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Sunday, December 28, 2014

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Monday, December 22, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures:

Nativity of the Lord – Proper I (December 24, 2014):  Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96:1-13, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

Nativity of the Lord – Proper II (December 24, 2014):  Isaiah 62:1-12, Psalm 97:1-12, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:1-20

Nativity of the Lord – Proper III (December 24:2014):  Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98:1-9, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-14

First Sunday after Christmas:  Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148:1-14, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40


This week I’m inviting us into a conversation about Christmas stories.  Some of us might want to look at stories about our Christmas memories.  Why are they significant?  What do they mean?  Then there are the stories in scripture about Jesus’ birth.  They are told from various perspectives, using a variety of images.  As time passed the stories sometimes turned into theological statements as Paul and others tried to express the meaning they found in this child, and the adult he became.  We are part of that continuing process, so looking at the stories we tell may include various stories about the significance of the meaning of Jesus in our own lives.  What are the Christmas stories we tell?


First, a story about a childhood memory of Christmas.  In our family, clothes were passed down from cousin to cousin.  When one of my cousins no longer fit into a shirt, say, it came to me.  I wore it awhile until it was passed on to a still younger cousin.  Lots of clothing, of course, never survived more than one transfer, if it made it that far.  I remember one Christmas I received my first dress suit as a gift, something seemingly beyond the reach or thought of a family in our financial situation.  My first question was, “Whose was it?”  It was inconceivable to me that it was new, but, in this case, the inconceivable became reality.  Why is this story significant?  What does it mean?  I suppose I cling to it partly as a reminder of the humble circumstances in which I was reared, of the network of family sharing in which I participated, and of the sacrificial generosity of my parents.  It doesn’t take much examination to notice the deeper truths it contains.  It’s a story of heritage, of gift giving, of love, of surprising newness, of realities that stretch our way of looking at things, etc.  All those elements have been associated with Christmas, the story of Jesus, and the theology and practice of Christianity.


Now, the biblical stories.  In some traditions there are a number of “Christmas” occasions of worship---as many as four on Christmas Eve (including one at midnight) and Christmas Day, as well as the two Sundays following.  Not coming from that tradition, I don’t fully understand the significance of the three sets of scripture for The Nativity of the Lord.  Whatever their meaning, they give us a variety of stories about Jesus, as well as Old Testament texts many have associated with him.  In this season, they all become “Christmas” stories for us, providing various perspectives on the meaning of this season and person at its center.


Luke, who regularly notices the outcasts and the lowly, tells us about a young girl who becomes pregnant in a mysterious (many would have thought “improper”) way and is now on her way to Bethlehem with the man who has married her despite the scandal.  The whole story underlines the humble origins in which love can be found.  The story tells us there isn’t even a hotel room available and Joseph and Mary certainly didn’t make reservations.  They end up in a cave or stable where their newborn son is placed in a manger, with the assumption (although not recorded) of smelly (and perhaps cute) animals all around.  (Luke 2:4-7)


The whole thing, of course, is set in the context of the power of Rome and the taxes it demanded of these poor folk.  (vss. 1-3)


Then there are angels and shepherds.  No announcement to kings here.  Instead “good news of great joy” comes to lowly shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night.”  The seeds of revolution are planted; the promise of the prophets who represented a God of peace and justice rises again.  (vss. 8-14)


The reading for the First Sunday after Christmas continues the story with the baby being presented in the temple.  (vss. 22-24)  Simeon takes him in his arms, speaking of this child as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel . . . destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.”  He will be opposed and Mary’s soul will experience agony.  (vss. 28-36)  Anna also speaks about the child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”  (vss. 36-38)  We are left with a picture of a child “who grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”  (vs. 40)


In this story we have something great arising from humble circumstance, one who is to fulfill the hopes of many.  His birth rekindles visions of inclusion, justice and peace, the powerful being overthrown.  This birth is a sign of God’s favor at work among those who struggle in the midst of oppression.


Another reading for The Nativity of the Lord comes from the Gospel According to John, in which Jesus is seen as “The Word” with God from the very beginning.  In fact, “the Word was God.”  (John 1:1-3)  This Word “became flesh and lived among us,” full of grace and truth, showing forth God’s glory.  (vs. 14)  He is light that shines in the darkness and cannot be extinguished.  (vss. 4-9)  He offers the “power to become children of God.”  (vss. 11-13)


In this story we have one who puts us in touch with eternal power, makes us family, shines light on our lives and world.  It is all available right where we live---“among us.”  It’s still a story of humility and power, but quite a different take with different metaphors.


Then there’s Isaiah.  The church of my younger years majored in the misguided effort to see Jesus in every verse of the Old Testament.  My perspective now says that Isaiah and those who wrote in his name were not directly speaking about Jesus.  They were more likely talking about circumstances and kings and nations in their own time.  It is true that their visions contributed to understandings of a hoped-for Messiah (anointed king), some of which were applied, by early followers, to Jesus.  They have become part of the way in which we continue to tell the story of Jesus.


In the lectionary readings we find light in darkness (Isaiah 9:20).  We find joy as the oppressor is brought down.  (vss. 3-5)  We are introduced to a child who “is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” one who will bring “endless peace . . . with justice and with righteousness.”  (vss. 6-7)  His invitation is “Go through, go through the gates, prepare the people; build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones . . . See, your salvation comes . . .”  (Isaiah 62:10-11)  We are told about the beautiful feet of a messenger who “announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” who says, “Your God reigns.”  (Isaiah 52:7)  It is occasion for joyful singing.  (vss. 8-9)


The Isaiah reading for the First Sunday after Christmas uses the metaphors of clothing and gardening.  “ . . . he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.  For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”  (Isaiah 61:10-11)Isaiah4, 8-11, Psalm 1salm 126:o


When we use these readings in our telling of the Christmas story, we tell the story of a king, made most explicit perhaps in the Isaiah 62:3---“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”  When we tell this Christmas story we express our longings for rulers and leaders, for governments, who function with transparency and compassion so that justice and peace not only prevail but thrive and grow in life-giving soil.


