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Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Song of Solomon 2:8-13 AND Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 OR Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 AND Psalm 15:1-5, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

What is love? It’s a central question of life and it’s a central question of faith. The answers range from the mystical and romantic to the practical. We want to bask in shared love that moves every nerve and hormone. We are also aware that love means doing things for the one we love, practical things, things that sustain the other in body and spirit, that further the other’s goals.

In Fiddler on the Roof there is a poignant song entitled “Do you love me?” Golde and Tevye are have a daughter getting ready for marriage—a marriage in which her husband to be apparently loves her. It causes Tevye to reflect for a moment. He turns to Golde and asks, “Do you love me?” Golde responds, “You’re a fool.” Tevye acknowledges that that is true, saying, “But do you love me?”

Here’s Golde’s response: “Do I love you? For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow.” They talk about how scared they were on their wedding day, Tevye remembering, “But my father and my mother said we'd learn to love each other. And now I'm asking, Golde, ‘Do you love me?’” “I'm your wife,” she says. “I know, but do you love me?” She turns aside in remembrance, “Do I love him?  For twenty-five years I've lived with him, fought him, starved with him, twenty-five years my bed is his. If that's not love, what is?” Tevye looks at her, “Then you love me?” “I suppose I do,” Golde says, to which Tevye response, “And I suppose I love you too.”

Song of Solomon (sometimes called just “Song of Songs”) is a song of romantic love, sometimes treated as a parable about God’s Love. Many scholars see it as coming from a later era, perhaps a collection of many love poems used in worship. I’ve even seen it attributed to a female author. Certainly the voice of love in the poem or poems is feminine. Maybe it’s a great hymn to the power of love, included because some thought it illumined their understanding of Solomon, who, we are told in I Kings, chapter 11:1, “loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women . . .” “I am black and beautiful,” the woman declares in Song of Solomon 1:5. Is there a possible reference here to the Queen of Sheba? She and Solomon were obviously somewhat in awe of each other.

Psalm 45 which has some of the same passion says to the king, “You are the most handsome of men . . . your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia . . . daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor,” concluding with these words, “at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir,” Ophir possibly being a reference to Africa.

Whatever the era, whoever the beloved, we have in Song of Solomon a sensuous poem about love, reaching its pinnacle perhaps in chapter eight, verses six and seven: “ . . . love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.” One can even wonder whether there is a caution here about the power of love. Three times we find these words of warning: “ . . . do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” (Song of Solomon 2:7, 3:5, & 8:4) If this comes during a time when the people felt separated from God, longing for a new era of closeness, is this a word counseling patience?

Whatever we do with this strange work, it appeals to those of us who want to be held in the arms of a God who pursues us with unconditional and passionate love. But is that enough?

The rest of the readings point us to the actions that are appropriate for those who want to please the one who loves them—the simple acts Golde remembers performing for Tevye as a demonstration of her love. Scripture, and people of faith, have not been shy in spelling out what those acts should be—often in a legalistic manner. If you don’t do these things, you are not worthy of divine love. You cannot receive its benefits, certainly not bask in it for eternity. The reading from Deuteronomy seems to take such a hard line. “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God . . . You must observe them diligently.” (Deuteronomy 4:2 & 6) In Psalm 15, it is “those who walk blamelessly” who may abide on God’s holy hill. (Psalm 15:1-2)

For those of us who want to be a little less legalistic, there are still things to notice in these two readings. The passage from Deuteronomy ends with an emphasis upon not forgetting the things that have provided a foundation in our lives and making them known to our children and our children’s children. (Deuteronomy 4:9) Part of the passing of life from one generation to the next is conversation about the things that have given our lives meaning.

In Psalm 15 it is interesting to see how “right” behavior is defined: speaking truth from the heart, not slandering, being respectful of friends and neighbors, not lending money at interest or taking bribes. “Those who do such things will never be moved.” (Psalm 15:2-3 & 5) The actions we do in the name of love are not rigid and narrow. They are intended to build healthy relationships of truth and justice in the world around us.

James, who calls us to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers” (James 1:22), talks about being “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger,” bridling our tongues. (vss. 19 & 26) Then he offers this definition of “religion that is pure and undefiled before God . . .: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (vs. 27) There’s plenty of room for debate and interpretation, but, in general, I see not a rigid legalism, but compassionate service. Indeed, later in this short epistle we find these words: “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:12-17)

Love is not just a warming of the heart inwardly; it is the outward expression of a warm heart. When Peter responded to Jesus that he did truly love him, Jesus said, “Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” (See John 21:15-17) Love is found in both a passionate embrace and in compassionate inclusion in the name of peace and justice.

