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Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:

All Saints Day (Nov. 1)---Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149:1-9, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

Sunday, Nov. 3---Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 AND Psalm 119:137-144 OR Isaiah 1:10-18 AND Psalm 32:1-7, II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10

We are invited to think about sainthood this week---and I’m not talking about the New Orleans Saints football team—although sports figures of all types are sometimes worshipped as if they were the holiest of creatures.  November 1st is All Saints Day and the Sunday following (Nov. 3 this year) is sometimes celebrated as All Saints Sunday.  I’ve listed the lectionary readings for both occasions and have read them all hoping to understand what a saint is.

Before getting to the scriptures, here are some background comments.  All Saints Day originated in the Catholic liturgical system.  There were special days for many specific saints.  All Saints Day became a day to remember and celebrate all saints.  So what is a saint in the Catholic tradition?  It is a formal designation given after much research and examination.  A saint is someone deceased who was deemed to have “lived heroic virtues,” had “personal attributes of charity,” could be credited with one or two (depending upon level of sainthood) miracles because someone interceded in prayer to them, and/or martyrdom.

When we talk about saints we usually think of them as possessing some special and admirable attribute, sometimes thought of as “holiness.”  Saints biblically, in fact, are sometimes spoken of as “holy ones.”  We may say of a person, “Oh, she (or he) is such a saint.”

Saints have traditionally been those who have passed on into another realm.  Sometimes all those who have died “in Christ” are referred to as “saints.”  John Ylvisaker wrote a catchy little tune once about saints (based on the book of Ephesians).  I thought the title was “We Saints Ain’t.”  The internet suggests that it was “One Saint Ain’t,” but gives me no lyrics.  In either case, I remember a line (from this or another of his songs) that says something to this effect.  “It used to be that saints were dead, but now saints can be alive.”  Usually these days when we talk about “The Communion of Saints” we refer to all believers, living and dead.

It’s difficult to move out thinking beyond some sort of elevated notion about sainthood.  They are “special.”  Even in our breakfast discussion this week, when we tried to identify saints we had a difficult time applying the word to “ordinary” people.  Perhaps the closest we came was when several us identified our parents as “saints.”  Again, however, we seemed to be lifting them up to special status.  In Paul’s writing, however, all the Christians in a particular location are referred to as saints.  I Corinthians, for instance, is addressed “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (I Corinthians 1:2)  II Corinthians is "to the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia . . .”  (II Corinthians 1:1) So it is in the greetings in most of his letters with multiple other references to the saints as well.

We are all called to be saints.  Every one of us is special.  When I worked on the national staff of the American Baptist Churches, we once has a program with the theme, “Everybody is Somebody.”  That’s the way it is in God’s reign of Love, revealed in and through Jesus.  It’s not so much that saints are a cut above (to borrow a phrase used by one chain of barber shops).  Saints are ordinary people opening themselves to God’s Spirit, trying their best to pay attention to and follow the leading of that Spirit.

Having said that, people who seek to walk in that way may well have some observable behavior characteristics.  We are all invited daily into the discussion and implementation of what it means to live as faithfully as possible in God’s Spirit.  Rather than examine the various lectionary texts in any detail, I’m going to list phrases from each which have been part of that discussion over the years, perhaps with a comment or two.  I do not offer these as a final word or definition.  They are what various writers have thought about over the years.  They come to us as threads to be considered in our own discussion and definition.

Daniel is a difficult book to interpret with its images of beasts and kings.  I won’t even try today, except to say that it contains a vision of the establishment of God’s final victory and reign.  This week’s selection from Daniel ends with these words, “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever---forever and ever.”  (Daniel 7:18)  “Holy Ones” are saints, and they inherit something.  They are held close to God forever.  The reading from Ephesians also emphasizes “inheritance.”  (See Ephesians 1, verses 11, 14 & 18)  The letter is addressed to people who show their “love toward all the saints.” (vs. 15)  The inheritance is gained by setting one’s hope on Christ and is sealed by the Holy Spirit.  (vss. 12-13)  Saints are those who look with confidence into the future, and live in hope.  What do saints give and receive as inheritance?  What is the basis of hope we find in them, and in our own sainthood?

