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Monday, July 23, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 11:1-15 AND Psalm 14:1-7 OR II Kings 4:42-45 AND Psalm 145:10-18, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21
Sometimes a title is a poetic expression pointing toward a deeper truth—or perhaps just a question. I know that most of us are monotheists, believing in one God rather than “gods.” I know that many of us believe that our “humanity” partakes of the divine image.

So what is the contrast toward which the “poetic” title, “The Ways of Gods and Human Beings,” points? Actually it would probably be a smoother “poetic” title if it referred to “The Ways of Gods and Men,” but we’re all in this (whatever the “this” is) together—men and women. We struggle with the gap between our highest ideals and beliefs and the realities we experience and live. We look at what we think of as perfection and realize we fall short, often far short. We instinctively know that whatever divinity means, it points not only to the inner realities of what it means to be human. It stretches us beyond the limits of our imagination into a realm which is so “other” that to try to gaze upon it is to be almost blinded. Many of us believe that the universe—and all of creation and created beings—is powered by love, that we all live and move and have our being in a loving and safe place that emanates from the heart of “God.”

The lectionary readings for this Sunday take us right into the middle of that contrast. We struggle to understand how such contrasting texts could be collected under the same cover.

The readings from II Samuel and Psalm 14 take us into the dark places of our humanity, while the readings from II Kings, Psalm 145, and John 6 speak of, among other things, the abundant ways in which God blesses and nourishes us.

II Samuel 11 tells the story of King David’s lust from Bathsheba as he looks from his roof across to another roof where she is bathing. He sees her and is aroused by her beauty. (II Samuel 11:2) It’s a story with which heterosexual men have intimate acquaintance—the hormones which flow giving rise to sexual passion. We know that such sexual passion can be aroused in women as well, and in same-sex attractions. We are passionate sexual beings.

The problems start when we act on that passion in inappropriate ways. David sends his messengers to bring Bathsheba to him so that he may “lay with her.” (vs. 4) The result is a pregnancy. (vs. 5)

This story could lead us to consider the tendency of human beings to cover up their “sins.” How often have we seen it in the actions of public figures in our lifetime? We have this ability to make a bad situation worse by trying to cover it up. Cover-up has been one way in which humans have tried to deal with sin as far back as Adam in the Garden. What if David had simply confessed his sin—which he eventually did? Instead, he arranges it so that Bathsheba’s husband will die on the battlefield. (vs. 15) There’s other stuff in the story rooted in practices of the day, e.g., the effort to get Uriah to go sleep with his wife when a good warrior would never do such a thing while in battle (vss. 8-13) and the reference to Bathsheba’s “purifying herself after her period.” (vs. 4) The focus, however, is upon David’s—good King David—ability to take a human life to cover up his own lack of self-restraint.

Psalm 14 moves beyond King David (in a Psalm attributed to the same David) to implicate all humanity. “They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no not one.” (Psalm 14:3) The same theme is picked up in Romans 3:23 which says, “ . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds . . .” (Psalm 14:1) It’s worth noting that one of the evils of which they are accused is confounding “the plans of the poor.” (vs. 6)

Moving to the other readings, we wonder how such deeds could arise from humans upon whom God’s abundance has been poured. Both II Kings and the reading from John’s Gospel tell of many people being fed from a small supply of food—with plenty left over. God’s abundance is such that there is always more than enough. How could we not be satisfied?

In considering the two stories, we might note the contrasting stories of Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament, with Elisha being something of a miracle worker. In John, chapter six, we might speculate on whether the reality underlying the story is that the initial act of sharing prompted others to share. We might note that in other versions of this story the disciples’ lack of confidence in their ability to somehow feed all these people. (See, e.g., Matthew 14:15-17) We could focus on the boy who was willing to share. (John 6:9) The faith theme is evident in John’s version in the story which follows. They have just witnessed a “miracle” that would be reported with amazement on every channel in our day, yet are afraid when they see Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm. (vss. 16-21)

