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Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 AND Psalm 124:1-8 OR Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 AND Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

We human beings are often quick to make judgments. Who’s in and who’s out? Who’s playing by the rules, i.e., who’s playing according to our rules? Sometimes some of us go so far as to determine who lives or dies, if not deliberately and consciously, then by default and inaction.

We’re back into football season. I got to watching the officials in some of the recent games. There are all these striped shirts out there each with a different specialty. Their combined jobs is to see that the players stay within the lines, play by the rules, start and end each play with the ball placed in the proper location, and on and on. Applied to religion, it may seem like some churches see themselves as the officials charged with making judgments about who’s following the rule and who’s not.

This week’s lectionary readings provide an occasion for reflecting on the judgments we make. There are many scriptures that seem to be fairly rigid. God is on our side. (See Psalm 124) We have a perfect set of rules called “the law of the Lord.” (See Psalm 19) There is a strain of perfectionism in the Bible and some churches have taken it to the extreme. I don’t happen to believe that that’s the only theme to be drawn from scripture. There’s also much emphasis upon love and grace and humility and confession. Even Psalm 19 includes an element of humility in that the writer recognizes “hidden faults,” praying that he will not be “insolent,” ending with the petition, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and redeemer.” (vss. 12-14)

Although not in today’s readings, the theme for today’s blog might be Jesus’ words found is Matthew 7:1-2---“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged . . .” My father used to put it this way: “If you point at somebody, three fingers are pointing back at you.” Try it and take a good look at your hand and fingers.

More than once in scripture someone (usually thought to be the “good”guy) who looks in judgment upon another person ends up suffering the consequences he (or she) had in mind for the “bad” guy and that “bad” guy ends up replacing the “good’ guy. The whole book of Esther is such a story. In this case, it is the Jews, despised and ill-treated, living as aliens in Persia, who are unexpectedly saved. It is a story celebrated by Jews to this day in the festival of Purim, the entire book of Esther read aloud as part of that festival.

A quick summary of the story: King Ahasuerus becomes upset by the behavior of his wife and decides it’s time to move on. (There’s a lot to unpack in noting that this story doesn’t begin on high moral ground, but that’s for some other time.) He sponsors a Queen of Persia contest to find a new wife. Mordecai, a Jew, is Esther’s older cousin. Since she was an orphan, he adopted her as his own daughter. He arranges for her to be among the contestants for the position of queen, without revealing her Jewish identity. She wins and becomes a powerful voice in the court of King Ahasuerus. Haman is another powerful voice. He is out to get Mordecai, who gained the king’s favor by revealing an assassination plot. Haman manages to get the king to issue an edict which the king doesn’t fully realize will result in the death of all the Jews. Haman has a gallows built on which Mordecai will be the first to be hanged..

Esther is the only one who may be able to save the Jews. Mordecai sends her a message. “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14) The lectionary reading tells of a banquet at which Esther is granted a request. She reveals her Jewish heritage and exposes Haman’s plot. Haman is hung on his own gallows, and Mordecai becomes his replacement in the court of King Ahasuerus.

A long story to remind us that when we start judging others, that judgment may turn back on us and bite us. Do we really want to be held to the standards we are sometimes so ready to apply to others? Are the consequences we sometimes wish for others ones that we are willing to suffer ourselves?

The alternative reading from the Hebrew scriptures is from the book of Numbers. It is one of two stories about how Moses handles the overtaxing burden of leadership. In Exodus 18, at the suggestion of his father-in-law Jethro, he creates a bureaucratic structure so that most problems are handled at lower levels and only the most important work their way up to him. In the lectionary reading from Numbers, chapter 11, God suggests that Moses call 70 of the elders up to the Tent of Meeting (or Tabernacle) so that God can take some of the spirit that is on Moses and put it on the others. The Spirit becomes the vehicle of shared responsibility. (Numbers 11:16 & 24-25)

I’ve skipped over all the complaining Moses has been doing. “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ . . . Where am I to get meat to all this people . . . I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy to me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once . . .” (vss. 11-15) How often are leaders unable to share responsibility and then complain because they have too much to do? Another topic worth pursuing, but not now.

