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Thursday, March 29, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures:
Liturgy of the Palms: Psalm 188:1-2, 19-29, Mark 11:1-11, John 12:12-16
Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 14:1-15:47

For the coming Sunday, the lectionary offers scriptures for two alternative liturgies—one celebrating Palm Sunday (i.e., Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem); the other, Passion Sunday (i.e., Jesus’ crucifixion and the events immediately leading up to it).

What strikes me is the contrast of moods between the two foci.  One seems to be a downer, a tragedy ending with the death of the hero.  The other is a celebrative parade with the hero center stage.  Preachers often focus on the fact that the crowd cheering Jesus that day did not understand what this entry into Jerusalem was about.  Surely they weren’t cheering an impending crucifixion, although a few days later there was, in fact, a crowd shouting for such a death.

What if, however, we do think of the crucifixion as something to sing about?  Song has often been born of tragedy.  Consider the tradition of Gospel music coming out of the experience of slavery, or the history of “singing the blues.”  If we talk about singing, though, in the context of this week’s scriptural moods, I suggest we think of it as something more than singing the blues.  Rather than seeing Jesus’ crucifixion merely as an occasion for weeping, it becomes an occasion for joyous dancing, because in it we find hope and life.

The reading from Philippians 2:5-11 is just such a hymn of celebration.  F. Dean Lueking, writing in The Christian Century, says, “This monumental summary of the human Jesus as the exalted Lord was not a lecture or a textbook but a hymn sung by first-century Christians.  The truth of the living God is singable truth—and if not singable, then suspect.”

As I reflected on the moods of this week’s texts, several phrases and images came to my mind.  I thought of the title of Walker Percy’s book, Love in the Ruins.  I find it suggestive of the notion that, even in the midst of the collapse of whole civilizations, we can still love one another.  In this week’s Passion Liturgy, speaking of ruins may be one way to reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion.  It certainly seemed to many that all they had given themselves to had come to ruin.  Yet, for those who could see, love and hope were found in the ruins.

Maya Angelou, in her autobiography, speaks of the caged bird singing.  I grew up with a mentally ill mother who could identify with that image.  Even in the midst of suffering, it is possible to sing a new song, to be a “wounded healer,” to see in the wounded Jesus the possibility of healing.

All three readings for the Liturgy of the Palms, depict parades.  Psalm 118 gives us a procession into the temple for worship, full of song and praise.  Its reference to gates might cause us to think about the openings that come our way in life, the places we are invited to enter, etc.  “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.  This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.”  (Psalm 118:19-20)   The Psalm is traditionally associated with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, some of its words and images being part of that Gospel story.  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord . . . Bind the festal procession with branches . . .”  (vss. 26-27)

We have two versions of the parade in this week’s Gospel readings from Mark and John.  The story appears in all four gospels with some of the details differing.  It is not just an isolated parade occasioned by the appearance of Jesus.  It is the expression of a clamoring crowd entering the city to observe Passover.  One might compare it to Mardi Gras, an occasion in our day when we see a tension of moods.  The problem with Mardi Gras, however, is that it is one last blast of celebration before weeks of somber penitence.  My sense is that the two moods in this week’s readings call for both feasting and fasting.  They cannot be separated into seasons.  The feasting and celebration arise out of the tragedy.

The central image of the cross is that of self-giving.  However one interprets it in terms of the salvation of humanity, it is a constant invitation to consider self-giving love as the central truth about how the cosmos functions, about how we are called to function.  Such truth elicits both tears and laughter.

The first two readings in the Liturgy of the Passion contain images of humility and self-sacrifice that came to be applied to Jesus.  “I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.  I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”  (Isaiah 50:5-6)   In Psalm 31, the depths of agony are such that “my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also,” (Psalm 31:9) but in the midst of it there is appeal  to God’s graciousness, a declaration of trust, a prayer for deliverance.  (vss. 9, 14 & 15)  “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”  (vs. 16)   The Psalmist knows that even in the pit, love is available.

The image that I went with in the title for this week’s blog comes from a Broadway musical, Singing in the Rain.   It’s way too light and airy to be an adequate metaphor for something as serious as the crucifixion.  It’s power comes, however, from the human experience that rain often seems to ruin our fun times.  We sometimes think of rain as a negative intrusion.  I added the dancing to pick up the parade imagery.  I think of those people on their way into Jerusalem as dancing down the street.  We have an expression, “Don’t rain on my parade,” meaning don’t spoil my fun.

