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Wednesday, August 08, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 AND Psalm 130:1-8 OR I Kings 19:4-8 AND Psalm 34:1-8, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, John 6:15:35, 41-41

Theologians—and anyone who has thought much about God—through the ages have developed contrasting images (or held them in tension) of where God is located. On the one hand God is beyond the reach of human existence and understanding, so totally removed from our humanity that to presume to touch God brings death. On the other hand, God is as close as the air we breath, inhabiting every tree and animal and plant, even taking on human form. When trouble strikes, we are particularly drawn to the God who is near at hand, sort of our own personal magician who will hold our hand and fix everything.

Biblically, there’s a lot of crying out to God as people face various hardships. The lectionary for this coming Sunday takes us first to King David as he weeps over the loss of his son Absalom.  Absalom is leader of a rebellion against his father’s forces, trying to usurp the throne. (See II Samuel 15:10, where we read that “Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, ‘As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then shout: Absalom has become king at Hebron!’”) This is the context in which an army of David (with Joab and Abishai and Ittai leading) “went out into the field against Israel,” that is against the rebels led by Absalom. (II Samuel 18:5-6)  Because David still loves his rebellious son (something many parents may be able to identify with), his instruction is to “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” (vs. 1)

We are reminded that “the battle was fought in the forest” and that “the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.” (vss. 6-8)  The forest wasn’t kind to Absalom, whose head was “caught fast” in “the thick branches of a great oak,” so that “he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.” (vs. 9)  We might wonder about the significance of being caught between heaven and earth (God who is far off and God who is near). We might think about trees as places of threat and places where people are sitting (maybe hiding or pouting, as in this week’s story of Elijah, or in a story about Jonah, or even in the story of Buddha receiving enlightenment under the Bo—or fig—tree).  It is not the tree, however, that does Absalom in.  Those who were warned to treat Absalom gently do not do so.  “Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.” (vs. 15)  When it is reported to David, the suggestion is that Absalom’s death was a good thing. “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.” (vs. 33)  For David, though, it was devastating. His son, from whom he was been estranged, died before there was any possibility of reconciliation.  Whose heart would not go out to David when we hear the cry, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I have died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”? (vs. 33)

If we went on in the story, we would find David’s functioning is affected by his grieving. The troops feel he is not grateful for what they have done. David, like so many who grieve, is not able to move on, until finally Joab urges him out of his depression. (See the beginning of II Samuel, chapter 19, where we skip over many complexities and intrigues.)

Elijah is another person who has difficulty moving on when life isn’t going well for him. He has successfully confronted the prophets of Baal, who were unable to bring fire down upon the sacrifices on the altar. (See the story in I Kings 18:20-40) Queen Jezebel hears about the prophets being humiliated and killed. (I Kings 19:1)  She sends a message to Elijah, saying that she will make his “life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (vs. 2)  When we get to the lectionary reading, Elijah, on the run, has stopped to rest “under a solitary broom tree.”  He wants to die.  “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life . . .” (vs. 4) As sometimes happens when we’re depressed, it seems like Elijah has probably not been bothering to eat. An angel appears twice, instructing him to “Get up and eat.” (vss. 5 & 7)  Whatever Elijah ate, it was not ordinary food.  Was it food for the spirit, bread from heaven?  It would take more than toasted rye to change this guy’s mood.  Whatever it was, it gave him a new start, enough that “he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights” (vs. 8)—and let’s not even get into the recurrent biblical symbolism of forty days and forty nights—time often spent in the wilderness seeking or awaiting renewal.

The stereotype is that there are many of us who seek the presence of the Lord only when we are in trouble. Certainly here are two stories of people who need the healing touch of divine power, love, and forgiveness. In the first lectionary Psalm, the poet cries “out of the depths.” (Psalm 130:1)  “Lord, hear my voice . . . I wait for the Lord; my soul waits . . . my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.” (vss. 2, 5-6)  I need the hope that is like the beginning of a fresh new day.  “In his word I hope . . . For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” (vss. 5 & 7)

The second Psalm is on the other side of the trouble.  It is not much comfort when we are in the midst of our turmoil, our loss, our frustration, our depression.  Too often we try to get people through such times by telling them that things will get better.  Yet, it is true that many of us, having been through devastating times, can look back and sing the praises found in Psalm 34.  “This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.” (Psalm 34:6)

The Elijah story is not the only one which involves eating.  Psalm 34:8, often used when we celebrate Communion, instructs, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”  It reminds us that, in recent weeks, the Gospel readings have centered on Jesus as “the bread of life,” “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:35, 48, 51), connections being made with “the manna in the wilderness.” (vs. 49)  The emphasis in this week’s reading seems to be upon that bread as something that will sustain one through all of eternity. (vss. 47, 50-51)

What catches my attention in this portion of the story, though, when we are trying to consider where we find the presence of God, the bread of eternity we need to sustain us in the midst of trouble, is the complaining. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (vs. 42)  Sometimes we’re looking too far into the “heavens” to notice the presence of heaven on the street corner in our home town, in the carpenter or teacher or friend who offers comfort when we are in need.  The shocking thing revealed in Jesus is that God is not in some far off heaven. God is walking the streets, riding the buses and trains and airplanes and ships and bicycles, of this life. Wherever love is, there is God.  Love is the bread which sustains life now and forever.

The reading from Ephesians puts it right on the bottom shelf.  What we need in our times of trouble is love embodied in everyday acts of truth and kindness.  Do we need to be recalled to the simple values of human relationship?  Living them is not always as simple as speaking them, but maybe we need to give it a try.

Tell the truth, don’t steal, work hard, don’t talk trash about other people (how about don’t talk trash at all), don’t be bitter and angry and contentious, be kind, forgive—and the list goes on. (See especially Ephesians 4:25, 28-29, 31-32)  Doing these things will not save us.  No one will live them to perfection.  They remind us, however, of where to look for God and how to live through times of trouble.  Pay attention to the relationships around us.  God is there, and we are to “be imitators of God.” (Ephesians 5:1)

Sound audacious?  Not if we remember that God is love.  It is God’s love, shown in Christ, that we are to imitate.  “Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” (Ephesians 5:2)  The values listed in this Ephesians passage embody God’s love.  They are all around us and in us if we pay attention, even in, maybe especially in, times of trouble.

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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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