The punch line of this story that can be seen through the eyes of humor comes when two men who didn’t go up there with Moses seem to get the spirit back in the camp where ordinary life is lived. (vs. 26) Joshua, among others, is aghast, telling Moses to stop them. (vs. 28)

There are those football officials trying to be sure that everyone stays in the lines where they belong. There’s some churches, so sure they are right, drawing lines that define where God’s Spirit can work and where it can’t, drawing lines that exclude. Moses sees something much bigger. He sees a vision in which all God’s people are filled with the spirit. (vs. 29) He sees the work of God’s Spirit ranging far beyond any boundaries we might draw. He sees God working in and with and through people we might easily judge. To change the metaphor, Moses is attuned to a God who colors outside the lines.

I pray that the inclusiveness of my vision may be influenced by this glimpse of God’s inclusiveness. There are several slogans that are part of the culture of our denomination, The United Church of Christ. Two of them seem apropos to today’s theme: “Whoever you are, where ever you are on life's journey, you are welcome here!” “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

I mention the reading from James as sort of an afterthought. It is primarily about healing which requires more attention that a paragraph in a blog with another theme. I would note that healing is placed in a larger relational context which includes confessing sins to one another, prayer for one another, etc. Healing is, in part, being in right relationship with one another. Drawing lines of separation and exclusion does not lead to healing. The reading from James ends, in fact, with an emphasis upon building lines of healing relationship rather than viewing people as wanderers out there in a land beyond the reach of God’s Spirit. Although the tone is still somewhat judgmental, the sentiment is one of reaching out rather than exclusion. (James 5:19-20)
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Proverbs 31:10-31 AND Psalm 1:1-6 OR Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 OR Jeremiah 11:18-20 AND Psalm 54:1-7, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

We live in a world where the strong are often the objects of adoration. Consider the way many of us—myself included—are addicted to sports. Go Ducks! We make heroes of the rich and famous, those who rise to political power. Well, not so many politicians are heroes these days, but the scramble for power still gets a lot of attention.

So what does it mean to be strong? How do we find the strength, for instance, to withstand the challenges of life? What makes for strength of character? As we look at this week’s lectionary readings, don’t be surprised if some of our assumptions—some of the world’s way of viewing and evaluating—are turned upside down.

The most profound of the biblical writers seem to have a way of doing that—turning things upside down. This week it is perhaps a reversal of power and weakness. Paul, in II Corinthians, spent some time talking about how it worked in his own life. He reported that the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” “So,” Paul concludes, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 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.” (II Corinthians 12:9-10) In this week’s Gospel lesson the first is last and the one who is greatest will be “servant of all.” (Mark 9:34-35) Things get all topsy-turvy when the values of “the kingdom of God” prevail.

Most of today’s scriptures speak to us at a more mundane level, making us think about where and how we see character expressed in daily living.

First we have a hymn to “a capable wife.” (Proverbs 31:10) It has been used in many funerals to extol a virtuous wife. I’ve used it myself on occasion, but such uses are often sexist.

Whether the reading itself needs to be seen as sexist is another matter. It comes as a surprise after thirty chapters of mostly seemingly random sayings. Tucked away in those sayings have been some that have not been too flattering to women. Consider Proverbs 21:9—“It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.” Proverbs 31, where today’s reading is found, purports to be “the words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:” (Proverbs 31:1) It’s first part includes the words: “Do not give your strength to women . . .” (vs. 3) Then there’s a sudden change of tone when we get to verse 10, almost as if the rest of the chapter were an addition to rebut earlier critiques of women—or maybe King Lemuel is just remembering his mother. Whatever its origin these verses depict a strong women who buys and sells. “She considers a field and buys it . . . She perceives that her merchandise is profitable . . . She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy . . . She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes . . . She opens her mouth with wisdom , and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” (vss. 16, 18, 20, 24, 26)