What if we thought of rain not as a spoiler, but as life giving.  Instead of ruining the parade, it becomes an occasion for singing.  I grew up in northwest Washington state.  I sort of enjoy being out in the rain.  It certainly never stopped me from fishing, so why should it stop me from singing?  How much more then might we look at the crucifixion not as a spoiler but as a source of life—the ultimate source of life, pointing to the kind of love that empowers us and invites us.

The long reading from Mark’s Gospel begins with a story which perhaps brings all these thoughts together.  Jesus, on his way to the Passover celebration, stops in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper.  (Mark 14:1-3)   When a woman anoints his head with an entire jar of nard, some of those present were indignant.  The “ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.”  (vss. 3-5)   Many discussions of this passage center on the suggestion that the money might better have been given to the poor.  Some are appalled with Jesus’ response the “you always have the poor with you.”  Notice that he doesn’t say, “Ignore the poor,” just that you will have plenty of opportunities to “show kindness to them.”  (vss. 5 & 7)   Still other interpreters focus upon this act as preparation for Jesus’ burial, noting this words in verse 8, “ . . . she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.”

F. Dean Lueking, whose reflections on the lectionary readings have fed me the past couple of weeks, takes us to verse six as the center of the passage.  “ . . . Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.”  Lueking suggests that a better translation would be, “She has done a lovely thing,” noting the Greek word for “good” here does not mean “utility and moral correctness, but lovely, gracefully winsome in its uniqueness.”  “Blessed is the believer, the congregation, the church,” Lueking adds, “that can adorn the gospel with ‘lovely things.’”  Might we say, even the congregation that can see “a lovely thing,” a healing truth, in the crucifixion.  Might singing and dancing in the rain, chanting praises in a parade, singing hymns of hope and good news, be lovely things to include in our celebration of “Holy Week”?
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12 OR Psalm 119:9-16, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

In many religious traditions, including that of our forefathers and mothers in Judaism, it is through a priest that one receives forgiveness.  Even into the time of Jesus, forgiveness required a sacrifice to be offered on the altar.  We moved on to a time when various forms of confession and penance were required.  Protestants of many stripes are familiar with a prayer of confession as part of the liturgy.  Today confession is sometimes part of pastoral counseling.  We are worried about something, want help getting our lives and/or relationships straight, feel like we’re carrying a burden, so we go to the pastor to get some counsel.  Maybe we even hear from him or her a healing word of forgiveness.

Perhaps our lectionary readings for this Sunday are a call to think again about the place of forgiveness in our relationships with God and one another.

Psalm 51 is one of the all-time great prayers of confession, a plea for forgiveness.  It is presented to us as a prayer of King David at the time of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.  It is not just his adultery, however, that is at issue.  David had Bathsheba’s husband sent to the front lines of battle where he was sure to be killed.  There was a lot of premeditation and “collateral” damage involved here.

The prayer assumes God’s love and mercy.  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”  (Psalm 51:1) The image is that of washing and cleansing.  “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin . . . wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”  (vss. 2 & 7) “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  (vs. 10)

Are we able to identify with the depth of David’s cry?  Probably many are not.  I was struck by a short article by Pastor M. Craig Barnes in The Christian Century for March 21.  Entitled, “The Prodigal’s Brother,” it begins with these words, “When I preach on the parable of the prodigal son, I always get stuck on the older brother.  I wish there were a fifth gospel in the New Testament devoted to reaching out to that guy because he’s everywhere in the congregation I serve, wearing many names and faces.”  In some churches the approach has been to make him feel bad, “convict” him of his “sin,” make him wallow in it.  I’m not happy with confession and forgiveness that proceeds from forced wallowing.  It reminds me of the day one of my daughters asked if I was feeling bad.  I said, “Not particularly.”  “Well, Dad, just say you’re feeling bad.”  “But, I’m not really.”  “Well, just say it anyway.”  “Okay, I feel bad.”  She leapt in like a cat with a mouse trapped in the corner.  “Good!  I have good news to cheer you up!”  Her good news was a good report card.  I think I probably could have handled the good news with great joy without going into the pit first.

