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Friday, May 31, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:  I Kings 18:20-29, 30-39 AND Psalm 96:1-13 OR I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 AND Psalm 96:1-9, Galatians 1:1-2, Luke 7:1-10

Many biblical texts stress the choices we face in human life.  I learned early in life that, when it comes to many issues of life, one cannot avoid choosing.  To pretend not to choose is to put oneself on the side of the status quo---which frequently means siding with whatever power is dominant.

That doesn’t always make choosing any easier.  We are fans of the television musical competition, The Voice.  In the early stages of each season the judges are called upon to make difficult choices---usually between two competitors of nearly equal talent.  I’m sure the agony of decision is heightened for the benefit of the viewer, but the judges frequently seem genuinely torn.  They feel called upon to make a decision they don’t want to make.  They are torn in two directions.  Adam Levine seems to be especially vulnerable.  One week, as the seconds ticked down on this live show, he failed to make his decision before the show went off the air---and we were all left hanging, scurrying to the internet to find out how it went.

One way of looking at this week’s lectionary readings is to see some of them as having to do with choosing where we stand---where we will find and declare the ultimate meaning of our lives.  Those with a progressive view of our faith commitments may not like the particular answers but, if we take these texts seriously they remind us of how often our tolerance leads to efforts to avoid making decisions.

In I Kings, chapter 18, we read a story about Elijah, in which he asks the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?”  (I Kings 18:21)  What an image!  Inability to decide is like having an injury, like not being able to walk upright.  In this story, the choice is between two gods, Yahweh and Baal.  The story that unfolds may seem strange and uncomfortable to us.  Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal (450 of them) to a contest. They are to build an altar and ask Baal to consume the sacrificed bull with fire.  There’s much banter.  They are described as limping “about the altar they had made.”  (vss. 23-26)  Your God, Elijah taunts them, is either “meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep . . .”  (vs.27)  When they are unable to call down fire, Elijah repairs one of Yahweh’s altars that “had been thrown down.”  (vs. 30)  He places another sacrifice on this altar, and three times douses it with water, “so that the water ran all around the altar . . .”  (vss. 30-35)  Elijah calls upon the Lord and fire comes and consumes everything.”  (vss. 36-38)

As with most miracles, the modern scientific mind wants to find an explanation.  Some have suggested that maybe it wasn’t water after all---maybe naphtha.  I don’t need a miracle, or an explanation, to understand that the foundation upon which I build my life makes a difference.  There comes a time (maybe many times) when I have to choose.  Otherwise I will just limp along through life.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Elijah had a tendency to feel like he was all alone in following the Lord.  “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty.”  (vs. 22)  In the next chapter, Elijah, who has run from Queen Jezebel, cowers under a broom tree.  Twice he says, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  (I Kings 19:1-14)  Poor Elijah’s plight and plea might lead us to reflect on loneliness and solitude, both positive and negative.  What is it that sometimes contributes to feelings of being abandoned and all alone?  That’s for another time, other than to note that God reminds Elijah that he is not really alone, the he (God) “will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal . . .” (vs. 18)

Paul was another of God’s faithful who, on occasion, got discouraged.  He, too, seemed to deal with people who were somewhat fickle in their beliefs.  “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel . . .”  (Galatians 1:6)  It was as if what he had tried to build up was crumbling before his eyes.  It tore at his heart.  As a pastor who has seen people come and go in congregations, I can sympathize.

Paul’s response may seem arrogant, may not please those of a progressive faith.  It has been used as a tool in the arsenal of fundamentalists and literalists.  He basically says, “If you don’t believe what I taught you, you are doomed.  “ . . . even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed.”  (vs. 8)  Paul goes on claim “that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  (vs. 11-12)  Paul almost seems to forget that the proclaimer (in this case, Paul) was nevertheless human.  He is right, however, to call us to consider the commitments we have made.  What drew us into the life of faith in the first place?  What is it in the faith community that we find worth emulating?  When we are faced with alternatives, how do we evaluate them?  Do they conflict with the causes of justice and peace and love which I have learned from those who follow Jesus?  Where have I, and where do I, take a stand?