In doing this, she is almost the model for today’s “superwoman” who does it all. While we can critique the expectation that the woman employed outside the home will still do everything at home just like she used to, it is clear that the businesswoman in this reading does not neglect her husband and children. “The heart of her husband trusts in her . . . She does him good, and not harm . . . She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household . . . She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson . . . She looks well to the ways of her household . . .” (vss. 11-12, 15, 21, 27)

At the end we find that she is not valued just for her beauty. “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” (vs. 30) Throughout, this woman is described in terms of strength. “She girds herself with strength . . .” (vs. 17) “Strength and dignity are her clothing . . .” (vs. 25) The final verse acknowledges the worth of what she does. “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands . . .” (vs. 31) Earlier her husband has been described as one “known in the city gates.” (vs. 23) Now, the final words cry out to “let her works praise her in the city gate.” (vs. 31) Her reputation stands on its own in the public square, not dependent on the reputation of her husband. Is this hymn in praise of “a capable wife” a great reversal?

Psalm one describes those who are strong in the ways of the Lord as being “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season . . .” (Psalm 1:3) The person of character has deep roots, drinks from a life-giving spirit, and lives a life that bears fruit.

Several of this week’s readings depict the “righteous” life as one of struggle and resistance. In the reading from Wisdom of Solomon, merchants of death lie in wait “for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions . . .” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:12) The context is a discussion of death and those who make friends with the ways of death. (Wisdom of Solomon 1:16)  Just before today’s reading we find these words: “Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome . . .” (Wisdom of Solomon 1:12-14) What we have then is a contest between life and death. These friends of death are going to test what this righteous person is made of. Can the forces of evil overcome the life that is in him? “ . . . let us test what will happen at the end of his life . . . Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death . . .” (vss. 17, 19-20) While what they are testing is whether God will protect this person (vss. 18 & 20), the deeper question is will this righteous person be able to face the forces of death in gentleness and forbearance and overcome those forces?

Certainly we see plenty of insults being exchanged in today’s political environment. Sometimes it seems to be a contest to see who can deliver the first death blow. People of character and strength are able to maintain an equanimity in the face of threats and insults.

In Jeremiah the challenges are faced “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” (Jeremiah 11:19) It’s an image that was later applied to Jesus being led to the cross. Psalm 54 is a prayer for and testimonial to deliverance in the face of challenge. “Save me, O God . . . for the insolent have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life . . . The Lord is the upholder of my life . . . For he has delivered me from every trouble . . .” (Psalm 54:1, 3-4, 7)

James addresses in more practical terms how we are to live in the midst of contentious circumstances. Or are his answers practical? “ . . . show by your good life,” we read, “that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (James 3:13) “ . . . the wisdom from above,” he says, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality and hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (vss. 17-18) He roots conflict and war in greed—seeking gain “in order to spend what you get on your pleasures,” ending with the instruction: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:1-3 & 8)

Again we see gentleness and peacemaking as signs of character for those who would follow God’s ways. Our weekly breakfast club discussion explored the limits of gentleness. Can we really make peace with those whose values seem to be set on destroying the things that are life-giving? We didn’t come up with easy answers except to note that gentleness does not mean avoiding confrontation. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Jesus certainly confronted the powers, nonviolently.

Having the kind of character we find in these readings means confronting old ways of looking at things. The context of the reversal Jesus speaks of in the Gospel According to Mark is discussion among the disciples about who will be greatest in Jesus’ cabinet in heaven. Jesus says that he doesn’t measure greatness in the usual way. The greatest is the one who is “servant of all.” (Mark 933-35) Now there’s a challenge for those who would have strength of character—strength defined by servanthood.

The story ends with Jesus bringing a child into their midst and telling them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me . . .” (Mark 9:37) In Matthew’s telling of the story, he says. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4), consistent with other times Jesus refers to children. It’s difficult for us to wrap our heads around such understandings of what it means to be strong men and women. May we humbly continue to learn the ways of strength and servanthood.
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Proverbs 1:20-33 AND Psalm 19:1-14 OR Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1 OR Isaiah 50:4-9a AND Psalm 116:1-9, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

Many of those who are unemployed were trained for jobs which no longer exist. If they are to move back into the workforce, they need retraining. There’s always something new to learn. The world, life, does not stay static. Educators have for years spoken of “lifelong learning.” But who is going to teach us? What is it that we need to learn? How are we going to learn it?

