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Tuesday, November 05, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Haggai 1:15b-2:9 AND Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 OR Psalm 98:1-9 OR Job  19:23-271 AND Psalm 17:1-9, II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

When are the best of times?  Are they behind us?  Are they yet to come?  Are things getting better?

Some people try to preserve the past.  Some people look back and see the golden years.  Oh, if things were like they used to be.  Some are perpetually trying to escape the past.  Most of us admit that we are shaped by the past---shaped, I would say, but not determined.

The existentialists would have us living in the present moment.  It is the only time we have.  The past is gone and the future is yet to come.  But even the past exists in the present moment.  The present moment is but a point in the stream of time.  We bring our experiences and memories of the past into the present moment.

Some philosophers and historians and theologians would see our identity and behavior as shaped by our perception of the future.  Some of us approach the future with fear.  It is dangerous and unknown territory.  Others see the future as opening opportunity.  Some have seen history as progressing and evolving into an ever-better state.  However we see it, every step we take, every decision we make, every behavior we undertake contains assumptions about the future.  The sun is going to come up tomorrow.  This is a good person to enter into partnership with.  We will work well together.  It is safe to invest in such and such a stock because the stock market isn’t going to collapse overnight.

People have been aware of the past and future throughout human history.  It was no different in biblical times.  Many texts address attitudes toward past and future, giving one or the other priority.  Sometimes both come together in a single text.  Religion is, at times, seen as bound up with a tradition to be maintained.  At other times, it is seen as an expression of hope about the future.

The lectionary readings for the coming Sunday can be seen as helping us to think about the past and future and how our lives fit into the stream of time.  As was the case last week, I’ll not go into detail about each overall passage.  Instead, I’ll emphasize (mostly) the focus upon connections with past and future.

The words of Haggai come from an era following massive destruction in Jerusalem, including the temple.  The people have returned from exile and begun rebuilding, but they long for the grandeur of the past.  Nothing measures up to what it used to be.  Speaking of the temple, the prophet asks, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?  How does it look to you now?  Is it not in your sight as nothing?”  (Haggai 2:3)  Sound familiar?  Who has not said, or heard someone say, “Things just aren’t what they used to be”?

Much of the Bible calls us to look ahead to better times.  In this case, the prophet speaks of a time when “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former . . .”  (vs. 9)  For many, it is the possibility of better times ahead that keep them going.  We cannot go back; we can only go forward.

(Note in vs. 8, the startling announcement that “the silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.”  The context, of course, is the cost of rebuilding, but it is also a reminder that earthly wealth is not meant to be hoarded for selfish purposes.  All that we have and are exist as part of larger divine purposes---the purposes, I would say, of “Love.”)

Many Psalms sing the praises of what God has done in the past.  We are to remember, because in such memory there is hope.  As we get older, we remember the challenges and crises we have faced and gotten through.  When another comes our way, we are not intimidated.  We’ve been here before and found the power (God’s power?) to get through.  Such memory is part of Psalm 145:  “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.”  (Psalm 145:5)  It is there in Psalm 98:  “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”  (Psalm 98:1)

Note that it is “a new song” that is to be sung.  The Psalm does not speak of clinging to the past.  The marvelous things God has done in the past are reason to step out and do something new.  We can move into the future with confidence.

Psalm 145 also connects past and future when it speaks of one generation lauding God’s works to another.  (Psalm 145:4)  Part of the continuity between past and future is in the movement from one generation to another.  We---we---between our grandparents and our children and grandchildren, are a link where past and future meet---in the present moment.  Past and present are represented in real people and real relationships.

(Some other phrases in these two Psalms are worth noting.  I offer them, with little comment, for those who may wish to pursue them.  Psalm 145:20 speaks of the Lord watching “over all who love him,” although I’m always troubled when God’s care seems to be linked with “all the wicked” whom “he will destroy.”  Psalm 98:4 is a call to “make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.”  I love the exuberance of the instruments and the seas and the hills.  Song, even the blues, seems to lift us to a new place.  In singing, even in difficult times, we find hope and see, however dimly, into the future.)

Much of the book of Job is filled with complaint and crying out.  Job had plenty of reason to complain.  The short lectionary reading for the coming Sunday comes at the end of a long litany of ills Job lists, including the almost humorous observation that “my breath is repulsive to my wife.”  (Job 19:17)  Of course, there’s the more serious, “My bones cling to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.” (vs. 20)  He pleads, “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!  Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?”  (vss. 21-22)  Then come verses 23 & 24 at the beginning of our reading, many feeling that there should be a break before moving on to verse 25.  Job suddenly seems to feel that if his complaints were preserved, “engraved on a rock forever,” some future generation might restore his reputation.  Then we have the wondrous words of verses 25-27.  Where do they come from?  Christians sometimes read into them a vision Job must have had of the possibility of resurrection.  Probably not, but from somewhere, Job sees beyond all his troubles to a life which is restored.  All is not lost.  Somewhere, sometime, I will experience the power of God in my life again.  He looks ahead and finds hope, maybe even the will to live.

The other optional Psalm, Psalm 17, cries out in a manner similar to that of Job.  “Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.”  (Psalm 17:1)  Part of the Psalmist's appeal is to his past.  “My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.”  (vs. 5)  We sometimes feel we deserve a good future on the basis of our “good” past.  Religion almost always emphasizes both faithfulness to a tradition and hope for the future.  II Thessalonians instructs people living through a time of trial to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.”  (II Thessalonians 2:15)  We stand in a stream of time.  People who have gone before us have learned a thing or two and are able to give us some guidance that may be useful as we move ahead.  We are probably not called to choose between past and future, but to see and experience, in the present moment, the ways in which they are connected.

Finally, we have a somewhat humorous, but odd and puzzling, reading from the Gospel According to Luke.  Jesus increasingly became a threat to the powers of his day, both religious and political.  They were constantly trying to trap him into saying something that would be a basis for arresting him.  In this reading, it is the Sadduccees (one of the religious parties of the day) who come at him.  Their question is based on the Mosaic Law that says if a man’s brother dies leaving a widow with no children, he must step in and marry her.  The Sadduccees pose a question about seven brothers who die one by one, each then having to marry their brother’s widow.  Finally, she dies.  “In the resurrection” (we might say, “heaven”), they ask, “whose wife will the woman be?”  (Luke 20:27-33)  The words Jesus speaks are clear, but what do they mean?  He says that “in the resurrection from the dead” people “neither marry nor are given in marriage . . . they are like angels and are children of God.”  (vss. 34-36)  Is he trying to say something about “heaven”?  If so, his statement would probably disturb many who imagine family reunions in heaven.

I think Jesus was mainly just trying to confound those who were trying to trap him.  He seems to have succeeded.  There is, however, a punch line.  God is not God “of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”  (vs. 38)  Stop speculating about what you cannot know and pay attention to living.

My takeaway is that Jesus reminds those Sadducees, and us, that we cannot tie down the future.  As we move ahead we cannot see everything that will be.  We can only trust because we remember God’s faithfulness in the past.  What it’s all about is living.  When past, present, and future come together in the presence of God’s Love there is fullness of life---whosever wife or husband we are!


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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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