The Gospel lesson comes at the question from a slightly different direction...  Luke tells us the story of a centurion.  He had a slave who was dying when he heard about Jesus, his teaching and his healing.  It turns out that the centurion had close ties with some Jewish leaders, having helped them with the building of a synagogue.  He sends them to Jesus asking for help.  (Luke 7:2-5)  Now there are many things in this story that could catch one’s attention.  We have a story of a non-Jew seeking help.  In contrast to other stories, it is a slave rather than a child for whom he seeks help.  The question of worthiness is built into the story.  The Jews attest to his worthiness (vss. 4-5), but the message the centurion sends is, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”  (vs. 6)

It turns out to be a story about authority and faith.  When we discuss “taking a stand,” we are talking about who or what we trust when we face crises and decisions in our lives.  The centurion, as a leader of soldiers, is familiar with matters of authority.  (vs. 8)  He tells Jesus to just speak the word from wherever he is and the slave will be healed (vs. 7), and it happens. (vs. 10)  Miracles like these are hard for us to understand and accept, but the need for trustworthy faith and authority on which we can stand is not alien to a lot of us.  The story ends with Jesus praising the man’s faith---and, as happens in a number of biblical stories, he contrasts it with the faith of those who have at times been arrogant in their claims of faith, quite sure that they are worthy.  “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

There are three remaining lectionary readings.  One of the Psalm readings is simply an extension of the other.  It is a psalm of praise and awe.  Today perhaps we can see it as the ecstatic response of someone who has found a place to stand.  “For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.  Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty in his sanctuary.  Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength . . . Worship the Lord in holy splendor . . .”  (Psalm 96:5-7, 9)

An alternative reading from I Kings, chapter eight, contains part of a prayer by Solomon at the dedication of the temple.  He prays here that God may hear the prayers of foreigners who are “not of your people Israel” and come from distant lands.”  (I Kings 8:41)  “ . . . hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all the foreigner calls to you . . .” (vs. 42)  It’s a pretty audacious prayer isn’t it?  Are we that generous in our attitudes toward immigrants in our country?  Taking a stand often means drawing lines of exclusion.  May Solomon’s prayer prompt us to stands which open up boundaries and include.  I used to have part of Edwin Markham’s poem, Outwitted, posted on one of my websites: 

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!

May our faith always be that inclusive, full of love like that of Jesus!  There’s no better place to take a stand!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:  Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8:1-9, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

What’s a human life worth?  A human life is worth crying over.  I’m talking now especially about those who die in tragedies, shootings, wars, accidents.  Those who die of natural causes after a long and productive life are also worthy crying over, of course.  Even those who die after a life of dissipation or rebellion or destructiveness.  Maybe they are among the saddest cases.  The living are of infinite worth too, but for now my being weeps over the hurricanes, school and mall shootings, bombings by terrorists, those with warped minds, and those engaged in tribal warfare and battles over territory and rights.

I’ve had too much of it.   I want to scream---to shake my fist at God and say, “NO MORE!”  I want to lock all those who engage in terror into a room and go in and shout at them.  Of course I can’t do that when it’s a hurricane we’re talking about.  Well, maybe I could scream at those who cut corners so there were no safe places to hide.  I know also that screaming just escalates the situation, that somehow the healing ointment of love needs to be poured on the waters so that new relationships and patterns can emerge from a soothing and calm atmosphere.

But I still feel like screaming!  My psyche is overwhelmed.  And my wife Margie, who’s more emotionally sensitive and responsive than I, can hardly watch the TV anymore without exclaiming and moaning.

Someone always pops up when the question, “What’s a human life worth?” is asked and gives a dollar figure based on the chemical makeup of the human body.  I don’t even have gold fillings any more so I guess the value of my body has depreciated.

I’m asking a deeper question, a spiritual and philosophical question, an existential question.  The lectionary reminds me that it is Trinity Sunday and that I should be writing about the texts for that day.  American culture reminds me that it is the weekend on which we celebrate Memorial Day and I should be writing about the dead (especially veterans) who lie in our nation’s cemeteries.  I don’t know that I’m going to do either head on, although I’ll try to work a little with the lectionary readings.  I rarely, perhaps to a fault, set aside the lectionary for the events of the day, although often I find some connections.  This week I wondered how many of those in Moore, Oklahoma would find comfort and strength in puzzling over the mysterious and complex issues of attempted explanations of the Trinity.

