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Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29:1-11, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17

There’s a Zen saying: The Meaning of Life is the See.  Jesus seemed to place more emphasis upon hearing, frequently saying, especially at the end of his parables, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 8:8 is but one instance)  On occasion, though, he too linked it with seeing: “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (Mark 8:18)

Seeing, here, refers to looking beneath surface appearances—to understanding the meanings behind outward appearances—to see God’s presence in the things around us—what some call “noticing.”  In the movie, The Sixth Sense, there is a young child who sees “dead” people invisible to others.  Maybe we need a sixth sense which allows us to say, “I see live things!”

Isaiah seemed to have that sense—what comes across, among other things, as a sense of awe.  It is his memory of a vision in which he experienced the presence of God calling him to be a prophet. He was in the temple—the church sanctuary, one might say.  He’d probably been there hundreds of times before, maybe without ever noticing anything unusual, without feeling a sense of awe, without noticing the presence of God in this place.  He was perhaps not unlike thousands of church goers on any given Sunday.

For Isaiah, it begins with awe as he looks at the carved wooden images at the front of the temple.  He is in the presence of holiness. (Isaiah 6:2-3)  It humbles him.  He feels so inadequate, but he also finds healing. (vss. 5-7)  Does the use of a hot coal in the healing suggest that pain may be part of the healing of our psychic struggles?

The whole sequence of the vision has been taken by some to be a model for the flow of worship—awe, confession, forgiveness, moving on to proclamation (the hearing of a word from God) and response. (See vs. 8 in which Isaiah hears “the voice of the Lord” and responds, “Here am I; send me.”)

Psalm 29 also points to a sense of awe: “Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.  Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.” (vss. 1-2)

What do we see?  When and where do we feel a sense of awe?  When and where do we notice the presence of the Lord?  If I consider the entirety of our scriptures—and my own experience, I conclude that it can happen anywhere, anytime.  God’s presence is everywhere, all around us—and within.  Do we notice?

As a photographer, I know that the winning photograph often offers a different perspective on a familiar scene.  It isn’t necessarily just a different angle that brings it to life; it is something that gets beneath the surface appearance and reveals something that one has not noticed before.  It may even cause a gasp and the comment, “I’ve never seen it that way before.”

The Gospel lesson is about that kind of “seeing.”  It’s called “being born from above.” (John 3:3)  It is the passage from which we get the much misused and misunderstood phrase, “born again.”  That’s the way it’s translated in the King James Bible.  It’s really about being born into a new way of looking at things, a new way of looking at and experiencing life.  God offers a new perspective on old scenes—a “spiritual” perspective.  Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, has come to Jesus in the dark of night. (vs. 1-2)  Nicodemus dare not be seen; his reputation would suffer.  When Nicodemus has trouble understanding this business about being born from above, Jesus says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (vs. 6)

Look again, Nicodemus.  Maybe you’re missing something about this God business.  Open your eyes and notice.  Everything around is pulsing with life and love and you are stuck on the fine points of the Law.  Is Jesus speaking also to us, at least on occasion, when we miss the meaning of things, when we get stuck in going about our daily routines and fail to see the light and love of God in our relationships and politics and worship?  It’s important to notice that one of the best known verses in the Bible is part of this exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus, perhaps the most important part of the exchange.  “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.” (vs. 16)

We could get bogged down trying to understand the full meaning of “eternal life.”  Let me just suggest that, among other things, it is a perspective on life, in the here and now—a way to experience life and live it every day.

I have a photograph I took in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.  It was one of those infrequent days of “high water,” when the floating city was inundated from below.  Catwalks were quickly assembled so that people could still “navigate” the city and stay dry, but my wife, Margie, was in a wheel chair.  The crowded catwalk was almost impossible as an option.  Many had purchased colorful boots to wade in the water, ranging from about six inches to a foot in depth.  Plastic bags had been issued to our tour group—to be placed over our shoes.  We discovered that soon you were just walking around with bags full of water over your shoes.

I was pushing Margie around, her bagged feet hanging in the water, when a semi-professional photographer began to snap picture.  I took a picture, in the middle of water-soaked St. Mark’s Square with yellow chairs rising out of the water, of him taking a picture of her.  It didn’t win any prizes, but it is a record of a different perspective on that historic landmark.

