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Thursday, March 28, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 10:34-43 OR Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, I Corinthians 15:19-26 OR Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18 OR Luke 24:1-12

We human beings (and probably many of the other creatures of the world) live, more or less, by some level of expectation.  We expect people to stop and go according to the colors of the traffic signal.  When traveling we follow the directions of a GPS or a map or even a stranger who tells us where we’ll find our destination.  We plan to do certain tasks tomorrow in the expectation that it will come.  We go to work and expect our job to still be there.  If we are of a certain age we expect the Social Security check to be there in the bank account on a certain date.  We become accustomed to the ways of a spouse or friend and figure we can make a reasonably sane prediction of his or her behavior---unless we’ve learned that he or she is completely unpredictable (which can be nice in its own way).  To telegraph a piece of where I’m going:  When we bury people, we expect them to stay in the grave---or if we, for some reason, need to exhume the body, we are certain we will open the casket and find it!

Sometimes our expectations get a little grandiose, not exactly connected with anything very realistic, and sometimes things don’t work out as expected.  Something happens that defies expectation.

This week’s lectionary reading from Isaiah offers a vision of the future that is somewhat fantastic.  (By the way, there are many alternative readings for Holy Week and different Easter liturgies.  I’m working only with the ones for Easter Sunday morning.)  When people are in harsh circumstances and looking for a way out (as is the case in this reading), they often conjure up or latch onto visions of a whole different world to which they will escape.  In this case they hear someone (or some group of prophets) speaking in the name of Isaiah (3rd Isaiah?) about “new heavens and a new earth.”  (Isaiah 65:17).  God will provide them with a place “where no more shall the sound of weeping be heard . . . or the cry of distress.  No more shall there be . . . an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” (vss. 19-20)  Read for yourself the full description if you wish, ending with the wolf and the lamb feeding together, etc.  (vss. 21-25)  It sounds like some of our images of heaven, a place where “they shall not hurt or destroy.”  (vs. 25)  They lived in anticipation of a resurrection!

Those exiled Jews did return to their homeland, but things were never quite the same and long-term security has continued to evade them (and their neighbors) through all the centuries since.  Such visions of peace have nevertheless beckoned and sustained human beings and nations again and again.  Unfortunately people and nations have also bowed to the temptations of power and acquisition and accumulation.  It sometimes seems as if we find visions of social resurrection attractive and then go out and refuse to live by those expectations.  It's as if we headed out from Portland on a trip to California and got on a plane bound for Greenland.

The Psalm is basically the same as last week, including a few new verses and eliminating a few others.  In those new verses the tone is more victorious with an emphasis upon victory over death.  “I shall not die, but I shall live.”  (Psalm 118:15-18)  Such a focus is obviously appropriate for Easter morning, and this week the reading ends with the words, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  (vs. 24)  “What better theme verse for Easter?” we might ask.

Philosophers, theologians, and people in the street have often reflected on the meaning of life lived under the shadow of death.  Many words have been written.  We have a great variety of expectations on what is on the other side of death.  The reading from I Corinthians offers Jesus’ resurrection as a model of hope.  “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” i.e., according to this reading, our commitment to Christ is about more than our days on earth.  (I Corinthians 15:19)  Scripture also stresses that it has much to do with the living of our lives here, but this reading looks beyond that.  Our death and resurrection is somehow like that of Jesus.  “ . . . all will be made alive in Christ.”  He is “the first fruits.”  (vss. 22-23)

As in the Psalm, a victory is depicted.  All human power and authority meet their match.  (vs. 24)  “The last enemy to be destroyed,” we are told, “is death.”  (vs. 26)  I don’t always think of physical death as an “enemy.”  There are times it is tragic and unjust, perhaps inflicted by the violence and hatred of warring factions or lone shooters, but death, per se, is part of the “natural cycle” of our humanity. 

What, then, are we to make of this?  I take the hope of which the Gospel speaks to be one in which the power of death is overcome.  Love is more powerful than death.  Death, per se, cannot destroy us.  The consequences of life reach far beyond what we can see in the few short years of earthly existence.  This entire reading, and the Easter story itself, are full of mystery.  Some have suggested that the only appropriate response on Easter morning is one of awe.  We often put so much energy into trying to explain the unexplainable, when maybe it is enough to just show up and gape in wonder.

