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Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27:1-14, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-25  (NOTE:  The story of the Transfiguration from Luke, chapter 9, is for some reason repeated this week.  Since we dealt with it a couple of weeks ago, I have omitted it from this week’s list of readings.)

My thoughts this week follow a course similar to that taken last week.  I take the title from Luke 13:33 where Jesus says “ . . . today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way . . .”

The theme I see running through these scriptures, perhaps a focus often encountered during the Lenten season, is that of seeing beyond the impossibilities, obstacles, and troubles that are ahead.  There is more to life than adding up the positives and negatives and determining whether further effort is worth it.  We are encouraged to live by what some call “hope beyond hope.”  There are those who look and see signs that things are getting better and so they have hope; they move ahead because the possibilities look good.  Hope beyond hope kicks in when the signs are full of warning, often seemingly pointing toward disaster.  Hope beyond hope sees a larger horizon and keeps on going because there is nothing ahead that can destroy us. 

Paul, in the letter to the church in Philippi, suggests that that perspective of hope comes from an identity shaped by a different reality.  Cultural values and perspectives surround us daily, often tempting us and pulling us in.  Paul speaks of those whose “god is the belly . . .; their minds are set on earthly things.”  (Philippians 3:19)  When we pay attention, it is easy to get discouraged.  Paul calls us instead to be shaped by the values of “heaven.”  “ . . . our citizenship is in heaven,” he says. (vs. 20) One translation says that we are “a colony of heaven.”  Claiming that identity is what keeps us going “today, tomorrow, and the next day.”

Struggling with such issues seems to be the province of old men and old women---of which I am one.  Young people often seem to be invincible, or at least think they are.  They seem never to give up hope.  They think all challenges are conquerable.  That’s the stereotype at least, and there’s a lot of truth in it.  Thank God!  Nevertheless, the rising generation has been handed a plateful of problems to overcome.  The fate of the planet seems to be in their hands, and that can be a bit overwhelming.  No wonder there are those who succumb to suicide, or go on a shooting spree.

The biblical record gives us stories of those who keep on going, do not give up hope “today, tomorrow, or the next day”---whether it be the Hebrew people taken into captivity or Abram (who became Abraham) wondering how he can be father to descendants whose number is as great as the stars in heaven.  (Genesis 15:5)

The lectionary readings for the coming week stand in that tradition.

Beyond the main theme I have identified, the story of Abram offers several points to be pondered and a few verses that seem almost unfathomable.  It starts with Abram complaining to God about being childless.  “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”  (vs. 3)  So, we might ask, what’s wrong with a slave having an inheritance?  This slave, in fact, turns out to be the ancestor of Mohammed, and so we see the seeds of family rivalry that persist to today.

For some reason, though, God promises Abram a son of his own and a “land to possess.”  (vss. 4-7)  We are in the middle of a story of God’s covenant-making here.  (See the reference to “covenant” in verse 18.)  We often think of the blessing of being included in God’s covenant (although those of us who are Gentile were not originally thought to be included).  What are the implications of an understanding of covenant in which some are chosen and some are not, in which the Promised Land is already occupied by people who have a legitimate claim to it?  Again, we see present-day conflicts in the context of a long history.

Abram responds with both faith and incredulity.  The part of his response that becomes a centerpiece for Paul’s theology is found in verse 6:  “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him to righteousness.”  Paul’s point is that Abram was considered “righteous” not because he lived up to The Law (which didn’t even yet exist), but because he “believed.”

Abram’s mind, however, cannot get around all this.  The promise seems like an impossibility.  He wants a sign.  “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  (vs. 8)  O how we want to know!  With certainty!  How can we move ahead only on a hunch, a flimsy promise, when it all seems so overwhelming and impossible?

What are we to do with the sign recorded in these verses?  They are filled with images from another time and culture---from a religion of animal sacrifice.  It’s not clear whether this is a dream or vision or what.  At least part of the time Abram is asleep.  (vs. 12)  The reading omits the verses in which God speaks words that are a mixture of positive and negative, noting Abram’s descendants will be taken into slavery while promising Abram himself long life and peace.  (vss. 12-15)  Ultimately the story gives Abram a sign of God’s continuing presence, the sign of fire and a torch.  (vs. 17)  It’s not unlike the message of last week’s blog, capturing in Psalm 91:15---“I will be with them in trouble.”

This week’s Psalm is similar in tone.  The writer is feeling besieged by evildoers.  (Psalm 27:2-3)  Like Abram, he alternates between faith and abject pleading.  “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  (vs. 1)  “Do not hide your face from me.  Do not turn your servant away in anger . . . Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” (vs. 9)

Most of the verses follow the above, their tone leaning toward one or the other.  Also in the Psalm we find individual verses that may take us on rich and worthy side trips.  “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” (vs. 4)  “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.”  (vs. 11)  “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”  (vs. 13)  You’re on your own for the side trips.

The Psalm ends with a variation of “today, tomorrow, and the next day.”  It speaks of waiting, a theme often emphasized during Lent.  “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”  (vs. 14)  Waiting here does not mean stopping, ceasing to move.  It means to keep one’s eye on the Lord, to exist in “the land of the living” as a citizen of God’s kingdom.

Beyond my earlier comments on the epistle to the Philippians, I would note the final verse of this week’s reading:  “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I loved and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”  (Philippians 4:1)  “Stand firm”---wait, continue with confidence and hope “today, tomorrow, and the next day.”

Which brings us back to the Gospel lesson, where we find the context of the words about “today, tomorrow, and the next day."  Luke, in particular, emphasizes Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem where his probably fate is death.  In Luke 9:51, we are told that “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  The rest of Luke’s story fits into that framework.  In this week’s reading from chapter 13, Jesus is told, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  (Luke 13:13)  Jesus does not shrink from what lies ahead, declaring “ . . . today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way . . .”  (vs. 33)  That does not mean that he goes forward tripping lightly.  His heart is heavy.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

I’ve always loved the image of Jesus as a mother hen!  Who says God does not have a feminine side?  The question is whether or not we are willing to be embraced by him as we move ahead today and tomorrow and the next day.  In my opinion, it’s the only way we are going to make it!

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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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