Many have commented on the fact that there are no words or explanations that have much significance in the face of the kind of events we have experienced in recent times (and, for that matter, throughout history---remember the Holocaust?), and then they usually go on to add their words to the babble that arises in such times.  I’ll probably do a little of the same.

One of the clich├ęs often lifted up as a sign of hope speaks of the caring responses that arise when tragedies occur.  Local people reach out to help one another and to put arms around those who need the comfort of a heartfelt embrace.  Emergency responders push the limits of endurance and reasonable risk.  Medical teams, construction teams, and others pour in from around the country.  There’s a lot of compassion in the human spirit and that’s worth something.  People of faith see it as God-given---maybe even as part of what it means to be created in the image of God.  I, too, find hope in that, but I pause when I think of the destruction that also arises from the human psyche and political machinery at times.  That’s a question for another time, also unanswerable.

I also want to mention my observation of the number of people, particularly in the recent Oklahoma devastation, who talk about praying, about coming through things all right (even if they have suffered massive losses).  The political leaders, when asked what is needed, almost always put prayer at the top of the list.  (Again, I cringe every time someone talks about God rescuing them when I know there were others who were gruesomely killed.  We’re so quick with answers when events defy and offend any reasonable mind or explanation.)

I still find comfort, however, in that human spirit which reaches out to comfort and help.  Compassion may be the highest of human instincts.  I also have heard more than one person say that all the possessions they have lost are nothing compared to a child of theirs that has survived (or not survived).  We’re back to the question of what a human life is worth.  We may chase after beautiful homes and powerful automobiles and the latest in electronic devices, but there are moments when we realize that all that is just vanity (to use a word from Ecclesiastes) compared with the deeper meanings of life, of each individual human life in particular.  There’s something very “Christian” and spiritual about that.  At our best we know that the significance of life is far more than our possessions.

At least three of this week’s lectionary passages connect with one or more of the “persons” of the Trinity.  They offer neither explanation nor developed doctrine.  That’s no surprise because “trinity” is not a biblical word.  It’s a doctrine that arose later in the life of the early church.  We talked a little about that doctrine at our lectionary breakfast this week, and I (who am preaching this week) will say a little more on Sunday.  All I’m going to say about the Trinity here is in a few comments on those three readings.

In Proverbs the Spirit (what we call the Holy Spirit) is given a name:  “wisdom.”  Wisdom, a feminine voice, speaks.  (Proverbs 8:1)  “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth . . . When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep . . . then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human raced.”  (vss. 22, 27, & 30-31)  Some will remember that the New Testament speaks of Jesus as being present at the creation also.  Whatever the significance of the various manifestations of divine reality, they are not just passing historical phenomenon appearing in a sequence.  Whatever God is God’s creative and loving nature is from eternity to eternity.

Romans 5 uses language that makes both Jesus and the Holy Spirit instruments of God’s peace and love.  “ . . . we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ . . . God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us.”  (Romans 5:1 & 5)  This is no developed doctrine of the Trinity, but the reading does include words that some might want to apply to the many tragedies that beset us.  I offer them not as words of comfort or causal sequence, but as words to ponder when we have faced near despair in our loss and suffering.  “: . . . suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us . . .”  (vss. 3-5)

The few verses from the Gospel According to John talk about the Spirit, but they come in a section
which has Jesus repeatedly declaring, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”  (John 14:11, among other places)  In John 14:20, he speaks of a day when we will know that “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  Now he describes the Holy Spirit (“the Spirit of truth”---John 16:13) as taking “what is mine” and declaring “it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  (vss. 14-15)    Earlier he has said of the Spirit, “ . . . he abides with you, and he will be in you.”  (John 14:17)  Whatever difficulty some of us may have with these as literal lengthy speeches by Jesus, they depict a unifying presence (the Spirit of truth) that inhabits the Father (God), Jesus (God Incarnate)---and us.  There’s something to chew on if you want to wrestle with a doctrine of the Holy Spirit!