The two Gospel readings offered as alternatives certainly show that those who first went to where Jesus was entombed didn’t come away with easy explanations.  Mary Magdalene says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  (John 20:2 & 13)  It’s an explanation that many thought made more sense than resurrection.  Peter and John run out and see that she is telling the truth, but “they did not understand . . .”  (vss. 3-9)  We don’t see a sudden burst of celebration here.  They “returned to their homes,” where they stayed behind locked doors cowering in fear until evening.  It is only then that they began to experience the presence of the living Lord.  (vss. 10 & 19)

Mary, in the meantime, stays there near the tomb.  Jesus appears.  She doesn’t recognize him, saying, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him . . .” (vs. 15)  Only when he speaks her name does she recognize him.  She runs to tell the others, but Luke’s version of the story records, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”  (John 20:18 & Luke 24:10-11)

When Luke tells of women arriving at the tomb he also notes that they were, at first “perplexed,” then “terrified.”  (Luke 24:4-5)  (Note that all the Gospel writers agree that the first people to arrive on that first Easter morning were the women, an observation worthy of at least another entire blog.)  What we have here are people who went to the tomb with perfectly reasonable expectations—that they would find a body.  The women, in fact, were carrying spices (vs. 1), probably to complete the preparation of the body which had been hastily done after removal from the cross.  Their expectations were shattered and they didn’t know what to think, how to react.

Contrast that with the wildly celebrative occasions we often experience in church on Sunday.  What if we came as if we were coming to a funeral, only to discover that nobody could find the deceased?  What if we came and the church was empty, nobody there?  Would some angels appear and say, “There’s nobody here.  They’ve all gone to various places where they are doing acts of living love.”?  Remember that in Matthew’s account, they are told, “ . . . he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”  (Matthew 28:7)

When things don’t work out as anticipated, someone is likely to ask, “Well, what did you expect?”  That response seems to imply that whatever happened is a result of something you did.  You should have been able to tell what would result from your behavior.  The phrase is often used when the result is a bad one.  Sometimes, though, the result is far better than we anticipated, so much better that we can’t even grasp for understand it.  All we can do is gasp in awe, or spend a lifetime living out and reflecting upon its meaning.

I thought about leaving the blog blank this week.  All those few who visit the blog would be expecting something and instead find an empty page.  Maybe one approach to Easter is for us to start filling in the blank, not-yet-understood page---following Jesus into the Galilees of our lives where he continues to live the meaning of Easter.

The reading from the book of Acts suggests another approach.  It follows a story in which Peter receives a vision about what is clean and what is unclean, encounters Cornelius, and concludes that God’s love is much bigger than he had previously thought.  He stands up to declare “that God shows no partiality”(Acts 10:34-35), and proceeds to tell the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  (vss. 36-40)  There are important phrases in the telling of the story:  “preaching peace by Jesus Christ” (vs. 36), “he went about doing good” (vs. 38)).  Central to Peter’s message, however, is the emphasis upon witnessing.  “We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and Jerusalem.” (vs. 39)  He’s not talking about something he has just heard about.  He and his fellow disciples “were chosen by God as witnesses.”  (vs. 40)  He’s talking about things they have seen and experienced.  Perhaps Easter is a time for us to talk about the resurrections we have seen and experienced as we’ve encountered Jesus and he has encountered us in the Galilees where we live every day.  Even though I began by asking what we expect, perhaps it is as important to ask what we have experienced---which, in turn, may shape what we expect.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:
Liturgy of the Palms---Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Liturgy of the Passion---Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-23:56

Here we are again with that seeming conflict between Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.  Who doesn’t get into a Sunday which is often celebrative, maybe some waving of palm branches?  One participant in our weekly lectionary discussion said he thought we were supposed to use the palms to tickle the back of the neck of the person sitting in front of us!  We all love his sense of humor.

The focus on The Passion, though, seems much more somber, having the potential of being a downer with its attention to Jesus’ movement toward crucifixion.  The word “passion” as we use it in daily conversation (which we don’t do all that much) usually refers to intense emotion or enthusiasm, including sexual desire.   The word comes to us from the Greek “paskho” which means to suffer.  It is related to Passover and Paschal (as in Paschal Lamb).  In religious and theological conversation The Passion refers to the sufferings of Jesus in the period following the Last Supper and including the Crucifixion, certainly a time filled with emotion, a time eliciting emotional response as we reflect on the oppressive use of power and the voluntary sacrificial response of Love.