An unusual thing happened that day.  People all over the square, in the midst of porters pushing luggage through the water, began to dance in their colorful boots—or soaked shoes like the one’s I was wearing—families, male, female, young and old, in small groups, individually.  The square was alive in a way it might not have been on another day.  Seeing the square in a new way seemed to elicit celebration.  Maybe it was a bit like being born from above, feeling like dancing even when surrounded by the relics of history—our own past moments of joy and sorrow, the traditions that have entrapped and injured and sometimes enabled us.

I picture Nicodemus as a somewhat sober man.  Is it too much to suggest that Jesus may have been saying, “Lighten up.  Notice what is going on around you and take it as an invitation to dance and celebrate.  God is giving a party, and it’s called life.”  John 3:16 is sometimes used as a club to “convert” people.  It is meant instead as an invitation to open one’s eyes and realize that all this is a gift.  The next verse is a reminder that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (vs. 17)

The reading from Romans also talks about the Spirit and the flesh.  Here it is explicit that the Spirit is something we are to live by. (Romans 8:12-13)  We are to do more than just see and notice; we are to live by what we see—dancing in the water-soaked streets, in a world where so much dirty water often intrudes and tries to choke out life.  There’s much more in those few verses from Romans 8, not to mention what’s in the rest of the chapter.  It is full of hope.  Perhaps, for now, it’s enough to be reminded that “seeing” is about hope—looking at the floods of this world, literal and figurative, and still seeing hope and possibility.

In all these scriptures there is danger of an interpretation that sees holiness as something completely separate from this world.  Some have taken the instruction of II Corinthians 6:17 to “come out and be separate” so literally that they are unable to join Jesus at work in the dirty struggles of real life.  The biblical word for “holy” does point to a kind of separateness, but it is the separateness of a different perspective brought to bear in the middle of those life struggles.  As I read these texts this week, I am hearing in them a call to see holiness in all of life.  I am hearing a call to be part of that holiness as a humble servant, saying, “Here I am; send me!”
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Some of you may have seen the TV commercials for Kaiser Permanente in which the punch line is “Thrive!” A recent addition to that series has us looking for something we seem to have lost. Where did we put it? Under the bed? Maybe the kids have it. We can find it, perhaps by looking in the mirror. Then the tag line: “Find your motivation.”

Maybe it could be a commercial for finding God’s Spirit. There are many definitions that cover the various ways in which we use “spirit” in everyday conversations—eight inches worth in my unadbridged dictionary. Motivation is a component of several of them. Spirit is expressed in an enthusiasm for life, courage and will to accomplish something and live fully into what life brings, even to shape life—to “thrive” as the Kaiser Permanente commercials remind us.

Certainly the people of Israel, battered and exiled, did not feel like they were thriving. This week’s lectionary reading from Ezekiel offers a parable of people who have lost hope. They are like dry bones lying in a valley.  (Ezekiel 37:1-2)  Notice that it is “the spirit of the Lord” that takes Ezekiel out to see the bones.  We are told in verse 11 that “these bones are the whole house of Israel” who say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

Do we ever feel that way?  The question is “Can these bones live?” (vs. 3)  The parable is extended and repetitive but the answer is, “Yes.”  How?  God “will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” (vs. 5) There’s a lot of rattling and connecting of bone to bone, until the meaning and promise of the parable is spoken by the Lord in verse fourteen. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

The Hebrew word translated as “Spirit” also means “wind” and “breath.”  God breathes the spirit into these dry bones.  It is a source of motivation and life.  With it they have hope that they may thrive again.  The Spirit is present from the very beginning.  In Genesis 1:2, in one of the stories of creation, it says “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  In another account, in Genesis 2:7, we are told that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”  Wind and breath at work, the Spirit of God.

The Psalm also speaks of creation.  It’s a hymn of wonder upon observing that “the earth is full of your creatures.” (Psalm 104:24)  As the hymn continues, the singer sounds forth this lyric: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (vs. 30)  The Spirit gives life.  All creatures thrive under the Spirit’s influence.

