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Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 AND Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 OR I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 AND Psalm 16:1-11, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

I’m not really into mediums who “channel” messages from “departed” spirits.  I’m thinking of “channeling” as something a little more generic, a process in which we become a “channel” influenced by some power beyond ourselves.  We may at times think of it as the “spirit” of some person who has influenced us.  There is little doubt that I “channel” some of the spirit of each of my parents, as well as numerous others who have left their mark on my personality, ways of looking at life and living.  As Christians, we talk about the Spirit of God dwelling in us, influencing and guiding us.  In that sense, we may “channel,” give expression to, the divine Spirit and intention.  (This notion of an indwelling divine spirit is not, of course, exclusive to Christianity.)

The lectionary readings for the coming Sunday may be seen as inviting us to reflect on whose spirit we “channel”?

Two of them deal with a transition in leadership---from Elijah to Elisha.  It is tempting, and perhaps interesting, to compare and contrast the stories and character of the two men---or are they two traditions relating to the same man?  After a few minutes of such endeavor I returned to my initial observation that the stories are about the process of transition.  It was common in biblical times for a person’s spirit to be shared with someone else.  It was part of the process by which a father passed on a blessing to his son.  It sometimes involved the laying on of hands, a practice which we continue to this day.  God told Moses to gather seventy of the elders.  I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them,” he said.  (Numbers 11:17)

As a congregation preparing for a transition in leadership, we might jump from this to the details of transition.  This story, however, is less about details and more about spirit.  It is the continuation of the work of the divine spirit that is at stake.  As a congregation, as individuals, what (and whose) spirit do we channel?

Elisha has been with Elijah for a long time.  The second reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (from I Kings 19) actually occurs earlier than the first and records the beginning of that relationship.  Elijah finds Elisha plowing in the field.  He throws his mantle on Elisha, signifying his blessing and his desire for Elisha to follow him.  (I Kings 19:19)  There is a big family farewell feast, and, “then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.”  (vs. 21)

There’s a mantle in the first story as well.  A mantle was a garment, usually an outer garment that could double as a blanket for warmth.  To wrap oneself in another’s mantel was to bask in the warmth of that person’s spirit.  In the story as told in II Kings there is no evidence that Elisha has already received Elijah’s mantle.  The story is all about Elisha following Elijah to the end of his earthly career begging for his blessing.  He wants to pick up where Elijah left off.  His request is bold---“a double portion of your spirit.”  (II Kings 2:9)  One source I read suggests that sometimes there was both an inner and an outer mantle.  Was Elisha asking for both?

Whatever the meaning, Elijah has something Elisha so admired that he wanted a lot of it.  Sometimes in times of transition we try to hang on.  We don’t leave room for the differences in leadership style, and heaven knows that Elijah and Elisha were certainly different.  It’s also true that we don’t want to deny the influence of those who have gone before.  Elisha had certainly been deeply influenced by Elijah and probably already channeled a lot of his spirit.

In our own lives, who has influenced us?  Whose spirit do we want to live on in us?

In this story, the mantle is a symbol of power, as well as a symbol of the completion of the transfer of power.  Elisha uses the mantel to part the waters of the Jordan River so that they cross on dry ground.  (vs. 8)  After Elijah’s fantastic departure (a chariot of fire and horses of fire as Elijah ascends into heaven?), Elisha picks up “the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him,” returning to the Jordan River where he now parts the waters.  (vss. 13-14)  He now has the power.  Transition is complete.

Lots of strange miraculous stuff in there.  To try to explain it in rational terms is to miss the point of the story.  The work goes on and, in this case at least, the spirit of God continues to work.  The blessing has been passed on.  What blessing have we received from those who have gone before us?  How does that continue to influence us as we seek to be faithful to God’s purposes in the present?

We often think of these prophets as solitary individuals.  Often they were part of a “school” of prophets who traveled together.  Note even in Elijah’s case (the prophet who often cried out about being alone) that “fifty men of the company of prophets also went.”  (vs. 7)

Both Psalms depict a pilgrim who has a sense of being on a journey with God.  Although not specifically couched in those terms, the spirit of God is with them, guiding and sustaining them.  They are channeling God’s Spirit.  “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot . . . I bless the Lord who gives me counsel . . . I keep the Lord always before me . . . You show me the path of life.”  (Psalm 16:5, 7, 8, 11)  “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; . . . I will meditate on all your work . . . Your way, O God is holy.”  (Psalm 77:11-13)  Given the crossing of the Red (or Reed) Sea and the Jordan River, and given Elijah’s survival of a tempest on the mountain, the references to water and thunder and whirlwind in Psalm 77 are interesting.  (vss. 16-19)  Here, however, they seem to be signs of God’s presence, rather than the still small voice that comes to Elijah after his whirlwind, fire, and earthquake.

