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Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 1:4-10 AND Psalm 71:1-6 OR Isaiah 58:9b-14 AND Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke:13:10-17

No clear single theme leaps out at me from the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  There is enough overlap to offer some topics for consideration.

Some might use a couple of these texts to get into a discussion of abortion.  The reading from Jeremiah includes God’s well-known words in his call to Jeremiah:  “Before I knew you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”  (Jeremiah 1:5)  The selection from Psalm 71 ends with the words, “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.”  (Psalm 71:6)  Notice that neither verse directly addresses the period of gestation that dominates today’s debate.  Jeremiah refers to a time prior to pregnancy and Psalm 71 addresses the actual time of birth.

I didn’t want to get into today’s abortion debate anyway.  I’m content to see these passages as declaring how much God values human life from beginning to end.  Jeremiah is being called to a weighty task.  Can you imagine being told, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”?  (Jeremiah 1:10)  No wonder Jeremiah cries out, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  (vs. 6)  Even if one is assured of God’s presence, I can attest to the fact that getting into a pulpit Sunday after Sunday can make one quake.  Do I really have something to say to these people this week?  Or---if I have a strong sense of a message which may make some uncomfortable, can I deliver it with integrity?  To try to speak to the depths of the human spirit can be like standing on holy ground.  One may feel the need to remove one’s shoes.

In the context of my youth, these verses may have plugged into the idea held by some that God has a specific plan for every life.  These and others of this week’s readings make one think about the flow of life, about one’s vocation or calling or destiny.  Jeremiah is called to an awesome task.  The Psalmist seeks strength and rescue along the path of his life.  “In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me . . . Be to me a rock of refuge . . . For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.”  (Psalm 71:2, 3, & 5)  The reading from Isaiah says, “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your horses strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring, whose waters never fail.”  (Isaiah 58:11)  Psalm 103 speaks of a God “who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.”  (Psalm 103:5)

These perspectives drew my attention to the focus of the Kaiser Permanente television ads which want us to “thrive.”  A tickle in the back of my mind suggested that “thrive” as a greeting had been used in Star Trek.  Instead I was reminded that it was Spock who said, “Live long and prosper!”  That’ll do too!  “Thrive” means “to grow vigorously” (flourish) or “to gain in wealth or possessions” (prosper). If we don’t go here for a simple equation where the faithful get rich, I believe that God wants our lives to thrive, wants us to grow into a full and rounded well-being, even, as someone suggested at breakfast this morning, to have fun as we go through life.  I found a third meaning of “thrive” which is worth pondering:  to progress toward or realize a goal despite or because of circumstances.”  We may speak of someone as thriving on conflict.

I’m intrigued by the notion of progressing toward a goal.  Even though I don’t believe in a literal and detailed God-designed plan for every life, is there a sense in which each one of us has a destiny to fulfill?  What is it that our particular existence is intended to contribute to the fullness of this cosmos?  Why is each one of us here?  They are questions worth pondering from time to time.  What does it mean for us to thrive?

It’s worth noting, in the reading from Isaiah, that there is a condition that comes before the promise.  “ . . . if you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”  (Isaiah 58:9b-10)  We don’t much like conditions when they sound like laws and threats.  “If you don’t do this, I won’t bless you.”  Maybe it’s more a declaration of the way things work.  If our spirit is small and petty, we are unable to appreciate the fullness of the blessing God offers us.  It’s striking how often such verses are addressing justice and the needs of the oppressed and poor.  If we can’t see the light of humanity in such people, perhaps we cannot see it at all.  Note that Psalm 103 speaks of these same people:  “The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.”  (Psalm 103:6)

There’s one other condition mentioned in Isaiah 58, taking us into another topic addressed in more than one of the readings.  “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth . . .”  (Isaiah 58:13-14)  We talked a lot at breakfast about the Sunday activities which were “allowed” and not allowed during our earlier years.  Whether it is a matter of a particular day or not, do we need a time which calls us away from the daily routines and demands, when we are called to focus on something other than our livelihood?  These verses seem to define the sabbath as a time that looks to others, a time to turn from selfishness and self-centeredness.

The Gospel lesson treats the sabbath in a similar manner.  Jesus heals a woman who had a spirit that crippled her for eighteen years.  (Luke 13:11-13)  His doing so in the synagogue on the sabbath makes the leader of the synagogue indignant.  (vs. 14)  Jesus reminds them that animals who need water are led to water on the sabbath.  (vs. 15)  Setting this woman “free from this bondage” is certainly okay on the sabbath.  It is not only okay for animals and people to receive what makes them thrive on the sabbath; it is perhaps central to understanding what the sabbath is about.

The reading from Hebrews, I believe, addresses something below the surface of life that feeds our souls and helps us thrive.  The long list of those who have been faithful in the past (in Hebrews, chapter 11) has led to the opening words of Hebrews, chapter 12, read by Pastor Rick last Sunday.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The lectionary selection for this week addresses where the race is going.  Before we get there, however, we need to take note of some of the words in between, starting with verse 12:  “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.  Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.  See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal.”  (Hebrews 12:12-16)

Whether the end of the race is heaven or some form of “New Jerusalem,” it is clear that the path of the race takes us through a place where we work together for peace and justice, where our focus is on what matters at a deeper level than the next meal.  The destination is not something “that can be touched.” (vs. 18)  The key, as I read this passage, comes in verses 26-28.  It speaks of a shaking so  that only “what cannot be shaken may remain.”  (vs. 27)  Like the sabbath, these words call us to focus on something more than daily routines of survival.  God wants us to thrive, not just survive.  To do so, we have to dig deeper and find foundations which cannot be shaken.  The reading from Hebrews ends with these words:  “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.”  (vs. 28)


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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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