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Monday, July 29, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Hosea 11:1-11 AND Psalm 107:1-9, 43 OR Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 AND Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

This week’s lectionary readings are an appropriate follow-up to my musings about love last week.  It’s almost as if they present contrasts in the way we experience life.  Does the cosmos run on love or is it all useless?  I don’t pretend to have a neat packaged answer, especially when it comes to this mixture of scriptures.  I think they say, “It depends on where you look, what you try to base your life upon.  Maybe you need to look deeper---beyond, or under, the surface.”

Hosea continues as the prophet of love with the image of parent and child---Israel (or humanity) being the child.  (Hosea 11:1)  The children are rebellious.  “The more I called them, the more they went from me.”  (vs. 2)  The images of a parent remembering the tender moments of childhood are moving.  “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms . . . I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them.”  (vss. 3-4)  Even though the children have abandoned the loving parent, the parent keeps on loving them.  “How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger . . .” (vs. 8-9)

The reading from Psalm 107 again offers the declaration that God’s “steadfast love endures forever,” although the people have “wandered in desert places . . .’ hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.”  (Psalm 107:1, 4-5)  In this case they cried out for help (vs. 6), and we are told that God “satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things.”  (vs. 9)  They are called to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love,” and “consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”  (vss. 8 & 43)

The writer of Ecclesiastes seems to offer a strikingly different view of our walk on this earth.  It is all “vanity.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:2---Other translators use the words “futile,” “useless,” or “meaningless.”)  We work hard and all that we have we “must leave . . . to those who come after.”  (vs. 18)  It is like “chasing after wind.”  (vs. 14)  “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?  For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation . . .” (vss. 22-23)  The complaint, however, is fairly focused.  The writer is basically talking about using the “mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”  (vs. 13) 

Psalm 49 seems to take a similarly pessimistic view.  Claiming to “speak wisdom” (Psalm 49:3), the Psalmist focuses upon “those who trust in their wealth, and boast of the abundance of their riches?”  (vs. 6)  It appears that the cost is too high “that one should live on forever and never see the grave.  When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.  Their graves are their homes forever . . . (vss. 7-12)

All that could put us into a bit of a funk, couldn’t it?  Is it possible that the writers are just saying that if our faith is primary in what we can figure out with our minds, if we look for meaning in how much wealth we accumulate, we will be deeply disappointed?  The other readings, and the broad sweep of scripture say precisely that, but they also suggest that there is another level, another perspective, that of the love Hosea talks about, if we really open our eyes, seeing and experiencing with the heart.

Colossians contrasts those who look at and experience life with “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” (Colossians 3:8) with those who “seek the things that are above” (vs. 1).  The former hold to the earthly values of “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed . . .” (vs. 5), but those who seek to follow the way of Jesus are to “set your minds on things that are above.”  (vs. 2)  If we moved beyond the lectionary portion, we would find those things defined as “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (vs. 12)

Paul describes the movement from one perspective to other as resurrection, being “raised with Christ.”  (vs. 1)  It is like putting on new clothes.  “ . . . you have stripped off the old self . . . and have clothed yourselves with the new self . . .” (vss. 9-10)  “Above all,” he writes, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (vs. 14)  We should not overlook the state of affairs in this “resurrection.”  “ . . . there is no longer Greek and Jews, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all!”

I’ll take that any day over what Ecclesiastes describes, but don’t we wonder sometimes?  All we have to do is turn on the evening news or read the morning news (or scan it on our electronic devices) to know that there seems to be a lot of futility out there.  Sometimes we even feel it ourselves.  Again, I have no easy answers, but it seems to have to do with where we’re looking and the inner perspective (and presence?) we bring to things.

In the reading from Luke, Jesus tells the parable of a man who is rich, so rich that he had to build bigger places to store all this wealth (Luke 12:16-18), at which point he says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (vs. 19---Interestingly, Ecclesiastes says something similar when he writes that there is nothing better for people to do “than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live . . .,” to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”  (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13).  The parable tells us that the rich man died that night, and Jesus comments, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20-21) 

It is possible that these readings are simply contrasting lives based on wealth and wisdom with lives that are rooted in the deeper mysteries of love.  With all the chasing after wealth we see in this world, it’s a lesson to consider.  We see the effect of greed on the entire world economy and on national and international politics, as well as on the person sleeping on the street or begging passersby for a handout.  If such realities are the normative definition of life and its consequences, we are, as I said last week, truly a people to be pitied.

