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Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures:
All Saints Day: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 OR Isaiah 25:6-9 AND Psalm 24:1-10, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
Sunday, Nov. 4, if not celebrated as “All Saints Sunday”: Ruth 1:1-8 AND Psalm 146:1-10 OR Deuteronomy 6:1-9 AND Psalm 119:1-8, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34

The lectionary offers a set of readings for Sunday, Nov. 4, if it is not celebrated as All Saints Sunday. If it is, then the lectionary readings for All Saints Day (Nov. 1) are to be used. Of course, in the free church tradition we are not bound by any particular set of readings so we’ll just have to come on Sunday and find out what happens.

The various optional lectionary texts are numerous and diverse enough that I’ll suggest three topics for exploration with questions and suggestions in each category. In some way, I see them all as calling us to consider “Things of Enduring Significance”.

In the readings for Sunday, Nov. 4, I see a focus on the principles upon which we build our lives. What are the enduring values, and what the Bible sometimes calls commandments or laws, that are worth living and dying for? What principles and values hold the universe, and human relationships in particular, together?

In the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Ten Commandments, recorded among other places in the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, provide a framework for living in full relationship and harmony with God and one another. The next chapter, from which one of this Sunday’s readings is taken, can be read as a summary of the content and significance of those commandments. The summary, a centerpiece of Jewish worship, is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The Hebrew people (and we?) are instructed to immerse ourselves in the truth of the commandments and to pass their values on to future generations. “Keep these words . . . in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them . . . Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (vss. 6-9)

While the external symbols may seem a bit much to some of us, they remind us of how important it is to have things that keep us rooted and grounded in values that endure. In the church of my childhood, I remember that one would not think of walking to church without carrying one’s Bible. The Bible was visible in a prominent place in the home, and no other book was ever placed on top of it. Those were empty rituals, to be sure, if one did not keep the words in one’s heart, but what are the rituals in our lives today that remind us to pay attention to and live by enduring values and principles?

In the Gospel lesson from Mark Jesus draws upon Deuteronomy in presenting his summary of the commandments. He is asked by a scribe to identify the two most important commandments. Jesus first quotes directly from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 about loving God with all one’s being. (Mark 12:28-31) Then he adds, from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) It’s amusing that the scribe sees himself in a position to pat Jesus on the head (well, not literally) and tell him he got the answers right. (Mark 12:32) When the scribes repeats the answers back to Jesus, Jesus returns him the compliment and says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (vs. 34)

Psalm 119, a long chapter which extols the virtues of God’s commandments, laws, statutes, and precepts, offers these words in the lectionary readings for today: “Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart . . . O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!” (vss. 2 & 5)

If principles and values, commandments and laws, are one place to look for things that endure, relationships are another. The four act drama recorded in the short book of Ruth is about enduring relationships that cross lines of tribal identity. A family from Bethlehem in Judah (the heartland of Jewish identity) travel to the country of Moab. They are Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. (vs. 2) Elimilech dies and the two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. (vss. 3-4) Naomi and her two daughters-in-law are left alone when Naomi’s two sons die. (vs. 5) When Naomi decides to return to her homeland, her two daughters-in-law insist that they are going with her. (vss. 6-10) Naomi tries to send them back, but Ruth refuses (vss. 11-15), declaring her heartfelt commitment in those words familiar to many: “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there I will be buried.” (vss. 16-17) If we read to the end of the story, we would find that Ruth marries and is part of the line of Jesus ancestry with her name listed in Matthew 1:5.

For now, it is sufficient to reflect on the relationships that endure in our lives. What lines are we prepared to cross in the name of loyalty? What legacy comes from the relationships to which we are loyal?

If principle and values and relationships are among the things that endure, religion has always addressed the enduring significance of human life itself—often in terms of an afterlife. All of the readings from All Saints Day, a day when we remember those who have gone on before us, have a perspective on the endurance of life.

