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Thursday, September 26, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 AND Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 OR Amos 6:1a, 4-7 AND Psalm 146:1-10, I Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

The word “heart” is mentioned 743 times in the Bible, although not in any of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  Nevertheless, I want to suggest that they are all about “heart.”  Frequently “heart” in the Bible refers to a person’s will or desires.  A person’s “heart” reveals his true nature and motivation.  In Luke 12:34 (not in our readings for the week) Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Dictionary definitions of “heart” from our day, after they move beyond the physical organ that pumps blood, include:  “the vital center and source of one’s being, emotions, and sensibilities,” “the repository of one’s deepest and sincerest feelings and beliefs,” and “the most important or essential part.”  One meaning focuses upon “courage, resolution, fortitude, firmness of will.”

So---when I ask where your heart is, I am asking, “What is your vital center?”  “What are your will and desire focused upon?”  “What do you treasure?”

The people to whom Jeremiah spoke had plenty that demanded their attention---attacks on their holy places, the eventual fall of their beloved Jerusalem and being carried away to live in a foreign land.  It was like the very center of their values was under siege.  It knocked the breath of God right out of them.  Everything they valued and treasured seemed to be disappearing.  Throughout, Jeremiah tried to help them focus on a vital center and maintain hope.  It happens in a variety of ways in today’s upcoming readings.

In Jeremiah 32, Jerusalem is under siege and Jeremiah himself is “confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah”  (Jeremiah 32:2)  He receives a message from God that he is to buy a field which will be offered to him by his nephew.  (vss. 6-7)  It seems like a strange time to be buying property.  I might find it difficult to focus my attention on anything but the walls falling down around me.  One worries a lot about the immediate future when every few months our congress people throw us into a debt crisis or leave us uncertain about our health care.

The property is offered and Jeremiah buys it.  (vss. 8-11)  The deed documents are duly witnessed and stored “in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.”  (vss. 13-14)

The punch line comes in verse 15 when God tells Jeremiah, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  The people’s heart is clinging to what seems to be slipping away.  The destruction going on around them is distracting them from what really matters.  They are losing their ability to trust the possibilities of a new future.  Jeremiah says, "Things will not always be this way.  Don’t give up hope."  Find the heart to live no matter what circumstances come your way.

Psalm 91 reminds the people that God will be with them even in troubled times.  “ . . . he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge . . . You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday . . . I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.”  (Psalm 91:3-5, 15)

Three of the remaining readings speak of riches, which often occupy a central place in human endeavors.  For many, wealth and ease and luxury seem to be the primary source of motivation---at the heart of their existence.

Amos, long before the time of Jeremiah, is troubled by gap he sees between the rich and the poor among the people of Israel.  He abhors those who claim to be on God’s side yet abuse the poor.  (See Amos 5:7-12)  Their hearts are in the wrong place, and eventually it will lead to their destruction, i.e., their country, all that they value, and they, will end up in exile.  (See Amos 6:7)  “Alas,” cries Amos, “for those who are at ease . . . for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches . . . who sing idle songs . . . who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils,” but do not grieve over the fact that they are on the road to ruin, and taking lots of others on it with them.  (vss. 4-6---In chapter 4, verse 1, he says, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan . . . who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’”)  Riches and power seem to put people out of touch with the cries of those in need---in every age.  They distract the heart from things that matter.

The writer of I Timothy talks about “the love of money” being “a root of all kinds of evil . . . in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”  (I Timothy 6:10)  In the King James Version from which many of us first read this verse it says “the” root of all evil.  A couple of other translations are worth noting.  The Contemporary English Version:  “The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain.”  I like the way it reads in “The Message”:  “But if it’s only money these leaders are after, they’ll self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith completely and live to regret it bitterly ever after.”  Perhaps this version should be posted around the halls of Congress!