The reading from Luke contains Luke’s version of the beatitudes, more “earthy” than those in Matthew’s version.  Comparing and contrasting can be a worthy pursuit.  The presence of “woes” in Luke’s version is noteworthy.  For today, it is enough to consider saints as “blessed” people and look to Luke’s words to help define the nature of that blessing.  Perhaps the biggest contribution of this reading to the discussion of sainthood comes in Luke 6:27-30---“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  That goes a long way, for me, toward defining a saint.

The Psalm for All Saints Day has a twist in it I hadn’t noticed before.  It begins as a Psalm of praise and dancing and singing.  (Psalm 149:1-3)  At verse 6, however, the praise is mixed with vengeance in which kings are overthrown and justice achieved.  “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgment decreed.  (vss. 6-9)  “This,” the passage concludes, “is glory for all his faithful ones,” i.e., the saints.  As much as we may dislike the images of swords and vengeance, the overthrowing of unjust kings is seen in the Bible as part of God’s agenda, part of the work of the saints, and a blessing for all the saints.

The longing for that justice is there in the reading (for Sunday, Nov. 3) from Habakkuk.  The prophet observes a situation in which “the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”  (Habakkuk 1:4)  He climbs into a watchtower to wait.  (Habakkuk 2:1)  He notices that those who are proud do not have a right spirit in them.  (vs. 4)  Sainthood, justice, and humility are all intertwined.

The Sunday reading from Isaiah decries worship without justice.  God cannot endure it.  (Isaiah 1:11-15)  His call to those who would be saints is, “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---There’s also much in verse 18, including the invitation to “argue it out,” but I’ll leave that for you to take wherever you want to go with it.)

II Thessalonians, speaking of the Christians in Thessalonica, boasts about “your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring” (II Thessalonians 1:4), going on to pray for them, “asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith . . .” (vs. 11)  Sainthood has something to do with keeping the faith through times of hardship and living worthily with good resolve and faith.

The Sunday reading from Luke is the familiar story of Zacchaeus, whose statement, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8), seems to qualify him for sainthood.  Jesus says to him, “Today salvation has come to this house . . .” (vs. 9)

That leaves two Psalms.  Psalm 32 takes us back to the theme of humility, in this case confession and forgiveness. (See especially Psalm 32:1, 3, & 5)  A saint is not one who argues for or claims perfection.  The saint is one who humbly acknowledges his or her shortcomings.

The other Psalm emphasizes God’s commandments and righteousness.  (See Psalm 119:137-138 & 142-144)  One need not subscribe to a rigid legalism to know that there are general standards of right and civil and benevolent behavior that serve society well, make this a better place to live.  Those who we call saints often live by standards that challenge us all.  To be a saint is not necessarily to flaunt all rules.

One of the better ways for us to understand “righteousness” is to think of it as “right living.”  Perhaps it is as simple as the instruction in Isaiah:  “Learn to do good.”  Nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems, and “good” seems like such a saccharine word.  Maybe, however, we skip lightly over it too often.  Robert Bellah and his colleagues wrote a book entitled, The Good Society.  Maybe thinking about what it means to be “good”, and acting upon it, isn’t a bad place to start in defining sainthood.  Maybe we should more often be able to say, “He (or she) is truly a good person.”  We’d probably be talking about the potential of sainthood in each on us.

Carry on, all you saints (and sinners)!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Joel 2:23-32 AND Psalm 65:1-13 OR Sirach:35:12-17 OR Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 AND Psalm 84:1-7, II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

For some, it sometimes seems that love has become a calculated affair.  How much do I have to give in this relationship and what will I get out of it?  We draw up prenuptial agreements or contracts.  I’m not suggesting that we ignore the practical matters that go into making relational commitments, but let’s not lose sight of the worth of the mere presence of the loved one.  Sometimes it is enough just to be together.  We don’t need anything else.

