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Thursday, August 29, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 2:4-13 AND Psalm 81:1, 10-16 OR Sirach 10:12-18 OR Proverbs 25:6-7 AND Psalms 112:1-10, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

The histories and experiences we bring to almost any conversation color our approach to that exchange, even the things we associate with the various words we use.  This is true when we talk about, among other things, pride.  Some grew up in such a judgmental environment that they have struggled, with varying degrees of success, to learn to see themselves in any kind of positive light.  Tirades against pride are seen as attempts to keep them “in their place.”  Sometimes whole groups have been denied basic human respect.  In response they have developed “pride” movements, black pride, gay pride, etc., attempting to claim and build up a sense of self-worth.

Others have looked around and seen pride as an attitude which has perpetuated the divisions and injustices in society.  Those who seek to dominate demonstrate a pride that says, “I am better than you are.  You are subordinate to me.”  That kind of pride expresses an arrogance that sees no need to consult with others.  Obviously I know best; maybe I know all there is to know, rivaling even God’s omniscience.

Those who’ve grown up in the church sometimes see it contributing to the call for a humility which deprives people of a sense of self-worth.  Or they see church people who act in prideful and hurtful ways.  Some struggle with scripture because they see it as defining human beings as evil, portraying a God who is always looking for someone to blame---most likely me.

All of those realities and interpretations are present, but I choose to believe that they do not define the church or scripture or our own self-worth.  It is true that scripture warns against pride.  “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18) is a verse many of us learned in Sunday School.  It was often abbreviated:  “Pride goeth before a fall.”  The reference here is not to self-worth, but to an arrogance that believes one is invincible.  Great achievement is to be celebrated, but with a humility that recognizes the next step may be a collosal stumble.  In another widely-known verse Paul calls his readers “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”  (Romans 12:3)  I’ve always liked the nuance in those words.  They don’t instruct us to deny our self-worth; they simply remind us to be realistic in our self-evaluation, both our strengths and our weaknesses.  In fact, these words introduce one of Paul’s reflection on that fact that we all have gifts to be used to build up the entire body.

Ultimately I see many of the warnings against pride, including those in some of the lectionary readings for this Sunday, as a reminder that we are to relate to one another with mutual respect.  We all bring something of worth to the table.  A certain kind of arrogant pride, a pride that emphasizes superior place, destroys the kinds of relationship intended by God’s creative love.

The reading from Sirach specifically mentions pride.  Sirach is considered by many Protestants and Jews to be an apochryphal writing.  It is included as scripture in Catholic (and some other) Bibles.  For the rest of us, if it is included at all, it is in a special section between the Old and New Testaments.  The lectionary includes selected readings from these apochryphal writings.  Sirach is attributed to Jesus ben Sirach from the second century before the Christian era.  It is in the tradition of the “wisdom” literature of the Bible, much like the book of Proverbs.  It has been called “The Wisdom of Sirach” and, sometimes, “Ecclesiasticus.”

Sirach says, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.  For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.’  (Sirach 10:12-13)  We certainly don’t have a positive view of pride here.  The Bible makes much of a human tendency to put ourselves in the place of God.  Think Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit or the Tower of Babel.  In the lectionary reading from Jeremiah the Lord, in lamenting the wandering ways of the people of Israel, asks, “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?”  (Jeremiah 2:11)

Pride is not just an individual thing.  It can lead whole nations into destructive ways.  In the reading from Jeremiah the people’s arrogance makes them chase after worthless things.  They “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”  (vs. 5)  It is a pride that leads not to a sense of self-worth but to a feeling of worthlessness.  “ . . . my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit . . . for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”  (vss. 11 & 13)  Psalm 81 has a similar tone when God speaks of a people who “did not listen to my voice . . . so I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.”  (Psalm 81:11-12)

If you have trouble, as I do, with the punitive tone of these readings where pride is simply rebellion against a legalistic God, think instead of pride as putting self above all things.  I will follow my own counsel and no other.  This kind of pride is a way of putting oneself above others. My opinion, my truth, is the only thing that matters.  I don’t much like that face of pride.  Do you?