The Wisdom of Solomon speaks of peace and immortality. “ . . . the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God . . . they are at peace . . . their hope is full of immortality.” (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-4) Isaiah presents a picture of “all peoples” gathered for “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Isaiah 25:6) Death is swallowed up forever (vs. 7) and “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” (vs. 8) The book of Revelation, speaking of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1), picks up the same theme. “ . . . he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (vs. 4) Note that the picture here is of God dwelling “among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” (vs. 3) This vision of new beginnings sounds less like some ethereal heaven than God entering into the lives of human beings—perhaps something like the kingdom of heaven in our midst that Jesus sometimes spoke of. John, chapter eleven, the story of the death of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, offers the image of resurrection as a way of overcoming death. (John 11:44) Various elements of the story cry for attention (Jesus relationship with Mary and Martha (vss. 32-33 & 39-40), Jesus’ tears (vss. 33 & 35), Jesus words, “Unbind him and let him go,” (vs. 44), as well as the parallels between this story and Jesus’ own resurrection), but for now I include it as another perspective on life as something that endures.

All these readings call us to reflect on what our hope is with regard to the endurance of our lives, the principles and values that we have lived for, the mark of living and dying makes upon the world. And, as we celebrate All Saints Day, what of those who have gone before us?
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Job42:1-6, 19-17 AND Psalm 34:1-22 OR Jeremiah 31:7-9 AND Psalm 126:1-6, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10: 46-52

I grew up with a significant extended family. We gathered regularly for special occasions, large family feasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas, for instance. Most of us lived near enough to one another that the cousins played and fished, even double-dated, together. Our best friends were often family members, and even if not viewed as the closest of friends, they were assumed to be part of the regular dynamic of our life. That kind of family connectedness is rare these days, especially as we have become separated by great geographical distance and blended families have become more common.

I also grew up in a small town were it seemed liked everybody knew everybody else. All the business people on main street knew who we were. Only a hardware store owner who knew little 5-year old Jimmie Ogden would understand when he came in to buy a half pint of red paint as a Christmas present for his mother.

We lived on one side of the city park which was two blocks on each side. We knew who lived in every house around that park and the kids met in the middle to swim in the pool, swing on the swings, play hide and seek in the woods.

I’m not sure many grow up with the kind of sense of community today.

Some would suggest that I’m just an old fogey who ignores the movement of community onto the internet. I wonder, though, whether short tweets or text and e-mail messages where one never hears the inflections of voice or varieties of facial expression can fully stand in for the kind of community I have experienced as I’ve connected with and worked and played with various groups throughout my life. Can such a medium bear the weight of human joy and sorrow, hope and despair, handholding and meaning-building that constitute the community many of us long for? While I’m fully ready to aknowledge that the internet has facilitated connections undreamed of a few decades back, rallying people to thought and action in astounding ways, I wonder if it has also contributed to the lack of civility that rants and raves its way through so much of human discourse. I don’t know. I know that the human heart longs for connection. We were not meant to be alone. The popularity of the internet is partly fueled by that desire for connection.

My reflection on that desire is triggered by this week’s lectionary readings and the discussion of them that occurred during the weekly breakfast gathering that brings together some of the Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ folk at Mehri’s Café. They made me think about restoration, reparation, restitution, even forgiveness, which is a form of restoration.

What is the nature of the restoration we seek? In the reading from Job, after his long time of testing and trial we are surprised to find that “the Lord restored” his “fortunes . . . and gave Job twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42: 10) Many biblical scholars believe this account of restoration is the addition of a later editor who just couldn’t stand to have the story end with Job finding some kind of resolution in the midst of his humbled estate. It takes away, in my opinion, from a message which can help people see that the meaning of life is not in the wealth to which they at times cling so tightly. Nevertheless, this added ending points to one kind of restoration.