The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday is Luke’s report of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey.  (Luke 19:28-35)  As he rode in “people kept spreading their cloaks on the road” and the crowd broke into praise, singing words from Psalm 118 (the only other lectionary reading for the “Liturgy of the Palms”):  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  (Luke 19:36-38 and Psalm 118:26)

Rereading the story set me to thinking about parades, for it was a parade of sorts.  Who doesn’t love a parade?  I admit that I don’t stand on the curb for long periods of time any more, nor do I march in many parades, but my memory of parades is rich.  I was one of those crazy kids who wore his religion on his sleeve.  I remember marching in a parade dressed as a knight with the portions of my costume labeled to represent “the full armor of God.”  (See Ephesians 6:11-17)  Quite a contrast with the image of Jesus sitting vulnerably on a donkey.  As a high school band parent supporting my saxophonist son, I remember walking many parades (long and short in all weather from snow to stifling heat).  I went alongside the marching band pulling a wagon filled with water bottles, running in and out of the instrumentalists letting them take quick swigs---perhaps a little better “servant” image than that of the armored knight.  One of my first memories of a “big city” parade was driving up from Linfield College to see the Rose Festival Parade here in Portland.

All this remembering got me to reflecting on the various occasions for parades.  They are part of holiday celebrations, just as this march into Jerusalem was occasioned by Passover.  Parades sometimes honor a celebrity.  Maybe there’s a bit of that in the story Luke records.

Some of the parades I’ve been in have been protest marches---both in civil rights settings and anti-war demonstrations.  Perhaps Jesus and his supporters were performing a bit of street theater.  It’s almost certain those shouting along the way saw him as one who represented a challenge to the power of Rome.  Perhaps Palm Sunday is a time to think about the ways in which Jesus’ life and teaching still challenge those who abuse power in our day.

If we want to tie the parade in with a focus on The Passion, perhaps we can view Jesus’ willingness to go to a cross as another way in which he challenges earthly power and identifies with those who are unjustly “crucified.”  Jesus is calling into being a “protest” movement.

In thinking about parades I began to reflect on another connection between the foci of Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.  As a pastor I have ridden in many funeral processions.  The customs vary from place to place.  Having ministered for a number of years just across the border from Ontario, Canada, I am aware that there all traffic stops (even on multilane superhighways---both ways) when a funeral procession passes.  In New Orleans the funeral procession may be a celebrative jazz parade that walks up the street to the cemetery. 

On a related note, Margie and I just attended an event featuring Louise Rose and her jazz piano and vocals.  (I knew her years ago and could not miss this chance to reconnect.)  She sat at the piano and talked about, among other things, how she goes to hospital rooms where people are dying and sings them through that experience.  One of the better ways to finish life on this earth I would think!

If we focus on the lengthy Passion narrative, could we not perhaps think of it as a funeral procession?  What are the passions we feel when we face the reality of Jesus’ death?  There are certainly moments for somber consideration of one who lays down his life for another.  The Liturgy of the Passion includes a passage from Isaiah that portrays a sacrificial servant.  “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”  (Isaiah 50:6)  The reading from Philippians pictures one “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, . . . humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross.”  (Philippians 2:6-8)  It calls us to “let the same mind” be in us.  (vs. 5)  Though the sacrificial element is less prominent in the Passion Sunday reading from Psalm 31, it is still a suffering spirit which cries out in despair:  “For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away . . . I have passed out of mind like one who is dead . . .”  (Psalm 31:10-12)

A focus on sacrifice can remind us that life only works when we are all willing to take risks---perhaps even risk our very being---for one another.  Passion Sunday calls us to live such lives, having the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus.

On the other hand, if Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a funeral procession of sorts, maybe we need to consider the celebrative style of a New Orleans jazz parade.  Maybe the people didn’t grasp that the parade was going toward a cross, but they sensed that here was one who was willing to give his all challenging the powers that were.  He was their hope of liberation and that is worth shouting and singing about---even today.  The passage from Philippians goes on from the cross to celebrate one before whom all bow in awe, tongues singing the praises to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:9-11)

In those protest marches I remember, there was lots of singing---songs of hope.  We shall overcome.   Let’s participate in parades where we laugh and cry and sing because we are a people of hope.