The reading from Romans is also about creation—the unfinished creation which is still going on in us.  It’s a process in which we groan as if in labor, but we are not without hope. (Romans 8:22-25)  Along the way we see some of the results of the work of the Spirit—called “the first fruits of the Spirit.” (vs. 23)

We have to go to Galatians 5:22-23 to see what those fruits are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  Considering the fruits of the Spirit got me to thinking about inner and external dimensions of motivation.  The Kaiser Permanente series of commercials sometimes seem to look to various activities as our source of motivation.  We thrive when we pursue activities that really engage us.  Yet there also seems to be an inner energy that drives us to that kind of external engagement.  When we talk about the fruits of the Spirit, we speak of both inner attitudes and outer actions and relationships.  Love may begin in the heart but it is expressed in service to and consideration of others. The same is true of all the others—peace, patience, gentleness, etc.  When we are thriving, it shows!  The Spirit is not just a mysterious inner feeling.  It is an expression of God’s creative power at work in us bringing purpose to life as a mother giving birth to a child.  In that process, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” keeping us in touch with inner feelings and motivations that “are too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26-27)

In the reading from the Gospel According to John the work of the Spirit is to guide us “into all the truth.” (John 16:13)  In fact, Jesus seems to use “the Spirit of Truth” almost as a name for the Holy Spirit. Truth is a major theme in this Gospel.  It is the Gospel in which Pilate asks, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)  In this Gospel Jesus describes himself as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6)  True worship is something which is done “in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)  In John 8:32 Jesus says, “ . . . you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  Truth is sometimes used in the New Testament as a verb. “Truthing” is something we do.  Whatever the form of the word, it is clear that truth is part of a relationship; it is a spirit within us, motivating and guiding us so that we thrive.  In John’s Gospel they don’t wait until the Day of Pentecost to realize the promise.  The resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples where they are cowering in fear in a locked house, speaks words of peace to them, breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:19-22)

God’s Spirit is active throughout scripture—throughout human history—and before—and after—always, in all times, at all places, forever and ever.  What we have in the early church is an attempt to describe the connection between that Spirit and their own experience that Jesus is somehow still with them.  The foundational story, sometimes described is this week’s lectionary reading from Acts.

It’s a story that has puzzled many and been abused by some.  Jews from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost (Acts 2:1), an old Jewish harvest festival (also a time to remember the receiving of the Ten Commandments).  “Pentecost” literally means “fiftieth day,” observed, by Jews, fifty days after Passover.  For Christians it comes fifty days after Easter.

While remembering that “wind” is a word which, in Hebrew, can be synonymous with “spirit,” how literally are we to take the violent wind and tongues of fire?  I always note that it says “like the rush of a violent wind” and “as of fire.” (Acts 2:2-3)  They’re trying to describe a shared moment of inspiration that is beyond words.

Acts 2:9-11 lists the many countries from which the people had come, each with a language of its own.  The amazing thing about this day is that “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” (vs.6)  “ . . . in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (vs. 11)  The miracle of the day is that these diverse people became one; they were unified; they developed what I like to call “esprit de corps.”  It is the realization of a motivating power that extended around the world the reach of the love preached by Jesus.

We thrive when we are joined one with another and everyone is part of the action.  It is no accident that Peter, in his interpretation of the event, beginning in verse 14, refers back to the prophet Joel.  God’s promise through Joel was that the Spirit would be poured out “upon all flesh”—sons and daughters, young and old, slave, men and women, everyone.  Now that is thriving!

As a footnote (although not of lesser importance), we might want to note that, when it comes to inclusion, there is a concern for the poor in the original instructions to the Hebrew people for the observance of Pentecost.  In Leviticus 23:22, after guidelines for the festival are spelled out, it says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien . . .”  We cannot truly thrive unless all thrive!
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
WHAT NEXT?—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR ASCENSION DAY OR THE SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER—(MAY 17 & 20, 2012)—BY JIM OGDEN


Lectionary Scriptures:
Ascension Day: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47:1-9, Psalm 93:1-5, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1:1-6, I John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

Human stories usually end with a death, or sometimes with a consideration of the person’s legacy. The story of Jesus’ human life ended with a crucifixion. The ragged band of his followers, however, continued to feel his presence. A whole movement was born and swept across the known world.  It took centuries to explain it and we’re still trying.

Some churches will celebrate this coming Sunday as Ascension Sunday, Ascension Day being Thursday, May 17.  I see “ascension” as one of three of the earliest attempts to talk about the new reality, the “next,” in which they were living.  The other two are “resurrection” and “Pentecost”—the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.  Over time these explanations were woven together into a sort of logical sequence.