The Gospel reading from Mark comes at it from another perspective. Sometimes we do the right things but are not acting out of love Perhaps it is simply but habit, or maybe seeking credit. Who knows what our motives are? T.S. Eliot, in Murder in the Cathedral, defines “the highest form of treason” in this way: “to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Mark tells the story of an encounter involving Jesus, his disciples, and some of the Pharisees, in which this issue comes to focus in traditions of cleanliness. There were legalistic definitions of cleanliness not followed by some of Jesus’ disciples. (Mark 7:1-4) When his disciples are criticized, Jesus uses it as an occasion to once again, call the critics “hypocrites.” “This people,” he says, “honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (vss. 5-6) In Matthew 23:25-26 he puts it this way: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”

In this week’s reading from Mark, Jesus points out that what is in the heart and what comes out are related. “ . . . there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these things come from within.” (Mark 7:21-23)

In terms of today’s topic, if there is no love in the heart, how can truly loving acts come out? Experiencing and giving love involves both inward mystery and intimacy and outward behavior and service.
Friday, August 24, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: I Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43 AND Psalm 84:1-12 OR Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 AND Psalm 34:15-22, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69

Most believers would agree that it is important to stay close to God. Those who give high priority to observable facts, though, may wonder how we can stay close to God if we can’t see God or aren’t quite sure where God is. One might think the Hebrews had it pretty well figured out with this Ark of the Covenant thing. The Covenant, carried in the Ark, represented God’s presence. Wherever the Ark of the Covenant was, there God was. We know, of course, that their understand was more varied and sophisticated than that, but that’s where we start this week.

In the first Old Testament reading for this Sunday, after Solomon has completed construction of the new temple, the Ark is moved from its old location on Mount Zion in Jerusalem to the temple where it is to symbolize God’s presence there. (I Kings 8:1 & 6) Solomon himself, however, realizes the God he worships is bigger than that. In his prayer of dedication for the new temple, he includes these words, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (vs. 27) He recognizes the holiness of the place, that people will come here to pray. Solomon asks that when the people of Israel pray “toward this place, O hear in heaven your dwelling place; hear and forgive.” (vs. 30)

Many Christians today have transferred some of these sentiments to the building where their congregation meets on Sunday. It is a holy place, a place to find the presence of God. They might pray with the Psalmist in Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! . . . Happy are those who live in your house . . . For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of the wilderness.” (Psalm 84:1, 4, 10)

I believe there are holy places, places that have, for whatever reasons, a sense of sacredness about them. We need to take care, however, in identifying specific buildings with the presence of the Lord. We need to avoid seeing the sanctuary as a place where we go to seal ourselves off from all that is impure. Even Solomon’s prayer includes a surprising element of inclusiveness. The temple came to be called “a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7, where the context is the inclusion of foreigners and eunuchs) Solomon’s prayer includes these words; “ . . . when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel . . . comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you . . .” (I Kings 8:41-43)

Clearly staying close to God is not a matter of shutting oneself off to avoid contamination. God’s presence reaches out to include. When we seek to be close to God, we find ourselves invited to be part of that inclusive love.

A couple of the other lectionary readings remind us that there are still distinctions to be made. The Bible and religious people often seem to make stark contrasts that progressive Christians don’t find entirely comfortable. Psalm 34 contrasts the fact that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous” with the observation that “the face of the Lord is against evildoers. (Psalm 34:15-16) There are the righteous and there are the evil. If one is to seek to be close to God one better be among the righteous. The life and world in which I live seems to be a little more subtle in its contrasts. I find both righteousness and evil in myself and in those around me. Remember Paul’s words in the seventh chapter of Romans: “I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do what I know is right. I do the things I hate . . . Even when I want to do right, I cannot. Instead of doing what I know is right, I do wrong . . . The Law has shown me that something in me keeps me from doing what I know is right.” (Romans 7:15 and following)

The reading from Ephesians depicts life as a battle. The spirits of good and evil are waging war all around us. (Ephesians 6:12) We are to “put on the whole armor of God” to withstand the forces of evil. (vss. 11 & 13) The pieces of armor are described. We are to put on truth, righteousness, readiness to stand for the gospel of peace, salvation, and the word of God. (vss. 14-17) I remember when I was a kid, a bit obnoxious in my adherence to Fundamentalism, I participated in the kid’s parade at the Strawberry Festival in my hometown. I was dressed in the armor of a knight, each part labeled according to the designations in this verse.