Well, I wandered from Sirach whose tone is judgmental as well, a judgment that is directed not just toward individuals, but toward the pride of nations.  Such nations will be overthrown and God will plant “the humble in their place.”  (Sirach 10:14-15)  Whatever one makes of all this judgment and destruction, the reading from Sirach ends with this stark verse:  “Pride was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women.”  (vs. 18)  Think of a world where we were not prideful or violent toward one another.  Peace might have a better chance.

The pride against which the Bible speaks is pride in one’s place, a pride which creates a hierarchy, a seating chart of privilege so to speak.  The short reading from Proverbs warns against seeking such a position in the presence of the king.  (Proverbs 25:6-7)  Those two short verses may have inspired Jesus in his banquet parables in this week’s Gospel reading.  Behind both readings is a strict pattern of seating based upon social rank.  Jesus goes to a meal at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees” and he notices how the guests are vying for “the places of honor.”  (Luke 14: 1 & 7)  Are the parables a critique of the hierarchies we build?  Like the verses from the Proverbs, the first parable seems to suggest humility only so that you may perhaps be called to a higher place.  (vss. 9-10)  Some also find the second parable troubling, thinking it calls into question hospitality to our friends and relatives and neighbors.  (vs. 12)  Instead, it is probably a critique of our fawning over the rich while ignoring the poor.  Jesus is using these pictures to portray a “kingdom” in which all are treated with equal self respect, where “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” have an equal place, where their self-worth is affirmed.  (vs. 13)  They are all part of a “pride” movement in a kingdom where “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (vs. 11)

While Psalm 112 does not speak of pride, it also describes, and praises, a “kingdom” in which justice and equity prevail.  “ . . . they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.  It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice . . . They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor . . .”  (Psalm 112:4-5, 8)

That leaves us with the reading from Hebrews which brings mutual respect and self-worth down to earth.  It describes how to live together without arrogant pride, what it means to live in “mutual love.”  (Hebrews 13:1)  “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers , , , Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured . . . Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have . . . Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”  (vss. 2-3, 5, 15)

So---maybe we can cast this discussion of pride more in positive terms than negative.  To speak against an arrogant kind of pride is simply to open the door to a vision of society in which justice and mutual respect---and love---prevail.  In such a society another face of pride is perhaps released---the face which allows all of us to see ourselves and those around us as having infinite worth in the eyes of the loving God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I went back and looked again at the 12th chapter of Romans (not one of this week’s reading) that told us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.  It then goes on to talk about each one of us having gifts---something of worth---to be used in building up the body.  The chapter ends, paralleling part of the Hebrews reading, with these words which bring my reflections to a close this week.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.   Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.   If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:9-21)
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 1:4-10 AND Psalm 71:1-6 OR Isaiah 58:9b-14 AND Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke:13:10-17

No clear single theme leaps out at me from the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  There is enough overlap to offer some topics for consideration.

Some might use a couple of these texts to get into a discussion of abortion.  The reading from Jeremiah includes God’s well-known words in his call to Jeremiah:  “Before I knew you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”  (Jeremiah 1:5)  The selection from Psalm 71 ends with the words, “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.”  (Psalm 71:6)  Notice that neither verse directly addresses the period of gestation that dominates today’s debate.  Jeremiah refers to a time prior to pregnancy and Psalm 71 addresses the actual time of birth.

I didn’t want to get into today’s abortion debate anyway.  I’m content to see these passages as declaring how much God values human life from beginning to end.  Jeremiah is being called to a weighty task.  Can you imagine being told, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”?  (Jeremiah 1:10)  No wonder Jeremiah cries out, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  (vs. 6)  Even if one is assured of God’s presence, I can attest to the fact that getting into a pulpit Sunday after Sunday can make one quake.  Do I really have something to say to these people this week?  Or---if I have a strong sense of a message which may make some uncomfortable, can I deliver it with integrity?  To try to speak to the depths of the human spirit can be like standing on holy ground.  One may feel the need to remove one’s shoes.