That leaves us with the reading from the eighth Psalm, which takes us back to the question of human worth.  It’s not exactly a scripture from which to begin a discussion of the Trinity, but I do see it as connecting with God as seen in human form.  It’s not just Jesus, but each one of us as well, who are, in some way God incarnate.  Here’s what the Psalmist has to say:  “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”  (Psalm 8:3-5)  Earlier translators apparently couldn’t entertain such thoughts and put us a little lower than angels.  From the very beginning we are told that human beings are made in the image or likeness of God.  (Genesis 1:26)  It is not just that we are “a little lower than God”; it is that we partake, in some mysterious way, of God’s very being.  We are part of the way in which the Trinity expresses itself.  How much is a human life worth?  It is worth so much that God invested God’s very life into humanity by taking on flesh in Jesus and by creating us in the divine image.  Sounds to me like worth beyond measure, worth that stretches our mind beyond comprehension.

When tragedy strikes, when human beings are struck down, it is God’s image that suffers and dies in each human life.  It happened once on a cross, and it happens again and again.  We can argue about the different levels and meanings in each instance, but we can’t look, and truly see, without seeing God.  

The Gospels record that when Jesus died, his mother and other women looked on.  I’m sure there was weeping.  Luke 23:48 says, “ . . . when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.”  What is a human life worth?  It’s worth crying over.  Every person---the ones who died in tragedies or on the battlefield, those of our family and others who have gone on before us and lie in the cemeteries of the world, and those still alive around us---was/is created in the image of God, “a little lower than God.”  Tragedies may call us to remember that, but every day as we walk among the living, there is opportunity to remember and live this truth.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-21 OR Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:14-17 OR Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, 25-27

Every year Time magazine publishes an issue featuring those whom they have identified as “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.”  There are twenty each in five different categories:  Titans, Leaders, Artists, Pioneers, Icons.  Titans?  Icons?  A bit grandiose, wouldn’t you say?  There’s a certain arrogance in thinking that one person or group of people can sift humanity down to the most influential 100.  Whether they’re actually among the most influential or not, there are always interesting and noteworthy names included:  Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year old girl shot by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan because she stood up for the education of girls and women, Kate Middleton, both Obamas and Rand Paul, Pope Francis, Chris Chrstie, Shonda Rhimes, Steven Speilberg, Jimmy Kimmel, Gabrielle Giffords, Justin Timberlake, and many others whose names we might or might not immediately recognize.  Another public figure is chosen to write about each of the 100.  I’m often as interested in who’s chosen to do the writing as I am in the actual 100.  Chelsea Clinton, for example, writes about Malala Yousafzai.  Maya Angelou writes about Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey about Shonda Rhimes, Hillary Clinton about Barack Obama, etc.

Tony Kushner, American playwright, writes about Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the role of Lincoln in the film of the same name.  I had in the back of my mind the fact that this coming Sunday is Pentecost, a day set aside for celebrating the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst, when I came across this sentence in what Tony Kushner wrote:  “There’s something in the innermost human heart that our greatest artists connect to and, in making that connection, manage to sublime---the process of causing a substance or a quality to take to the air, to infuse the atmosphere and then to condense, to solidify, attaining greater palpability through the impalpable.”  Okay, so it’s a bit of a complex sentence with a number of big words in it.  Basically it says that there is something in our inner being that makes it possible for human beings to connect with one another, to be moved and inspired by the greatness that may arise in any one of us.  Artists count on that, and, at their best, stir such connections to new life and meaning.

One label we give to that inner connection is Spirit.  The Quakers talk about an “inner light,” believing that a true “meeting” occurs when “that of God which is in me meets that of God which is in you.”  In the Gospel lesson Jesus promises an “Advocate, the Holy Spirit,” “the Spirit of truth.”  (John 14:16-17 & 26)  Prior to that promise he has asked Philip, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?”  (vss. 8-11)  He later tells them, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  (John 15:4)  He then prays for his followers, not just those in his day but those yet to come:  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me . . . I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”  (John 17:20-26)

Pentecost is a day to celebrate the presence of the Spirit in every human being.  Some have spoken of the “divine spark” (busting forth as tongues of fire at Pentcost?) that is in each of us.  I like the New International Version’s translation of Ecclesiastes 3:11---“He has also set eternity in the human heart.”  I’m skipping lightly over all kinds of nuances of interpretations, the significance of imagery, etc., to make the point that Pentecost calls us to celebrate an identity much deeper than the wrinkles in or the color of our skin, the languages we speak, the political systems we build, etc.