I’ve listed the readings for both Ascension Day, and the alternatives for Sunday if not celebrating Ascension Day.  I will comment only briefly on the Ascension Day readings.  Both accounts of the Ascension are presented.  Ironically they are both from the same source, the combined story told by Luke-Acts.  Luke’s Gospel has Jesus speaking to his followers, interpreting the scriptures to them (Luke 24:44 and following), and lifting his hands to bless them (vs. 50), but says only this about the ascension itself: “While he was blessing them, he withdrew and was carried up into heaven.” (vs. 51)

As the story continues in Acts, Jesus is again speaking to his followers, commissioning them as his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)  Then, “when he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them,” and spoke to them.

Both stories include the instruction to wait until power comes upon them.  In Luke 24:49, Jesus says, “ . . . stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  Acts 1:4-5 tells us that “he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father . . . you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  These readings are part of an attempt to interpret the empowerment the early church experienced.  They came to understand that Jesus rose to heaven where he sat at the right hand of God, exercising power and authority over all things.

The other readings for Ascension Day speak of the power of a King.  “ . . . sing praises to our King . . . for God is the king of all the earth . . . God is king over the nations . . . God sits on his holy throne.” (Psalm 47:6-8)  “The Lord is king, her is robed in majesty, he is girded with strength . . .” (Psalm 93:1)

The reading from Ephesians, in which the writer prays for his readers, talks about “the immeasurable greatness of” Jesus, who was raised from the dead and seated “at the right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:19-21), ending by speaking of “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (vs. 23)

So, what next?  First we wait for power from on high which emanates from heaven.  Beyond that life pretty much goes on as usual.  In Luke, after Jesus “was carried up into heaven . . . they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Luke 24:51-53)  In Acts, the “two men in white robes . . . said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)

What next?  The implication is that we are to get on with our worshiping and serving and witnessing now, here on earth.  That’s where it is for you now.  There’s work to be done, including what some might dismiss as the administrative details of the church.  Sunday’s reading from Acts tells the story of such an administrative detail---finding a replacement for Judas, chosen by lot of all things. (Acts 1:23 & 26, as well as the entire reading.)

Is it possible that Psalm 1 is included as a description of the kind of person needed to give leadership?  It speaks of one “who does not follow the advice of the wicked,” but delights “in the law of the Lord,” those who “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.” (Psalm 1:1-3)  I’ve always been a little troubled with the stark contrasts in this Psalm, beloved by many.  I believe most of us are men and women of mixed motives and mixed merit.  Nevertheless, we have here guidance about the nature of one who might be “empowered” as God works in human lives and relationships—and even in organizations like a congregation or church—or Congress?

The Gospel lesson is presented as a prayer by Jesus at the end of a time of conversation and teaching around the Passover table, what we call the Last Supper.  It is a prayer for his disciples and those who will come after him.  The heart of it is that, while he will be gone, they will still be “in the world.”  He prays that “they may be one, as we are one.” (vs. 11)  Jesus does not ask that they be taken, “out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” (vs. 15)  There is sort of a paradox here.  “They do not belong to the world,” but “as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (vss. 16 & 18)

As I was reflecting on this prayer, I kept thinking about a book by Robert W. Spike, influential in my seminary education, In But Not Of The World.  Published in 1957 (the year of my high school graduation), it’s title is a summary of Jesus’ prayer.  What next?  We are to get on with our living, in the world, but not according to the dominant values of the world.  We are called to offer a resurrection alternative to those values.

Robert Spike embodied that attempt.  He was an early pastor of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, an alternative church if there ever was one.  When Spike was murdered in Chicago in 1966, where I was in graduate school, Martin Luther King, Jr., said of him: "He was one of those rare individuals who sought at every point to make religion relevant to the social issues of our time. He lifted religion from the stagnant arena of pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. His brilliant and dedicated work will be an inspiration to generals yet unborn. We will always remember his unswerving devotion to the legitimate aspirations of oppressed people for freedom and human dignity."

My thinking turned to another influential book from the same era, Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture.  I came across a blog posting by John G. Stackhouse, Jr., on the 50th anniversary of its publication, in which he says, “God has called us to lives of difficult paradox, of painful negotiation between conflicting and competitive values, of seeking to cooperate with God wherever he is at work.”

