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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23:1-6, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

“Pastor” is a term used by some to identify the minister of a congregation.  It’s actually one of my favorite terms for the role to which I devoted much of my life.  I’m aware that the blog title this week, “Pastors and Shepherds”, is redundant.  The word “pastor” comes from the Old French for “shepherd.”  We still use the word “pastoral” to describe not only the work of a minister, but as an adjective “relating to the countryside and to rural life.”

A shepherd is “somebody who looks after sheep,” and, by extension, “someone who is responsible for caring for and guiding a group of people.”

So why am I even getting into the matter of pastors and shepherds this week?  Oh, you might say, the 23rd Psalm, about the Lord as a good shepherd, is among the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday.  That’s true and it’s part of the mix of my reflections, but what tickles my mind this week is the matter of leadership.  What do we look for in a leader?  I believe that all of this week’s texts offer perspectives on that question.

My theological education and early ministry took place in a time when there was much emphasis upon “servant leadership.”  We were aware of the images of a suffering servant (Messiah?) in Isaiah.  (See Isaiah 42 & 53)  We looked to the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the beginning of the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel, where he says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master . . .” (John 13:14-16)  It is this same Gospel that presents us with the image of Jesus as “The Good Shepherd.”

“Shepherd” then provides us with one image of leadership.  What can we learn from it?  This is not an image of one who whips a group into submission.  Shepherds were considered lowly.  They were considered unclean, banned from the temple and synagogue.  Is that where we look for leaders?  Apparently it is in our reading for I Samuel, where David is selected as the one to be anointed king.

It’s a story with some puzzling moments when Samuel, the kingmaker, is directed to choose a king from among the sons of Jesse.  (I Samuel 16:1-3)  The previous chapter ends with Saul’s death, but now, Samuel, in grief, asks, “How can I go?  If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.”  (vs. 2)  Does Samuel fear the ghost of Saul, or are two accounts interwoven here?  Samuel’s first choice is Eliab (vs. 6), but the Lord has a thing or two to say about leadership.  “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  (vs. 7)  Leadership emanates from an inner quality of the heart.  After all the other sons have been rejected, Jesse says, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.”  (vs. 11)  He, of course, is chosen, but why, after the Lord’s earlier comments, is the focus on his appearances?  “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”  (vs. 12)  I guess we always have difficulty getting beyond physical appearances.  All that matters, here, though, is that God chose a humble shepherd boy, not the son of a king, one whom we picture out in the fields, gazing at the stars and looking over his flock while writing about the Lord as his shepherd.

I used to have two books on the 23rd Psalm that taught me much about the shepherd imagery.  I can’t find either one now, apparently left behind in one or another move.  I can’t even remember the name of one of them.  The other, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller, is all over the internet.  I’m not sure which of the two books talked about the shepherd following along behind the sheep to watch for the stragglers and encourage them forward.  Further research suggests that shepherds sometimes go ahead, but often just hang out with the flock.  Being with the sheep rather than lording it over them, encouraging them from behind, offering guidance and making sure the way is safe ahead.  All images of leadership.

In searching the internet I found a Professor Linda Hill making a connection between leadership and shepherding from behind.  She is chair of the Harvard Business School’s High Potential Leadership program.  “Leadership in the future, she says, will require ‘leading from behind’ to create environments where people working in teams can contribute their skills for collaborative problem solving and innovation through the joint creativity of diverse teams."  She compares this process to the work of a shepherd.  "Shepherds lead from the rear of the flock,” Hill says, “helping them navigate and creating an environment where the more nimble and agile are able to run ahead so that the others can follow.  The task of the leader is to help individuals flourish in their roles, setting boundaries for the flock, and helping to resolve tensions.”