The reading from Galatians further defines the spirit we can choose to channel.  The initial subject is freedom.  Often we think of freedom as lack of constraint.  In Paul’s writing it is contrasted with the restricting limits of legalism.  We’ve been set free from destructive forces but we are tempted to go back, and sometimes do, using our freedom “as an opportunity for self-indulgence.”  (Galatians 5:1 & 13)  Freedom, for Paul, is the freedom to live by God’s Spirit, to choose to express the highest values in our living.  “Live by the Spirit,” he says.  (vs. 16)  He speaks of being “led by the Spirit.”  (vs. 18)  “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”  (vs. 25)  The passage reaches a climax when “the fruit of the Spirit” is defined as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  There is no law against such things.”  (vss. 22-23)  What spirit do we channel?  Whatever negative influences may have touched us along the way, we are free to choose a better way.

Notice that Paul doesn’t use the plural “fruits” of the Spirit.  They are all expressions on one reality, love.  Notice also, however, his intriguing comment after declaring that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the sum of the whole law.  (vs. 14)  “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”  (vs. 15)  What an image!  Paul recognizes that we are not perfect, that less than perfect spirits trouble our souls.

For me, the Gospel lesson is about facing our destiny.  If we use our freedom to place ourselves in the service of a particular spirit---to “channel” that spirit, so to speak---we have committed ourselves to a path leaving limited choices.  This passage from Luke demonstrates that commitment in Jesus.  “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  (Luke 9:51)  The rest of Luke’s Gospel shows the living out of that commitment.  Did Jesus have a choice?  My understanding of his humanity is that he did, but to turn back at this point would have been a denial of the spirit at work within him.

There’s a fascinating interlude in the s tory when “a village of the Samaritans” refuses to “receive him.”  What is the reason?---“because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”  (vss. 52-53)  One would have to get into the long-standing enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans (whose blood had been tainted by intermarriage), including their disagreements about the proper place of worship.  Jesus, by setting out for Jerusalem seems to have taken sides.  How often do we refuse hospitality (or respect or kindness or love) to those with whom we have philosophical or political or theological differences?

The heart of the passage is that there are many distractions that may lead us away from the destiny toward which our spirit is leading, even beyond arguments about heritage and places of worship.  The words of Jesus seem harsh (indeed quite in contrast to Elijah’s reaction when he calls Elisha) when he calls followers and they have business they want to take care of first.  (vss. 59-61)  It is not as if Jesus intended to deny their family connections.  I suspect he saw through their excuses.  Like the people Jesus was dealing with, we always have reasons for not sticking with our commitments, for losing connection with the spirit we are channeling.  His call is for us all to keep our focus, not just letting ourselves be blown about by whatever wind comes out way.  Find the spirit that gives us life and follow it with our whole being---body, mind, soul, and spirit.  “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  (vs. 62)  It sounds very demanding, but, Paul reminds us, we have the freedom to choose that way.  “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”  (Galatians 5:25)
Thursday, June 20, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  I Kings 19:1-15a AND Psalm 42:1-11 AND Psalm 43:1-5 OR Isaiah 65:1-9 AND Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

So---last week we faced the dark side and this week we have demons.  Enough, already!

Actually I grew up with demons.  My mother was what today would be called bipolar; in those days, she was considered manic-depressive.  She was probably more depressive (with one attempted suicide) than manic, although I certainly saw manic bursts that included screaming and yelling and throwing things about the room.  In biblical times, she would have been described as “demon-possessed.”  The home of my childhood and adolescent years was full of demons.

My mother was eventually sent to a state mental institution where she was treated for several years, including electroshock therapy, now known as electroconvulsive therapy.  Whether because of that therapy or others, my mother was released to live a more or less “normal” existence.  She became what I describe (borrowing a term from Henry Nouwen) as a “wounded healer,” devoting significant portions of her life to being a quiet presence of healing and strength and comfort to the needy, the ill, and children.