And that reminded me that Margie and I have just begun reading Parker J. Palmer’s book, The Promise of Paradox.  Originally written in 1980, a new edition was released in 2008.  In the introduction to the new edition, Parker talks about an insight he gained from Thomas Merton about the messiness of life.  “ . . . we will find our spiritual lives in that mess itself, in its earthy realities, unpredictable challenges, surprising resources, creative dynamics.”

Robert Spike, Richard Niebuhr, John Stackhouse, Thomas Merton, and Parker Palmer are among many mentors who have helped many in our struggle to live out some answers to the question, “What next?”—seen through a glass darkly.

Finally, the epistle of I John, speaks of “eternal life.”  Some would see the “What next?” as being a journey to an eternal home in heaven.  Eternal life may include that future dimension, but mainly it is living in Jesus now.  “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.  I write these things to you . . . so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (I John 5:11-13)  Now!  You don’t have to wait.  What’s next?  You are to start living according to eternal values now—in but not of the world.
Wednesday, May 09, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98:1-9, I John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

The Gospel and Epistle readings from John and I John continue to elaborate the meaning of God’s love and our love for one another.  Love has often been seen as the focus of Christianity, although it is not always observable in our attitudes and behavior.  If asked to reduce our faith to one word, many would choose the word, “Love.”

The readings of recent weeks have each brought a slightly different perspective to our understanding of love.  This week the epistle lesson adds the dimension of “command” in calling us to love.  “By this we know that we are children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.  For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.”  (I John 5:2-3)   Our romantic notions of love make it seem almost contradictory to speak of love as something that can be commanded, but it’s there in the Gospel lesson as well.  “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love . . . This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  (John 15:10 & 12)  Brian Bantum, writing on this text in the Christian Century, talks about coming to a realization “that obedience and love are connected.”  Sometimes love is doing what someone else wants and needs even if it is not something we would automatically and spontaneously and enthusiastically be inclined to do.  Brian Bantum goes on to say, “Perhaps love without obedience is not really love.  Perhaps this is what Jesus is confronting us with in his own life—that love is never love on its own terms.  Love is always tied to obedience because obedience is tied to hearing, recognizing and bending ourselves into the will and desires of the one before us.”  We do not set the terms of love.  The terms of love are to “see the other’s hopes, the other’s desires, the other’s possibilities, and live into them . . .”

In both the Gospel and Epistle lessons, however, I’m inclined to go to another level.  The Gospel lesson, I as Brian Bantum also notes, is about friendship.  Jesus defines his relationship with us not in terms of power and hierarchy but in terms of friendship.  “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”  (John 15:15—see also vss. 13-14)  Love levels the playing field.  When we love one another we meet as equals in friendship.  Note that friendship means being vulnerable to one another, getting to truly “know” one another, sharing our what we know about surviving and thriving in life.  We are invited to make such friendship, extended to include those we are inclined to think of as enemies, the focus of our faith.

The Epistle reading ends with a focus on the Spirit as the basis of loving and knowing.  “ . . . the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”  (I John 5:6)   I acknowledge that there’s stuff in there about water and blood.  The writer is addressing debates going on in the early church about the nature of Jesus, his humanity and divinity, the relative importance of his baptism and his crucifixion, and a whole host of related issues.  Some may remember that John’s Gospel reports that, when Jesus side was pierced while on the cross, “at once blood and water came out.”  (John 19:34)

Many older manuscripts read that Jesus came “by water and blood and the Spirit.”  The writer here seems to be making it clear that the Spirit takes priority.  Debating about water and blood may be important, but finally it is the Spirit, the Spirit of truth, that matters.  Along with love, Spirit is presented as a “focus.” 

It’s there in the reading from Acts as well.  The story seems to about a “Pentecost” experience coming upon Gentiles.  It raises all the old questions about the nature of that phenomenon.  What does it mean, what does it look like, to speak in tongues?  As in the earlier story about Pentecost (which we’ll be celebrating in a couple of weeks) the focus seems primarily to be upon communication.  In Acts 2:6, we are told that “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”  In today’s reading, it is reason for inclusion.  If these Gentiles have received the Spirit then we’d better baptize them.

