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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”.

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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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