I suggest that the contrasts in these readings may also push us to a question posed by Marcus Borg in his 2011 book, Speaking Christian, “What is reality like?”  That, he suggests, is what we’re really talking about in our conversations about God.  God, for Borg (and for me, as I indicated last week), is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  Borg offers three options.  “The first sees God as indifferent, the second as threatening and dangerous, the third as gracious and life-giving.” How about your reality?  Which is it?  I opt for the reality Hosea portrays as a loving and compassionate parent.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Hosea 1:2-10 AND Psalm 85:1-13 OR Genesis 18:20-32 AND Psalm 138:1-8, Colossians 2:6-19, Luke 11:1-13

I am one of those who still clings to the belief that the overall message of the Bible is “God is love.”  (See I John 4:7-12 which includes that phrase and concludes with the declaration: “ . . . if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”)  I am one of those na├»ve people who believe that love is present in the very workings (“the mind”?) of the cosmos, that love is indeed what makes the world go ‘round.  No one said living according to the ways of God’s Love was going to be easy---not even the Bible---but it calls us to take love so seriously that it is the center from which we move.

I thought about using a question as the title for my reflections this week---something like “What are the limits of love?”  Themes related to the limits---or lack of limits---to love run through the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  Love faces real tests and challenges.  Any discussion of love in the Bible must consider its application beyond individual relationships.  God gets involved in such a grand scale that an entire nation feels love by God.  Unfortunately that often leads to a kind of pride in which nations (feeling love by God) claim superiority over other nations.  Suppose, though, that the divine intention is for love to be at work in the undertakings of all nations and organizations.  Suppose love is bigger that individuals!  How do we talk about, and practice, love at that level?

All of this may, by the way, challenge the way some readers have understood God.  The God of whom I am speaking is not another being alongside the cosmos who spans the distances with Love.  Along with Paul in Acts 17:28, I applaud the poetic saying, “In him we live and move and have our being.”  The God of whom I speak is the loving consciousness that encompasses and empowers and enables all of existence, so that it is Love in whom we live and move and have our existence.  God is not outside, but within, filling all things with the vibrations of Love.

So let’s turn to this week’s lectionary readings.  One of the Hebrew words for love is translated “steadfast love.  (See Psalm 85:7 & 10 and Psalm 138:2 & 8---all from this week’s lectionary readings)  Among several other translations of the same word in various other verses one would find “lovingkindness” and “mercy.”  To review its significance and centrality in the Judeo-Christian heritage is too much to undertake in a short space.  The word is rooted in the importance of “kindness” in all relationships.  Suppose we suddenly started acting out of kindness in our daily living and in our national and international politics!  Would that be love?  Suppose we started with the notion that love begins with something we so often easily dismiss---kindness!

Today, though, I want to note that the word is a “covenant” word.  “Steadfast love” is faithfulness to a promise.  It is God saying, “I made a promise to you, a promise that I would love you unto a thousand generations, and I’m going to keep that promise.”  Love in our daily living means claiming that promise and living by it, loving one another and loving God.

One of the repeated images of God’s relationship with God’s people is that of marriage.  God’s covenant with Israel is seen as a marriage, except Israel keeps running off with other gods in acts of prostitution.  That metaphor is played out in Hosea, whether as an actual experience in Hosea’s life or simply another image of God’s persistent steadfast love which goes to unexpected lengths in maintaining a relationship of love.  God tells Hosea to marry a whore and have children “for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”  (Hosea 1:2)  Hosea becomes a living parable.  The naming of the children, which makes some of us---myself included---shudder, shows that God isn’t just smiling and saying, “I still love you,” through all this.  The first child is Jezreel, a sign of God’s punishment (vss. 3-5)1; the second is Lo-ruhamah (“for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them”---vs. 6---although there seems to be some ambivalence since God immediately also says that he will have pity---vs. 7); the third is named Lo-ammi, “for you are not my people and I am not your God” (vs. 9).  The end of the story, however, is that of loving reunion.  “ . . . in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’”  (vs. 10)  If we were to continue in Hosea we would see the further development of the story and understand why he is thought of as a prophet of love.  (One scholar, Derek Kidner, titles his commentary on Hosea, “Love to the Loveless.)

