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Thursday, September 12, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 AND Psalm 14:1-7 OR Exodus 32:7-14 AND Psalm 51:1-10, I Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

Several of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday present a pretty dark picture of humanity.  Someone in our Tuesday morning discussion group asked, “Am I to go around feeling guilty all the time just because I’m human?”  Sometimes those who are reacting to the abuse of scriptures like these simply say, “I don’t believe that.”  Someone suggested that the biblical writers and entire nations were trying to figure God out and sometimes they got it wrong.

The Bible tells us that God’s people spent years wandering in the wilderness.  Their leaders, as well as the nations around them, often acted in unjust ways.  There were always those who felt like victims.  Their nation was besieged, some of the people spending years in exile in a foreign land.  It’s no wonder they began to think maybe God was out to get them.  Maybe what happened to them was punishment for their sin.  Many of them had a deep sense of guilt, wherever it came from.  We certainly read the stories of men and women who commit acts that they would not trot out on a list of things they were proud of.

We’re still trying to figure it out.  Syrian leaders use chemical gas on their own populace and hundreds of innocents, men, women, and children, die an agonizing death.  What kind of God would allow that?  We look at our own lives and see places we have fallen short or behaved in destructive ways.  Sometimes we’ve lived through abusive experiences, blamed in ways that make us we feel we can never escape feeling guilty.  Mind you, I’m not saying that everyone is wallowing in guilt, or that we are born guilty.  There’s still enough guilt to go around without that.

So, we look for ways to explain things and we look for possibilities of healing.  There are at least two “answers” in this week’s readings.

The first is the harsh way of the first three readings.  It’s just the way we are as human beings; we are full of sin.  I cringe when I hear words like these attributed to God.  “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding.  They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”  (Jeremiah 4:22)  “They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good . . . They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”  (Psalm 14:1 & 3)

In these passages it is an entire people that is being indicted; it’s not just about individual behavior.  Also the behavior most clearly identified is injustice, taking unfair advantage of the poor and needy.  Psalm 14 speaks of “all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread . . .,”  who “would confound the plans of the poor.”  (vss.4 & 6)

I’m not even offered a God here whose mind can be changed.  “ . . . I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.”  (Jeremiah 4:28)  I can’t go this route.  It doesn’t even fit my experience of humanity where even non-believers often step up and act in benevolent and heroic ways.  I’m not going to try to explain passages like this away by putting them in a larger context.  The fact is that this is the way people often thought, and often still think.  It is not the final answer in the Bible or in life or in the church, but it is answer that often hangs over and influences people’s response to, or rejection of, God.

The reading from Exodus is similar in tone.  The Israelites in the wilderness have built a golden calf and place it at the center of their worship.  “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.”  (Exodus 32:7-9)  “Stiff-necked”---what an interesting word.  We wondered at breakfast about its biblical meaning.  Here’s our answer:  “stubborn, untractable, not to be led.”  It comes from the method used to guide an ox while plowing a field.  The plowman held a light pole with an iron spike on the end.  He would tap the ox’s neck to get it to turn.  Some didn’t respond and were described as being “hard of neck.”  I leave it to you how much you want to apply this word to yourself or others.  If it means resistance to change of direction or opinion, I think I’ve known a “stiff-necked” person or two in my lifetime, both personally and politically.  I’ve probably even demonstrated that characteristic myself at times.

In this case, it provokes the wrath of God, the kind of wrath we’ve seen in the earlier passages.  The only difference is that here God offers the people the opportunity to “change your mind,” and, when they do, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”  (vss. 12 & 14)  While I find it impossible to fit such a wrathful God into my own experience, at least we are now offered a way out.

The tone of Psalm 51, a favorite of many, puts the way out in very personal terms.  It is a prayer of an individual rather than an indictment of a nation.  It still has its problems.  At breakfast, when I read the words of verse 5, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me,” one person burst out, “I don’t believe that.” Neither do I.  So what are you doing to do to us?  Make us feel guilty and run us out of the church.  Thank God, that’s not the way it works at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ.  Like those ancient biblical people, we are still trying to figure it out---together, valuing the insight of each person.