The reading from Jeremiah speaks of the restoration of a homeland. The scattered people of Israel at brought “from the land of the north . . . from the farthest parts of the earth.” (Jeremiah 31:8) “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back . . .” (vs. 9) Psalm 126 celebrating the same restoration says, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” (Psalm 126:2)

Land cannot be the last measure of restoration. History traces the movement of peoples into territories already occupied by others, or the exercise of a forced sovereignty over those who have been unjustly treated. How do oppressed and oppressor ever find healing for what happened as Europeans rolled over the natives that occupied the Americas, or to Africans (and others throughout history) who were forced into slavery, or Jews who were victims of Nazi holocaust, or Japanese-Americans who were placed in Detention Centers? Demands have been made and responses have attempted to pay reparations or make restitution, but restoration of trust and relationship and equity is difficult to come by.

The book of Hebrews gives a deep theological interpretation to the whole question of restoration, seeing Jesus as a high priest who restores all the brokeness of our lives and relationships “once for all when he offered himself” as the ultimate sacrifice. (Hebrews 7:27) I don’t intend to try to take us through the writer’s logical argument right now. The verse I have quoted might cause us to ask whether restoration is an ongoing process or something that happens only once. While the overall flow of the biblical narrative is from innocence to fall to restoration and consummation, I’ve come to see these things much more as an onoging process than a sequence of events. Restoration, like forgiveness, is something that happens on seventy-times seven, or more, occasions. Restoration is a daily experience, if we open ourselves to it.

The Gospel lesson points us to the restoration of sight. I don’t want to dismiss the literal restoration of physical sight, but as one who is not physically blind (and most of us are not) I have to look at the possible deeper meaning of seeing. Zen Buddhism says that the meaning of life is to see. Jesus talks about people with eyes who cannot see. Do we need our vision restored so that we can see the world around us, see the paths in which Jesus would have us walk?

It’s a rich story that is told about this blind beggar. The disciples try to keep him from bothering Jesus, but Jesus asks to speak with him. (Mark 10:46-49) Jesus does not, however, say, “I’m here to restore you. I have the solution to your problems.” He asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (vs. 51) The man’s healing begins with his recognition of his need.

Our breakfast discussion took us down the path of exploring the need for restoration of community. Relationships of all kind are broken in our world. We don’t connect with one another. Job’s story can be read as an experience in losing the extended community of which he was a part, his family. The friends who try to comfort him are not much help. They don’t take the time to listen and feel his pain. So the restoration that amazes us, and offends some, can be read as the restoration of community. The blind beggar can be seen as one who is alienated from the community, who has no community of support. Even the disciples’ initial response is one of exclusion. Jesus, on the other hand, reaches out to include him.

The need for community seems to be deep within us, whether we are seeking justice or sharing of joys and sorrows, moments or intimate friendship, or forgiveness and healing because of some inner torment or hateful act. Restoration, the breakfast group decided, can only happen when we work hard to establish relationships across lines of separation and open ourselves to God’s presence and action in those relationships. Acts of reparation and resitution, confession and forgiveness, may grow out of such relationships, but it begins with asking questions of one another and listening to the responses and experiences we have to share.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Job38:1-7, 34-41 AND Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c OR Isaiah 53:4-12 AND Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-35

The longer I live, the more I realize how much I don’t know—and how much of what I know, I don’t understand. I grew up in a tradition, both religious and secular, where it was assumed we knew the answers, or at least could and should.  I still am a seeker after truth, both religious and scientific, but there’s much more awareness of the “seeker” part of it. I appreciate every bit of enlightenment that comes my way, but I will never know or understand the whole of the mystery that is God and creation and humanity.

There’s a whole approach to religion and religious experience that focuses on mystery. It’s called mysticism. God is not found in our words and intellectual systems, but in the experience of God’s presence beyond those words and systems.

A book with which many mystics find affinity is the anonymous 14th century writing, The Cloud of Unknowing. It proposes that the only way to truly "know" God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of "unknowingness," at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God. It counsels the seeking of God through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. William Johnston summarizes the books message as follows: "God can be loved but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts. So less thinking and more loving."