Mental illness remains a difficult phenomenon to understand and treat.  There are medications that help, but the shadows are often still there.  There is no magic shot that inoculates one for life.  Even those of us who seem relatively “healthy” battle demons, many on a daily basis.

Nor are the demons of life solely internal.  We battle demons in the world of politics and economics and education---in all the arenas where power and greed become distorted and abused.

This week’s lectionary readings take us into the world of depression and demons.  Elijah cries out to God in the midst of his mental anguish.  At least we can’t diagnose him as having paranoia.  It isn’t paranoia when someone really is out to get you.  Jezebel came after Elijah more than once, intent on bringing his life to an end.  (I Kings 19:1-2)  Elijah fled into the wilderness where he sat down under a broom tree and had a pity party.  “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”  (vss. 3-4)  Is there a hint that he feels he is failing to live up to the standards of his ancestors or feels some responsibility for their shortcomings, factors in some instances of mental illness?  “I am no better than my ancestors,” he says at the end of verse four.

Twice an angel gives Elijah food and drink, giving him enough strength to live through a test of forty days and forty nights.  (Vss. 5-8---So many biblical events involved 40 days or 40 years that it cannot be a coincidence.  It seems to be a number signifying a time of waiting leading to new beginnings---or maybe it just means “a long time.”)  It is an early instance of a treatment that didn’t work.  After all that time, Elijah repeats his earlier complaint:  “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  (vs. 10)  Sometimes mental illness is marked by a feeling that no one understands or cares.  Elijah is still depressed, struggling with demons within and without.

Time to try a new therapy.  Elijah is sent out to the mountain where the Lord will pass by.  He experiences a great wind and an earthquake, and fire.  (vss. 11-12)  There’s a lot going on.  One would think there was a sign in here somewhere.  It ends though “in sheer silence,” or as some of us learned it from the King James Version, “a still small voice.”  (vs. 12)  Are there suggestions here for overcoming depression?  Go to a quiet place and try to see the Lord?  Don’t be distracted by the noisy temptations of the world, in which there is no cure?  Be quiet and listen?  All good advice in some situations, but they don’t work here.

I have been part of many experiences of meditating in silence, some over several days.  I’m an advocate of such experiences, but also realize that they can have negative impact as well as positive.  I was impressed with an article by Sara Maitland in a recent issue of The Christian Century: “The Perils of Silence.”  My guess is that most people skip over the last part of this Elijah story, assuming that some answer comes out of “the sheer silence.”  It doesn’t.  Elijah is still crying, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  (vs. 14)  Sometimes you just have to live through the depression.  I wonder sometimes about those who are confined to mental hospitals and subjected to intrusive therapies.  Do they finally just get tired of it to the point that “getting better” seems like the only way out?  Or, do some just heal themselves over time?  For Elijah, and perhaps some others, the answer is to face one’s demons and get right back into the thick of things.  The Lord tells Elijah, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.”  (vs. 15)   Although it’s not part of this week’s reading, we might also note that the Lord promises Elijah that there will be 7000 who will remain faithful with him.  We are rarely alone even when it seems to feel that way.

The Psalm readings include much lamentation.  Lament, crying out to and pleading with God, are not uncommon in scripture.  “My tears have been my food day and night . . . Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me . . . I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?  Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”  (Psalm 42:3, 5, 9)  “For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?  Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?”  (Psalm 43:2)   “But you, O Lord, do not be far away!  O my help, come quickly to my aid!  Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!”  (Psalm 22:19-20)  These Psalms are not without moments of hope and faith and promise, but what I get from them is an assurance that it’s okay to cry out to, argue with, and accuse God.  God is big enough to take it.  Whatever we are feeling, it is okay to open our most inner demons and expose them to God.  This is not permission to wallow.  It is easy to become consumed with and by our demons, but a little screaming and yelling at times may help.