It’s interesting that this reading comes up just at the time when I’m forced to take note of two political scandals.  Here in Portland, the chairman of the Multnomah County Commission is facing a vote calling him to resign as the result of an affair (or affairs) with a co-worker.  In fact, I was just listening to a live broadcast of the proceedings before I came to the computer to work.  On a more sordid level, there’s the ongoing saga of Anthony Weiner, former congressman and current candidate for mayor of New York City, whose wife stands by him.  Stories which test the limits of love are almost daily in the news media.

The alternative reading from Genesis comes at the limits of love from another angle.  The messengers who visited Abraham and Sarah last week (to promise the birth of a son of laughter, Isaac) are on their way to judge whether Sodom and Gomorrah are as bad as their reputation.  (Genesis 18:20-21)  There are all kinds of dimensions we might consider in thinking about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The story is not primarily about homosexuality as some would suggest.  It is about hospitality, simple kindness, which seems to be greatly lacking in those cities---and perhaps in many cities today.  Still, as is the case everywhere, there are good people there.  Abraham instinctively knows that punishing all for the sin of some is not fair.  Anyone who’s ever been part of a classroom where all were punished for the misbehavior of one or two can identify with Abraham here.  On another level, it is always true that others suffer when a few misbehave.  Whenever any one of us misbehaves others are hurt.

Whatever the circumstances and complexity of the situation, Abraham begins to plead.  It is almost humorous.  What if there are fifty good people?  The Lord concedes, emboldening Abraham to see how far he can go, reducing the numbers to 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10.  Even in this final case, the Lord repeats, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”  (vss. 24-32)  I’m not a big fan of destruction of even one, having been taught from early Sunday School about the lost sheep (one out of 100) whom the Good Shepherd carries home in his arms.  This story about Abraham is part of the ongoing discussion among our spiritual ancestors as they experience and seek to understand the compassion of God.  How far does it go?  What are its limits?  In some ways, one wonders whether we have made much progress when we fail to recognize that there are good people among those we consider enemies.  Not all of those who are followers of Muhammad are terrorists, yet we appear to be ready to bring down whole nations in the name of a war on terrorism.

The Gospel lesson includes Luke’s record of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” as well as some commentary on its significance.  After teaching the prayer to his disciples (Luke 11:1-4) he tells a story about going to a friend’s house in the middle of the night, waking him up, and asking for bread.  (vss. 5-7)  If you persist, eventually love will respond and get up and give the bread.  (vs. 8)  Love comes through even when it is inconvenient.  This is followed by the familiar words:  “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  (vs. 9)  Jesus’ additional commentary shows that this is not a promise that exactly what you want will always occur.  In fact, the wording is such that the verse might better be translated as, “Ask and you will receive something; search and you will find something; knock and a door will open for you,” with the implication that whatever happens it will be good.  Jesus comments tell of a child who asks for a fish or egg, wondering if we might give him a snake or a scorpion.  (vss. 11-12)  If you know how to give good gifts to your children, Jesus asks, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”  (vs. 13)  Can you imagine the reaction of a child who asks for something to eat and he or she is told, “Here!  Take the Holy Spirit!”?  The point, of course, is that this God who is love knows how to give us what we need.  Ultimately the cosmos is on our side.  If we are attuned to the love at work there, we will be empowered, eventually, with what we need.  It may not look like what we asked for, but we may come to realize it is what we need.