I’m not ready to give up all thinking, nor are most mystics, but, like Job, I at times need to be reminded of the limits of my sometimes arrogant claim to knowledge and understanding. In this week’s lectionary reading from Job, after Job has endured lengthy counsel from his friends as they try to enlighten him in the midst of his complaints, God enters the conversation, speaking out of a whirlwind. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God asks, wanting to know whether Job was there at the beginning of creation, “when the morning stars sang together . . .” (Job 38:1-7) God fires question after question as God challenges Job. “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” (vs. 36)

A scientist hearing God’s questions might say, “Well, we have answers to some of those questions. And we’re working on others. We’ve come close to looking into the very moment when the universe exploded into existence.” God’s challenge, however, is not so much about all the specifics. It’s a reminder of how much we don’t know or control, a reminder that sometimes we need to look at and experience the mystery that is life and respond in complete awe.

That’s what the Psalmist does in Psalm 104. His observations of the natural world parallel the list of God’s questions to Job, ending with a cry of praise, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures,” and, a few verses later, “Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 104:24 & 35)

Next week I'll have before me a reading from Job that takes us to the mystical core of the book. In Job 42:3-5, Job responds to the God who speaks out of the whirlwind : “ . . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you . . .”

We are often full of words. I fill up this blog with words every week. We gather on Sunday and hang on the words of Pastor Rick as he challenges and inspires us. In contrast to many churches, including the kind I grew up in, our words often convey an awareness of and openness to mystery.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent that in our approach to Jesus. In my early years we had formulas that we repeated to describe what Jesus had done for us. Give them credit; those formulas were linked with a life-changing inner experience. Then came years of struggle to find interpretations that satisfied the mind, words that could capture the overwhelming reality of a gracious love which seemed to fill life and its relationships at times.

The one at the heart of Christianity is not a sports hero, an entertainment star, a general leading the troops into battle. As much as I have enjoyed Jesus Christ, Superstar, I find that image alien to the reality of the Jesus I encounter in the New Testament. I’m much more fond of the Jesus in Godspell, but it is not a playful friend we find in Isaiah.

Isaiah, in one of this week’s readings, talks about one we have come to call a “Suffering Servant.” The writer may have had in mind a particular king or perhaps he saw the entire nation as the servant he was describing. The description came to be associated with the anticipated Messiah and thus with Jesus himself. Isaiah 53 paints a picture of one who suffers for the sins of others, one who gives himself, at great cost, to bring healing. “ . . . he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; . . . by his bruises we are healed.” (vs.5) What foolishness. We see God at work in such a person? Why can’t we just admire and try to emulate a superhero?

The Gospel lesson, though, makes it clear that servanthood is the way to which we are called. It’s built into the very structure of reality. James and John are after positions of privilege. (Mark 10:37) Jesus says that all he can guarantee them is the way of a servant. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant . . .” (vss. 42-43)

Did you ever hear anything so foolish? I can’t find words that take away the foolishness and mystery of such truth. All I can do is try to (or open myself to) experience and live into the mystery that is behind and beyond all the words.

In this election season we might note that this “suffering servant” is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus or calling us to live as servants. This “suffering servant” was seen as a king, a king who was defined by his giving spirit in relation to his people. What candidate for president or other public office would be ready to define himself or herself as a “suffering servant”?

The book of Hebrews presents Jesus as a high priest. A high priest, we are told, is one who “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” (Hebrews 5:2) If that’s the model for a high priest, what does it say about Jesus? Jesus is called “a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” (vs. 10) Melchizedek was a king/priest who gave his blessing to Abraham. (See Genesis 14:18-19 & Psalm 110:4) Here’s a leader who is a compassionate priest. In God’s order rulers do not “lord it over” others. (Mark 10:42) “ . . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” (vs. 43)

Finally, it’s almost as if Psalm 91 has been thrown in to confuse us. People in biblical times struggled with various images of leadership just as much as we do. They wanted someone to come and rescue them and keep them safe, one who had “the Most High” as a “dwelling place.” (Psalm 91:9) Many words have been written and spoken through the ages about what constitutes an ideal leader. It’s a worthy conversation, but the most important realities are often beyond words. The mystics invite us into “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Those who want their truths tied up in neat packages are hesitant to accept the invitation. The mystics claim that it is in that cloud that we may see more clearly than we’ve ever seen before.