In both II Kings and John’s Gospel, though, the emphasis is upon the leftovers. (II Kings 4:43-44 & John 6:13) As John tells the story—as is the case in all his miracle stories—it is about who Jesus is—“the prophet who is come into the world.” In fact, the people want to make him king. (John 6:14-15) John turns quickly from the miracle itself to the revelation that Jesus is “bread from heaven,” “the bread of life.” (John 6:32-35)

What is revealed here is a God who is the source of life, who nurtures and sustains life. Psalm 145 is a hymn to such a God. “The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing . . . The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” (Psalm 145:14-16 & 18)

How is it that we can have such a God and do the evil things described in the earlier readings? In fact, in the reading from Psalm 14, there is a direct contrast in its reference to “all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?” (Psalm 14:4)

It’s a puzzle that has confounded humanity through the ages. No one has come up with a fully satisfying answer to the apparent gap between the ways of God and humanity. We are aghast when a seemingly good “kid” carefully plots the destruction that devastates those gathered in a theater in Aurora, Colorado. I certainly don’t have a ready answer. All I can do, on this day anyway, is to turn to prayer, looking to the reading from Ephesians as an example of a prayer we might utter as frequently as we repeat the words of The Lord’s Prayer, making it even a daily prayer. It recognizes that we are all children of the same God, “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” (Ephesians 3:14-15) It is a prayer that we may all be strengthened in our inner being, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” (vss. 16-17) It is a prayer filled with rich phrases. At its heart is the goal of “being rooted and grounded in love,” of knowing “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (vss. 17 & 19)

As we struggle in that gap—the contrast and contest—between the divine impulse in us and the perverseness that keeps us short of God’s intent for us, these words of prayer remind us to plant ourselves in God’s abundant love which is ready to give us more life than we have yet realized.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 7:1-14a AND Psalm 89:20-37 OR Jeremiah 23:1-6 AND Psalm 23:1-6, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The lectionary readings for this coming Sunday have gotten me to thinking about leadership.

The reading from II Samuel leads up to the revelation that it is David’s son, Solomon, not David, who will build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. (II Samuel 7:12-13) I can never read this passage without recalling its parallel in I Chronicles 28. In that version of the story, David gathers his leaders and says, “Hear me, my brothers and my people. I had planned to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building. But God said to me, ‘You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood.’” (I Chronicles 28:1-3) A leader here is judged by, among other things, his ability to bring peace rather than conflict.

The message of the epistle reading from Ephesians is similar. Jesus’ work among us is to bring peace among groups which tend to define one another as enemies. The work of a leader who adopts Jesus as his model is the breaking down of dividing walls. (Ephesians 2:13-14) “ . . . he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” (vs. 17) It may even be that in Ephesians we see the true nature of the temple that is to be built. In Jesus, “the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” (vss. 21-22)

Going back to II Samuel, we notice that a good deal of time is devoted to a discussion of whether God really needs a temple. When David begins to think about building a house for God, God reminds him that he did not have a house when they were in the wilderness, and he was with them. (II Samuel 7:6-9) In asking about leadership in the church, one might consider whether it is first and foremost being used to maintain a structure (physical and organizational) or is it being used to strengthen and enable people in the living and serving?

One of my mentors back in the days when I served on the national staff of the American Baptist Churches, some 50 or so years ago, was Jitsuo Morikawa, who helped many in the church rethink its mission. In 1961, he wrote a little booklet entitled Pastors for a Servant People. Edwin Tuller, then Executive of the American Baptist Churches, wrote this in a “Foreword” to Morikawa’s book: “In common with the mood of the day, today’s pastors are under the pressure of ‘bigness.’ They are tempted to become mere ‘organization men.’ Such was not the case in the early church. Leaders in those days were not so much concerned with organization, statistics, and budget growth as they were with ‘mission.’ . . . That ‘mission’ was not confined to a church building, or even to ‘the church in the home.’ It had to do with the message and conduct of Christians wherever they were—at home, in business, school, community.”