This week’s lectionary readings can be considered from the perspective of such teaching and learning.

Traditionally, teaching has been viewed as the transfer of a body of knowledge from one generation to another. That doesn’t always work. Technology moves so rapidly that the younger generations become the teachers of the older generations. Consider computer technology, for instance.

Furthermore, is the knowledge that is passed on that fixed? It is true that much of science and mathematics, at least as it is applied in everyday life, is quite defined. The force of gravity and the speed of light don’t change much from generation to generation. Human behavior and morality, although subject to certain kinds of measurement and predictability, are not nearly so fixed. Even science, when one digs beneath the surface, has a lot of apparent randomness in it.

Yet religion has often attempted to set morality in stone with teachings that say this is the way you must behave or you’ll go to hell. Are they simply trying to say that behavior has consequences? The consequence may not be a literal hell. They may go overboard in drawing sharp lines of right and wrong, but there are consequences. Abuse alcohol and it’s probably going to catch up with you. Pursue a life of greed and selfishness and you may well end up lonely and unhappy, with few friends. All of life we are discovering the consequences of our behavior, good and bad.

In the reading from Proverbs, Wisdom, a female expression of the Spirit of God, is the teacher—a teacher who, in these verses, is being ignored. She is addressing people who refuse to learn. “How long, O simple ones,” she cries, “will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:22) Finally, all she can do is leave them to suffer the consequences of their ignorance. “ . . . they shall eat the fruit of their way.” (vs. 31) It is less a matter of being punished and sent to hell by the wrath of God than it is the inevitable consequence of living unwisely, or refusing to learn the new lessons that come each day—if we heed them

Psalm 19 invites us to learn from the order and beauty of the natural world. “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) It is as if nature itself is speaking, but we ignore the wisdom it offers. “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night offers knowledge. There is no speech, not are there words; their voice is not heard.” (vss. 2-3) We no more listen to nature than we do to Wisdom. What is it that causes us to refuse to hear the warnings of things like global warming?

The Psalm moves on to suggest that morality partakes of the same order as creation. Again, I don’t respond well if I’m expected to take these words simplistically. Nevertheless it is true that being attuned to the work of God’s Spirit, Wisdom, in our midst, is “more to be desired . . . than gold, even much fine gold, sweeter also than honey, and the drippings of the honeycomb.” (vs. 10)

The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon is a love song, not unlike the Song of Solomon except that this time the lover being addressed is Wisdom. “ . . . she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things . . . She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the others, and she orders all things well.” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-27 & 8:1) We are presented with a Spirit that indwells all of life, including us, whose wisdom is to be pursued as one would pursue one’s beloved. Learning is an act of passionate love seeking after truth—daily!

This week’s readings from the lectionary include two that specifically mention teachers. The first is Isaiah 50, where the writer says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” (Isaiah 50:4) One of the tasks of teaching apparently is “to sustain the weary with a word.” The reading from James reminds us that “from the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” (James 3:10) The call of the teacher is to bring blessing with his or her words. To learn is to seek the blessing God has for us today. In the reading from Isaiah, the teacher is a learner as well. “Morning by morning he (i.e., God) wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” (Isaiah 50:4)

It’s worth noting that the teacher in Isaiah, chapter fifty, is one who suffers with dignity, refuses to respond to violence with violence. “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (vs. 6) They are words that came to be applied to the Messiah. Followers of Jesus came to see the Messiah embodied in him and his teaching. Peter, for example, when Jesus asks who the disciples think he is, says, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29) Are teachers to follow the model of the master teacher? Certainly a little humility goes a long way in the process of teaching.

