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Friday, August 24, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: I Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43 AND Psalm 84:1-12 OR Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 AND Psalm 34:15-22, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69

Most believers would agree that it is important to stay close to God. Those who give high priority to observable facts, though, may wonder how we can stay close to God if we can’t see God or aren’t quite sure where God is. One might think the Hebrews had it pretty well figured out with this Ark of the Covenant thing. The Covenant, carried in the Ark, represented God’s presence. Wherever the Ark of the Covenant was, there God was. We know, of course, that their understand was more varied and sophisticated than that, but that’s where we start this week.

In the first Old Testament reading for this Sunday, after Solomon has completed construction of the new temple, the Ark is moved from its old location on Mount Zion in Jerusalem to the temple where it is to symbolize God’s presence there. (I Kings 8:1 & 6) Solomon himself, however, realizes the God he worships is bigger than that. In his prayer of dedication for the new temple, he includes these words, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (vs. 27) He recognizes the holiness of the place, that people will come here to pray. Solomon asks that when the people of Israel pray “toward this place, O hear in heaven your dwelling place; hear and forgive.” (vs. 30)

Many Christians today have transferred some of these sentiments to the building where their congregation meets on Sunday. It is a holy place, a place to find the presence of God. They might pray with the Psalmist in Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! . . . Happy are those who live in your house . . . For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of the wilderness.” (Psalm 84:1, 4, 10)

I believe there are holy places, places that have, for whatever reasons, a sense of sacredness about them. We need to take care, however, in identifying specific buildings with the presence of the Lord. We need to avoid seeing the sanctuary as a place where we go to seal ourselves off from all that is impure. Even Solomon’s prayer includes a surprising element of inclusiveness. The temple came to be called “a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7, where the context is the inclusion of foreigners and eunuchs) Solomon’s prayer includes these words; “ . . . when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel . . . comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you . . .” (I Kings 8:41-43)

Clearly staying close to God is not a matter of shutting oneself off to avoid contamination. God’s presence reaches out to include. When we seek to be close to God, we find ourselves invited to be part of that inclusive love.

A couple of the other lectionary readings remind us that there are still distinctions to be made. The Bible and religious people often seem to make stark contrasts that progressive Christians don’t find entirely comfortable. Psalm 34 contrasts the fact that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous” with the observation that “the face of the Lord is against evildoers. (Psalm 34:15-16) There are the righteous and there are the evil. If one is to seek to be close to God one better be among the righteous. The life and world in which I live seems to be a little more subtle in its contrasts. I find both righteousness and evil in myself and in those around me. Remember Paul’s words in the seventh chapter of Romans: “I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do what I know is right. I do the things I hate . . . Even when I want to do right, I cannot. Instead of doing what I know is right, I do wrong . . . The Law has shown me that something in me keeps me from doing what I know is right.” (Romans 7:15 and following)

The reading from Ephesians depicts life as a battle. The spirits of good and evil are waging war all around us. (Ephesians 6:12) We are to “put on the whole armor of God” to withstand the forces of evil. (vss. 11 & 13) The pieces of armor are described. We are to put on truth, righteousness, readiness to stand for the gospel of peace, salvation, and the word of God. (vss. 14-17) I remember when I was a kid, a bit obnoxious in my adherence to Fundamentalism, I participated in the kid’s parade at the Strawberry Festival in my hometown. I was dressed in the armor of a knight, each part labeled according to the designations in this verse.

Christians are sometimes offensive in the way they participate in the battles of life, but that doesn’t mean that there are no battles to be fought, no choices to be made. This season’s political debate has certainly made that clear. The question before us is how we join in that battle. How do we treat our “enemies”—or do we think of them as “enemies” all? Do we somehow reach out in inclusive love affirming that they are God’s children also? I’m not sure I know how to do that at times. I know that I need to be guided by the presence of God, seeking the things identified in Ephesians as armor. Perhaps the key word is “seeking” rather than claiming sole possession of. The final three verses of the reading from Ephesians, in fact, focus upon prayer. Want to stay close to God? “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” (vs. 18)

Going back to the stark contrasts of Psalm 34, note these words tucked away in verse 18. “The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” This Psalm is not about an arrogant righteousness. It is a word to those who may feel abandoned by God in their moments of weakness and loss and oppression. It is in those humble moments that they may suddenly find that they are truly close to God. Perhaps if we want to stay close to God, we must do so in a humble spirit, seeking out the “outsiders” and fighting for their rights and dignity, reminding them that God’s love is big enough to include us all, healing the divisions and renewing our spirits.

Finally, we come to the Gospel lesson, another continuation of the lectionary’s extended attention to the feeding of the five thousand and how it is to be interpreted. In this week’s reading, Jesus is still talking strangely about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. (John 6:56) The focus here is upon how difficult it seems for his hearers to understand. Some find it offensive. His disciples say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus asks, “Does this offend you?” (vss. 60-61) We are told that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (vs. 66)

We are brought, in this long story, to a point of choice. Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” (vs. 67) Following Jesus is difficult. Staying close to him is not easy. Are we up to the task of seeking that closeness? Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

It may not be entirely clear whether Peter’s response is a resounding declaration of faith. Perhaps it contains an element of resignation. The path is not always exciting and exuberant and easy to understand, but here we are and we’ll hang in there. Listen to Wallace Buber, writing on this passage in the Aug. 22 edition of The Christian Century:

“Maybe the real miracle in the sixth chapter of John wasn’t that 5,000 people were fed at the beginning, but that a dozen were still left at the end . . . Jesus . . . understood that following him was no picnic . . . I’ve always detected in Peter’s words a little hint of exasperation, almost as if he were shrugging his shoulders, throwing his arms up in the air and exclaiming something like: ‘Look, we don’t understand you either, Jesus. We don’t get you any better than any of the others did. But what other choice do we have? Where else can we go?’ . . . His is a declaration of faith in an ambiguous world like ours and for people like us, who don’t understand everything about Jesus and have plenty of unanswered questions, but keep hanging in there with him anyway.” Buber, pastor of Overbrook Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, goes on to tell a story about a young man who joined their new member class. “He’d been a Unitarian . . . He wasn’t sure if he was a skeptic, a seeker of an agnostic, but he was pretty sure he was not a Presbyterian.” Buber tried to answer his questions, but the young man left the class saying, “Thanks. I appreciate your time, but I just don’t think this is for me.” Next Sunday, to Buber’s surprise, he showed up for worship. It was Communion Sunday. He came and received the elements. “After the service,” Buber says, “I greeted him and said, ‘Hey, I didn’t expect to be seeing you again.’ He smiled and shrugged, the way I imagine Peter shrugged.”

The passage from John ends with a declaration of belief, but what is belief finally but trust? In seeking to stay close to God we are not likely to reach some point of full understanding. On some days at least, all we are able to do is shrug our shoulders and hang in there. And with that I shrug mine.

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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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