Many of us are probably that way when it comes to our “sins,” our shortcomings.  Mostly they are minor and our “good works” outweigh our evil deeds.  Few of us have sent a man into battle to be killed so we could have his wife.

At the same time, many are weighed down, feel like they are drowning in a pit.  There are those who carry a burden of guilt, who have, in fact, lived a life they, and quite likely others, consider to be “prodigal.”  And we all find ways, intentionally or unintentionally, to rupture relationships.  The novel, Love Story, contained the line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  The fact is that most relationships require a fair amount of owning up to the things we do to one another, asking for and receiving forgiveness.

At a broader, social, level, we feel ourselves implicated in the atrocities and injustices that governments and businesses often heap upon the weak of the world.  We cannot escape some level of responsibility, yet we feel frustrated and helpless.

Whether our “sins” seem large or small, most of us find comfort and strength in the experience of God’s love and mercy.  Both Jeremiah and David knew that forgiveness was an inward matter, that it began in the heart.  Forgiveness may reach out to touch all manner of relationships, small and large, but the heart is the starting point.  Jeremiah proclaims it in terms of a new covenant.  “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)  In the midst of David’s prayer, he says to God, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”  (Psalm 51:5)  Even the alternative Psalm (#119), while part of a very long chapter (the longest in the Bible) in praise of God’s Law, emphasizes the “heart.”  “With my whole heart I seek you; . . . I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.”  (Psalm 199:10-11)   One may read Psalm 119 as a catalog of right and wrong behavior, leading to guilt which drives one to a priest for confession and sacrifice.  We must never forget, though, that both righteousness and confession begin in the heart.

Christians came to believe that the promise in Jeremiah 31 was fulfilled in Jesus, although, after 2000 plus years we’re still trying to understand and interpret what that means.  Our two New Testament readings, written some years into the life of the early church are part of an attempt to define who Jesus was/is and did/does and how that relates to the ups and downs of our lives.

The letter to the Hebrews presents Jesus as a high priest offering himself as the sacrifice in place of all the sacrifices offered by the many priests in the past.  We no longer need to offer sacrifices and Jesus is the only priest we need.  It’s an argument and image that is difficult for us to follow, coming, as it does, from a set of cultural assumptions and practices that are alien to our experience.  It is made more complicated by the introduction of Melchizedek.  Jesus, we are told, has “been designated a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”  (Hebrews 5:10.  See also vs. 6)   Melchizedek (“King of Righteousness”) was a king and priest from Salem (Jerusalem) who bestowed a blessing on Abraham.  (See Genesis 14:17 and following).  Rather than getting bogged down in all that, however, our basic focus is upon Jesus as the one to whom we look as priest, Jesus who “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears . . .” who “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  (Hebrews 5:7 & 9)

Lutheran Pastor F. Dean Lueking, interpreting John 12:20-33 (this week’s Gospel lesson) in The Christian Century for March 21, says, “ . . . the verses of the passage come one after the other in a disconnected jumble.”  It is basically another look at relationship rather than legalism.  Meaning is found in following and serving, i.e., joining “the Son of Man” in self-giving.  (John 12:23-26)   Pastor Lueking focuses on verse 32 where Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  “Jesus does not force, bribe, or dazzle;” Lueking argues, “he draws people to know and love him . . . From his uplifted cross, the place where suffering love put him, he draws to himself all who will come . . . this scandal is the good news of Christ’s eternal priesthood: he forgives our sins . . . We’re drawn into the healing community of the forgiven—not yanked or cajoled or sweet-talked.”

I come from, and exist and worship in, a tradition which says we are all priests to one another.  The quote above talks about being part of a “healing community of the forgiven.”  We all need support as we face the challenges and temptations, the opportunities and choices, of this life.  That support is as close as our neighbor.  It is in and through him or her that Christ may breathe new life into our hearts and spirits when we our steps seem faltering.

I leave you with yet another quote from Pastor Lueking: “God never gets tired—never tires of the heartbroken nor of those who are exasperatingly adrift.”
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Lent can be seen as a time of wandering in the wilderness, experiencing troubles, getting discouraged, and, one hopes, finding a way to keep on going in the midst of it all.  It is a time for facing our fears and doubts and hesitancies, our woundedness, and finding healing—perhaps in another who “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; . . . and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Perhaps we can let Henri Nouwen’s concept of “The Wounded Healer” serve as a backdrop for looking at this week’s lectionary texts.  This statement is perhaps about as good a summary as one can find:  “Jesus is God's wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed. Jesus' suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others.”