Some of this week’s lectionary readings celebrate living in a place where God is present, where we are present to each other.  As is true in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as in other religious traditions, God is also viewed as giving concrete blessings, but God’s presence alone is reason to celebrate.  However one feels about a God who sometimes seems to personally provide for our every need, it is true that the very cosmos provides, unsolicited, the things that sustain and enhance and encourage life.  Still, to be surrounded by the presence of love, which I believe is one way of talking about the living heart of the cosmos, can be a more powerful experience than any specific material blessing.

The reading from Joel begins with material blessing.  God “has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early rain and the later rain . . . The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.”  (Joel 2:23-24)  The core of the passage, however, is the promise of the presence of his spirit in verses quoted by Peter on the Pentecost celebration described in Acts, chapter 2.  “ . . . I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”  (Vss. 28-28)  It is enough that God is present in our midst.  It changes everything, even our minds and relationships, and future.  Old understandings of status will no longer prevail.  It will be a new day.

Granted, we may have to go through some tough times, as every relationship does, but the presence of the spirit of Love will get us through.  (Vss. 31-32)

Both Psalms speak of a happiness found in God’s presence.  “Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.  We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.”  (Psalm 65:4)  “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts?  Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise . . . Happy are those whose strength is in you . . .” (Psalm 84:1, 4-5) Psalm 84 even gives us the heart-warming image of birds finding a home.  “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.”  (vs. 3)

Of course, Psalm 65 also contains images of material blessing as well.   “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain . . . You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.”  (Psalm 65:9-10, with the list continue on through verse 13)  It’s interesting in Psalm 84 that the people who live close to God have a hand in bringing about all this blessing.  “As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain covers it with pools.  They go from strength to strength.”  (Psalm 84:6-7)

Is it possible that we’re involved in a partnership here?  When partners are close, they often undertake work together that brings benefit to both and to the world around them.  We’ve already seen that God’s presence changes our relationships with one another.  Is it possible that part of the change is in the way we work together as partners?  Could it be that part of the work of God’s spirit is the building of relationships that “go from strength to strength”?

Note that Psalm 65 also mentions forgiveness, a subject which will come up again in the Gospel lesson from Luke.  “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.”  (Psalm 65:2)  The passage from Luke tells a parable of two men who go to the temple to pray.  (Luke 18:10)  The parable is addressed “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (vs. 1)  It is little surprise then, that the Pharisee in the parable prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  (vs. 11)  What a contrast with the vision in Joel.  The Pharisee assumes God looks with favor upon the status of those who are “better” than others.  This is not a God whose presence reaches out to all, or resides within all, equally.  The tax collector, on the other hand, pleads for mercy (and forgiveness?).  (vs. 13)

On other occasions, I’ve expressed my rejection of a religion which promotes guilt and then offers forgiveness.  Every relationship, though, has moments when forgiveness is needed.  We wound one another, intentionally or unintentionally, and the brokenness that results needs healing.  The punch line of the parable speaks of humility.  Ultimately it is humility that makes relationships work, and it is living in the presence of Love that makes humility possible.

We recently had another reading from Sirach.  I won’t repeat information about its relationship to the scriptures in the versions of the Bible most Protestants use.  It is similar to Proverbs and probably from the same era (or later).  A couple of truths in this week’s reading are worthy of note.

1.  It again depicts a God who is generous in blessing us.  (Sirach 35:12-13)

2.  In this case it is not an automatic granting of our every wish.  We cannot “bribe God, or be “dishonest” in our worship.  (vss. 14-15)

3.  This is a God who, like the God in Joel and Luke, rejects status as a measure of worthiness.  “He will not show partiality to the poor; but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.  He will not ignore the supplication of the orphans, or the widow when she pours out her complaint.”  (vss 16-17)

When this God’s spirit is poured out, relationships go topsy-turvy.  When relationships are changed that radically, it’s something to celebrate, although some of us who are relatively well-off might get a little nervous.