Christians are sometimes offensive in the way they participate in the battles of life, but that doesn’t mean that there are no battles to be fought, no choices to be made. This season’s political debate has certainly made that clear. The question before us is how we join in that battle. How do we treat our “enemies”—or do we think of them as “enemies” all? Do we somehow reach out in inclusive love affirming that they are God’s children also? I’m not sure I know how to do that at times. I know that I need to be guided by the presence of God, seeking the things identified in Ephesians as armor. Perhaps the key word is “seeking” rather than claiming sole possession of. The final three verses of the reading from Ephesians, in fact, focus upon prayer. Want to stay close to God? “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” (vs. 18)

Going back to the stark contrasts of Psalm 34, note these words tucked away in verse 18. “The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” This Psalm is not about an arrogant righteousness. It is a word to those who may feel abandoned by God in their moments of weakness and loss and oppression. It is in those humble moments that they may suddenly find that they are truly close to God. Perhaps if we want to stay close to God, we must do so in a humble spirit, seeking out the “outsiders” and fighting for their rights and dignity, reminding them that God’s love is big enough to include us all, healing the divisions and renewing our spirits.

Finally, we come to the Gospel lesson, another continuation of the lectionary’s extended attention to the feeding of the five thousand and how it is to be interpreted. In this week’s reading, Jesus is still talking strangely about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. (John 6:56) The focus here is upon how difficult it seems for his hearers to understand. Some find it offensive. His disciples say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus asks, “Does this offend you?” (vss. 60-61) We are told that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (vs. 66)

We are brought, in this long story, to a point of choice. Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” (vs. 67) Following Jesus is difficult. Staying close to him is not easy. Are we up to the task of seeking that closeness? Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

It may not be entirely clear whether Peter’s response is a resounding declaration of faith. Perhaps it contains an element of resignation. The path is not always exciting and exuberant and easy to understand, but here we are and we’ll hang in there. Listen to Wallace Buber, writing on this passage in the Aug. 22 edition of The Christian Century:

“Maybe the real miracle in the sixth chapter of John wasn’t that 5,000 people were fed at the beginning, but that a dozen were still left at the end . . . Jesus . . . understood that following him was no picnic . . . I’ve always detected in Peter’s words a little hint of exasperation, almost as if he were shrugging his shoulders, throwing his arms up in the air and exclaiming something like: ‘Look, we don’t understand you either, Jesus. We don’t get you any better than any of the others did. But what other choice do we have? Where else can we go?’ . . . His is a declaration of faith in an ambiguous world like ours and for people like us, who don’t understand everything about Jesus and have plenty of unanswered questions, but keep hanging in there with him anyway.” Buber, pastor of Overbrook Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, goes on to tell a story about a young man who joined their new member class. “He’d been a Unitarian . . . He wasn’t sure if he was a skeptic, a seeker of an agnostic, but he was pretty sure he was not a Presbyterian.” Buber tried to answer his questions, but the young man left the class saying, “Thanks. I appreciate your time, but I just don’t think this is for me.” Next Sunday, to Buber’s surprise, he showed up for worship. It was Communion Sunday. He came and received the elements. “After the service,” Buber says, “I greeted him and said, ‘Hey, I didn’t expect to be seeing you again.’ He smiled and shrugged, the way I imagine Peter shrugged.”

The passage from John ends with a declaration of belief, but what is belief finally but trust? In seeking to stay close to God we are not likely to reach some point of full understanding. On some days at least, all we are able to do is shrug our shoulders and hang in there. And with that I shrug mine.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 AND Psalm 111:1-10 OR Proverbs 9:1-6 AND Psalm 34:9-14, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58

Most of this week’s lectionary readings touch upon issues of understanding and wisdom. The biblical words vary in their usage and meaning, but for a working framework some have suggested this. First there is “knowledge,” getting a grasp on the facts. For instance, while there is some debate about the dimensions of economic sluggishness, unemployment, even poverty, all look at “facts” that suggest things are not going too well. Second there is “understanding,” perceiving the meaning of the facts, knowing the impact the facts have on real people and businesses, war and peace, and world commerce. At that point political debate begins to diverge, some seeing things moving toward total collapse while others are more optimistic. Third there is “wisdom,” being able to act for the welfare of all on the basis of the “facts.” Great disagreement arises at this point, each “side” adamantly holding to competing ideological visions, crying out about the dangers and destructiveness of what the other will do.