Actually this week’s readings are full of troublesome, sometimes seemingly difficult to interpret, images.  As our Tuesday morning group found in discussion this morning, they can take us down many different avenues and leave us with a lot of unresolved questions.  But that’s life, isn’t it?  All of them seem, however, to involve the troubles we face in life, including the ones we bring upon ourselves, the ones sometimes called “sin,” and how we keep on going, even find healing.  Healing may even come through facing the wounds themselves, by seeing and sharing in the woundedness around us, by realizing that there are those (and One?) who are wounded by us, even suffer for us, giving their all.

We begin with oses and the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness, complaining as they have done before.  (Numbers 21:4-5—See also Numbers 11:5-6)  Then the story takes a strange turn.  God sends poisonous snakes among them, until they cry out to Moses, “ . . . pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”  (Numbers 21:7)   Now if one gets into the spirit of this strange story at all, one might expect God to miraculously make the snakes go away.  After all, isn’t that what we want?  A life with no troubles.  Here we are out in the wilderness where we shouldn’t be anyway; we’re hungry.  Shouldn’t God treat us better than that?  If you can’t do better than this, God, maybe we should just go back to Egypt.  And now these snakes are striking out at us everywhere we turn.  Make them go away!  Do we get that way at times when we feel like we are abandoned, in the wilderness, people and circumstances snapping at us around every corner?

Instead, God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole.  When people get bitten they should look at the pole and they will survive the bite.  Now what are we to make of that?  I suppose one of the first and most obvious things is that the bites, the wounds, we suffer along life’s journey need not destroy us, but what is this about a serpent on a pole?  Is it some sort of homeopathic healing?

We could explore the significance of the serpent in the Old Testament as a symbol of the demonic.  We could look at the actual practice of worshiping serpent idols.  Is this story part of a transition in human understandings of appropriate ways to worship God?  Does it show God’s power to take even the demons and transform/overcome them, to turn them from wounding people to healing people?  Is it a call for the people to face their fears and thereby find healing?  Healing seems to be found in facing their woundedness and the cause of their wounds.

Here are thoughts from The Interpreter’s Bible that are worth including in our reflection and discussion.  We are told “that the worship of the brazen serpent was extant in the days of Hezekiah.  This story is probably told in order to reinforce the prophetic teaching that wanted to get rid of such objects of superstition, and to convince the people that it is Yahweh himself, not a magical object, that cures.”  We also read, “The fiery, red-inflamed wound, inflicted by the bite of the serpent, was healed by a look of faith to the bronze serpent which Moses had set up.  Here is an intimation at least of spiritual homeopathy . . .,” ending with the observation that “wounds heal wounds.”

From that it is not a big leap to the opening words of this week’s Gospel lesson—“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  (John 3:14-15)  It is now to the wounded healer on a cross that we look to find healing love while we wander through the corridors of time and space.  The very next verse is the familiar John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Throughout the readings there is an emphasis upon how we wander in ways that get us into trouble, wound us, ways often spoken of as “sin.”  In the Psalm, we find that “some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.”  (Psalm 107:17-18)  In the reading from Ephesians, the readers are described as those who “were dead through the trespasses and sins . . . following the course of the world, following the rule of the power of the air . . . All of us once lived . . . in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath . . .”  (Ephesians 2:1-3)   In the Gospel lesson, “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”  (John 3:19)

We could get bogged down, wallowing in the “sin” question, trying to define what sins are being talked about here, debating what is the basic nature of humankind.  If one wants to see our nature as basically “sinful,” one needs to factor in the final verse of the epistle reading which says, “For we are what he had made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  (Ephesians 2:10)

Taking a little side trip, I need to follow-up on a discussion that brought everything to a halt at the breakfast table this morning.  We tried to come up with “The Seven Deadly Sins,” without success.  We were two short.  Here they are: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony.  Do with them what you will.