In the reading from Romans the Spirit is the one who is witness to our identity as “children of God.”  “For all who led by the Spirit of God are children of God . . . that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”  (Romans 8:14-16)  God’s list doesn’t include just 100 most influential people.  God’s Spirit within, the identity of the human race as the children of God, means that we are all empowered (whether we recognize and act on it or not) to be influential.  God’s intention is that every one of us make a difference.  The Psalm reminds us that the Spirit (spoken of at one point as “wisdom”) creates and provides, is the source of all that sustains us.  “O Lord, how manifold at your works!  In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures . . . These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up . . . they are filled with good things . . . When you send forth your spirit, they are created . . .” (Psalm 104:24, 27,-28, 30)

That leaves the two stories that are point and counterpoint---from Genesis and Acts---both of which are, among other things, stories of communication.  In the Genesis story communication is disrupted by human ambition which tries to reach into the heavens by building a great tower.  (Genesis 11:2-3)  Is it too much to think that maybe, in their grasping for power, they lost sight of the need around them?  At any rate note the sentence at the beginning of the story.  “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.”  (vs.1)  I’ve never noticed that having the same language and words always led to good communication.  The story is an attempt to explain the fact that human beings speak a great variety of languages.  It is because God is displeased with this symbol of human grasping and “confuses” their language. (vs. 7)  “Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”  (vs. 9)

We now have alternative explanations of the variation in human language, but the effects of that “confusion” still plague us.  We have difficulty reaching across the barriers of language, of listening to one another, of getting to know different customs and cultures and ways of understanding.

Acts gives us a story of a Pentecost gathering where the confusion of languages is overcome.  “Devout Jews from every nations under heaven” (Acts 2:5) were celebrating an old Jewish festival that occurred fifty days after Passover.  What happened gave enough impetus to the early Christian movement that many call it the “birthday of the church,” celebrated fifty days after Easter.  Again, language is at the center of the story, with the Holy Spirit becoming a power that transcends the limits of human language and connects all those present---part of God’s millions.  “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability . . . And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontius and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs---in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  (vss.4-11)  Could it be that we have the birth of the United Nations?  It is so astounding that some accuse everyone of being drunk, but it’s too early in the morning for that.  (vss. 12-15)

The story is a testimony to the power of that inner light that unites us---still realized imperfectly.  Peter, addressing the crowd, quotes from the prophet Joel about the power of the Spirit at work including and uniting people of all kinds.  “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and you sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit . . .”  (vss. 17-18)  God’s millions, empowered by the Spirit, influencing the world, filled with dreams and visions of possibility.  Let’s celebrate!
Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:
Ascension Day:  Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47:1-9, Psalm 93:1-5, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
Seventh Sunday of Easter:  Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97: 1-12, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

The coming Sunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter, is the first Sunday after Ascension Day (May 9th).  Some churches will celebrate it as Ascension Sunday, so I’ve listed and will comment on the lectionary readings for both days.

Some of them made me think of the phrase, “Pie in the Sky.”  I discovered that the phrase was coined in 1911 by Joe Hill, a leading light in The Industrial Workers of the World.  It appeared in one of many radical songs he wrote for the movement, “The Preacher and the Slave,” a parody of the hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.”  He intended it as a critique of those who concentrated on the salvation of souls rather than the feeding of the hungry.  Here are some of the words:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.

In recent weeks we’ve been in the middle of the life of the early followers of Jesus as they struggle with his departure from them in bodily form.  I’m not going to try to explain the image of Jesus floating off into the heavens on a cloud.  (Acts 1:9---see also Luke 24:51)  Luke’s narrative (which includes the book of Acts) is the only place the story is told.  The ascension suggested Jesus was now sitting on a throne in heaven from which he ruled over all things.  Ephesians 1:20-23 talks about “the immeasurable greatness of his power . . . God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and had made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  It’s no accident that the Psalm readings for both Ascension Day and the seventh Sunday of Easter focus upon the kingly aspect of the divine.  “For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth.” (Psalm 47:2)  “”The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty . . .”  (Psalm 93:1---See also Psalm 97:1)

I thought about using, as this week’s title, “What next?” or perhaps, “Where do we go from here?”  That’s what these early followers were struggling with.  It’s something we often wonder about as we fear losing sight of an anchor which has given meaning to our lives.  Too often we gaze into the sky thinking if we can follow the vapor trail we can call the plane back and go along for the ride.  Jesus, however, asks, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  (Acts 1:11)  He’s already given them a task.  They are to be “my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (vs. 8---See also Luke 24:48)

There’s stuff in there about his coming again, another doctrine which has tied us in knots at times.  “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  (Acts 1:11)  Twice in the reading from Revelation the Lord says, “I am coming soon.”  (Revelation 22:12 & 20)  Traditional interpretations don’t much move or motivate me.  I note that there is an invitation to the hearer to come.  “Let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”  (vs. 17)  I note that even for the returning Jesus the earth is where the action seems to be.  I’m content for the moment to believe that he is ready to come and empower me whenever I am ready to serve him.