Some postscripts:

1.       I can’t let pass the way Luke’s account of the entry into Jerusalem ends.  The Pharisees tell Jesus to keep his disciples quiet.  Jesus responds, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  (Luke 19:39-40)  Even the stones get passionate. Whatever name we give the Sunday, however we interpret the stories, we are in the presence of a time filled with Passion!

2.      Luke’s Passion narrative ends with the women returning from the tomb where Jesus’ body is awaiting preparation for burial.  They get spices and ointments to do just that.  We are in a time of preparation, just as Mary was preparing for a burial with the ointment she poured on Jesus’ feet in last Sunday’s Gospel reading.  But---is there a hint of surprise when Luke notes that the women rested on the Sabbath before going out with the ointment?  (Luke 23:55-56)

3.      Many eyes this week have turned to the Rome of today where a new Pope has made a debut.  He seems full of promise, humble like the one in whose name he serves.  One could pick at many little things, but we all continue to wonder how he will finally deal with the temptations of realities of a powerful, rich, worldwide bureaucracy.  How will and do we deal with such powers, religious and secular, Catholic, Protestant, or other?  Such questions continue to challenge us across the centuries as the march through Jerusalem and other cities unfolds.

 
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126:1-6, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

At first glance, this week’s lectionary readings seemed to be pretty straight forward.  I’m wired to find common themes across sometimes seemingly disparate readings.  My quick impressions soon turned to dismay.  Where are these scriptures taking us that we haven’t been before in recent weeks?

We again have the emphasis upon God’s doing a new thing, especially on not dwelling on the past.  In Isaiah, we are told, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  (Isaiah 43:18-19)  Paul talks about “forgetting what lies behind” and “straining to what lies ahead,” pressing “on toward the goal.”  (Philippians 3:13-14)

We could let those verses challenge us to consider how we deal with change.  Most of my life I’ve more or less welcomed change, even been what some would call a “change agent,” an “early adopter,” while recognizing that change includes the possibility of darkness as well as light.  At the same time I’ve always been a bit of a “nester,” accumulating things to build a comfortable little nest of peace and quiet where I could retreat to family and privacy and security and ease.  Now I find myself in danger of falling into the trap of those who, in their later years, don’t always appreciate having their familiar habits interrupted.  So, if questions about change are where you want to go with these readings, go to it!

We might note that the readings from both Isaiah 43 and Psalm 126 are set in troubled times, perhaps messages of encouragement to a people in exile.  They are “wilderness” readings, like some we’ve had earlier during this Lenten season.  The newness in Isaiah is pictured as bringing renewal in the wilderness.  (See Isaiah 43:19-20)  In the Psalm the contrast is between tears and shouts of joy.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”  (Psalm 126:5-6)

Our lectionary breakfast group found that to be one of the difficult couple of verses, among several of obscure meaning, in this week’s readings.  Sowing is obviously depicted as a time of weeping.  As a gardener, I, and many others, think of seed planting time as joyous and full of hope.  Why would they be weeping?  Some suggested that weeping contains the seeds of hope within.  Even in moments of weeping, the possibilities of new life may be taking root, perhaps even watered by the tears.

On the way home from breakfast, I had the image of people in exile in a foreign land, deeply homesick, probably feeling oppressed, going out into the fields to plant.  It made them doubly sad.  Perhaps their oppressors wouldn’t even allow them to benefit from this planting.  It may be that the message is, “Keep on planting.  Seed planted even in unfamiliar places, in difficult times with produce a harvest.  It was an underlying theme in some of Jesus’ parables about seeds.  Keep on planting because some of the seed will grow.  In Jeremiah 32, while Israel is under siege, the Lord tells Jeremiah to go out and buy a field, with the promise that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. (See Jeremiah 32:1-15)  Even if the circumstances around us seem somewhere beyond gloomy, seeds will not stop growing and harvests will not end.  Reaping will be done with shouts of joy.  So if you want to think about wilderness times and the possibilities of a joyful harvest, go to it!

The reading from Philippians takes us again to a theme from earlier in this Lenten season---seeing what is of real value in life, informing our vision by gaining a new perspective---or maybe it’s just about getting our priorities straight.  Paul lets us know that he has all the credentials that make him a person of worth in the religious circles that seem to matter to many.  (See Philippians 3:4b-6)  All of that counts for nothing, he says, when one allows the light of Christ to illumine the way ahead.  (vs. 7)  Such things he now regards “as rubbish.”  (vs. 8)  Then he turns to the image of life as a race, already mentioned earlier, which one runs looking ahead toward the goal, not backward over one’s shoulder.  (vss. 12-14)  There’s a little more which we’ll refer back to when discussing the Gospel lesson, but, for now, if you want to think about what it means when Jesus calls us to be born into a new way of looking at things, go to it!