If it is God speaking in Isaiah 65, which most scholars assume, it is huge.  It would not be the first time we’ve heard God crying out in anguish, but to be reminded of that can sometimes be a great comfort when we ourselves are anguished.  Even if it is a prophet or school of prophets writing in Isaiah’s name, it is a catalog of the things that can get us down.  We want to help but no one wants to receive our help.  (Isaiah 65:1)  Those we love rebel against us. (vs. 2)  People think they are better than we are, too good for us.  (vs. 5)  Although there is an element of mercy, it is no surprise that God lashes out.  (vss. 6-9)   It is what we are often tempted to do.  The final word, though, is that there will be descendants and life goes on.  (vs. 9)

Today’s reading from Galatians speaks words of equality and inclusion, reminding us that Paul’s primary agenda is the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s love.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:28)

Today’s theme gives us another perspective on Paul’s struggle with law and grace, faith and works, in letters like this one to the Galatians.  Some mental illness includes a heightened sense of right and wrong, an attempt to live up to standards which are unattainable.  With Paul, the mentally ill feel guilty and “convicted.”  They find it impossible to be as good as they think they should be.  That’s all laws can do, Paul says.  We need more than law if we are to live a full life.  Paul calls it faith or grace.  I like “grace.”  It is a reminder that we are all surrounded by far more love than we can imagine, maybe more than we deserve.  As Christians, we believe such loved is rooted in and revealed by Christ.

The Gospel lesson gives us the only actual demon story among this week’s readings.  Jesus arrives “at the country of the Gerasenes.”  (Luke 8:26)  He encounters a demon-possessed (mentally ill?) man living in a cemetery, presumably because he’s been ostracized and driven from the community by the good upright people there.  (vs. 27)  Shades of Elijah in his loneliness.  The man also exists out there among the pigs, considered unclean by strict Jews.  Jesus enters into conversation with the demon, discovering when he asks the demon’s name (“Legion”) that there are many demons. (vss. 28-30)  What are the demons we struggle with in our inward conversations or our outward encounters in society?  The possibilities are many (legion).

Reflect on the many dimensions of mental illness and demons as you observe and experience life.  In the meantime, I leave you with these words from the exposition of the Gospel lesson by Walter Russell Bowie, John Knox, George Arthur Buttrick, and Paul Scherer in The Interpreter’s Bible:

“Modern psychology has only given new names to ancient demons.  With such terms as paranoia, schizophrenia, etc., we diagnose scientifically certain human ills which the Gospels describe mythically.  The ancient terms are certainly less accurate . . . Still, there is much to be said also for the old terms.  Besides being more graphic and vivid, they correspond more closely with felt realities.  The deeply disturbed or divided person is likely to feel himself possessed---possessed by a power or by powers . . . who have somehow got into him and gained control over him . . . The word demons calls attention not only to the alien and malign character of the disturbing influence, but also to the basically religious character of our ‘inner conflicts.’ . . . We are all involved in some measure of inner division and hostility.”
Friday, June 14, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:  I Kings 21:1-21a AND Psalm 5:1-8 OR II Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15 AND Psalm 32:1-11, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

Human beings do some pretty nasty things---even human beings whose overall character is relatively good.  Occasionally a human being seems to be almost evil and sinister in his or her being.  I don’t know about some universal “evil” wandering the universe.  I do know that I’ve never met a perfect person, and I’ve met a few (very few) that I thought were downright evil.  Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was recently interviewed by Scott Pelly on 60 minutes.  She talked about the disillusionment that can overtake one in the profession she has practiced.  Her deep philosophical base wants to see good in all people, but she keeps being disappointed.  When pushed, she guessed that some people could truly be described as evil.  There may even be some who are beyond redemption.

The Bible certainly gives us stories that show people whose acts are repulsive, pushing us away squirming and screaming.  Some of those are in the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. 

I’m less interested in where the acts come from than I am in what is the appropriate response to such people.  Some in my generation (and probably---hopefully---some others) remember a movie, Love Story, based on a book by Erich Segal.  A romance set on the Harvard University campus, some suggested that it was inspired by Erich Segal’s acquaintance with Al Gore, although Segal denies that speculation.  Probably the most memorable line, repeated twice, is “Love means never having to say you’re sorry!”

My experience is that even those who love deeply do things, intentionally and unintentionally, that hurt those whom they love.  Whatever the words spoken, the maintenance of love relationships requires seeking and giving forgiveness.  Forgiveness is at the core of the Christian faith.  Love never gives up on the worst of human beings.  There is always another chance.

 Let’s look at the stories and other readings and see where they take us.

The story of Naboth is a story of the abuse of big government.  Ahab wants Naboth’s vineyard, “so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house.”  (I Kings 21:2)  As a gardener, I can identify with that.  I much prefer my garden to be nearby so I can just walk out the door and work in it whenever I have a few minutes.  And then the vegetables are ready at hand when it’s time to make dinner.