Shepherding, especially in the church, has been seen as one way to describe the role of a leader. A leader is a shepherd to his or her flock. Psalm 23, the familiar shepherd Psalm, is one of the lectionary readings for the week. It describes in some detail the nurturing, caring, protecting role of the shepherd.

At one point, I was taught that real life shepherds walked behind the sheep making sure to watch for the stragglers. That view of the shepherd has since been challenged. Some apparently lead by walking in front to be sure the way ahead is safe. Going in front or walking behind need not be two exclusive ways of “leading.” Both provide perspective on the tasks of leadership.

In either case, good shepherds are needed. Jeremiah reminds us that there are shepherds who bring division and scatter the flock. (Jeremiah 23:2) In our national life these days, it is sometimes difficult to know when our “shepherds” are leading us astray. Jeremiah speaks of a leader who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land,” a hope and vision that came to be applied to the Messiah and then to Jesus. Leaders (both shepherds and kings) are judged by their ability to bring not only peace, but justice and righteousness.

In some cases, the people are wandering around as if they have no shepherd at all. Jesus heart was full of compassion for such people. (Mark 6:34) He extended himself to them beyond what could reasonably be expected, even when they followed him during a time of retreat. (See vss. 31-33 & 54-56) One vision of the Messiah saw him as a “suffering servant,” a title that came to be applied to Jesus. His mission was one of service to humanity. Peter preached about “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good . . .” (Acts 10:38) One measure of leadership seems to be compassion.

In the reading from II Samuel one might notice the passing reference to David’s history as a shepherd. The Lord says to him, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel.” (II Samuel 7:8) Is there an implied contrast here between the leadership of a shepherd and the leadership of a prince? Some have emphasized three models of leadership in the Old Testament—prophet, priest, and king. I would add suffering servant and shepherd—and I’m sure there are others.

Without analyzing all those different roles, I want to comment on debates that have gone on about “pastoral leadership” in my lifetime. I found an article, The Changing Landscape of Pastoral Leadership by Gregg S. Morrison of Beeson Divinity School, helpful in describing that debate.

Morrison begins with a story about a funeral he attended, the funeral of a pastor who probably came from my generation. "This dear man,” he writes, “was not only pastor of First Baptist Church; he was pastor to the whole town as well. Most mornings after eating breakfast in the local diner, he would walk down Main Street stopping in stores to say hello, waving to people on the street, listening to friends and neighbors as they shared their troubles. He loved people regardless of where or even if they went to church."

“Shortly after that memorial service,” Morrison says, “I read that church-growth guru George Barna has discovered that only 4 percent of pastors have the gift of leadership. Most, he claims, are gifted as shepherds, teachers, and preachers—but not as leaders. Leadership, he said, is primarily about indicating what direction to take.”

“Has the church simply given in to secular leadership theories,” Morrison asks, “that emphasize mission, vision, and empowerment to the exclusion of the timeless call of God to ‘feed my sheep’?”

Discerning and exercising the qualities of good leadership is no easy task. I’m thankful for the reading from Psalm 89 in which God seems to say to David that he will be with him through all things forever. He knows that David is not perfect, that David will make mistakes, but God’s steadfast love will remain forever. We still seek peace and justice and righteousness and compassion as we stumble along, sometimes like sheep without a shepherd, sometimes with a clamor of voices from “false’ shepherds. It is comforting to know that, behind it all, is the sustaining hand of a compassionate God.

The model for ministry when I was in seminary was that of the “suffering servant”—the leader who enables and equips people to carry out ministry beyond the walls of the church, outside the halls of congress—so that the entire body—the body politic and the Body of Christ—is built up and builds up the world. Pastors were sometimes seen as “suffering servants,” but the thesis of my mentor’s book, Pastors for a Servant People, is that we are all called to a servant ministry in this world. The call to be leaders is a call to all of us, clergy and laity, politician and citizen, to use our gifts in the service of all humanity, that the world may be built up and thrive as a place of peace and justice.

