another way.  (vs. 5)

The alternative way this time involves calling the candidates one by one, so the Samuel can announce the one the Lord has chosen.  (See vss. 6-11)  It doesn’t sound very democratic when compared with American ideals.  In the process, however, we are treated to a look at what matters in leadership.  Samuel (speaking for the Lord) makes it clear from the beginning that he is not looking for the usual outward signs that seem sometimes to influence who gets elected.  “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . .; for the Lord does not see as mortals sees; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (vs. 7)   It’s interesting that, when David is chosen, he is nevertheless described as “ruddy” with “beautiful eyes” and “handsome.”  (vs. 12)   Oh well, they were only human—but is also true that we remember David as a person of sensitive heart (still with some significant shortcomings), a musician and sherpherd and poet.  And the Lord, through Samuel, has put before us an ideal the moves beyond looking only upon outward appearances.

It’s there in II Corinthians, chapter five, also, where Paul is, among other things, examining himself and trying to help his readers see into his heart.  He looks at his life and thinks it might be better if he made his way to be “at home with the Lord.”  (II Corinthians 5:6-8)   Drawing his readers to consider his ministry, he says, “We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart.”  (vs. 12)   Paul has already talked about walking “by faith, not by sight” (vs. 7), and now he contrasts the heart and outward appearance.  Those whose lives have been empowered by the love of Christ are called to see things in an entirely new way, regarding “no one from a human point of view.”  (vs. 15)   The infusion of love has the power to make it seem like “there is a new creation,” as if “everything has become new!”  (vs. 17)   Paul states, in considerations about being at home with the Lord, makes it clear that “whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”  (vs. 9)   It is not our outward physical circumstances that are the measure of our worth.  It is the aims of our hearts.  Psalm 20:7, included in this week’s readings, says, “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.  They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.”

We human beings are often impressed with size.  I am awed by deep canyons and majestic peaks, and, yes, I notice and admire the mansions along portions of the Columbia River north of Vancouver—even as I apply some critical judgment.  Human values often judge a family in terms of the size of their home.  Several of this week’s scriptures, however, remind us not to overlook the potential in what is small.

The reading from Mark compares the realm of God’s love to a mustard seed, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”  (Marks 4:31-32)   It is not the ultimate size that is important, but growth and bearing fruit and nurturing the life that settles in the branches of what grows from love.  Seeds are planted and something grows from them, “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”  (vss. 26-28)

Similarly, in the reading from Ezekiel, the Lord takes “a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar,” breaking off “a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs.”  (Ezekiel 17:22)   He plants it in order that “it may produce boughs and bear fruit . . . Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every king . . . I will bring low the high tree, I will make high the low tree.”  (vss. 23-24)

In measuring human worth, then, let’s not overlook the small within which there is great potential.  Let us look not just to those who flaunt their self-satisfied achievement; let us notice where growth is taking place, growth in inward being not just in outward appearances.

At age 72+ I find words in Psalm 92 challenging.  It again speaks of growth.  “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”  (vs. 12)   Then, these words: “In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.”  (vs. 14)   Okay, some days I feel like a sap.  More seriously, there are some days I feel a little dry and withered.  I read Paul’s words and wonder where life is taking me in these final decades.  In Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach (also author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull), a barn-storming pilot comes into possession of a “Messiah’s Handbook” filled with proverb-like words of wisdom.  One of them says, “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”

I’m alive!  You’re alive!  It isn’t over yet!  So, whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey, let’s consider what it would mean if we were to say, with Paul, “we make it our aim to please him.”

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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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