The readings from the Psalms also sing the praises of such a king, giving us a perspective on the Christmas story that speaks of inclusiveness, of love and justice and choral outburst in which all of nature is heard.


The epistle readings offer short theological statements about Jesus, mostly in terms of grace and sacrificial redemption.  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all  . . . we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.  He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”  (Titus 2:11, 13-14)  In this approach to the Christmas story, we know ourselves to be loved beyond condition, forgiven, “saved,” and called to a life of zeal for good deeds.  What a message to receive and celebrate on Christmas Day.


The reading from Galatians repeats John’s metaphor in which we are children of God.  (Galatians 4:5-6)  Hebrews tells us of a God who “in these last days . . . has spoken to us by a Son . . . He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being . . .”  (Hebrews 1:2-3)  This Christmas story reminds us that when we look into that manger, we see God.  It reminds us to look for God in humble places.


So---what is your Christmas story?  What is mine?  The perspective that means the most to me is the one that tells a story of grace.  Christmas reminds me that my life, all life, is gift.  Viewing life through that lens doesn’t mean that I don’t work hard, that I don’t have talents, a contribution to make in the ongoing building of a better world.  It reminds me to appreciate the tremendous contribution that comes from beyond myself.  Some talk about being “self-made,” “pulling themselves up by the bootstraps,” etc.  They speak with pride of their achievements.  I have always been deeply aware of how much I have received from others, the unexpected opportunities, the encouragement, the training, the sustenance.  There is so much in life that just comes, unsolicited, often unexpected.  It’s the way life is.  My prayers are always filled with thanksgiving, often specifically itemized.


Gift-giving is a most appropriate symbol for the meaning of Christmas in my life.  There are other perspectives that are important, to me as well as to the church and world---ones that emphasize peace and justice.  Even they, however, are connected with the greatest gift of all, the giving of oneself, in humility, in service to others---a giving embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus.


I leave it to you to ponder upon how you tell the story of Christmas as it plays out in your life.
Thursday, December 18, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah4, 8-11, Psalm 1salm 126:oII Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:46b-55 OR Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38


We spent most of our breakfast discussion this morning reflecting upon Mary’s response when an angel came to her and announced her pending motherhood.  We are told, “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”   (Luke 1:29)  Some of the women, remembering their first pregnancy, thought “perplexed” seemed too mild a word.  For me, it had been a verse that made Mary particularly human, confused, maybe a bit panicked.


Being a lover of words, the discussion sent me to the Merriam-Webster dictionary on my Kindle Fire to find out more about perplexity and being perplexed.  Perplexed:  “filled with uncertainty, full of difficulty.”  The encounter with the long list of synonyms was most enlightening and helpful, at times almost amusing:  “puzzled, baffled, confounded, hard-pressed, nonplussed, hard put.”  Mary was “nonplussed.”  She was “hard put.”  The list of synonyms for perplexity is even richer:  “bewilderment, entanglement, bamboozlement, befuddlement, bemusement, bewilderment, confusedness, discombobulation, distraction, fog, head-scratching, mystification.”  One is almost driven to leaf through the dictionary for further definitions.  Did Mary feel bamboozled and befuddled?  Was she discombobulated?  Was it a head-scratching moment for her?  What kind of entanglements was she getting into?  And “mystification” opens up a whole wide field for responding to this indeed “mysterious” moment.


At points the definitions and synonyms made me think of wonder, a word which is used to describe two, perhaps related, human feelings.  Wonder as a noun refers to “a cause of astonishment or admiration,” “rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience,”  but also to “a feeling of doubt or uncertainty.”  I was surprised to find “caution” among its synonyms.  To wonder, a verb, means “to feel surprise, to feel curiosity or doubt.”  Wonder is both a sense of awe and a way of saying that we want to understand something better.  “I wonder why this is happening to me.”  “I wonder what that is all about.”


I thought about titling this week’s blog entry “Oh, The Wonder of It All.”


Mary was in total turmoil.  She was frightened.  She didn’t understand.  Her life was being turned upside down.  Many would note that, in the end, she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  (vs. 38---Note a similar attitude in the story of the calling of the boy Samuel in I Samuel, chapter 3.)  I want to suggest this week, though, that Mary’s attitude, if it be understood in all the richness of the words “wonder” and “perplexity”, is an attitude to be commended to us as we continue to reflect on the meaning of the strange child in our lives and in human history.


Some of this week’s lectionary readings reflect “wonder” and “perplexity” more than others, but all have elements worthy of notice and contemplation.


The alternative Gospel reading is a longer response known to many as “The Magnificat” or as “Mary’s Song.”  (Is its inclusion in the readings for three weeks in a row now meant to suggest it’s importance?)  It is certainly the song of an amazed soul, singing in wonder at the work of “the Mighty One.”  “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things . . .”  (vss. 48-53)  We often wonder why bad things happen to good people.  We might also ponder on the wonder of it when good things arise from lowly places.  The Christmas story is set among the lowly, not among the high and mighty (except as a challenge to their abuse of power).  It is about justice, something always arousing wonder and perplexity.