In the context of my youth, these verses may have plugged into the idea held by some that God has a specific plan for every life.  These and others of this week’s readings make one think about the flow of life, about one’s vocation or calling or destiny.  Jeremiah is called to an awesome task.  The Psalmist seeks strength and rescue along the path of his life.  “In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me . . . Be to me a rock of refuge . . . For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.”  (Psalm 71:2, 3, & 5)  The reading from Isaiah says, “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your horses strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring, whose waters never fail.”  (Isaiah 58:11)  Psalm 103 speaks of a God “who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.”  (Psalm 103:5)

These perspectives drew my attention to the focus of the Kaiser Permanente television ads which want us to “thrive.”  A tickle in the back of my mind suggested that “thrive” as a greeting had been used in Star Trek.  Instead I was reminded that it was Spock who said, “Live long and prosper!”  That’ll do too!  “Thrive” means “to grow vigorously” (flourish) or “to gain in wealth or possessions” (prosper). If we don’t go here for a simple equation where the faithful get rich, I believe that God wants our lives to thrive, wants us to grow into a full and rounded well-being, even, as someone suggested at breakfast this morning, to have fun as we go through life.  I found a third meaning of “thrive” which is worth pondering:  to progress toward or realize a goal despite or because of circumstances.”  We may speak of someone as thriving on conflict.

I’m intrigued by the notion of progressing toward a goal.  Even though I don’t believe in a literal and detailed God-designed plan for every life, is there a sense in which each one of us has a destiny to fulfill?  What is it that our particular existence is intended to contribute to the fullness of this cosmos?  Why is each one of us here?  They are questions worth pondering from time to time.  What does it mean for us to thrive?

It’s worth noting, in the reading from Isaiah, that there is a condition that comes before the promise.  “ . . . if you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”  (Isaiah 58:9b-10)  We don’t much like conditions when they sound like laws and threats.  “If you don’t do this, I won’t bless you.”  Maybe it’s more a declaration of the way things work.  If our spirit is small and petty, we are unable to appreciate the fullness of the blessing God offers us.  It’s striking how often such verses are addressing justice and the needs of the oppressed and poor.  If we can’t see the light of humanity in such people, perhaps we cannot see it at all.  Note that Psalm 103 speaks of these same people:  “The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.”  (Psalm 103:6)

There’s one other condition mentioned in Isaiah 58, taking us into another topic addressed in more than one of the readings.  “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth . . .”  (Isaiah 58:13-14)  We talked a lot at breakfast about the Sunday activities which were “allowed” and not allowed during our earlier years.  Whether it is a matter of a particular day or not, do we need a time which calls us away from the daily routines and demands, when we are called to focus on something other than our livelihood?  These verses seem to define the sabbath as a time that looks to others, a time to turn from selfishness and self-centeredness.

The Gospel lesson treats the sabbath in a similar manner.  Jesus heals a woman who had a spirit that crippled her for eighteen years.  (Luke 13:11-13)  His doing so in the synagogue on the sabbath makes the leader of the synagogue indignant.  (vs. 14)  Jesus reminds them that animals who need water are led to water on the sabbath.  (vs. 15)  Setting this woman “free from this bondage” is certainly okay on the sabbath.  It is not only okay for animals and people to receive what makes them thrive on the sabbath; it is perhaps central to understanding what the sabbath is about.

The reading from Hebrews, I believe, addresses something below the surface of life that feeds our souls and helps us thrive.  The long list of those who have been faithful in the past (in Hebrews, chapter 11) has led to the opening words of Hebrews, chapter 12, read by Pastor Rick last Sunday.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The lectionary selection for this week addresses where the race is going.  Before we get there, however, we need to take note of some of the words in between, starting with verse 12:  “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.  Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.  See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal.”  (Hebrews 12:12-16)

Whether the end of the race is heaven or some form of “New Jerusalem,” it is clear that the path of the race takes us through a place where we work together for peace and justice, where our focus is on what matters at a deeper level than the next meal.  The destination is not something “that can be touched.” (vs. 18)  The key, as I read this passage, comes in verses 26-28.  It speaks of a shaking so  that only “what cannot be shaken may remain.”  (vs. 27)  Like the sabbath, these words call us to focus on something more than daily routines of survival.  God wants us to thrive, not just survive.  To do so, we have to dig deeper and find foundations which cannot be shaken.  The reading from Hebrews ends with these words:  “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.”  (vs. 28)

Thrive!
Thursday, August 15, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 5:1-7 AND Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 OR Jeremiah 23:23-29 AND Psalm 82:108, Hebrews 11:29-12-2, Luke 12:49-46

I developed an awareness of justice very early in life, although it was not an angry awareness.  In fact, I was hardly even aware that I was aware.  I’ve more than once talked about growing up in poverty, but not knowing it.  I knew it all right but I didn’t feel poor.  My Dad’s wages were always below the official poverty level, but we didn’t have food stamps and there was certainly enough to eat.  I couldn’t wear the latest fashions and fads, but I got plenty of hand-me-downs from a plethora of cousins.  My parents always made sure I was adequately dressed.  I remember the first time I got a new suit (for church).  My first question was, “Whose was it?”