Wisdom is finding a way to a compromise that brings the greatest good for all, that builds up the body rather than tears it down. Such wisdom has from time to time risen to the top as an ideal, and there have been leaders who clearly put finding the common good ahead of petty and narrow agendas. We haven’t seen much of that lately.

Our readings remind us of the importance of wisdom in our dealings with one another. We begin with King Solomon, remembered for his “wisdom.” After continued jockeying over who would succeed King David, Solomon rose to the top. In this week’s reading from I Kings, chapters two and three, at the beginning of Solomon’s reign, the Lord appears to him in a dream with the invitation, “Ask what I should give you.” (I Kings 3:5) We don’t know how old Solomon was. Some say as young as 12 or 14, certainly no older than 20, none of which would have been a surprisingly young age in those days. Probably when Solomon responds to God saying that he is “only a little child” (vs. 7), it is more an act of humility, bowing before God as a child, rather than a literal statement of his status. Whatever his age, he feels overwhelmed with the responsibility before him, saying, “I do not know how to go out or come in.” (vs. 7) So this is his request: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (vs. 9) Wouldn’t it be great if every leader of every nation prayed something in that spirit each morning—and perhaps many times during the day, certainly whenever facing great decisions that will have an impact on many? God grants Solomon’s request, giving him “a wise and discerning mind.” (vs. 12) How often do we pray for a wise and discerning mind? The hearts of those who seek wisdom are humble hearts, beginning with the declaration that we don’t have all the answers, we don’t know. When was the last time a political candidate demonstrated such humility, and would we elect a candidate who did?

Proverbs often depicts “Wisdom” as a person, a female Spirit. In Proverbs, chapter nine, Wisdom calls out “from the highest places in the town. ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’ To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’” (Proverbs 9:3-6)

Our Gospel lessons for the past few weeks have given us thorough opportunity to consider the bread of life and living bread. I’m pretty much ready to move on, but this reading from Proverbs won’t quite let me. Wisdom, some kind of personification of God, offers us bread to eat—and wine with it. For Christians of our era the symbols immediately evoke the practice of Communion in so many of our churches. Does partaking of the bread and cup nourish us with wisdom, give us insight about the paths into which we are called? Do we even seek such wisdom when we come to the table? What if we looked on our celebration of Communion as a feast of wisdom? Perhaps one of the truths about wisdom toward which the Gospel lesson is pointing is this: Wisdom and understanding are the ability to discern and choose the things that lead to life, the things that last and endure. Let us pray that we may choose life in all that we do and say.

The reading from Proverbs ends with an emphasis upon maturity and walking in the way of “insight.” Proverbs 9:6) Older translations use the word “understanding” where the New Revised Standard Version has “insight.” Wisdom here, as in Solomon’s prayer, is gained in the process of moving from being only a little child to mature adulthood. When we are in a judgmental mood, we sometimes look around at this person or that person and say that he or she needs to “Grow up.” On some days, I look at today’s political debate and cry out, “Why don’t you guys and gals just grow up?” The writer of Ephesians puts it in loftier language, when (not in this week’s lectionary selection) he calls “for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:12-16) It’s a pretty high standard for maturity, but it keeps our focus on what brings life, on what has eternal significance. The lectionary selection from Ephesians begins, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time . . . So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:15-17) Notice the phrase, “making the most of the time.” Some older translations speak of “redeeming the time.” The Greek word for “time” here is “kairos,” a descriptive word we have used in the name of our congregation, Kairos Milwaukie United Church of Christ. It is time which is full of promise and opportunity. We are to seize the day rather than squander it. Too often hopes and dreams get bogged down in debates full of empty promises. Wisdom is seeing where God is still speaking and acting today and joining in that divine project.

By the way, if you want a translation of Ephesians 5:15-17 that gets your attention, consider this from The Contemporary English Version: “Act like people with good sense and not like fools. These are evil times, so make every minute count. Don’t be stupid. Instead, find out what the Lord wants you to do.”

