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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23:1-6, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

A science fiction fan at least since early adolescence, I’ve gotten hooked on S.M. Stirling’s series of “Novels of the Change.”  The underlying story is a cosmic battle between the powers of good and evil.  Rudi Mackenzie and his band of brothers and sisters are on a quest.  Yes, there’s a sword involved, and Rudi (“the High King of Montival”) is to use it to save the world from the fate wished upon it by those who are possessed by evil sinister powers.  Although the story is engrossing and page-turningly full of action, there is far too much violent physical battle and blood (waged in armor with lances, swords, and arrows because modern technology is no longer available) to suit me.  It’s downright sickening at times.  The methods of this “savior” are not those of Jesus.

I’m assuming that at the end of this series evil will have been destroyed (at least in the deep spiritual cosmic sense).  That too is the assumption of Christian scripture, sometimes through what is depicted as violent cosmic warfare.  Whatever the methods, that is a core component of our faith.  Good overcomes evil.  Love and forgiveness are stronger that hate and revenge.  The methods to which followers of Jesus are called to commit themselves are not the violence of swordplay but the peace and reconciliation of love and compassion.

Sometimes when I read selected lectionary texts that’s about all I can take away---and isn’t that perhaps enough?  I personally didn’t find much inspiration in the texts for the coming Sunday, so most of what I write will be about the relative power of life and death, a good resurrection theme---and we are still in the liturgical season of Easter.

First a little side trip about the one scripture which rarely fails to move those of a certain age who have grown up in the church.  In fact, the power of the 23rd Psalm reaches far beyond the walls of the church.  As one who grew up with early connections to dairying, I relate to bonds that can develop between animals and those who are responsible for their care and feeding.  This rereading brought to mind the term “animal husbandry.”  What a strange word!  What does the word “husband” have to do with caring for animals?  “Husband,” of course, has a verb form.  We speak of “husbanding” resources, for instance.  Etymologically the word comes from an Old English word for a “householder,” including one who is a steward of household resources.  It is a stewardship word.  Now there’s something to think about.

My theme for this week, though, leads me to verse four.  “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil . . .”  (Psalm 23:4)  Some of us know “the darkest valley” best as “the valley of the shadow of death.”  Either way, good overcomes evil; life is more powerful than death---the basic resurrection message.

So, do we really believe that?  At our weekly lectionary breakfast I posed the question whether we are optimists or pessimists.  We had a difficult time getting beyond the ups and downs of our personal lives.  We face medical tests and surgery and family problems.  Do we always see the possibilities of good outcomes or are we always expecting the worst?  Those are important daily existential questions, but I had in mind a larger, cosmic question---although I believe our attitudes toward daily trials and tribulations are colored by our reading of the larger battles of good against evil.

But what about where we are headed in this tumultuous world?  We wake up to another massacre, this time maiming bombs at the end of the Boston Marathon.  Another effort to address gun violence---a moderate one at that, supported by 90% of the American populace---fails.  Some days it’s difficult to believe that good will prevail---although good always springs into action to comfort and heal the victims.  If I’m to be an optimist (and I believe I am), it has to be something more than a naïve and simple belief that denies the reality of destruction that threatens almost every day.

The kind of optimism I find in the Bible is an optimism that includes a cross on the way toward a reconciling finale.  It is hope beyond hope, beyond the immediate evidence, beyond the easy solutions and avoidance of trouble we desire.

So---here are some comments about the other lectionary texts for Sunday, each of which, in its own way, aids our reflection on the power of life and death.

Acts gives us a resurrection story.  This time it is Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, whom Peter apparently brings back from death.  (Acts 9:36-41)  Those who have trouble with resurrections (including me) suggest that she was not dead, only in some kind of comatose state.  It really makes no difference to me.  Something happened that is a mystery beyond words I can put on paper, or even bring to order in my mind.  The message is that life is more powerful than death, and that is enough.  It’s worth also noting that Peter is not alone.  Dorcas is surrounded by weeping women who knew her work, “the clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”  (vs. 39)  The community is brought together and their presence is a source of strength when death-dealing forces beset us---and our work lives on beyond us, is remembered.  Someone at breakfast also noticed that Tabitha/Dorcas is called “a disciple.”  (vs. 36)

Revelation again depicts a savior who offers hope to “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”  (Revelation 7:9)  The story as it unfolds may seem more like Rudi Mackenzie’s quest than the way of the Jesus we see in the Gospels, but the message is still that good overcomes evil.  We are shown, however, that it does not happen without trouble along the way.  Those who are surrounding “the Lamb” have come through “”a great ordeal,” what some call a time of tribulation.  (vs. 14)  Many have made much about “The Tribulation” as a time in the unfolding of history.  I’m content to live with an optimism that helps me find my way through whatever tribulations occur in the process of daily living, as they are bound to occur---without limiting it to a specific thousand year period.

Behind this week’s Gospel lesson is the knowledge that a crucifixion is coming.  My optimism is always shaped by that knowledge.  Christian optimism is based on the realization that good overcoming evil involves great cost and great diligence.  Somebody’s apt to die in the process---and somebody is always willing to pay that cost, to lay down his or her life standing up for the power of love.  It isn’t necessarily in the battle of armed conflict; it may be just in persisting to stand up for one’s rights and beliefs day after day in our living.

The reading from John’s Gospel suggests that we can perceive the power of life over death only when we have eyes to see and ears to hear.  It comes more subtly than the flash of an explosion.  When asked whether he is the Messiah (the one come to set everything right in the world), Jesus answers, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”  (John 10:25)  Only those who are ready to follow---like sheep as in Psalm 23---are able to see.  (vs. 27)  Those who are connected with “Life” through him participate in “eternal life” and no one can “snatch” them away.  (vs. 28)

The Gospel According to John makes much of the fact that Jesus and the Father are one.  (vs. 30)  It’s a great mystery how the wonder of God’s Love resides in Jesus, but we look to him and we see into the very nature of divinity.  Love lives in our midst and it is more powerful than death.  In this reading, Jesus says, “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”  (vs. 29)

I believe that the power of life is greater than the power of death.  I have difficulty understanding how one can live without that kind of optimism.  At the same time, at the risk of heading off in a new direction with my reflections, I would do my best to live by the ways of Love even if there were no Resurrection, no hope of eternal life, simply because there is a mysterious rightness about love which captures me in the midst of all the troubles that keep popping up in every day’s new headlines.  In my rash younger years, when I was challenging the notion that God condemns people to hell, I said, “If anyone is going to hell, then I’m called to go there too.  That’s what love demands and I learned that from Jesus.”  It was rash, but I still believe it’s underlying essence---but mostly I’m an optimist who has experienced enough of God’s Love through Jesus to believe that it has the power to overcome eternally.

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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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