The vineyard has long been in Naboth’s family, though, and he doesn’t intend to give it up, saying to Ahab, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.”  (vss. 3-4)   Ahab is used to getting his way and is determined to have that vineyard.  Naboth’s rejection causes him to lie “down on his bed” and turn “away his face . . . and not eat.”  (vs. 4)  To Ahab’s credit, he offers Naboth a replacement vineyard or fair payment (vs. 2), but he still does not wish to give Naboth a choice.

 Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, hears about things and the story turns dark.  (vss. 5-6)  Jezebel seems to have had a running battle with Ahab, seeking his life more than once.  Was she a priestess of Baal (the competitor of Yahweh) with whose prophets Elijah did battle?  At the very least she was their patron.  Jezebel hatches a plot, using Ahab’s name, to have Naboth seated at the head of a great gathering.  (vss. 7-9)  There charges are to be brought against him and he is to be taken out and stoned to death.  (vss. 10-14)  Thus Ahab gains possession of the vineyard.  (vss. 15-16)

Elijah is sent by God to confront Ahab.  (vss. 17-18) There is no forgiveness in this story.  Elijah says to Ahab, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”  (vs. 19)  The final verse of the reading speaks of Ahab as having sold himself “to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.”  (vs. 20)

Interesting that Jezebel initiated the act but Ahab pays the price.  Are there shades here of the story of Adam and Eve with the woman seen as being the source of evil?  As one will see, three of this week’s readings beg us to consider the place of women in the Bible, in human history, in social interaction and organization.

The second story is an intrigue involving King David.  Before this week’s reading, we find David looking over the rooftops and observing Bathsheba taking a bath.  Like Ahab, he determines that he will take possession of what is not his.  Bathsheba becomes pregnant.  (II Samuel 11:2-5)  When David fails in his attempt to make it look like the child is her husband Uriah’s, he puts Uriah in mortal danger on the battlefield.  (vss. 6-16)  When Uriah is killed, David allows for a decent time of grief and then, as our story opens this week, takes Bathsheba as his wife.  (vss. 17-27)

This time it is the prophet Nathan who comes to confront the king.  Nathan tells a parable in which a rich man unjustly takes a poor man’s lamb.  (II Samuel 12:1-4)  David’s “anger was greatly kindled against the man,” saying to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.”  (vs. 5)  Nathan drives the point home, telling the king, “You are the man!”  (vs. 7)  “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?”  (vs. 9)

In this story David acknowledges his sin and there is a modicum of forgiveness.  “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.”  (vs. 13)  The story ends, however, with the unborn child sentenced to death, and that death is impending.  (vss. 14-15)  It seems that someone always pays the price when greed and power and lust run amok.

The Gospel lesson provides the third story, that of “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.”  (Luke 7:37)  She has some to a dinner, hosted by “one of the Pharisees”, where Jesus is a guest.  (vs. 36)   She bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them clean with her hair, “kissing his feet and anointing them” from the “alabaster jar of ointment” she has carried in with her.  (vss. 37-38)  The Pharisee is offended because she is an “unclean” woman. (vs. 39)

Jesus reminds him (using his name, Simon) that he has failed to provide the hospitality normally offered to guests: the washing of feet made dusty from walking the streets.  The woman has simply performed that act of hospitality.  So who is the sinner?  (vss. 44-46)

More importantly, Jesus uses another parable to ask whether greater love is aroused in one who is forgiven little or one who is forgiven much.  (vss. 41-43 & 47)  The story is about forgiveness.  In verse 48, Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.”  We could speculate on who the woman was and the similarity of this story to one in the home of Mary and Martha.  She is unnamed.  Is it Mary Magdalene?  Some in our breakfast discussion wondered whether it was the woman who faced stoning until Jesus challenged those doing the stoning, saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)  Even though the story has Jesus telling this woman that her sins are forgiven, it is almost as if she is acting out of an awareness that her sins have already been forgiven.

Whoever the woman, whatever the sequence of events, it is Jesus ability to forgive that starts tongues wagging.  “Who is this who even forgives sins?”  (Luke 7:49)

Note that as Jesus continues on with his ministry, among those who minister with him are “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene . . . and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”  (Luke 8:1-3)  Women were significant supporters of this young enterprise.