Notice that the focus is not specifically upon the money, but upon the heart---the “love” of money.  Later in the reading, rather than specifically condemning those who are rich, the writer ways, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (vs. 17)  What kind of riches have we set our heart upon?  This reading offers some alternatives:  “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” (vs. 11)  It instructs us “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”  (vs. 18)

Our breakfast group struggled a little with the final verse about storing up treasures of a good foundation for the future. (vs. 19)  Coupled with verse 12 (“Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life . . .”) the whole passage sometimes gets interpreted in a heaven and hell framework.  Do good so that you can get into heaven.  Remember that “eternal life” is in the here and now.  The writer is talking about a dimension of life as we move forward in this life.  Some also wondered if there was a selfish dimension here in that we are storing up treasures for ourselves.  The key however is in the final phrase:  “so that they may take hold of the life that is really life.” (vs. 19)  What is “real” life?  Not riches, living to accumulate for oneself.  It is living for others so that we all find fulfillment (“treasure,” “riches”) together.  Our discussion even tried to think about ways to move beyond “helping” the “needy” to finding a way in which we can all “help” one another find “real” life.

The Gospel lesson from Luke gives us the story of a rich man and a poor man.  The poor man was “covered with sores” and sat at the gate of the rich man begging.  (Luke 16:20)  Both of them died.  The poor man ends up with Abraham at his side and the rich man experiences fiery torment in Hades.  (vss. 22-23)  Pretty much fits some of our images of heaven and hell, but the parable itself is not primarily about heaven and hell.  The rich man cries out to Abraham for some water.  (vs. 24)  When that is not possible, the rich man thinks of his five brothers and asks that the poor man be sent to warn them.  (vss. 27-28)  Abraham responds that Moses and the prophets already warned them and many ignored them.  They won’t listen “even if someone rises from the dead.”  (vss. 29-31)

The basic message seems to be that when our hearts are set on riches, building our lives on the accumulation of wealth, we lose sight of anything else.  We’re not even going to be moved by a resurrection---even the “real” life revealed in Jesus.  Abraham says to the rich man, “You got what you went after.”  That’s all there is to riches.  “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”  (vs. 25)

It’s a little stark for our liking, and the implied heaven and hell framework may not work for many of us, but all these scriptures combined call us to consider where our hearts are.

My comments on Psalm 146 become sort of a footnote.  Verse 3 is key in considering where our hearts are.  “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”  Is our heart drawn by political solutions?  Certainly issues that help focus the “heart” need to be addressed in the political arena, something that seems very difficult to do.  There is even perhaps some guidance in that God is presented as one “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry . . . sets the prisoners free . . . opens the eyes of the blind.  The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down . . . watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow . . .”  (vss. 7-9) Should we and our politics not do the same?  The warning, however, is that we cannot give our hearts wholly to political leaders or the political process.  Unless our hearts are inspired by a higher power and spirit, we will always find ourselves living in a sort of exile.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 AND Psalm 79:1-9 OR Amos 8:4-7 AND Psalm 113:1-9, I Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Have you ever noticed that when one baby starts crying others around it often begin crying also?  Do they have empathy at that age?  Do they sense that someone is in distress or pain?  A farmer friend of mine, remembering the days when they used to slaughter animals for butchering right on the farm, once told me about how many of the other cattle cried out (in sympathy?) when the slaughter took place.

Where does all this crying come from?  I’m sure many profound studies have been published, but I’m not going to search them out right now.  I am going to talk about crying, since our current lectionary readings have us listening to Jeremiah, sometimes called “The Weeping Prophet.”  Beyond the crying, I see this week’s readings calling us to move beyond a perspective on life in which we cannot see further than our own self-interest.

Jeremiah is rarely a “fun” read.  He wore his pain on his sleeve and felt deeply the pain of those around him.  “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick . . . For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me . . . O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!”  (Jeremiah 8:18 & 21 & 9:1)

At least Jeremiah’s weeping is for other people.  He seems to identify with their pain.  The distress in Psalm 79 seems more self-centered, like a people just feeling sorry for themselves.  “We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us.  How long, O Lord?”  (Psalm 79:4-5)  They want compassion.  “Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.  Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.”  It is true that sometimes our crying is nothing more than self-pity.  It is true that our crying can sometimes be a way of saying, “I’m sorry,” but if our crying is not more it never really moves us out of ourselves.