Here’s the thing.  We’re not just talking about pastors; we’re talking about all of us.  We are all called to be servants.  Remember Jesus’ words after washing the disciples’ feet:  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

One of my mentors and supervisors early in my ministry, Jitsuo Morikawa, wrote a book in 1961 entitled, Pastors for a Servant People.  In it he says (before the days of gender-neutral language), “The big thing in a man’s life is his job, and his anxiety seems not, ‘What must I do to be saved?’, but ‘What must I do to be successful?’” All of us, he said, pastors and people, need to be liberated from the tyranny of such an approach to life.  It is the pastor’s job to enable each sheep in the flock to reach his or her full potential in service of the larger good.

The other two texts have to do, among others things, with light and seeing.  Ephesians reminds us that “in the Lord you are light,” encouraging us to “live as children of light.”  (Ephesians 5:8)  The “fruit of light” we are told “is found in all that is good and right and true.”  (vs. 9)  The instruction is to “try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord,” concluding with the observation that “everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.  Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake!  Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'”  (vss. 10, 13-14)  Leadership and ministry involve discovering and releasing the light of Christ that is within each one of us.

The lengthy Gospel reading begins with a blind man.  It includes the declaration that his blindness is not the result of his sin or his parents’ sin. (John 9:1-3)  One of John’s metaphors is placed in Jesus’ mouth, “I am the light of the world.” (vs. 5)

John’s Gospel was written at a time when the early church was struggling to identify who Jesus was.  In this reading the search is placed in the context of Pharisees who are out to trap Jesus.  (Note that this Gospel tends to speak of “Pharisees” and “Jews” in a somewhat negative tone that ignores the internal variations, a topic that cannot be addressed in this brief blog.)  Jesus is certainly not the kind of person they would choose as a leader.  After Jesus cures the man of his blindness, there’s a long, almost humorous conversation about who Jesus is. (vss. 6-12) Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath day, violating strict religious laws.  That makes him a sinner, worthy of dismissal if not punishment.  (vss. 14-16, 24-25)

The blind man thinks maybe Jesus is a prophet.  (vs. 17)  When the parents are asked to explain, they say their son is old enough that he can speak for himself.  (vss. 18-21)  He keeps repeating variations on one fact that, while he doesn’t know the man who healed him, he can now see.  (vs. 30)

There’s so much in the story---in every detail---but throughout is the incredulity that God uses one like this to heal a blind man.  Jesus was a thorn in the life of the leadership of his day.  All are puzzled about who he is.  Leaders are like that.  They may come out of nowhere, like a shepherd who is out taking care of the sheep.  They may not play by the old rules, breaking out of the pattern of rules for the sake of rules.  You may have to see with new eyes.

The blindness here, you see, is about more than physical blindness.  Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  (vs. 39)  The Pharisees get the point.  “Surely we are not blind, are we?”   (vs. 40)  The verse suggests that the biggest sin is to see and do nothing about it.  (vs. 41)

Leaders are people who help us see and to act on what we have seen.  I thank God daily that I have the privilege to be part of a congregation with that kind of leadership and membership, a congregation where we are prodded and enabled and encouraged to all that God would have us be.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95:1-11, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

This week’s lectionary readings lend themselves to discussions of water (and what we thirst after) and wilderness experiences, among other things.  Those are more or less (always more or less) what we discussed at the weekly lectionary breakfast, and I won’t get through this blog without touching upon them again.  Try reading these texts without doing so.

Behind them, of course, is the human condition.  Always, the human condition!  How can one go wrong with a topic as large as “Life Happens!”?  It reminds me of one of my managers and colleagues when I was on the national staff of the American Baptist Churches in the USA.  Whenever he was speaking and they wanted a title in advance, he told them “Good News!”  That way he could go almost anywhere he wanted.

So---I’m not sure whether to hang “Life Happens!” primarily on the Exodus reading or the epistle reading from Romans---or both.  In Exodus the Israelites are out there in the wilderness complaining---again.  Sure, the story is about water and about God’s provision for our thirst both literally and metaphorically, but today I notice the complaining.

