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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.

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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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