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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15:1-5, I Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:3-12

The reading from I Corinthians talks about the foolishness of the cross.  (I Corinthians 1:8)  From a human point of view anyone who believes strongly enough in something to sacrifice his or her life for that cause seems to have a screw loose.  If the cause is sinners, the oppressed, justice, peace, etc., i.e., giving one’s life to better the conditions of others, it seems to some laughable.  I leave it to others to pursue the significance of the cross in terms of sin and salvation.  Whatever spin one puts on it, Paul is clear that it seems to the mainstream to be foolishness.  “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise . . .’  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe . . . We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . . For God’s foolishness is wider than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  (Vss. 19-21, 23, 25)

There’s more with many layers of possible interpretation.  The thrust of the passage, though, suggests a contrast between the message of the Gospel and values that are prevalent in the world.

If someone were to come from another planet and observe our TV programming, our business operations, our sports, the public figures who are admired, etc., what would they conclude about our values?  We see a lot of emphasis upon getting rich, having possessions, competing and winning, etc.

Very early in my life I realized that taking Christianity seriously might mean being countercultural, resisting some of the dominant values of the larger culture.  I didn’t yet have the language to develop a theory about it, and sometimes, as I look back, my resistance seems trivial.  Much of it focused on things like dancing and drinking.  As one of my colleagues, reflecting on those years, puts it, “We didn’t drink; we didn’t dance, and we didn’t go with girls who did.”  I literally sought and obtained permission to opt out of dancing when it was part of the Physical Education program.

The important thing is that, very early, I learned that I didn’t have to go along with what everybody else did.  I learned it was okay, maybe even desirable, to be counterculture.  My education and growth over the years, began to apply that to larger and, I believe, more significant issues---eventually landing me in a stream of church life that took stands and actions related to peace and justice.  I also explored, flirted with, alternative countercultural communal groups.

I’m also aware that I continue to be influenced by the mainstream values around me, probably more than is consistent with my understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  Through the ages, there have always been Christians who were part of a counterculture movement.  Many stories and teachings in the Bible illustrate that. 

This week’s readings offer values that call us to live according to a “foolish” alternative set of values.  I’m not going to offer much comment on the context of the various readings.  I’m simply going to list some of the values to encourage us all to consider ways in which they challenge us, our way of life, and the values that seem to rule in our culture and world.

Micah asks a question about what God wants from us.  “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  With the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  (Micah 6:6-7)  His response is recorded in verse eight which includes words we sing each Sunday as our offertory response at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ.  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  We are given a broad values framework---do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.  Understanding and living them may take a lifetime, but I can’t think of a better place to start.

The Psalm feels a little rigid and judgmental when it suggests that only those who are “blameless” are welcomed into the presence of God.  “O Lord, who may abide in your tent?  Who may dwell on your holy hill?  Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right . . .”  (Psalm 15:1-2)  It is nevertheless worth noting the values that are deemed to constitute “what is right,” even if we do not wish to make them an absolute measure of who is welcomed, who is included.  People who “do what is right . . . speak the truth from their heart; . . . do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; . . . stand by their oath even to their hurt; . . . do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.”  (vss. 2-5)  Wouldn’t it be nice to be part of a community where such values prevailed, made the headlines, daily?  But I talk foolishness.

Finally, perhaps the most foolish of all, we come to the values with which Jesus kicks off the Sermon on the Mount.  (I suppose we should note that this is probably not a single sermon preached by Jesus on a particular occasion, but it is how Matthew presents his understanding of the core teaching of Jesus.  It has been part of how we have understood Jesus over the years, struggling with whether or not it is realistic to live according to such values.)  Here are the people to be admired:  “the poor in spirit . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers . . . those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” and those who are reviled and persecuted and spoken evil of falsely.  (Matthew 5:3-11)  Would our world be likely to call such people “blessed”?  That’s what Jesus calls them, identifying rewards for each.  Values like these define “the beloved community” about which Pastor Rick spoke last Sunday.

The descriptions of these “blessed” and the “rewards” are worth much thought and discussion, hopefully followed by action.  Those who dig deeply into scripture, taking it seriously but not literally (as our pastor sometimes says), are likely to discover a call to live by values which challenge those which dominate relationships and policies in the world around us.  They call us to “consider the alternatives.”

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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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