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Friday, May 31, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:  I Kings 18:20-29, 30-39 AND Psalm 96:1-13 OR I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 AND Psalm 96:1-9, Galatians 1:1-2, Luke 7:1-10

Many biblical texts stress the choices we face in human life.  I learned early in life that, when it comes to many issues of life, one cannot avoid choosing.  To pretend not to choose is to put oneself on the side of the status quo---which frequently means siding with whatever power is dominant.

That doesn’t always make choosing any easier.  We are fans of the television musical competition, The Voice.  In the early stages of each season the judges are called upon to make difficult choices---usually between two competitors of nearly equal talent.  I’m sure the agony of decision is heightened for the benefit of the viewer, but the judges frequently seem genuinely torn.  They feel called upon to make a decision they don’t want to make.  They are torn in two directions.  Adam Levine seems to be especially vulnerable.  One week, as the seconds ticked down on this live show, he failed to make his decision before the show went off the air---and we were all left hanging, scurrying to the internet to find out how it went.

One way of looking at this week’s lectionary readings is to see some of them as having to do with choosing where we stand---where we will find and declare the ultimate meaning of our lives.  Those with a progressive view of our faith commitments may not like the particular answers but, if we take these texts seriously they remind us of how often our tolerance leads to efforts to avoid making decisions.

In I Kings, chapter 18, we read a story about Elijah, in which he asks the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?”  (I Kings 18:21)  What an image!  Inability to decide is like having an injury, like not being able to walk upright.  In this story, the choice is between two gods, Yahweh and Baal.  The story that unfolds may seem strange and uncomfortable to us.  Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal (450 of them) to a contest. They are to build an altar and ask Baal to consume the sacrificed bull with fire.  There’s much banter.  They are described as limping “about the altar they had made.”  (vss. 23-26)  Your God, Elijah taunts them, is either “meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep . . .”  (vs.27)  When they are unable to call down fire, Elijah repairs one of Yahweh’s altars that “had been thrown down.”  (vs. 30)  He places another sacrifice on this altar, and three times douses it with water, “so that the water ran all around the altar . . .”  (vss. 30-35)  Elijah calls upon the Lord and fire comes and consumes everything.”  (vss. 36-38)

As with most miracles, the modern scientific mind wants to find an explanation.  Some have suggested that maybe it wasn’t water after all---maybe naphtha.  I don’t need a miracle, or an explanation, to understand that the foundation upon which I build my life makes a difference.  There comes a time (maybe many times) when I have to choose.  Otherwise I will just limp along through life.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Elijah had a tendency to feel like he was all alone in following the Lord.  “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty.”  (vs. 22)  In the next chapter, Elijah, who has run from Queen Jezebel, cowers under a broom tree.  Twice he says, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  (I Kings 19:1-14)  Poor Elijah’s plight and plea might lead us to reflect on loneliness and solitude, both positive and negative.  What is it that sometimes contributes to feelings of being abandoned and all alone?  That’s for another time, other than to note that God reminds Elijah that he is not really alone, the he (God) “will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal . . .” (vs. 18)

Paul was another of God’s faithful who, on occasion, got discouraged.  He, too, seemed to deal with people who were somewhat fickle in their beliefs.  “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel . . .”  (Galatians 1:6)  It was as if what he had tried to build up was crumbling before his eyes.  It tore at his heart.  As a pastor who has seen people come and go in congregations, I can sympathize.

Paul’s response may seem arrogant, may not please those of a progressive faith.  It has been used as a tool in the arsenal of fundamentalists and literalists.  He basically says, “If you don’t believe what I taught you, you are doomed.  “ . . . even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed.”  (vs. 8)  Paul goes on claim “that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  (vs. 11-12)  Paul almost seems to forget that the proclaimer (in this case, Paul) was nevertheless human.  He is right, however, to call us to consider the commitments we have made.  What drew us into the life of faith in the first place?  What is it in the faith community that we find worth emulating?  When we are faced with alternatives, how do we evaluate them?  Do they conflict with the causes of justice and peace and love which I have learned from those who follow Jesus?  Where have I, and where do I, take a stand?

The Gospel lesson comes at the question from a slightly different direction...  Luke tells us the story of a centurion.  He had a slave who was dying when he heard about Jesus, his teaching and his healing.  It turns out that the centurion had close ties with some Jewish leaders, having helped them with the building of a synagogue.  He sends them to Jesus asking for help.  (Luke 7:2-5)  Now there are many things in this story that could catch one’s attention.  We have a story of a non-Jew seeking help.  In contrast to other stories, it is a slave rather than a child for whom he seeks help.  The question of worthiness is built into the story.  The Jews attest to his worthiness (vss. 4-5), but the message the centurion sends is, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”  (vs. 6)

It turns out to be a story about authority and faith.  When we discuss “taking a stand,” we are talking about who or what we trust when we face crises and decisions in our lives.  The centurion, as a leader of soldiers, is familiar with matters of authority.  (vs. 8)  He tells Jesus to just speak the word from wherever he is and the slave will be healed (vs. 7), and it happens. (vs. 10)  Miracles like these are hard for us to understand and accept, but the need for trustworthy faith and authority on which we can stand is not alien to a lot of us.  The story ends with Jesus praising the man’s faith---and, as happens in a number of biblical stories, he contrasts it with the faith of those who have at times been arrogant in their claims of faith, quite sure that they are worthy.  “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

There are three remaining lectionary readings.  One of the Psalm readings is simply an extension of the other.  It is a psalm of praise and awe.  Today perhaps we can see it as the ecstatic response of someone who has found a place to stand.  “For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.  Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty in his sanctuary.  Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength . . . Worship the Lord in holy splendor . . .”  (Psalm 96:5-7, 9)

An alternative reading from I Kings, chapter eight, contains part of a prayer by Solomon at the dedication of the temple.  He prays here that God may hear the prayers of foreigners who are “not of your people Israel” and come from distant lands.”  (I Kings 8:41)  “ . . . hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all the foreigner calls to you . . .” (vs. 42)  It’s a pretty audacious prayer isn’t it?  Are we that generous in our attitudes toward immigrants in our country?  Taking a stand often means drawing lines of exclusion.  May Solomon’s prayer prompt us to stands which open up boundaries and include.  I used to have part of Edwin Markham’s poem, Outwitted, posted on one of my websites: 

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!

May our faith always be that inclusive, full of love like that of Jesus!  There’s no better place to take a stand!

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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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