That leaves Colossians, a Pauline epistle which waxes eloquent about the Spirit of Jesus as a cosmic presence that gives fullness to all things.  This week’s selection repeats some of that, emphasizing that the fullness of love is more powerful that any spirits we may fear or customs which seem to bind us.  (See Colossians 2:6-10 & 15-18)  Paul is addressing the tendency of some people to judge one another according to whether they follow accepted customs or not.  In his day, some thought the Gentile Christians had to follow the Jewish custom of circumcision, eat only food deemed “clean”, observe the Jewish worship days and rituals, etc.  (vss. 11 & 16)  There’s much more in this passage about baptism and forgiveness of sins, but, with this week’s theme, I focus upon a love which goes beyond old customs, barriers, etc.  Love doesn’t stop at the boundaries we might tend to draw.  Love is bigger than all the philosophies and fads, the rulers and authorities, so “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths . . . Do not let anyone disqualify you.”  (vss. 16 & 18)  The concluding words are perhaps one definition of what it means to live together in love.  They speak of a “body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews,” growing “with a growth that is from God,” or, I’d be inclined to say, “with a love that is from God.”  After all, God is love and it’s all about love!
Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:  Amos 8:1-12 AND Psalm 52:1-9 OR Genesis 18:1-10a AND Psalm 15:1-5, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

Paul offers some of the most beautiful poetic mind-expanding descriptions of Jesus ever written.  In this week’s epistle reading from Colossians, he soars into heights and depths, through all walls and barriers, to give us what some have called “The Cosmic Christ” whose being permeates all things and holds them together.  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell . . .”  (Colossians 1:15-19)  That doesn’t leave much out.  It is as if Jesus is the one of whom Paul speaks in Acts 17:28 (quoting from a poet while preaching in Athens):  “In him we live and move and have our being.”  If we look back to the beginning of the chapter, Paul is talking not just about Jesus, but about his manifestation as the Christ.  Christ is a name that we can give to the entire cosmos, a living reality which gives us life, cradling and empowering us, flowing through us.

Most of the other lectionary texts this week call me to pay attention to how all things are connected in the life God wants us to live.  Stepping back from the cosmic all-inclusive connections of the epistle to the Colossians, we move to Amos who was interested in, among other things, the connections between worship and being just in our dealings with those around us.  He observes how people gather to worship---offering sacrifices in Bethel and Gilgal---but live a life of luxury and exploitation the rest of the time.  (See Amos 4:1-5 and 5:4-12)  Finally, God’s Word through Amos is, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.   Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  (Amos 5:21-24)

God’s message, through Amos, is that the people are about to suffer severe judgment because of the injustices they have perpetrated upon one another.  Last week, judgment was depicted in terms of a plumb line.  (Amos 7:7 and following)  This week we have a basket of summer fruit, conveying the image of harvest time---in this case a harvest of judgment.  (Amos 8:1-3)  The Hebrew prophets depict a God who has little tolerance for unjust behavior.  Here the list overwhelms: trampling the needy, bringing to ruin the poor of the land, overcharging and using false balances, “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” etc.  (vss. 4-6)  Again Amos comments on the hypocrisy of their worship. They can’t wait for their times of worship (“the new moon” and “the Sabbath”) to be over so they can get back to cheating their customers.  (vs. 5)  Part of the judgment says, “I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation.”  (vs. 10)

Psalm 52 conveys the same message.  It condemns those who plot “destruction.  Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery.  You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth.  You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.  But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; hew will uproot you from the land of the living.”  (Psalm 52:2-5)  Psalm 15 condemns the same behaviors by declaring that those who avoid such things are those who may abide and dwell with God: “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, not take up a reproach against their neighbors . . . who do not lend money at   interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.” (Psalm 15:1-5)

In the more “progressive” denominations, we love the emphasis of the prophets on justice, but we often have difficulty with a “judgmental” God.  Passages like these may call us to reflect on what is an appropriate response to injustice.  What “punishment” or consequences should be meted out?  Many in recent days have been carrying on an intense conversation about the Zimmerman verdict in which a black young man lost his life.  No one denies that Zimmerman is the one who killed him.  The questions arise around the circumstances.  Still we cry out feeling that justice has not been served when Zimmerman suffers no legal consequences.  What would make us feel that justice has prevailed?  Is there some concept of justice that can atone for this death?  The prophets convey a lot of anger in their confrontation of injustice.  Some of us, myself included, feel that anger, but we are not God nor are we likely to be comfortable threatening destruction.  With the prophets, however, we continue to cry out against injustice and are appalled when worship and just living become disconnected.