The readings from II Samuel and Psalm 89 are significant in their focus on David.  The Gospel lesson (along with other Gospel and Epistle readings) makes the connection with “the house of David.”  (vs. 27)  Jesus was seen by many to be the long-awaited Messiah (spirit-anointed king) and the Messiah was expected to be the heir of King David’s legacy.  Both II Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 sing praises to King David and call attention to God’s promise to be with God’s people throughout history and eternity.  The rule of the ideals embodied in David is seen to be eternal.  “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”  (II Samuel 7:16)  “I declare that your steadfast love is established forever . . . You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one . . . I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’”  (Psalm 89:2-4)


The mystery of ideals marching their way through history, what is passed from generation to generation through families, is reason for wonder and perplexity.  How can this be, especially when David had major blemishes in his personal life?  He was a murderer and an adulterer, yet God found ways to use him and continued to love him beyond all bounds of our understanding.  Is such love part of the wonder and perplexity of the Christmas message?


The reading from II Samuel, however, emphasizes another aspect of David’s heritage.  He has built himself a grand dwelling and begins to wonder about a place for God.  He engages the prophet Nathan in a conversation, saying, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”  (II Samuel 7:1-2)  Nathan, in effect, gives David the go-ahead to build a temple, but God has a different perspective.  “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord:  Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”  (vss. 5-6)  There are other stories which call into question our human obsession with buildings, our attempts to contain our spiritual expressions in a defined and limited space.  Wonder and perplexity call us, sometimes even force us, to break out, to notice God at work in the lowliest places, sometimes far from the stained glass of sanctuary windows. 


My wife and I have been reading a book by Brian Doyle, A Shimmer of Something: Lean Stories of Spiritual Substance.  At one point he writes,

“You know how everything seems normal and usual and 

But actually everything if you look at it closely with all four eyes

Is utterly confusing and puzzling and mysterious and

He also notes, “Sometimes we are starving to see every bit of what is right in front of us.”  Jill Pelaez Baumgartner, in her forward to the book adds, “It is not just that we miss the facts of our lives as they whiz by us . . . It is that we miss the true nature of reality---that which happens to us every day of our lives---which contains mystery, and if we miss that, we miss the reason for our existence.”  A Shimmer of Something---something to wonder and be perplexed about---something the season calls us to notice and bow down before, or lift our arms and voices in praise about.


That leaves the reading from Romans.  It is one of many benedictions in the Bible, including an abundance in the Pauline epistles.  A benediction is a good word, a blessing.  Sometime you might want to explore the benedictions of the Bible.  Someone noted that this one isn’t even a sentence, but then Paul was never known for his carefully constructed sentence.  Its sentiment calls us to take a long view of things, to see and experience God’s glory in all things---forever!


At breakfast someone observed that the encounter between Mary and the angel begins with a blessing, i.e., Mary is greeted as a “favored one.”  (Luke 1:28)  At the beginning of her song of response, in verse 48, she speaks of the Lord looking “with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”  We often speak lightly of blessings.  When we notice the deepest blessings of life, we are “nonplussed,” “confounded.”  Blessings may even “entangle” us in all kinds of things, like love and peace and justice.  Is Christmas that kind of blessing---one before, and in, which we wonder and are perplexed? 


Rather than wishing you Merry Christmas, perhaps we all need to hear again the words of the benediction in Romans 16:25-27---"Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith---to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen."
Friday, December 12, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126:1-6 OR Luke 1:46b-55, I Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28


I’ve been reading Not Without Laughter, a novel by Langston Hughes.  I have known him as a poet, but didn’t know he had written a novel.  A “Note” at the beginning of this edition says that it is “a portrait of black life in small-town Kansas in the early 1900s” and that it “holds up a mirror to the writer’s own youthful experiences through the character of Sandy Rogers.”  As a young man Sandy discovers the pool hall with all its story-telling, and noisy, sometimes argumentative, camaraderie.  The title of the book comes out of his thoughts as he reflects on that experience.  “But underneath, all was good-natured and friendly---and through and above everything was laughter.  No matter how belligerent or lewd their talk was, or how sordid the tales they told---of dangerous pleasures and stranger perversities---these black men laughed.  That must be the reason, thought Sandy, why poverty-stricken old Negroes like Uncle Dan Givens lived so long---because to them, no matter how hard life might be, it was not without laughter.”


I want to sing in praise of laughter today, deep laughter from inside one’s being, and the kind of roaring ringing sound of joy that laughs in the face of hardship and evil.  It’s the kind of laugh depicted in The Laughing Jesus, a painting that appeared in Playboy Magazine, of all places, some years back.  In a search of the internet I discovered that there are a multitude of such portrayals.  Do a search for yourself and check some of them out.  There are even apocryphal stories of Jesus and his laughter.  There may be no more profound portrayal of the incarnation, a laughing God.  (I‘d place it right alongside a weeping Jesus.)  God must truly have a sense of humor in his/her gracious love of human beings.


While the line to this week’s lectionary readings does not flow directly to laughter, I believe that laughter flows from the deepest kind of joy.  Joy is in some of this week’s readings and joy is an attitude often lifted up in the Advent season, in our seasonal singing, and in related scriptures.


The other theme I see in the readings is that of dreaming big dreams, of hoping for visions to be fulfilled.  At this week’s breakfast discussion I asked, “What are your dreams and hopes for the world?  What ideals and values would prevail?”  Hopes and dreams and visions have drawn the human imagination and its outworking’s for centuries.  Jesus became a lightning rod in which many of those dreams and visions came to focus in a new way.  Along with joy, each Advent season calls us to celebrate and renew hope.


Rather than offer an overall interpretation of the texts for the coming Sunday, let me highlight a few verses in each to lift up dreams and visions and joy that may enable us to burst forth in gut-busting laughter.