Although we lived in many substandard dwellings in my first few years of life (including a warehouse and a chicken house), most of my school years were spent in a comfortable three-bedroom house across from the city park and tennis courts.

Nevertheless I was aware of larger forces at work.  There was something called “The Union” which my Dad refused to join---something I had a hard time forgiving him for since to join would have meant better wages.  We knew who the enemy was---all those powerful people “back East,” although my physically handicapped father eventually benefited from New Deal programs, working on a Works Progress Administration project and getting training in electrical wiring in the Seattle shipyards during the war.

I also observed people who lived in what I thought was “real” poverty---the Mexicans who wandered by on streets leading to the migrant labor camp nearby, for example.  I eventually worked for a year as a student missionary to migrant workers where I saw 14 year old girls forced into prostitution---right here in Oregon.

These and many other experiences led me to begin to connect issues of justice with my faith and my reading of scripture.  Although it is not my nature to get seriously angry, I began to build up a head of steam about the unfair circumstances of life that I experienced and observed.

I don’t much like to think of God as angry.  That’s what we have in some of today’s scriptures.  One of the things that seems to arouse the most anger in God is injustice, particularly injustice committed by those who should know better, his own rebellious people.

Two of this week’s lectionary passages use the image of a vineyard, the vineyard being a symbol of God's people.  God loves the vineyard.  The reading from Isaiah, chapter five, begins with these words:  “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:  My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.”  (Isaiah 5:1)  Instead of good grapes, however, “it yielded wild grapes.”  (vs. 2)  As a result, God tramples the vineyard down, makes it waste, allows it to be overgrown with briers and thorns.”  (vss. 5:5-6)  The final verse makes the meaning plain.  “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”  (vs. 7)  How many places in the world today do those words fit?  Psalm 80 continues the image of the vineyard, with the people feeling the results of the judgment that has been placed upon them, pleading with God to restore them to life.  (Psalm 80:14, 18-19)

To understand the reading from Jeremiah, chapter 23, we need to go back to verse nine where God speaks “concerning the prophets.”  My heart is crushed within me, all my bones shake; I have become like a drunkard, like one overcome by wine, because of the Lord and because of his holy words.  For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns, and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up.  Their course has been evil, and their might is not right.  Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their wickedness, says the Lord . . . they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from wickedness . . .”  (vss. 9-11 & 14)  These same prophets, however, tell the people, “It shall be well with you . . . No calamity shall come upon you.” (vs. 17)  God tells the people not to listen to such prophets.  (vs. 16)  How often do we hear our political leaders speaking platitudes rather than facing reality?  What about our own perspectives and attitudes?

In the portion of Jeremiah in the lectionary reading, God is angry.  “How long?” God cries out.  “Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back---those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit in their own hearts?”  (vs. 26)  Then comes the distinction between fantasy dreams, head in the sand thinking, and the wheat of God’s word.  If we are to dream, let it be God’s dream of justice.  “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.  What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord.” (vs. 28)

Psalm 82 was already included as a reading in recent weeks.  In it, God calls together a “divine council,” accusing “the gods” of judging “unjustly;” and showing “partiality to the wicked.”  (Psalm 82:1-2)  He calls them to “give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.  Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”  (vss. 3-4)

The reading from Hebrews continues with the litany of religious heroes, begun last week, who lived by faith.  Finally the writer notes that “time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets---who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Women received their dead by resurrection.  Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, there were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented---of whom the world was not worthy.  They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”  (Hebrews 11:32-38)

These words contain many troubling, confusing, even disturbing images.  Embedded within them, though, is the message that these people have not only seen persecution and death dealing with issues of justice; they themselves have been victims of unjust systems.  The point, at the end, is that none of them lived to see full justice realized.  I leave it to others to debate about some time when God will intervene and establish a perfect reign of divine love and justice.  The message of this reading is to keep on going, encouraged by all these who have gone before.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  (Hebrews 12:1)  The inspiration is not only behind, but ahead, where we look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross . . .” (vs. 2)

Our breakfast group recently got into a discussion of heaven, including Jesus pointing to some kind of heaven on this earth, in our midst.  Passages like this week’s suggest that peace and justice are central to “the kingdom of heaven.”  What would such a “heaven on earth” look like?  What is your dream?  What is God’s dream?