May it be so!
Sunday, July 15, 2012

THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—(JULY 15, 2012)—BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 AND Psalm 24:1-10 OR Amos 7:7-15 AND Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

One can approach most of this week’s lectionary readings through the lens of worship—how and why do we worship?  What is it that we celebrate in life and how do we do that celebrating?  Later I’ll comment on a few of the complexities in that Gospel reading.

One of the things that has become part of “contemporary” worship in some congregations is dancing.  Churches I served occasionally included “performance” dancing as an expression of worship.  My oldest daughter—during her high school and college years—occasionally danced before the congregation on a Sunday morning.

In the churches in which I grew up, dancing was forbidden.  Dancing in worship would have been the highest sacrilege.  I never learned to dance.  The prohibition was so deeply ingrained in me that, when learning to dance was part of the gym curriculum at school, I refused to participate.

It’s no surprise that the story of David dancing before the altar was one which highly intrigued me.  The story is about bringing the “ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David.”  (II Samuel 6:12b—See also vss. 2-4)  The ark could become our entire focus in the story.  Why was it not in Jerusalem to start with?  Where in fact was the proper place for it to be, i.e., where was the proper place to worship?  What was it anyway?  For most it was the sacred center of their religious life, containing the Torah, the Law which defined their life together, which represented God’s presence.  It was often thought to contain the very Spirit of God.  If it was not in their midst, if it was not in the temple, God was not with them.  It turns out, if we read the part of the story that is omitted, that it was a source of blessing to those in whose midst it dwelled.  (See vs. 12)

It’s a big day.  The Ark is coming home.  Let’s celebrate!  So—they come into the city “with rejoicing . . . David danced before the Lord with all his might,” even shedding his outer clothing—a very unkingly act indeed.  (II Samuel 5:12 & 14)   The story is less about the dancing itself than it is about rejoicing before the Lord without restraint—letting go and celebrating the passion that it is in the heart.  Isn’t that at the center of an attitude of worship?  Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s wife, didn’t see it that way.  It was undignified.  After all, aren’t we supposed to stay dignified in our worship and celebration?  She saw “King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.”  (vs. 16)

A few verses later, she says to him, “How the king of Israel dishonored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!”  (vs. 20)   Maybe that cuts to the core of things here.  This unrestrained celebration had leveled the field.  All shared equally in this experience.  Praising God is an act of inclusion and equality.  It is notable that at the end of this display, after offerings given to the Lord, David “distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins.”  (vs. 19)   This too was an act of worship!

In other readings, worship is linked with “righteousness.”  I’ve always been troubled by Psalm 24 which seems to imply that one has to be pure before one can enter into the place of worship.  “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?   And who shall stand in his holy place?  Those who have clean hands and pure hearts . . .”  (vss. 3-4)

While the lines of demarcation may not be that stark, Amos tells us that the kind of worship God wants is justice and righteousness.  God doesn’t much appreciate the worship of those who are cruel and insensitive and unjust in their treatment of those around them.  “I hate, I despise your festivals, . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  (Amos 5:21-24)   Interestingly, Amos offers another, less inspiring, picture of David and his court: “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, . . .”  (Amos 6:4-6)   It is no wonder that, in the designated reading, from Amos, chapter 7, Amos is given the vision of the righteousness of Israel being measured.  (Amos 7:8 and following)   Amos is humbled by the call to deliver such a message.  “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, a dresser of sycamore trees . . .”  (vs. 14)

Again, there is the hint of leveling in the affairs of the Lord, and a reminder that worship is not just about dancing and singing in the sanctuary, or even in the streets.  Worship occurs when “steadfast love and faithfulness” meet, when “righteousness and peace . . . kiss each other.”  (Psalm 85:10-11, part of the other lectionary Psalm for this Sunday)