I struggle to connect Psalm 116 with the theme of this blog. It is a Psalm giving thanks for being saved from death. “The snares of death encompassed me . . . Then I called on the name of the Lord; ‘O lord, I pray, save my life!’ Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful . . . For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” (Psalm 116:3-5 & 8) When I think about lifelong learning, what I find tucked in this Psalm is a call to daily awareness of and attention to the daily mercies of God. “I will call on him as long as I live . . . I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” (vss. 2 & 9) Where in life are there lessons to be learned? Remember that Wisdom, the Spirit of God, is active there, ready to teach us.

The reading from James is the second one that specifically mentions teachers, this time with a warning. “Not many of you should become teachers . . .” (James 3:1) The focus is upon the power of the tongue and the words we—and teachers—use. As already mentioned, they can be a blessing or a curse. It is enough to give any teacher, or learner, pause. Psalm 19 ends with a prayer that we all might appropriately pray as we walk about teaching and learning in the land of the living. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

That brings us to the Gospel lesson in which Peter identified Jesus as “the Messiah.” The problem is that the disciples hadn’t yet learned the lessons of their day. Jesus wasn’t going to fit into the mold of what they thought they had learned about the Messiah. When he told them that this Messiah was going to “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” it sounded to them like foolishness. (Mark 8:31) A Messiah who was going to be killed? It was sacrilegious! Peter was so offended that he “began to rebuke” Jesus. (vs. 32) It got even worse. Jesus told them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (vss. 34-35)

The wisdom of the world is not the same as what Wisdom would teach us. Paul wrote, in I Corinthians 1:25, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” He followed it up a couple of chapters later, with these words: “If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (I Corinthians 3:18-19)

Life is not about getting and grabbing all one can for oneself, not about gaining fame and prestige and wealth. It is about giving one’s life in humble service. Where is that in the curriculum of most schools? It may take a lifetime of daily attention to the still small voice of God to learn that lesson. We need to enroll in lifelong learning.
Tuesday, September 04, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 AND Psalm 125:1-5 OR Isaiah 35:4-7a AND Psalm 146:1-10, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

As I write, the Democratic Convention is beginning. We’ve just been through the Republican Convention. I’m not sure how important the platforms of each party are, but there seem to be stark contrasts between the messages the candidates are putting out there.

What if they based their platforms on this week’s lectionary readings? Too often politicians seem to be playing to an assumption that we all want to get richer—and, perhaps unfortunately, they may not be too far from the mark. At best, the promise is that everybody will get richer; at worst, there is an undertone of the rich getting richer, or at least protecting what they have. Often there’s an appeal to the “middle class.” Rarely does anyone promise that the poor will be better off. If anyone ran explicitly on a platform that advocated redistribution of wealth, they probably wouldn’t get elected.

If this week’s readings reflect anything of God’s platform, it seems far from what we’re hearing in this season of political silliness. Unfortunately, the silliness has serious consequences. I don’t know how the Democratic Convention will end the week. Let’s hope its platform contains at least hints that someone has read this week’s lectionary readings.

There are plenty of themes that could be incorporated into political platforms.

The reading from Proverbs downplays the importance of riches, saying, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches . . . The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” (Proverbs 22:1-2) We are warned against sowing injustice. (vs. 8) “Do not rob the poor . . . for the Lord pleads their cause . . .” (vss. 22-23)

Psalm 146 tells us to put our trust in the Lord, “who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind . . . The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.” (Psalm 146:5-9)

James warns against acts of favoritism, contrasting “a person with gold rings” and “a poor person in dirty clothes.” How differently do we treat such contrasts? (James 2:1-4) “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (vs. 5) “ . . . if you show partiality, you commit sin.” (vs. 9) “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 good is that?” (vss. 15-16)

Humans through the ages have dreamed of a time when everything is made right and we all dwell together in harmony, peace, and justice. In Jewish history, the dream was often restated at the coronation of each king, not unlike our hoping that each new president will bring a new day. The dream became incorporated into the hope for a coming Messiah, just as, in our following of political campaigns, it sometimes seems like we’re hoping for another Messiah. The hope is there in the reading from Isaiah, chapter 35. The blind shall see and the deaf hear, “the lame shall leap like a dear” (Isaiah 35:5-6). The early hearers of these words would have been aware that they were often used in connection with a general reign of justice (as they are in the reading from Psalm 146), with a turning of things upside down and setting all things right.