The Gospel lesson may be seen as another story about the connections between worship and action.  It’s the familiar, sometimes troubling, story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha.  Martha welcomes him and goes to work to prepare a meal.  (Luke 10:38 & 40---Actually it doesn’t specifically say what the “many tasks” were that “distracted” Martha, but being a good hostess would have meant providing refreshment for one’s guest.)  Mary, her sister, sits (worshipfully?) listening to Jesus.  (vs. 39)  Martha complains and Jesus responds (somewhat harshly?), “Mary has chosen the better part . . .”  (vss. 40-42)

As parents, many of us have tried hard not to praise one child in a way that makes another feel put down---yet here Jesus does it.  It’s a bit disturbing, although there are other biblical (and post-biblical stories---probably in our own families) of sibling rivalry.  Consider Cain and Able or Jacob and Esau.

Many of us have seen this as a story in which Jesus affirms a woman’s right to participate in religious discussion (although she appears mostly to be listening).  I wonder if it isn’t an attempt by Jesus to expand the understanding of hospitality.  Offering hospitality to guests was a high priority in Jewish custom and law, so high that one could almost become enslaved to proper hospitality rituals.  Is Jesus here saying there is more to hospitality that a clean house and a well-set table?  Entering into relationship with one’s guest is equally part of good hospitality.  Don’t get so caught up in proper procedure that you forget that the purpose is to serve the whole person who has graced your home with his or her presence.

In this story can we perhaps see listening to Jesus as a form of worship?  Amos observe that worship had become disconnected from acting justly.  For Martha, her slavery to the rituals of service has diminished her awareness of the importance of, and her need for, times to sit and listen.  In both cases, I would suggest, it is not that one should take priority over the other.  We need to worship in ways that lead to service and justice and we need to serve in ways that are undergirded by the empowerment of spirit-filled worship (and listening for and hearing a word from the Lord).

That leaves the story from Genesis, which doesn’t seem to tie in very well with the theme I’ve chosen this week.  Like the Mary and Martha story, it does have a hospitality element.  Three men (messengers/angels) visit Abraham and Sarah.  (Genesis 18:1-2)  Following the rules of good hospitality, Abraham washes their feet and feeds them, taking “a calf, tender and good,” hastening “to prepare it.”  (vss. 3-8)

The significance of the story, though, is much broader.  It claims divine origin for the history which is to follow.  The messengers announce that Sarah, in her old age, is to bear a son.  (vss. 9-10)  As in the Christian story, the beginning is a “miraculous” birth.  If we were to read on, we would find Sarah laughing as if it were a big joke. (vss. 12-15)  Women her age don’t have babies.  Would they even want to?  The baby, by the way, turns out to be Isaac, whose name means “laughter.”

The story set me to thinking about how frequently nations want to claim divine origins.  Many nations, our own included, have stories of origin which indicate God’s favor upon them.  It made me wonder how Islam regards this story.  After all, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all emanate from father Abraham, Islam through the line of Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother.  Reading the stories in the Koran didn’t give me much new insight, but here again I was reminded of how “It’s all connected.”  Abraham is a point of connection.  Why can we not affirm the connections among these three great religious streams---and perhaps connections even beyond---rather than continually spawn conflict, even oppression?

So---I leave you with some words I encountered in the Koran (2:136 and following):  “We believe in God and that which has been revealed to us; in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes; to Moses and Jesus and the other prophets by their Lord.  We make no distinction among any of them, and to Him we submit.”  Think on these things, and always look for the connections God is making, because, in God, all things are connected.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Amos 7:7-17 AND Psalm 82:8 OR Deuteronomy 30:9-14 AND Psalm 25:1-10, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

For generations, perhaps since the beginning of history, humans have looked to the skies (the “heavens”) and imagined gods, seen the signs of their fate and the possibilities of being kept eternally safe from the hazards of this life.  For some “heaven” became an abode somewhere above that provided an eternal resting place.  Marcus Borg talks about the dominance of heaven and hell thinking in some approaches to Christianity.  Although heaven and hell thinking is not nearly as prevalent in the Bible, or even in the teaching of Jesus, as some think, Jesus has become our ticket to heaven.

Some of this week’s lectionary texts try to pull us back to notice the presence of God’s love in his life, to be applied in the here and now.  Others help us define what the “heaven on earth” might look like---not a celestial city with streets of gold but a kingdom of love and justice on this earth.

