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Tuesday, July 03, 2012


Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 AND Psalm 45:1-14 OR Ezekiel 2:1-5 AND Psalm 123:1-4, II Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

The debate has gone on for millennia.  Are human beings born good?  Maybe not.  Maybe we are supposed to go through life groveling because we are such sinners.  Perhaps when we are born we are like a blank sheet of paper, the good and the bad to develop as the forces of life write their destinies upon us.  I tend to think that the polarizing answers miss much of reality.  From years of observation and experience, I have come to the conclusion that there are both angels and demons at work in most of us—figuratively speaking, at least.

As human beings we have reason for both pride and humility, a theme I see in some of this Sunday’s lectionary readings.

Paul is one of those characters with enough swings in mood and behavior to elicit love and admiration as well as critical distancing.  He was known on occasion to boast.  He was proud of his work and of the people whose faith he had influenced.  At the same time, he was deeply aware of sin at work in his life.  Some of his writings are probably a main source of the groveling attitude among some Christians.

Paul was aware that people sometimes misused spiritual experiences by boasting about them, as if these experiences made them better than other believers.  In today’s reading from II Corinthians he speaks of being lifted into the heavens—into Paradise—where one might see unimaginable things.  (II Corinthians 12:2-4)   It’s part of a longer conversation about boasting (i.e., being prideful) starting in chapter 10.   In chapter 11, verse 16, he says, “Let no one think that I am a fool; but if you do, then accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little.”  Who wouldn’t want to brag about some of the things Paul had been through?

Throughout these chapters, though, Paul also speaks of humility and weakness.  Ultimately, he says that he is content to boast of his weakness.  (vs. 9)   “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities, for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (vs. 10)  

We have reason for both pride and humility.  We have strengths and weaknesses.  We do not need to stand on the mountaintop shouting our success nor do we need to grovel in the gutter denying all goodness.  Both angels and demons are at work in us.

When we are too prideful, Paul suggests, we are acting as if we have gotten where we are purely through out own effort.  God works in us equally by giving us strength in our weakness.  One of my mother’s favorite verses, posted above the kitchen sink in the house where I was reared, are in verse 9, where God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  She battled the demons of mental illness for many years and was what some have called a “wounded healer,” deeply touching the lives of many by affirming their worth and potential.  She saw in them the angels crying out for release.

We don’t expect much of weakness and humility.  Jesus comes from humble beginnings, so when he shows up in his hometown and begins to teach in the synagogue, people say, “Where did this man get all this? . . . Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  (Mark 6:2-3)   When Nathaniel first hears about Jesus he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

As the story continues, Jesus instructs his disciples to go out humbly, simply, dependent upon others for their well-being.  “He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bed, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”  (Mark 6:8-9)   They are not to demand their rights, pridefully imposing themselves on those who won’t receive them.  They are just to move on to places where they will be able to exercise their gifts.  (vss. 11-13)   It is difficult for human beings to go about their work with that kind of humility.  We want to be noticed, appreciated, perhaps even applauded.  Like Paul we struggle between boasting and humility as the angels and demons do battle within.

The reading from II Samuel might make us think of David and his achievements—a man of great accomplishment as well as a man who dark side occasionally surfaced.  Although from humble beginnings and of sometimes sensitive nature, he was not a very humble king.  The applause of an entire nation certainly fed his ego.  Our reading contains a short commentary on his rise to kingship.  (II Samuel 5:1-3)   He was thirty years old and reigned for forty years, we are told.  (vs. 4)   And the passage ends with these words: “David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”  (vs. 10)   We might consider the pride of one who is certain that they are doing exactly what God wants them to do.  Here it is sufficient to see David as another example of the humanity that is characteristic of us all.  We have the capacity for great pride, and yet have many reasons to remain humble.  Angels and demons are at work in us all.

Sometimes we take pride in our cities and nations.  We want other peoples and nations to stand in awe of us, perhaps even cower before us.  Psalm 48 depicts such a reality.  It is a hymn of pride about Zion (Jerusalem, Israel).  “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, His holy mountains, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion.”  (vss. 1-2) “Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers . . .”  (vs. 12)   When the kings of the world see it they panic and take flight, “trembling took hold of the . . . , pains as of a woman in labor.”  (vss. 4-6)   Hear the words of writers in The Interpreter’s Bible who title their exposition on this Psalm, “The Power and Peril of National Pride.”  “The claims made for superiority in wisdom and wealth and power very often invite the challenge of others who for equally good reasons make equally impressive claims.  Since both are in a measure right, their boasts engender fear . . . The history of nationalist and religious and civil wars reveals that they have often been fought for no more important reason than the gratification of group egotism.”  No wonder Paul is ambivalent about boasting.

The second Psalm speaks of pride as holding others in “contempt.”  In this case, it is God’s people who “have had more than enough of contempt . . . of the contempt of the proud.”  (Psalm 123:3-4)   In the midst of such contempt, they cry out for mercy.
In the short reading from Ezekiel, Israel is described as “a nation of rebels.”  (Ezekiel 2:3)   One would have to get into the history of these exiled people, many of whom blamed their exile on God and/or saw it as punishment for sin.  One might consider what it was they might have rebelled against and what ideals of nationhood this prophetic message was urging them to reinstate.  Let’s just be reminded how easy it is for us to stray from the ideals that sustain the human spirit and its relationships.  Sometimes pride is a factor in our straying.  We have become so good, so accomplished, so praised, that such ideals don’t matter any longer.  Certainly part of the debate in our nation today is about the ideals that will guide us.  It is the struggle between the angels and demons that are at work in all of us.

Note once again that I’m not talking about a literal cosmic battle going on in our psyches, although I wouldn’t entirely dismiss such a possibility.  Rather I am reminding us that we have the potential for both good and bad within us, that there is a sense they are part of every decision we make, every action we make. 

We can be proud of the good we have accomplished and continue to accomplish, but we can only do so with a great deal of humility.


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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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