That leaves the two lectionary readings from the Psalms. Although the reading from Psalm 34 does not specifically mention wisdom, it says, “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” (Psalm 34:11) It goes on with instructions to “keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” (vss. 13-14) Can we this week at least see these words as a contribution to the discussion of what it means to act wisely?

Psalm 34 can be linked with the reading from Psalm 111 in its reference to “the fear of the Lord.” (Psalm 34:11 and Psalm 111:10) In Psalm 111, it is called “the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (vs. 10) So what is this “fear of the Lord”? Does it just reenforce stereotypes of a God who breathes fire and brimstone, sets up surveillance cameras watching our every move? Does it suggest that, when we think about God and seek wisdom, we should quake in our boots? No! To fear the Lord here means to feel a sense of awe and worship in the presence of the opportunities and challenges life offers us.

It takes us back to wisdom that is rooted in humility. One never learns anything, nor makes any real progress in building up society, if one begins with the assumption that one has all the answers. Many scientists speak of the awe and humility as they face the wonders that are at work in life. Wisdom starts with that kind of awe (or “fear”). Maybe if an epidemic of such awe and humility breaks out men and women of wisdom will once again be chosen over their rivals, as Solomon was chosen over those around him who were grabbing for power and personal gain.
Wednesday, August 08, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 AND Psalm 130:1-8 OR I Kings 19:4-8 AND Psalm 34:1-8, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, John 6:15:35, 41-41

Theologians—and anyone who has thought much about God—through the ages have developed contrasting images (or held them in tension) of where God is located. On the one hand God is beyond the reach of human existence and understanding, so totally removed from our humanity that to presume to touch God brings death. On the other hand, God is as close as the air we breath, inhabiting every tree and animal and plant, even taking on human form. When trouble strikes, we are particularly drawn to the God who is near at hand, sort of our own personal magician who will hold our hand and fix everything.

Biblically, there’s a lot of crying out to God as people face various hardships. The lectionary for this coming Sunday takes us first to King David as he weeps over the loss of his son Absalom.  Absalom is leader of a rebellion against his father’s forces, trying to usurp the throne. (See II Samuel 15:10, where we read that “Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, ‘As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then shout: Absalom has become king at Hebron!’”) This is the context in which an army of David (with Joab and Abishai and Ittai leading) “went out into the field against Israel,” that is against the rebels led by Absalom. (II Samuel 18:5-6)  Because David still loves his rebellious son (something many parents may be able to identify with), his instruction is to “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” (vs. 1)

We are reminded that “the battle was fought in the forest” and that “the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.” (vss. 6-8)  The forest wasn’t kind to Absalom, whose head was “caught fast” in “the thick branches of a great oak,” so that “he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.” (vs. 9)  We might wonder about the significance of being caught between heaven and earth (God who is far off and God who is near). We might think about trees as places of threat and places where people are sitting (maybe hiding or pouting, as in this week’s story of Elijah, or in a story about Jonah, or even in the story of Buddha receiving enlightenment under the Bo—or fig—tree).  It is not the tree, however, that does Absalom in.  Those who were warned to treat Absalom gently do not do so.  “Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.” (vs. 15)  When it is reported to David, the suggestion is that Absalom’s death was a good thing. “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.” (vs. 33)  For David, though, it was devastating. His son, from whom he was been estranged, died before there was any possibility of reconciliation.  Whose heart would not go out to David when we hear the cry, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I have died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”? (vs. 33)

If we went on in the story, we would find David’s functioning is affected by his grieving. The troops feel he is not grateful for what they have done. David, like so many who grieve, is not able to move on, until finally Joab urges him out of his depression. (See the beginning of II Samuel, chapter 19, where we skip over many complexities and intrigues.)