Isn’t it interesting that “the cloud” has become what seems to many of us to be sort of a mystical place of information storage in cyberspace? Whatever the nature of the cloud, wherever it is, there’s lot more to life than meets the eye, and there’s a lot more to Jesus than what can be contained by language, verbal, written, or digital.
Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Job 21:1-9, 16-17 AND Psalm 22:1-5 OR Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 AND Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

Every Tuesday morning at 8:30 A.M. we gather at a small neighborhood café for breakfast and . . . What comes after the “and” is unpredictable. There are usually ten or fifteen of us—members and friends of Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ—mostly lay people. I often suggest one or more themes for possible discussion. When I stop, I never know what’s going to happen.. Some weeks the concerns at the top of our minds or overflowing from our hearts leap out and carry us forward into a time of sharing. Some weeks the lectionary triggers deep spiritual/theological discussion.

This morning was a “surprise” week. I suggested discussing “the absence of God,’ not abstractly, but as a experiential reality. Saints through the ages, and as we will see (if we don’t already know) biblical writers, went through those times when it seemed as if they had been abandoned by God. “Where are you God?”, they cried out. “What are the things that happen that lead to that feeling of abandonment?”, I asked.

We spun our wheels with a few attempts to offer observations and then there was a surprising turn. Someone grabbed hold of a passing phrase in Mark 10:19. Jesus is reminding someone (usually referred to as the rich young ruler) of some of the commandments, one of which is “Honor your father and mother.” Those five words became a foil for a mother struggling with relationships with her adult children. She wanted to hear what we all had experienced in relationships with our parents and children. All of us talked about the difficulty in maintaining intimacy in some of those relationships. Sometimes parents don’t feel loved or honored by their children. Sometimes children feel controlled and unloved by their parents.

As I sat through, and participated in, the discussion, I found myself feeling like this was a week when we’d left the lectionary (except for the tenuous connection with this one verse) and dealt with needs that begged for attention right now in this moment of gathering with others on the road of life. As the discussion died down, though, I realized that we’d been dealing with the heart of my suggested theme, in very concrete terms where life is lived.

This week’s lectionary readings include a look at what it feels like when our relationship with God is not what we had hoped for. Relationships are fragile whether we’re talking about God or parents and children or families or friends. It’s not uncommon for one or more parties to a relationship to feel abandoned, to wonder whether the other loves him or her.

Sometimes it feels like someone in the relationship “hangs up” on the other. We’re talking on the phone and suddenly there’s no one there—figuratively if not literally—experientially if not objectively. The reference to “hang ups” in the title also calls attention to the fact that we all live with “hang ups”—foibles, quirks, short-comings, even lapses of civility—as we go through life and try to maintain relationships.

Wherever you go from this week’s lectionary readings, here’s a quick look at them.

Whoever called Job “patient” didn’t read very carefully. Today’s reading from chapter 23 is only one of the places where his “complaint is bitter.” (vs. 2) He wants to lay his case before God (vs. 4), but he can’t find God. “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him . . . If only I could vanish is darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!” (vs. 8-9 & 17) Job feels abandoned. These are not the words of a patient man, but of a man in anguish, and the Bible includes his cries in its depiction of the human struggle. There are times in life when we cannot move ahead without sharing our deep agony with our friends—although Job, in this case, didn’t find his friends too helpful.

The portion of Psalm 22 offered in this week’s lectionary reading continues the same kind of complaint, beginning with the words spoken by Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (vs. 1) Many try to soften Jesus’ words by reference to the entire Psalm in which the Psalmist is undergirded by faith, but the agony expressed here, and by Jesus, are real. “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest . . . I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people . . . I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heat is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” (vss. 2, 6, 14-16) Kind of makes one want to run the other way, yet anytime and anywhere we try to maintain human and/or divine relationships, we may find our hearts breaking, may need a supportive listening ear.

