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Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126:1-6, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

At first glance, this week’s lectionary readings seemed to be pretty straight forward.  I’m wired to find common themes across sometimes seemingly disparate readings.  My quick impressions soon turned to dismay.  Where are these scriptures taking us that we haven’t been before in recent weeks?

We again have the emphasis upon God’s doing a new thing, especially on not dwelling on the past.  In Isaiah, we are told, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  (Isaiah 43:18-19)  Paul talks about “forgetting what lies behind” and “straining to what lies ahead,” pressing “on toward the goal.”  (Philippians 3:13-14)

We could let those verses challenge us to consider how we deal with change.  Most of my life I’ve more or less welcomed change, even been what some would call a “change agent,” an “early adopter,” while recognizing that change includes the possibility of darkness as well as light.  At the same time I’ve always been a bit of a “nester,” accumulating things to build a comfortable little nest of peace and quiet where I could retreat to family and privacy and security and ease.  Now I find myself in danger of falling into the trap of those who, in their later years, don’t always appreciate having their familiar habits interrupted.  So, if questions about change are where you want to go with these readings, go to it!

We might note that the readings from both Isaiah 43 and Psalm 126 are set in troubled times, perhaps messages of encouragement to a people in exile.  They are “wilderness” readings, like some we’ve had earlier during this Lenten season.  The newness in Isaiah is pictured as bringing renewal in the wilderness.  (See Isaiah 43:19-20)  In the Psalm the contrast is between tears and shouts of joy.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”  (Psalm 126:5-6)

Our lectionary breakfast group found that to be one of the difficult couple of verses, among several of obscure meaning, in this week’s readings.  Sowing is obviously depicted as a time of weeping.  As a gardener, I, and many others, think of seed planting time as joyous and full of hope.  Why would they be weeping?  Some suggested that weeping contains the seeds of hope within.  Even in moments of weeping, the possibilities of new life may be taking root, perhaps even watered by the tears.

On the way home from breakfast, I had the image of people in exile in a foreign land, deeply homesick, probably feeling oppressed, going out into the fields to plant.  It made them doubly sad.  Perhaps their oppressors wouldn’t even allow them to benefit from this planting.  It may be that the message is, “Keep on planting.  Seed planted even in unfamiliar places, in difficult times with produce a harvest.  It was an underlying theme in some of Jesus’ parables about seeds.  Keep on planting because some of the seed will grow.  In Jeremiah 32, while Israel is under siege, the Lord tells Jeremiah to go out and buy a field, with the promise that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. (See Jeremiah 32:1-15)  Even if the circumstances around us seem somewhere beyond gloomy, seeds will not stop growing and harvests will not end.  Reaping will be done with shouts of joy.  So if you want to think about wilderness times and the possibilities of a joyful harvest, go to it!

The reading from Philippians takes us again to a theme from earlier in this Lenten season---seeing what is of real value in life, informing our vision by gaining a new perspective---or maybe it’s just about getting our priorities straight.  Paul lets us know that he has all the credentials that make him a person of worth in the religious circles that seem to matter to many.  (See Philippians 3:4b-6)  All of that counts for nothing, he says, when one allows the light of Christ to illumine the way ahead.  (vs. 7)  Such things he now regards “as rubbish.”  (vs. 8)  Then he turns to the image of life as a race, already mentioned earlier, which one runs looking ahead toward the goal, not backward over one’s shoulder.  (vss. 12-14)  There’s a little more which we’ll refer back to when discussing the Gospel lesson, but, for now, if you want to think about what it means when Jesus calls us to be born into a new way of looking at things, go to it!

The difficult Gospel lesson may be seen as another attempt to contrast earthly concerns (“the poor”) with “spiritual” things (the anointing of Jesus’ feet with oil---or worship). Variations on the story appear in all four gospels, not always in the same setting or with the same personnel. (See Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-8) A woman anoints Jesus’ feet.  John’s Gospel (our lectionary Gospel for this Sunday) is the only one who names her---Mary. (John 12:3) In the others she is an unnamed prostitute.  Some have assumed it was Mary Magdalene.  Here it is most likely the sister of Martha and Lazarus, in whose home the story takes places---paralleling an earlier contrast between Mary and Martha (Martha serving dinner and Mary praised for sitting at the feet of Jesus---vss. 1-2).  The act is criticized because the money spent for this expensive perfume could have been given to the poor.  (vss. 4-5---One might note that, in Luke 7, it is the woman’s tears which wash Jesus’ feet, fitting in with the discussion of weeping above.  It’s also noteworthy that it would have been unthinkable for a woman to let her hair down and wipe a man’s feet, unless perhaps she was a prostitute.)  In John’s Gospel criticism comes from Judas, the keeper of “the common purse.”  Jesus rebukes him concluding with the troublesome words, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  (vs. 8)

It is that last verse that often comes as a shock to those of us who place high priority on peace and justice ministries.  This reading reminded me again that much of my life ministry has centered on an attempt to keep internal spiritual ministries and external social ministries linked.  You can’t have one without the other.  Maybe that’s all Jesus is saying here.  Surely with his deep concern for the poor he is not saying that they should be neglected.  After all, poverty is a problem you’ll never solve.  It will always be with you.

Maybe he is just calling Judas (and maybe some of us) out for his hypocrisy.  The writer comments that Judas “said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief.”  He just wanted the pot from which he was in the habit of stealing to be bigger.  (vs. 6)

Whatever is going on here, I believe that worship and ministries of peace and justice are closely linked.  Some of the most well-known workers among the poor and disenfranchised have also been people of deep piety.  Think Mother Theresa and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance.  Maybe the new Pope Francis will embody that spirit.  If you want to dig deeply into spirituality and social action, go to it!

My reflections finally brought me around to what Lent is all about.  Advent is a time of awaiting a birth.  We often try to short circuit that wait by moving directly to the wondrous birth because we now live on the other side of it and have heard the birth stories told over and over again (no matter how distorted at times).  Lent is a time of awaiting a death, which we also often try to jump over, leaping directly to the resurrection stories with which we are so familiar.

The Gospel lesson calls us once again to the reality that the season is about, among other things, preparation for death.  This anointing is preparing Jesus for burial.  (vs. 7)  In general, the early Christians lived in expectation that history as they knew it was coming to an end and that a new creation was just around the corner.  Poverty was a thing of the old creation.  Jesus was ushering in a new age (even if it first meant his death, something most of them little understood).  Their every attention was focused on the hope he embodied.  Paul’s words in Philippians move beyond the death to the resurrection when he expresses his desire to “attain the resurrection of the dead.”  (Philippians 3:10-11)

In the meantime, we all die.  What are we supposed to do?  How are we supposed to prepare? The message is to never give up hope in the midst of any of the deaths life deals us---losses, dislocations, abuse, loneliness, or actual physical death.  There is something beyond, something new, something of infinite worth.  All of the texts seem to be about moving on in hope.  We don’t always know every detail of the road ahead, but faith says that it is worthwhile moving one step at a time “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:14)  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:38-39)

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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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