In Psalm 146, though, we are warned against our “trust in princes . . . in whom there is no help. When their death departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” (Psalm 146:3-4) It sounds like the cry of many today who have lost all hope in the political process. Although there are days when I get pretty discouraged, I’m not quite that pessimistic, but the caution is noted. The election of the next president of the United States will not bring a millennium of peace and justice. It would be encouraging, though, to feel that whoever is elected—and those who serve in the next administration and in congress—have read the lectionary readings before us this week—not only read them but taken them seriously. They are, I believe, part of God’s platform. James reminds us that unless we act on such beliefs, our faith is dead. (James 2:17)

The Bible is often explicit, sometimes to our discomfort, about the consequences of our actions. Action for justice is no exception. “Do good, O Lord, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hearts. But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways the Lord will lead away with evildoers.” (Psalm 125:4) “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity . . .” (Proverbs 2:8) “ . . . if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:9)

While we may not believe in a God who zaps us every time we fall short, what would a world look like in which the checklists we used to evaluate candidates and political leaders asked about their attitudes toward and treatment of the poor? What if our courts were guided by the principles in this week’s readings? What if we were hauled to court for showing partiality in our dealings and relationships?

Before turning to the Gospel reading for the coming Sunday, I want to note a puzzling couple of verses in the middle of the reading from James. James 2:12 mentions “the law of liberty.” If we go back to James 1:25, we also find these words: “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” No commentary I have offers a definitive interpretation, but the phrase is likely connected with the summarization the Law into loving our neighbor. It affirms our ability, our freedom, our liberty to choose to do the right thing, to choose to love. Loving, after all, is the only “law” that matters. I find it significant also that the very next verse in the reading before us emphasizes mercy and declares that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) Every political platform contains obscure, almost indecipherable, sections. Maybe this one is no different. The theme of impartiality, however, is quite clear.

Although I believe the Gospel lesson for this Sunday also offers the same theme, we could get tangled up in the way the story is presented. Mark 7:27-37 actually contains two stories. It is the first that has caused more than one person to scratch his or her head. A woman “whose little daughter has an unclean spirit” comes to Jesus and asks him to cast the spirit out. (vss. 25-26) The woman is a Gentile. Jesus offers what seems to be a fairly harsh response: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s good and throw it to the dogs.” (vs. 27)

It seems like he is comparing her to a dog. Many have noted that it was common for Jews to refer to Gentiles as dogs. When the same story is recorded in the book of Matthew, Jesus is more explicit, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) The version in Mark, without that reference, is probably more consistent with the earliest manuscripts.

It’s more important, however, to note that the word “dogs” is the word used to describe the beloved family pet who hovers under the table hoping a scrap will fall on the floor. When Gentiles were referred to as “dogs” the word used was the one which described wild dogs which roamed about scavenging. Some suggest that Jesus was joking with the woman, comparing her to a beloved pet.

However the story has come to us, for whatever reason, the woman has a ready retort. She is the one who declares the Gospel of inclusion in this case. “Sir,” she says to Jesus, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) In today’s world, with so much spent on the care of pets, it might well be a legitimate concern that pets are being fed at the cost of children. That’s not what the story is about. Nor is it a text in support of trickle-down economics. It’s about there being plenty of food, plenty of love, plenty of healing to go around. Those who have been defined as outside the circle, or hidden beneath the table, are included—and the truth comes to us because a woman spoke up in response to Jesus—whether he was joking or not.

The punch line of the second story, about a man who could neither hear nor speak being healed (Mark 7:32-35), reminds us again of that messianic vision which is God’s platform. “ . . . he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” (vs. 37) Just as there are code words in today’s political discourse, these few words are enough to stir the hearts of those who hope and work for peace and justice in this world.

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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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