The difficult Gospel lesson may be seen as another attempt to contrast earthly concerns (“the poor”) with “spiritual” things (the anointing of Jesus’ feet with oil---or worship). Variations on the story appear in all four gospels, not always in the same setting or with the same personnel. (See Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-8) A woman anoints Jesus’ feet.  John’s Gospel (our lectionary Gospel for this Sunday) is the only one who names her---Mary. (John 12:3) In the others she is an unnamed prostitute.  Some have assumed it was Mary Magdalene.  Here it is most likely the sister of Martha and Lazarus, in whose home the story takes places---paralleling an earlier contrast between Mary and Martha (Martha serving dinner and Mary praised for sitting at the feet of Jesus---vss. 1-2).  The act is criticized because the money spent for this expensive perfume could have been given to the poor.  (vss. 4-5---One might note that, in Luke 7, it is the woman’s tears which wash Jesus’ feet, fitting in with the discussion of weeping above.  It’s also noteworthy that it would have been unthinkable for a woman to let her hair down and wipe a man’s feet, unless perhaps she was a prostitute.)  In John’s Gospel criticism comes from Judas, the keeper of “the common purse.”  Jesus rebukes him concluding with the troublesome words, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  (vs. 8)

It is that last verse that often comes as a shock to those of us who place high priority on peace and justice ministries.  This reading reminded me again that much of my life ministry has centered on an attempt to keep internal spiritual ministries and external social ministries linked.  You can’t have one without the other.  Maybe that’s all Jesus is saying here.  Surely with his deep concern for the poor he is not saying that they should be neglected.  After all, poverty is a problem you’ll never solve.  It will always be with you.

Maybe he is just calling Judas (and maybe some of us) out for his hypocrisy.  The writer comments that Judas “said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief.”  He just wanted the pot from which he was in the habit of stealing to be bigger.  (vs. 6)

Whatever is going on here, I believe that worship and ministries of peace and justice are closely linked.  Some of the most well-known workers among the poor and disenfranchised have also been people of deep piety.  Think Mother Theresa and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance.  Maybe the new Pope Francis will embody that spirit.  If you want to dig deeply into spirituality and social action, go to it!

My reflections finally brought me around to what Lent is all about.  Advent is a time of awaiting a birth.  We often try to short circuit that wait by moving directly to the wondrous birth because we now live on the other side of it and have heard the birth stories told over and over again (no matter how distorted at times).  Lent is a time of awaiting a death, which we also often try to jump over, leaping directly to the resurrection stories with which we are so familiar.

The Gospel lesson calls us once again to the reality that the season is about, among other things, preparation for death.  This anointing is preparing Jesus for burial.  (vs. 7)  In general, the early Christians lived in expectation that history as they knew it was coming to an end and that a new creation was just around the corner.  Poverty was a thing of the old creation.  Jesus was ushering in a new age (even if it first meant his death, something most of them little understood).  Their every attention was focused on the hope he embodied.  Paul’s words in Philippians move beyond the death to the resurrection when he expresses his desire to “attain the resurrection of the dead.”  (Philippians 3:10-11)

In the meantime, we all die.  What are we supposed to do?  How are we supposed to prepare? The message is to never give up hope in the midst of any of the deaths life deals us---losses, dislocations, abuse, loneliness, or actual physical death.  There is something beyond, something new, something of infinite worth.  All of the texts seem to be about moving on in hope.  We don’t always know every detail of the road ahead, but faith says that it is worthwhile moving one step at a time “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:14)  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:38-39)
Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures: Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32:1-11, II Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

One of the myths we gain from the popular imagery of psychiatry is the belief that we can blame all our problems on things we experienced in childhood.  It is true that we need to face and come to grips with many things in our past before we are able to move constructively into the future, but one of the themes of the Bible is that we are not defined by the past.  It is true, biblically and in life in general, that if we fail to remember the past and its lessons, we are apt to repeat dysfunctional patterns over and over again, but we are more than our past.  Like the ghosts that haunted Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, ghosts may arise from our past and haunt us, but we don’t have to let them control us.