The Psalm is a prayer for cleansing and forgiveness.  “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleans me from my sin . . . Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”  (Psalm 51:2 & 7)  It is a prayer for inner transformation.  “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  (vss. 6 &10)

Some have talked about sin and forgiveness as the central theme of Christianity.  I myself have suggested that forgiveness is key to understanding the Christian way.  Marcus Borg, in Speaking Christian, makes it clear that this is but one theme in our approach to God.  Liberation and being brought home from exile, for instance, are equally powerful themes.  Whatever the metaphor, it is important to be reminded that new beginnings are always possible.  This is a Psalm of new beginnings.

The God depicted in the epistle and Gospel lessons is no longer a wrathful God but a patient and inclusive God who sits down to have a drink with sinners.

The epistle lesson is still filled with guilt.  It was written in the name of Paul to a leader in the early church.  He is given the name of Timothy, but the actual recipient may not be the Timothy who was Paul’s companion in ministry in the book of Acts.  Saul (later to be called Paul) in the early parts of the book of Acts was a ruthless persecutor of the early church, a murderer of those who followed the way of Jesus.  He never got completely over that, confessing to that history on more than one occasion.  Here someone writing in his name speaks of formerly being “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”  (I Timothy 1:13)  He speaks of Christ Jesus coming into the word “to save sinners---of whom I am the foremost.”  (vs. 15)  He describes it as receiving “mercy.”  (vss. 13 &16)  Marcus Borg suggests that “compassion” is a better word to use in most places where our most common translations use “mercy,” but that’s another discussion.  What I’m noticing here is that the emphasis is upon divine and human patience rather than vengeful retaliation or punishment.  In Timothy, the writer says, Jesus Christ, displayed “patience.”  (vs. 16)

The Gospel lesson gives us the parable of the lost sheep (and the lost coin).  Luke is the only Gospel writer to record this parable, although the phrase “lost sheep” appears elsewhere.  (See Psalm 119:176, Jeremiah 50:6, Matthew 10:6, 15:24, & 18:10)  It is a story that warms the heart.  The shepherd persistently searches out the one in a hundred who is lost until he finds it and picks it up, and carries it home.  (Luke 15:4-5)  The question is whether or not to view the lost sheep as a sinner.  “Lost” in religious language has too often been used to describe sinners who are out there somewhere beyond the walls.  The context in which the story is told could reinforce this image.  Jesus is being criticized for welcoming sinners and eating with them.  (vs. 2---“welcome,” by the way, is one of Luke’s signature words)  What offends Jesus, I believe, is the tendency of strict religious people of his day (of any day?) to draw lines of inclusion and exclusion.  These "sinners" are people with whom Jesus ought not associate.  They might make him “unclean.”  So Jesus tells the religious leaders a parable that I like to think is a parable of patience, persistence, and inclusion.  Be careful where you draw the lines.  I want to include everyone, even this lamb who no longer is surrounded by a supportive community.  Who knows why that sheep was out there?  Was it stubborn or willful, or just a little befuddled?  Perhaps what it needed was not so much forgiveness as a warm embrace and inclusion---to be brought home from exile, for a place where it felt lonely.  Who knows?

I like the progress biblical writers made in trying to figure it out.  I don’t have it all figured out yet, but my encounters with God have been more in the nature of a loving community reaching out to include, more of a warming of the “secret heart,” than they have been of vengeful punishment.  I grew up in a religious environment where such guilt-inducing images were not uncommon.  Some in our breakfast group have experienced those attitudes in the extreme.  I always found people, in my family, in my church, and in unexpected places outside the walls, who were filled with a love that could not be held down by the narrowness around them.

Let’s continue to figure it out as we listen to and care for our world and one another with love and compassion that knows no bounds!

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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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