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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures: Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32:1-11, II Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

One of the myths we gain from the popular imagery of psychiatry is the belief that we can blame all our problems on things we experienced in childhood.  It is true that we need to face and come to grips with many things in our past before we are able to move constructively into the future, but one of the themes of the Bible is that we are not defined by the past.  It is true, biblically and in life in general, that if we fail to remember the past and its lessons, we are apt to repeat dysfunctional patterns over and over again, but we are more than our past.  Like the ghosts that haunted Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, ghosts may arise from our past and haunt us, but we don’t have to let them control us.

The Bible speaks of forgiveness when talking about our ability to move into the future.  So often when our past rises up to haunt us it brings with it waves of guilt or shame.

The Hebrew people carried with them the shame of having been held captive in Egypt, and having been hesitant to enter the land of Canaan.  Spies sent in as an advance party to assess the situation brought back a report, “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we . . . The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size . . . to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”  (Numbers 13:31-33)  Caleb and Joshua brought back a minority report suggesting that they move ahead without fear, but the people refused.  (Numbers 14:6-10---See entirety of chapters 13 and 14 for the entire story)  As a result, they spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness until all except Joshua and Caleb died.  We might ask ourselves how often we are intimidated by the possibilities before us, and consider the consequences we suffer when we that happens.

In the lectionary reading for this Sunday, from Joshua, the people are finally across the Jordan in the land which is to be their new home (land where ownership is still disputed, we should note).  All those who were born during the sojourn in the wilderness are circumcised (Joshua 5:1-8) and it is now time to celebrate the Feast of the Passover (vss. 10-11).  Verse nine, a transition between the circumcision and the Passover, has the Lord telling Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” What an interesting turn of phrase!  “Rolled away.”  Reminds Christians of the stone which was rolled away to reveal a resurrection.  I grew up singing a Sunday School song which included the lyrics, “Rolled away, rolled away, rolled away.  Every burden on my heart rolled away.”

The message of the Bible is that there is always the possibility of a new beginning.  We don’t have to continue to let those ghosts of the past haunt us.  They’ve been rolled away, “forgiven” in the words of Psalm 32:  “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven.”  (vs. 1)  The Psalm comes from someone whose past has driven them into the depths of depression.  “ . . . my body wasted away through my groaning all day long . . . my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”  (vss. 3-4)  Sometimes we get stuck, immobilized because we are not able to move beyond our past, or as this Psalm suggests, perhaps acting like a rebellious horse or mule.  (vs. 9)  The promise is that, like Scrooge, we can wake up in the morning with new possibilities of Good News and forgiveness before us.

Paul, in II Corinthians, speaks of a new creation and a new way of looking at one another. When Christ is the lens through which we view and experience life, “we regard no one from a human point of view . . . if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  Doesn’t seem like that on some days, does it?  Those ghosts just keep whispering in our ears and whittling us down.

Even on a national and international level, we keep fighting old battles, letting the ghosts of the past dictate the politics of today.

Paul talks about this moving beyond, this opening of a future with new possibilities, as reconciliation.  Christ is the great reconciler and he “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  (II Corinthians 5:18-20)  In Ephesians he is spoken of as the one who has broken down the walls that divide us.  (Ephesians 2:14 and following)  We don’t have to be stuck in old patterns, whether they are internal ghosts of the mind, spiritual ghosts of transgression, or ghosts of tribal conflict.

The Gospel lesson contains the story of what we have traditionally called “The Prodigal Son.”  It can equally be read from the standpoint of the waiting and welcoming father or the privileged and jealous older son who feels wronged when a great celebration is thrown in honor of the profligate son returned home.  We spent most of our time at this week’s lectionary breakfast discussing our own experiences of sibling rivalry.  This is such a human story.

Remember the context in which it is told.  Jesus is associating with unclean people, people who would have been avoided by a pious practicing Jew.  The Pharisees and scribes complain.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  (Luke 15:1-2)  The parable probably was intended to get the Pharisees and scribes (and perhaps some pious Christians in the church of today?) to see themselves as the older brother, troubled by what seemed to them to be “easy” grace and forgiveness and acceptance offered by Jesus.  Notice, by the way, the word used in the New Revised Standard Version to describe what Jesus is doing.  He “welcomes” these suspicious characters.  That’s charter enough, for me, for an “Open and Affirming” congregation.  In the American Baptist denomination, where I spent most of my ministry, we called such congregations “Welcoming and Affirming.”

Today, I read the story as another example of the constant possibility of a new beginning offered by a God who is welcoming and affirming.  The “prodigal” had reason to feel guilty and ashamed, but he was met by a father who “while he was still far off . . . ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  (vs. 20)  Such an embrace can be enough to drive the ghosts away and open our eyes to a world in which everything can be seen with new eyes, full of new possibilities.

What more reason do we need to throw a big party, to celebrate a bit?  And that’s just how the parable, and the lessons from this week’s lectionary readings, end---with a celebration.  (vss. 22-25 & 30-32)

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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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