Elijah is another person who has difficulty moving on when life isn’t going well for him. He has successfully confronted the prophets of Baal, who were unable to bring fire down upon the sacrifices on the altar. (See the story in I Kings 18:20-40) Queen Jezebel hears about the prophets being humiliated and killed. (I Kings 19:1)  She sends a message to Elijah, saying that she will make his “life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (vs. 2)  When we get to the lectionary reading, Elijah, on the run, has stopped to rest “under a solitary broom tree.”  He wants to die.  “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life . . .” (vs. 4) As sometimes happens when we’re depressed, it seems like Elijah has probably not been bothering to eat. An angel appears twice, instructing him to “Get up and eat.” (vss. 5 & 7)  Whatever Elijah ate, it was not ordinary food.  Was it food for the spirit, bread from heaven?  It would take more than toasted rye to change this guy’s mood.  Whatever it was, it gave him a new start, enough that “he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights” (vs. 8)—and let’s not even get into the recurrent biblical symbolism of forty days and forty nights—time often spent in the wilderness seeking or awaiting renewal.

The stereotype is that there are many of us who seek the presence of the Lord only when we are in trouble. Certainly here are two stories of people who need the healing touch of divine power, love, and forgiveness. In the first lectionary Psalm, the poet cries “out of the depths.” (Psalm 130:1)  “Lord, hear my voice . . . I wait for the Lord; my soul waits . . . my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.” (vss. 2, 5-6)  I need the hope that is like the beginning of a fresh new day.  “In his word I hope . . . For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” (vss. 5 & 7)

The second Psalm is on the other side of the trouble.  It is not much comfort when we are in the midst of our turmoil, our loss, our frustration, our depression.  Too often we try to get people through such times by telling them that things will get better.  Yet, it is true that many of us, having been through devastating times, can look back and sing the praises found in Psalm 34.  “This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.” (Psalm 34:6)

The Elijah story is not the only one which involves eating.  Psalm 34:8, often used when we celebrate Communion, instructs, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”  It reminds us that, in recent weeks, the Gospel readings have centered on Jesus as “the bread of life,” “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:35, 48, 51), connections being made with “the manna in the wilderness.” (vs. 49)  The emphasis in this week’s reading seems to be upon that bread as something that will sustain one through all of eternity. (vss. 47, 50-51)

What catches my attention in this portion of the story, though, when we are trying to consider where we find the presence of God, the bread of eternity we need to sustain us in the midst of trouble, is the complaining. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (vs. 42)  Sometimes we’re looking too far into the “heavens” to notice the presence of heaven on the street corner in our home town, in the carpenter or teacher or friend who offers comfort when we are in need.  The shocking thing revealed in Jesus is that God is not in some far off heaven. God is walking the streets, riding the buses and trains and airplanes and ships and bicycles, of this life. Wherever love is, there is God.  Love is the bread which sustains life now and forever.

The reading from Ephesians puts it right on the bottom shelf.  What we need in our times of trouble is love embodied in everyday acts of truth and kindness.  Do we need to be recalled to the simple values of human relationship?  Living them is not always as simple as speaking them, but maybe we need to give it a try.

Tell the truth, don’t steal, work hard, don’t talk trash about other people (how about don’t talk trash at all), don’t be bitter and angry and contentious, be kind, forgive—and the list goes on. (See especially Ephesians 4:25, 28-29, 31-32)  Doing these things will not save us.  No one will live them to perfection.  They remind us, however, of where to look for God and how to live through times of trouble.  Pay attention to the relationships around us.  God is there, and we are to “be imitators of God.” (Ephesians 5:1)

Sound audacious?  Not if we remember that God is love.  It is God’s love, shown in Christ, that we are to imitate.  “Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” (Ephesians 5:2)  The values listed in this Ephesians passage embody God’s love.  They are all around us and in us if we pay attention, even in, maybe especially in, times of trouble.
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 11:26-12:13a AND Psalm 51:1-12 OR Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 AND Psalm 78:23-29, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35
On any given day, things can get pretty messy. The things we do can get us all out of sorts, not to mention what they do to the world and other people’s lives. David certainly had that experience after his encounter with Bathsheba and his elimination of her husband, Uriah. How do we make things right again, get back on an even keel?

There are at least two related perspectives in the stories related to this week’s lectionary readings. The first focuses on confession and forgiveness. The second reminds us to take it one day at a time, to see each new day as a gift from God, clean and crisp and fresh. The two themes dovetail if one thinks of the process of forgiveness giving one a fresh start, a chance to start again as if it were the morning of a new day.

The readings brought to mind a number of familiar verses that are not included.

Lamentations 3:22-23—“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” This, of course, is the biblical inspiration for the hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” which declares, “Morning by morning new mercies I see.”

Psalm 30:5—“For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Ephesians 4:26—“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger . . .” Note that this is later in the same chapter as this week’s epistle reading.

