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Monday, August 05, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 AND Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 OR Genesis 15:1-6 AND Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-30

It sometimes seems like it is difficult for us human beings to learn to trust.  We, or at least many of us, have a tendency to want to have everything “under control.”  Don’t we even from time to time say, “I have everything under control.”?  So---I want to talk about control and trust this week, and what some of the lectionary readings seem to have to say.

Before getting into that I acknowledge that there are other themes that catch my attention in these readings.  One of the foremost is the continuing prophetic look at worship and justice.  In the reading from Isaiah, the Lord asks, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?  I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts . . . bringing offerings is futile . . . I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.”  (Isaiah 1:11 & 13---and that’s only a small piece of the tirade.  Read it for yourself.)  Coming to worship and performing the right rituals (the right rites?) are not enough.  In terms of today’s overall topic could they not be seen even as an attempt to “control” God?  What, then, are we to do?  “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (vss. 16-17)

From my earliest encounters with migrant workers in the fields of my home county in northwestern Washington state and later as I worked with the National Council of Churches in what was then called “migrant ministry” scriptures speaking about justice have tugged at my heart.  Given the smallest of openings, you will often find my words turning to concerns about justice, but that’s not where my primary focus is in this week’s reflections.  Before leaving Isaiah, though, note that this week’s selection includes the familiar, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”  (vs. 18)  No matter where we are in scripture or what the topic is, we are never far from words which declare the possibility of forgiveness and new beginnings.  Injustice, in our personal behavior or on a global level, is never the final word.

The theme of Psalm 50 is similar although the focus on justice is less clear.  The words offer harsh judgment upon “those who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”  (Psalm 50:5)  God seems to recognize that the people are faithful in their sacrifices.  “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.”  (vs. 8)  In this case, it seems that the central problem is with their attitude, although portions of the Psalm not included speak of evil, consorting with thieves and prostitutes, etc.  (See vss. 18-20)  Whatever the behaviors that are being condemned, the people’s hearts don’t seem to be in worship.  They are simply going through the motions.  There is no joy when they gather.  The reading ends with these words:  “Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me.”  (vs. 23)

Worship is another area of long-time interest to me.  It is often the lens through which I see all of life.  What would life be like if we saw all that we do and say as acts of worship?  These two readings help us connect worship and justice, offering lines of thought and action for more than one brief time of reflection.

It is the reading from Genesis that started me thinking about control and trust, although it also stirs up questions the whole cycle of readings in recent weeks have raised.  They make me aware of how fragile is our understanding of how the divine spirit moves and works in the formation of nations and religions.  The reading is part of the story of Abraham’s place in the scheme of things, as father of both Judaism and Islam.  There are consequences that are still be worked out, even as Palestine and Israel seem to be coming to the table to talk to each other again.  Even if I were to concentrate on those themes, I wonder whether I have much to offer.  Minds more brilliant than mine have tried to find a way to peace.  I often feel, in terms of this week’s theme, that such matters are beyond my control.  I haven’t given up, but my focus is in another direction this week.

This week’s reading from Genesis takes us back in time before the promise of a son that we read about a few weeks ago.  Nevertheless, Abraham (still known as Abram) is impatient for a son.  “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless.” (Genesis 15:2) Beyond the common longing for an heir, and the particular significance of an heir among the Hebrew people, we have to go back to chapter 12 as a context.  In Genesis 12:1-2, we read, “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  How, God, is this going to happen if I don’t have a son?  (Notice, by the way, that the focus of those verses is not simply upon being blessed, but upon being a blessing.)  God promises an heir, saying, “No one but your very own issue shall be your heir . . . Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall your descendants be.”  (Genesis 15:4-5)  Despite the frequent focus of interpreter’s upon the declaration that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vs. 6), when the story moves ahead, beyond today’s selection, Abram’s impatience seems not to have dwindled.  He decides to take things into his own hands and father a son with Sarai’s “Egyptian slave-girl,” Hagar.  (Genesis 16:1 and following)  The child was called “Ishmael,” the one through Abraham is connected with Islam.

We’ve already noted that exploring the Isaac-Ishmael stories and the connection with modern conflicts is a rich and complex effort.  This week, though, I want to note that many of us have some of the tendencies of Abram.  We want to take things into our own hands.  We want to be on control.  We have a difficult time trusting that the divine purposes will ultimately be worked out in their own time and way.

Psalm 33 also talks about nations, describing God as one “who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.”  (Psalm 33:15)  Nations, like individuals, don’t trust easily, instead trying to take control through military might.  The Psalmist declares, “A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.  The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.”  (vss. 16-17)  In the end, the reading returns to the “steadfast love” that has been part of our discussion the past couple of weeks.  “Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”  (vs. 22)

The word “hope” provides the transition to the epistle lesson from Hebrews.  Hope is closely related to trust, trusting that the future will unfold according to loving purpose we cannot yet see entirely clearly.  The 11th chapter of Hebrews opens with the words, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen . . . By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”  (Hebrews 11:1 & 3)  The chapter reviews the undertakings of the many in the Bible who set out not knowing how everything was going to turn out.  There was a sense in which they were not under control.  The litany begins with Abraham who “set out, not knowing where he was going.”  (vs. 8)  We are told, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.  They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.  (vss. 13-14)  The reading ends with a focus on a “heavenly” destination where God “has prepared a city” (vs. 16), which takes us into another whole area of debate and understanding.

For the moment, I’m content to walk in faith that God’s future for us is still unfolding.  I don’t know what it will look like, on this earth or “in heaven.”  I simply know that much of the biblical message calls us to trust, even being ready for whatever comes, without fear.

The Gospel lesson is about such trusting and being ready.  It begins with a call to not be afraid (Luke 12:32), a frequent biblical admonition.  We are not to trust in wealth and possessions. “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  (vs. 34)  Jesus uses the image of waiting for one’s master to return from a wedding banquet.  One is to be “dressed for action” and ready.  (vss. 35-36)

Again the imagery of the final verse seems to draw us in an otherworldly direction.  “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  (vs. 40)  My spin is that the work of the loving heart of the cosmos may spring up at any moment offering us opportunities to build a kingdom of love and justice here on this earth.  We can’t control it, but we can be ready, and we can trust that the future holds possibilities beyond our imaginations.

Last week, I talked about three options for understanding God and reality offered by Marcus Borg in his 2011 book, Speaking Christian.  The third way focuses upon “God as Gracious, Loving, and Compassionate.”  Borg outlines the results of such an understanding:  “Life is no longer fear-based.  We do not need to protect ourselves from threats . . . Rather, we learn to center more deeply in God and trust more deeply in God . . . in the midst of the vagaries of life, the Bible proclaims again and again, in what may be its most frequent phrases, ‘Fear not,’ ‘Do not be afraid,’ ‘Do not worry.’  The Christian life is about trusting ever more deeply in God . . .”

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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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