The Psalms continue to focus us upon questions of evil and forgiveness.  Psalm 5 speaks of God as one who does not delight in wickedness, who hates all evildoers.  (Psalm 5:4-5)  Psalm 32 begins with the declaration, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”  (Psalm 32:1)  It speaks of confession and forgiveness (vs. 5).  There are many nuances in the Psalms and their message is not singularly clear, but both contain the assurance of God’s “steadfast love.”  (Psalm 5:7 and Psalm 32:10)

I hesitate to even comment on the epistle reading from Galatians.  The entire letter is part of Paul’s effort to understand the relationship between law and faith or grace.  He never succeeded in giving us something very clear.  The letter addresses those who seem to have forgotten what it means to trust in Jesus.  It seeks to explain the place of Gentiles in God’s scheme of things.  Most of all it sees the indwelling presence of Christ as defining God’s response to evil.  “ . . . it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”  (Galatians 2:20)  Another time we may dig more deeply into Galatians.  For now I’m willing to jump to the end of the epistle, where Paul’s final words are similar to those with which he ends other epistles: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.”  (Galatians 6:18)

One of my mother’s favorite verses, which she had on a plaque hanging over the kitchen sink, says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”  (II Corinthians 12:9)  I believe it is a way of speaking of forgiveness, forgiveness that is already there for us, the power of grace being greater than the power of evil in human affairs.  It is a matter of faith and trust, as demonstrated and taught by Jesus.
Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:  I Kings 17:8-24, Psalm 146:1-10 OR Psalm 30:1-12, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

It’s one of those weeks I’m not struck by a singular and focused theme when I look over the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  Often my responses are somewhat intuitive anyway, so this week I offer a variety of things to consider.  Each represents something that “leapt” out at me as I read through the selections.  In some cases it took several readings.  The Tuesday morning lectionary discussion I lead walked around several of them, without any neat resolution.  That’s what so great about the group---and about Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ.  We are as interested in “Living the Questions” as we are in finding final and definitive answers.  There is an easy---although occasionally intense---camaraderie that accepts and learns from the diversity of experience, insight, and interpretation each brings to the table.

So, here are some things for consideration as we try to come to grips with this week’s readings.

1.  MIRACLES

The readings include three miracle stories---the widow’s jar of meal and jug of oil that do not run out (I Kings 17:8-16), the resuscitation of the widow’s son (I Kings 17:17-24), and Jesus’ raising of the dead man in Nain (Luke 7:11-17).

What defines a “miracle”?  All of us, no matter the extent of our exposure to the formal pursuit of science, live in a world where skepticism is common, where we demand “proof” when outrageous claims are made.  Most of us have not experienced the kind of miracles described in the Bible.  Most of us go through life without witnessing one resurrection.  We sometimes speak of miracles, but we use the word more loosely to describe something amazing.  My wife’s recent extensive back surgery and her recovery to functioning way beyond expectations is something of a “miracle,” yet, when one steps back, most of it can be explained naturally, the result of excellent work by a talented surgeon.

The classic definition of “miracle” is “an event that appears to be contrary to the laws of nature.”  Most of the miracles of the Bible appear to have been interpreted in that way by those who experienced them.  Our modern minds sometimes seek to offer explanations based on modern scientific knowledge.

Definitions of “miracle” that are more common today are “an event or action that is amazing, extraordinary, or unexpected” and “something admired as a marvelous creation or example of a particular type of science of skill” (e.g., “a miracle of modern engineering”).  So what is your take on miracles---both these particular miracles or miracles in general?  Where have you experienced something that you would call a “miracle”?  Where is God in such events and what do they teach us about God?  Often in the biblical stories they are taken as proof of the power of God.  In the story of Elijah, the woman responds, after her son is “revived” (I Kings 17:22-23) saying, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”  (vs. 24)  When Jesus raises the man in Nain, the people “glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’”  (Luke 7:16)  My own faith doesn’t require such miraculous demonstrations, although I must admit that the wonder of pink cloud formations and occasional rainbows we observe from our deck in the evening stir wonder and a sense of mystery in my being.

I suppose I’m most comfortable affirming the mystery I encounter in so many places as I observe and participate in life.  That I am alive in the midst of all this is a “miracle” beyond measure.