Isaiah 61 may be the central vision of the entire Bible.  It is the one picked up by Jesus in his inaugural sermon as recorded in Luke 4:16-21.  I acknowledge the rich and varied history of the ideal of a Messiah, the various threads and interpretations in that tradition.  We’re talking here about Messiah (earthly king and hoped for savior), but today let’s take it as an expression of hope for society in which peace and justice reign.  As it reads in Isaiah 61:1-3:  The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion---to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.”  Notice the “oil of gladness instead of mourning.”  Do I hear a hint of laughter?


Psalm 126 expresses a similar hope---a hope of restoration in which “we were like those who dream.  Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy . . . May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves."


The reading from Luke gives us Mary’s song upon her visit with her cousin Elizabeth.  Both are with child---Mary with Jesus and Elizabeth with John, the baptizer.  Elizabeth has just said, “ . . . as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy,” when Mary bursts into song.  Her vision is that her son will fulfill the ancient dream.  Her joyous singing is rooted in “the Mighty One.”  “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”


The joke is on those who think they have power and proceed to use it oppressively.  Cue:  Laughter.


In I Thessalonians 5:16 we are told, “Rejoice always.”  It’s a favorite theme of Paul’s.  As severe as some of our images of Paul are, I can imagine a laughing Paul alongside a laughing Jesus.  In Philippians 4:4, he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  The rest of the reading from I Thessalonians lists some attitudes which might prevail in an ideal world, another way of expressing, and perhaps achieving, a vision.  “Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances . . . test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:17-18, 21-22)  Doesn’t exactly seem like a life full of laughter, yet there again are the opening words, “Rejoice, always.”  Always.


The other Gospel reading brings us back to rough old John, the baptizer.  Pastor Rick did a great job, last Sunday, of giving us a flavor of this character who would have made most of us uncomfortable.  Mostly it’s a story of one who is pointing ahead to someone greater.  There’s stuff about identity and baptism (John 1:19-22, 25-27), but John is simply “a voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”  (vs. 23)  With these words, John ties in again to the vision of Isaiah.


John is a voice of hope in the wilderness, a glimmer of light coming over the horizon.  Just on the edge of our hearing do we hear an echo of laughter from somewhere in the skies?  Is it too sacrilegious to call it a giggle, maybe even the cooing chuckle of a baby?  I hope not---and therefore I hope!
Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Thoughts on the Lectionary Passages for the Second Sunday of Advent (December 7, 2014)

By Jim Ogden

Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, II Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

We live in an age and culture which seeks instant gratification.  We want our internet to respond more rapidly.  We are constantly connected so that we don’t miss something the moment it happens.  See, here’s a picture of it!  Even food must be fast.  We can’t wait.  We don’t have time to wait.  They’ve tried to move Black Friday up this year.  (Who dared to make such an obnoxious use of that name to describe a commercial kick-off of the Christmas shopping season?)

It’s difficult to heed the call to be patient.  Yet, here I am approaching my 75th birthday and I’m still waiting.  I was one of those wide-eyed idealists that lived through the sixties thinking we were going to change the world.  On many days it’s difficult to identify much real progress and hope turns to depression.  We just keep on fighting the same battles.  Even the date of this Sunday reminds us of war, the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The battles never seem to end, even though years earlier Woodrow Wilson, borrowing a phrase from H.G. Wells, declared “a war to end all wars.”

Haven’t I, haven’t we, been patient long enough?  Yet here we are again in the season of waiting---Advent, we call it in the church.  At least the word, from the Latin, speaks of something which is coming.  There is hope; it is coming; be patient and wait.  In Christian theology, it is the birth of Jesus that is coming.  In the larger Judeo-Christian heritage, this time of expectation and waiting is attached to a messianic figure and a time when all will be set right, God’s reign of peace and justice, shalom, will be realized.

Perhaps it is a season to relearn patience.  God’s plans don’t seem to involve much instant gratification.  This week’s epistle reading from II Peter begins, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”  (II Peter 3:8)  As the reading continues, it looks not at our patience but at God’s patience.  What we hope for is slow in coming because God is waiting for us.  “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”  (vs. 9)  Some of us may have problems with the underlying notion that all this waiting leads up to a Judgment Day, but we can still find hope and comfort in the image of a God who is patient with us.  Is there a patience in the very workings of the cosmos?  Romans 8:22 speaks of “the whole creation . . . groaning in labor pains.”  (And then I follow my mind as it makes and unbidden leap to the song, This Is My Father’s World by Maltbie D. Babcock, and the phrase, “all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.”  Okay, my mind does crazy things.  Your guess is as good as mine.)

This week’s texts are full of images of what it is we’re waiting for.  “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.  Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.  The Lord will give what is good . . . righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.”  (Psalm 85:10-12)  “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain . . . He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”  (Isaiah 40:4 & 11).