The important thing in all the discussion of sin and redemption, darkness and light, is to see that we are not without hope as we wander wounded in the wilderness.  The Psalm begins, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1—the same words are repeated in verse 21)  The people cried out and “he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them . . .”   (vss. 19-20, see also vs. 2)   In Ephesians hope is found in God’s mercy “out of the great love with which he loved us . . . the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  (Ephesians 2:4 & 7)   We’ve already seen that the center of the passage from the Gospel According to John is the love seen in Jesus on the cross.

This hope is not a “cheap” thing.  It is the power of persistent love which keeps coming back for more.  We keep going because, even in the wilderness, we believe, sometimes against all odds, that love is still at work.  “Bleeding heart” has come, for some, to have negative connotations, but it is hearts which are open, full of compassion, like the heart of God, which bring healing—healing flowing from woundedness to those who are wounded.

And such love calls us to be “wounded healers.”  Life itself is a gift of grace, but the living of life once it has been given, is to persist in fulfilling what we have been created for.  “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  (Ephesians 2:10)
Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19:1-14, I Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

What is wisdom?  It may include knowledge but it is more than knowledge.  It is deep experience, at times almost intuition.  It is not just scientific; it is social/relational.  I’m not going to mine the rich meanings of wisdom throughout the Bible.  Let’s just look at a few of the things that are associated with wisdom in the dictionaries of our day.  They seem to combine experience, knowledge, and good judgment.  It is “the sum of learning through the ages.”  It is “the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting . . . common sense, good judgment.”  Words like “insight” and “understanding” and “meaning” are used.

One of this week’s lectionary readings clearly gets us into the definition of wisdom, but I believe they all present us with an opportunity to reflect on the sources and nature of wisdom as a basis for our lives. 

The reading from Exodus, chapter 20, presents us with the Ten Commandments, seen by many as the most profound distillation of wisdom available to us.  Even without the overlay of divine authority, these commandments seem to reflect guidelines for behavior human beings have found essential to our survival and well-being.  We could dwell on the traditional observation that the first four address our relationship with God and the rest speak to our relationships with one another.  For now, I just want to observe that they all are relational.  In my book, that makes them matters of wisdom.  They are not cold, objective descriptions of something out there—the stereotypical scientific undertaking.  They deal with being and identity, connections and relationships.  They are both product of and source of wisdom.  They are also, one might say, a look into the very heart and being of God.  They describe who God made us to be.

Many have tried to make them into hard, rigid, walls of imprisonment, but taking them apart letter by letter—making each letter a law unto itself, and forgetting the heart and relationship to which they point.  When that happens they cease to be wisdom.

The Psalm turns our attention to nature, which “day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.”  (Psalm 19:2)   Although the word “knowledge” is used here, later it talks about “the law of the Lord” which makes “wise the simple.”  (vs. 7)   Again, we are not talking about a scientific description of the stars and planets, or the mountains and valleys.  What we have, among other things, is a call to be inspired by nature.  God’s laws are embodied here as well as in the tablets from Sinai.  We are being called to see God at work in nature and to find our place in the scheme of things, to hear and be guided by the voice, the wisdom, of nature.

The “voice is not heard,” we are told in verse three.  Nature still cries out to be heard as we dump our garbage into the seas and spew our pollution into the skies.  Such acts are in no way wise.  We are ignoring the wisdom of nature, wisdom that shows the way to survival and well-being for humanity.

The two readings from the New Testament point us in what seems to be quite another direction for wisdom.  They bring us to a focus on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Finding meaning and hope for life in crucifixion is, Paul says, “Foolishness.”  (I Corinthians 1:18)  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise . . . Where is the one who is wise? . . . Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom . . .”  (vss. 19-20 & 25)  

Isn’t it the most foolish thing you’ve heard, from a human point of view, to put a cross on top of a building and make it the focal point of one’s faith?  Stripped of complex theological interpretations, what I see in Jesus on a cross is a sign that self-giving is what gives meaning to life.  It is wisdom personified.  The most important “law”, if we want our lives to have purpose and eternal significance, is to love so much that we’re willing to give our all for the betterment of the world and its people.

This epistle reading make a passing reference to “signs,” saying, in verse 22, the “Jews demand signs.”  Signs are somehow equated with the search for wisdom, because the “Greeks desire wisdom.”  The Gospel According to John moves to a specific request, “What sign can you show us . . .?”  (John 2:18)  Jesus talks about the destruction and rebuilding of the temple in a metaphor.  (vss. 19-20)   “ . . . he was,” it says, “speaking of the temple of his body.”  (vs.21)  What foolishness!