“The people quarreled with Moses.”  (Exodus 17:2)  Here they are out in the wilderness and “there was no water to drink.”  (vs. 1)  I’d probably complain too.  We humans often have a tendency to complain when the going gets rough.  There’s the saying, “When the going gets rough, the tough get going.”  Some, I’m afraid just sit down and give up.  Even the tough may shout a few choice four-letter words.  The Israelites have done it before.  The previous chapter begins with complaining also, this time about food.  “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  (Exodus 16:3)  When finally they reach the point of entering the land of Canaan, they send out spies, most of whom bring back a scary report about the giants in the land---and the people complain. (See Numbers 13:25-14:4)  It is here that they are condemned to spend another forty years wandering in the wilderness so that most of them will never see the Promised Land.  (See Numbers 14:5-38)

Hard times come to most of us at one time or another.  They came to Paul.  In this week’s reading from Romans he “boasts” about his sufferings, as he does on other occasions.  In II Corinthians 11:24-28 he says, Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.  And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”  Paul knew how to complain, or “boast.”  In our reading from Romans, the things he endures are built into a summary theology.  “ . . . suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  (Romans 1-5)

Now, I don’t want to offer platitudes or suggest that we just have to buck up and get on with it.  Too often those in the midst of great loss or suffering have been “comforted” with the suggestion that they will find growth in the midst of these experiences.  When we are in such a situation, what we may need most is a hug.

I would like to suggest, though, that we are ultimately called to find God in such times, because God is there---in the wilderness.  Wilderness, in the Bible, is a place where people find God, are guided by God, are pushed beyond the limits of all comfort and support and resources and discover the possibility of going on.  They reach deep within and discover that there is a divine spirit at work, empowering them from within.

In the Romans passage, it is a spirit of love.  I don’t want, today, to pursue Paul’s various attempts to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death on a cross, or the various interpretations that have grown up in church life (along with their abuses) over the years.  What he gives us here, what Jesus gave us, is a picture of love.  In this case it is not of a father who gives up his son, a troubling image if one thinks seriously about it, but of one who is willing to choose to lay down his life---not just for a friend, but for one who is sometimes thought of as an enemy.  (See Romans 5:10)   “ . . . rarely will anyone die for a righteous person---though perhaps for a good person someone might actually die.”  (vs. 7)  We read stories of parents risking their lives for children.  Last night on Chicago Fire a father covered his family with his body during a fire.  He died, but the family lived.  And there are professionals who routinely risk their lives.  “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  (vs. 8)

Life happens.  We complain.  But at the deepest level there is love at work which will buoy us up and carry us through.  Sound Pollyannaish?  I’m not suggesting that things will go easy, that troubles will soon and miraculously pass---only that we seek to find the heart of God even in those times.  There may be long dry spells in the wilderness but “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us . . .”  (vss. 3-4)

Life happens.  Many responses are possible.  My wish would be that hope and love would be at the top of the list of possibilities.  I’ve just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal Dreams.  In that book Hallie writes a letter (from Nicaragua during the time of contra war there) to her sister Cosima.  Hallie, keeping going against great odds, says to her sister, “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for.  The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.”  I’m told that Barbara Kingsolver features those words on her website.  When asked about them in an interview, she says, “I would say that I’m a hopeful person, although not necessarily optimistic.  The pessimist would say, ‘It’s going to be a terrible winter; we’re all going to die.’  The optimist would say, ‘Oh, it’ll be all right; I don’t think it’ll be that bad.’  The hopeful person would say, ‘Maybe someone will still be alive in February, so I’m going to put some potatoes in the root cellar just in case.’ . . . Hope is a mode of survival.  I think hope is a mode of resistance.  Hope is how parents get through the most difficult parts of their kids’ teenaged years.  Hope is how a cancer patient endures painful treatments.  Hope is how people on a picket line keep showing up.  If you look at hope that way, it’s not a state of mind but something we actually do with our hearts and hands, to navigate ourselves through the difficult passages.”