I’m hesitant to suggest that all will be well, but that is the hope---that everything that is out of kilter will be put right again.  The images are comforting.  The reading from Isaiah actually begins with these words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”  (Isaiah 40:1). The picture is one of tender and loving relationships.  (vs. 2)  God “will speak peace to his people.”  (Psalm 85:8). But still we wait!  “ . . . we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”  Part of the discussion in recent weeks has been about what we are to do while we are waiting.  Maybe we are just to keep at it.  Maybe we are part of the process of making it come, whether it be in a thousand years or in a day.  We are to lead “lives of holiness and godliness . . . Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace . . .”  (II Peter 3:11 & 14)

Whatever is coming involves preparation and preparers.  The reading from Isaiah looks ahead to one who will cry out, “In the wilderness prepare a way for the Lord . . .”  (Isaiah 40:2)  The Gospel lesson from Mark applies those words to John the baptizer, speaking of it as “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”  (Mark 1:1-4)

Perhaps we are all preparers.  Maybe when some of us look back and wonder what we have accomplished, we should look at that time as years of preparation.  The task of preparation is not yet complete.  There are those still coming who will continue preparing the way.  Perhaps we can look at each day, or each thousand years, as a time of preparation.  John speaks of something greater still to come.  (Mark 1:7) 

Watch for it; wait for it; prepare for it!  It’s Advent!
Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thoughts on the Lectionary Passages for Thanksgiving Day (November 27, 2014) and the First Sunday of Advent (November 30, 2014)

By Jim Ogden

Lectionary Scriptures:
Thanksgiving Day:  Deuteronomy 8:7-18, Psalm 65:1-13, II Corinthians 9:6-15, Luke 17:11-19
First Sunday of Advent:
  Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, I Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

We come to the beginning of a new liturgical year as we enter the Advent Season.  It begins pretty much as the old year ending, with a call to stay awake as we await a day when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  Those are words attributed to Jesus in Mark 13:24-25 and the “stay awake” part comes in verses 35-37.  Not exactly images that fit the mood we encounter in the mall ringing with Christmas music and the belly laughs of Santa Claus.

The coming Sunday also caps the celebratory Thanksgiving weekend.  The lectionary scriptures for Thanksgiving seem much more compatible with the joyful spirit many associate with Advent.

Instead, let me suggest entering into the season with a spirit of dependence.  Many of us don’t much like to acknowledge our dependence upon anyone or anything.  We’re also aware that dependence can take an unhealthy turn so that we talk about co-dependence in relationships.  We can hardly stand the thought of being separated from one another.  We are addicted.  We couldn’t or wouldn’t survive on our own.  Addiction or dependency also brings to mind drugs, substance abuse, etc.

We live in a culture where there is often a macho spirit in which we like to think of ourselves as “self-made.”  Don’t tread on me.  Don’t mess with me.  Don’t invade my space or interfere with my life and its choices.

When I worked with the national staff of the American Baptist Churches in the USA, one of the values that guided our work was that of interdependence.  We all depend upon one another, and upon natural environment (and ultimately the cosmos/God) around us.  It’s not an unhealthy co-dependence.  It’s a statement of fact.

When I utter a prayer before I eat, I am often keenly aware of the growers and shippers and marketers who made that meal possible, even of the living things (whether plant or animal) which are consumed in my eating and the earth and plant substances which season everything.  This week, however, I invite us to allow ourselves to become overcome by a sense of our dependence upon God.

In one sense, that’s where all scripture, all religion, begins and ends.  God is the source of all that is.  It’s there in the Thanksgiving reading from Deuteronomy.  Moses reminds the Hebrew people that they are being brought  into a good land “with flowing streams, with springs and undergound waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.  (Deuteronomy 8:7-10)  There “you shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God . . . Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God . . . do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God . . . Do not day to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth . . . (vss. 10-11, 14, 17-18).

Psalm 65 speaks in a similar tone.  “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.  You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness.  The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.”  (Psalm 65:9-13)

It would be easy to read into these words a somewhat magical process with no human participation.  We might object to the overemphasis upon wealth and the abundance of nature.  Many go through life barely able to eke out an existence on land with limited productivity.  For whatever time we are able, though, let’s muster the will to read these poetic words as a call to acknowledge that life ultimately emanates from some source beyond us, even beyond our understanding and control---and give thanks.

While the reading from II Corinthians is about being generous and sharing what we have with others, it is clear that God is part of the cycle, God who “is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance . . . He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”  (II Corinthians 9:8 & 10)

The Advent reading from Isaiah is another scene of mountains quaking, of God’s anger, of lives shaking like a leaf.  (Isaiah 64:1, 4, 5-6)  It also speaks of God’s power to deliver and declares, “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  (vss. 7-8)

The Gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day begins with the healing of ten lepers.  (Luke 17:11-14)  Most of us have been dependent at one time or another upon someone with the power of healing.  Most of you have visited a doctor’s office, I imagine.  I have, sometimes more often than I wanted.  The Advent Psalm also assumes a power of restoration.  “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”  (Psalm 80:7 & 19)

The first Sunday of Advent gives us a reading from I Corinthians in which the gifts of life are seen as coming from “the grace of God,” of our being “enriched” through Christ Jesus, “in speech and knowledge of every kind . . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift. . .  He will also strengthen you to the end.”  (I Corinthians 1:4-5, 7-8)

The story of the lepers emphasizes, on Thanksgiving Day, giving thanks for life-restoring power.  Only one of the lepers, a Samaritan at that, remembers to do it, prostrating himself before Jesus. (Luke 17:16-18)

We are dependent.  Maybe instead of fighting it, we should prostrate ourselves before the mysterious power of Love and Life all around us, and give thanks.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100:1-5 OR Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46


This Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year.  The name given to the day, Christ the King Sunday, is of recent origin, established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, to counter rising nationalism and secularism.  From the very beginning New Testament Christianity was seen as a threat to the power of earthly kings and authorities.  Our loyalty is to a higher power.  As Pope Pius XI put it, “He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone.”   shua 24: 24:1D Psalm 78:1-7 OR WIn 1969 Pope Paul VI moved the day to its present location at the end of the church year.  It is a celebration of the consummation of all history when the ideals of God’s Kingdom will be realized.  The Revised Common Lectionary calls it “Reign of Christ Sunday” since references to kings are challenging in democratic societies.  “Reign of Christ” connects with the notion of “The Kingdom of God,” so central in Jesus’ teachings, shifting the focus from the “King” to the community of those who try to live by Jesus’ teachings. 


Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Sweden, by the way, calls this Sunday the Sunday of Doom.  I’m not about to try stealing that title from them, but it is true that the lectionary readings for the Sunday, including some of the ones before us this week, focus on judgment.  Instead of focusing upon the judgment per se, I found myself sifting through the texts for clues about the values shaping this community in which Jesus’ teachings prevail.


The primary image that comes through is that of equality and justice, mutual caring and support.  In all but one of the texts there is an image and sheep and/or shepherds.  Both Psalms speak of us as “the sheep of his pasture.”  “We are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”  (Psalm 100:3)  “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”  (Psalm 97:7a)


The picture of a caring shepherd and his sheep has been heart-warming for many.  Think of the popularity of Psalm 23 and its picture of the Lord as our shepherd, or the images of the shepherd in some of Jesus’ parables (Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the one who seeks out the lost sheep and carries it home in his arms).  The reality is much messier as the shepherd deals with smelly and rebellious sheep, but the image is also quite removed from what we often associate with kingship.  Whatever the reign of Christ means, these are not images of a dictatorial overlord.


Two of the readings show, in fact, how relationships in the kingdom can get out of whack.  In Ezekiel we start with the warm image of a shepherd seeking out and taking care of his sheep.  God says, “I myself will search for my sheep . . . I will feed them with good pasture . . . they shall lie down in good grazing land . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep . . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak . . .”  (Ezekiel 34:11, 14 -16)  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  Then comes a turn in the story.  Surprise!  Relations among sheep can even go astray, or among the people who claim to be God’s sheep.  The reading from Ezekiel turns out to be a judgment story.  There are fat sheep and lean sheep, weak sheep and strong sheep.  The fat sheep are under judgment because “you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns . . .”  (verse 16, 20-22)


The biblical vision of the reign of God is one in which the weak are protected, where things are set right, where justice prevails.  “I will feed them with justice,” God says in Ezekiel 34:16)


We spent most of our time at our weekly breakfast discussion this morning talking about the Gospel lesson, another of the series of judgment parables we’ve been looking at in recent weeks.  In many ways it has been a favorite of those who are more liberal or progressive, who espouse a “social” gospel.  The basis of judgment is not being able to recite the right creed or fulfill every detail of right ritual, as many who first heard the parable may have believed (and many today seem to continue to believe).  The basis of judgment is service to those around us---feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison.  (Matthew 25:34-37)  A prominent feature of relationships where the reign of Jesus prevails is this kind of mutual caring and inclusion.


In this parable it is sheep and goats who are separated, rather than warring sheep abusing those who are weak.  Some may want to find some significance for the goats representing those under judgment.  It’s probably more a matter of drawing upon the reality that sheep and goats were often herded together.  In the parable, there comes a point at which the sheep and goats ask when it was that they were observed performing (or not performing) these acts of kindness.  The answer is worth pondering.  It’s hard not to notice the reference to “the least of these” and to “members of my family.”  (vs. 40)


Just as God is looking out for the weak sheep in Ezekiel, God observes those who are of service to “the least.”  Life under the reign of Christ is not a matter of bowing down in humble obedience; it is a matter of bringing justice to the least.  Our discussion this morning noted that this may require systemic action as well as personal kindness.  Whole systems get out of kilter so that the least drop off the grid or are walled off so we do not notice them.  Notice that it is “nations” which are gathered for judgment.  (vs. 32)


In the parable we also find that the least are included as part of the family.  The king speaks of them as “members of my family.”  (vs. 40)


I have less and less patience with parables of eternal punishment, as apparently do most of those who participate in the breakfast discussions.  If one can move beyond a literal interpretation of the judgment, however, it is clear that we are being presented with values that are central if we claim to live in the reign of Christ.  Mutual service and inclusion, justice that touches the lives of even “the least,” are the basis for quality of life in the here and now.  Someone in the discussion suggested that heaven and hell may be experienced in the here and now.  To live in a society where injustice prevails, where we may be part of the practice of injustice, may feel like hell.


That leaves the reading from Ephesians.  It makes no mention of sheep or shepherds.  Its main connection to the Reign of Christ Sunday is its image of the great power of God who seated Christ “at his right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him head over all things . . .”  (Ephesians 1:19-22)  The reading ends speaking of “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  (vs. 23)


Living in the Reign of Christ means aligning ourselves with a power of love and life that fills all things, all relationships, starting within each one of us.  The reading begins with a prayer.  “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you . . .”  (vss. 17-18)  Wisdom, revelation, knowledge of God, hope, living according to our calling, having enlightened hearts---all values that can fill us as we work together and serve one another in the shaping of a community that thrives under the reign of God.  Can you see it with the eyes of your heart enlightened?
Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Judges 4:1-7AND Psalm 123:1-4 OR Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 AND Psalm 90:1-12, I Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30


So what are we supposed to do while we’re waiting for the end of the world?


I grew up in a religious environment where we spent a lot of time worrying about the end of the world---whole denominations formed on the basis of minor differences of interpretation about the details of the days of approaching judgment.  At least, they seemed minor to some of us.  Who was going to survive and who wasn’t?  A few seemed to gloat over all those who would be left behind.  I used to have a Ziggy cartoon in which Ziggy is asked about a question about the end of the world.  He says he’ll take what’s worth saving, put it in a doggy bag, and stick it in the refrigerator.


Not very funny if one takes it seriously!  But I wonder whether most of us take such questions very seriously these days.