I want to go back, though, to the beginning of the scene.  Jesus enters the temple and finds money changers and sacrifice vendors crowded into the temple.  (vs. 14)   In a famous scene where Jesus seems to get violent, he makes a whip of cords and drives them out of the temple.  (vs. 15)   In Matthew and Mark he overturns their tables.  (Matthew 21:12 & Mark 11:15)

These were people who were making a profit from those coming to worship, first helping them get rid of their “unclean” Roman coinage, then selling them the animal sacrifices they needed to offer on the altar.  In and of itself, this might have been a necessary service, but one has the impression that worshipers were being preyed upon, overcharged.  I see here a contrast between two types of “wisdom,” the wisdom of commercial greed and the “wisdom” that has eternal significance, found in a resurrection which is the power of love and self-giving over death.  Or is it a contrast between a faith based upon animal sacrifice and one that is based upon and embodies the sacrificial love of Jesus?  Certainly this account of the encounter with the money changers seems to contain more frenzied commercialism than the ones in the other Gospels.  (The story is told, by the way, in all four of the Gospels.)  At the same time, this Gospel was written at a time when the wisdom of animal sacrifice was on its way out.

In either case, there is a subtle difference between the focus of the Gospel lesson and the epistle.  In the epistle, it is the crucifixion.  Here it is the resurrection.  John 2:22)  The cross is not even mentioned.  So, if there is any “foolishness” in this story, it is the foolishness of believing that resurrection can happen, that there is power to overcome the destructiveness of death.  It is almost as if hope itself is foolishness—and I suppose it is, of course.

Yet here, in the epistle and Gospel lessons, we have the wisdom that is the core of New Testament faith.  If we are to live according to “wisdom,” we will give of ourselves in love.  We will live in the knowledge that love has eternal significance, overcoming all things that would lead to death.  It is an outrageous claim!

Does this mean our faith is anti-science?  Of course not.  There are laws of social relationship, laws of nature, probably even laws of the soul.  Many of them are spelled out in the Bible.  Science seeks to describe many of those, so that we may know and work with and within them better.  But discerning the meaning is deeper.  Finding a purpose beneath all of them requires eyes that see and ears that hear and hearts that feel.  Only when that happens do we have wisdom.

Some would say that it is the work of the Holy Spirit.  These passages do not specifically mention the Holy Spirit, although some would say that to speak of the Resurrection and to speak of the Holy Spirit are but two ways to talk about the continuing living presence of Jesus’ Spirit, now and into eternity.  Others would say that the voice with which nature speaks is the voice of a whispering spirit emanating from God.  Wisdom is finely discerned when, after we have heeded all science has to offer us, we turn inward and discover the purpose and meaning that is in it all.  Perhaps that is what Proverbs 9:10 is trying to say: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”  (Notice the word “insight.”)   I like the way it comes out in the New Century Version of the Bible:  “Wisdom begins with respect for the Lord, and understanding begins with knowing the Holy One.”

Let’s go out there this week and be wise!
Thursday, March 01, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-26, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38 OR Mark 9:1-9

Alternative titles might have been “What Makes It All Worthwhile?” or “What Makes Life Worth Living?”

The reading from Genesis is the story of God’s covenant with Abraham.  (Genesis 17:2 & 7)  Note that this version ends with a focus on Abraham’s wife, Sarai (henceforth to be known as Sarah).  (vs. 15)  The verses following show Abraham falling down laughing.  (vs. 17)   In fact, the promised son is named Isaac, which means “laughter.”  It must have been a shock to Abraham (100 years old) and Sarah (90 years old)—even unbelievable, laughingly unbelievable.  But, somehow or other Abraham ends up believing.

There’s another version of the story in Genesis, chapter 15.  In that version Abraham begins with a complaint.  “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” . . . You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3)   So, “Why shouldn’t the slaves of this world have a good inheritance?,” we might ask.  But that’s a topic for discussion at another time. 

The story is central to the identity of the Israelites.  They look back upon it as a promise that assures their nationhood into the future.  If going that way, we need to note that God says to Abraham, “I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.”  (vss. 5-6)   Abraham literally is the father of Arabic peoples (and nations?) as well as of Israel, but I suspect this reading shows God’s reach as even bigger than that. 