The reading from The Gospel According to John is given to us as the prayer of Jesus as he agonized in the garden prior to his death.  He prays for his disciples, and for all “of those who will believe in me through their word.”  (John 17:20)  It is a prayer for those yet to come who want to follow the Way he has shown them.  It’s all about being bound together in his Spirit, he says---repeatedly!  “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one.”  (vss. 22-23---See also vs. 21)  Here’s the kicker, though.   It’s not all about pie in the sky, some mystical unity.  The purpose is “that the world may know that you . . . have loved them even as you have loved me . . . so that the loved with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”  (vss. 23 & 26)  Don’t just stand looking into the heavens.  Get on with the work of love right here on this earth.  That’s what’s next!

When one is empowered by that love, what happens?  The reading from Acts 16 shows us that the consequences can be pretty radical.  Paul and Silas (and probably Timothy and others) meet a slave girl who makes “her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”  (Acts 16:1)  She experiences a conversion, discovers her freedom, and becomes no longer useful to her owner.  “When the owners saw their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” (vs. 19)  The power of Jesus’ Spirit is still at work liberating slaves and disrupting established patterns of doing things.  Paul and Silas are accused of “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt and observe.”  (vs. 21)  They are put into prison and then something even more radical happens.  It starts with them singing in jail rather than wringing their hands or asking for a public defender.  (vs. 25)  An earthquake hits “and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”  (vs. 26)  Most prisoners would have run but the surprised jailer finds that they are still there.  (vss. 27-29)

The consequences of the presence of a powerful love in one’s life can be pretty radical, even strange.  Who would have thought we might share some of the radical vision of the song writer, Joe Hill?  His hopes were for something more than pie in the sky.  May the power of love incarnate assure that our hopes are also not pie in the sky.  Why do we too often stand looking up toward heaven?

There’s one more reading that I mention almost as a footnote---or is it a footnote?  The reading from Ephesians is presented to us as a prayer by Paul for the saints in Ephesus (or for believers in all times and ages).  He has heard of their love.  (Ephesians 1:15)  His prayer is full of the empowerment that love provides, seeking wisdom and enlightened hearts for them.  I leave you with words of prayer to sustain all of those who would be part of Jesus’ continuing work on this earth: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”  (Ephesians 1:17-19)
Thursday, May 02, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67:1-7, Revelation 21:10, 21-22:5, John 14:23-29, John 5:1-9

What do you dream about?  It’s a question that can refer to our dreams while sleeping or our hopes and visions and aspirations while wide awake or lost in a moment of almost trancelike wonder.  Much has been made of dreams and their interpretation.  Where do they come from?  What are they trying to tell us?  Visions of possible futures are sometimes the province of planners and politicians, philosophers and theologians, novelists and poets, even those who specifically call themselves futurists.  Where are we going as a society and where do we want to go?

Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

So---what of the lectionary readings for Sunday?  Two specifically are, or contain, visions.  Others offer elements of vision, explicitly or implicitly, that have informed the Judeo-Christians tradition for millennia.

The reading from Acts reminds us that visions and dreams can be part of the process by which we gain direction and purpose in our lives, a sense of where we are to go and what we are to do.  That seems to be the role it played here in Paul’s life.  The story, however, reminds us that visions may be seen through a glass darkly.  Paul and his party went immediately to Macedonia (Acts 16:10-12) where they meet not a man but a group of women (vss. 13-15).  We have here a vision which leads to another act of inclusiveness in the early Christian movement.  These were Gentile women not welcome in the synagogue, so speaking to them leaps across two barriers.  They are not followers of the Jewish laws of cleanliness and they are women.  Lydia was apparently a successful business woman, who may have provided financial support for Paul’s work.  She certainly provided hospitality for Paul and his companions.  (vss. 14-15)

The entire book of Revelation is a vision that came to “John” while he was “in the spirit” on the Island of Patmos.  (Revelation 1:9-10)  It is full of fantasy type images.  It portrays a battle in which good overcomes evil and a new heaven and a new earth are established.  (Revelation 21:1)  Many attempts have been made to interpret and reinterpret the imagery in every age, often extending their significance into the far future, sometimes applying them to the politics and leadership of specific times and places.  The first readers almost undoubtedly read the book as a word of encouragement in the midst of the persecution they were experiencing.  The writer himself shares “with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance.”  (Revelation 1:9)  The ultimate message is that God and good win.