If nuclear annihilation doesn’t get us, destruction of the environment will.  Barring any other premature end, science tells us we can always wait to be enveloped by the expanding sun (some five billion years or so from now).


I’ve said more than once that I don’t find such speculation very productive, but the nature of end times comes under consideration in Christian theology and in various biblical texts.  We have only two more Sundays left before a new liturgical year begins with Advent on November 30th.  This is the time of year when the lectionary focuses upon the completion of history, so I guess we can’t entirely avoid the topic.


Some of this week’s texts take us in that direction.  Rather than get into discussion of details of how things might unfold, I’d rather ask the question of what we are to do in the meantime.  No matter what those details are, mortality dictates that your days and my days of earthly existence will come to an end.  Humanity may or may not come to a burning or cataclysmic end, but I personally don’t expect to live forever.  How about you? 

The reading from Psalm 90, in fact, graphically reminds us of our mortality.  You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’  For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.  You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers . . . The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.”  (Psalm 90:3-6, 10)

So---what are we supposed to do in the meantime?


Before getting into that I observe a couple of things sometimes overlooked among those who speculate on end times.  More than once the Bible tells us that we can’t tie the details down, so why do so many keep trying?  The reading from I Thessalonians begins, “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.  For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  (I Thessalonians 5:1-2)  Matthew gives us Jesus’ parable or workers entrusted with the master’s wealth who do not know when he will return.  Last week’s parable of the bridesmaids ends with the words, “ . . . you know neither the day nor the hour.”  (Matthew 25:13)  In the chapter just before, Matthew has Jesus speaking these words:  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  (Matthew 24:36)


The other observation is that images of a judgment day (or hopes for one) often focus upon those who are rich and upon powerful oppressors.  Judgment Day is a day when things are set right, when those people get what is coming to them.  The reading from Psalm 123 cries out for justice.  “Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.”  (Psalm 123:4)  In Zephaniah, God’s judgment comes down upon “the people who rest complacently on their dregs . . . Their wealth shall be plundered and their homes laid waste . . . Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath . . .”  (Zephaniah 1:12-13, 18)


Now, back to the matter of what we are to do in the meantime.


First, although images of Judgment Day have often been used to frighten people, it is clear that fear is not productive.  As I read through the Parable of the Talents yet another time, I was struck by the inner state of the worker who received only one talent.  (Of course, while the talent is an amount of money, the parable is about sharing the treasure of God’s Good News.)  He was afraid, and fear immobilized him.  (Matthew 25:25)  Repeatedly God’s people are told to not be afraid.  I Thessalonians tells us, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation . . .”  (I Thessalonians 5:9)  What are we to do?  Begin by not being afraid!


Second, we are to stay awake.  Looking at last week’s parable, I realized the emphasis was perhaps less on the fact that some of the bridesmaids ran out of oil and more on the fact that they went to sleep.  The punchline challenges the hearers to “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)  Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, emphasizes staying awake:  “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake.”  (I Thessalonians 5:6)  When Jesus prays in Gethsemane before his death he chides Peter and James and John because they cannot stay awake.  (Matthew 26:36-46)  The letter to the Ephesians quotes a poem which says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:13)


So what does it mean to stay awake?  I’m not sure these texts spell it out in much detail.  We know that we are capable of walking through life in something of a stupor.  These texts call us to be fully awake and aware.  The possibility of impeding troubles must not be allowed to immobilize us.  We are to keep on keeping on!


Psalm 90, with all of its gloominess, ends with a prayer:  “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”  (Psalm 90:12)  The parable of the talents tells us to take what we have and share it, use it in productive ways.  Continue to use the gifts we have that the love of God might take root and multiple in life.  The reading from I Thessalonians ends with the instruction, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other . . .”  (I Thessalonians 5:11)


Don’t let fear overcome you,  Stay awake, encourage one another, and productively use the gifts you have been given.

That leaves the reading from the book of Judges.  It seems to be an outlier in relation to the other lectionary texts.  It is part of the story of Deborah, a female judge who takes her place in this history of Hebrew leaders.  It is another war story, this one dominated by strong women, including Jael who ran a tent peg through the head of Sisera.  (Judges 4:21)  At the end of the story we are told that there were forty years of peace.  (Judges 5:21)  Following the victory, Deborah and Barak, much in the tradition of Miriam and Moses, sing a song.  Given my topic this week, I was surprised to find these words in the middle of the song:  “Awake, awake, Deborah!  Awake, awake, utter a song!”  (Judges 5:12)  Granted Deborah’s story seems to have little to do with waiting for the world to end, does it suggest that another thing we might do in this interim time is sing?  Singing, even singing a new song in a new land, is very much a biblical activity, an activity that can lift up and encourage.
Wednesday, November 05, 2014



Lectionary Scriptures:  Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 AND Psalm 78:1-7 OR Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 OR Amos 5:18-24 AND Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 OR Psalm 70:1-5, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

During my adolescent years, in the early years of television, I enjoyed a show called “Truth or Consequences.” Contestants received roughly two seconds to answer a trivia question correctly.  Failing to do so meant facing a consequence, usually a zany and embarrassing stunt.  Not all consequences were negative, sometimes involving a reunion with a long-lost relative or with an enlisted son or daughter returning from military duty overseas, particularly Vietnam.  During Bob Barker’s tenure as host, he ended each episode with the phrase, "Hoping all your consequences are happy ones."  This seemingly trivial memory is not much more than a passing cultural phenomenon, except it reminds us that there are consequences in life, not all of them happy. 