While the other two readings from the Hebrew scriptures have a different tone to them, they suggest conditions that might elicit weeping and are in need of a word of hope.  In Amos it is trampling on the needy and bringing the poor to ruin.  (Amos 8:4)  Amos cries out for justice in response to such conditions.  (vss. 5-7)  Psalm 113 offers a word of hope, a God who “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap . . . He gives the barren woman a home . . .”  (Psalm 113:7 & 9)

I’ve wondered before about where this cry for justice that seems to stir the hearts of so many of us comes from.  Is it there in those crying babies?  Does it contribute to those fights among young children for a fair share of time with the toys?  We are frustrated with such behavior, but maybe it is the beginning of recognizing the importance of sharing and learning how to do it.  Is justice learned in the sharing of toys?  I’ve always been amused by an exchange, probably 25 years ago now, between my preschool son and his best friend.  They were negotiating a trade of some toys.  My son’s friend said, “I’ll give you this for that.” The response:  “No, I’ll give you two of these for that.”  I’m not sure he ever became a great negotiator, but did he have a higher sense of justice than his friend?  Whatever---they worked out the trade and moved on.  Wherever injustice exists there is occasion for crying and wherever justice and compassion prevail in relationships, personal, communal, and global, it’s time to rejoice.

Now, back to Jeremiah.  In Jeremiah 8:22 he asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  Some of us were quite young when we learned the words of an African-American spiritual:  There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole; There's power enough in heaven, To cure a sin-sick soul.”  We probably didn’t know what it meant, although I grew up close enough to dairy farming that I knew about “bag balm” and its wonderful curative powers for human skin problems as well as those on a cow’s udder.

To try to be precise about the history and location of Gilead takes me away from my expertise.  The name was used in a variety of ways in reference to people and places.  Here it is enough to say that it was part of the land taken when the wandering Hebrews occupied Palestine.  It has known multiple conquerors since, but presently is part of Jordan.  A shrub of medicinal benefit thrived here, its sap being made into a “balm” which was a major trading product for the Israelites.

(I add this aside, to what end I’m not sure---except you’ll learn something about my early years.  Lots of cascara (a tree) grew on my grandfather’s farm.  The grandchildren used to earn money by collecting cascara bark (not in a way that threatened the life of the tree, which would have destroyed our source of income) and selling it to companies which used it in the manufacture of medicine.  Like those in Gilead, we had a good thing going, except the product wasn’t “balm.”  It was a laxative!  Has to be a sermon in there somewhere!)

In Jeremiah 46:11, the Egyptians are advised, “Go up to Gilead, and take balm, . . . In vain you have used many medicines; there is no healing for you.”  Jeremiah’s point in referring to Gilead in this week’s reading is that they have this healing power at their disposal.  “Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”  (Jeremiah 8:22)  The healing power of Gilead is a metaphor for the soul-healing they can find in their relationship with God.  So often the source of healing is closer than we think, sometimes in plain site, but we are so busy feeling sorry for ourselves that we don’t notice.

The Gospel lesson seems to take us down another road.  It reports Jesus telling an incredibly puzzling parable.  A rich man receives reports that one of his managers is “squandering his property.”  (Luke 16:1)  He fires the manager. (vs. 2)  Before the manager actually has to leave his position he calls in all in his charge who owe the rich man money, calling for immediate payment at a reduced rate.  He hopes this will make them grateful enough to “welcome me into their homes” at a later date.  (vss. 3-7)  Although the rich man commends the manager for knowing how to look after his own interests, dishonestly, Jesus comment is “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”  (vss. 10-12)

Luke places this parable with a discussion of riches, this week’s Gospel reading ending with Jesus saying, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the others, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”  (vs. 13)  If we went on to the next couple of verses, this is what we would read:  “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.’”  (vss. 14-15)  The Pharisees, and the manager, are not unlike those in some of the earlier readings, moved only by their own interests and priorities.

One could move from this parable into a whole discussion of earthly riches, but, in the parable, the focus is upon “the true riches.”  (vs. 11)  Jesus is speaking of the riches of God’s love entrusted to us.  What kind of stewards are we going to be of that love?  Are we going to continue to be self-centered in our pursuit of our own interests or are we going to look outward and spread the love around?  It makes me ponder the values that we hold deeply, that we believe are worthy foundations for living.  How do we handle such riches?  How are the world and those around us influenced by those values at work in our lives?