The Epistle reading is, in part, an expression of praise, beginning, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly place . . .”  (Ephesians 1:3)   Twice it speaks of “the praise of his glory.”  (vss. 12 & 14)   The tone suggests that praise is rooted in hope.  If unrestrained singing and dancing coupled with righteousness and justice and peace are part of worship and celebration, so is hope.  Worship and celebration look not only backward, but ahead.  We do those things in the context of “a plan for the fullness of time,” an “inheritance,” a destiny “according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope in Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.”  (vss. 10-12)

Finally, the strange and gory reading from the Gospel According to Mark.  In last week’s reading, Jesus sent his disciples out , two by two, with no provisions.  (Mark 6:7-11)   This week Herod hears about their success and wants to know who this man is.  It begins as a story about the identity of Jesus and ends with a flashback.  (vss. 14-16)   Herod wonders if it is John the Baptist but he knows John the Baptist is dead.  Herod, after all, was there when he died.  And so the flashback to his birthday party.  Herod had married his brother’s wife, and John the Baptist called him out about it.   His wife wants to see John dead, and eventually uses her daughter to trick Herod into beheading him.  (vss. 17-28)
Why is the story included?  Perhaps just to show the corruption of Herod’s court, the context in which the early Christian movement emerged?  Whatever the reason for its inclusion, it shows a man whose ego is at the center of this lavish birthday celebration.  It shows a man whose center is weak and is easily swayed.  It is not clear who or what he worships, and, in the end, while life is supposedly being celebrated, a life is lost, a righteous life.  Is it too far from what Amos was criticizing?

Perhaps it worthy to note that Herod is also a person of principle.  He gave his word to his daughter that she would have John’s head on a platter and he will keep his word, however much it grieves him.  (vs. 26)    I suppose one could see some merit in Herod’s keeping of his word, but one might also note how standing on principle, when justice of a much higher order is at stake, can be devastatingly destructive.  Is that also true of worship and celebration which is based upon principle alone, upon ritual alone, without the substance of justice and righteousness and hope and heart and joy?

May we always pay attention to what and how we celebrate, that we may live for and to the praise of his glory.  (See again Ephesians 1:13 & 14)
Tuesday, July 03, 2012

THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—(JULY 8, 2012)—BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 AND Psalm 45:1-14 OR Ezekiel 2:1-5 AND Psalm 123:1-4, II Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

The debate has gone on for millennia.  Are human beings born good?  Maybe not.  Maybe we are supposed to go through life groveling because we are such sinners.  Perhaps when we are born we are like a blank sheet of paper, the good and the bad to develop as the forces of life write their destinies upon us.  I tend to think that the polarizing answers miss much of reality.  From years of observation and experience, I have come to the conclusion that there are both angels and demons at work in most of us—figuratively speaking, at least.

As human beings we have reason for both pride and humility, a theme I see in some of this Sunday’s lectionary readings.

Paul is one of those characters with enough swings in mood and behavior to elicit love and admiration as well as critical distancing.  He was known on occasion to boast.  He was proud of his work and of the people whose faith he had influenced.  At the same time, he was deeply aware of sin at work in his life.  Some of his writings are probably a main source of the groveling attitude among some Christians.

Paul was aware that people sometimes misused spiritual experiences by boasting about them, as if these experiences made them better than other believers.  In today’s reading from II Corinthians he speaks of being lifted into the heavens—into Paradise—where one might see unimaginable things.  (II Corinthians 12:2-4)   It’s part of a longer conversation about boasting (i.e., being prideful) starting in chapter 10.   In chapter 11, verse 16, he says, “Let no one think that I am a fool; but if you do, then accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little.”  Who wouldn’t want to brag about some of the things Paul had been through?

Throughout these chapters, though, Paul also speaks of humility and weakness.  Ultimately, he says that he is content to boast of his weakness.  (vs. 9)   “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities, for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (vs. 10)  

We have reason for both pride and humility.  We have strengths and weaknesses.  We do not need to stand on the mountaintop shouting our success nor do we need to grovel in the gutter denying all goodness.  Both angels and demons are at work in us.