That leaves the Gospel reading from Luke, chapter 21, a passage that has always been troubling to me and many others.  It speaks of divisions which pit parents against children, in-laws against one another, etc.  (Luke 21:52-53)  Such divisions are a reality, but we hardly want to think of them as part of God’s scheme of things.  It is true that families can be divided by the way that they look at justice issues and by their approaches to politics, but is that the primary point here?  Jesus even goes so far as the ask, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!” (vs.  51)

Sorry, I’m not going to try to sort it all out this week.  I think the main point is for us to see the destructive injustice that is going on around us and to follow Jesus’ lead in embarking on a mission to lay our lives down for the cause of justice, even when it costs us dearly in our relationships with those we love.  He speaks of a “baptism with which to be baptized,” (vs. 50) and concludes with an analogy from weather applied to our perception.  “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.  And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.  You hypocrites!  You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”  (vss. 54-56)  Are we like the prophets in Isaiah who overlook, even participate in and contribute to, the troubles of our times?

Along with “Let there be light!” and all the other “Let there be . . .” pronouncements, I’m pretty sure God also said, “Let there be justice!”---maybe not during the creation story itself, but certainly in the stories of the prophets and in his continuing work of creation through Jesus and into our day.
Monday, August 05, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 AND Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 OR Genesis 15:1-6 AND Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-30

It sometimes seems like it is difficult for us human beings to learn to trust.  We, or at least many of us, have a tendency to want to have everything “under control.”  Don’t we even from time to time say, “I have everything under control.”?  So---I want to talk about control and trust this week, and what some of the lectionary readings seem to have to say.

Before getting into that I acknowledge that there are other themes that catch my attention in these readings.  One of the foremost is the continuing prophetic look at worship and justice.  In the reading from Isaiah, the Lord asks, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?  I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts . . . bringing offerings is futile . . . I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.”  (Isaiah 1:11 & 13---and that’s only a small piece of the tirade.  Read it for yourself.)  Coming to worship and performing the right rituals (the right rites?) are not enough.  In terms of today’s overall topic could they not be seen even as an attempt to “control” God?  What, then, are we to do?  “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (vss. 16-17)

From my earliest encounters with migrant workers in the fields of my home county in northwestern Washington state and later as I worked with the National Council of Churches in what was then called “migrant ministry” scriptures speaking about justice have tugged at my heart.  Given the smallest of openings, you will often find my words turning to concerns about justice, but that’s not where my primary focus is in this week’s reflections.  Before leaving Isaiah, though, note that this week’s selection includes the familiar, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”  (vs. 18)  No matter where we are in scripture or what the topic is, we are never far from words which declare the possibility of forgiveness and new beginnings.  Injustice, in our personal behavior or on a global level, is never the final word.

The theme of Psalm 50 is similar although the focus on justice is less clear.  The words offer harsh judgment upon “those who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”  (Psalm 50:5)  God seems to recognize that the people are faithful in their sacrifices.  “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.”  (vs. 8)  In this case, it seems that the central problem is with their attitude, although portions of the Psalm not included speak of evil, consorting with thieves and prostitutes, etc.  (See vss. 18-20)  Whatever the behaviors that are being condemned, the people’s hearts don’t seem to be in worship.  They are simply going through the motions.  There is no joy when they gather.  The reading ends with these words:  “Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me.”  (vs. 23)

Worship is another area of long-time interest to me.  It is often the lens through which I see all of life.  What would life be like if we saw all that we do and say as acts of worship?  These two readings help us connect worship and justice, offering lines of thought and action for more than one brief time of reflection.