That leaves the reading from I Timothy, about which I’m going to say little.  It has the controversial instruction to pray “for kings and all who are in high places.”  (I Timothy 2:1-2)  We need to notice three things about such prayer.  (1)  It is not just prayers of praise that are called for, but supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings---the whole range of prayer.  (vs. 1)  Good leaders, bad leaders, and all in between need to be held in God’s light that they might see more clearly.  (2)  These prayers are to be made for “everyone.”  (vs. 1)  It is an equalitarian instruction.  The lowest and highest and all in between are equally in need of prayer.  (3)  Finally, the reason is given:  “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  (vs. 2)  At the center of our prayer is to be a concern for peace and dignity.  Would that all of our leaders—and all of us---catch that vision.

The main thing I want to emphasize, however, in the epistle reading, is its outward focus.  The writer (“Paul”) sees himself as a steward of the riches of the Gospel.  He talks about doing what is “right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior . . . For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all . . .”  (vss. 3-6)  He was, the writer declares, “for this appointed a herald and apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.”  (vs. 7)

Our God is not into navel-gazing, nor does our God delight in any acts of self-centered egotism or self-pity.  The kind of compassionate God we see in Jesus is always reaching out to show the incredible inclusiveness of Love.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 AND Psalm 14:1-7 OR Exodus 32:7-14 AND Psalm 51:1-10, I Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

Several of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday present a pretty dark picture of humanity.  Someone in our Tuesday morning discussion group asked, “Am I to go around feeling guilty all the time just because I’m human?”  Sometimes those who are reacting to the abuse of scriptures like these simply say, “I don’t believe that.”  Someone suggested that the biblical writers and entire nations were trying to figure God out and sometimes they got it wrong.

The Bible tells us that God’s people spent years wandering in the wilderness.  Their leaders, as well as the nations around them, often acted in unjust ways.  There were always those who felt like victims.  Their nation was besieged, some of the people spending years in exile in a foreign land.  It’s no wonder they began to think maybe God was out to get them.  Maybe what happened to them was punishment for their sin.  Many of them had a deep sense of guilt, wherever it came from.  We certainly read the stories of men and women who commit acts that they would not trot out on a list of things they were proud of.

We’re still trying to figure it out.  Syrian leaders use chemical gas on their own populace and hundreds of innocents, men, women, and children, die an agonizing death.  What kind of God would allow that?  We look at our own lives and see places we have fallen short or behaved in destructive ways.  Sometimes we’ve lived through abusive experiences, blamed in ways that make us we feel we can never escape feeling guilty.  Mind you, I’m not saying that everyone is wallowing in guilt, or that we are born guilty.  There’s still enough guilt to go around without that.

So, we look for ways to explain things and we look for possibilities of healing.  There are at least two “answers” in this week’s readings.

The first is the harsh way of the first three readings.  It’s just the way we are as human beings; we are full of sin.  I cringe when I hear words like these attributed to God.  “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding.  They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”  (Jeremiah 4:22)  “They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good . . . They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”  (Psalm 14:1 & 3)

In these passages it is an entire people that is being indicted; it’s not just about individual behavior.  Also the behavior most clearly identified is injustice, taking unfair advantage of the poor and needy.  Psalm 14 speaks of “all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread . . .,”  who “would confound the plans of the poor.”  (vss.4 & 6)

I’m not even offered a God here whose mind can be changed.  “ . . . I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.”  (Jeremiah 4:28)  I can’t go this route.  It doesn’t even fit my experience of humanity where even non-believers often step up and act in benevolent and heroic ways.  I’m not going to try to explain passages like this away by putting them in a larger context.  The fact is that this is the way people often thought, and often still think.  It is not the final answer in the Bible or in life or in the church, but it is answer that often hangs over and influences people’s response to, or rejection of, God.