Matthew 6:34, from the Sermon on the Mount---“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” The tone of this one differs slightly from the others, but continues the theme of leaving today’s troubles in today.

Now let’s turn to the story of the manna from Exodus. The people of Israel get hungry while they’re out there in the wilderness. They begin to complain. (Exodus 16:2-3) The Lord sends quail and manna. (vss. 4, 13-14)

Let’s not get hung up on scientific explanations of these phenomena. The main point is that God will provide. Stop worrying and trust. As the story continues, we realize that it is another case of not worrying about tomorrow, as well as a warning not to be greedy. These are the instructions: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs . . .,” and we are told, “The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, 'Let no one leave any of it over until morning.'” (vss. 16-19) Start each new day fresh, trusting in God’s faithfulness.

The reading from Psalm 78 remembers the time that God “rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them grain from heaven. Mortals ate of the bread of angels . . .” (Psalm 78:24-25) Likewise the reading from John, chapter six, continues from last week with an interpretation of the feeding of the five thousand, connecting it with “the manna in the wilderness.” “‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (John 6:31) The people here seem to be as confused and doubting as were those Israelites wandering in the wilderness. After witnessing this multiplying of the loaves and fishes, they are still asking for a sign, “so that we may see it and believe you?” (vs. 30) The story, as told in John’s Gospel, becomes, of course, an opportunity to point to Jesus as “the bread of life.” (vs. 35) For today, I’m content to let the connection made with the manna in the wilderness remind us that God’s faithfulness will come again tomorrow. The way to move on with our lives is to trust God’s provision which comes new each morning.

So, what do we make of all that as the story of David and Bethsheba continues back in II Samuel? Let’s first go to the final verse. David confesses to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (II Samuel 12:13a) Psalm 51, also in this week’s readings, bears the heading: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” Although the headings which introduce many of the Psalms were added along the way, tradition has it that this Psalm is David’s prayer of confession. The words capture a spirit of confession which has been a guide to people through the ages.. The Psalm begins with a cry for that mercy which comes new every morning. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1) It seeks cleansing, an opportunity to begin anew, to know joy and gladness again. (vss. 2, 7-8. 10, 12)

Confession and forgiveness involve a new start with a clean slate. Tomorrow is coming with a chance to begin again, clean and crisp and forgiven. In human relationships, forgiveness opens new possibilities not only for the one being forgiven; it also brings healing to the one doing the forgiving. It’s been refreshing to hear some of the families of those shot down in Aurora, Colorado, as they articulate this truth. There is no way to make things right unless forgiveness is both received and given. Don’t let the sun set on the things that are rupturing the relationships of life.

A major part of the reading from II Samuel is a parable the prophet Nathan tells to David. It opens our eyes to another dimension of David’s “sin.” Nathan’s parable tells of rich man who “had very many flocks and herds.” (II Samuel 11:2) He is contrasted with a poor man who “had nothing but one little ewe lamb . . . He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.” (vs. 3) Nathan wants David, the shepherd, to remember how close one can get to his sheep. But the rich man took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it as a meal “for the guest who had come to him.” (vs. 4) David is infuriated. The rich man, he says, “deserves to die.” (vs. 5) At this point, Nathan points at David and says, “You are the man!” (vs. 7) David’s sin becomes much greater than simply a sexual encounter with Bathsheba. He is guilty of abusing his power. His taking of the wife of another man is an act of injustice. Such thinking could take us down an entirely new line of thinking and preaching about David and Bathsheba. Even within the theme of confession and forgiveness, we might ask how nations, powerful leaders, and concerned citizens seek forgiveness for crimes of power—against various minorities, against other nations, against the poor, etc.

That leaves the reading from Ephesians. Although there’s much of deep theological significance in these verses, especially as the early church seeks to define its unity, today my focus is upon what it says about how we get along with one another. It speaks of humility and gentleness and patience, of “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3) People with these attitudes are likely to understand the need for confession and forgiveness. This reading calls it “speaking the truth in love.” (vs. 15) Only when we are constantly committed to healing the ruptures in the relationships of our lives are we going to find peace and unity—in our congregations, in our families, in our friendships, in our world.

Jesus teaches us about a God who is always ready to wipe the slate clean and give us a new start. Tomorrow will bring another morning in which God’s mercy is fresh and new.

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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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