It is the reading from Genesis that started me thinking about control and trust, although it also stirs up questions the whole cycle of readings in recent weeks have raised.  They make me aware of how fragile is our understanding of how the divine spirit moves and works in the formation of nations and religions.  The reading is part of the story of Abraham’s place in the scheme of things, as father of both Judaism and Islam.  There are consequences that are still be worked out, even as Palestine and Israel seem to be coming to the table to talk to each other again.  Even if I were to concentrate on those themes, I wonder whether I have much to offer.  Minds more brilliant than mine have tried to find a way to peace.  I often feel, in terms of this week’s theme, that such matters are beyond my control.  I haven’t given up, but my focus is in another direction this week.

This week’s reading from Genesis takes us back in time before the promise of a son that we read about a few weeks ago.  Nevertheless, Abraham (still known as Abram) is impatient for a son.  “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless.” (Genesis 15:2) Beyond the common longing for an heir, and the particular significance of an heir among the Hebrew people, we have to go back to chapter 12 as a context.  In Genesis 12:1-2, we read, “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  How, God, is this going to happen if I don’t have a son?  (Notice, by the way, that the focus of those verses is not simply upon being blessed, but upon being a blessing.)  God promises an heir, saying, “No one but your very own issue shall be your heir . . . Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall your descendants be.”  (Genesis 15:4-5)  Despite the frequent focus of interpreter’s upon the declaration that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vs. 6), when the story moves ahead, beyond today’s selection, Abram’s impatience seems not to have dwindled.  He decides to take things into his own hands and father a son with Sarai’s “Egyptian slave-girl,” Hagar.  (Genesis 16:1 and following)  The child was called “Ishmael,” the one through Abraham is connected with Islam.

We’ve already noted that exploring the Isaac-Ishmael stories and the connection with modern conflicts is a rich and complex effort.  This week, though, I want to note that many of us have some of the tendencies of Abram.  We want to take things into our own hands.  We want to be on control.  We have a difficult time trusting that the divine purposes will ultimately be worked out in their own time and way.

Psalm 33 also talks about nations, describing God as one “who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.”  (Psalm 33:15)  Nations, like individuals, don’t trust easily, instead trying to take control through military might.  The Psalmist declares, “A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.  The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.”  (vss. 16-17)  In the end, the reading returns to the “steadfast love” that has been part of our discussion the past couple of weeks.  “Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”  (vs. 22)

The word “hope” provides the transition to the epistle lesson from Hebrews.  Hope is closely related to trust, trusting that the future will unfold according to loving purpose we cannot yet see entirely clearly.  The 11th chapter of Hebrews opens with the words, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen . . . By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”  (Hebrews 11:1 & 3)  The chapter reviews the undertakings of the many in the Bible who set out not knowing how everything was going to turn out.  There was a sense in which they were not under control.  The litany begins with Abraham who “set out, not knowing where he was going.”  (vs. 8)  We are told, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.  They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.  (vss. 13-14)  The reading ends with a focus on a “heavenly” destination where God “has prepared a city” (vs. 16), which takes us into another whole area of debate and understanding.

For the moment, I’m content to walk in faith that God’s future for us is still unfolding.  I don’t know what it will look like, on this earth or “in heaven.”  I simply know that much of the biblical message calls us to trust, even being ready for whatever comes, without fear.

The Gospel lesson is about such trusting and being ready.  It begins with a call to not be afraid (Luke 12:32), a frequent biblical admonition.  We are not to trust in wealth and possessions. “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  (vs. 34)  Jesus uses the image of waiting for one’s master to return from a wedding banquet.  One is to be “dressed for action” and ready.  (vss. 35-36)

Again the imagery of the final verse seems to draw us in an otherworldly direction.  “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  (vs. 40)  My spin is that the work of the loving heart of the cosmos may spring up at any moment offering us opportunities to build a kingdom of love and justice here on this earth.  We can’t control it, but we can be ready, and we can trust that the future holds possibilities beyond our imaginations.

Last week, I talked about three options for understanding God and reality offered by Marcus Borg in his 2011 book, Speaking Christian.  The third way focuses upon “God as Gracious, Loving, and Compassionate.”  Borg outlines the results of such an understanding:  “Life is no longer fear-based.  We do not need to protect ourselves from threats . . . Rather, we learn to center more deeply in God and trust more deeply in God . . . in the midst of the vagaries of life, the Bible proclaims again and again, in what may be its most frequent phrases, ‘Fear not,’ ‘Do not be afraid,’ ‘Do not worry.’  The Christian life is about trusting ever more deeply in God . . .”

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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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