The reading from Exodus is similar in tone.  The Israelites in the wilderness have built a golden calf and place it at the center of their worship.  “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.”  (Exodus 32:7-9)  “Stiff-necked”---what an interesting word.  We wondered at breakfast about its biblical meaning.  Here’s our answer:  “stubborn, untractable, not to be led.”  It comes from the method used to guide an ox while plowing a field.  The plowman held a light pole with an iron spike on the end.  He would tap the ox’s neck to get it to turn.  Some didn’t respond and were described as being “hard of neck.”  I leave it to you how much you want to apply this word to yourself or others.  If it means resistance to change of direction or opinion, I think I’ve known a “stiff-necked” person or two in my lifetime, both personally and politically.  I’ve probably even demonstrated that characteristic myself at times.

In this case, it provokes the wrath of God, the kind of wrath we’ve seen in the earlier passages.  The only difference is that here God offers the people the opportunity to “change your mind,” and, when they do, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”  (vss. 12 & 14)  While I find it impossible to fit such a wrathful God into my own experience, at least we are now offered a way out.

The tone of Psalm 51, a favorite of many, puts the way out in very personal terms.  It is a prayer of an individual rather than an indictment of a nation.  It still has its problems.  At breakfast, when I read the words of verse 5, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me,” one person burst out, “I don’t believe that.” Neither do I.  So what are you doing to do to us?  Make us feel guilty and run us out of the church.  Thank God, that’s not the way it works at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ.  Like those ancient biblical people, we are still trying to figure it out---together, valuing the insight of each person.

The Psalm is a prayer for cleansing and forgiveness.  “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleans me from my sin . . . Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”  (Psalm 51:2 & 7)  It is a prayer for inner transformation.  “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  (vss. 6 &10)

Some have talked about sin and forgiveness as the central theme of Christianity.  I myself have suggested that forgiveness is key to understanding the Christian way.  Marcus Borg, in Speaking Christian, makes it clear that this is but one theme in our approach to God.  Liberation and being brought home from exile, for instance, are equally powerful themes.  Whatever the metaphor, it is important to be reminded that new beginnings are always possible.  This is a Psalm of new beginnings.

The God depicted in the epistle and Gospel lessons is no longer a wrathful God but a patient and inclusive God who sits down to have a drink with sinners.

The epistle lesson is still filled with guilt.  It was written in the name of Paul to a leader in the early church.  He is given the name of Timothy, but the actual recipient may not be the Timothy who was Paul’s companion in ministry in the book of Acts.  Saul (later to be called Paul) in the early parts of the book of Acts was a ruthless persecutor of the early church, a murderer of those who followed the way of Jesus.  He never got completely over that, confessing to that history on more than one occasion.  Here someone writing in his name speaks of formerly being “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”  (I Timothy 1:13)  He speaks of Christ Jesus coming into the word “to save sinners---of whom I am the foremost.”  (vs. 15)  He describes it as receiving “mercy.”  (vss. 13 &16)  Marcus Borg suggests that “compassion” is a better word to use in most places where our most common translations use “mercy,” but that’s another discussion.  What I’m noticing here is that the emphasis is upon divine and human patience rather than vengeful retaliation or punishment.  In Timothy, the writer says, Jesus Christ, displayed “patience.”  (vs. 16)

The Gospel lesson gives us the parable of the lost sheep (and the lost coin).  Luke is the only Gospel writer to record this parable, although the phrase “lost sheep” appears elsewhere.  (See Psalm 119:176, Jeremiah 50:6, Matthew 10:6, 15:24, & 18:10)  It is a story that warms the heart.  The shepherd persistently searches out the one in a hundred who is lost until he finds it and picks it up, and carries it home.  (Luke 15:4-5)  The question is whether or not to view the lost sheep as a sinner.  “Lost” in religious language has too often been used to describe sinners who are out there somewhere beyond the walls.  The context in which the story is told could reinforce this image.  Jesus is being criticized for welcoming sinners and eating with them.  (vs. 2---“welcome,” by the way, is one of Luke’s signature words)  What offends Jesus, I believe, is the tendency of strict religious people of his day (of any day?) to draw lines of inclusion and exclusion.  These "sinners" are people with whom Jesus ought not associate.  They might make him “unclean.”  So Jesus tells the religious leaders a parable that I like to think is a parable of patience, persistence, and inclusion.  Be careful where you draw the lines.  I want to include everyone, even this lamb who no longer is surrounded by a supportive community.  Who knows why that sheep was out there?  Was it stubborn or willful, or just a little befuddled?  Perhaps what it needed was not so much forgiveness as a warm embrace and inclusion---to be brought home from exile, for a place where it felt lonely.  Who knows?