The short reading from Deuteronomy follows a comment about religion of the heart in which “you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.”  (Deuteronomy 30:6---In this week’s portion, vs. 10 talks of turning “to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you soul.”)  Deuteronomy is a late compilation of the story of God’s people with Moses as the narrator.  It interprets Israel’s history in terms of a covenant born out of God’s love, a relationship sustained by that love.  It is, in a sense, a love story.

At the end of the chapter the people are given a choice.  See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”  (vss. 15, 19-20).

Deuteronomy raises interesting questions about reward for good behavior, something popular religion often values.  (See vs. 9)  Let’s face it, it’s human to expect good outcomes if we live according to the rules.  If we dug more deeply, we might see an interpretation of Israel’s history that is relevant to land disputes today.  Receiving one’s “inheritance” is tied to behaving justly, fairly, and lovingly in the affairs of life.

What I see in vss. 11 following is an emphasis upon “heaven on earth.”  It depicts the hearers as puzzling over the nature of this covenant of love with God, feeling they have to look to heaven to find its meaning.  “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”  (vs. 12)  They are told, instead, that “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”  (vs. 14)  Don’t stand looking into heaven.  God’s truth, God’s eternity, is already there in your heart.  Pay attention to your heart and be obedient to what you find there.  The blessings of God are not pie in the sky by and by; they are loving relationships in this life.

In the Gospel lesson a lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  (Luke 10:25)  Some today read that question and see it as asking what we must do to get into heaven.  The answer is set firmly in the relationships of this earth, harking back to the love emphasis in Deuteronomy.  When asked about what is written in the law, the lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  (vss. 26-27)  Jesus pats him on the back and says, “Do this, and you will live.”  (vs. 28)  A lawyer always wants to define terms, so he asks, “And who is my neighbor?”  (vs. 29)  Jesus tells a story about a man robbed and beaten and left for dead.  Good religious people came along and passed him by, refusing to offer help.  It is a Samaritan, one whose heritage and religion would have troubled good Jews, who offers help, and has come to us as “The Good Samaritan.”  (vss. 30-34)  The many nuances of the story have inspired a rich variety of sermons offering multiple lessons, most having to do with whom we help and how we help them.  Heaven on earth comes when lines that divide are crossed, when help is given, when we take care of one another.  The lawyer is asked who was the neighbor in this story.  (vs. 36)  “The one who showed mercy,” he says.  (vs. 37)  The punchline:  “Go and do likewise.”  It may be that rather than spending so much time trying to get into heaven, we are called to actions which bring heaven to earth.

The main reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is from the prophet Amos, a prophet of love and justice whose best-known line is perhaps, “ . . . let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  (Amos 5:24)  Here is an ordinary farmer whose eyes were opened by God and whose heart was made courageous enough that he confronted the king about abusive use of power.  (vss. 14-15)  He told the king that the nation was being measured.  (Amos 7:7-9)  Amos was caught up in God’s vision for this earth, one in which justice and righteousness would prevail.  The king didn’t respond very positively.  (vss. 12-13)  Power never responds well when challenged.  Note how frantic it gets when its secrets are revealed!  How much more comfortable the abusers of power are when we look off toward heaven and ignore the hells they are creating here on earth!

Psalm 82 offers an interesting picture of God in the midst of “the divine council; in the midst of the gods . . .”  (Psalm 82:1)  Whatever the significance of that phrasing, the “gods” are being called to “give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.  Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”  (vss. 2-4)  Even the gods, if they ignore the call to justice, “shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”  (vs. 7)  The gods in heaven are not of much significance if injustice continues to be the fruit born by those who inhabit, and rule, the earth.