Jeremiah touches upon some of the same things, although one finds less reason for hope.  He affirms that God is “in the midst of us . . .” (Jeremiah 14:9), although they are feeling very much put upon at the moment.  They cry out for forgiveness, but in this moment are unsure whether they will receive it.  “ . . . we have sinned against you,” they repeat twice (vss. 7 &20), while also speaking of a God who “will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.”  (vs. 10)  They even speak of a God who can bring rain and showers (vs. 21), but in their present condition, all they can do is “set our hope on you.”  (vs. 22)

They have lost a sense of God’s presence in their midst.  When that happens in relationships, those involved can feel like they are in exile from the power of love.  They are no longer to sit down with, work beside, enjoy life, with the beloved and declare, “It is enough to be with you.”

The epistle lesson from II Timothy again has a different tone, but it also records a sense of moving through life with God as a companion.  It compares life to a fight and a race, with obstacles that have been hard to endure.  (II Timothy 4:7)  Even though others have abandoned him, “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength . . .”  (vss. 16-17)

So often, we try to go it alone, like the Pharisee in the Lucan parable.  Life isn’t meant as a solo project.  It is meant to be lived in the presence of God’s spirit which unites us and gives us strength to live and work together, blessed by one another’s presence and by divine empowering Love.  May we all be able to say with regard to our life together, “The Lord stood by us and gave us strength.”
Thursday, October 17, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:27-34 AND Psalm 119:97-104 OR Genesis 32:22-31 AND Psalm 121:1-8, II Timothy 3:13:4-5, Luke 18:1-8

This week’s reading from Jeremiah is a watershed in religious history.  It has often been taken as a declaration of individualism in religion, the declaration that each one of us is accountable, individually, before God.  I suppose there’s something in that.  When I, as a seminarian, was invited to preach in my home church one Sunday, I chose this text as a declaration of my own independence from my parents’ religion.  I had to decide for myself what I believed.

At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with rampant individualism and an overemphasis upon a personal relationship with God that ignores any political implications in religion.

Before we return again to Jeremiah’s context, let’s see what he had to say that is so earthshaking.  He records a depiction of God describing a time to come when “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts . . . No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest . . .”  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)  He refers to a saying, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” saying that, in this time to come, “the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.”  (vss. 29-30)  You will no longer be responsible for the sins of other (including your parents).  You will each be responsible for your own sins.

God, through Jeremiah, puts it into the context of a “new covenant,” so that many have seen this as a foreshadowing of the new covenant of which Jesus is reported to have spoken during his last meal with the twelve disciples:  “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”  (Luke 22:20)  The reading can certainly illuminate our understanding of Jesus and the “new covenant,” but I don’t believe it is best seen that specifically.  It needs to be read as words spoken to a people whose faith was deeply rooted in a location and community, a location and community which now seemed lost.  The time was right for them to find a new perspective on faith, one which made it all personal.  They could lose their beloved city and its temple; families could be broken up; the influence of new powers and new religions could be strong; but what was in their heart could not be taken from them.  Jeremiah was the prophet to see and proclaim that truth, a message intended to give them courage to stand, to stand even in the presence of their God.

Do you notice that that’s a very political truth as well?  It means that wherever we live, whatever paths the powers try to force upon us, we have an inner power that is up to the task of resisting, of living an alternative truth.

Without comment, I note a couple of other important phrases in this reading from Jeremiah”  God says, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)  God says, “ . . . for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  (vs. 34)  Note also that this new covenant says, “ . . . they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”  (vs. 34)  Sounds like a political statement to me!

The other readings for the coming Sunday are not as clear in their expression of a “personal” perspective on religion, but there are connections to be made.

The first reading from the Psalms has the heart meditating on God’s “law” (Psalm 119:97), a theme throughout this longest chapter in the Bible (176 verses).  Although not specifically attributed to David, this reading from Psalms reflects the sometimes arrogant attitude David could show.  “Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies . . . I have more understanding than all my teachers . . . I understand more than the aged . . .”  (vss. 98-100)  That, in my opinion, is the dark side of much of modern individualism.  I alone am the measure of things.  I know better than everyone else.  Is that part of what drives the congressional stalemate we so often experience?  (Note: Because of upcoming vacation, I am writing this on Sept. 29, without knowing what may have happened in Congress by the time you read it.)  At the same time, it depicts one with a strong inner spirit based on meditation (vss. 97 & 99), a spirit that is able to find focus in the midst of the many voices the surround all of us.  I have always been moved by the words, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (vs. 103)  They are words that are personal to the core!