The other Psalm (90) is a bit more upbeat, but still seems to come from a place of struggle. “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! . . . Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.” (Psalm 90:13 & 15)

It is not always just our inner turmoil or fragile relationships that trigger feelings of abandonment. When Amos, and others of the prophets, observe the injustice around them, it breaks their hearts. Amos, in chapter five, verse eleven, talks about those “who trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain . . . who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” Although, in this case, it is the rich who are “hanging up” on, not listening and responding to, the poor, conditions of injustice sometimes make us wonder where God is. Why doesn’t God do something about it? Amos doesn’t offer a lot of specifics for action, even suggesting that such evil times may call for silence, or, when he says, “the prudent will keep silent in such a time,” is he challenging those who would be prudent? (Amos 5:13) In this reading, Amos’ basic message is, “Seek good and not evil . . . Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate . . .” (vss. 14-15) As we try to live through crises of relationship, human and divine, rather than focus on our hurt and sense of abandonment, perhaps we need to put our energy into seeking and loving what is good, for ourselves, for our families, for the world around us.

Hebrews depicts Jesus as a great high priest in the sacrificial system familiar to the Jews of the time. Today’s few verses speak of him as a high priest who is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses . . . one who in every respect has been tested as we are . . .” (Hebrews 4:15) Jesus shows us a God who feels our pain. When our earthly relationships are ruptured, God has not gone away to some other place. God is right there with us in the middle of that brokenness, feeling it with us. Maybe we’re looking in the wrong place. Maybe we were expecting something else of God. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus represents a God where we may “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (vs. 16)

The Gospel lesson is the story of a man who comes to Jesus and asks about the way to eternal life. (Mark 10:17) His story might cause us to ask, when we feel like God is not as close as we would like, what are the things that get in our way? Where is our attention focused that we are missing God’s presence, that we are unable to connect with the eternal? In this man’s case, it was his possessions. He has kept all the commandments (vs. 19), but Jesus tells him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor . . .” (vs. 21) The man is unable to let go. (vs. 22) Sometimes we are unable to let go of whatever it is that leads to feelings of abandonment. We can only move on when we are willing to let go.

Mark’s version of the story includes something that is not in Matthew and Luke. Jesus, when he looked at this man “loved him,” we are told in verse twenty-one. It is an amazing observation that changes the tone of the whole story. Jesus continues to love us even when we are clinging to things that make it hard for that love to get through. That persistent love makes all the difference.

If we abandon ourselves to that love, rather than wallowing in feelings of being abandoned, it will prove to be stronger than all our “hang ups”.
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Job 1:1, 2:1-10 AND Psalm 26:1-2 OR Genesis 2:18-24 AND Psalm 8:1-9, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

I had a colleague who at times got a bit overzealous in pushing his pet projects on his congregation. One day one of his parishioners turned to him and asked, “Who died and made you chairman of the board of the universe?”  I’ve been a bit of a control freak myself.  I like to believe that that tendency has been much-tempered in retirement and after a life of realizing there’s lots that happens beyond our control. There are nevertheless tendencies in many of us to want to have the powers of God.

Some of this week’s scriptures suggest that, indeed, we are to count ourselves right up there close to God. Most of us who claim to be followers of Jesus have at least heard ourselves described as being “created in the image of God.”  Genesis 1:27, for instance, says, “ . . . God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

In this week’s lectionary readings we have the familiar Psalm 8 which looks around at the majesty of all creation and wonders, “What are human beings that your are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (vs. 4)  The musing continues with the observation, “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” (vs. 5)  (Some translations say, “a little lower than angels.” Either way it’s a pretty high view of humanity.)

The lectionary reading from Hebrews harks back to Psalm 8, noting that it says God subjected “all things under their feet,” i.e., the feet of human beings.  Hebrews take this quite literally—to the extreme. “Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control.” (Hebrews 2:6-8)  There’s power and control for those who would be God.

The writer of Hebrews is quick to note that “we do not yet see everything in subjection to them.” (vs. 8)  The fact is that starting from early childhood we learn that not everything is under our control.  There is much that happens to us that we would never have imagined, in some cases never have wished for.  Some of it is good; some, not so good.