In the Bible, places of significant encounter are often given a name.  At the end of the Exodus reading, we are told, “He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”  (Exodus 17:7)  Psalm 95 recalls that encounter.  God says, “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof . . .”  (Psalm 95:8-9)  Would that more such places in our lives could be called “Hope”!

Perhaps the Gospel reading is about a place called hope.  It is, among other things, about water again.  Two needy people meet at a well.  Jesus is “tired out by his journey” (John 4:6) and he meets a Samaritan woman who has lived through five husbands and is now alone.  (vss. 7, 16-18)  By rights they shouldn’t have had anything to do with each other.  The woman herself asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (vs. 9.  The verse adds, by way of explanation, in parentheses:  “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”)

The lengthy reading includes conversation between them on several topics.  The first is water.  Jesus speaks to her of water which he will give and people will never be thirsty again.  “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  (vss. 13-14)  Samaritans and Jews differed on where they should worship, so she asks for clarification and Jesus speaks of an hour “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  (vss. 23-24)

Hope wells up in this woman and she runs off to share with the people of Sychar, her home.  The punch line is in verse 42 after Jesus has spent a few days with those people.  They say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”  (vss. 39-42)

Life happens.  Pay attention.  It’s not about which church we worship in, not even about this teaching or that teaching, or what someone has told us.  Inspiration may come in and through all that, but most of all it comes from the struggles and joys of each moment, moments where we find truth and hope and a spirit of self-giving divine love at work!
Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121:1-8, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17 OR Matthew 17:1-8

My mind often makes leaps of connection that come out of nowhere.  I may not even know what the connection is.  That’s what happened on the way to this week’s lectionary blog.  I was thinking mostly about law and grace, faith and works, in Paul’s writings---and, of course, about the journeying and heritage of Abraham.  The latter is in two of the texts we have before us.  Suddenly my mind jumped to a new TV show called, “Believe.”  Believe is another word Paul uses in his arguments about the topics of law, grace, faith, and works.

I’ve never watched the show, except the commercials made me suspect it was a bit “weird” in a way that I wouldn’t appreciate.  I looked it up online and discovered that I was correct.  I probably won’t bother with this show about “levitation, telekinesis, the ability to control nature, see the future who and “has had gifts she could neither fully understand nor control.” Those “powers have become stronger and the threat from malevolent forces that would use her abilities to control the world has grown more dangerous,” putting “her life and future in jeopardy . . .”

Even if I don’t watch that show, belief and faith seem to be a good place to begin this week’s reflections.  The Greek word used frequently in the New Testament for these words with similar roots and overlapping meanings often emphasizes trust.  Belief is shown not in subscribing to creeds but in moving ahead in trust.

That’s what Abram (soon to be known as Abraham) did.  God called him to leave his homeland in what is present-day Iraq, where he was probably a wandering nomad, promising him a land many miles away in the land of Canaan.  So, off Abram and his family went.  What an amazing act of trust!  (Genesis 12:1-5)

Now Canaan included what today are Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, northwestern Jordan, and some western areas of Syria, and people were already living there.  Thus begins a story which has led to sibling rivalry and conflict which continues into the present day as Israel and Palestine and others wrangle over who claims what land.

In the tradition of biblical interpretation handed me when I was young, God promised this land to the Jews, and thus was born the nation of Israel.  The argument that God gave us this land is still used.

I was surprised to stumble this week upon the website of Al-Jazeerah Peace Information Center, run by Hassan Ali El-Najjar, PhD, who is Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Dalton State College in Georgia.  At first, I thought it was a website run by Al-Jazeera, the Arab news service and television channel based in Qatar.  That seems not to be the case.