2.  INCLUSION

Given my understanding of God’s Love, it’s no surprise I’m always alert to stories that stretch beyond the usual boundaries we humans build.  The widow in I Kings lives in Zarephath, a Phoenician city in what is now Lebanon.  Elijah, a prophet of the Hebrew God, Yahweh, is sent to this foreign place to be cared for by a foreigner---a widow at that.  (I Kings 17:8-9)  The Lord says, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”  (vs. 9)  It starts as a story where hospitality is to be offered by someone outside the boundaries usually drawn by strict observers of hospitality rituals.  Under great duress, because she and her son are near starvation, the widow offers the requested hospitality.  Elijah, on the other hand, offers hospitality to this foreigner, demonstrates that God’s love reaches out even to her.  The two miracles are performed for the benefit of her and her son.  If you want to really complicate the interpretation of this miracle, take note of vs. 18 in which the widow says to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God?  You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

(The name of the place, by the way, means “smelter,” or “forge,” or “metal-working shop.”  Is there something in this story about the “refining” of one’s faith perspectives?”)

Probably we should not make too much of the location of the resurrection, Nain, in Luke’s miracle story (Luke 7:11).  It was in Galilee not far from Jesus’ hometown.  Jesus was a Galilean.  But Galilee was a significantly diverse area ethnically.  Consider the following facts:  Solomon gave Galilee to his Phoenician ally, King Hiram.  Isaiah 9:1 refers to “the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations,” probably referring to the many foreigners who settled there.  Nain today (spelled Nein) is an Arab village located in Galilee.

The story seems to parallel Elijah’s revival of the widow’s son.  In Nain we have another widow (possibly foreign) with a son.  This time it is an adult son, “a man who died . . . his mother’s only son, and she was a widow.”  (vs. 12)

The epistle reading features Paul who expanded the boundaries of the faith to include Gentiles.  Here he describes himself as going “into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.”  (Galatians 1:21)  Damascus, to which Paul was headed when his encounter with the living Christ occurred, was in fact in Syria.  Cilicia, in present-day Turkey, had a history as part of Assyria and Persia.  It, too, would have been considered foreign territory.  There were Christian communities in all these places, but they were part of the expansion of Christianity beyond traditional Jewish boundaries.

Such facts open the door to ask again who it is that we are ready to include.  Who does God include and who does God want us to include?

3.  THE BREATH OF LIFE

I thought about devoting the entire blog this week to “Breathing New Life Into Things.”  We are still in the season of Pentecost, celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit.  The word for Spirit and Breath (and Wind) is the same in Hebrew.  Although not the main focus, breath is mentioned in some of these readings.  Even today breathing or not breathing is part of the definition of whether we are alive or not.  I Kings 17:17 says of the widow’s son, “ . . . his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.”  We are told that Elijah “stretched himself upon the child three times.”  (vs. 21)  Was he performing some sort of CPR?

Psalm 146 warns against putting trust “in princes, in mortals . . . When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”  (Psalm 146:3-4)  Psalm 30 makes no mention of breath but speaks of being brought up from Sheol and being restored to life. 

We sometimes speak of turning points in our lives as being a breath of fresh air.  It is as if new life is breathed into us.  It’s worth considering how and when such occasions occur and where the Spirit of God is in them.

4.  TENSIONS IN THE EMERGENCE OF CHRISTIANITY

In the reading from Galatians we have Paul at his arrogant best---or worst.  He seems bent on establishing his independence from the other leaders of the early church, notably Jesus’ disciples.  Much has been written about the place of Paul and Jesus in the formation of the early Christian movement---whether Paul hijacked it and went in directions that are not true to Jesus, whether Christianity would have remained a sect of Judaism with Paul’s efforts.

The ostensible agenda in this reading at first seems to be the establishment that Paul’s teaching comes from God, not men. (Galatians 1:11-12) Paul was especially concerned about claiming his experience of Jesus on the road to Damascus stood on a par with that of those who had lived and worked with Jesus in the flesh.  This reading, though, seems to contrast with the story in Acts 9, where Saul (immediately following his conversion) is taken into the Christian community in Damascus (again in Syria) where he spent several days with the disciples and gained attention as he began his public ministry.  (Acts 9:10-27)  In Galatians he says he “went away at once into Arabia.”  (Galatians 1:17)  He speaks of visiting Cephas, “but I did not see any other apostle except James . . .and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea.”  (vss. 18-19, 22)  His lack of humility is evident when he speaks of their hearing about him and glorifying “God because of me.”  (vss. 23-24)

Paul came in for sound criticism in our discussion this week.  Maybe the discussion of Paul and Jesus needs to makes its way into our pulpits.  Certainly it is one of the many things that might be considered as one reads and reflects upon this week’s lectionary readings.

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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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