Psalm 25 doesn’t add much to this particular discussion.  Mainly it is a prayer for guidance as we go through life.  “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth, and teach me . . . All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness . . .”  (Psalm 25:4-5, 10)  Among the other attributes of God that are mentioned:  (mercy—vs. 6, goodness and uprightness—vs. 8, leading and teaching the humble—vs. 9)

The reading from the opening of Paul’s letter to the Colossians expresses his appreciation of them and lifts them up in prayer.  He praises them “for all the love that you have for all the saints.”  (Colossians 1:4)  He mentions the hope “laid up” for them in heaven, but his main focus is upon the fact that their lives are bearing fruit in the here and now.  The Gospel “has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it.”  (vss. 5-6)  He prays “that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work . . .”  (vs. 10) 

I’ve always appreciated a quote attributed to various sources:  “All the way to heaven is heaven.”  I believe my understanding of that statement has changed.  I think I originally thought it referred to some spiritual bliss I was supposed to experience in my daily living.  Perhaps that is what the original writer intended, since the words seem to come out of the mystical tradition.  For me, it has come to refer to the possibilities of loving and just relationships which are all around us, possibilities that we are to help come to fruition.  There may be moments of bliss.  Often it may be more like hard work.  If it is work, it is a work of love, undergirded by a loving God of justice who empowers us.
Thursday, July 04, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  II Kings 5:1-14 AND Psalm 30:1-12 OR Isaiah 66:10-14 AND Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

I’m not sure what got me moving down thought paths related to “philosophy of life” as I read the lectionary texts this week.  Is it because there such a distance at times between ways of life in biblical days and in our own day?  Is it because our nation’s Independence Holiday is this week?  Many think of our nation as being built on ideas and ideals---freedom being perhaps the biggest one, although I suspect our nation’s origins are tied as much to economics as social philosophy.  (Perhaps we should have dug more deeply into freedom last week when one of the verses said, For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”---Galatians 5:1.  Pastor Rick did take the subject up in his sermon.)

Maybe my thinking about “philosophy of life” is simply a product of my age.  When I was in seminary we did a lot of studying of the “developmental stages” we humans go through at different ages.  The theory, set forth by a number of psychologists and educators and philosophers with a great deal of variation, suggests that there are tasks we must accomplish at each stage of life if we are successfully to move on to the next---like learning to crawl before learning to walk.  Some of the stages are more physical; many are social and psychological.  Most theorists have come to acknowledge that there is not a rigidity about the order, that some tasks may take a lifetime, that we may come back and revisit earlier “stages,” etc.

I did a little research reviewing some of the theories and decided it would be overkill (not helpful to anyone’s development) to try to reproduce that research here.  It is sufficient to say that one of the tasks that challenges us somewhere along the way, most frequently we are told, in young adulthood and perhaps again in older adulthood, is that of developing a “philosophy of life.”  That means coming to some understanding of the meaning of life, how it works and what that means to us for the living of it.  Actually Erik Erikson identifies a series of questions asked at the various stages of life, from infancy to old age.  Can I trust the world?  Is it okay to be me?  Is it okay for me to do, move and act?  Can I make it in the world of people and things?  Who am I?  What can I be?  Can I love?  Can I make my life count?  Is it okay to have been me?  Together their answers go a long way as a philosophy of life.

The title I used this week asks, “How’s life treating us?”  In developing a philosophy of life, we come to some understand of how we “deserve” to be treated, what works best in our treatment of others, whether the world is a safe and rewarding place, sad or happy, or perhaps quite dangerous.

Having been thinking about “philosophy of life” I read this week’s readings as relevant to that topic.  Someone once said that a critical part of biblical interpretation is the question (or questions) you bring to biblical readings.  I suspect almost any set of biblical readings would shed some light on one’s quest for a philosophy of life, so let’s see what we can learn from this week’s texts.

II Kings gives us an intriguing and delightful story of Naaman, an Aramaen military commander of stature and power, used to being treated with deference.  His philosophy of life, and that of those around him, was that rank brings privilege, but he also had leprosy. (II Kings 5:1)  Lepers were not treated well, often considered untouchable.  In Aramaen raids a young Israelite girl had been captured and now served Naaman’s wife.  (vs. 2)  She is unnamed, but without her intervention, Naaman might just have dropped out of history.  Her philosophy is that Yahweh, the Israelite God, through Yahweh’s prophets, has power over leprosy---and more importantly, that that she can’t keep that information to herself.  Wherever it came from, there is within her, a compulsion to help solve a problem when she is able.  She tells about the prophet, Elisha, and his ability to cure leprosy.  (vs. 3)