In searching for comments on the story of Abraham, I was directed to the writings of Dr. Hassan Ali El-Najjar on the above site.  He was born in Gaza, Palestine, in 1950. In 1967, he moved to Jordan, then to Egypt, Libya, and the UAE, before emigrating to the USA, in 1986.  He began teaching sociology and anthropology courses at Dalton State College since 1991.

From that, perhaps you can assess his qualifications in writing about the “Promised Land.”  Beginning with the premise that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all look to Abraham as their spiritual father, he notes what many of us seem to have overlooked.  The promise, he says, pertained to all the descendants of Abraham, not to the followers of any specific religion. These descendants, today, are the Muslims, Christians, or Jews who have been associated with the Holy Land for thousands of years . . . The Holy Land has been inhabited uninterruptedly by Muslims for over1400 years, by Christians for over 2000 years, and by Jews for more than that. These are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that the promise was made to . . . The importance of this fact is to dispel the prevalent myth among Jewish and Christian fundamentalists that the Holy Land was promised by God to Jews per se, as followers of Judaism, which has never been the case. This myth has been used for more than a century to support the establishment of Israel on the expense of the Palestinian people, then to support the aggressive and oppressive policies of the Zionist Israeli government against Palestinians in particular, and against Arabs and Muslims in general.”  (If you wish to check it out for yourself, hit control and click to use the following link: http://aljazeerah.info/Documents/Promise%20Land.htm)

Such an interpretation doesn’t get us over the occupation of the land of the original Canaanites, and, of course, we’re dealing with a lot of iffy history here, with a lot that feels like mythic legends.  We simply don’t know the precise and detailed historical facts, but wouldn’t it be great if this land fought over by the descendants of Abraham through various lines could be seen as something belonging to all the family these many generations later?

Now back to the story of Abraham.  There’s a lot of potential in the story for thinking about what it means to be an immigrant, to be roused from one’s roots and move across the miles, perhaps as refugees, perhaps escaping oppression, perhaps looking for a better life—moving not knowing what lies ahead, believing there is promise, reason to hope, ahead.

Paul, in Romans, though, takes the story and uses it as an example of what belief and faith mean.  There have been arguments through the generations about the priority of faith and works, law and grace.  Is our salvation obtained by what we do, or is it a gift of grace in which God simple loves us?  Paul’s argument in this week’s epistle lesson is that the law hadn’t been given yet when Abram stepped out in faith.  He quotes from Genesis 15:6, saying “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  (Romans 4:3)

It is another way of saying that Abraham trusted.”  There are many nuances of argument that can’t be sorted out here.  It is simplistic to think that these centuries old debates can be settled into a clear either/or.

Paul’s point, though, is that our security is finally a matter of trust and faith and grace.  “ . . . it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share in the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’) . . .” (vss. 16-17)

Two of the other readings can be seen as supportive of this emphasis upon trust.  The Psalm seems perhaps to go overboard in its seeming promise of smooth sailing for all who seek help from God.  “He will not let your foot be moved . . . The sun shall not strike you by day . . . The Lord will keep you from all evil . . .”  (Psalm 121:3, 6-7)  Verse 8, however, seems to apply to situations like Abram’s.  “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”

Do we believe enough to step out in trust, assured that the path ahead is a gift of grace that will take us where we need to go?

The Gospel reading from John’s Gospel is a story about Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to Jesus under cover of darkness wanting to know how to enter into the presence of God.  He is told that it involves looking at life through new eyes (“being born from above”---translated by some as “born again”).  (John 3:2-3)  Could it be seeing life through the eyes of grace and trust?  There ensues a lengthy discussion before we come to the familiar words:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)  We often stop there, and certainly the assurance of God’s love is the grace that matters most, the most solid of all bases for trust.  But those who make religion a matter of judging various behaviors often fail to move into the next verse, which underlies the assuring intent of what Jesus has to say to this searching young man---and to us.  “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the word, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  (vs. 17)

(Note that the alternative Gospel reading is Matthew's account of the transfiguration which we dealt with two weeks ago.)