I like the progress biblical writers made in trying to figure it out.  I don’t have it all figured out yet, but my encounters with God have been more in the nature of a loving community reaching out to include, more of a warming of the “secret heart,” than they have been of vengeful punishment.  I grew up in a religious environment where such guilt-inducing images were not uncommon.  Some in our breakfast group have experienced those attitudes in the extreme.  I always found people, in my family, in my church, and in unexpected places outside the walls, who were filled with a love that could not be held down by the narrowness around them.

Let’s continue to figure it out as we listen to and care for our world and one another with love and compassion that knows no bounds!
Wednesday, September 04, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 18:1-11 AND Psalm 139:1-6 OR Deuteronomy 30:15-20 AND Psalm 1:1-6, Philemon 1:1-21, Luke 14:25-33

I didn’t have any choice who my parents would be.  I didn’t have a choice about the color of my skin.  Whatever fates were at work I was destined to be born in northwest Washington state about 60 miles north of Seattle, the grandchild of grandparents who migrated westward from Minnesota when my mother was about a year old.  If you researched the history and culture connected with that heritage you would learn a lot about the forces that shaped who I was and am.

I could continue to list “accidents” of history, including major world events, over which I’ve had little or no control.  They have all influenced my outlook on life.  Have they determined every aspect of how I respond to life?  No!  The key word is “respond.”  I believe I have a choice in how I respond to the realities that come my way, indeed, that I even shape the effect such realities and events have upon my present and future.

That’s my take, but the debate about determinism and free will had gone on for millennia.  My primary academic work has been in the field of sociology which tends toward a perspective that says we are determined by the social forces and relationships that surround us.  One of my first assignments in college level sociology was to write a paper describing the social milieu that shaped my life.

I grew up in a denomination (Baptist) whose history leaned toward Calvinistic predestination (a theological word often interpreted to mean divinely directed determinism), although there are also Baptists who use the words “free will” as part of their defining name.  The Bible seems to offer mixed testimony in the debate.  Maybe all of that is why my own perspective affirms elements of both determinism and free will.  There are givens in life---and there are choices. 

In fact, even though most of us have been taught that God is an unchanging reality, I have come to believe that even God continues to choose.  In one of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, God twice says, “I will change my mind.”  (Jeremiah 18:8 & 10)  The God in which I believe is a conscious force in the very workings of the cosmos.  Creation is not finished yet and God, together with us, is still making choices.  The final outcome is not yet clear.  What the cosmos and we will become is still in process.  It’s up to us, God and us in partnership.  God cannot do it without us and we cannot do it outside the framework of larger purposes that define physical and moral limitations and consequences.

Let’s look at this week’s readings as they invite us into conversation about such things, perhaps encouraging us to choose.

The reading from Jeremiah could take us down other, perhaps parallel, paths.  The context is prophetic judgment upon the people of Israel because they have chosen evil ways.  Jeremiah was viewed as a traitor because he counseled “nonresistance.”  Military might and foreign conquerors could not destroy the presence of God in the hearts and relationships of the Hebrew people.

For us, such prophecies of judgment (evidenced in many of our recent readings) may raise questions about how injustice is called to account.  There is something within us that cries out for justice.  It is at work in the debate about how to respond to the recent Syrian use of chemical weapons against their own populace, including defenseless children.  Surely something must be done!  But does direct retaliation ever bring about a positive result?

The image used in this week’s reading from Jeremiah is that of the potter.  The Lord describes himself as a potter who can do with the clay as he chooses.  God can start over whenever God wishes, reworking the pot “into another vessel.”  (Jeremiah 18:2-4)  “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.  At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it . . . Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.”  (vss. 7, 11)  It sounds very deterministic.  God is like a potter with a plan that will be carried out no matter what.  Before we conclude, however, that things are set in stone, remember that this is the same passage in which God said, “ . . . if that nation . . . turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster I intended to bring on it.”  (vs. 8)  The reading concludes with these words:  “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”  (vs. 11)  Choice can change the course of events, even in Syria, so that there is building and planting (vs. 9) rather than destruction.