In the reading from Genesis, the personal relationship becomes one of wrestling.  The context is a story of sibling rivalry and alienation, Jacob (with the help of his mother) having tricked Esau of his birthright blessing (see Genesis, chapter 27) and stolen flocks from his Uncle Laban (see Genesis, chapter 31).  Now Esau is coming to meet him.  (Genesis 32:6-8)  As he attempts to sleep, he dreams that he wrestles all might with an unknown man who throws his hip out of joint.  (vss. 24-25)  Jacob perceives that it is God and hangs on for dear life:  “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  (vs. 26)  The relationships we can trust the most are those in which we can contend with one another without becoming alienated.  Jacob goes for more.  One’s name is the most previous guardian of one’s identity.  The stranger in the dream wants to know Jacob’s name and Jacob says, in return, “Please tell me your name.”  (vss. 27 & 29)  He never gets it, but he declares, “ . . . I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  (vs. 30)  To talk of meeting face to face is to declare the most intimate of relationships.  Many thought meeting God that way would result in death.  Jacob lives through it, and more.  He gets a new name, Israel, a name that provides identity to a whole nation, and a blessing.  (vss, 28-29)  Again, the personal and the political meet.

The second Psalm depicts a protecting personal presence, ending with the words, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  (Psalm 121:8)  In the context of today’s theme it speaks of the bond of faithfulness that connects the best of friendships forever.

The epistle reading seems to move away from the individualistic perspective.  It instructs young Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings . . .”  (II Timothy 3:14-15)  Stick with what you have learned from me and scripture.  It’s almost as if it the words were intended to discourage this young leader of the early church from thinking for himself---and that’s what was happening in the early church. They were trying to consolidate the factions around on “orthodoxy.”

At the same time, the earlier reality that gave rise to this letter was a personal relationship between Paul and Timothy.  One wonders whether the writer is truly faithful to that relationship.  When the political agenda overtakes the personal relationship, the chains can begin to tighten.

The passage, at its core, is about the use of scripture, with verses 16 often being grasped by Fundamentalist.  “All scripture is inspired by God”---which is where they usually stop.  First, we need to note that “scripture” here does not refer to the Bible as we have it today.  It would only include what the early church considered “scripture”---mainly the law and the prophets, and some other “writings.”  The important thing to notice is its use:  “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, as that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”  (vss. 16-17)  It is not a weapon or lawbook.  It is something to be written on the heart to give us strength and courage to do “good work.”  A different tone than that of Jeremiah, but some of the same intent.

The passage also speaks of an ability to stand strong in the midst of the babble of many voices.  “ . . . be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable . . . For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”  (II Timothy 4:2-4)  We can run from such words which can be abused by those who would impose rigid creeds upon us, or we can let them encourage us to listen to the dictates of our hearts, which, for many of us, beat to the tune of a mind-stretching inclusive God.

Finally, we have another parable of Jesus recorded by Luke.  It is somewhat similar to the story from Genesis in that it involves a person who is willing to contend for divine blessing.  The person is a widow seeking justice before a judge who is unwilling to grant it.  (Luke 18:2-3)  She persists and finally wears him down.  “I will grant her justice,” the judge says, “so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  (vss. 4-5)  Jesus then says, “ . . . will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”  (vs. 7)  We are invited to persistence in our pleas for justice.  A persisting personal connection with God is presented as significant in the search for justice.  And notice that the reading begins with an instruction “not to lose heart.”  (vs. 1)  It’s “heart” religion from Genesis to Jeremiah to the Psalms and II Timothy and now in Luke---and the personal and political meet in that heart, in all aspects of the divine-human relationship.  Let’s make it personal!
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 AND Psalm 66:1-12 OR II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, II Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

The lectionary readings for this Sunday begin with surprising advice for people being held in captivity.  It’s not as though they don’t have any land.  Perhaps they are more like sharecroppers, or prisoners under house arrest.  Probably better than that.  They are allowed to go on with their life.  They just can’t go home to familiar places and ways, to the land where they believe right worship is practiced.

