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Friday, June 14, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:  I Kings 21:1-21a AND Psalm 5:1-8 OR II Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15 AND Psalm 32:1-11, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

Human beings do some pretty nasty things---even human beings whose overall character is relatively good.  Occasionally a human being seems to be almost evil and sinister in his or her being.  I don’t know about some universal “evil” wandering the universe.  I do know that I’ve never met a perfect person, and I’ve met a few (very few) that I thought were downright evil.  Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was recently interviewed by Scott Pelly on 60 minutes.  She talked about the disillusionment that can overtake one in the profession she has practiced.  Her deep philosophical base wants to see good in all people, but she keeps being disappointed.  When pushed, she guessed that some people could truly be described as evil.  There may even be some who are beyond redemption.

The Bible certainly gives us stories that show people whose acts are repulsive, pushing us away squirming and screaming.  Some of those are in the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. 

I’m less interested in where the acts come from than I am in what is the appropriate response to such people.  Some in my generation (and probably---hopefully---some others) remember a movie, Love Story, based on a book by Erich Segal.  A romance set on the Harvard University campus, some suggested that it was inspired by Erich Segal’s acquaintance with Al Gore, although Segal denies that speculation.  Probably the most memorable line, repeated twice, is “Love means never having to say you’re sorry!”

My experience is that even those who love deeply do things, intentionally and unintentionally, that hurt those whom they love.  Whatever the words spoken, the maintenance of love relationships requires seeking and giving forgiveness.  Forgiveness is at the core of the Christian faith.  Love never gives up on the worst of human beings.  There is always another chance.

 Let’s look at the stories and other readings and see where they take us.

The story of Naboth is a story of the abuse of big government.  Ahab wants Naboth’s vineyard, “so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house.”  (I Kings 21:2)  As a gardener, I can identify with that.  I much prefer my garden to be nearby so I can just walk out the door and work in it whenever I have a few minutes.  And then the vegetables are ready at hand when it’s time to make dinner.

The vineyard has long been in Naboth’s family, though, and he doesn’t intend to give it up, saying to Ahab, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.”  (vss. 3-4)   Ahab is used to getting his way and is determined to have that vineyard.  Naboth’s rejection causes him to lie “down on his bed” and turn “away his face . . . and not eat.”  (vs. 4)  To Ahab’s credit, he offers Naboth a replacement vineyard or fair payment (vs. 2), but he still does not wish to give Naboth a choice.

 Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, hears about things and the story turns dark.  (vss. 5-6)  Jezebel seems to have had a running battle with Ahab, seeking his life more than once.  Was she a priestess of Baal (the competitor of Yahweh) with whose prophets Elijah did battle?  At the very least she was their patron.  Jezebel hatches a plot, using Ahab’s name, to have Naboth seated at the head of a great gathering.  (vss. 7-9)  There charges are to be brought against him and he is to be taken out and stoned to death.  (vss. 10-14)  Thus Ahab gains possession of the vineyard.  (vss. 15-16)

Elijah is sent by God to confront Ahab.  (vss. 17-18) There is no forgiveness in this story.  Elijah says to Ahab, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”  (vs. 19)  The final verse of the reading speaks of Ahab as having sold himself “to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.”  (vs. 20)

Interesting that Jezebel initiated the act but Ahab pays the price.  Are there shades here of the story of Adam and Eve with the woman seen as being the source of evil?  As one will see, three of this week’s readings beg us to consider the place of women in the Bible, in human history, in social interaction and organization.

The second story is an intrigue involving King David.  Before this week’s reading, we find David looking over the rooftops and observing Bathsheba taking a bath.  Like Ahab, he determines that he will take possession of what is not his.  Bathsheba becomes pregnant.  (II Samuel 11:2-5)  When David fails in his attempt to make it look like the child is her husband Uriah’s, he puts Uriah in mortal danger on the battlefield.  (vss. 6-16)  When Uriah is killed, David allows for a decent time of grief and then, as our story opens this week, takes Bathsheba as his wife.  (vss. 17-27)

This time it is the prophet Nathan who comes to confront the king.  Nathan tells a parable in which a rich man unjustly takes a poor man’s lamb.  (II Samuel 12:1-4)  David’s “anger was greatly kindled against the man,” saying to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.”  (vs. 5)  Nathan drives the point home, telling the king, “You are the man!”  (vs. 7)  “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?”  (vs. 9)

In this story David acknowledges his sin and there is a modicum of forgiveness.  “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.”  (vs. 13)  The story ends, however, with the unborn child sentenced to death, and that death is impending.  (vss. 14-15)  It seems that someone always pays the price when greed and power and lust run amok.

The Gospel lesson provides the third story, that of “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.”  (Luke 7:37)  She has some to a dinner, hosted by “one of the Pharisees”, where Jesus is a guest.  (vs. 36)   She bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them clean with her hair, “kissing his feet and anointing them” from the “alabaster jar of ointment” she has carried in with her.  (vss. 37-38)  The Pharisee is offended because she is an “unclean” woman. (vs. 39)

Jesus reminds him (using his name, Simon) that he has failed to provide the hospitality normally offered to guests: the washing of feet made dusty from walking the streets.  The woman has simply performed that act of hospitality.  So who is the sinner?  (vss. 44-46)

More importantly, Jesus uses another parable to ask whether greater love is aroused in one who is forgiven little or one who is forgiven much.  (vss. 41-43 & 47)  The story is about forgiveness.  In verse 48, Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.”  We could speculate on who the woman was and the similarity of this story to one in the home of Mary and Martha.  She is unnamed.  Is it Mary Magdalene?  Some in our breakfast discussion wondered whether it was the woman who faced stoning until Jesus challenged those doing the stoning, saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)  Even though the story has Jesus telling this woman that her sins are forgiven, it is almost as if she is acting out of an awareness that her sins have already been forgiven.

Whoever the woman, whatever the sequence of events, it is Jesus ability to forgive that starts tongues wagging.  “Who is this who even forgives sins?”  (Luke 7:49)

Note that as Jesus continues on with his ministry, among those who minister with him are “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene . . . and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”  (Luke 8:1-3)  Women were significant supporters of this young enterprise.

The Psalms continue to focus us upon questions of evil and forgiveness.  Psalm 5 speaks of God as one who does not delight in wickedness, who hates all evildoers.  (Psalm 5:4-5)  Psalm 32 begins with the declaration, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”  (Psalm 32:1)  It speaks of confession and forgiveness (vs. 5).  There are many nuances in the Psalms and their message is not singularly clear, but both contain the assurance of God’s “steadfast love.”  (Psalm 5:7 and Psalm 32:10)

I hesitate to even comment on the epistle reading from Galatians.  The entire letter is part of Paul’s effort to understand the relationship between law and faith or grace.  He never succeeded in giving us something very clear.  The letter addresses those who seem to have forgotten what it means to trust in Jesus.  It seeks to explain the place of Gentiles in God’s scheme of things.  Most of all it sees the indwelling presence of Christ as defining God’s response to evil.  “ . . . it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”  (Galatians 2:20)  Another time we may dig more deeply into Galatians.  For now I’m willing to jump to the end of the epistle, where Paul’s final words are similar to those with which he ends other epistles: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.”  (Galatians 6:18)

One of my mother’s favorite verses, which she had on a plaque hanging over the kitchen sink, says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”  (II Corinthians 12:9)  I believe it is a way of speaking of forgiveness, forgiveness that is already there for us, the power of grace being greater than the power of evil in human affairs.  It is a matter of faith and trust, as demonstrated and taught by Jesus.

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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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