Too often this business of grace and law, works and faith, has been cast in terms of getting into heaven.  Margie and I have just watched the DVDs of the series, Pillars of the Earth, based on the book of the same name by Ken Follett.  It is the story of the building of a cathedral in Kingsbridge, England in the 12th century.  Throughout, one cannot help noticing the power the priests and bishops and archbishops have because they can dispense grace, without which most people believe they will not get into heaven.

What if, instead of talking about salvation and heaven and hell, we were to talk about the basis of our worth as human beings?  Some of us may believe that the worth of our lives is measured by how much we do.  We struggle to give our lives meaning and worth, forgetting that maybe it all starts with grace and trust.  It’s hard to believe, but that just may be the case.  Paul and Jesus, and the example of Abraham, certainly would point us in that direction.  Believe---and step out in faith and trust.  Your life is a gift of grace.  Do you believe?
Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:
Ash Wednesday:  Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 OR Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 51:1-17, II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Psalm 32:1-11, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

I’m writing this on Ash Wednesday.  I’ve listed the lectionary scriptures for today and for the coming Sunday (the first Sunday in Lent).  We had both sets of readings before us at our weekly breakfast discussion yesterday morning.

In our discussions we frequently note that our old ways of understanding some scriptures and doctrines don’t work very well any more (if at all).  We haven’t worked our way to adequate new understandings.  Most of us are not willing to just throw the scriptures out, so we sort of muddle along at times.  Sometimes we even find God in the middle of the muddling.  We are buoyed up by a spirit of supportive love in our relationships with one another, sensing that that spirit of Love comes from a creative force at work around and within us.

Many of us have dabbled in the published attempts of others to find new interpretations that have meaning for us where we are today.  I, at least, haven’t done enough of that.  My attempt to find new forms for interpreting old truths is still a work in progress.

At least two or three of those troubling doctrines are present in this week’s lectionary readings---sin, in particular “original sin,” which one cannot discuss without getting into without talking about repentance and forgiveness, and the meaning of Jesus’ death on a cross.  These are topics that often define the meaning of the season of Lent.

The reading from Genesis is the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden feeding Adam and Eve’s desire “to be like God, knowing good and evil.”  (Genesis 3:1-5)  The story is, of course, a myth, i.e., a story told to explain the origin of something or an underlying truth of life.  For many, this story has been used as an explanation of the bad choices all of us make at one time or another.  It’s the way we are as human beings.  We are born sinful.

Some rebel against that interpretation, suggesting that we are born inherently good, or at least a blank slate on which good and evil have not yet been written.  Whatever myth one uses for explanation, my experience is that we (myself included) are capable of both great good and great evil.  One only has to look at events in Ukraine or Syria or Israel and Palestine to see some of the things humans do to one another.

The Genesis story, of course, can also be seen as a myth of choice.  Some have read it as a coming of age story.  At the very beginning of our religious story is a God who leaves us free to choose---for better or worse.  It also can be read as a story about our headstrong willfulness---wishing to pursue whatever we want without restraint.  When someone tells us something is forbidden, we may take that as in challenge.  It now becomes something we most certainly must do.  Notice the instruction in Psalm 32:9---“Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.”

So, the Genesis story need not be about “original sin,” but we do have a reading from Psalm 51 in which the Psalmist says, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”  (Psalm 51:5)  For many of us, Psalm 51 has been a Psalm of beauty and assurance, a Psalm of forgiveness.  “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  (vss. 2 & 10)  What sounds almost like wallowing in sin, however, now tends to turn some of us off.  “ . . . my sin is ever before me . . . let the bones that you have crushed rejoice . . . Do not cast me away from your presence . . .”  (vss. 3, 8, & 11)  It does probably express where David was after the prophet Nathan called him to account for his treatment of Bathsheba and her husband.  Some of us have certainly had occasion to wallow, to feel deep regret for things we have done.