The reading from Psalm 139 also has a strong deterministic tone.  It speaks of a God “who formed my inward parts” and “knit me together in my mother’s womb . . . In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”  (Psalm 139:13 & 16)  Many interpretations of these words deeply trouble me, including those which suggest that every detail of every life is predetermined.  At the same time, I am comforted and inspired by the words of the Psalmist when he says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  (vs. 14)  Basically the perspective to which the Psalm calls us is one of appreciation for the wonder of God’s creatures.  “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.”  (vs. 6)  I am content to realize that there are some things I cannot completely capture and comprehend.  “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!  I try to count them---they are more than the sand; I come to the end---I am still with you.”  (vss. 17-18)  It is enough to be astonished by it all!

The reading from Deuteronomy is one of the classic texts presenting God, through Moses, as declaring that we have a choice.  A similar message is spoken by Joshua in Joshua 24:15.  The call is to choose life.  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”  (Deuteronomy 30: 15 & 19)  As in many of the Old Testament passages we’ve recently dealt with, one can read these words and see a petty vengeful God out to punish every human misstep.  I prefer to think of it as statement that calls us to be responsible for our choices.  We can choose attitudes and actions which build up or destroy.  It’s up to us.  We have a choice---and the choice continues in our personal and national and international lives today.  What if, first and foremost, we, our politicians, the leaders of nations, thought about life?

The second Psalm lays out the extremes of two approaches to life we can choose.  One is described as wicked while the other delights “in the law of the Lord.”  (Psalm 1:2)  Those who choose the latter “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.”  (vs. 3)  I find that such sharp contrasts are not totally clear in the everyday life I live.  There are more shades of gray and more shadows.  Choices, however, are always there, and, to the best of our ability, we are called to choose life.

The Gospel lesson from Luke presents the matter of choice as counting costs.  Following the way of Jesus, the course of love and justice, is not always smooth and easy.  There are costs and risks.  It takes decisive courage.  It may even disrupt family relationships.  (Luke 14:25-27)  Jesus tells a couple of short parables.  One who is undertaking a construction project will “first sit down and estimate the cost, and see whether he has enough to complete it?” (vs. 28)  A king going to war will do the same.  (vss.31-32)   Isn’t that part of what’s going on right now in the discussion about appropriate response in Syria?  What is the cost of working for a peaceable kingdom that honors and puts into action the love revealed in Jesus life and teaching?

Finally the epistle reading is a testimony to the working of that love at a personal level.  Philemon is Paul’s only letter to an individual, one chapter long.  Philemon, a slave owner, is a “friend and co-worker” (Philemon 1:1) of Paul.  One of his slaves, Onesimus, has escaped and somehow found his way into Paul’s company where he has become a convert and a valued helper to Paul.  Paul even speaks of him as a son.  (vs. 10)

Like so many of Paul’s letters this epistle expresses the power of love in its opening sentences.  “When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints . . . I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.”  (vss. 4-5, 7)

Paul, of course, is reminding Philemon of that love because he is about to ask him to exercise that love in a new and radical way.  Somehow or other, Paul and Onesimus have come to a decision that Onesimus will return to Philemon.  Talk about an exercise in free will, in defiance of all that would seem to make sense.

But Paul is asking Philemon to make a choice as well, to accept Onesimus back, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother . . . If you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me..”  (vss. 16-17)  “I am sending him, that is, my heart, back to you.”  (vs. 12)  What a statement of equality!  And what a decision he is requesting of Philemon, a man of social stature who would be violating social custom if he treated Onesimus as an equal.  Paul’s appeal is “on the basis of love . . . in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”  (vss. 9 & 14)

There’s an alternative to revenge and legalistic justice.  Philemon, and we, can make the choice of love, choosing life and planting the seeds of revolutionary change.  We’ve been witness to that power at work as we’ve heard the voices of those who were present and gave leadership when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shared his dream 50 years ago in Washington, D.C.  It was more than a dream.  It was a call to choose, a call which still rings out from biblical times into the present.

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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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