Paul picks up the story in this week’s epistle reading and gives it a twist dear to many Christians (Protestants especially).   He focuses on Genesis 15:6 where we are told that Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  Paul uses it as a text to support his position in the discussion about faith and “the law.”  (Romans 4:13-14)   I grew up in a home where, because of the different denominational traditions of each of my parents, life was defined by the argument between “grace” and “works.”  I’m not going to take us down that road this week although there’s a lot of interesting stuff along that route.

I believe that Paul is primarily pressing the inclusiveness of the promise.  It is not just for “the adherents of the law but also to those who share in the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us . . .)”  (vss. 14 &16)   It is not just for the Hebrew people, but for us as well.  “ . . . it will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead . . .”  (vss. 23-24)

I don’t want to belabor the point, because I believe there is yet a third perspective on the story—that of Abraham in the moment it is happening.  It is a perspective that takes us back to the title (and its options) for this blog.  Key to a life worth living for the Hebrews of the era was the passing of life to the generations ahead of them.  Children were a blessing, an assurance that their lives mattered, that they would not be forgotten.

The Genesis 15 version of the story makes it clear that Abraham was hurting because he had no children.  Central to the story from his perspective is the laughable prospect of becoming the father to one child, much less many generations and nations.

I’m presently doing extensive work on my family tree.  Abraham’s story might set us to thinking about our children and what is passed on from generation to generation.  In what ways are they a blessing?  What blessings will they pass on?  What hopes do we invest in them?  What part do they play in making life worthwhile?

For those who don’t have biological children, think about children whose lives you have influenced in one way or another and apply the questions to those relationships.

The Psalm takes a similar long view of life, declaring, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he had done it.”  (Psalm 22:30-31)

Part of what makes life worthwhile is knowing that things of value will be carried on by future generations.  We can live our lives in a way that contribute things that last as we interact with those around us.

Now it doesn’t just happen automatically.  I don’t want to get into parsing the detail of Paul’s logic in Romans.  Note that “grace” is mentioned only once in the reading.  Its focus is much more on “faith” and “believing.”  Faith here means loyalty, persistence, acting on the promise, living as if it were going to come true—in effect, helping to make it come true.  Central is trust, and Paul says of Abraham, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promised of God, but he grew strong in this faith as he gave glory to God.”  (Romans 4:20)

In those household debates of my childhood (mentioned earlier), I came down on the side of grace.  Over the years, though, I’ve come to see that it isn’t that simple.  The promise grows out of God’s grace, but it can’t come to full fruition without our contribution, without our living it into reality.

Part of what makes life worth living is what we might call “living the promise.”  When we do that we are contributing to life something which will last.  There’s an intriguing verse in Revelation, chapter 14.  Verse 13 reads, “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord. ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’” Without worrying our way through all the imagery of the book of Revelation, one can draw from this an implication that the good things we do in this life will last, perhaps eternally.  They will follow us even into the hereafter.

That leaves us with the Gospel lesson.  (Actually there is an optional Gospel reading, but it is a repeat of the Transfiguration story we considered a couple of weeks ago.)  The reading from Mark, chapter 8, is all about what is worthwhile.  It begins with the disciples not being able to face Jesus’ path to suffering—to the point that Peter “began to rebuke him.”  Jesus scolds Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  (vss. 31-33)

It is “divine things” that are worthwhile and last.  Jesus goes on to define them in terms of taking up a cross, saying , “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  (vss. 34-36)   It is a call to examine our lives and find purposes worth living for, purposes which last.  They are to be found in the Gospel and in Jesus’ example, we are told.  The meaning of life is in self-giving not in greedy self-aggrandizement.

As one example, we might remember that Jesus lifted up the importance of ministering to the poor and needy.  The reading from Psalm 22 speaks of the poor eating and being satisfied.  (vs. 26)    Even in terms of the promise given to Abraham, the focus is not on the establishing of a prosperous self-satisfied nation.  It is a call to be a blessing to others.  In Genesis 12:3, Abraham is told, “ . . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Genesis 18:18 reads, “ . . . seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.”

Some speak of it as being blessed in order to be a blessing.  If you want to do something that lasts, do something that is a blessing to someone else.  I suspect it is true of individuals as well as nations.

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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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