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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:  I Kings 17:8-24, Psalm 146:1-10 OR Psalm 30:1-12, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

It’s one of those weeks I’m not struck by a singular and focused theme when I look over the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  Often my responses are somewhat intuitive anyway, so this week I offer a variety of things to consider.  Each represents something that “leapt” out at me as I read through the selections.  In some cases it took several readings.  The Tuesday morning lectionary discussion I lead walked around several of them, without any neat resolution.  That’s what so great about the group---and about Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ.  We are as interested in “Living the Questions” as we are in finding final and definitive answers.  There is an easy---although occasionally intense---camaraderie that accepts and learns from the diversity of experience, insight, and interpretation each brings to the table.

So, here are some things for consideration as we try to come to grips with this week’s readings.

1.  MIRACLES

The readings include three miracle stories---the widow’s jar of meal and jug of oil that do not run out (I Kings 17:8-16), the resuscitation of the widow’s son (I Kings 17:17-24), and Jesus’ raising of the dead man in Nain (Luke 7:11-17).

What defines a “miracle”?  All of us, no matter the extent of our exposure to the formal pursuit of science, live in a world where skepticism is common, where we demand “proof” when outrageous claims are made.  Most of us have not experienced the kind of miracles described in the Bible.  Most of us go through life without witnessing one resurrection.  We sometimes speak of miracles, but we use the word more loosely to describe something amazing.  My wife’s recent extensive back surgery and her recovery to functioning way beyond expectations is something of a “miracle,” yet, when one steps back, most of it can be explained naturally, the result of excellent work by a talented surgeon.

The classic definition of “miracle” is “an event that appears to be contrary to the laws of nature.”  Most of the miracles of the Bible appear to have been interpreted in that way by those who experienced them.  Our modern minds sometimes seek to offer explanations based on modern scientific knowledge.

Definitions of “miracle” that are more common today are “an event or action that is amazing, extraordinary, or unexpected” and “something admired as a marvelous creation or example of a particular type of science of skill” (e.g., “a miracle of modern engineering”).  So what is your take on miracles---both these particular miracles or miracles in general?  Where have you experienced something that you would call a “miracle”?  Where is God in such events and what do they teach us about God?  Often in the biblical stories they are taken as proof of the power of God.  In the story of Elijah, the woman responds, after her son is “revived” (I Kings 17:22-23) saying, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”  (vs. 24)  When Jesus raises the man in Nain, the people “glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’”  (Luke 7:16)  My own faith doesn’t require such miraculous demonstrations, although I must admit that the wonder of pink cloud formations and occasional rainbows we observe from our deck in the evening stir wonder and a sense of mystery in my being.

I suppose I’m most comfortable affirming the mystery I encounter in so many places as I observe and participate in life.  That I am alive in the midst of all this is a “miracle” beyond measure.

2.  INCLUSION

Given my understanding of God’s Love, it’s no surprise I’m always alert to stories that stretch beyond the usual boundaries we humans build.  The widow in I Kings lives in Zarephath, a Phoenician city in what is now Lebanon.  Elijah, a prophet of the Hebrew God, Yahweh, is sent to this foreign place to be cared for by a foreigner---a widow at that.  (I Kings 17:8-9)  The Lord says, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”  (vs. 9)  It starts as a story where hospitality is to be offered by someone outside the boundaries usually drawn by strict observers of hospitality rituals.  Under great duress, because she and her son are near starvation, the widow offers the requested hospitality.  Elijah, on the other hand, offers hospitality to this foreigner, demonstrates that God’s love reaches out even to her.  The two miracles are performed for the benefit of her and her son.  If you want to really complicate the interpretation of this miracle, take note of vs. 18 in which the widow says to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God?  You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

(The name of the place, by the way, means “smelter,” or “forge,” or “metal-working shop.”  Is there something in this story about the “refining” of one’s faith perspectives?”)

Probably we should not make too much of the location of the resurrection, Nain, in Luke’s miracle story (Luke 7:11).  It was in Galilee not far from Jesus’ hometown.  Jesus was a Galilean.  But Galilee was a significantly diverse area ethnically.  Consider the following facts:  Solomon gave Galilee to his Phoenician ally, King Hiram.  Isaiah 9:1 refers to “the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations,” probably referring to the many foreigners who settled there.  Nain today (spelled Nein) is an Arab village located in Galilee.

The story seems to parallel Elijah’s revival of the widow’s son.  In Nain we have another widow (possibly foreign) with a son.  This time it is an adult son, “a man who died . . . his mother’s only son, and she was a widow.”  (vs. 12)

The epistle reading features Paul who expanded the boundaries of the faith to include Gentiles.  Here he describes himself as going “into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.”  (Galatians 1:21)  Damascus, to which Paul was headed when his encounter with the living Christ occurred, was in fact in Syria.  Cilicia, in present-day Turkey, had a history as part of Assyria and Persia.  It, too, would have been considered foreign territory.  There were Christian communities in all these places, but they were part of the expansion of Christianity beyond traditional Jewish boundaries.

Such facts open the door to ask again who it is that we are ready to include.  Who does God include and who does God want us to include?

3.  THE BREATH OF LIFE

I thought about devoting the entire blog this week to “Breathing New Life Into Things.”  We are still in the season of Pentecost, celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit.  The word for Spirit and Breath (and Wind) is the same in Hebrew.  Although not the main focus, breath is mentioned in some of these readings.  Even today breathing or not breathing is part of the definition of whether we are alive or not.  I Kings 17:17 says of the widow’s son, “ . . . his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.”  We are told that Elijah “stretched himself upon the child three times.”  (vs. 21)  Was he performing some sort of CPR?

Psalm 146 warns against putting trust “in princes, in mortals . . . When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”  (Psalm 146:3-4)  Psalm 30 makes no mention of breath but speaks of being brought up from Sheol and being restored to life. 

We sometimes speak of turning points in our lives as being a breath of fresh air.  It is as if new life is breathed into us.  It’s worth considering how and when such occasions occur and where the Spirit of God is in them.

4.  TENSIONS IN THE EMERGENCE OF CHRISTIANITY

In the reading from Galatians we have Paul at his arrogant best---or worst.  He seems bent on establishing his independence from the other leaders of the early church, notably Jesus’ disciples.  Much has been written about the place of Paul and Jesus in the formation of the early Christian movement---whether Paul hijacked it and went in directions that are not true to Jesus, whether Christianity would have remained a sect of Judaism with Paul’s efforts.

The ostensible agenda in this reading at first seems to be the establishment that Paul’s teaching comes from God, not men. (Galatians 1:11-12) Paul was especially concerned about claiming his experience of Jesus on the road to Damascus stood on a par with that of those who had lived and worked with Jesus in the flesh.  This reading, though, seems to contrast with the story in Acts 9, where Saul (immediately following his conversion) is taken into the Christian community in Damascus (again in Syria) where he spent several days with the disciples and gained attention as he began his public ministry.  (Acts 9:10-27)  In Galatians he says he “went away at once into Arabia.”  (Galatians 1:17)  He speaks of visiting Cephas, “but I did not see any other apostle except James . . .and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea.”  (vss. 18-19, 22)  His lack of humility is evident when he speaks of their hearing about him and glorifying “God because of me.”  (vss. 23-24)

Paul came in for sound criticism in our discussion this week.  Maybe the discussion of Paul and Jesus needs to makes its way into our pulpits.  Certainly it is one of the many things that might be considered as one reads and reflects upon this week’s lectionary readings.

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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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