You’d think Jeremiah would be screaming and yelling, continuing to cry about their plight.  He’s done that along the way.  He’s told them this was coming and stayed the course with them.  He’s not been without sympathy.  But now he sends them a letter.  (Jeremiah 29:1-2)  His instruction:  “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”  (vss. 5-6)

Their time in this strange land is going to last awhile (vs. 10, not part of the assigned reading, says, “70 years”).  Not an initially encouraging message, but at least they can thrive while they are there.  Perhaps wherever we are is the place we are to thrive.  We cannot always change the circumstances of our living but we have some control over how we live in those circumstances.  We’ve already had the story, out of sequence, in which Jeremiah buys a field as a sign that “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  (Jeremiah 32:15)

This week’s reading is about more than clinging to one’s own survival.  While in exile (wherever we are?) the instruction is to “seek the welfare of the city . . . and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  (Jeremiah 29:7)  I’ve once had this scripture read as I was installed into a new pastorate. I hope they didn’t think I felt like I was in exile there.  I felt, instead, that their welfare and my welfare we tied together. We can thrive and find health only when the culture around us is healthy and thriving.

Some may feel like they live in a strange and alien country these days, what with all the political wrangling going on, the violent attacks on malls and schools and military installations, the crime and homelessness and international strife that greet us on the TV screen or in the newspaper, or sometimes just as we drive and walk the streets of our hometown.  Jeremiah’s call is to work for the welfare of that city and country and world where we live, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The reading from II Kings is a story about finding health, and again “place” is of significance.  Like some other scriptures, it is a story of reversal.  Naaman, commander of the Aramean army, had leprosy.  (II Kings 5:1)  The Arameans, a semi-nomadic pastoralist people originating out of what is present-day Syria, were frequent raiders into Israeli territory.  Sound familiar?

Leprosy is a disease which causes skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness that gets worse over time.  It leads to serious secondary infections and deformation.  In biblical times, there was no known effective treatment.  Lepers were shunned as “unclean” and forced to live as outcasts.  In Naaman’s household, however, was a young Israel girl held captive as the servant of his wife.  (vs. 2)  She knew of a prophet back home who could cure the leprosy.  (vs. 3)

As communication follows through proper channels with the king of Aram sending a letter and money to the king of Israel, it becomes almost humorous.  (vss. 4-6, not included in the assigned reading)  The king of Israel thinks he is being asked to cure Naaman, something which he knows he cannot do.  He thinks it is a trick to start a new round of conflict.  (vs. 7)  Elisha, the prophet known to the girl, hears what is going on and asks that Naaman be sent to him.  (vs. 8)

When Naaman arrives Elisha tells him, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean.”  (vss. 9-10)  The humor continues as prideful Naaman stomps away angry.  He deserves better than this, perhaps a miracle in which Elisha “would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!”  (vs. 11)  Why would I get into the muddy Jordan when I have rivers in “Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?  Could I not wash in them, and be clean?”  (vss. 11-12)

Isn’t that they we want?  To experience life and health?  On our own terms, in the places that are convenient to us?  Can’t we find health on unfamiliar territory?  Is Naaman refusing to thrive where he is, like those in exile being addressed by Jeremiah?  I bet Naaman wouldn’t have been a fan of Obamacare either!

Eventually Naaman cooperates, is healed, and says, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”  That takes us into another whole wormhole of issues, as does the greed of Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, so that the leprosy ends up infecting one of God’s faithful.  Naaman becomes the “good guy” and Gehazi, the “bad guy.”  For this week, it’s sufficient to see this as a story about finding health and thriving in life in unexpected and unfamiliar (even “muddy”) places.

The Gospel lesson is also about leprosy, this time ten lepers.  They approach Jesus and he heals them.  (Luke 17:11-14)  Only one remembers to turn back and thank Jesus, and that one is a Samaritan (kin to “The Good Samaritan”?).  (vss. 15-16)  I’m sure there is another element of reversal in this story, the Samaritan, a social untouchable among strict Jews of the day, coming out as the “good guy.”  (vss. 17-18)  We usually treat it as a story about being thankful and Jesus ends with a point about faith.  “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  (vs. 19)  Today, with my emphasis upon surviving and living where we are, I would suggest that we add thanksgiving to that list.  Wherever we find life and health, even in a foreign land or a strange place or as foreigners ourselves, is a place to give thanks.