The sequence is important here.  It is the presence of the Spirit that is important, that is the focus.  The ritual of baptism is simply a confirmation.  It is empty and without meaning unless the Spirit is moving in the life of the one who is baptized, and in the community doing the baptizing, and in the relationships that are formed, breaking down old barriers.  Is it too big a stretch to find ourselves back talking about friendship?  This story is about communication and inclusion and relationship across lines that previously divided.  It is, I believe, about being friends who love one another beyond their race, their language, their station in life, etc.

Even the Psalm confirms that message, in its own way.  It is another great song of praise and thanksgiving and joy.  It ends with the reason for all this exuberance.  Psalm 98:9 identifies the Lord who is being praised and one who treats “the peoples with equity.”  Psalm 133:1 says, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  Is that not a description of friendship at its best?  It is an occasion for singing and joy.  Even the writer of the Gospel According to John, has Jesus saying that his message about love is given “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  (John 15:11)  One might even suspect that, on such occasions, the Spirit is moving among us.

Both Pastor Rick and I have been nourished by the words of Frederick Buechner.  As part of our daily discipline of reading together, Margie and I have been working our way through his 2006 collection, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons.  This week we have found ourselves in a sermon, The Word of Life, which interprets the epistle of I John.  Beuchner says he understands friendship here “not to mean that we are somehow to sweep our disagreements under the rug . . . He means we are to be friends at a deeper level than we are adversaries . . . That is the kind of friends he urges us to be—friends like the people we know whom we love even though there are times when we don’t seem to see eye to eye with them about much of anything.”  Buechner illustrates with “a celebration of love and commitment” they were invited to attend in Vermont, involving two women they had known for years, one of them a friend of their daughter since she was five years old.  I want to leave you this week with his commentary upon that occasion.

“How to describe such an occasion in Vermont of all places and in the presence of some people who looked right out of Norman Rockwell and others who looked as if they’d never heard of Norman Rockwell and would have looked down their noses at him if they had?  How to guess what they felt about what they were there to witness except that probably no two of them felt quite the same way?  But there was one feeling that I am as certain as you can be about such things that we all shared, and that was the feeling that something honest and loving and brave was happening before our eyes, and that something kind and affirming and hopeful was happening inside ourselves, and that grace, never more amazingly, was somehow in the very air we breathed.  In other words, for a few moments that summer afternoon, it seemed to me that we were what I believe the church was created to be . . . I wish the church could be as open-hearted and open-minded and free as it was on that little patch of front lawn as the clouds came out from behind the clouds.  I wish that we could affirm as truly as we did there that wherever people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and for them and they are doing God’s will.”

See what can happen if we focus!  And I believe it does happen many Sundays right here at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ, and in the ministries that reach out from this place.  Whoever you are and wherever you on life’s journey, you are welcome!
Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, I John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

This week’s epistle lesson continues some of the themes of love we have already encountered in previous weeks.  All it has to say about love is rooted in the fact that “God is love.”  (See I John 4:7-10, 16, 19)

So—let’s talk about love.  Love is something that reaches out, connects.  It is a relational term.  There is no love without relationship.  But how far does it reach?  It seems to me that all this week’s lectionary readings touch upon that question.

Since we’ve already mentioned the epistle reading, let’s start there.  The premise is that God’s love reached out to us.  God made a connection, came close enough that it seems like we actually have our existence in him.  Remember that Paul quotes with approval one of the poets of the day: “In him we live and move and have our being.”  (Acts 17:28) Here in I John we are told, “God’s love was revealed to us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we light live through him . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (I John 4:9 & 16)

Quickly we are reminded, though, that we are not just on the receiving end.  Love, by its very nature, connects with others. “ . . . since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”  (vs. 11)   In fact, loving one another is the sign, the proof, of our connection with God.  “ . . . if we love one another, God lives in us . . .’ (vs. 12)   The writer makes it very clear that love’s reaching out begins with the way we treat our brothers and sisters.  “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; . . . The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  (vss. 20-21)   Wherever love ends, it doesn’t end with a warm feeling in the heart, nor does it end where our skin stops.  Our nose and our fingers are not the end of love.  Love reaches out.

