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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.

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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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