Visions sometimes pertain to political situations and possibilities.  They are a source of hope and endurance and motivation.

In the porti7on for this week, the writer again speaks of being carried away in the spirit “to a great, high mountain.”  He has a vision of Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God.” (Revelation 21:10)  He’s already been told, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them . . .” (vs. 3)  There are details that some of us may find disturbing, but the essence of the vision is that in the presence of God the significance of much that we hold near and dear seems to drop away.  Temples and cathedrals are no longer needed.  (vs. 22)  We don’t have to keep looking over our shoulders at the sinister shadows where danger may lurk. (vss. 23-25) We are given an image of a completely safe place where all that we need is provided. The river of the water of life flows through the city with “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit” and on and on.  Frankly, I’m not sure I could stand such luxury or if it would be good for my soul.  Behind the images, however, is a message that can give us hope when we are surrounded by the machinations of power politics which too often oppress and abuse in the world we experience on a daily basis.

Let’s give the remaining readings a cursory look from the standpoint of vision.

The reading from John 14 is part of Jesus’ farewell discourses preparing the disciples to carry on after he is no longer with them.  He promises an “Advocate, the Holy Spirit” who “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  (John 14:26)  He is stirring them to dream about their future.  This is not the end, but a beginning.  The building blocks for that future are love and peace.  “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.”  (vs. 24)  As if it were the greatest gift he had to give, he tells them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”  One might ponder the words, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Peace is more than the absence of conflict.  External peace begins with an untroubled heart. (vs. 27)

John 5 gives us what appears to be a straight forward story of a healing.  Many, in reading and interpreting it, have focused upon the question Jesus asks in verse six “Do you want to be made well?”  The question can easily be turned into an attitude of blaming the victim, but it is also true that we may not be open to change.  Maybe we’re too comfortable with things the way they are.  It is often persecution that gives birth to dreams of better alternatives.  At the same time, too much hardship may discourage the dreamer entirely.  It’s even possible at times that our “dysfunctions” serve us in ways we don’t fully understand.  Sam Keen suggested that sometimes we prefer known hells to unknown heavens.  In all cases, dreams and visions matter only when we want and are open to things being different.

In some ways I think another key to this story is the absence of a helping, supportive community for this man who had been ill for 38 years.  (vs. 5)  He says to Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”  (vs. 7)  There’s not only a lack of community; there is a competitive spirit and a lack of awareness that leaves this man marginalized.  How often do we discriminate by simply overlooking or running past those who are different?

“Community” has always been at the heart of my vision---the hope for and building of a society (on the smallest group to the global level) in which people really connect with and care for each other, where everyone is included, including what this reading calls “invalids---blind, lame, and paralyzed.”  (vs. 3)

This week’s Psalm is another Psalm of praise and one need not say much else.  Underlying it, and many other Psalms, however, are the elements of a vision, a hope, a dream.  It begins with a dream of connection with God (not totally unrelated to the reading from Revelation).  “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us that your way may be known upon the earth, your saving power among all nations.”  (Psalm 67:1-2)  The ever-present biblical theme of justice and equity is introduced as one of the reasons for praise.  “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.”  (vs. 4)  The tree of life we saw in Revelation is not specifically mentioned, but the abundance of the earth is offered as another part of the praise and blessing of this Psalm.  (vs. 6)

Maybe this week’s readings can invite us all to be dreamers, dreammakers, and dreamkeepers.  Where is God calling us to new challenges and new opportunities, asking us to arise from our lethargy and walk?  What new society and world---new heaven and earth---is God letting down from heaven, inviting us to realize the possibilities of love, peace, and justice in this world?  Maybe they are screaming for us (or gently prodding us) to “Pay Attention!”

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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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