The reading from Romans places Jesus’ life and death in the context of the Genesis story, with Adam being the source of sin and death and Jesus being the source of grace and life.  “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift of the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many . . . just as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”  (Romans 5:15 & 19)

Some of us refuse to allow our understanding of Jesus to be limited by this lens.  Marcus Borg’s book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored, has been popular in our congregation.  He sees himself on a mission to redeem the deeper meanings of frequently used Christian words and doctrines.  His work is so multi-layered that anything I say here is apt to be selective and not adequately representative.  Here’s some food for thought, though, that moves us beyond the simple language of sin and forgiveness that has dominated so much of Christian talk.  Each is a quote from Borg.

“Christian language and liturgy need to speak not just about sins in the plural and our need for forgiveness.  They also need to speak about sin as a power that holds us in bondage.  They need to speak about Pharaohs who rule our lives, the Babylon in which we live as exiles, the self-concern that dominates us, the blindness and limited vision that is the natural product of growing up in a particular time and place.  They need to speak about the ways we have wounded and been wounded and our need for transformation and healing . . . Sin matters.  But when it and the need for forgiveness become the dominant issue in our life with God, it reduces and impoverishes the wisdom and passion of the Bible and the Christian tradition.”

It’s interesting that the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation.  It can, of course, be seen against the backdrop of temptation in the Genesis story.  I wonder, however, whether it might be read as a political story, an account of Jesus’ internal struggle with the powers of his age, and a “myth” about our own struggles.  The sin to which he is tempted is writ large.  It does not focus upon petty private moral matters.  It is a confrontation involving the powers and values that will reign in God’s kingdom.

At heart, repentance and sacrifice and forgiveness are about the reign of love in all things.  Borg notes that the Greek roots of the word for repentance mean “to go beyond the mind that we have.”  “Sacrifice and love often go together.  People who sacrifice their lives most often do so because of a greater love . . . So . . . we can speak of Jesus sacrificing his life, being willing to die because of his love for others, without in any way implying that God required his death as a sacrifice so that we can be forgiven . . . Jesus sacrificed his life.  He offered it up as a gift to God---not because God required it, but because he was filled with God’s compassion for the kingdom of God---a different kind of world.”

In the Ash Wednesday reading from II Corinthians, Paul, in speaking of his own ministry highlights values which prevail over all hardship.  “ . . . as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God . . .” (II Corinthians 6:4-7)

Borg connects his insights specifically with the season of Lent.  He talks about dying “to an old identity and way of being and to be born into a new identity and way of being.  The death and resurrection of Jesus embody the path of personal transformation.  This,” Borg says, “is also one of the core meanings of the season of Lent: to journey with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection---of transformation.”

Other lectionary selections offer perspectives on the season of Lent.  It is a season with a dark side, even as we’ve just come through the Epiphany season of light.  Jesus turns his face toward the threat of death that awaits him in Jerusalem.  Joel speaks of “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”  (Joel 2:2)  Without getting into the threats to God’s people in Joel’s day, Lent can be seen as a season when we are called upon to face up to and face down the darkness at work in our individual lives and congregations as well as in the political machinations of this world.

Isaiah 58 and the Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday, speak of fasting, a ritual observed by some during Lent.  The fasting that God wants is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undue the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? . . . if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like noonday.”  (Isaiah 58:6-7 & 10)  Now there’s an agenda for Lent.

At the same time, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, talks about doing all this things, fasting, praying, giving alms, in secret---not just for show after the manner of “hypocrites.”  (Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-18)  The punch line, however, in this section of the Sermon of the Mount, and perhaps for Lent, comes in verse 21.  Verses 19-20 have contrasted storing up earthly treasures with the treasure of things that last.  “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Perhaps Lent can be a time to ask where our treasures are.  Perhaps it can be a time to face the darkness in ourselves and our world, to find ways to take old truths and experience them anew so that we are able to live according to values that are a challenge to the dominating powers of this world!

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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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