When we are too prideful, Paul suggests, we are acting as if we have gotten where we are purely through out own effort.  God works in us equally by giving us strength in our weakness.  One of my mother’s favorite verses, posted above the kitchen sink in the house where I was reared, are in verse 9, where God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  She battled the demons of mental illness for many years and was what some have called a “wounded healer,” deeply touching the lives of many by affirming their worth and potential.  She saw in them the angels crying out for release.

We don’t expect much of weakness and humility.  Jesus comes from humble beginnings, so when he shows up in his hometown and begins to teach in the synagogue, people say, “Where did this man get all this? . . . Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  (Mark 6:2-3)   When Nathaniel first hears about Jesus he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

As the story continues, Jesus instructs his disciples to go out humbly, simply, dependent upon others for their well-being.  “He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bed, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”  (Mark 6:8-9)   They are not to demand their rights, pridefully imposing themselves on those who won’t receive them.  They are just to move on to places where they will be able to exercise their gifts.  (vss. 11-13)   It is difficult for human beings to go about their work with that kind of humility.  We want to be noticed, appreciated, perhaps even applauded.  Like Paul we struggle between boasting and humility as the angels and demons do battle within.

The reading from II Samuel might make us think of David and his achievements—a man of great accomplishment as well as a man who dark side occasionally surfaced.  Although from humble beginnings and of sometimes sensitive nature, he was not a very humble king.  The applause of an entire nation certainly fed his ego.  Our reading contains a short commentary on his rise to kingship.  (II Samuel 5:1-3)   He was thirty years old and reigned for forty years, we are told.  (vs. 4)   And the passage ends with these words: “David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”  (vs. 10)   We might consider the pride of one who is certain that they are doing exactly what God wants them to do.  Here it is sufficient to see David as another example of the humanity that is characteristic of us all.  We have the capacity for great pride, and yet have many reasons to remain humble.  Angels and demons are at work in us all.

Sometimes we take pride in our cities and nations.  We want other peoples and nations to stand in awe of us, perhaps even cower before us.  Psalm 48 depicts such a reality.  It is a hymn of pride about Zion (Jerusalem, Israel).  “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, His holy mountains, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion.”  (vss. 1-2) “Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers . . .”  (vs. 12)   When the kings of the world see it they panic and take flight, “trembling took hold of the . . . , pains as of a woman in labor.”  (vss. 4-6)   Hear the words of writers in The Interpreter’s Bible who title their exposition on this Psalm, “The Power and Peril of National Pride.”  “The claims made for superiority in wisdom and wealth and power very often invite the challenge of others who for equally good reasons make equally impressive claims.  Since both are in a measure right, their boasts engender fear . . . The history of nationalist and religious and civil wars reveals that they have often been fought for no more important reason than the gratification of group egotism.”  No wonder Paul is ambivalent about boasting.

The second Psalm speaks of pride as holding others in “contempt.”  In this case, it is God’s people who “have had more than enough of contempt . . . of the contempt of the proud.”  (Psalm 123:3-4)   In the midst of such contempt, they cry out for mercy.
In the short reading from Ezekiel, Israel is described as “a nation of rebels.”  (Ezekiel 2:3)   One would have to get into the history of these exiled people, many of whom blamed their exile on God and/or saw it as punishment for sin.  One might consider what it was they might have rebelled against and what ideals of nationhood this prophetic message was urging them to reinstate.  Let’s just be reminded how easy it is for us to stray from the ideals that sustain the human spirit and its relationships.  Sometimes pride is a factor in our straying.  We have become so good, so accomplished, so praised, that such ideals don’t matter any longer.  Certainly part of the debate in our nation today is about the ideals that will guide us.  It is the struggle between the angels and demons that are at work in all of us.

Note once again that I’m not talking about a literal cosmic battle going on in our psyches, although I wouldn’t entirely dismiss such a possibility.  Rather I am reminding us that we have the potential for both good and bad within us, that there is a sense they are part of every decision we make, every action we make. 

We can be proud of the good we have accomplished and continue to accomplish, but we can only do so with a great deal of humility.

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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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