The connection of the remaining readings is tenuous except for a few phrases, but since I thrive on the challenge of making connections, I’ll offer the following abbreviated comments

1.      The writer of II Timothy, putting himself into Paul’s story, is about a life of suffering and endurance. (II Timothy 2:9-10) “Paul” was able to “thrive” wherever he was.  He was never alone.  “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful---for he cannot deny himself.”  (vss. 11-13)  Thriving then means learning to get along and to work hard.  “Timothy” is instructed to “warn them . . .  that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.  Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has not need to be ashamed . . .”  (vss. 14-15)  There are nuances that call for subtle interpretations, especially given the nature of “Timothy’s” calling, but I leave that to you.

2.      Both Psalms are Psalms of praise to a God who provides what it takes to thrive wherever we are.  God “has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.  For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried . . . We went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.”  (Psalm 66:9-10 & 12)

The resources are there, wherever we are.  Let us survive, thrive, and give thanks in those places, seeking the welfare of the city, the nation, and the world where we are.
Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Lamentations 1:1-6 AND Lamentations 3:19-26 OR Psalm 137:1-9 OR Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 AND Psalm 37:1-9, II Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

Some of us grew up in a family and/or culture of reward and punishment.  Such people often come to believe that all behavior merits reward and punishment, sometimes learning to hand out reward and punishment themselves.  Success and failure are viewed as reward and punishment.  In school and on the job we are measured and marked for merit and demerit.  Entire religious groups and theologies seem to relish such a perspective on life, heaven and hell being the ultimate reward and punishment.

Such a perspective on life has its limits.  I’m not going to suggest today that we abolish all reward and punishment, although the idea is worthy of discussion.  Even behavioral science has determined that reward has its place and that reward is more effective than punishment as a motivator.  When reward and punishment dominate, however, any experience of hardship may invoke guilt and feel like punishment.  One may become dependent upon reward and feel that one’s good work is validated only if someone notices and pats you on the head or thanks you.  Thanking people, and God, in my opinion are simple common decency, a recognition of our interdependence, but appreciation by others is not sufficient reason to do what is right, doing one’s basic job, carrying one’s weight in society.

Now to our texts for the coming Sunday.  Our readings in recent weeks have taken us through a bit of weeping, mainly thanks to Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. Many of the texts for this week cover the same ground, especially in the readings from Lamentations, often attributed to Jeremiah.  The name “Lamentations,” attached to these writings somewhere along the way, means “expressions of grief.”  Probably a collection of poetic works rather than the direct writings of Jeremiah, many are written from the same era and experience that brings tears to Jeremiah’s eyes.

This week I don’t want to focus on the crying, but let’s feel it a moment by hearing some of the words and phrases from several of this week’s lectionary readings:

The first chapter of Lamentations has the city of Jerusalem weeping “bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks . . . Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude . . . The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.”  (Lamentations 1:1-4)

The second reading from Lamentations begins, “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!,” but quickly turns to one of the few moments of light and hopefulness in the book.  “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  (The source of inspiration of a hymn known by many:  “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” which specifically includes the phrase, “Morning by morning new mercies I see.”)

“By the rivers of Babylon---there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion . . . there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? . . . Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.  Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down!  Tear it down!  Down to its foundations!’”  (Psalm 137:1, 3-4, 6-7---Note that the overall tone is a longing for a return to a time when things were better, sort of a wallowing in sorrow, an ultimately nonproductive response.  Do we ever get caught up in such responses?)

Some at breakfast this morning wondered about the Babylonians request for song.  Perhaps they were tormenting the exiles by turning to them as a source of “amusement,” not unlike the history of white America looking to black slaves for song and dance which forced them into a caricature.

