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Friday, February 15, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

Lots of things come into our lives.  Some of them we’d just as soon avoid---like thinking about our weaknesses or about the national and global history that got us to the place we are, the comfortable lives many of us enjoy when there is so much suffering in the world.  This week’s lectionary readings are a little bit like that for me.  Some of them, at least, raise questions bigger than I want to face.  They also remind me that despite all the ambiguities of existence, life goes on---and they call me to gratitude and giving and self-awareness.

I’m not really sure the above counts as an overarching theme, so today I’m just going to take each reading and point out what comes through to me as darkness and hope, perhaps using a few personal stories as illustration.

The reading from Deuteronomy reminds me that conquest is far too prominent in world history---from the “wandering Arameans” (Deuteronomy 26:5---if you want to know about the Arameans, look it up) who overran Palestine to the Europeans who invaded that lands of the various “native American” tribes on the continent of my birth and residence.  We’re still living with the results of both, with the most global effect emanating from the dispute over land in the Middle East.  Those original “occupiers” thought that God had promised them this land, and they still think they have a God-given right to it.

I wonder if there could have been some other way to populate the earth.  It seems that expansion always seems to displace someone else.  Maybe there’s no way to live without intruding on one another’s space.  We still do not play together very well.

When I read this particular portion of Deuteronomy I find myself moving beyond such disturbing and mostly unanswerable realities to a deeper place.  It tells me to appreciate where I am and what I have and to give back.  It’s an early story about tithing.  “ . . . you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket” and give it to the priest to offer “before the altar of the Lord.”  (vss. 2-4)  In verse ten, we are told that the people were obedient to this command.  I realize that this was, in part, a tax to support the priesthood and could easily be abused, but notice the final verse of the reading in which an inclusive community comes together to celebrate.  “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord you God has given to you and to your house.”  (vs. 11)

Mostly I’m set to thinking about my parents and their tithing practices.  Strict tithing (the giving of the first ten percent of one’s “wealth”) is not much emphasized in our congregation or denomination, although many give most generously.  Although I have always made 10% the minimum for my giving, I rebel at the concept when it is legalistically, sometimes almost punitively, enforced.  Tithing simply was not questioned in the churches of my childhood.  Mostly, however, I was inspired by the positive attitude and generosity of my parents.  Although their income put them below the official poverty level, they never turned away the request of a needy person.  At one time, they carefully matched whatever they spent on groceries and put it aside to give to missions.  The check to the church was always the first one written, not an afterthought donated from whatever was left over.  And at times, it came back to them from surprising places when they hit a particularly rough patch.

Life is about giving as well as taking, about celebrating the give and take of a loving community, wherever we are in life.  With all the ambiguities of life, we are called to continue moving ahead in a journey of Love.

What I struggle with in the Psalm is the overwhelming emphasis upon God’s protection.  It’s one of those scriptures that can be interpreted to mean that no harm will come to those who believe.  “ . . . no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”  (Psalm 91:10---Interestingly, the Epistle reading picks up a similar tone when it quotes, in Romans 10:11, from Isaiah:  “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”)  I don’t experience life that way.  Bad things do happen to good people.

The Psalm is probably included because Jesus, in the Gospel lesson, quotes from it about the angels who “on their hands . . . will bear you up.”  (vs. 11-12 and Luke 4:10-11)  I suppose some of us might want to get caught up in the not-too-productive discussion of “guardian angels.”  My wife has been a lifelong collector of angel art- sculpted, painted, etc.  Angels (or human depictions of them) are visible in almost every room, sometimes hovering over top of a door.

The phrase in the Psalm that most comforts me, and speaks of life going on, is in verse fifteen.  “I will be with them in trouble.”  There’s still talk of “rescue” and “long life,” but mostly when I face trouble I don’t wonder why God is failing me.  I am reassured to know that there is a strength beyond logic (almost “divine” one might say) that keeps me going and keeps me hoping.  Those are moments when I celebrate life going on.

In the Evangelical circles in which I grew up, verses from Romans were often used to convince anyone outside the flock that they were sinners who needed to be saved from an eternity in hell.  (I hasten to note that not all Evangelicals can be lumped into a single stereotype---and that the ones I knew tended to be less offensive than many, or perhaps just lived bigger and better than the stereotype.)  One of those verses in in this week’s Epistle reading.  Most of us in that tradition were encouraged to memorize it.    . . . if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  (Romans 10:9)  Many have a more expansive understanding of the mysteries that ground us in the love of God and constitute what we understand as salvation.  Whatever the process, the hope I find in this passage is its declaration that God’s Love is there for all who open themselves to it.  “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”  (vs. 12)  We will meet and interact with many different kinds of people as life goes on.  May we see them all as brothers and sisters with whom we share a pilgrimage of Love.

The Gospel lesson reminds me that my motives are never as pure as I like to think they are.  Jesus’ temptation calls me to look inward and consider the focus of my life.  Much has been made of the temptations Jesus’ faced, making them types of temptations we all face, making them possible foci from Jesus’ ministry, etc.  The story does appear to be another in portraying the development of Jesus’ awareness of his mission.  Often the temptations are seen as the possibility of a mission faced on economics or on power or on miracles and spectacular entertainment.  Such possibilities continue to be prominent in the choices people make about life—pursuing wealth and economic goals, looking to power and politics for the answers to life, or seeking superstar status (or at least basking in the glow of those who grace our TV/movie screens and/or sports fields and arenas).

Most of our temptations are probably less grandiose.  They may seem to be so mundane that they don’t matter.  Anyway, it seems much easier to ignore them.  The problem is that they just don’t go away, and probably erode the positive possibilities of our life.  I always am a little startled when I read the final verse of the reading.  Remember that, as the story is told in the Gospels, “the devil” is the tempter.  At the end, he departs from Jesus “until an opportune time.”  (Luke 4:13)

Occasions for giving and serving, celebrating, even facing troubles and temptation are all there as life goes on, and in them all we are sustained by the inclusive love of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  And now another temptation arises.  My wife just came in and invited me to go out to lunch.  It’s a temptation to which I think I’ll yield.

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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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