The book of Acts is the story of the early Christians reaching out, as it says in Acts 1:8, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”   “To the ends of the earth.”  That’s pretty inclusive.  It’s a way of saying, “There are no limits.”  Psalm 22, although not specifically couched in terms of love, has that same kind of reach.  “All the ends of the earth shall remember . . . and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.”  (Psalm 22:27)   The poor are included.  (vs. 26)   The reach spreads even across time so that “future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.”  (vss. 30-31)

The story in Acts reminds us that, in its reaching out, the young church faced specific issues of inclusion.  Does this outreach of love mean everyone is included?  For the early Christians, whose heritage was Jewish, it meant dealing with questions about the inclusion of Gentiles, a major subject in the book of Acts.  In this week’s reading the question comes to focus in one man, an Ethiopian eunuch.  Give credit to Philip.  He apparently did not hesitate a second when told to head out onto “a wilderness road” where he encountered this man.  (Acts 8:26-27)  He’d been in Samaria already preaching to people whose bloodlines were not “pure.”  (vs. 5)  It certainly did not seem out of place now to interpret the scriptures of an Ethiopian eunuch.

What is an “Ethiopian eunuch”? some may ask.  Clearly the writer seems to go out of his way to call attention to this man’s identity.  Indeed, it seems that this story was likely included to make a point about the inclusiveness of God’s love.  He would likely have been a black man.  He could have been a Jew, or a convert to Judaism, living in Ethiopia.  Somewhere been exposed to at least some of the Jewish scriptures, because he was riding along in his chariot “reading the prophet Isaiah,” aloud yet.  (vss. 28-30)   He also had been to Jerusalem to worship.  Whether he was Jew or Gentile, though, he was different, a foreigner.

Then there’s the business of being a eunuch.  Most commonly the word refers to one who has been castrated, although there are variations of meaning.  Whatever the specifics, eunuchs were people whose sexual identity didn’t fit the normal understandings of male and female.  It is another way in which this man was different.  (It can be of interest to see Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:12—“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”  A full interpretation would require consideration of the context.  Whatever the context, I find it interesting that Jesus seems to recognize different possible contributing factors to the identity of a eunuch.)  It was common for those in royal service to be castrated so that they were “neutralized” in relation to the female members of the royal family.  This Ethiopian held a high position in the court of the “queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” (vs. 27)

If we’re talking about the reach of love, we cannot ignore the fact that, according to the laws we find in the early books of the Old Testament, eunuchs were excluded from gathering with other worshipers.  “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  (Deuteronomy 23:1)   In Isaiah, a new perspective is offered, “For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”  (Isaiah 56:4-5—notice the pun there: they are given a name “that shall not be cut off.”)   A couple verse later, we read “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” words spoken by Jesus when he overturns the tables of the moneychangers.  (Isaiah 56:7—See also Mark 11:17)

Whichever scriptures one chooses to select, people in every age have been prone to view with suspicion, those whose sexual identity didn't fit preconceived notions.  In this Acts story, a person who was different in more than one way is included, even baptized!  Love doesn’t end with those who are like us, with whom we are most comfortable.

I like one of the slogans used by the United Church of Christ (with whom our congregation is affiliated): “Whoever you are, wherever you are in life’s journey, you are welcome.”  I once served a congregation where the slogan was, “Christ, the center; love for all who enter.”  Both slogans are limited in that they seem to imply that love is waiting for you inside if you but enter.  Love met the Ethiopian eunuch where he was, on a wilderness road.  Love doesn’t just wait in the sanctuary.  It reaches out.

Finally, there is the reading from the Gospel According to John.  It doesn’t specifically speak of love, but sounds a lot like the epistle reading when it says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  (John 15:4)   It is about growing and bearing fruit.  Love, one might say, grows and bears fruit.  It is the very nature of love to keep on reaching out, even to the ends of the earth and to the end of time.

The Gospel writer uses the image of a vine and branches.  (John 15:1 & 5)  Growth requires keeping connected.  It’s a variation on the epistle’s declaration, “We love because he first loved us.”  (I John 4:13)   I once asked a group to come up with a contemporary image to convey a meaning similar to that of the vine and branches.  Someone came up with the image of the power grid and outlets.  If you want to make use of the power, you have to be “plugged in.”  So it is with love.  If it is to flow through us, reaching out to the ends of the earth, we have to be connected to its source.  Without that, love ends before it even begins.

The bottom line of the Gospel lesson is bearing “much fruit.”  (John 15:8)   Is that another way of speaking of love’s reach?  Love is meaningless unless it grows and touches the lives of others, even comes to life in them, whoever they are, wherever they are on life’s journey.

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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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