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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 naïve 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!

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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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