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Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, I Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21 I just finished eating my sandwich and apple for lunch. While eating I was watching “The Talk” on TV. Yes, I admit that I enjoy hearing this wonderful group of women comment on people in the news and offer their views on all sorts of relationship issues. Today one of the topics was “confidence” and where it comes from, triggered by the news report of a speech given by Gabourey Sibide. The star of “Precious” was at an 80th birthday celebration for Gloria Steinem. Here are the words that captured the attention of “The Talk”: “One of the first things people usually ask me is, ‘Gabourey, how are you so confident?’ I hate that. I always wonder if that’s the first thing they ask Rihanna when they meet her . . . They ask me with that same incredulous disbelief every single time. ‘You seem so confident! How is that?’" The subtext is that people find it incredible when someone “like her” seems so confident. So---where does confidence come from? Where does faith come from? How is it that some people keep on believing when it seems incredible, given their history and experience? This week’s lectionary readings took me on a journey into that question. There’ve been a few times in life when I’ve been sorely tempted to throw in the towel, and other times when persisting in faith has seemed a bit incredible, but what about times when faith might look like a perfectly “normal” response? When I peel back the layers of habitual response and easy answers, I find myself incredibly asking, “Where does that persistence come from?” After I’ve peeled and peeled and peeled, I find myself in the heart of mystery. Beneath everything, even in the moments of most severe doubt, I know that there is another layer that continues to buoy and sustain me. It comes from life itself. I live in a cosmos that is in the business of giving life. If I look at the people around me, I see a spirit at work that gives me hope---something that springs from the very depths of being. I acknowledge that there is all kind of evil at work in this realm as well. How could anyone deny it? Turn on the news any evening. Read today’s newspaper. I continue, however, to believe that there is more good than evil, that good is stronger and has more sustaining power than evil. Maybe I “choose” to believe, but my confidence is somehow deeper than that. Some would say that we have a genetic predisposition to believe or not to believe, that we are born optimists or pessimists. When I dig around in the roots of life, I never arrive at a definitive answer. I don’t know where it comes from. I could say it comes from God, and that would be true given my definition of God, but I’m fine about leaving it a mystery. I certainly don’t know how to explain it nor am I able to identify the mechanisms that activate such confidence, but I move through life sustained by a great unknown---even an “unknown god.” Which brings us to this week’s scriptures. Paul speaks of an “unknown god” while visiting Athens. (Acts 17:22-23) In this city full of sculptures of Greek gods, he notices an altar “to an unknown god.” He is going to tell them, he says, about that unknown god. I’ve been inspired by this scripture over and over again during the pilgrimage of my life. Mostly I’ve thought of it as Paul telling them that the god they call “unknown” is not unknown at all. There is a bit of that in the story, but it hit me this time that maybe he is also suggesting that god is always a bit “unknown.” So often humans are looking for a god that can be defined and contained, even “groped” for and held, captured in our images of some manipulative, and manipulatable, power on high. The god of whom Paul speaks “does not live in shrines made by human hands . . . he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” (vss. 24-25) People, Paul says, “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him---though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” (vs. 27) Is that the rub? We don’t understand the workings of this “unknown god” because we are looking in the wrong places? “We ought not,” Paul says, “to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” (vs. 29) In the middle of this is what I consider one of the most powerful insights to all who would live a life of faith. Paul, of course, is not, at this point, offering something original. He uses words from their own tradition when he says, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (vs. 28) Whatever the source, he applies it to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. He directs our eyes away from the heavens (as did Jesus) to the very air we breathe. You want to find God at work? Look at the people around you! The writer of I Peter lifts up those who suffer for “doing what is right.” (I Peter 3:14 & 17) Hope is expressed in acting “with gentleness and reverence.” (vs. 16) There have always been such people. They offer inspiration for many---people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and many who have functioned on a smaller scale, maybe even members of our own family. There are people who have sacrificed for their children, people who have lost jobs because they stood up for principles, people who have taken up the cause of oppressed peoples, etc. My youngest son attended Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. A young woman, Rachel Corrie, from that school was killed standing her ground against a Caterpillar, under orders of the Israeli military, that was trying to demolish the home of her Palestinian hosts (the Nasrallahs) in Rafah, Gaza. Another son in Olympia became acquainted with Rachel’s parents, and through them hosted and traveled (creating a video documentary) with the Nasrallahs on their tour of the U.S. Rachel and her parents are among those who have inspired us and others as they have stood for what is right. The greatest of these, Paul tells us, is Jesus, whose unwavering commitment to the things that make for life took him to a cross. (vss. 18 and following) “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” The Gospel lesson speaks of this power at work in our midst as “the Spirit of Truth” which “abides” with us and “in” us. (John 14:17) John’s Gospel has Jesus saying, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (vs. 20) Sounds a lot like those words quoted by Paul to the Athenians, “In him we live and move and have our being.” It is that mysterious Spirit at work in life that gives me confidence. The Psalmist may be a bit exuberant---even overconfident---in Psalm 66. He worships a God “who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip . . . truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.” Confidence, in my book, not certainty. One speaks of it with care, not arrogantly. Someone once wrote a book with the subtitle, “Evangelism in a subdued mood.” Confidence is, perhaps, best expressed in a “subdued mood,” recognizing that life, goodness, the continuation of life are great mysteries that sustain us beyond our understanding. Yet, every morning that we find ourselves “among the living,” able to stand for what is right, and not “slip,” confidence is renewed. One of my friends met me this morning on our way in to the lectionary breakfast. Both of us are in our seventies. We acknowledged the “miracle” that we were both up and about this morning, among the living. “I woke up this morning,” he said, “and I didn’t have any new aches or pains.” It may not seem like much, but some days it is enough to give rise to a new sense of confidence. Some have so much more reason to find confidence because God is at work in their lives or they see what is right happening near to them or in some distant place. For me, the little things are enough, and from the conversation outside the little café where we meet, we walked into a table lined with faces and stories which, while sometimes discouraging, were enough to confirm the confidence in life. We were saddened by the news of the destruction of entire fields of grapes, apples, apricots, almond, fig, and olive trees (1500 trees in all) as Israelis invaded the Tent of Nations farm of Daoud Nasser, a devout Christian. We marveled at how people suffer through such things and still have the confidence (faith?) to go on living. The stone at the gate of the Tent of Nations farm says, "We Refuse To Be Enemies.” “In him we live and move and have our being,” even in times of trouble, perhaps especially in times of trouble. May it be so now 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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