The Bible speaks of forgiveness when talking about our ability to move into the future.  So often when our past rises up to haunt us it brings with it waves of guilt or shame.

The Hebrew people carried with them the shame of having been held captive in Egypt, and having been hesitant to enter the land of Canaan.  Spies sent in as an advance party to assess the situation brought back a report, “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we . . . The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size . . . to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”  (Numbers 13:31-33)  Caleb and Joshua brought back a minority report suggesting that they move ahead without fear, but the people refused.  (Numbers 14:6-10---See entirety of chapters 13 and 14 for the entire story)  As a result, they spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness until all except Joshua and Caleb died.  We might ask ourselves how often we are intimidated by the possibilities before us, and consider the consequences we suffer when we that happens.

In the lectionary reading for this Sunday, from Joshua, the people are finally across the Jordan in the land which is to be their new home (land where ownership is still disputed, we should note).  All those who were born during the sojourn in the wilderness are circumcised (Joshua 5:1-8) and it is now time to celebrate the Feast of the Passover (vss. 10-11).  Verse nine, a transition between the circumcision and the Passover, has the Lord telling Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” What an interesting turn of phrase!  “Rolled away.”  Reminds Christians of the stone which was rolled away to reveal a resurrection.  I grew up singing a Sunday School song which included the lyrics, “Rolled away, rolled away, rolled away.  Every burden on my heart rolled away.”

The message of the Bible is that there is always the possibility of a new beginning.  We don’t have to continue to let those ghosts of the past haunt us.  They’ve been rolled away, “forgiven” in the words of Psalm 32:  “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven.”  (vs. 1)  The Psalm comes from someone whose past has driven them into the depths of depression.  “ . . . my body wasted away through my groaning all day long . . . my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”  (vss. 3-4)  Sometimes we get stuck, immobilized because we are not able to move beyond our past, or as this Psalm suggests, perhaps acting like a rebellious horse or mule.  (vs. 9)  The promise is that, like Scrooge, we can wake up in the morning with new possibilities of Good News and forgiveness before us.

Paul, in II Corinthians, speaks of a new creation and a new way of looking at one another. When Christ is the lens through which we view and experience life, “we regard no one from a human point of view . . . if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  Doesn’t seem like that on some days, does it?  Those ghosts just keep whispering in our ears and whittling us down.

Even on a national and international level, we keep fighting old battles, letting the ghosts of the past dictate the politics of today.

Paul talks about this moving beyond, this opening of a future with new possibilities, as reconciliation.  Christ is the great reconciler and he “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  (II Corinthians 5:18-20)  In Ephesians he is spoken of as the one who has broken down the walls that divide us.  (Ephesians 2:14 and following)  We don’t have to be stuck in old patterns, whether they are internal ghosts of the mind, spiritual ghosts of transgression, or ghosts of tribal conflict.

The Gospel lesson contains the story of what we have traditionally called “The Prodigal Son.”  It can equally be read from the standpoint of the waiting and welcoming father or the privileged and jealous older son who feels wronged when a great celebration is thrown in honor of the profligate son returned home.  We spent most of our time at this week’s lectionary breakfast discussing our own experiences of sibling rivalry.  This is such a human story.

Remember the context in which it is told.  Jesus is associating with unclean people, people who would have been avoided by a pious practicing Jew.  The Pharisees and scribes complain.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  (Luke 15:1-2)  The parable probably was intended to get the Pharisees and scribes (and perhaps some pious Christians in the church of today?) to see themselves as the older brother, troubled by what seemed to them to be “easy” grace and forgiveness and acceptance offered by Jesus.  Notice, by the way, the word used in the New Revised Standard Version to describe what Jesus is doing.  He “welcomes” these suspicious characters.  That’s charter enough, for me, for an “Open and Affirming” congregation.  In the American Baptist denomination, where I spent most of my ministry, we called such congregations “Welcoming and Affirming.”

Today, I read the story as another example of the constant possibility of a new beginning offered by a God who is welcoming and affirming.  The “prodigal” had reason to feel guilty and ashamed, but he was met by a father who “while he was still far off . . . ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  (vs. 20)  Such an embrace can be enough to drive the ghosts away and open our eyes to a world in which everything can be seen with new eyes, full of new possibilities.

What more reason do we need to throw a big party, to celebrate a bit?  And that’s just how the parable, and the lessons from this week’s lectionary readings, end---with a celebration.  (vss. 22-25 & 30-32)

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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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