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Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Joel 2:23-32 AND Psalm 65:1-13 OR Sirach:35:12-17 OR Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 AND Psalm 84:1-7, II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

For some, it sometimes seems that love has become a calculated affair.  How much do I have to give in this relationship and what will I get out of it?  We draw up prenuptial agreements or contracts.  I’m not suggesting that we ignore the practical matters that go into making relational commitments, but let’s not lose sight of the worth of the mere presence of the loved one.  Sometimes it is enough just to be together.  We don’t need anything else.

Some of this week’s lectionary readings celebrate living in a place where God is present, where we are present to each other.  As is true in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as in other religious traditions, God is also viewed as giving concrete blessings, but God’s presence alone is reason to celebrate.  However one feels about a God who sometimes seems to personally provide for our every need, it is true that the very cosmos provides, unsolicited, the things that sustain and enhance and encourage life.  Still, to be surrounded by the presence of love, which I believe is one way of talking about the living heart of the cosmos, can be a more powerful experience than any specific material blessing.

The reading from Joel begins with material blessing.  God “has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early rain and the later rain . . . The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.”  (Joel 2:23-24)  The core of the passage, however, is the promise of the presence of his spirit in verses quoted by Peter on the Pentecost celebration described in Acts, chapter 2.  “ . . . I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”  (Vss. 28-28)  It is enough that God is present in our midst.  It changes everything, even our minds and relationships, and future.  Old understandings of status will no longer prevail.  It will be a new day.

Granted, we may have to go through some tough times, as every relationship does, but the presence of the spirit of Love will get us through.  (Vss. 31-32)

Both Psalms speak of a happiness found in God’s presence.  “Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.  We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.”  (Psalm 65:4)  “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts?  Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise . . . Happy are those whose strength is in you . . .” (Psalm 84:1, 4-5) Psalm 84 even gives us the heart-warming image of birds finding a home.  “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.”  (vs. 3)

Of course, Psalm 65 also contains images of material blessing as well.   “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain . . . You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.”  (Psalm 65:9-10, with the list continue on through verse 13)  It’s interesting in Psalm 84 that the people who live close to God have a hand in bringing about all this blessing.  “As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain covers it with pools.  They go from strength to strength.”  (Psalm 84:6-7)

Is it possible that we’re involved in a partnership here?  When partners are close, they often undertake work together that brings benefit to both and to the world around them.  We’ve already seen that God’s presence changes our relationships with one another.  Is it possible that part of the change is in the way we work together as partners?  Could it be that part of the work of God’s spirit is the building of relationships that “go from strength to strength”?

Note that Psalm 65 also mentions forgiveness, a subject which will come up again in the Gospel lesson from Luke.  “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.”  (Psalm 65:2)  The passage from Luke tells a parable of two men who go to the temple to pray.  (Luke 18:10)  The parable is addressed “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (vs. 1)  It is little surprise then, that the Pharisee in the parable prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  (vs. 11)  What a contrast with the vision in Joel.  The Pharisee assumes God looks with favor upon the status of those who are “better” than others.  This is not a God whose presence reaches out to all, or resides within all, equally.  The tax collector, on the other hand, pleads for mercy (and forgiveness?).  (vs. 13)

On other occasions, I’ve expressed my rejection of a religion which promotes guilt and then offers forgiveness.  Every relationship, though, has moments when forgiveness is needed.  We wound one another, intentionally or unintentionally, and the brokenness that results needs healing.  The punch line of the parable speaks of humility.  Ultimately it is humility that makes relationships work, and it is living in the presence of Love that makes humility possible.

We recently had another reading from Sirach.  I won’t repeat information about its relationship to the scriptures in the versions of the Bible most Protestants use.  It is similar to Proverbs and probably from the same era (or later).  A couple of truths in this week’s reading are worthy of note.

1.  It again depicts a God who is generous in blessing us.  (Sirach 35:12-13)

2.  In this case it is not an automatic granting of our every wish.  We cannot “bribe God, or be “dishonest” in our worship.  (vss. 14-15)

3.  This is a God who, like the God in Joel and Luke, rejects status as a measure of worthiness.  “He will not show partiality to the poor; but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.  He will not ignore the supplication of the orphans, or the widow when she pours out her complaint.”  (vss 16-17)

When this God’s spirit is poured out, relationships go topsy-turvy.  When relationships are changed that radically, it’s something to celebrate, although some of us who are relatively well-off might get a little nervous.

Jeremiah touches upon some of the same things, although one finds less reason for hope.  He affirms that God is “in the midst of us . . .” (Jeremiah 14:9), although they are feeling very much put upon at the moment.  They cry out for forgiveness, but in this moment are unsure whether they will receive it.  “ . . . we have sinned against you,” they repeat twice (vss. 7 &20), while also speaking of a God who “will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.”  (vs. 10)  They even speak of a God who can bring rain and showers (vs. 21), but in their present condition, all they can do is “set our hope on you.”  (vs. 22)

They have lost a sense of God’s presence in their midst.  When that happens in relationships, those involved can feel like they are in exile from the power of love.  They are no longer to sit down with, work beside, enjoy life, with the beloved and declare, “It is enough to be with you.”

The epistle lesson from II Timothy again has a different tone, but it also records a sense of moving through life with God as a companion.  It compares life to a fight and a race, with obstacles that have been hard to endure.  (II Timothy 4:7)  Even though others have abandoned him, “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength . . .”  (vss. 16-17)

So often, we try to go it alone, like the Pharisee in the Lucan parable.  Life isn’t meant as a solo project.  It is meant to be lived in the presence of God’s spirit which unites us and gives us strength to live and work together, blessed by one another’s presence and by divine empowering Love.  May we all be able to say with regard to our life together, “The Lord stood by us and gave us strength.”


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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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