Job is one who thought of himself as almost God-like in his perfection, and discovered it didn’t exempt him from the bad things in life.  In fact, in today’s reading he asks, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10)

The book of Job was written, in my opinion, as a drama.  The drama pictures a contest in which God allows Satan to do everything he can to destroy Job’s faith.  For centuries human beings have been asking why bad things happen to good people. 

As the drama unfolds, Job loses his health, wealth, and family.  Three friends sit with him and try to offer him comfort and understanding, but their answers are unsatisfying.  He rues the day he was born, (See Job 3:1), but Job never loses his faith.  Job is being tried and offers a lengthy defense (see especially Job chapters 29-31), after which a fourth young “comforter” rebukes them all and comes to the defense of God.  God shows up in a whirlwind and asks who is Job to try to outguess God (Job chapters 38-41).  Job realizes that he has to come to grips with the mysteries of life, that he can’t control all the outcomes (Job chapter 42).

One way to read the story is through the lens of integrity and self-righteousness.  I suspect Job was a little bit difficult to live with.  Is God perhaps even speaking a little tongue-in-cheek when he says of Job, “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity . . .” (Job 2:3)?  The Hebrew word for integrity here can imply perfection.  A person who thinks he or she is perfect, or a perfectionist, can be kind of offensive, perhaps not inclined to bow humbly before his or her God.  Indeed, Job’s wife right off, says to Job, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” (Job 2:9)  Job never curses God, but his final accuser’s words are described as a condemnation of Job’s “self-righteousness.” (See the heading for chapter 35 in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.)  Job has a bit of a superiority complex and throughout is thoroughly defensive about the fact that he is right on every count.  We get that way when we try to be like God and control everything.  In essence God’s lengthy words spoken from the whirlwind ask, “Who do you think you are?  God?”

Psalm 26 picks up the same theme. David declares twice, “I have walked in my integrity.” (vss. 1 & 11)

Maybe we can go overboard in trying to take on the role of God, in trying to control every event in our own lives and in the lives of those around us, but the earlier readings still affirm that there is something of God in us to be celebrated.  At the same time, we need the humility to remember the “little lower” in those declarations. There is always a power at work beyond us, but it is also the power that is work within us.

So how do the other lectionary readings for this Sunday fit in?

The account of Genesis found in chapter two differs from the earlier account.  This one unfolds almost as if God were going about it trial and error.  First a man is formed, but that doesn’t seem to be enough.  One man alone is not enough.  To be human is to be in relationship.  It’s basic to human identity and functioning.  So God decides to make a helper. (Genesis 2:18—Let’s not read too much into that word.  Biblically, a helper is not necessarily a subordinate.  God is described as our helper.  A helper can be a superior, an equal, or an inferior.)  Animals seem to be the first attempt to find a helper, “but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:19-20—Note the word “partner” which implies equality.)  So God tries again, making a woman from the rib of the man. (vs. 22)  God gets it right this time.

The superiority of the man has often been read into this passage, but at the heart of it is the fact that the man and the woman are both made of the same thing.  “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” the man says. (vs. 23)  Many have used verses like these to condemn homosexual relationships.  I believe that is a misuse, but getting into all the subtleties of interpretation is too much for today’s blog. Today, I see it as a passage which speaks to the unique value of every person, male or female in whatever kinds of relationships, as carrying the image of God.

This week’s Gospel reading harks back to the Genesis story (see Mark 10:6-9) and connects it with the question of divorce. (Vss. 3-4 & 10-12)  How we deal with divorce is a matter for thorough discussion. Today, though, I want to note that this story is sandwiched between two encounters with “little ones.”  In Mark 9:42, Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  In this week’s lectionary reading, people are trying to bring their little children to Jesus, but the disciples are curtly dismissing them. (vs. 3)  Jesus notices and is upset, saying, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And Jesus, “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” (vss. 14-16)  The disciples are being reminded that the children are created in the image of God, of infinite worth, almost God-like.

Let us always remember, however we interpret the nuances of all these passages: Every life matters and is valuable as God’s Spirit moves in and through all of life and its relationships.

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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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