Without getting into questions of who wrote Habakkuk and when, we note that it also addresses a time of suffering and trouble.  “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help . . .?  Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?  Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.  The wicked surround the righteous---therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”  (Habakkuk 1:2-4)  Do we ever look around us in our day and feel this way?

Habakkuk climbs a watchtower to search the horizon for hope.  (Habakkuk 2:1)  The Lord tells him, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”  (vs. 2)  Does this imply that we will only glimpse hope while on the run?  At the same time, God’s message, through Habakkuk, is to wait.  (vs. 3)

The same emphasis upon waiting appears in Psalm 37:  “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.”  (Psalm 37:7)  The whole of the reading from this Psalm is about not letting it get to us when the “wicked” and “wrongdoers” seem to be able to get away with anything.  “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers . . . do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.  Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.  Do not fret---it leads only to evil.”  (vss. 1, 7-8)  Waiting seems to have something to do with not fretting.  Is it advice as we watch the self-destruction taking place in the halls of Congress these days?  Waiting, biblically, is not so much about the passage of time as it is about the focus of attention.  Pay attention to, stay close to, God.  Hurling accusations of blame at one another will simply destroy you all.

How am I connecting all this weeping with reward and punishment?  Only this, that much of the weeping arises out of a feeling that all their troubles are sent upon them as punishment by God.  I don’t think it’s quite that simple, but when we operate with a reward and punishment theology at the center of our belief, a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth is likely to occur.  I’m not anxious to perpetuate that kind of reward and punishment framework.

So where do I find anything to do with reward in this week’s texts?  That’s a good question!  I find it in the Gospel lesson which is another of those strange and difficult bits of commentary about and by Jesus.

First the context.  In the verses just before this week’s reading, Jesus says, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!  It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.  Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.  And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  (Luke 17:1-4)

No wonder the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”  (vs. 5)  Jesus’ immediate response is familiar.  It isn’t about how much faith you have, but about putting it into practice.  With even a mustard seed’s worth of faith, you can move trees (vs. 6---Matthew 17:20 says, “mountains”).  There follows a puzzling parable about a slave, that seems to reinforce a slave’s inferior position.  When the slave comes in from the field, don’t invite him to sit down and eat with you.  Instead send him to the kitchen to prepare supper.  He can eat after he has served you.  (vss. 7-8)  Substitute servant or employee if you wish, but the tone still seems harsh.

Slavery was part of the culture of Jesus’ day.  The point here seems to be about doing the job we are called to do without looking for a reward, without expecting people to go around saying, “Good job!”  “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”  (vs. 9)  Jesus' then says to his disciples, and us(?), although I don’t much like thinking of myself as a “worthless” slave.  “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.’” (vs. 10)

So here we are---back to the question of reward and punishment.  Why do we do what we do?  Are we motivated by reward and punishment, or do we do it just because it is right, it is part of our contribution to the well-being of the whole?  I still believe that saying, “Thank you,” is an important gesture of grace, but religion and faith that depends only on reward and punishment the soil in which it grows is not even likely to sustain a mustard seed.

Finally, we have a reading from II Timothy which doesn’t seem to have much connection with the theme.

The overall tone in the reading, though, is one of being faithful to one’s tradition.  It was written during the time the early church was beginning to try to consolidate the wildly diverse interpretations that were abounding.  It was moving toward a “creed” and “orthodoxy.”  It’s a troubling period for those of us who affirm the abundance of diversity in the Christian movement, but it is still important to be aware that we function as part of a tradition and a heritage.  “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”  (vs. 5---Isn’t it interesting that there is no mention of a grandfather or father?)  “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you . . . Do not be ashamed . . . of the testimony about our Lord . . . For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher . . . Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me . . . Guard the good treasure entrusted to you . . .”  (vss. 6, 8, 11, 13, 14)

We can read into these verses an instruction to keep on keeping on.  It’s what we do, without regard to reward or punishment.  It’s an expression of who we are.  We’ve just doing our job, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love and of self-discipline.”  (vs. 7)

Yes, we enjoy being rewarded for good deeds, but isn’t it also deeply rewarding to be able to express the God-given gifts that are in us, using them to build up those around us, seeking peace and justice for all?

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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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