Now if this were just a people to people project, it might have been simpler.  But government got its hand in the mix.  We have to follow channels and protocol.  Naaman has to go up the line to the king of Aram who then must communicate with the king of Israel.  (vss. 4-6)  That’s the way life works, isn’t it?  At least according to one philosophy of life.  As so often happens, information gets lost while going through channels.  Not everyone is on the same page.  The poor king of Israel thinks he personally is being asked to cure Naaman.  He knows he can’t do it and fears war may ensue if he doesn’t.  (vs. 7)

Elisha steps in and offers to undertake the cure, but his methods offend Naaman.  “Go wash in the Jordan seven times,” Elisha tells him.  Naaman wants something more dramatic, worthy of his position.  “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!”  After all he had rivers back home, much cleaner.  (vss. 9-12)

Part of one’s philosophy of life is one’s understanding of how things get fixed.  I want to be cured, but you’d better do it my way.  Naaman’s servants comment to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?”  Are they implying that Elisha’s approach seems too easy?  Surely something as serious as leprosy requires some magic or some penance or some apologies or who knows what.  We sometimes have a difficult time accepted the “simple” fix.

The story continues beyond this week’s reading.  We don’t come back to it next week, and it contains further twists and turns in the understanding of how the participants understood things to work.  Naaman, as well as Elisha’s servants, thought that Elisha’s service deserved payment.  After all, that’s the way things work.  One pays for what one gets.  Elisha refuses payment.  (vss. 15-20)  Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, follows Naaman and exacts payment, much to Elisha’s displeasure.  (vss. 21-26)  The end of the matter is that Gehazi ends up with Naaman’s leprosy.  As happens in other biblical stories, a foreigner is shown to be “worthy” while a “good” Israelite is taken down.  That certainly upsets the philosophy of life that many hold in their understandings of “friends” and “enemies,” of lines of inclusion and exclusion.

The philosophy of life question I see highlighted in Psalm 30 focuses upon the role of joy and sorrow in life.  What is the meaning of the tears that come our way in life?  What long term perspective do we have on them?  The Psalmist says of God, “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning . . . You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy . . .”  (Psalm 30:5 & 11)  The reading from Psalm 66 is also about joy---this time without the weeping.  (Psalm 66:1)  What struck me was the word “awesome.”  “Awesome” became almost a flip response in the 1970s and 1980s indicating general approval about or enthusiasm for something.  The word has much deeper roots as an expression of deep awe.  The Psalmist says to God, “How awesome are your deeds! . . . he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.”  (vss. 3 & 5)

Is there room in our philosophy of life for awe?  As we move through the developmental stages of life, what do we experience as awesome?  How does that change over time?

The reading from Isaiah addresses, in a surprising way, whether the world in which we lived is nurturing or dangerous.  Often we think of God as a stern father, or occasionally a loving father.  Here we are given an image of Jerusalem and the God of Jerusalem as a caring mother.  It speaks of nursing and being “satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom . . . you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees.  As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you . . . (Isaiah 66:11, 12-13)

This week’s reading from Galatians calls us to consider issues of independence and interdependence, as well as the value of our work, in our philosophy of life.  We are to “bear one another’s burdens,” yet “all must test their own work” and “all must carry their own loads . . . for you reap whatever you sow . . . So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up . . . So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all . . . “  (Galatians 6:2, 4-5, 7, 9-10)  Much to think about and discuss in those words.  For the moment let’s just note the emphasis upon doing what is right and working for the good of all.

The Gospel lesson is rich with images that challenge us.  Some of us try to carry everything we own along with us when we travel.  Even those who try to travel light want to carry enough to be self-sufficient and comfortable.  In the reading from Luke, Jesus is sending out seventy disciples.  He tells them to travel lightly (“no purse, no bag, no sandals”---Luke 10:4) and depend upon the hospitality of those they meet along the way.  “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you.”  (vs. 8)  “Welcome” is a word Luke uses frequently.  Understandings of giving and receiving hospitality are very much built into one’s philosophy of life.  In this reading, hospitality is something to be freely given and received.  If one is not welcomed, one simply moves on.  (vss. 10-11)

Awesome, welcome, simplicity, right, good, nurture, joy and sorrow, reward, privilege, deserve, deference---words from these stories (and there are many others) that call us to think about our philosophy of life---about the nature of the divine as it is expressed in the workings of this world and in our daily living.

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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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