Choice is a theme we run into repeatedly in the Bible.  The classic choice text is found in this week’s lectionary reading from the book of Joshua.  Joshua has led the people across the Jordan into a new land where they have been sorely tempted (and sometimes yielding) to follow after other gods.  Now, nearing death, he has “gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel.”  (Joshua 24:1)  His message from God?  “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  (vs. 15)

Sometimes in the Bible (or in the way we interpret various biblical stories) the consequences of choice have to do with heaven and hell.  I’m sorry, I just don’t find worrying about heaven and hell (at least as some other-worldly destination) has much place in my theology. 

On the other hand, I find the consequences of choice very much a part of my life experience.  In my older years, I look back and am keenly aware of how I could have lived in a way that would have delivered this body to this time in better shape.  It’s not that I was dissolute, but I could have eaten more healthily and exercised more.  Now I am paying the consequences.  Some of the consequences of our decisions (if not all) can be described as “eternal.”  We get married and have children.  It is true that we are not assured that a marriage will last, but the emotions and experiences have affected the very fabric of our lives.  And if there is a divorce, whoever makes the decision by whatever process, everyone involved lives with those consequences for the rest of their lives.  We can try to counter the effects of a choice, but the consequences can never be entirely erased.

Al Krass, described in his obituary in 2010 as a “pastor and social activist,” wrote a book in 1978 entitled “Five Lanterns at Sundown.”  It is a detailed study of Jesus’ parable we sometimes call “The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.”  Krass rewrites it in contemporary terms as “The Parable of Ten American Suburban Women.”

We spent most of our weekly breakfast discussion time on this parable, one which we all find troubling.  It is clearly a parable about being prepared, having a tone which reminds us of those who warn of the dangers of being left behind.  Jesus tells the story of ten bridesmaids who go out to meet the bridegroom.  (Matthew 25:1)  The bridegroom is delayed and five of them run out of oil for their lamps.  (vss. 5-8)  They run off to buy some more, at the 7-11 in Krass’ clever contemporary rendition of the tale.  When they return the banquet has begun and they are excluded, all because they were not prepared.  (vss. 9-12)  The parable ends with the exhortation, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” 

The story stokes the flames of fear in those who live mostly to avoid eternal damnation and gain the promise of heaven.  Al Krass treats it as a parable of lifestyle choices we have made along the way of life in which we fail to face the urgency of the crises of the political and economic systems in this world, ending with a “Prologue” on “Re-Imaging the Church for the Long Night Ahead.”  In his version of the parable, Helen (one of the five) is remembering and retelling the story of being excluded from the wedding.  She concludes her story this way:  “The essential things---the decisive things---had happened before sunset, before that day even.  The events of the night were only the logical conclusion to the deep decisions the five of us---that the five of them---had made long ago.”

Choices have consequence.  I wonder how many live without much awareness of that.  How many of us take into account the impact of our decisions on our families and neighbors, on the poor and oppressed in our own country and other lands, on the environment?  It turns out that the women in Al Krass’ take on the parable were too busy looking after their own needs to take account of anything else.  Helen speaks of “the price of oil the way it got to be in those last months---who would willingly buy more than was needed?  I mean, you’ve got to eat, too!  And you’ve got to buy clothes and if you put all your money into oil, it’s not going to leave you with very much on hand for necessities, much less emergencies.”

It’s a parable for much pondering.  Our breakfast group was troubled by the unwillingness of the first five bridesmaids to share.  If this is a parable about the way the church draws boundaries---an issue in the early church, and today, Margie and I wondered, on our way home from breakfast, whom the two groups of women represented.  Is it possible that the focus of the parable is upon the five doing the excluding, maybe symbolic of the religious leadership of the day who drew lines of exclusion and placed heavy burdens on people?  We also wondered why the bridegroom was delayed.  Is there a suggestion that instead of spending so much time waiting we need to keep the light burning in the present?  In fact, the parable seems as much concerned about the women’s drowsiness and sleeping (vs. 5) as it is about the oil.  Remember the punch line is about staying awake!  (vs. 13)

Whatever interpretations one places on the details of the parable, it is still about choice and consequences.  There are hints of connection with that theme or closely related themes in the other texts.

Psalm 78 speaks about consequences passed on to children.  We are to “tell the coming generations the glorious deeds of the Lord . . . that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn . . .”  (Psalm 78:4 & 6)  We are called to think about future generations when we make today’s choices.

Although not included in the Protestant Bible, The Wisdom of Solomon (from the 1st or 2nd century before the common era) is regularly used by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as well as Jews.  Like the book of Proverbs, it depicts wisdom as a feminine expression of the spirit of God.  The readings included in this week’s lectionary might be seen as a call to seek such wisdom in our decision-making.  “To fix one’s thoughts on her is perfect understanding . . . The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction . . . the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.”  (Wisdom of Solomon 6:15, 17, 20)

Amos rants against worship which is empty because it takes no account of the condition of the world around.  Even though they got into worship this time---unlike the five bridesmaids, there is no oil in their lamps.  Amos delivers God’s message:  “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs . . .”  (Amos 5:21-23)  So what consequences is God looking for?  “ . . . let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  (vs. 24)  Psalm 70 gives voice to those in need, an important voice to hear in our decision-making.  Although addressed to God, the words, “But I am poor and needy,” are addressed to God’s people as well.  (Psalm 70:5)

The reading from I Thessalonians has fed many debates about the details of the end times.  These words were written as assurance to those worried about the fate of their deceased loved ones.  (I Thessalonians 4:13)  The final word is that we will all be with the Lord forever.  (vs. 17)  And what are we to do in the meantime?  “ . . . encourage one another . . .”  (vs. 18) 

May our choices build up (encourage) rather than tear down---today, tomorrow, and forever.

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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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