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Thursday, May 08, 2014

LIFE TOGETHER—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (MAY 11, 2014)---BY JIM OGDEN

 

Lectionary Scriptures:  Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23:1-6, I Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

 

I lived in Maine for a few years.  An old slogan in that state is “Life the Way It Should Be.”  In early adulthood I began to shake off, or at least view with suspicion, statements that included the word “should.”  Who is the one who does the defining?  Too often someone, or some group of people, decide what they think life “should” be and try to impose their answer on everyone else.

 

This week’s readings did set my mind to thinking about the nature of our life together as human beings and as congregations.  They might, if fact, call us all to think of the kind of communal connections we find attractive and fulfilling.

 

When we entered seminary, I and my classmates were organized into small “support groups” that met together weekly, with the guidance and encouragement of an older student.  One of the books our group examined Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, lived from 1906 to 1945.  He was a staunch resister of Hitler’s dictatorship and abuse of human life, most specifically his treatment of the Jews.  He was a founder of The Confessing Church in Germany which opposed government-sponsored efforts to nazify the German Protestant church.  Eventually Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed by hanging.

 

Much of Bonhoeffer’s writing focused upon what it meant to be, and live as, the church.  Probably his most well-known book has been The Cost of Discipleship, which was an exposition on what it means to live according to the teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Many have been drawn to his Letters and Papers from Prison.  His doctoral thesis, The Communion of Saints, attempted to relate sociology and theology to one another and to study the church from the standpoint of sociology.

 

The Communion of Saints was much too scholarly to have become popular, but the short (122 pages) more meditative Life Together, the title of this blog entry, has stirred more than one seminarian to see “community”, as the center of ministry.  Written while he was teaching at an underground seminary in Germany, Bonhoeffer reminds us that community is not something to be taken for granted. detailing the necessity of the church functioning as a living and vibrant organism, what he called a "community of love".  Consider these short Bonhoeffer observations from Life Together.

 

“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”

 

“The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.”

 

“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.”

 

“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ . . .”

 

There’s also much to critique in Life Together but it is a stirring reminder that how we live together is central to understanding what faith is about.  I was ordained an American Baptist and for years served as a pastor and leader in that denomination during years of heated controversy.  I recently met with a small group of American Baptist clergy in a discussion with an old friend, Dr. Roy Medley, now the executive of the denomination.  His repeated emphasis was upon “community” and relationship as the essence of American Baptist life together today.  I’ve found that to be true in the United Church of Christ as well.

 

So, what do we find in this week’s readings that can be part of our thinking about and acting like “community”?

 

The reading from Acts depicts the early Christian community as those who gather to learn, worship, pray, eat, and share.  At times, especially during the Cold War years, the vision has seemed more radical and threatening than many wanted to face.  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  (Acts 2:44-45)  It speaks of a community “with glad and generous hearts.”  (vs. 46)  A similar description is repeated at the end of the fourth chapter of Acts.  Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.  (Acts 4:32-35)

 

Such practice did not seem to last long.  The fifth chapter in Acts, in fact, tells the disturbing story of one who resisted such sharing.

 

There is indeed a strain of radicality in parts of the Bible.  The Jubilee year (every 50th year---see Leviticus 25) was a time when slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.  Jubilee seems to fade into the background as the years passed, but the vision found in Acts and in the Jubilee continues to spark response here and there from time to time.  Such visions can inform any discussion of “the way life should be,” of life together.

 

The other three readings all involve sheep and shepherds.  Some of us may have an idealized vision of the relationship between sheep and shepherds, but sheep are dirty and unruly.  I don’t much appreciate being compared to a sheep, yet, for many, Psalm 23 has presented what they have thought of as an idyllic picture of a community of faith.  Without getting into a critique of the shortcomings of shepherd and sheep imagery, particularly in the modern technological world, I offer a couple of observations.

 

First, the shepherd usually was not out front dragging the sheep along.  The shepherd usually walked behind, encouraging and recovering those who lagged or stumbled.  Second, Psalm 23 does not depict a life without problems.  Community is made up of those who need their souls restored, those who have enemies, those who walk through dark places, etc.  Our dreams of “life the way it should be” often are looking for a life in which everything goes perfectly smoothly.  I’d rather be part of a community where we take care of each other in the midst of troubles as well as rejoice together in times of celebration.  Our breakfast discussion this morning confirmed that we experience Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ as such a community.

 

The reading from I Peter presents us with the image of suffering even when one is innocent (following the example of Christ).  It is a form of bearing one another’s burdens in our life together.  The reading ends by connecting with the sheep and shepherd image.  “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”  (I Peter 2:25)

 

The Gospel According to John is strong on sheep and shepherd imagery (read on from today’s portion adding John 10:11-17), as well as vine and branches imagery (another take on our connections in “community”---John 15:1-17).  The reading for the coming Sunday draws my attention to the leader of the community.  These sheep are not guided by a threatening voice from outside.  The leader is part of the community, known to them.  “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”  (John 10:3)  It reminds me that my vision of life together is one in which the pastor is not a dictator, but one who encourages and enables us as we seek ministries that grow from the passions of God’s Love at work within us.

 

Notice in this reading from John that the shepherd leads the sheep “out.”  Life together is not something contained and experienced only in the sheepfold.  It is something we are called to find, recognize, participate in, and celebrate as we move about our daily living.

 

I leave you with an excerpt from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church, memoirs in which she reflects upon finding her way as she moves from having her life almost entirely defined by priestly working within the church.  I think her words speak of community beyond the confines of the sheepfold.

 

“Encountering God in other people is saving my life now.  I do not look for angels anymore, although I have nothing against them.  The clerk at the grocery store is messenger enough for me, at least if I give her a fraction of the attention that I lavish on my interior monologue.  To emerge from my self-preoccupation long enough to acknowledge her human presence is no mean feat, but when I do I can almost always discover what she has to teach me---and not only she, but every person who crosses my path.  While it is generally more pleasant for me to encounter people who support my view of reality, I am finding that people who see things otherwise tend to do me a lot more good.  Like quantum physicists, they remind me that reality is more relational than absolute.  Every time I am pretty sure that I have some absolute truth all worked out, a human being comes along to pose an exception to my rule.  Over and over, the human exceptions prove to be more revelatory than the rules.”

 

Ah!  Life together.

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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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